On December 3, 2008, New York University Center for Dialogues: Islamic World–U.S.–The West hosted a one–day conference on “Iran–U.S. Relations: Imagining a New Paradigm.” For the past 30 years, Iranian—U.S. relations have been characterized by conflict, tension, and suspicion. As America prepares to inaugurate a new President, the NYU Center for Dialogues convened this conference to ask what might a relationship articulated around a new paradigm look like—a paradigm based on mutual recognition of the need for dignity and security for both sides? How might this paradigm address grievances created by past actions, while providing a way to move toward the realization of a shared destiny and a positive future? The conference consisted of three panels: Imagining a New Paradigm for Iran–U.S. Relations (Panel I), Shared Concerns, Shared Interests (Panel II), and Planning for Change (Panel III). The conference was chaired by Mustapha Tlili, the Center for Dialogues’ founder and director. Panelists included: Ervand Abrahamian, Distinguished Professor of World and Middle East history, Baruch College, City University of New York; Stephen Heintz, President, Rockefeller Brothers Fund; Fatemeh Keshavarz, Chair, Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages, Washington University; John Limbert, Distinguished Professor of International Affairs, U.S. Naval Academy and former U.S. Ambassador; Hillary Mann Leverett, former National Security Council Director and CEO, Stratega; William Luers, Chair and President, United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA–USA) and former U.S. Ambassador; Mohiaddin Mesbahi, Director, Middle East Center, Florida International University; Shabnam Rezaei, Founder and Editor–in–Chief, Persian Mirror; Neda Sarmast, documentary filmmaker, Nobody’s Enemy; Gary Sick, Senior Research Scholar, Middle East Institute, Columbia University; Barbara Slavin, journalist and author, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.
Mustapha Tlili began by thanking the audience members for their attendance and — stressing that political imagination must be a part of strategic thinking — invited them to imagine a future Middle East that is peaceful and secure. He outlined some features of this imagined future, in which the Middle East is free of nuclear weapons, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is resolved, Israel is fully integrated into the region, and Iraq is a sovereign and secure democracy. Key to this vision is the recognition of Iran as a responsible power playing a role in all fields — political, economic, and cultural — both in the region and on the world stage.
Tlili elaborated on this vision by describing what a new paradigm for Iran–U.S. relations could look like. He emphasized that Iran’s participation and consent is crucial for all the elements of this vision to be realized. A new paradigm for Iran–U.S. relations based on the idea of shared destiny, which recognizes both countries’ interests, could pave the way for reconciliation and lay a new path for partnership.
Tlili stressed that this new paradigm depends on mutual respect between the two countries. He warned against the tendency, which has worsened since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, of foreign powers attempting to dictate Iran’s behavior, without respecting its regional role and legitimate concerns. Tlili was optimistic about the incoming Obama administration, stressing that the new President has a great opportunity for bolstering American security by building a warmer relationship with Iran on the individual, community, and institutional levels.
The aim of the conference, Tlili stated, is to challenge the prevailing pessimism on both sides of the relationship, and to promote a more hopeful vision through positive discussion and a deeper understanding of the countries’ shared histories and aspirations. Tlili expressed gratitude to all the panelists and regret that several colleagues from Iran could not make it due to visa difficulties.
Tlili then introduced the three panels for the day.
The first panel, “Imagining a New Paradigm for U.S.–Iranian Relations,” would discuss the legacy of mistrust which, since the 1979 revolution, has hindered the formation of a strong U.S.–Iranian partnership. The panel would also consider how this legacy impacts both countries’ actions with regards to Iran’s nuclear program, and discuss the gains to be made by an acknowledgement, by both countries, of their mutual grievances.
The second panel, “Shared Concerns, Shared Interests,” would draft a list of areas in which Iran and the United States have mutual interests and discuss ways that bilateral cooperation can establish Iran’s role as a vital partner in stabilizing and developing the region.
The third panel, “Planning for Change,” would identify concrete steps that individuals, civil society organizations, universities, and other groups and institutions can take to reinforce the new paradigm of shared destiny.
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