Six years ago, when hope was high after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, I traveled to Iran with a people-to-people diplomacy delegation. Scarred by years of war and devastation in Iraq and Afghanistan, people in the US and abroad hoped that the candidate who stuck up for diplomacy on the campaign trail would take us down another path. I was greeted with nothing but warmth and excitement by the Iranians that I met in my twelve days there. An American in Iran is a rare sight, and people were eager to interact with us–young men in a shop bombarded me with questions, random people on the street invited us to dinner in their homes. While Iranians I met were critical of US policy and skeptical about the ability to make major shifts in policy (as was I), I did not meet anyone who didn’t long for better relations between our countries. (I wrote a series of blog posts from Iran that you can read here).
Of course, the skepticism was warranted. After years of seeing military tools as the only solution to global problems, it was difficult to get people on board with a different approach. I lobbied staffers in Congress and heard “I wake up every day afraid Iran is going to nuke the US” and many other ignorant statements from people who should know better. I watched politicians rattle sabers, seeing very little political downside to taking a “tough on Iran” approach. I saw the way opponents of an Iran deal made politicians cower at their threats. Years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sounding off in Iran certainly didn’t help.
But the successful deal negotiated by the US and Iran–countries that haven’t had formal diplomatic relations in more than 30 years–is a testament to not giving up in the face of adversity. On the US side, activists used the harsh lessons of the Iraq war to mobilize the public and remind politicians of the profound consequences of their actions. They took a wonky issue and put it in stark terms that the public could understand: standing in the way of diplomacy is tantamount to starting a war.
I am thrilled for everyone who worked on this deal and proud of the small part I played along the way, working with smart, committed people to do what seemed impossible just a few years ago. It’s not over yet, but the momentum has made it harder for Congress to obliterate a successful deal. This success means hope for a struggling economy in Iran and a young population trying to make a life for themselves. It puts us a little farther down the path toward better relations with Iran. It means US soldiers and Iranian civilians don’t have to die in a pointless, protracted war. And it means that next time some politician claims that dropping bombs is our only path forward, we can point to what happened this week and insist that there is a better way.