Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Notes from the Iran/US Program

First - you can watch the full web cast here. And I recommend it to you. "We must be informed and we are not." "The rhetoric and shrill language must end and the negotiations must begin. For that to happen, the American people must speak up."

The evening was planned 10 months ago to address and get past grievances and current threats of aggression. When the Cathedral College's Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation first conceived of the program, they did not envision the worsening division and intensity. The event had over 200 attendees, including many Middle Easterners.

I came away with lots of information but for me the two most important realizations were
  1. the media is failing us now, again, just as they did before the US invaded Iraq. We must inform ourselves.
  2. Hillary Clinton made a big mistake with her vote in the Senate last week which labeled the Iranian Republican Guard a terrorist organization. Political analysts have noted that if Bush does attack Iran before the Iowa caucus she'll have a big problem. Pragmatism aside, the vote was dead wrong.
Reverand Canon John L. Peterson, Director of the Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation introduced the evening. He acknowledged the rhetoric has been ratcheted up to the point that military actions seems inevitable. "War is the ultimate definition of human failure." They are working primarily through interfaith dialog but also in informal, track two diplomacy. During a recent trip to Iran, he was struck by their hospitality, curiosity about America and pride in their history.

Justice can have two qualities - a retribution, punishment and retaliation. Archbishop Tutu has shown us another way - restorative justice. A justice that emphasizes a healing of relationships. The latter is preferred and helps avoid further conflict. (Exhibit A: The Treaty of Versailles of 1919). We can have a different outcome between Iran and the US. The healing in South Africa is an example of this type of restorative justice.

Participants from both sides need to discuss openly how each country has been wronged by the other. We hope to open the door for healing and allow forgiveness to occur and provide a mechanism to resolve the conflict through non-violent means. "It is our absolute conviction that healing conflicted relationships through personal contact, respectful engagement, storytelling, and the acknowledge of past grievance is a far more enduring, healing and effective strategy than threats, cajoling and unilateral sanctions, surgical military strikes."

Healing needs the chance to tell stories, each side, the one who hurt and feel the pain validated. This is true between individuals or countries. They need to have contact, tell stories, have pain acknowledged.

The Republican moderator, Rep. Gilchrest, "officials and those people who consider themselves righteous" need to consider more. I am reminded of what Pope Urban VIII said, many centuries ago, that is "it would be an extravagant boldness for anyone to go about to limit or confine the divine nature and wisdom of the wonder of God." And so we're not about to confine things tonight but to open things up." Quoting Protestant clergy Martin Luther, "We are all weak and ignorant creatures trying to probe and understand the incomprehensible majesty, the unfathomable light of the wondrous God." So each of us should try to open up and understand our fellow man.

What follows are random notes, with apologies for the disjointedness:
Iranians are the most like the US. The popular support for the US is strongest in Iran than in any other Arab country, by far. The only country that has more Persian speaking citizens than Iran is the US. Ever Iranian has a relative living in the U.S.

When the first boot hits the ground, the first bullet shot, the first bomb dropped, the Iranians will unite behind their government. Just as American citizens united after 9/11, attacking Iran will unite Iranians behind theirs.

The United States has a pattern of overthrowing (or attempting to overthrow) foreign governments:
Cuba (1898, 1961)
Philippines (1948)
Iran (1953)
Guatemala (1954)
Nicaragua (several times, most recently from 1981-1990)

The pattern of this, evolves through three steps
1. in a foreign country a US company or an economic interest is threatened. That becomes
2. a country of anti-American, anti-Democratic, EVIL. These are more political, geopolitical.
3. We're only doing it to help them (Iraq).

#3 is a newer progression, lately added. But one and two have been part and parcel of most of our attempts to overthrow foreign governments.

Iran has the oldest constitution in the Middle East (ridding the country of the old feudal system and creating a Parliament) . 100 years ago, America was well liked. The colonial forces of the Russian and British Empire pressured the Iranians to expel American mission. That ultimatum created sympathy for the US among the Persian and Persians admired the US and the techniques of representational democracy.

"We need old men to talk before they send young men to die."

Media is again asleep. People need to be informed.

What is the difficulty with the US negotiating with Iran? We negotiated with the evil empire (a.k.a. the Soviet Union. We have negotiated with China. So why not Iran?
Two reasons were suggested -
  1. the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. On a deep level, that humiliation still irks our psyche. We never retaliated, and on a "kindergarten" level, we still just want to hit them back and bring them down to size. (This ignores the fact, which most Americans have forgotten, that the US shot down 2 Iranian jets in 1984 and took the side of Iraq in 1987-88 with the US Navy bombing Iranian targets)
  2. all issues would have to be on the table, including Israel. That's hard for some to accept so it's preferable simply not to sit down and talk.
Another added that there is a growing sense in Israel that negotiation is preferable to war. War always brings unintended consequences (exhibit A: Iraq).

Even, in recent past - 2003 - Iran was our ally. They quickly denounced the 9/11 attacks. They were instrumental with assistance in Afghanistan - both in bringing down the Taliban and in setting up the new government. In early May 2003, a senior Iranian diplomat was sent to Europe with a proposal for the US. They offered to stop funding Hammas, to turn Hezzbollah into strictly a political party, transparency with their nuclear program. What was the US response? Silence. Why? Perhaps hubris - this was weeks after the invasion of Iraq.

Concluding Remarks:
Religion, make no mistake about, is the fault line of every major conflict in the Middle East, yet it is the least addressed by politicians and diplomats and it is to be a partner at the table. The relationship between these two countries is painful.

Books recommended by Right Reverend John Bryson Chane, Bishop of Washington:
Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to Present by Michael Oren.
Chane: a Jewish scholar - a very thick book. "You should read it."

The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America by Kenneth Pollack
Cassandra: I have some skepticism about this author who also wrote A Threatening Storm. I read that book and it was instrumental in my initial support of the Iraq war - well, that and the New York Times whose motto is "All the News Fit to Print" and stories by Judy Miller.

Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic by Ray Takeyh
Chane: an Iranian, a well informed individual, much respected by the foreign service

Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam by Mark Bowden
Chane: kind of tombish, a very important book to read
Cassandra: Bowden was one of the writers I met at the Atlantic Monthly event last week.

Chane final words: "In the journey we will all take in the years to come, religion will be the fault line...We need to know. God bless you and be people of peace and reconciliation."

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