by Richard Deats
Even the end of the Cold War—the stated reason for the buildup of nuclear weapons-- failed to stop it. President Eisenhower’s warning as he went out of office proved prophetic: The Military-Industrial Complex has become a way of life, subverting hope of a peaceful feature and the building of a just society. The peace dividend was hijacked by an unending arms race.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the Middle East where ongoing conflict poses enormous dangers. Like a cancer in the body politic, violence is a malignant growth that can spread quickly. And we need to remember that to the east of the Middle East are nuclear armed India and Pakistan. To the north is Russia with its thousands of poorly guarded nuclear weapons. To the south is Israel with its hundreds of nuclear weapons. And throughout the region are heavily-armed US forces pursuing an open-ended war on terror that the US says will last for decades. The US, with 10,000 nuclear weapons (the equivalent of 150,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs), keeps the grim reality of nuclear war a possibility.
Of particular concern is Iran, which with Iraq and North Korea constitute what Bush labeled the “axis of evil.” Though Iran is a signer of the non-proliferation treaty and thereby allowed to have a nuclear program, the US is prepared to wage a preemptive war if Iran continues its present policy. The US has said that we are willing to enter into talks with Iran but only if Iran first stops its preparations for a nuclear program—a condition that is contradictory to the whole notion of negotiation. Behind the demand is the “all options on the table” stance (including the use of nuclear weapons) if Iran does not fall into line. Meanwhile nations like Pakistan—which have not even signed the Nonproliferation Treaty—are encouraged in their nuclear buildup. It was in this frightening situation that the Fellowship of Reconciliation launched its program of sending Friendship and Fact Finding Delegations to Iran, just as we had sent similar delegations to the Soviet Union during the Cold War as a way of building an alternative to the collision course the US and the USSR were on. The war with the Soviets that appeared inevitable did not happen. Unexpected changes from below encouraged unexpected changes from above. CBMs--confidence building measures-- built a new climate in US-Soviet relations.
And so this people to people program to Iran was launched, to try to find a way of imagining a different future. Eighteen went on the first delegation in December 2005 and 23 went in May 2006
An old family friend called to scold me for going to Iran. “Why do you take your life into your hands to do such a dangerous thing!? Think about your wife and children. What if you are taken hostage or killed?” While he was the most outspoken against my going, I found many people alarmed by the trip. Some confused Iran with Iraq. Others had vivid memories of the Iranian students taking over the US Embassy during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and holding embassy personnel hostage for over a year. Conveniently forgotten was the CIA led coup that overthrew Iran’s Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, the US assistance to Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s eight year war with Iran (1980-88) and the American shooting down of an unarmed civilian airliner of Iran in 1988 in which all the passengers were killed.
But even if we focus only on the 1979 hostage taking, it is essential to remember that 1979 was nearly 3 decades ago and the Islamic revolution has gone through numerous changes since then, including the election and re-election of President Khatami, a learned reformer who advocated the dialogue of civilizations rather than their clash and conflict. Though he is no longer president, he illustrates the diversity of public opinion and leadership in Iran today. Like other societies, including our own, Iran has its hawks and policies that fuel terrorism but it has its peaceful voices as well.
I reminded critics of our trip that Prime Minister Rabin of Israel was attacked for shaking hands with Yassir Arafat on the lawn of the White House in 1993. He said: “You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies.” And so, in the spirit of making peace, we launched into the unknown, an experiment with Truth which is what Gandhi called nonviolence. “Loving the enemy” seeks to discover that of God in the other; it means setting aside our obsession with worst case scenarios and encouraging signs of hope and goodwill, of finding a way out of no way.
Traveling on Air France via Paris, we flew to Iran, for a twelve day visit. From the capital Tehran, we flew far south to Shiraz, then by chartered bus we went north to the ancient ruins at Persopolis, then to Isfahan and Natanz, and on to Qom, the religious center of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The most remarkable thing about the trip was the unexpected friendliness we encountered everywhere. Generally the Iranians were startled to see 23 Americans on a friendship mission and they were not shy about coming up to welcome us, in English. They reminded us that they were not Arabs but Aryans (hence the name, Iran) who were conquered by the Arabs and converted to Islam by them. Their language is Persian or Farsi (which by the way is the third most used language on the internet!)
The predominant form of Islam in Persia is Shi’ism. It is a theocracy whose interpretation of Sharia law is the law of the land. Iran has a popularly elected president and parliament, called the Majlis, who are under the authority of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He was elected by clerics to that post when the Ayatollah Khoumenei died in 1988. Khamenei, not the president, is Iran’s commander in chief and is both its religious and political head. The current, controversial president Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, is a conservative populist elected last year when Khatami’s promised economic reforms failed to materialize. Some Iranians said to us, “We don’t like our fundamentalist president and we don’t like your fundamentalist president. But we like Americans and want to live in peace.”
Ahmedinijad’s Holocaust-denying anti-Semitism is unfortunately widespread in the Middle East but Iran provides an unexpected twist. In addition to visiting many mosques and talking with Muslim clergy, we visited houses of worship of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians (the latter being a monotheistic faith older than the Abrahamic religions). Each of these faiths are recognized as official religions and have seats in the Parliament. We were told that there is a place for and respect for Jews and Judaism but not for Zionism and the state of Israel, the main reason being the plight of the Palestinians. The Bahai faith, an indigenous 19th century religion, is not recognized and is heavily persecuted. Shi’ites say they believe in all the prophets, beginning with Adam, and including Moses and Jesus and ending with Mohammad: no prophets after Mohammad are therefore recognized. The Shi-ites believe that Mohammad was succeeded by eleven Imams, all of whom were martyred. The twelfth, Imam al-Mahdi, born in 868, is believed to still be alive, though hidden, with the faithful believing that he will come again as the Savior—with Jesus on his right hand.
