Hopes are higher than they have been in years that the United States and Iran can take positive steps to reduce tensions across the Middle East. Iranian President Hasan Rouhani, compared to his predecessor, has proved to be a breath of fresh air: He has announced a new policy of constructive engagement with the international community, unexpectedly released 11 political prisoners, and even exchanged letters with President Barack Obama.
Now, both Obama and Rouhani have reiterated their desire to improve U.S.-Iranian ties before the U.N. General Assembly. In a speech yesterday, the American president said he was "encouraged" by Rouhani's election, and pledged that the United States would attempt to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program. Meanwhile, Rouhani made the case that international politics was no longer a "zero-sum game," and called for "a world against violence and extremism." Earlier, Washington agreed to allow "goodwill exchanges" with Iran, including activities related to humanitarian projects and sporting events.
While it's positive that Obama is pursuing his own version of ping-pong diplomacy, there's another important step he could take to create the space for dialogue -- ending the long-standing restrictions that have prevented Iranian journalists from working freely in the United States. Obama should do so with the hope and expectation that Iran will reciprocate by extending visas to American journalists, whose movements are similarly circumscribed.
Iranian officials have complained that their country's journalists are almost never granted visas that would allow them to travel freely in the United States. Those who are admitted generally accompany visiting government delegations and are given a limited visa, called a C-2, which restricts them to within a 25-mile radius of the U.N. headquarters in New York.
Iran has cited Washington's policy to justify the limits it often places on the small number of U.S. journalists who are given access to Iran. Generally, American journalists are granted only short-term visas and have to obtain permission to travel beyond a 25-mile radius of Tehran.
This policy echoes the rigid, Cold War-era constraints placed on journalists by both the Soviet Union and the United States. Today as then, it undermines the interests of both countries: Iran, for example, is often presented in the American media as a caricature of a totalitarian state. The truth is more complicated -- while Iran is highly repressive, it is also an extremely complex and dynamic society. U.S. journalists can help bring humanizing stories to a larger and broader segment of the American public, creating greater engagement in a critical foreign policy issue.