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Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
March 2, 2006 – When Americans think about Iran the first images that come to mind are those from the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage crisis. Those images flashed before us on our television screens every night for some 444 days. Most Americans have had an adversarial relationship with Iran ever since, considering their religious fervor and the power of their Ayatollahs with apprehension and disdain.
When Iranians think about the United States, the first images that come to their mind are from 1953, when the CIA collaborating with the British intelligence overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. His sin, nationalizing the oil industry! He argued that Iran should benefit from its oil industry rather than the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became British Petroleum. In his stead, they placed the Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Iranians recall how this U.S. backed dictator oppressed them for 25 years, until in a popular rebellion inspired by a confluence of factors, including religious fervor; the people overthrew the Shah and instituted the world’s first Islamic Republic.
How do you negotiate between competing narratives? This is where skills of interfaith dialogue can play a helpful role, for in interfaith dialogue we are constantly confronted not only with competing narratives, but also with competing truth claims and alternative centers of power and life’s allegiance. Over the years, through painstaking relationship building we have learned to navigate between those polarities and get to the underlying sources of conflict—we have learned to stand in the gap.
I participated in a delegation of thirteen Christian leaders from the United States that visited Iran last week. It was organized and led by the Mennonite Central Committee, who have 17 years of experience working in Iran and the American Friends Service Committee. The delegation included members of United Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic and Evagelical communities in addition to Mennonites and Quakers. Our primary task, was to cut through the confrontational rhetoric coming out of both Washington and Tehran, deepen the dialogue and create a safe space in which each can listen and begin to grasp the other’s pain. To this end, we sought the partnership of religious leaders, Muslim Ayatollahs and Christian clergy, including the Armenian Orthodox Archbishop, Sebouh Sarkissian. Despite media depictions to the contrary, we found the Ayatollahs we met to be learned and wise men who enjoy significant public support, legitimacy and authority. As religious leaders, we found in them colleagues with whom we could engage in the task of finding common ground.
We spent five days on the ground in Tehran and one in the sacred city of Qom. In addition to the religious leaders, we met with political leaders including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Deputy Foreign Minister, Dr. Saeed Jalili. Initial contact with the president was made through relationships developed by the Mennonites. That contact led to President Ahmadinejad meeting with a group of 45 Christian leaders in New York in September. At that meeting he invited us to come to Tehran to continue the conversation.
We discovered that in Iran’s political structure, the president does not have nearly as much power as the American president does in the US. For instance, in matters pertaining to military actions, foreign policy and nuclear issues, authority lies with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. In addition, those who run for President or for membership in parliament (majlis) must receive prior approval from the Supreme Leader. This past December’s mid-term elections handed the President’s party a significant defeat, and in January the Supreme Leader gave a rare public criticism of the President and his inflammatory rhetoric.
Mr. Ahmadinejad comes across as a religious man. He based his remarks on Qur’anic scripture and seemed to acquiesce to the authority of religious leaders. Referring to a quote from Hebrew scripture first stated in our opening remarks: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4), he asserted that his government is committed to such a goal.
We asked him several questions to which he gave lengthy answers. I will remark on two of these: on the question of uranium enrichment leading to the possibility of developing nuclear weapons, and on the Holocaust conference and his remarks on Israel.
First on the nuclear issue, president Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran has never been interested in building nuclear weapons and that he does not intend to build them now. “We are against war and the production of WMDs, chemical, biological and atomic bombs” he said. “This is what our religion tells us. Iran is a religious government.” He reminded us that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei has issued a fatwa (religious edict) stating that manufacture or use of nuclear weapons goes against Islamic teaching. Iran’s uranium enrichment program is strictly for energy purposes he said, and is needed for Iran’s 20 year long economic development plan. “As a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran has every right to develop nuclear energy under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),” he said. It is also true,” he continued, “that today, nuclear weapons are not effective. Nuclear weapons did not help the Soviet Union to survive. They could not help Mr. Bush in his war with Iraq,” he said.
Second, I raised the question of the Holocaust and Israel, at which point the tension level in the room rose by several degrees. I asked, “Mr. President, you were quoted in the US media as saying Israel must be wiped off the map. I want to know if you really said that, and if so, what did you mean? Also, following earlier comments you made denying the reality of the Holocaust, you held a conference in Tehran in December that questioned one of the most horrible events in human history.” I asserted that his views, rhetoric and actions at the very least, undercut our attempts to build relationships between the people of the United States and Iran.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, clearly annoyed at the question, shot back. “I answered this question in our meeting in New York, on CNN, Time and Newsweek,” he said. “Why do you want to ask this again? Let me ask you a question,” he railed. “What is it with Zionists and America? Anytime anyone says anything against the Zionists, it creates problems in the US. Are Zionists ruling America? I refuse to believe that Zionists have so much power that you have to ask this again. Perhaps this is due to the sensationalizing efforts of the media,” he said.
Ahmadinejad reiterated his view of the Israel/Palestine issue and the Holocaust as we have heard it before from him. He does not deny the reality of the Holocaust. He believes that its disastrous effects are exaggerated to provide legitimacy for the state of Israel. “Why should Palestinians suffer for the anti-Semitism of Europeans?” he asked. He questioned why the event should not be studied, giving a place to all opinions. “Why do you permit questions on the very existence of God, but not about the existence of the Holocaust?” he asked.
He also reminded us that the way he seeks to resolve the question of Palestinians is by holding a plebiscite of all the people who live in the area. Allowed the only opportunity in the meeting to follow up after his response to a question, I remarked that this proposal is a non-starter, since it would indeed be a way to wipe Israel off the map. He indicated that he would be open to other political solutions but was firmly against any military options.
I summarized the churches’ positions on Israel/Palestine, emphasizing our commitment for justice for Palestinians and peace and security for Israel. I pointedly disagreed with him on the Holocaust conference, asserting that this horrendous event in human history has been the subject of significant study. “Israel is a reality; it’s not going away” I insisted, “If we are to take you seriously, you must begin to deal with that reality.” “You are entitled to your opinion,” he said to me. And with that, we closed the subject.
While there was much to disagree with, the meeting with the president provided us with three encouraging items: a clear declaration that Iran does not intend to acquire nuclear weapons; a statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved militarily, but only by political means and a willingness to talk with US government officials if there is good will. The former president Khatami emphasized this same point to us in a brief meeting earlier that day.
I reiterate, that while the meeting with the president was the most high profile meeting we had, the meetings with religious leaders were, in the long run, far more significant. These leaders—from both countries—are the ones skilled in navigating through the competing narratives each side brings to the table, and can, in the end, facilitate relationships between Iranians and Americans. Committed to working towards such a goal, the delegation called upon both the US and Iranian governments to immediately engage in direct, face-to-face talks, cease using language that defines the other using “enemy” images, and promote more people to people exchanges including religious leaders, members of parliament/congress and civil society. In that light, it is indeed encouraging to hear that our Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will sit at the same table with Iranian Foreign Minister in regional talks about the security situation in Iraq.
Perhaps most significantly, the delegation discovered on the streets of Tehran ordinary, normal human beings, who like us, live ordinary, normal lives. In the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church, and in many mosques, we met mothers, fathers and children all created in the image of God. They, like us, desire peace. We also met many religious leaders, who, like us, are willing to stand in the gap. Therein lies our hope.
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