The United States can also benefit from granting visas to Iranian journalists, as it will open channels for U.S. officials to communicate with the Iranian public. Until now, the United States has sought to accomplish this goal through government-funded Farsi language broadcasters like Radio Farda. Moreover, it would remove a convenient excuse that Iran has used to limit international journalists from entering Iran, as it did ahead of the presidential elections this year.
Of course it is possible to take such steps while also recognizing that Iran brutally represses its own media. A vicious and sustained crackdown was launched following the disputed 2009 reelection of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and dozens of journalists that have been rounded up over the years remain in jail. Many, like former Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, have been brutalized and tortured in government custody. The Ahmadinejad administration also took aggressive action to restrict online communication, including social media, and announced plans plans to create a "halal" Internet limited to government-approved content.
In his op-ed published last week in the Washington Post, Rouhani called for "creat[ing] an atmosphere where peoples of the region can decide their own fates." He was referring to Syria and Bahrain -- but the same standard should apply to his own country. Rouhani can break with his country's recent past by doing more to protect freedom of speech, ending the crackdown against journalists, and releasing all of those who are currently in prison, some serving long sentences.
While the much-anticipated handshake between Obama and Rouhani did not occur, Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, tomorrow -- the highest direct talks between the two countries' leaders since the 1979 Iranian revolution. It is true that U.S.-Iranian dialogue must occur between the leaders, but it must also include the people of both nations. The only way to ensure that the public is engaged is to improve media access for both countries.
Obama should make the first move, casting the relaxation of visa restrictions on Iranian journalists as consistent with American values and an affirmation of his belief in the power of information. The Iranian government should reciprocate by ending the repression and imprisonment of Iranian journalists and allowing the U.S. and international media access to its country. These are not mere gestures: By improving the flow of information between their two countries, Obama and Rouhani can lay the groundwork for the dialogue and trust that make diplomatic solutions possible.