As tensions mount between the United States and Iran, I am reminded of how poorly we understand the Iranian regime and its people.
We've had no diplomatic relations with Tehran for nearly three decades, nor do we have any diplomats with firsthand experience of the country. While many Iranian Americans visit relatives in Iran, and some Iranians visit here, there is little in the way of people-to-people exchanges.
That kind of separation only benefits Iranian hard-liners like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. More human contact between Americans and Iranians might improve the climate for negotiations on tough issues. It might also bolster the pragmatists in Iran who want to deal.
So kudos to the State Department for launching a series of educational and professional exchanges with Iran several months ago. A group of Iranian doctors and medical professors came to the United States for a public-health program in December, and a U.S. wrestling team drew cheers when it competed in Bandar Abbas, Iran, in January. Iranian wrestlers and a group of disaster-relief specialists will be coming to America soon.
But the most intriguing idea I've heard, which is being discussed among members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, is to organize an official exchange between U.S. legislators and members of the Iranian parliament, known as the Majlis.
The Majlis is elected, although it is subject to a government superstructure controlled by clerics. It includes members from many factions, including dozens who have challenged the performance of the hard-liner Ahmadinejad. Inviting a broad spectrum of Iranian parliamentarians here might help them to better understand the workings of the U.S. system, and help us better understand theirs.
No doubt, hard-liners in both countries will try to undercut such a venture. According to Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), a bipartisan delegation of U.S. legislators came close to meeting a delegation of Iranian parliamentarians in Geneva, Switzerland, five years ago. But the meeting fell victim to the ups and downs of U.S.-Iranian relations.
Specter and several other legislators, on both sides of the aisle, would like to try again for an inter-parliamentary exchange in Tehran, Washington or Geneva. Specter says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told him she had no objections.
I asked Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, Rice's point man on Iran, why this was so, given the fuss over Nancy Pelosi's visit to Syria. He said the administration differentiates between Syria and Iran, when it comes to congressional visits. "Our policy is to isolate Syria because of [Rafik] Hariri," Burns said, referring to the unresolved murder of the former Lebanese prime minister, which many suspect was carried out at Syria's behest.
But when it comes to Iran, Burns said, "our view is to try to dramatically expand the contacts between people." Despite the lack of diplomatic ties between Washington and Tehran, Burns added, "people can have ties, and that can sometimes have a galvanizing effect on the climate."
For that reason, Burns said, "we have said to members of Congress who are trying to put together a Majlis-Congress exchange that we will support this. The open question is whether the Iranians will let these people in."
If Tehran gave the visas, would the United States reciprocate with visas to Iranian parliamentarians? "I'm sure we would give visas to Majlis members if they were invited by the U.S. Congress," Burns said.
The beauty of such an exchange would be that it would open up contact between elected representatives in both countries. Yes, Iranian candidates are vetted and thwarted by nonelected bodies stacked with clerics. But its parliament still is far more lively than many in the Arab world.
Most of the Bush team now recognize that America can't provoke regime change in Iran and that military action against Tehran's nuclear program would only produce greater Mideast disaster. The diplomatic minuet on nukes and Iran's role in Iraq is likely to continue, along with the economic pressure of sanctions on Tehran. But these conflicts don't rule out - indeed, they underline the need for - more contact between Americans and Iranians.
"The Iranian people are better disposed toward the United States than people in many of the Arab countries," Burns said. "We have had these artificial barriers for three decades, and we are trying to end that, as much as we can."
This is one administration policy for which we should be rooting. Let's hope the pragmatists in Tehran also understand the value of a congressional exchange.