Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What Can We Learn from Iran?

There is no doubt that America faces a health care crisis. According to The Times, "the Mississippi Delta has some of the worst health statistics in the country, including infant mortality rates for non-whites at Third World levels." In fact, Mississippi has the country's highest rates of child obesity, hypertension, and teenage pregnancy, with over 20% of the population uninsured. And yet, the state spends the third most per capita on health expenditures in the country.

Clearly, Mississippi needs help - and they can't wait for Washington to stop bickering with itself and finally pass health care reform. So, they have turned elsewhere...to Iran.

As the article explains, after the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government launched a program that set up "health houses" to serve local communities. Ordinary citizens known as behvarz received health training and would travel around offering advice and basic medical services. The program was wildly successful, reducing child mortality rates by 69% and maternal mortality rates dropped from 300 per 100,000 births to 30. Currently, there are 17,000 health houses throughout Iran, serving 90% of Iran's rural population of 23 million people.

A group representing a rural hospital in Mississippi learned of Iran's success story, formed a partnership with Shiraz University, and sent a delegation to Iran to learn more about the program. In turn, Iranian experts visited Mississippi to help advise the opening of the state's first health house, due to open next month. Better yet, the first American behvarz health assistants will be trained in Iran next spring.

Beyond the obvious fact that we shouldn't have to look to Iran to resolve our health crisis, it is comforting that we can. But it wasn’t easy. As the article explains, the Mississippi group had to request special permission from the Treasury Department to avoid sanctions restrictions, as well as skirt potential political sensitivities. Oddly, even the Mississippi governor hasn't been informed of the program!

Obviously, some people would feel uncomfortable dealing with Iran, our political adversary that sponsors terrorism and likely seeks to develop nuclear weapons. But too often we confuse the government of Iran with its people. As the Green Movement has clearly shown, the actions and rhetoric of a dictatorial government reveals nothing about its people.

That is why labels like the "Axis of Evil" confuse more than they clarify. Though Ahmadinejad and Khamenei may be the true Great Satans, the Iranian people are anything but demons. In fact, they simply seek the same rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that Americans cherish. Just as they take comfort in our moral support for their struggle for freedom, we should take comfort in their ability and willingness to help improve American lives.

More generally, America's obsession with our own exceptionalism might prove a philosophical roadblock to accepting Iranian assistance . We have always believed our country should be a city upon a hill, an exemplar for all other countries to follow. We have also held the inverse to be true as well: America should not be a follower. Such logic is the source for much of the neoconservative critique of President Obama's foreign policy that complains Obama treats America as a partner, and not a hegemon, in the international system.

But such arguments misinterpret why America is an exceptional country. It is not because we are objectively better than the rest of the world. Plenty of indices of wealth, happiness, healthiness, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press prove otherwise. Rather, we are exceptional as the first nation in history to be defined by what we believe in, not who we are or where we are from.

As our Constitution states, we established our government “in order to form a more perfect union.” The implication is our union is not yet perfect, our city upon the hill is not yet finished. For over two centuries, we have tirelessly built upon our city to form a more perfect union, using our ideals as a blueprint and our progress as our brick and mortar.

That is why we are an exceptional nation. That is why the world looks up to us. That is why we should not be scared to confront our shortcomings. And that is why we should not only accept, but actively seek help from others - even from Iran.

As we consider imposing enhanced sanctions on the Iranian regime, we should not only seek to minimize the harm inflicted upon the Iranian people. We must also consider the opportunity cost in lost cultural, educational, and technical exchanges that would benefit Iranians and Americans alike.

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