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David Cortright discusses American, Iranian peace

David Cortright came to Grinnell College this week to share his knowledge and experience with non-violent political conflict resolution. Cortright is the Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and Chair of the Board of the Fourth Freedom Forum. He has also written many books on Peace Studies topics, including most recently, Ending Obama’s War: Responsible Military Withdrawal from Afghanistan. During his visit to Grinnell, Cortright sat down with Kelly Pyzik of the S&B and shared his thoughts on the current state of U.S. relations with the Middle East and how they could better be resolved through peaceful means.


To start off, could you just talk a little bit about the work you do?

I’m a professor of Peace Studies. I teach graduate and undergraduate students policy advocacy for prevention of armed conflict, as well as understanding non-violence and principles of non-violent change—how it works and case studies for effective use of non-violence for social change. I also do a lot of research writing on contemporary policy issues. I was in Afghanistan a couple of years ago, studying the war there, trying to understand the dynamics of the conflict and how to bring it to an end. I was especially looking at the status of women in Afghanistan and how to protect the rights of women while also ending the war. I’ve been focusing a lot lately on nuclear policy toward Iran, the question of Iran’s nuclear program and how to prevent proliferation in the Middle East while at the same time also prevent war from breaking out over that conflict. I also blog [] pretty often. I just did one today on the war mongering against Iran that’s been going on in Washington this week.


What did you come to Grinnell to talk about today?

My topic is the prospects for peace in the second Obama administration. I want to survey some of the big challenges of war and peace issues and I’ll focus on Afghanistan, the so-called War on Terror, and the Iranian nuclear challenge—how to address those issues in a way that enhances prospects for peace.


I understand you will also be talking to Grinnell professors about a possible peace studies program. 

There are peace studies courses offered here now and part of the discussion I’ve been asked to have with administration and staff members is the status of the Peace Studies field in the United States and internationally and what approaches are proving to be effective in building Peace Studies as an academic discipline. It’s a growing field of study and very relevant to the world. I’ve also been asked to share experiences from what we do at Notre Dame and what I’ve seen while traveling around to different universities.


What are some of the peaceful approaches to conflict solving that you think have been under-explored recently?

Diplomacy is a huge one, especially with Iran. So, we don’t want Iran to get the bomb. Nobody wants that. How do you go about that? The approach we’re taking is to threaten with military action. The better approach is to sit down across the table with Iranian leaders and ask, “What do you want?” and consider what we’re willing to offer and negotiate a solution. The solution is very simple; we need to have greater controls over the Iranian nuclear program and guarantees that it’s for peaceful purposes only. The Iranians have said they’re willing to offer this, but they will not submit to threats. Would we submit to someone who’s threatening us? Our country is not even willing to talk to the Iranians without conditions, to just talk about their concerns and our concerns.


And why do you think that is?

For a lot of reasons. We’ve been hostile toward the Iranians for so long, since ’79. The movie Argo depicts it all beautifully—you’ve got to see it. It’s a long history, but basically we overthrew their government back in 1953 and put in a dictator in place and they overthrew the dictator again in ‘79 and created this Iranian revolution, but they also took the American hostages and we’ve been considering each other enemies ever since. We have sanctions on them, we have no diplomatic relations, we think they’re evil. Under those conditions, it’s difficult to negotiate, but sometimes you need a president who’s willing to break through. When a president is willing to take risks for peace, we often can see a tremendous advance. A good example would be Nixon in China. We considered China a totally evil, Communist state and then Nixon shocked the world by announcing he was going to go to China and talk to Mao Zedong. So, he went to China and sat down with Mao Zedong, a notorious, Communist butcher. Then we were able to start working with China again and China began to reform and the world is a much better place for it.

Reagan negotiated with the Soviets. He said, “The Soviets are the evil empire,” but in ‘85, he went to meet Gorbachev and the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down. So, why don’t we do this with Iran? It doesn’t make any sense at all. The last thing we need is another war in the Middle East. So, that’s an example of how an approach that looks at more peaceful tools of policy is necessary and will actually be a lot more effective.


David Cortright. Photograph by Tela Ebersole.

Do you think there is any change that could mean Obama would go and sit down with Iran any time soon?

I have my doubts, but the irony is that when he was running for President in ‘08, he said he would be willing to talk to the Iranians and he got kind of beat up by John McCain for that. But, he took his lumps and said, “This is the right thing to do,” got elected, and then he basically went back to the same old game. Maybe he will, but I don’t see any evidence of that right now.


With your talk today, what knowledge or realizations are you hoping to impart to Grinnellians?

That there are practical solutions to problems of armed conflict in the world and that peaceful approaches are more effective than threats or use of force.


—Compiled Kelly Pyzik

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