Tag Archives: IRAN

Iran: The Next Evil Empire?

by Alex Patico

 Children playing at the Fin Garden in Kashan, Iran. photo by Tilo Driessen
Children playing at the Fin Garden in Kashan, Iran. photo by Tilo Driessen

To us in the West, Iran has been known as a place of ancient trade routes, exotic images and romantic poetry, and more recently as a place of religious and political movements that we struggle to understand. The road to the present impasse between the US and Iran has been as hard to navigate as the bus route from Zanjan to Sanandaj in northwestern Iran – magnificent views and pastoral scenes, but the ever-present danger of a precipitous fall into a rocky abyss.

Americans have been both heroes and villains to Iranians. A Treaty of Friendship and Commerce was signed during the presidency of James Buchanan, and the first US legation was set up in Tehran in 1883. Americans played a midwifery role in Iran’s first attempt at constitutional government in Iran between 1906 and 1925; other Americans were at the heart of innovations in Persian governance and development in the years that followed.

In his book Iran and America: Rekindling a Love Lost, Dr. Badi Badiozamani wrote, “Between 1830 and 1940, hundreds of Americans had established through their good and impressive activities a vast ocean of goodwill between Iran and the United States.” This goodwill has lasted even until today among the people of Iran.

Then came World War II. Britain and the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Iran. Iran appealed to Roosevelt “to take efficacious and urgent humanitarian steps to put an end to these acts of aggression.” The appeal fell on deaf ears. In 1943 the US Secretary of State advised Roosevelt, “From a more directly selfish point of view, it is to our interest that no great power be established on the Persian Gulf opposite the important American petroleum development in Saudi Arabia” – unless, of course, it would be the US. Thus began a long tug-of-war over Middle Eastern “black gold.”

George V. Allen, who assumed the post of US Ambassador to Tehran in 1946, wrote back to the Department of State, “The best way for Iran to become a decent democracy, it seems to me, is to work at it, through trial and error. I am not convinced by the genuinely held view of many people that democracy should be handed down gradually from above.” But, as Dr. Badiozamani observes, “Unfortunately, neither Allen nor his successors followed this advice. Time and again, when the Shah took a critical step toward autocratic rule, they either applauded and justified his action or maintained an approving silence, explaining their behavior as ‘non-interference.'”

In 1953 came the event that more than any other colors Iranian perceptions of the government of the US and its intentions toward Iran. When the elected leader of Iran, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, rejected the exploitative arrangements that governed Iran’s supplying oil to the West and nationalized its oil resources, he was overthrown in a coup orchestrated in part by the American CIA. The operation (acknowledged publicly by the US government decades later) was called “Probably the most egregiously sinister policy the US pursued in the Middle East” by Lee Smith, a journalist associated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The monarchy was reestablished, and would endure, with its secret police aided by intelligence from the US and Israel’s Mossad, until the “Islamic Revolution” in 1979. Never again would American motives be taken at face value by Iranians.

American antagonism toward Iran stems largely from the taking of hostages in Tehran in the early days of the Islamic Revolution. America became the “Great Satan.” Iran was viewed first with shock and bewilderment, later with fear and hatred, by many Americans. We failed to gauge correctly the anger of ordinary Iranians sparked by US support of the semi-democratic and often brutal reign of the Shah. It was their own loved ones who had been informed upon by the secret police, who had suffered in the Shah’s prisons and had been broken by his torturers. When the hostages were taken, it was not just a political or even religio-political move; it was also personal. The US came to stand for dictatorial rule as well as for economic exploitation, ill-considered modernization and cultural discord.

Now the situation is still more grave. A National Security document of March 16, 2006 asserted, “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.” The document states as fact that Iran possesses weapons of mass destruction, though the IAEA has found no evidence of such. Again the abyss of war beckons.

Schoolgirls visiting the Chahel Sotun Palace

in Esfahan, Iran, May 2006.

According to Michael Chossudovsky, writing last year for the Global Research organization, the US military has “war-gamed” doomsday scenarios involving Iran. World war may be difficult for most of us to imagine, but it is always an item on someone’s to-do list. For the non-military reader, the current US presence in the Persian Gulf is hard to visualize. Just nine of the ships deployed there this year carry some 17,000 US personnel, added to 20,000 already in the area. According to reliable reports, the Pentagon has drawn up plans for a military blitz that would strike 10,000 targets in the first day of attacks. The proposed targets include airports, rail lines, highways, bridges, ports, communication centers, power grids, industrial centers, and even hospitals and public buildings.

