Signs of an Iranian-US thaw.

[Note: I actually posted the following a couple of hours before the interview in question aired. I’ve since done a little editing to make the time-frame a bit less confusing].

On Wednesday night, NBC aired an interview that Ann Curry recorded earlier in the day with newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who won elections in June in a surprising landslide.

Remember back when I said that the situation in Syria is closely entangled with its relationship with Iran, and the American relationship with both?

Before that interview aired, I felt a need to list some of the various indicators that I’ve noticed since just before the August 21 Syrian chemical weapons attack that suggest that President Obama and President Rouhani are both intent on moving our countries away from endless enmity, and toward rapprochement, starting with:

In fact, I’m culling all of the following from a search I did within my Twitter account, but reading a long list of tweets tends to get wearisome, so I’m turning instead to that other fine tool of the modern age: The bullet point.

All of the following reads to me, in sum and in parts, like the careful public face of a lot of fierce whispering in back rooms and corridors and with the help of people like the Swiss, who have long served as Iran-US intermediaries.

  • Within six days in late August, the CIA admitted its role in Iran’s 1953 coup (see above) and also in aiding Iraq in its use of chemical weapons against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s; the latter admission came a few days after Syria’s use of chemical weapons outside Damascus. These are both huge, huge scars on the collective Iranian psyche, and are frequently used as short-hand for why Iranians cannot trust the US. The minute I heard about the first admission, I thought “backchannel talks” — and when I heard the about the second, I nearly danced in my chair. For more on why the first is significant, here’s Robin Wright; for more the importance of the latter, click here.
  • Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s new Foreign Minister, spent 30 years of his life in the US and helped negotiate the intelligence assistance Iran gave the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11 (yes, that really happened).
  • Iran’s parliament fast-tracked a debate on suing the US over its role in the 1953 coup (which is to say: The acknowledgement was acknowledged, but no one’s ready to say it’s no big).
  • State Department statement, August 28: “The United States respectfully asks the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to work cooperatively with us in our efforts to help US citizens Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini to return to their families after lengthy detentions.” (Which is to say: “It’s not like we don’t have genuine diplomatic issues pending with you, too. We respectfully ask that you attend to them.”)
  • Iran was intimately involved in the Russian-American negotiations surrounding Syria’s chemical arsenal.
  • A western diplomat told the press that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be dialing back the pressure on Iran in upcoming talks regarding its nuclear program.
  • “Rouhani seems to have chosen [the chemical weapons attack in] Syria as the first big internal debate of his new Administration.” – Time, September 9
  • Iranian state-run Press TV interviews Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; he says “Getting to yes is our motive for [nuclear] talks.”
  • In an interview held before the Russian-American-Syrian deal was hammered out, Obama told ABC that he and Rouhani have exchanged letters, adding: “Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult. I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy.” (Which is true, but also suggests that, just like Rouhani himself, Obama knows that even as he hints about a possible thaw in relations, neither he nor Rouhani will be served if he paints Iran’s President as a push-over).
  • Reuters: “New Iranian atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi pledged greater cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog [the IAEA].”
  • Der Speigel: Rouhani says he is reported to be willing to decommission Iran’s nuclear installation at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, if the West lifts sanctions.
  • Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who, according to the Iranian Constitution, is exactly what his title suggests; thus he holds ultimate authority in the country — told a meeting of  the elite military force the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC): “I am not opposed to correct diplomacy. I believe in what was named many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility’.” He also told the Guards that they must not get involved with politics, which, given the fact that they are in fact deeply involved with the politics of Iran; helped unseat the last reformist President; and were instrumental in the violent suppression of the 2009 post-election protests — is saying something. Note also that the IRGC are the country’s single greatest economic powerhouse as well, including in such areas as civilian infrastructure and engineering, and thus they are not lightly messed with.
  • Rouhani also told the IRGC that they shouldn’t be involved in politics, saying that this had also been the opinion of the republic’s founder, the Ayatollah Khomeini — and while you and I may have no fond memories of Kohmeini, he remains a powerful unifying figure for the Iranian people.
  • On Wednesday Iran unexpectedly released eleven prominent political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, on the eve of Rouhani’s visit to the US to attend the UN General Assembly. UPDATE: “In his annual message for Iranian New Year in 2011, President Obama specifically singled out Ms. Sotoudeh.
  • Also on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney revealed more details of the President’s letter to Rouhani: “In his letter the president indicated that the US is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes.”
  • In Curry’s preview of tonight’s interview with Rouhani, she reports that he told her: “From my point of view, the tone of [Obama’s] letter was positive and constructive” and that “he has full authority to make a deal with the West on the disputed atomic program” — which is code for “I have the Supreme Leader behind me.” Oh, and he also says that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.

