The United States’ and Iran’s top diplomats are engaged in a silly call-and-response that exposes not only their disdain for one another but also what appears to me to be a shared disregard for truly free expression. Meanwhile, of course, they tout their commitment to that very sacred principle.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control slapped new sanctions on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for “directly or indirectly” acting on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
“Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader, and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world. The United States is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “At the same time the Iranian regime denies Iranian citizens’ access to social media, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spreads the regime’s propaganda and disinformation around the world through these mediums.”
The back-and-forth all started last week, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered to travel to Tehran to address the Iranian people. The idea, he said, was “not to spread propaganda" but to “speak the truth to the Iranian people about what it is the leadership has done and how it has harmed Iran.”
Those Americans who have sought permission to travel to Iran know this is not an approach that has ever elicited a high degree of success. And those who have succeeded in being allowed to enter Iran know their experiences can best be described as highly curated.
It’s not the first time Pompeo has tried such a stunt. He continues, however, to ask for permission from Iran’s leaders to travel to the Islamic Republic — knowing full well that the request will be denied.
“There’s a very good chance that Pompeo’s offer won’t be accepted, for one reason: Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei,” Nicholas Burns told me. “His narrow-minded form of blatant anti-Americanism makes such contact almost impossible.” Burns should know. A former top State Department official and U.S. ambassador to NATO, and currently a professor of diplomacy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he has conducted negotiations with Iranian officials in a variety of contexts.
But what if Iran should suddenly take Pompeo up on his offer?
There hasn’t been any letter of invitation yet — but several Iranians have responded to Pompeo’s initiative.
“Our reporter Ms. Marzieh Hashemi can go and interview [Pompeo] so that he can say what he intends to say," Ali Rabiei, a spokesman for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, said this week.
Hashemi is a U.S.-born, naturalized Iranian who is a presenter on Press TV, Iran’s English-language state television channel. Earlier this year she was detained as a material witness by the FBI and held without charge at a Washington detention facility for 10 days.
On Wednesday, Zarif tweeted a proposal of his own. “Instead of making empty and disingenuous offers, @SecPompeo can accept any of the many requests from Iranian reporters to interview US officials. He has refused til now, as he knows he has to be accountable to rigourous [sic] questioning — the very same way I am by the US media.”
Zarif’s agitated response is, in part, a sign of exasperation and frustration. The United States had considered denying a Zarif a visa to visit the United Nations in New York as part of new sanctions on Iranian officials. Ultimately, though, U.S. officials decided to grant him one, but one that would confine him to a tiny, six-block area between the United Nations and the Iranian permanent mission.
“U.S. diplomats don't roam around Tehran, so we don't see any reason for Iranian diplomats to roam freely around New York City, either,” Pompeo said.
In this era of snarky social media soundbites, this sort of passive-aggressive name-calling — on both sides — has become a sorry substitute for actual diplomacy.
Ironically, though, it’s the years of diplomatic engagement between officials in Tehran and Washington in the years before the Trump era that have made the current atmosphere possible.
“Talking is not charity, nor is it a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength and it would give us much better insight into what is actually possible with the Islamic Republic,” says Burns, who wants the United States to rejoin the international coalition that agreed on the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran. “But Pompeo shouldn’t go to Tehran. They don’t deserve it. There are plenty of places to meet besides Tehran. It might send the wrong message and be perceived as weakness.”
I think he’s right. So how to get through the current impasse?
Here’s my idea: Pompeo and Zarif should have a debate. Both men certainly seem to have points they want to make to the other. All that’s missing is an even playing field for them to do it on.
If not in Tehran, why not in New York, at the Iranian mission, during the annual United Nations General Assembly, live on television for the entire world to see? It could be broadcast by Iran’s state television, the Persian-language services of the BBC and Voice of America, by Fox News and C-Span. What could be fairer or more balanced than that?
Anyone who favors an honest and robust discussion of the many issues standing in the way of productive and stable relations between Washington and Tehran should favor such an event.
I suspect, though, that neither side would bite. Zarif and Pompeo prefer to perform in strictly controlled environments. They have that in common.