A February 2006 analysis by the UK-based Oxford Research Group describes the likely scenario: “An air attack would involve the systematic destruction of research, development, support, and training centers for nuclear and missile programs and the killing of as many technically competent people as possible. A US attack, which would be larger than anything Israel could mount, would also involve comprehensive destruction of Iranian air defense capabilities and attacks designed to pre-empt Iranian retaliation. This would require destruction of Revolutionary Guard facilities close to Iraq and of regular or irregular naval forces that could disrupt Gulf oil transit routes…” An element of surprise would be considered critical. This means that there will be no opportunity for people to move away from likely target areas.

Why should it have been impossible, during the almost thirty years of the Islamic Republic’s existence, for us to have developed a way for our two governments to communicate? Neither country is the same as it was when the Islamic Revolution took place, yet leaders of both act as though frozen in time.

However, a policy shift has taken place. It presents, as former President Carter has said, “a radical departure from all previous administration policies” in its aggressive unilateralism and its embrace of preemptive or preventive action. Though a majority of Americans consistently favor limiting attacks by states to self-defense, this is not reflected in the administration’s approach to Iraq and Iran.

The two countries are hardly two peas in a pod. Scott Ritter, former IAEA arms inspector and a US Marines officer, made his first trip to Iran in 2006. He wrote in The Nation, “I recently returned from a trip to Iran, where over the course of a week…. I had my eyes opened…. Iran is nothing like Iraq. I spent more than seven years in Iraq and know firsthand what a totalitarian dictatorship looks and acts like. Iran is not such a nation…. [It is] a vibrant society that operates free of an oppressive security apparatus such as the one that dominated Iraqi life in the time of Saddam Hussein…. Iran has functioning domestic security apparatus, but it most definitely is not an all-seeing, all-controlling police state…”

The signals coming from Iran over the past few years have shown both assertiveness and flexibility, both stubbornness and hints – sometimes broad hints – of possible compromise. But can we get past the one, in order to build on the other?

Recent indications are that we cannot. Though little has changed between our two countries since the 80s, the drum beats of war grow ever louder. Suddenly, women’s dress codes and human rights concerns seem to matter far more than in the past. Yet these concerns are, in truth, based on meager substantive knowledge. Not only is our hard intelligence on military, political and technical matters sorely lacking, but our direct familiarity with contemporary Iranian culture, and especially with the individuals who sit across the bargaining table, is nearly non-existent.

A February 2007 report by Network 2020 stated, “In the context of tensions between the US and Iran, American Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told us that the US and Iran maintain only limited back-channel contacts. Burns reported that he himself has never been in a room with an Iranian official and that the State Department does not have a cadre of Farsi speakers. ‘There is no one in my generation who’s ever served in Iran,’ Burns said. ‘There’s no one in my generation who has ever worked with the Iranians in any way, shape or form.'” More recently, in a June 8 roundtable with The Wall Street Journal editorial board, Condoleeza Rice “confessed that she couldn’t figure Iran out.” “I think it’s a very opaque place,” Rice said, “and it’s a political system I don’t understand very well.” Rice is our most senior foreign policy official.

I flew to Iran last May as part of a peace delegation of 22 Americans. After changing planes in Paris, I spoke with a young Iranian man on his way home. He had just visited a cemetery in Paris where several noted Iranian writers are interred, including one we both admired, the novelist Sadegh Hedayat. I recalled to him the opening line of Hedayat’s dark novel, Blind Owl: “In life there are sores that tear and eat at the soul, like cancer.” We agreed that the will to make war is one of these sores. Balancing the voices of bellicosity, there must be heard voices of charity and humanity. A young anthropologist in the group said, “If all I have done as a result of this trip is begin to dispel the myths that circulate about Iranians, then I have done a lot. And if I can hold up a mirror, then I have done even more. Violence begins in the smallest of spaces. Peace then, must as well.”

But instead, within America, there has been a disturbing sea-change in what has become acceptable in the public sphere. Such conservative TV commentators as Bill O’Reilly voice the opinion that Iran should be bombed into non-existence. Talking about the crash of an Iranian airliner, Don Imus remarked, “When I hear stories like that, I think: who cares?” Senator John McCain, now running for president, answered a reporter’s question on policy toward Iran by chanting, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” Many in his audience cheered. An internet merchandiser is selling T-shirts, sweat-suits and underwear with a map of Iran emblazoned with the words “NUKE ‘EM!”

What is happening here? Isn’t it the process that Chris Hedges warned about in his book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning – the need to demonize the enemy before the launching of an attack can become psychologically supportable? It was done with “the Japs,” “the Huns,” “the Gooks” and “the Towel Heads”; now it is the “Axis of Evil.” In this process, the other becomes a creature unworthy of our compassion.