And hey, it’s not just me who believes there’s real momentum toward a major diplomatic shift! CIA veteran and Georgetown University professor Paul Pillar wrote today that

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran, he and his appointees have piled up indication upon indication, in their words and their actions, that they strongly want a new and improved relationship with the West and that they will do what they can to bring one about by facilitating a mutually acceptable agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program. 

Diplomacy is a messy, horribly frought business, and lord knows that the US and Iran have bungled many an effort to mend fences. Witness the fact that all that intel sharing in 2001 went absolutely nowhere — that indeed, within months, George W. Bush was referring to Iran as part of an “axis of evil.” Among other issues, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t appear particularly interested in any kind of thaw between Iran and the West, and as Pillar says, is providing copious rhetorical ammunition to any hardliners in the IRGC who would rather stay cozy with the Syrian regime and far away from the United States.

A lot could still go badly wrong, is what I’m saying.

But for the first time that I can ever remember, it feels like we have leaders on both sides who want it to go right.

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Memorial Day – The loss of strangers.

Please also be sure to take a peek at my earlier post, where I also link to a really wonderful essay about the particular case of young veterans grappling with this nation’s holiday in memory of their fallen brothers and sisters in arms.

Listening to NPR as I stood cooking the holiday meal for my family just now, I heard a Vietnam vet talk about the need to remember the individual lives lost in our wars — not just the numbers, but the people, and what might have been had they not been lost to us. It made me think of the Jewish notion (one I think that we share with Islam) that when we kill one person, it’s as if we’ve killed an entire world.

This reminded me that I had meant to do just that: Remember individuals, by urging you to go to the Washington Post’s Faces of the Fallen, and just click on a face or two. Consider the ages (21 — had Lance. Cpl. Jose L. Maldonado celebrated that milestone with a beer or two? 31 — did Staff Sgt. Mark C. Wells leave behind a spouse and children?), look at their faces, imagine their families. For a moment or two, hold these strangers who died so far from home in your hearts.

Back in 2008, when the United States reached the milestone of 4,000 dead, I wrote something about those from my own state, Illinois, who had fallen in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. A slightly edited version of what I submitted ran, and some time ago, on Veterans Day, I ran the original here on the blog. It seems right and meet that I should run it again today.

In honor of the fallen from my home state — may their memories be for a blessing.

The loss of strangers

As of this writing, 141 servicemen and women from Illinois are confirmed to have died in the course of the Iraq War.

They came from big cities, mall-strewn suburbs, and places I’ve never heard of: Patoka, Gays, Blandinsville, Mahomet. More than 90 of Illinois’s casualties were 25 or younger when they died; thirteen were still teenagers. They were all, every last one of them, strangers to me, but they died in my name.

I don’t know how to truly honor them, any of these people who died so far from home, not the ones from Illinois, nor the 3,859 others. So I find pictures online and look at their faces, at least a few, and try to register the facts. Try to give them that, at least.

I’m pulled in by certain names, the occasional goofy grin, people who seem, somehow, familiar. Navy Petty Officer Regina Clark, 43 when she was killed, originally from Colona, mother of a teenage son; Sean Maher, a Marine from Grayslake, not much older than Clark’s son when he died at 19, two days before he was supposed to go home.

John Olson, 21, from Elk Grove Village, looks as if he’s trying on his father’s hat; Christopher Sisson, 20, might have once hung out at the North Riverside Mall. Illinois’ first casualty, Ryan Anthony Beaupre, was killed on the third day of the war. In his picture, the 30 year old Marine smiles as if on vacation.

