A year ago, President Barack Obama issued a message to the people of Iran on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Since then, the United States' diplomatic options have dwindled dramatically. This Nowruz, there is only one way to shift gears: America needs to start selling cars to Iran.
Why stop there? If Obama truly intends to chart a new course with Tehran, we should open up trade completely. Right away.
The essential piece of the Iran "puzzle" lacking from the U.S. intelligence community's understanding of our longtime adversary is a close inspection of the national personality. We've never known how to answer the critical question what makes these people tick?
As the latest in a long line of Persian merchants, I know: Iranians are among the world's greatest shoppers.
Those of us who know Iran well understand, yet hate to admit, that the one characteristic that binds Iranians as a people is their love of commerce. And as the country becomes more urbanized, consumerism is on the rise. Since the days when it was one of the main trading posts along the ancient Silk Road, the exchange of goods has been one of the most important ways its people relate to the outside world. And they're good at it.
They are as brand-conscious as any population in the world, and since most of the fun to be had in secular societies is outlawed, shopping, eating out, and just driving around have become national pastimes.
In the posh shopping avenues in northern Tehran, European products such as Diesel jeans, Nivea skin care products, and Lindt chocolates are ubiquitous. In the more working-class sections of the city, knockoff Marlboro and Winston cigarettes and pirated copies of Lost, Prison Break, and 24 are as easy to find as Qurans. Despite soaring inflation and unemployment, Iranians throughout the country are still spending. Even on the most important religious holidays, when shops are forced to close, they reopen after sundown to attend to their customers' desires.
So it's ridiculous that the United States has kept up a series of trade embargoes and sanctions against Iran for the last 30 years. The only thing these commercial restrictions have succeeded in doing is keeping American-made goods out of one of the world's biggest economies, which also happens to be a very liquid one.
What's more, Iran is one of the few remaining countries where American products still have cachet. With almost no marketing effort, America could dominate the import market to the world's 17th-largest economy, which is home to the last 70 million foreigners who put stock in the "Made in USA" label. The branding was done in the 1960s and '70s, when American products were still the best in the world. We're talking about a country where the word for razor is still Gillette, a tissue is a Kleenex,and a Band-Aid is, well, a Band-Aid.
Iranians wouldn't single-handedly save the Big Three automakers, but they could give the U.S. auto industry a much-needed cash infusion. Start selling Chevy Blazers and Ford Explorers to Tehran tomorrow, and they will all be gone by the weekend—and at much higher sticker prices than at your local dealership. (Iran is one of the only places in the world where owning a Navigator or an Escalade makes sense. Given its rugged topography and state-subsidized gas at 40 cents a gallon, I'd drive an American SUV there, too. You can fill up for less than the price of a movie in Manhattan or San Francisco.) Heck, forget automobiles, the demand for replacement parts for the thousands of pre-revolution American cars already on the roads of Iran would yield great profits on their own.
If it's such a good idea, why aren't we doing it already?
Well, in a way we are. It's just that no one talks about it. And before we get into the argument about propping up morally bankrupt regimes, it may be worth consulting the American farmers who have benefited from their new Middle Eastern clientele. In 2008 alone, Iran purchased more than 1 million tons of U.S. wheat. (We've also been shipping wheat to Cuba for the last several years.)
So in love with American products are Iranians that even when we tried to take them away, they found a way to hold on. The most famous example is the Coca-Cola bottling factory in Mashhad. After losing its license due to sanctions, the factory continued to produce "classic" Coke, using recycled cylindrical glass bottles. The Coke brass in Atlanta fought to have the plant shut down, all to no avail. In recent years, the U.S. Treasury Department has bent the rules regarding the sale of foodstuffs to Iran, allowing both Coca-Cola and Pepsi to use Irish subsidiaries to sell their products legally in Iran, one of the world's top per-capita consumers of fizzy drinks. Iranians still seem to prefer the American tipples to Zam Zam, the top local brand, which is named after the holy spring in Mecca.
The problem is, there are too many players with a vested interest in seeing the United States not mend relations with Iran. Our friends in Europe and Asia expect us to take the lead on confronting Iran about its nuclear program, all the while selling their goods to brand-conscious Iranians. Iran is a great "secret" market they don't want flooded with American goods. Take Germany, for example, Iran's most important Western trade partner, whose exports to Iran peaked at 4.4 billion euros in 2005.
Iranian opposition groups in both the United States and Iran will oppose a resumption of ties with Tehran, lest we legitimize a rogue regime. As distasteful as Americans may find the current Iranian leadership to be, their business relations with nearly every other major power in the world—all but the United States and Israel—legitimized it long ago. Furthermore, expanding commercial ties could empower pragmatic types well-versed in business, eventually, it is to be hoped, pushing aside reactionaries on both sides.
Washington isn't in a position to stick to its ideological guns right now. We must be practical, and the rest of the world, including Iran, knows it. The Iranian people's infatuation for all things American—and their limited access to them—may be the opportunity we've been looking for.
As President Obama's tone occasionally indicates, we will reconcile with Iran sooner or later. The question has always been whether it will be on our terms or theirs. This trade plan would provide a face-saving, mutually beneficial alternative. Is that such a bad thing?
We live at a moment in history when stuff, not ideas, is what binds people together. This is a reality that few theocrats, socialists, or even democrats will freely admit. When international relations are based on the purchase and sale of consumer goods between two countries, positive trends usually emerge.
A new relationship with Iran based on opening up a new market for American goods might just be the answer. One thing's for sure: The other alternatives—stiffer sanctions and military action—won't work.