Senior Professor Reports and Reflects on Recent Trip to Iran

Dr. Dudley Woodberry is senior professor of Islamic Studies at Fuller

J. Dudley Woodberry

J. Dudley Woodberry, dean emeritus and senior professor of Islamic Studies in Fuller Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies, reflects on his recent trip to Iran—where he engaged in discussion on reconciliation and peacemaking—and offers suggestions for facilitating the success of negotiations going forward.

Iran: The Best Chance for Reconciliation in 35 Years
By J. Dudley Woodberry

A few days ago, as guests of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, our delegation of 10 US Academics for Peace were privileged to hear a chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, Dr. Hamid Baeidinejad, give his perspective on the difficult but promising negotiations between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany that were starting that week.

As I listened, my mind wandered back almost 35 years to a time when I had been part of a much smaller “academic delegation” seeking to resolve tensions in our relationship with Iran and other Muslim nations. On that occasion, Ted Curran, the deputy director of the US Information Agency (USIA), had invited John Esposito and me to help members of the USIA and the State Department prepare an overview of the Muslim world with recommendations for President Carter. John Esposito was in the early years of his well-known teaching and writing on Islam, and I had just returned from 13 years of living and working in the Persian-, Arabic-, and Urdu-speaking countries of the region of focus.

The prospects for reconciliation were bleak. The Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979 that deposed the Shah had been followed by the Hostage Crisis in which Iranian students had taken over the US embassy in Tehran and paraded the blindfolded staff before the television cameras of the world. A mahdist (messianic) group had captured the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Ayatollah Khomeini had blamed it on the United States, and Pakistanis burned down the US embassy in Islamabad. Relations between our two countries have been bad ever since.

We Americans, though not the Iranians, have forgotten the falling dominoes that led to this sorry state. It started when in 1953 the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddeq was going to nationalize the oil of Iran, and the British and the American CIA deposed him and brought the Shah back into power. The Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979 was a response to this followed by the American Hostage Crisis. During the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, which was started by Iraq, the United States primarily aided Iraq. In his State of the Union Address after 9/11, President George W. Bush included Iran in his “axis of evil.” And the dominoes of alienation have continued to fall since.

Now, as we listened to our Iranian hosts, we saw that conditions were better for resolving our issues than at any time in the last 35 years, for this was the first time in that period that both sides were involved in a process aimed at resolving the issues and had support from the leaders in both countries—a support we also found among people on the street. Yet both countries have elections in the coming year where hardliners are anxious to stop the process if it does not succeed.

What Dr. Baeidinejad and his colleagues said first is that Iran does not need or want nuclear weapons. They have conventional military superiority over their neighbors, and it would be foolhardy to use nuclear weapons against Israel or the United States because of the vast nuclear superiority of the latter two. Furthermore, they noted that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa (a legal decision by a religious authority) against nuclear weapons since they kill the innocent. A fatwa is more binding in a majority Shiite country like Iran than among Sunnis since Shiism has a more hierarchical, authoritarian structure, especially in Iran, where the chief ayatollah is the supreme leader.

Second, they affirmed that the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons does not prohibit nuclear enrichment for peaceful purposes, and they are willing to allow international monitoring of their enrichment and are prepared to ship their nuclear waste to Russia. Third, there are incentives on both sides to reach an agreement. Iran wants economic development, and the United States wants stability in the Middle East, which would help Israelis as well as Iranians and Arabs. And we have common concerns—the suppression of the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaida associates in Syria. Fourth, if the US Congress threatens new sanctions during the six months set aside for negotiations, it will strengthen the hand of the hardliners and we may lose some of our UN partners.

So, what will facilitate the success of the negotiations? First, we need to tone down the negative rhetoric on both sides since that impedes progress. Instead, we should work for even small areas of agreement to keep the process moving. Second, we need to show respect, especially when one side is far stronger than the other. There is a Middle Eastern saying that it is better to die with honor than live with shame. Third, irrespective of our party affiliation, on this issue we need to support those in authority now—President Obama, Ayatollah Khamenei, and President Rouhani—who currently support the negotiations. Without any of them, the process would stall and we might lose our window of opportunity before the coming elections in both countries.

Finally, far more can be done with the religious resources in both countries. Some years ago, Glen Stassen at Fuller Seminary wrote a book entitled Just Peacemaking, which identified effective practices found both in the Bible and political science. After these were expanded by other Christians, Muslims and Jews added examples from their faiths and traditions, and the result was the book Interfaith Just Peacemaking, edited by S. B. Thistlethwaite. The 10 practices discussed include ones such as taking independent initiatives to reduce the threat or to meet a concern of the other side. For example, President Eisenhower announced a one-year cessation of test-exploding nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union reciprocated. This led to the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty of 1963. Lifting certain sanctions that primarily hurt the poor and the sick is something the United States could do, and releasing prisoners held for religious reasons is something the Iranians could do. We specifically mentioned to political and religious leaders the case of Pastor Saeed Abidini in this regard. Such actions would meet concerns of the other side without hurting the initiating nation.

Another of the interfaith practices is acknowledging responsibility for conflict and injustice. Between the US-British overthrow of the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 and the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 with the subsequent Hostage Crisis there is plenty for both sides to publically acknowledge.

What can common citizens do? There is still a lot of pressure on members of the Congress by political action groups to threaten Iran with additional sanctions during this six-month period set aside for nuclear negotiations. We can write our representatives in the Senate and House of Representatives that we believe the threat of additional sanctions at this time would harm the peace process. And, if they have signed letters to this effect, we can thank them for it.

During our meetings in Tehran and the religious center of Qom, we raised other issues besides the nuclear one—particularly greater religious freedom for nonethnic Christians. We were shown an active Armenian Orthodox church, a synagogue, and an active Zoroastrian eternal-flame temple. But new Protestant Christians, whose numbers have grown considerably since the revolution by conversion from the dominant faith and who have formed house churches, are facing greater challenges. President Rouhani extended greetings to the Christians at Christmas and gave a large gift to a Jewish hospital from monies released by the easing of the sanctions, but the legal branch of government and the Republican Guards are more independent of him and the more liberal Foreign Ministry. It was evident that those issues can be worked out and would be more easily dealt with if normal relations are reestablished between our nations.

We met with the Center of Islamic-Iranian Paradigm Progress, which is designed to monitor and coordinate the Islamic Republic's development as an Islamic and Persian nation. We reminded them that Christians were prominent in their roots from the late first or early second century, and they agreed that their great Sufi poets such as Hafiz, Rumi, Firdausi, and Jami extolled the virtues of Jesus.

On the final day we gave gifts to our hosts, the Director General of the Institute for Political and International Studies and the Foreign Minister. They were paper weights with an outstretched hand and a globe of the world engraved with the words "toward our joint task as stewards on the earth" followed by the Quranic and Biblical references "al-Baqara 30 and Genesis 1:26," where humans are commissioned by God to be stewards of creation. May we be faithful to the task.

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