While we are busy tarring the Islamic Republic with the brush of malevolence, the US has reached an all-time nadir in terms of how we are regarded outside our borders. We who dare to call ourselves Christians should be known, per the scriptural standard, according to how we “love one another,” yet we have a reputation as people who hate all those who are not like us. In poll after poll, fewer and fewer people around the world look up to us as a country with something of value to teach the rest of the world. A Pew Center poll, done in May 2006, showed that people in six Muslim countries – Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey – perceive the “Christian” West as “selfish, arrogant, immoral and greedy.”

For we who are Christians, the single criterion for evaluating any action or attitude is this: does it conform to the example of Jesus Christ? We are to refrain from focusing on the “speck” in the eye of the other, in this case the Iranians, without first remembering to take the “plank” out of our own eyes. Better to err in the direction of forbearance than to tilt toward smug and superior chauvinism.

Some will worry that pursuing such a path carries a risk that the adversary will take advantage of our delay. But could that not be said about any conflict situation? When, exactly, would it be prudent to “turn the other cheek”? The law of love represents a higher calling than prudence or even self-preservation. Looking at the full biblical context, we must admit that Jesus’ approach was truly radical: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:38-44)

The monk and author Thomas Merton, in his essay “St. Maximus the Confessor on Nonviolence,” wrote: “The love of enemies is not simply a pious luxury, something that [the Christian] can indulge in if he wants to feel himself exceptionally virtuous. It is of the very essence of the Christian life, a proof of one’s Christian faith, a sign that one is a follower and an obedient disciple of Christ.” (Passion for Peace: The Social Essays of Thomas Merton, Crossroad, 1995)

Alex Patico is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America. His text is condensed from a forthcoming book, Reining in the Red Horse: An American Christian Looks at Iran. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran 1968-69. He is a member of the US Committee for the Decade to Overcome Violence, a co-founder of the National Iranian American Council, and a congregant of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, Linthicum, Maryland. His most recent visit to Iran was in May 2006.

From the Fall 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 47

‘Step Back from the Brink of War’: OPF’s Iran Appeal

The following statement has been sent to President Bush and members of the US legislature:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Christ spoke these words not just to the crowd assembled before him, but to all men and women of all nations and all times – including those dealing with international relations in the 21st Century. The current state of affairs between the United States and Iran causes American members of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship to speak out before it is too late to step back from the brink of war.

This is a crisis with larger dimensions. The interests of Israel, China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other nations are involved, but the focus of this perilous standoff is a line drawn in the sand between Tehran and Washington. If a solution is not found there, it will not be found.

The current impasse was reached by a road littered with misunderstanding, insults, provocations and meddling. The US helped to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, aided Saddam Hussein in his brutal war against Iran during the 1980s, and threatened to use nuclear weapons against Iran in 2006. This is not to ignore transgressions by other nations, especially Iran, such as the taking of hostages in Tehran , systematic violation of human rights within Iran, or recent inflammatory statements by the Iranian government.

Actions lead to reactions in a cycle of ever-escalating hostility. The first step on the way to peace, however, must always be putting one’s own house in order. To do that – to show the forbearance and compassion Christ asks of us, rather than the bellicosity of those who “live by the sword” – we urge that the following policies be adopted by our government:

Telling the Truth:

Our leaders should admit that they do not, in fact, know whether or not there is a nuclear threat from Iran, that nuclear enrichment is not in itself an offense, and that human rights abuses have occurred and do occur on our side, not only on theirs. The New Testament makes clear that it is in each human soul that the blessings of God are won: through meekness, mercy, and purity of heart. If – as Abraham Lincoln noted during our Civil War – we would hope to be on God’s side, we must avoid deception, spin and disinformation.

Inclusiveness:

The Orthodox Christian tradition of conciliarity (decision-making by the whole Church, rather than a single leader or a small group) can also be helpful in international relations. The US must not just pressure our allies to see the world as we see it, but needs to be prepared to listen to and consider their perspectives.

Moreover, there are many other countries, not on the UN’s Security Council or members of the ‘Nuclear Club’, whose destinies are affected by whatever more powerful nations decide. We need to heed their voices as well.

Seeking Common Ground:

There must be direct negotiations among affected parties. America has legitimate needs; so does Iran. Neighboring nations need to be reassured that they will not be the unwilling victims of regional chaos. The conflict in Iraq , a resolution of the world-wide ‘peak oil’ crunch and many other challenges would be immeasurably easier with a constructive US-Iran relationship in place.

