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What’s next with the Iran nuclear deal?

Office of Public Witness webinar explores what might work to restore the U.S.-Iran relationship, which was historically strong

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Mostafa Meraji via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Three panelists gathered by the Office of Public Witness for a webinar Wednesday discussed what Congress and the Biden administration ought to do to reduce human suffering in Iran brought on by both the pandemic and by U.S. sanctions, which prevent coronavirus vaccines, personal protection equipment and other necessities from reaching many of Iran’s nearly 85 million residents.

The hour-long webinar can be viewed here. The panel included:

Framke opened the webinar by condensing 150 years of history between the U.S. — including a number of Presbyterian missionaries — and Iran into about 15 minutes.

Noushin Framke 

By 1900, she said, missionaries to Iran had established 100 schools and had a portable printing press they’d strap to the backs of animals to move it from town to town. She called missionaries sent to Iran among the “best and brightest” that the U.S. had to give.

“Iranians saw them as allies,” Framke said. “To them, ‘Presbyterian’ meant ‘American,’ and vice-versa. Americans were seen as the good guys, thanks in no small part to Presbyterian mission work. Presbyterians shaped perceptions on both sides.”

One missionary became something of a hero in Iran. Howard Baskerville of Nebraska died in his 20s in 1909 in the battle for Iran’s constitutional liberty. He was memorialized by the Iranian people, who remember him as “the American Lafayette,” Framke said. “Nothing is more exalted in Iran,” Framke said, “than a martyr.”

Things went downhill fairly quickly between the two countries in the 1950s, when Iran nationalized its oil industry and the Central Intelligence Agency funded and executed a coup d’état in 1953, which “reversed 100 years of goodwill,” Framke said.

Framke described the 1979 Iranian revolution as “blowback for meddling and regime change in 1953.”

It fell to Rad to describe the nuclear deal and the effects of the sanctions. Before doing that, Rad also sought to emphasize the history of the friendship between the two countries.

Assal Rad

“We tend to think of Iran and the United States as having an adversarial relationship,” Rad said. “We ignore this rich history of mutual admiration. We can have positive relations. It’s something to keep in mind.”

Modern-day Iranians “understand the mismanagement and corruption of their own government,” Rad said. “They also understand that U.S. sanctions [first imposed in 1979 following the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran] have an impact on their lives as well.

As a candidate for president last year, Joe Biden advocated lifting the sanctions. “He called on Trump, saying it was humane and the right thing to do,” Rad said. “Yet two months into the administration, we’ve yet to see any of that.”

“Imagine the economic impact on Iran, which is suffering under sanctions and the pandemic … Sanctions are a tool to target the Iranian government, and yet the Iranian government is unscathed … Sanctions aren’t accomplishing the foreign policy objectives. They’re just causing mass suffering.”

Within Iran, Rad said, there’s still widespread hope the U.S. will return to the Iran nuclear deal, a deal from which President Donald Trump removed the U.S. in 2018. The deal included inspections of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

“All the steps are easily reversible,” Rad said, “because Iran never left the nuclear deal.”

Iranians go to the polls in June, which has helped make Iran President Hassan Rouhani’s administration “very friendly toward diplomacy,” Rad said. Additionally, Saturday is not only the first day of spring, but the Persian New Year for the year 1400, the beginning of a new century. Usually, Rad said, that indicates “a softening of language and rhetoric. It’s an opportunity for the Biden administration to address sanctions, especially those that affect Iran’s ability to fight the pandemic.”

That would be, she said, “Biden following Biden’s own words.”

Catherine Gordon

Gordon asked El-Tayyab to discuss where Congress stands and roadblocks that could impede improved U.S.-Iran relations.

Iran has said “we must take the first step to patch things up,” El-Tayyab said. Iran’s government wants sanction relief before it allows for inspections.

To U.S. elected officials calling for a more hardline approach, “that is completely unrealistic,” El-Tayyab said. “It’s pushed by folks who want the deal to fail.”

“The U.S. is not in the best position to make huge demands,” El-Tayyab said. “We were the party who left the deal under Trump.” Even after the U.S. walked away, Iran honored it for about a year, allowing what El-Tayyab called “widespread access” to inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“The most plausible way is for both sides to move back in unison,” El-Tayyab said. “Biden has tried to ease the way forward by taking some steps. But in this late hour with Iran’s elections approaching and so many people suffering under crippling sanctions, we need the good-faith gesture of sanction relief, and it has to come soon.”

Hassan El-Tayyab

El-Tayyab credited the PC(USA) for the advocacy work it has done in an attempt to help lift the sanctions.

“The PC(USA) has done a lot of advocacy pressuring key senators,” El-Tayyab said, “and I am so grateful for that work.”

“No voice is too small,” El-Tayyab said, “and we need to act with urgency if we are going to save this deal.”

There will be opportunity for that, Gordon said, during the Week of Action, which begins March 29.


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