A Worthwhile Read...

[NB: I highlighted below, in purple, a paragraph that "Ethnonites" from a more conservative background will find particularly ironic, since several of the women, I believe, were from the Mennonite church. -Tim]

Washington Comment
Posted: 3/9/2007
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Inside Iran
by J. Daryl Byler
Mennonite Central Committee Washington Office - http://www.mcc.org/us/washington

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During the last three decades, both nations have acted out of their respective traumas and have added to a growing list of grievances against the other.
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"My picture of the American people is that they are nice, compassionate and ready to help their neighbors,” Hasein Sharif, a 23-year-old reporter with Iran Press TV told me during my recent travel to Iran with a delegation of U.S. religious leaders. “What I don’t understand is why your country always seems to be going to war,” mused Hasein.

Thirteen U.S. Christians traveled to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Feb. 17-25, to explore how religious leaders in both nations can help pave the way for mutual respect and peaceful relations at this time of increased tension between the United States and Iran.

Our delegation met with Christian and Muslim leaders, government officials and ordinary Iranian people. Our final day in Iran included meetings with former President Mohammad Khatami and current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The meeting with Ahmadinejad was the first time an American delegation had met with an Iranian president in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. The trip grew out of relationships that Mennonite Central Committee has carefully developed while working in Iran during the past 17 years. Hasein’s comment was only one of many that reminded our delegation just how little Iranians and Americans understand about each other today. It quickly became clear that we operate out of two different narratives.

The American story begins in 1979, the year Iranian students took 52 American’s hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and held them for 444 days. The Iranian story begins in 1953, when the U.S. CIA joined the British to support a coup to overthrow Iran's democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadeq. In his place, they installed Shah Pahlevi, who grew increasingly repressive and detained and tortured his opponents. During the last three decades, both nations have acted out of their respective traumas and have added to a growing list of grievances against the other. In our meetings, we talked about the role of religion in transforming the trauma that undergirds the U.S.-Iranian conflict. We also talked about nuclear proliferation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the role of women in Iranian society.

Role of religion in transforming U.S.-Iran relations
Our conversations in Iran confirmed that Islam and Christianity share concerns for justice, compassion and the dignity of all human beings. These common values provided a significant bridge for dialogue between our delegation and our Iranian hosts. "There will be no peace among nations unless there is peace and dialogue between religious leaders,” said Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Sebu Sarkissian, head of the largest Christian body in Iran, with some 150,000 members.

Nuclear proliferation
Iranians spoke with almost unanimous support for Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. At the same time, many said that developing nuclear weapons is against the tenants of the Islamic faith. As a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is allowed to develop nuclear energy. While Iran has not violated the NPT, it has failed to disclose all of its nuclear activities as required by an additional “Safeguards Agreement.” As a result, the U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran and demanded that it stop enriching uranium. "We want to exercise our rights under the NPT, not more, not less,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Saeed Jalili. “Weapons of mass destruction are inhuman, immoral and illegitimate,” Jalili said. Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, a popular Friday prayers leader in Iran, told us that there is an Islamic religious declaration or “fatwa” banning the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. “All Grand Ayatollahs agree about this,” said Kashani. What does one make of all these benign assertions about Iran’s nuclear program? Is it gullible to believe that Iran only wants nuclear energy? As recently as late October 2006, Mohamed El Baradei, head of the IAEA, said that he is not convinced that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Even U.S. intelligence analysts differ on Iran’s intentions, and on how soon Iran could produce a nuclear weapon if it wanted to. For me, the trip to Iran brought back memories of a similar trip to Iraq in 2002. One of Saddam Hussein’s cabinet officials met with our delegation and bluntly told us that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, and to please tell members of Congress to “come and see for themselves.” It now appears that he was telling the truth. Is it also possible that Iran is telling the truth about its nuclear program? In the end, it comes down to an issue of trust. Sadly, trust between Iran and the United States is extremely low. This much is clear, Iran is developing the capacity that will allow it to someday produce a nuclear weapon if it so chooses. This is reason enough why the United States should engage in direct talks with Iran, rather than further isolating a nation that views itself as a prominent regional player.

