Overcoming Diplomatic Hurdles Requires Dialogue!

The other day here in Tunis, where I live much of the year, I attended an event that brought out many families from the Tunis international community of business and diplomatic expats.

Having traveled quite a bit in Iran and knowing many Iranians, I spotted someone who clearly looked Iranian and took advantage of the festive atmosphere to ask the question of a total stranger…”are you from Iran?”  My hunch was correct and he responded in perfect English, expressing interest in my familiarity with Iran. When I told him that I not only have studied Persian culture for years, but have traveled and led tours to Iran, there was even greater surprise.

My house in Tunis happens to be a short walk from where the event was taking place, so I walked home and shortly thereafter, returned with some of the TunisUSA brochures about our tours to Iran and brought them to him. The brochures include numerous photos, as well as quotes from Americans on how warm and welcoming they found Iran and its people. He was clearly pleased!

He noted that he has a brother living in the United States and after chatting a bit more about how cultural travel and engagement brings out the reality of the fact that Americans are quite beloved in Iran, he added that it is true, Iranians love Americans. It is unfortunately, only the people who represent our two governments where there is a lack of communication and trust…he added!

This conversation may have been simply one more of the frequent interactions I have with people from Iran, though in this case, as it turns out, I was speaking with an Iranian diplomat!!!

Travel is one of the best forms of diplomacy. The Stanford University Alumni Association has a trip to Iran this month, with over twenty participants and a wait list! Better understanding and improved relations only come from dialogue! Both sides of political debates must continue to work at dialogues, as there are often more possibilities than we know when we make the effort to dig a bit deeper and know one another better!


I had the pleasure of attending the Global Citizen Forum this past weekend in the United Kingdom, attended by approximately forty delegates from various countries. Participants were from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Uganda, Saudia Arabia, Tunisia, Palestine, Australia, Pakistan, Botswana, the UK, the United States, Argentina, Mexico and more. It was two and half days of dialogue and discussions on being a Global Citizen. While differences were expressed among the delegates on the definition of “Global Citizens”, the underlying common denominator among all delegates was the desire and belief of each of us that we have a responsibility to look beyond our own needs and find a way to utilize our individual talents to make the world a more connected and peaceful world.

Among the delegates and also one of the keynote speakers was former American Ambassador John K. Menzies, who served as US Ambassador to Bosnia from 1994-1996, a deathly and gruesome period in world history. Ambassador Menzies also participated in the Dayton Peace Talks and oversaw U.S. post-war assistance in Bosnia. Truly a task for the ultimate diplomat…which he is!

In his keynote address to our group, he reminded us of the old adage that one does not make peace with friends, but with one’s enemies.

I had the opportunity to have some discussions with Ambassador Menzies during the days of the forum. As one who has always believed that cultural engagement was an integral tool in overcoming stereotypes and even more so, in overcoming adversity among perceived enemies, I wanted to know what he would like to see taking place, vis-à-vis, the thundering talk circulating about a possible attack on Iran, and US – Iranian relations. His answer did not surprise me!  He said he felt we (the U.S.) should be continually trying to dialogue and communicate on every level, from constant diplomatic exchanges, both openly and back channel, as well as encouraging cultural exchanges on every level.

Certainly, in organizing both adult and student groups through our programs in Tunisia, Iran, the Middle East and elsewhere, one can see the positive results that can come from these exchanges. Ambassador Menzies noted that while both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton initiated such attempts early in their Administration, he was disappointed that they had allowed the lack of enthusiastic response from Iran at the time,to discourage them from continuing active efforts.

I very much share these viewpoints and have yet to find any negative results result from cultural exchanges and dialogue. The level of progress is not always predictable, but who would have ever thought that ping-pong could bring years of Chinese isolation to renew relations with the United States and much of the world?

Citizen diplomacy takes many forms and cultural travel and educational exchanges are certainly an important path. We will continue our efforts in the most creative forums.

We welcome your input!!!