Last month, President Obama announced his decision to begin the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba, an acknowledgement that this bizarre policy of the past half-century had failed to produce regime change and had only hurt the Cuban people. The president's reversal of long-standing U.S. policy in this matter was wise, overdue, and will continue to be extremely contentious -- but another decision would be bolder still: normalizing relations with Iran.
A brief bit of history: In 1953, the CIA collaborated in the removal of Iran's prime minster, Mohammad Mosaddegh, concerned about his power struggle with the country's Western-backed monarch Shah Pahlavi and over fears Mosaddegh would align his country with the Soviet Union. An entrenched Pahlavi and his notorious secret police, the SAVAK, became so hated, Iran exploded in a violent, radical (Shia) Islamic revolution in 1979. The depressing chain of events linking the U.S. and Iran since then includes the Embassy Hostage Crisis, the Contra affair, Iran-sponsored Hezbollah bombings of American targets in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. shooting down Iran Air 655, arming (Sunni) Saddam Hussein for a staggeringly bloody fight against Iran (the 20th century's longest war), eventually having to fight two wars against Hussein, and ending up with Iraq today a virtual proxy state of Iran.
For years the U.S. has also cozied up to oil-rich (Sunni) Saudi Arabia, not holding them accountable for promoting the virulent Wahhabi ideology that fuels violence and terrorism around the world over the past couple decades. Beyond that, two years ago and prior to the emergence of ISIS, war looked likely with Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad (whose Shia Alawite minority group rules over Sunni-majority Syria).
What the preceding bleak recap goes to show is that, like with our Cuba policy, decades of ostracizing Iran have not led to regime change nor increased regional security. On the contrary, our rigidity has forced us to make numerous decisions with a high cost in dollars, American lives, and moral standing.
Today the primary impasse between the U.S. and Iran is a resolution over Iran's purported attempts to develop a nuclear weapon, and American sanctions that allegedly have Iran's economy "in tatters". Just two months ago, the most promising talks to have ever taken place between the two nations resulted only in an agreement to keep talking -- but hopefully they can do that, if the hard-liners on either side don't get in the way. Iranian MPs are furious at signs of collegiality between foreign minister Javad Zarif and US Sec. of State John Kerry, while U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is pulling a despicable stunt in inviting Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to appear before Congress to undermine President Obama's diplomatic efforts.
There is no doubt that in both Iran and the U.S., there are entrenched groups that benefit from the status quo and will do anything to scuttle a deal. A groundbreaking resolution is still a long shot, but at least the leadership on both sides seem genuinely, riskily committed to finding common ground. That may be the easy part, something along the lines of an end to sanctions in exchange for routine nuclear watchdog inspections. Much harder still, they will also need to find a way to overcome their respective internal opposition -- potentially Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, definitely the GOP-controlled Congress -- who are committed to old, destructive worldviews.