In light of President Ahmadinejad’s recent hosting of a conference about the Holocaust, and his threatening statements about Israel, we knew it was important to raise these issues directly with him. We pressed Ahmadinejad that such events and comments make it difficult for us to advocate in the United States for a better relationship with Iran. In person, his position on the Holocaust is more nuanced than his public statements. Rather than outright denying that the Holocaust took place, his question is, “Why are Palestinians paying the price for atrocities that happened in Europe?” While Ahmadinejad’s concern for the Palestinian people is laudatory, one hopes he will learn to raise questions in ways that do not diminish the reality of the Holocaust and the trauma that it still holds for the Jewish community. With regard to comments about “wiping Israel off the map,” Ahmadinejad said that he is “not talking about war” but about a political solution. Rather than a Jewish state, he envisions that all Jews, Christians and Muslims – including Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the region – should have the right to participate in a referendum to select a government that will represent the will of the majority. “Our proposal is a principled proposal,” he said, “Palestinians should have the right to choose.” Our delegation reminded Ahmadinejad that hostile rhetoric – whether from the United States or Iran – does matter and contributes to the tension between our nations.

Role of women
Upon landing in Tehran, it is a startling thing to hear the flight attendant announce that, “By decree of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, all women must wear a head covering.” The women on our delegation found this to be a difficult challenge. Psychologically, they expressed that they felt invisible. Tom Friedman wrote recently in the New York Times that, in Iran, “women vote, hold office, are the majority of its university students, and are fully integrated in the workforce.” Our delegation found all this to be true, and yet, for whatever reason, it was difficult to schedule meetings with women’s groups in Iran. On the last day of our visit, the women finally met with several Iranian women professors. In our meetings with several ayatollahs, we asked about the role of women. Ayatollah Kashani said that, in Islam, the women are highly valued, “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the men. Ayatollah Taskiri said that, “In Islam, men and women are equal, but have different duties.” Still, he said that it is possible for a woman in Iran to become a Grand Ayatollah.

Next steps
Our delegation has encouraged both the U.S. and Iranian governments to engage in face-to-face talks. “I have no reservations about conducting talks with American officials,” Ahmadinejad told us, “If we see some good will.” We were encouraged upon returning home to hear Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice say that the United States will participate in Iraqi-led regional talks that include Iran and Syria. Hopefully, this will be a first step toward direct bilateral talks between the United States and Iran on a range of issues. In visits with the State Department and congressional offices this week, we heard significant interest in finding ways to talk with Iran. On the other hand, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) recently introduced legislation – H.R. 957 -- to strengthen existing sanctions against Iran. The bill has 22 co-sponsors. Instead of more sanctions, advocates should ask their representative to support congressional hearings that explore the barriers to direct talks between the United States and Iran. Toward the end of our time in Iran, I did a 45-minute TV interview with Hasein Sharif. We talked about the purpose of our delegation, about the Mennonite history of pacifism, and about why nice Americans go to war. At the end of the interview he told me that he had read on MCC’s website that I had engaged in a 40-day fast before the U.S.-led war with Iraq. “If it looks like your country is going to attack Iran and you decide to fast again,” said Hasein, “I will fast with you.”

I hope that won’t be necessary.

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Ahmedinajad  – (Friday, 09 March, 2007)  
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venbolta  – (Monday, 12 March, 2007)  

Ahmedinajad commenter reminds me of the guy that came up to us at your show last friday... ha ha! but seeing that you posted this last friday ... that dude's out of the blue monologue on iran makes much more sense now.

GIERSCHICK  – (Monday, 12 March, 2007)  

Ha! You're right...maybe they are one and the same.

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