By Tony Kireopoulos
The most pressing, and debated, matter in foreign policy today is the proposed agreement between Iran and its negotiating partners regarding its nuclear program and what most understand as the future of security in the Middle East. The Obama Administration, on behalf of the United States, along with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, has agreed to a deal with Iran that would rein in Iran’s nuclear capabilities while financially phasing that country back into the mainstream of the international community.
Despite the promise of a new era represented by this agreement, not all parties see it as a positive development. Among the critics are members of the United States Congress, the endorsement of which would be helpful for this diplomatic achievement to find full acceptance by the American public. While some may attribute this contrary spirit to persistent post-9/11 fearfulness, deep-seated contempt for the Iranian “enemy,” simple belligerence, or just plain animosity toward the president, I wonder if, at its core, this contrariness is fundamentally rooted in a profound lack of trust. But it is not so much about trust in Iran or its government. It is more about trust in ourselves, and in the power of our ideals.
Engagement of any kind includes calculated risk. This includes engagement between nations. As recent history will tell us, the fruits of constructive engagement are plentiful and rewarding, while the costs of not engaging constructively are high and demoralizing.
When President Nixon engaged China, we trusted that our economic and moral principles were right, and that economic interaction would lead, not only to increased wealth and productivity, but also to positive change in China’s closed society. Certainly we could have continued on the path of estrangement based on past historic differences, but instead we opted to be bold and move ahead toward a brighter future. Yes, social change in China has moved more slowly than economic change, but would we trade where we are today for where we were before the Nixon visit?
When President Reagan engaged the Soviet Union, we trusted that our political and philosophical principles were right, and that political interaction would lead, not only to an enhanced position for the United States in the world, but also to the loosening of the totalitarian grip on the societies behind the Iron Curtain. Yes, we held the advantage in terms of military capacity to back up our outstretched hand, but we also had the courage to dream of a world not constrained by Cold War rivalry and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. Despite the abuses by the Russian political and economic elite over the last several years, would we want to go back to the time before perestroika and glastnost?
At the other end of the spectrum, we have seen the results when we yield to lesser instincts and fail to conceive of an unprecedented vision and move boldly and courageously toward it. After 9/11, President Bush was right to pursue the perpetrators from Al Qaeda into Afghanistan to bring them to justice. But when the pursuit turned to the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, we traded a broad vision for what engagement with the region could be for a military action for which we are still paying a huge human and financial price. Instead of trusting that our principles were right and engaging the region based on these principles, we squandered the goodwill we enjoyed there (and everywhere) in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and lost the opportunity to reap the fruits of engagement by fostering real change and building a more lasting peace. Given what we know today, wouldn’t we want a do-over when it comes to Iraq?
The agreement with Iran offers us an opportunity to make a change for the better. Should we therefore not trust in ourselves, and in the power of our ideals, and instead of perpetuating enmity, “pursue what makes for peace and mutual up-building” (Romans 14:19) with the hope that, led by its young and vibrant society, Iran will change? We would still retain the ability to verify compliance by the Iranian regime, and the obvious threat of economic isolation and superior firepower should it not work out. But still, isn’t a vision of a better world worth the chance?