Augusta, Georgia - The "axis of evil" has no relevance for me when I think of Iran, a country I've found to have a human, loving, hospitable face throughout 40 years of encounters. I lived in Iran between 1968 and 1978, and started returning again, this time with peace delegations, in 2005. It is one of the great joys of my life to see the layers of misunderstanding and fear gradually fall away from those who visit Iran today for the first time.
One delegate recently said, "I met a mullah [clergyman] on the street and he was so sweet! Who would think of a mullah being sweet?" Another delegate, well-travelled in the Middle East, said, "Iranians are the most hospitable people I have ever met."
A Jewish delegate said he had been told to be careful: "They might shoot you if they find out you're Jewish." He was amazed to see Jews worshipping openly and walking down a street in Tehran wearing their yarmulkes. He wasn't shot, but was mobbed by the worshippers at a synagogue who were delighted to find a Jew among us.
The younger people on our delegations have been surprised to see the variety of fashions on the street, as well as learn that young Iranians find ways to meet and to date. The artists in our delegation were thrilled to see the throngs of Iranians gathered at the tombs of the famous poets, Hafez and Sa'adi, and we witnessed Iran's great love for music. In Isfahan, one young man with a shopping bag stopped to sing a love song below a pedestrian bridge. He sang as though the mournful and exquisite song was not a performance but just a normal part of everyday life.
These images contrasted vividly with the Western media's portrayals of Iran, often showing only a sea of black and waving fists.
When Iranians learn that we are from the United States, the consistent response is: "We really like American people; we just don't like your government." This is usually followed by the question, "Why does Bush want to bomb us?" Some ask why there are sanctions against Iran, and why the United States wants to change their government. "If there's to be any change," they say, "we want to do it ourselves."
We also know that life in Iran can be difficult, especially in the political sphere. Reform candidates are often vetoed before the elections, and still there are hundreds of candidates who run for a very few slots. The parliamentary elections were looming when we went. Some people said they would not bother to vote; one woman said she would rely on her studious father for his own analysis of the candidates. The official religious minorities (Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians), on the other hand, were proud to tell us they have their own representatives in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament.
A few days before the election, we met with former President Khatami, and it was easy to sense his continued commitment to the reform movement, as well as his deep disappointment that he had been unable to do more during his term in office. He said that peace is what's most needed in the world today, yet it is rare to find in international relations. He noted that war has been glorified in our cultures and histories, by everyone from Homer to the revered Persian poet, Ferdowsi.
Iranians have a deep and persistent memory of history: they remember the 1953 coup and removal of Prime Minister Mossadegh by the CIA, while Americans recall the photos of the US embassy officials in blindfolds. We have two distinct historical memories and have not had diplomatic relations for 30 years, leaving no opportunity to get reacquainted and work towards reconciliation.
Iran is not perfect, and there continue to be human rights abuses and curtailment of freedom of speech. But based on my experiences, I believe there is absolutely no justification or rational cause for military intervention or sanctions against Iran. External efforts toward "regime change" are counterproductive for building trust and for reform.
I believe that Iran is ready to enter diplomatic negotiations, on the condition that all parties be respectful and sincere in their efforts to bring about reconciliation and thus start building a more peaceful world.
* Ellen Francis is an Episcopal priest and sister of the Order of St. Helena and has co-led delegations to Iran sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (www.forusa.org). This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and originally appeared in Washington Post/Newsweek's On Faith.
Source: Common Ground News Service, 29 April 2008, www.commongroundnews.org
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