Whether or not the George W. Bush administration’s surprising act this week of initiating people-to-people diplomacy with Iran is sincere, it presents a critical opportunity for cultural and human rights organizations in the United States to take the lead in making the first small steps in bridging the great divide between our nations.

Sure, it may be a tiny act of diplomacy and do nothing to neutralize the reactionary policies and nuclear intentions of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but American academics, cultural organizations and literary circles should not wait on the Bush administration to open the door to other voices and views, if only to expand the Iranian experience beyond state-issued polemics and politics.

Fact is, while Azar Nafisi’s bestselling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, chronicled her efforts to teach forbidden Western literature in Iran in the 1990s, most American readers would be hard pressed to recall a single novel, memoir or collection of poetry from Nafisi’s native country.

Not that Iran lacks for literature. Three years ago, the New York Times raved over the explosion of women novelists in Iran, detailing the rise of literature in challenging the social and political mores and quietly subverting the grip of censorship in Iran. And yet, not a single book by the three bestselling Iranian women novelists featured in the article — Fataneh Haj Seyed Javadi’s Drunkard Morning, Fariba Vafi’s My Bird, and Zoya Pirzad’s We Get Used to It — has been translated and published in the United States.

Not that American publishers haven’t tried.

In fact, it took a lawsuit by Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division, the Association of American University Presses, the PEN American Center, and the indefatigable Arcade Publishing to get the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury to back off rulings that required government permission to publish writers in Iran, Cuba, the Sudan, and other countries under US trade embargoes.

As one of the best and bravest publishing houses for foreign literature, Arcade’s extraordinary catalogue should be held up as a beacon in diplomacy and fine literature. Most recently, they published the groundbreaking collection, Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, featuring contemporary novelists and poets from Iran.

Strange Times, My Dear should be required reading for all Americans this summer. Another important collection, Literature from the Axis of Evil, published by the Words Without Borders website, is also a good sample of dissident and more far-ranging and multiethnic Iranian voices. As one of the most important literary endeavors this decade, the Words Without Borders website has an entire page dedicated to Iranian literature.

But this is not enough. The PEN American Center’s campaign on behalf of jailed Iranian writers deserves more support. And while PEN has organized literary events by Iranian novelists and poets, including special panels and readings at the 2007 World Voices Festival, now is the time for universities, schools and literary organizations — and publishers — across the country to begin the process of breaking the ice in people-to-people diplomacy and cultural exchange.

We don’t need to wait on George Bush or the reactionary Iranian government to take the first tiny steps.