Iran: Diplomacy’s Time Has Come

As the U.S. and Iran inch closer and closer to a final deal over Iran’s nuclear program, Kate Gould, FCNL’s lead lobbyist on Middle East policy, reflects on the long road to diplomacy between two countries with a fraught 30-year relationship.

As I waited for an appointment in a Senate office earlier this year, I heard the phone ringing off the hook. Over and over again, the receptionist said the same thing: “Yes, I’ll pass on the message to the senator that you don’t want new sanctions on Iran. Thank you!”

It was amazing to listen to these phone calls about the very issue I was lobbying on. The senator’s foreign policy aide would later tell me he didn’t remember when his office had gotten so many phone calls on any issue. The message was getting through: constituents overwhelmingly wanted diplomatic negotiations to resolve concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. They didn’t want new sanctions that could derail the talks that were underway.

Tell Congress: Let Diplomacy Work

This is quite a change. When I started lobbying with FCNL in 2007, there was little support for open dialogue. The Bush administration was refusing to talk to Iran and would periodically imply the U.S. was gearing up for a military attack. Congress kept passing draconian sanctions intended to cripple the Iranian economy. (Broad sanctions disproportionately harm civilians in Iran rather than government decision-makers, making them an instrument of violence against Iran.) Meanwhile, Iranian hardliners were escalating their own threats. Iran continued to enrich uranium without any constraints and deny international inspectors full access to key sites, actions that made it hard to address international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

On Capitol Hill, we struggled to find any support for diplomatic talks, the one strategy we believed could resolve the impasse. Sanctions routinely passed unanimously, or with just a few dissenters. What’s worse, conventional wisdom was that, unless the sanctions forced Iran to the negotiating table on U.S. terms, they were a prelude to military action. War with Iran seemed likely.

Despite the odds, FCNL persisted in advocating for a better way to reach an agreement with Iran. Then-Executive Secretary Joe Volk traveled to Iran in February 2007 as part of a delegation of religious leaders who wanted to defuse tensions. FCNL talked to congressional offices and built relationships with Iranian-American groups and others who supported a peaceful solution to the nuclear stand-off. We strengthened our network of grassroots advocates across the country, helping them speak effectively about diplomacy with their elected leaders. And we picked apart every new resolution and bill to find new ways to make our case.

We had some successes. In the summer of 2008, 5 representatives withdrew their cosponsorship from a resolution that called for a blockade of Iran, which could have pushed our countries toward war. But diplomatic openings remained elusive—until a series of events in the U.S. and Iran gave diplomacy new life.

The election of new leadership—first President Obama in 2008, then Iran’s President Rouhani in 2013— laid the groundwork for change. Both leaders came to office promising to improve relations with other countries. But the strong public outcry against U.S. military action in Syria in late summer 2013 was the key moment for advancing congressional support for diplomacy with Iran.

The sheer volume of calls, emails and visits to congressional offices in support of diplomacy, not war, with Syria was impossible for Congress to ignore. Members got new sense of the opposition to another U.S. war among their constituents. And advocates across the country had new practice in making the case for diplomacy over war.

With the U.S. domestic tide turning sharply against war, President Obama reached out to President Rouhani in September, breaking 34 years of silence between diplomatic heads of state. Finally, last November diplomats from Iran, the U.S. and five other nations reached the first-step of a deal to resolve the dispute with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

Listening to the phone ring off the hook in that senator’s office, I saw the fruits of FCNL’s consistent advocacy for diplomacy and our recent mobilization to prevent a U.S. war with Syria. When I talked about how passing new sanctions could put the U.S. on an eventual path toward war, the aide was concerned. He felt the senator would face serious questions from his constituents if he was part of going to war. I left the meeting feeling hopeful, and, soon after that meeting, several cosponsors of sanctions legislation expressed concern that it would undermine diplomacy. Legislation that had seemed on track to pass despite the president’s promised veto and become law was shelved before coming to a vote.

There’s still a lot of work to do with Congress. Any diplomatic agreement will almost certainly require Congress to support lifting sanctions. Many members of Congress have a hard time trusting Iran or believing it will live up to its end of the bargain. Diplomacy, meanwhile, takes time and patience, and the results are not guaranteed. As negotiations continue, Congress could return to the idea of punishing Iran for not moving quickly enough to meet U.S. demands. But there has been a fundamental shift in the environment on Capitol Hill, one that gives more room for diplomacy.

Seven years ago, we wrote in this newsletter that our work for diplomatic engagement with Iran was part of how we practiced hope. We wrote, “The practice of hope calls us into the gap between broken communities. We have to trust that a power greater than we are—grace, the grace of God—may intervene in the world through our and others’ practice of hope to soften hearts, to open eyes, and to unplug ears.” In congressional offices, I have witnessed softened hearts as members respond to their constituents’ strong concerns about resolving U.S. disagreements with Iran peacefully. FCNL’s consistent voice for peace—in Washington and through constituent action around the country—is finally being heard.

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