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March 24, 2007

PBS "Now" Group "Talks to Iran"

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad greets a member of an American Christian peace delegation in February

Last night I watched David Brancaccio's PBS "Now" program titled "Talking to Iran," about a visit to Iran in the third week of February by a 13-member American religious delegation (a link to a clip of the program is on this page: http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/312/index.html).

The trip had been organized by a coalition of Quakers and Mennonites. The program's
thesis was that this group had gone to Iran in an effort by an non-government group to open dialogue with Iran and diffuse tensions. The "Now" website linked to a statement about the visit issued by the Mennonite Central Committee, which said in part:

"We believe it is possible for further dialogue and that there can be a new day in U.S.-Iranian relations. The Iranian government has already built a bridge toward the American people by inviting our delegation to come to Iran. We ask the U.S. government to welcome a similar delegation of Iranian religious leaders to the United States.

"As additional steps in building bridges between our nations, we call upon both the U.S. 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.

"As people of faith, we are committed to working toward these and other confidence building measures, which we hope will move our two nations from the precipice of war to a more just and peaceful relationship."

In his 21 March New Year's address to a massive crowd in Mashhad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei referred over and over to the United States as Iran's enemy, and as an accused party who must defend itself against accusations which he enumerated in detail. Evidently he was not moved by the Mennonite urging that he stop using "enemy" images.

"Talking To Iran" Producer Jamila Paksima

The delegation shown in the PBS video complied obediently with two key Iranian requirements of a Western peace mission:

(1) You must come to us as the apologetic supplicant. It will be more convincing if you actually do apologize for whatever we complain about. We ourselves don't have anything to apologize for of course, certainly not while you're a guest in our country.

(2) Don't bring up the fact that we consider ourselves your theological and moral superiors with a God-given right to govern you in all your worldly and religious affairs. Better yet, don't even think about it or be aware of it. We'll let you in on that later when you are powerless to object. You'll be dhimmis at that point, and we'll tell you exactly what's what at that time. Meanwhile, don't worry, be happy!

At one point the program's Iranian-American producer Jamila Paksima said to American Friends Service Committee Secretary-General Mary Ellen McNish: "Some people would say that your delegation is being hand fed the party line here and you guys are buying it hook, line and sinker."

American Friends Service Committee Secretary-General Mary Ellen McNish

McNish replied: "You can't say we're not asking the hard questions, we are! But we are understanding deeply the pain that the Iranian people have suffered at the hands of the American foreign policy."

I would like to say that the hard questions were not asked of the Iranians, at least not in the footage shown on the PBS presentation. Pain has been felt on both sides. It would be nice if the Quakers could empathize with a few injured Americans too, starting with the hostage crisis and continuing with hundreds of other incidents during last 28 years.

Regarding the nuclear issue, the only response we heard from the Iranian side on this program were the same things they've been feeding the world media for years: We aren't developing a bomb, there is a fatwa that prohibits it and it is against Islam. Was it necessary for 13 people to travel to Iran to hear this said yet another time?

As a climactic touch near the end, the program showed the group meeting with President Ahmadinejad, and in Paksima's narrative we were told that he had been asked about his denial of the holocaust. The narrator said the president was annoyed by the question and merely said he wanted to do more research on what really happened. Again, what did they accomplish by flying 13 people to Iran? President Ahmadinejad has already been annoyed and given dismissive responses to this question on a number of other occasions. Why did these nice Christian people want to annoy the poor Iranian president yet another time?

I do think this Christian group bought the party line in Iran, but I do not think Brancaccio's PBS presentation did anything to add critical depth to the experience.

The need for confidence-building and understanding with Iran is also felt by the Arabs of the Middle East, who have a much longer background of close familiarity and experience with Iran than do any American ecumencical groups. They also have a more practiced ability to ask hard questions and make tough stipulations.

The sense of this need for understanding between the Arabs and the Iranians was expressed from the Arab side in the abstract for a 22 March Al-Sharq al-Awsat article in Arabic by Manal Lutfi, available in its entirety only in the newspaper's paper edition, which I have not seen. The abstract merely notes that it is in Iran's interest to establish clear policies.

In a supplementary paragraph to this abstract, Khaled al-Jaser says the Arabs still suspect Iran of wanting to export their Shia revolution, of cultivating militias and running death squads for occasional dispatch to nations such as Iraq, of seeking influence in Arab nations such as Lebanon and of attempting to spread Shiism in Syria, the Sudan and in other parts of the Muslim world; the Arabs also suspect Iran of trying to foment revolt among Shia minorities in Arab countries. Jaser also expresses concern about the unwritten idea in the Khomeinist culture that the Arabs do not have a right to proseletyze Islam; he considers this an anti-Arab notion that the Iranians will have to reconsider if they want to have good relations with the Arabs.

The Iranians haven't answered Al-Sharq al-Awsat either!

Crossposted from Satellite News

Posted by John at March 24, 2007 12:40 PM

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