Iran is an unmistakably patriarchal society but we found surprising diversity among the women. While you do see the black chador, women’s faces are not covered as in more conservative Muslim societies. More common is the knee length manteux with pants—most often blue jeans!—and the mandatory headscarf. In the early days after the revolution “morality police” attacked women considered immodest but now, even in the holy city of Qom, it is not uncommon to see head scarves worn in a way that does not cover all the hair. A great distinction is made between how you appear in public and how you appear in your own private space, such as your home. In Qom the women of our delegation visited a women’s seminary and in the living quarters met women seminarians in blue jeans and T shirts, their heads uncovered. The Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, formerly a judge, is not allowed to be a judge since the revolution but, as a lawyer she continues to be a fearless defender of women’s rights and travels throughout the world as a Nobel laureate. It is strong women like Ebadi who have fought against the infringements on women’s rights found in Sharia law.
The death penalty is widely used, although less frequently than in the early days of the Islamic Republic. Homosexuality is punishable by death and women who are raped are usually forced to marry or are rejected by their families as impure, with the rapists most often going unpunished.
On the whole, Iran is nonetheless a society in flux. At present the conservative forces predominate but there are strong voices working for reform and defending the rights of all the people. We visited a home for young women in Natanz whose parents are in prison or dead or are addicts. They are being taken care of and prepared for useful lives. A dinner was prepared for us and the women wanted to ask us questions. Their first question was: Is President Bush going to bomb us? After all, we were in Natanz where one of the nuclear programs is being developed. We asked them what they wanted to become. Computer programmer, doctor, lawyer—their confidence seemed remarkable. In Tehran we visited a cooperative for women in a poor section of the city who are learning skills that will help them get jobs as designers, seamstresses, weavers. We met with faculty at Shahid Beheshti University that teach in the field of human rights. We met in a press office with young women journalists whose field is Iranian culture.
One of the most endearing aspects of Persian culture is the people’s love of poetry. After all, this is the land of Saadi, Hafez and Rumi. We took with us thousands of letters in Farsi and English. On each letter were lines penned by the poet Saadi:
The human race is a single being
Created from one jewel
If one member is struck
All must feel the blow
Only someone who cares for the pain of others
Can truly be called human
These words can be found inscribed in the Hall of Nations at the United Nations, a reminder of the beauty and strength of Persian culture and its many contributions to our world. In a museum we saw an exact replica of the Code of Hammurabi, dating from 1160 BCE, one of humanity’s earliest examples of its emerging moral code. We were reminded by Sayed Pejman Mousavi, our learned and winsome guide, that the original can be found at the Louvre in Paris. Tme and again on our trip, Pejman would show us some great Persian artifact whose original copy was in London, Paris, Chicago or New York—reminders of the West’s plunder of such treasures.
A delightful aspect of being in Persia are the abundant flower gardens, especially those with masses of roses. Gardens of Paradise—the oldest ones planted 2500 years ago—provided fragrant and beautiful settings for ancient but well preserved palaces, halls and mosques. On Iranian paper currency one can find roses and a nightingale, from a poem by the celebrated poet Hafez, born in Shiraz in1320 AD.
In Isfahan, the most beautiful city in the Muslim world, “the Paris of the Middle East”, we visited the Imam Square, five times the size of Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Its perimeter is lined with shops and artisans busy at work in the bazaar (a word whose origin is Persian). Nearby is the blue-tiled Imam Mosque. In the evening we went to the river to see the elegant bridges where families stroll with their children or ride swan boats on the river. The 400 year old bridge of 33 arches is celebrated in the saying . “if you build a bridge to me, I will build 33 to you.” As we were crossing the bridge, we heard a young man singing gently, facing one of the stone arches whose acoustics carried his voice through the arches and down the river. He was singing, “When my heart is broken I will take my grief from my enemy to my friend, but when my friend is gone to whom will I take my broken heart?” For many of us that was the most memorable moment of our entire visit, a two week journey that immersed us in Persian culture and its people. This area has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. And, I must add, it has been targeted by the US if we decide to bomb the area where a nearby nuclear facility is in operation.
A key focus of attention in the present war in the Middle East is on Iran which, if it continues to develop a capability for producing nuclear power, might be able to produce a nuclear weapon in 5 years. What if, instead of threatening sanctions and war, the US and the other nations with nuclear weapons would stop their own continuing nuclear weapons development and set an example by publicly disarming their nuclear weapons, working together step by careful step for regional disarmament in the entire Middle East, with the goal of getting rid of not only nuclear weapons but of all weapons of mass destruction? Our constant threats of “Do what we say, not what we do” cause the opposite reaction.
During the worst days of the Cold War, we maintained embassies in Communist countries and were involved in constant negotiation over specific crises and threats. Treaties were hammered out, hostilities lessened, despite ongoing setbacks. But today, we refuse to even speak with Iran and Syria, Hamas,and Hezbollah. However much we may disagree with statements and writings of Iran’s President Ahmadinijad, why should be not be willing to engage him with respect and goodwill?
What if we dared to discard the reckless militarism and fear engendering policies that lead us away from the road to peace? It is said that if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But we have more than a hammer! There are many tools required for building the house of peace. What if the wealthy nations of the world were to propose a new Marshall Plan that would address what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the triple evils”—poverty, war and racism? What if the US reached out the hand of friendship to Iran? All that is lacking is courage and compassion and daring. As Persia’s 13th century poet Rumi wrote,
Outside ideas of right doing and wrong doing,
There is a field.
I’ll meet you there.