Commitment to Reducing Nuclear Risk:

So long as some nations claim a right to stockpile and use nuclear weapons in their own self-interest, it is inevitable that other nations will see no reason not to follow suit. Since the recent tests by North Korea, nine nations are known to possess nuclear weapons. As the only country which has used such weapons in war, the US has a special responsibility to work for their reduction and eventual elimination. Realistic humility leads us Americans to see that we have no special claim to the wisdom needed for this reduction. Every nation and all our children are at risk, and all must be part of the solution.

Since the credibility of the US was damaged at home and abroad after we invaded Iraq on the false claim that the Saddam government was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, it is no wonder that there is now a widespread and non-partisan lack of confidence in their government among the American people. Staying the course is a good idea only if the course is right. The recent elections demonstrate a growing consensus that a new direction must be found.

If President George W. Bush desires to forge a legacy of real statesmanship, it is not too late to step back from the brink. With a genuine will to find alternatives to war, they can surely be found.

Have we the will to wage peace?

Partial list of signers of the Iran Appeal:

Bishop Basil of Amphipolis

Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos

Bishop Tikhon, Retired Bishop of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the West; Orthodox Church in America

David A. Beck

Fr Ted Bobosh,St. Paul Church, Ad junct Professor, the University of Dayton

Dr. Peter Bouteneff,Assistant Professor of Dogmatic Theology, St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

Archpriest John Breck

Eleni Cambourelis-Benedikt

Alice Carter

Mary Dibs

Jim Forest,OPF international secretary

Aaron Haney, MD

Archpriest Stephen C. Headley

Dr. John D. Jones, Professor, Marquette University

Carol M. Karos

Joel Klepac

Monica Klepac

Maria C. Khoury, Taybeh, Palestinian Occupied Territories, author

Dr. Kevin Lawrence,Chair, String Department, North Carolina School of the Arts

Allison and Don Lemons, Wichita, KS

Dr. Jacques-Jude Lepine, Media Center Director Profile School

Dr. Daniel F. Lieuwen

Michael Markwick, artist berlin,netherlands

Frederica Mathewes-Green, author and columnist

Joe May, Director, Matthew 25 House, Akron , Ohio

Fr. John McGuckin. Professor of Byzantine Christianity, Columbia University

Archpriest George Morelli,Ph.D., Coordinator, Chaplain and Pastoral Counseling Ministry, Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese

Joanna Novac, Irvine, CA

Archpriest Michael J. Oleksa, adjunct faculty, Alaska Pacific University

John W. Oliver, Professor Emeritus, Malone College

Kimberly Pandorf

Fr. Harry Pappas,faculty, St. Vladimir’s Seminary

Alex Patico

Fr. Michael Plekon, St Gregory the Theologian Church, Professor, Baruch College of the City University of New York

Dr. Albert Raboteau,professor, Princeton University

Mother Raphaela, abbess, Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery, Otego, NY

Cathy Rusyniak

Sheri San Chirico, coordinator, OPF- North America

Monk James Silver, member OPF-NA Steering Committee

Eric Simpson

Sbdn. Matthew Spoonemore

James Weave, Bellingham, Washington

Renee Zitzloff,coordinator, OPF Minnesota chapter

In Communion number 44 / Winter 2007

An Orthodox Response to a Nuclear Iran

by Alex Patico

The current administration in Washington has put Iran at the top of its foreign policy agenda. After declaring that Iran is part of an “axis of evil,” the Bush government now declares that a nuclear Iran would be the gravest conceivable threat. Reminiscent of the lead-up to the Iraq war, the current pressure being brought to bear on the UN Security Council comes despite a lack of evidence that a weaponization program exists within Iran. IAEA inspectors have found no such indications, and the CIA’s own intelligence estimates place such a possibility from two to ten years down the road.

Seymour Hersh, the journalist who broke the Abu Ghraib story, wrote more than a year ago that senior administration officials stressed to him that the next target after Iraq was Iran. His recent New Yorker article filled in the details of Pentagon planning for the use of nuclear “bunker-buster” bombs.

Other recent reports indicate that the Pentagon is doing assessments of the cultural fabric of Iran as it would relate to an armed incursion into Iranian territory, and providing hard-currency support for groups like the MKO, an opposition group in exile (still listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. Department of State).

One Congressman, Ron Paul, said recently: “The logic of this current push for war is much the same as was used in the argument for war on Iraq. As earlier with Iraq, this resolution demands that Iran perform the impossible task of proving a negative — in this case that Iran does not have plans to build a nuclear weapon.”

