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Peace With Iran: The Best Way Barack Obama Could Make History

Richard Nixon's determination to establish peaceful relations with China is the perfect template for Barack Obama and Iran.

Photo Credit: White House/Pete Souza/Flickr


On the morning of February 17, 1972, President Richard Nixon came out to the White House lawn to deliver a message to the American people about his plan for peace with the People’s Republic of China. China, a nuclear power, had been an implacable rival of the United States since the outset of the Cold War; yet after months of delicate diplomacy Nixon had decided to take the momentous step of  making a major state visit to the Hermit Kingdom. 

Speaking to the national media  Nixon would say: "I am under no impression that 20 years of hostility between the People's Republic of China and the United States of America are going to be swept away in one week of talks" and, yet, he was making a "journey of peace" in an attempt to do what many American hawks said was impossible: build a constructive and peaceful relationship with the PRC. 

Nixon's trip ended up as a historical turning point. His overture broke the stalemate between the two powers, and with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see just how much he accomplished. Today the People's Republic has been transformed from an enemy into  a major trading partner of the United States and a partner in the existing international order. 

Furthermore, by reaching out diplomatically to a Communist country at the height of the Cold War, Nixon was able to undercut the Soviet Union and help set the stage for its collapse in the coming decade. Such opportunities for transcendent change come rarely, and it is to Nixon's credit that he was able to seize it and alter the course of history.

Today, it appears that President Barack Obama may be coming upon a similarly momentous opportunity with the Islamic Republic of Iran. At a time when many in the US claim to be locked in a new 'Cold War' with the Muslim world, the opportunity to come to peace with the country in which political Islam first came to power would be incalculably significant.

For the first time in over a decade, moderate and ostensibly peace-seeking leaders are in control of the Presidency in both Iran and the United States. If Obama can seize the initiative at this critical moment, he will have a chance to radically alter the fate of the Middle East and create his own legacy as a leader who managed to bring peace to this troubled, yet deeply significant region of the world.

Missed Connections

In the words of  Brookings Institute scholar Suzanne Maloney: "Iran is the country whose break with the West ended our innocence about the world's affections for us". However while the American relationship with modern Iran has been marked by  CIA-backed coupsterrorism, the  outright murder of civilians,proxy-warfare and bloodcurdlingly hostile rhetoric on both sides, there have been glimmers of hope in which each party has sought to change the poisonous relationship between them.

In 2000, reformist Iranian President Mohammed Khatami called for a " Dialogue of Civilisations" to mend the differences between Iran and the United States. In subsequent years, Iranians would hold  mass candlelight vigils for Americans as they suffered through the terrorist attacks of September 11 and Iran would  provide crucial aid to the US war against the Taliban. Unfortunately, these overtures were snubbed by the neoconservative government of George W. Bush which was bent on violently remaking the entire Middle East in its image. 

The Bush Administration's curt response to Iran's offer of a diplomatic 'Grand Bargain' was, in the words of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, " we don’t negotiate with evil". Bush's facile subsequent designation of Iran as a member of an international 'Axis of Evil' kicked off a new shadow war between Iran and the United States, and in the words of former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker " changed the course of history".

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