Sports and cultural diplomacy between the U.S. and Iran seems to be advancing fairly well for now. Yesterday, the Iranian and U.S. soccer teams played to a 1-1 draw before 50,000 fans in the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, California. The Iranian team took the lead in the 7th minute but the U.S. team scored the equalizer towards the end of the game. In the meantime, a 13-member U.S. wrestling team arrived in Iran to take part in the annual Takhti Cup that begins Tuesday. These are encouraging steps in "people-to-people" dialogue for confidence building between the two nations. Dirty gaming, however, lies ahead of these games, which one can make sense of by reviewing the developments over the past couple of years.
In early 1998 President Mohammad Khatami announced a call for sports and cultural exchange between Iran and the U.S. The Clinton administration responded positively by vetoing a congressional decision engineered to ban trade with Russian and French companies that had signed multi-billion dollar contracts with Teheran. Realizing that the failed policy of sanctions was no longer working, the Clinton administration allowed cultural exchanges to begin. Subsequently, some American television networks began showing dialogues between academics on issues that fuel misunderstanding between the two peoples. Many people who watched the dialogue series between an Iranian female college professor and her American counterpart, for example, must have understood the futility and dire consequences of cultural misunderstanding for the two cultures and peoples.
The prospect of rapprochement resulting from these dialogues so enraged Israeli analysts and their American cohorts that they went on a rhetorical offensive. They described the aforementioned Clinton veto as an admission of failure on the part of the U.S. in stopping what they routinely call Iran's "support for terrorism." They argued that the potential release of $12 billion Iranian assets frozen by the U.S. since 1980 would be "a huge contribution to Iran's economy" as if Israel were owner of those assets. "Such a large sum in Iran's hands should concern Israel, and its friends in the US. Releasing these resources will strengthen Iran's ability to purchase the knowledge and materials required for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction," wrote The Jerusalem Post (June 26, 1998).
Pro-Israel lobbies kept the pressure from early on, using every opportunity to create hype against Iran. In March 1998, for example, they sued Iran in a U.S. court and a federal judge ordered Iran to pay $247.5 million in damages to the family of an American Jewish woman killed in a suicide attack by Palestinian guerrillas in occupied Palestine in 1995. The ruling was based on the "belief" that Iran sponsored terrorism in Israel. Ludicrous though it sounded, they succeeded in reinforcing the stereotypical association between "terrorism" and Iran/Islam.
Also, in October 1999, when Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk renewed an offer for direct, unconditional talks aimed at improving ties with the Iranian government, 28 U.S. senators quickly urged his boss, Madeleine Albright, not to associate with the Iranian leadership whom they described as "repressive and brutal."
The U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Iran after student militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. However unjustified, that hostage-taking was triggered by the historical fact that the U.S. thwarted their democracy by cooking a coup in 1953 and supporting the repressive regime of Reza Shah for about 20 years. The media hype created by the hostage drama demonized the Iranian people in the eyes of most Americans who didn't know about its preceding conditions. The Israel lobbies seek to capitalize on this image because Iran refuses to endorse Israel's illegitimate occupation of Palestine and parts of Syria and Lebanon.
The frozen relations are hurting the citizens of both Iran and the U.S. The worst sufferers are, however, the Iranian (predominantly Muslim) Americans who love their country of origin and find it difficult to contribute to it because of the U.S. sanctions. Citizens, diplomats, and intellectuals of both countries must therefore watch out for folks who have vested interests in the continued freezing and souring of U.S.-Iran relations as well as the freezing of the Iranian assets in the U.S.
Unless Muslim Americans as well as Iranian Americans take caution, the positive environment being created as result of the cultural and sports exchanges between Iran and the U.S. might be sidestepped. Regardless of differences in aspirations, the Iranian-American community of whom 600,000 live in Southern California alone, should forge a common ground to influence American politics and ensure a healthy turn in the relations between the U.S. and Iran/Islam.
Mohammad A. Auwal is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and is a regular columnist for iviews.com