Trita Parsi founded the National Iranian-American Council in January 2002, the same month that US President George W. Bush included Iran, the country of Parsi's birth, in an "axis of evil" alongside North Korea and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
For the past 13 years, Parsi and his organization have worked to ease tension between Iran and the United States, lobbying lawmakers on behalf of the Iranian-American community while trying to dispel the popular notion that Iran is AN existential threat to the US and its allies.
For the most part, it's been a rather thankless job.
"Iran's been a bogeyman, a real punching bag for both political parties," Parsi said. "This has been the first positive year... in a very long time."
In many ways, 2015 has been a transitional point for Iran and its relationship to the outside world. Iran and six world powers, including the US, inked a landmark nuclear deal this year; international sanctions against the Islamic Republic are set to ease; multinational corporations are descending on Tehran; and American and allied aircraft are coordinating with Iran-supported Shia militias in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State.
Iran finally seems to be coming out from the cold.
"For years, Iran was out of bounds to lot of countries," Parsi noted. "But the nuclear deal has profoundly changed that. Iran is slowly coming back into the community of nations."
For decades, Iran has rebuked the UN and the international community, insisting that its nuclear program was peaceful in nature — despite serious evidence to the contrary. Since 2006, Iran has been under a brutal nuclear sanctions regime that has done much to cut if off from international banking and oil markets. US presidential candidates and lawmakers have routinely speculated publicly about bombing and invading the country — John McCain even sang "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys song "Barbara Ann" during his campaign for the 2008 presidential election.
Iran "was in the nuclear doghouse," Parsi said.
In April, Iran and the P5+1 — the US, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany — agreed on a framework that would ease sanctions in exchange for a rigorous international inspection regime designed to monitor nuclear activity in the Islamic Republic. Since the spring, Iranian and foreign diplomats have continued to work together — tenuously, and still with much mutual apprehension — to sort out their geopolitical differences.
This past October, after nearly four and a half years of civil war in Syria, Iran sat down with the US and its allies to hammer out a diplomatic solution to the crisis, which pits Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally, against an array of rebel forces. Some of those, like the New Syrian Army and the YPG, are backed by the US and its allies in the region. Others, like Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, are enemies of Iran and the US alike.
"Those who tried to resolve the Syrian crisis have come to the conclusion that without Iran being present, there is no way to reach a reasonable solution to the crisis," Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said at the time. US Secretary of State John Kerry was less blunt, calling the talks a "promising opportunity." Behind the scenes, however, he worked hard to cajole Iran's regional adversary Saudi Arabia to allow Iran to attend the conference.
The US and Iran are cooperating even more closely in Iraq, as Iraqi coalition forces that include Iran-backed Shia militias often work fist-in-glove with US airpower in the fight against IS.
Just this week, after Congress passed a new law that would make it much more difficult for travelers who've been to Iran to get visas to the US, Kerry and Zarif exchanged a series of public letters to smooth over the tension.
"In the past, if the Iran and the US even spoke that was huge news," Parsi observed. "Now it's nothing to report, it's pretty normal." This style of public diplomacy is a far cry from the final days of the Bush administration, when the CIA seriously was weighing the costs and benefits of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.
The diplomatic detente is setting the stage for an economic convergence as well. After the signing of the nuclear deal, international sanctions against Iran will be rolled back. Serious restrictions on international investment could be repealed as early as January 2016.
And investors are waiting to pounce.
"There's nowhere else like Iran for investors right now," Charles Robertson, the chief economist for Renaissance Capital, told VICE News last summer. Renaissance specializes in frontier markets — it invested heavily in Russia in the 1990s and Africa in the early 2000s. Now Robertson is pegging Iran as one of the most exciting opportunities for daring investors with an appetite for risk.
"They produce as many cars as Turkey, but with the wages of Vietnam," he said. "It has an educated population, and also just happens to have 9 percent of the world's oil reserves."
Robertson first visited Tehran last year and has been pitching the country's potential to his clients ever since. "We could find the Iranian version of Apple," he enthused. "It's worth looking."
In Iran, the business class is bracing for an influx of new capital.
"A few years ago, we used to get only two emails a month asking about investing in Iran," said Sanam Mahoozi of Turquoise Partners, an Iranian investment firm that manages more than 90 percent of all foreign stakes in the Tehran Stock Exchange. "But these days, we've been getting over a dozen requests a week."
Turquoise has hosted over 100 foreign delegations since 2013. American investors began showing up as well after the nuclear deal was signed, though Mahoozi is protective of their identities.
Meanwhile, inside Iran, hardliners who oppose diplomatic cooperation are seeing their position continuously undermined by the nuclear deal.
"The people who said the US can't be trusted at all, they have lost," said Farideh Farhi, an independent Iranian researcher who used to work with Iranian Institute for Political and International Studies, which is affiliated with Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The debate over the nuclear deal, Farhi added, is generating serious political discussion within Iran over the country's place in the world. She just returned from a trip to the country, and noted that its trajectory is very much a matter of public discussion.
"Debate over the nuclear deal created a lot of opportunities for broad conversations about Iran's direction," she said.
The deal was championed by moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who's been much more open to diplomatic dialogue than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran will hold parliamentary elections in February and also elect its Council of Experts, a clerical body that oversees the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. These elections will test the popularity of Rouhani's brand of conciliatory politics.
"I'm not going to say it's going to be democratic election in the pure sense," Farhi said. "But it's going to be highly competitive election."
Despite the political and diplomatic openings, Iran still faces serious challenges. Under the sanctions regime, the country's poverty rate almost doubled from 22 to 40 percent between 2005 and 2013. Record low oil prices have further crippled the economy, which is still in the middle of a steep recession. With the exact timeline for sanctions relief yet to be established, the International Monetary Fund estimates that economic growth will be non-existent over the next year, with inflation hovering around 14 percent.
On the human rights front, progress has also been elusive. An October report from Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, cited the country for brutal floggings, amputations, and hangings.
"The human rights situation in the country remains dire," Shaheed said, adding that there's "a strong disconnect between the professed policy of engagement and the behavior of authorities on the ground."
No matter what happens geopolitically, Parsi expects Iran to maintain a somewhat antagonistic posture towards the US.
"They will never accept American hegemony in the region," he predicted. "They will always position themselves as an alternative."
Parsi hopes, however, that as Iran becomes more integrated into the international community, pressure to improve the human rights situation and provide more space for political dissent will mount.
"Ideally the relationship with Iran won't be dictated just by security or business interests," he said, "but by human rights concerns as well."
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