Can one speak of an Orthodox response to such events? Many people regard the Orthodox Church as too other-worldly to formulate a reaction to such a foreign policy crisis. But in fact, Orthodox Christianity has many times risen to just such challenges. It came into being among a people oppressed by a harsh and seemingly omnipotent imperial superpower. It attracted adherents even among those who had been the blood enemies of the Jewish apostles who spread the word. In the Church’s long history it has many times suffered and resisted oppressive governments. At every liturgy, the Church renews its appeal for peace and for the conditions of peace. The Gospel summons all followers of Christ to be peacemakers who “shall be called the sons of God.”

But how does this translate into practical policy for the present day? Certainly, not by playing the game the same way everyone else is playing it.

First, we have no fear; Jesus cast out fear and asks us to rise above it, too. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is remembered for remarking that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” while John F. Kennedy said “Never negotiate out of fear, but never fear to negotiate.” But Jesus said it first: “Do not fear, for I am with you.” Policy options tend to weigh up differently if you are assured of ultimate safety and victory, though you “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Second, as Christians, we have been freed from enmity. The reality is that we are brothers even if we are as divided from each other as Cain was from his brother Abel. It is because we are brothers and sisters that Christ taught us to say the words “Our Father.” There is no other kind of warfare than fratricidal warfare. Neither is any human being or nation free from the influence of evil. The rhetoric of designating certain nations as an “evil empire” only impedes efforts to combat evil, while blinding us to our own evils. For Christians, the rhetoric of enmity goes in the trash bin. There is no “other side” — there is only humankind.

Third, Orthodox Christians embrace an approach known as “conciliarity.” Matters of Church life and teaching are decided by the whole Body of Christ, rather than by an individual or even a respected hierarchy. The principle of conciliarity is not only useful in resolving issues within the Church; it can also help us in resolving conflicts between nations. This would require is to listen with care and respect to other nations, even those whom we regard us as mortal enemies. For Orthodox Christians, isolationism is not an option. We say: “One Orthodox Christian is no Orthodox Christian,” because we are saved together, not in isolation. We grow toward God as the leaves of a tree grow toward the sun, connected and contributing to one another.

How would the conduct of foreign policy look it were not fear-driven? If we refused to regard Iranians as permanent enemies? If we made up our mind about issues concerning Iran not on our own but in consultation with the rest of the global community? Can we credibly claim that the current U.S. or British policy is based on premises such as these? Remember the words of George Washington, the first president of the United States, as he left office:

Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.

How would we approach a state like Iran that seems so different, so hostile and so resistant to dialogue? By being unafraid to dialogue directly with those who are belligerent — Libya, Serbia, North Korea, Iran, or any other state that we regard as posing a grave threat. By treating adversaries as fellow human beings who fear as we do, and who may act on those fears as long as they have them in their hearts. By treating all other nations as legitimate partners in our working out of our own salvation, because we cannot get there alone.

So long as some nations demand the right to make and potentially use nuclear weapons, it is inevitable other states will see no convincing reason why they should not have the right. Surely, as the country that introduced this technology to the world, and used it in wartime, the United States has a special responsibility to support limitation of its proliferation, but it has no special claim, over other nations, to the wisdom needed to do that. All of us are smarter than any one of us. The United States should be setting a good example by conforming to provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which commit the U.S. to work toward “general disarmament”; instead, it modernizes and updates the weapons it has.

It may not be for faith-based groups to prescribe specific diplomatic initiatives, but it is incumbent upon us both as believers and as world citizens to ensure that the core principles being followed are ones that we can take pride in and support. America is diverse, but it is also faithful. Its Christians cannot fail to be peacemakers if they simply follow the Prince of Peace. Its Muslims need to take up their special role as people who can provide a bridge between antagonistic civilizations. Its Zoroastrians and Baha’is have their roots in, and a special feeling for, the land of Iran. American Jews should not fail to weigh the impact of continued enmity and violence within the Middle East on their co-religionists in Israel. America’s Buddhists and Taoists should be able to contribute, in their own way, to the search for peace and reconciliation. Its Hindus have ties to India, which has managed constructive dialogue with Iran despite their differences.

The Old Testament prophet foresees that in response to God’s rebuke, the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshare.” The New Testament makes clear that it is in each human heart that the blessings of God are won: through meekness, mourning, mercy and purity of heart.

Alex Patico was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran, a former advisor to Iranians for International Cooperation, and a co-founder of the National Iranian-American Council. He will be part of a peace delegation to Iran in early May.