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Stephen Gottlieb: The Deal With Iran

The deal with Iran is excellent news. Hat’s off to Kerry and Obama.

I’m not Pollyannaish about Iran – its government deprives too many of human rights. Friends spent years in the infamous Evin prison for catching the dislike of Iranian officials. Former president Ahmadinejad’s hostility toward Israel was despicable. The American engineered coup and installation of the Shah in 1953 still rankles there. The attack on our Embassy to keep America out of the 1979 Revolution still rankles here. Since then we have both hurled outrageous rhetoric at each other. None of that makes it easy.

But it’s a mistake to think that Iran is a natural enemy of the United States – or Israel. Iran’s strategic challenges are much closer – with Russia, Afghanistan, and the Sunni countries that surround Iran. Despite hawks in both countries, Iranian-American distrust need not be permanent. As with Egypt, western alliances can temper relations with Israel.

The Iranian government’s concern about the effect of sanctions on their people was not just a bargaining chip; it reflects their recognition of the benefits of working with us. But too much pressure can unite people in opposition. Any good negotiator knows not to overplay a hand. Sanctions overdone produce neither peace nor cooperation.

In a recent letter to the Boston Globe, Patricia Walsh, a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran, described a 1963 memorial service for Kennedy organized by her Iranian colleagues and students at the Ahwaz Agricultural College in western Iran. She joined six other Peace Corps volunteers as well as the American staff of the college at the service.

Ms. Walsh describes “two simple signs” that were posted outside where the memorial was held. One sign was in English and one in Persian. She provided a translation of the Persian sign:

Last night one of the highest politicians of the world, one of its lights and political symbols, was turned off. And he left the world in silence and sorrow. . . . He was among the leaders for freedom, for the creation of a platform for freedom, and for helping lower the rungs of the ladder for freedom for minorities.

That sign is a reminder that, as some of my own former Peace Corps Volunteer friends and I once wrote, “It doesn’t have to be a hostile world.”

Much has happened since Kennedy died. It’s also become clear that President Kennedy was increasingly skeptical of the benefits of war and worked toward the advantages of peace. We honored Kennedy as a war hero and we mourned his older brother who never made it home. Kennedy, who learned from the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, declared, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate." And he learned to cool rather than aggravate conflict. He would be smiling that, while commemorating his brief term in office, we have found a way to reduce hostilities in an important part of the world.

So, among the things, at this Thanksgiving season, I’m thankful for is the opportunity to reestablish the warmer international relationship that might have been.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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