Uday Singh. Twenty-one when he died, an Indian national. He enlisted while living with an aunt in Lake Forest, shared a name with one of Saddam Hussein’s despicable sons, and became a US citizen only upon death. Singh was the first Sikh to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and one of his last emails home read: “You guys have fun while I go save the whole world. P.S. Pray for me.”

Pray for me.

I  pray for him and for all the fallen soldiers, for all the living soldiers, for the families, for all of us in this country, for the Iraqis who also mourn their children. I have always opposed this war, but whatever I may think of the people who sent our men and women into Iraq’s unbearable heat, I know that those who went, did so for me. For me and my children, from a belief that it is right to offer your body as a sacrifice for the country you call home – even if it has not yet given you a passport.

I know that for many soldiers, the military offers an escape; for some, it’s the only way to make a living; others are answering family expectations, or social pressure. Many oppose the war; many support it whole-heartedly. Some do bad things; most, I suspect, just try to get through their days in one piece, with one heart.

But in death, I cannot sort them from each other. I cannot call this one my brother, that one my foe; the war they fought has in some way sanctified them, brought them to a place I cannot reach. I can only look into their faces and thank them, look into eyes that can no longer look back, and ask forgiveness.

American wars and personal responsibility.

I went to my nearest VA Hospital today, to apply as a volunteer.

As luck would have it, I arrived just as the lady who does the fingerprinting had gone on break, so I wasn’t able to actually apply. But I’ve filled out my form. I have a plan.

I admit that I’m a bit perplexed by my decision (taken the day after bin Laden was killed, and the two are very much related) to do this. As a near-pacifist who regretfully but begrudgingly accepted the war in Afghanistan and was powerfully opposed to the war in Iraq, a person who encouraged her brother never to register for the draft, and would never want her own children to serve in the armed forces of any nation, it doesn’t exactly seem like a natural fit. There are a lot of places that could use my time and my skills: women’s shelters, the food pantry, literacy programs. Why not give my handful of hours to another, equally worthy effort? One without the stink of war about it?

I keep thinking (for years now, frankly) about all these young men and women who get sent off to battle. Who are sent off by my government. Who are sent off, this being a democracy, by me.

If my country is fighting two wars (and kinda-sorta a third) — don’t I have some responsibility for that? For the people who take up arms (whether I agree with the specifics or not) and who all too often come home wounded, in body or spirit? Surely the fact that I almost literally never see any of them — in my family, in my neighborhood, or on my TV — doesn’t matter. They’re out there: fighting wars that our nation decided to fight, with weapons paid for by my tax dollars, their hopes and dreams shaped or shattered by what happens on the field of battle, or they’re out there: back home, trying on their old life for the first time in years, trying to carry all that we’ve put on their shoulders. They’re my compatriots. They’re my brothers and sisters. In some cases, in most cases, they’re my kids.

So after a decade, I think primarily because of the work done by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury (the story arcs of BD [continued here], Melissa, Toggle, and Ray, the issues they face, the Vet Center they go to, Melissa’s experiences when she returns to duty), various reports and interviews on Rachel Maddow’s show (particularly her segments with Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America), and one little piece I wrote a while back for the Chicago Tribune — I have finally come to the point where I understand that I have to look that responsibility in the face. I have to look those people in the face.

I don’t know what to expect (and I think that’s a good thing — when I start down a path that makes me nervous, I’m often better off going in a little blind), but I’ve already gotten my first surprise: The men and women I saw at the hospital today were all older than I expected. It was with some shame that I was reminded that there are, of course, a lot of vets out there, only some of whom are young enough to be my children, only some of whom picked up arms in the years since 2001. We send people into battle all the time.

My one concern is that I’m not great at following through on good ideas — which is why the minute I had this one, I called the hospital, and why I’m now a little nervous that having been thwarted today, I may just allow the idea to drift away. It wouldn’t surprise me.

So that’s probably why I’m writing about it here. Volunteering with the wounded isn’t like learning carpentry, or picking up knitting, or finding some way to sing in places other than my kitchen and my synagogue — this matters more. I want to hold myself accountable. Someday I’ll do those other things (and catch up on the photo albums, and finish that art project I started seven years ago), but this one I’m going to do today.

Or, you know, tomorrow. When the lady isn’t on break.