Behind the Scenes: Iran-US relations

by Katherine Seaton

on March 2, 2015

Update: Music and peacebuilding suffered a great loss. Our friend Bob Belden passed away on May 20th. He believed in music as a universal language, capable of bringing people together across the toughest divides. We will always cherish his incredible talent and love for peace.


As critical negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program begin this month, an American jazz ensemble, Animation, just finished a jubilant 10-day tour in Iran, coordinated by Search. The band made history as the first American musicians to play in Iran’s premier concert hall in over thirty-five years.

The Americans were hesitant at first, apprehensive that the trip might be dangerous. They couldn’t have been more wrong. As Bob Belden, the group’s leader, told The New York Times:

“Everybody is nice to us here…. This guy comes up to me, an Iranian, asks me where I’m from. I say, ‘America!’ He says, ‘I love you!’ I tell him I’m a jazz musician. He says, ‘I love jazz!’”

Bob Beldon, waiting to perform with Iranian musicians.  © Newsha Tavakolian for The New York Times.

Bob Belden, waiting to perform with Iranian musicians.
© Newsha Tavakolian for The New York Times.

Despite official animosity between Iran and the U.S., the Iranian people showed overwhelming support and enthusiasm for the musicians. After decades of hostility between the two governments, how can Iranians and Americans share such warmth?

Animation’s tour is the most recent in a series of cultural, religious, and scientific exchanges our Track II diplomacy team has organized between Iran and the U.S. When most people think of diplomacy, they think of Track I – official talks between governments. Track II, or unofficial contact, is an essential foundation for Track I success.

“Track II empowers us, citizens, to take control and do what our governments are reluctant to do, to overcome impediments, to break some of the taboos…. With a little bit of courage, particularly in my part of the world, we can achieve positive results.” – Iranian participant

Back in 1996, we gathered a team of Iranians and Americans – influential, non-governmental actors, like former ambassadors – to build trust and increase communication between the two countries. Even during the most difficult years, this private labor has persisted, exploring challenging ideas and assisting official agreements. We’ve supported the nuclear negotiations for over a decade.

But people often make the mistake of thinking that conflicts are resolved mainly through the calculated steps of rational thinkers. We know from neuroscience and 30+ years of practical peacebuilding that emotional experiences are pivotal in decision-making. They make a lasting impact on people’s worldviews.

“The impact of this series of meetings hosted by Search on my life has been tremendous. Not only have they changed my views, but I’ve chosen a different path in my life because of it…. I now have a totally different understanding of Americans.” – Iranian participant

Lack of human interactions between Americans and Iranians greatly contributed to the decades of mistrust and misperception between them. At this critical moment in U.S.-Iran relations, a jazz performance offers hope for the future.

Tehran-Jazz-Concert-Photo2

Cellphone photo taken from stage by Bob Belden, leader of Animation, while playing in Iran.

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