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Iranian tourists in Persepolis

Citizen diplomacy
BY david king
photos by diane reiner

Three local peace activists visit Iran and Syria in hopes of demonstrating that dialogue is more productive than conflict

“When is the bombing going to start?”

That is the question Carole Ferraro, Diane Reiner and John Amidon, three local peace activists, were asked over and over again during the two weeks they spent in Iran and Syria this past September as members of U.S. Academics for Peace. The group of 13 academics and activists traveled across both countries, meeting with Iranian and Syrian professors, politicians, and people on the street in an attempt to restore dialogue between the United States and both countries.

Since the start of the Iraq war, Bush administration officials have accused Iran and Syria of interfering in Iraq both directly and indirectly. In 2005, both countries seemingly responded by announcing they had formed a pact to defend one another from attack. Tensions between the United States and the two countries have spiked as of late over the issue of the Iranian nuclear program.

As politicians on both sides of the conflict ratcheted up their rhetoric, Ferraro, Reiner and Amidon were giving lectures around the Capital Region in which they described their trip and talked about ways of avoiding what seems more and more likely to be an unavoidable conflict.

Fear of a U.S. attack was widespread in both countries. After speaking as guests on a panel-discussion show in Syria, the three were stunned by how quickly the show’s host changed from professional television personality to desperate parent when the cameras stopped rolling. Ferraro relates: “The woman said, ‘Please! I’m a mother! I have children! When are they going to attack?’ ”

According to the three activists, the posing of this question was one of the only instances in which Iranian and Syrian citizens could not distinguish the three from the American government.

The traffic in Tehran, Iran

The three say that while they met some citizens who were in line with the politics of their leaders, they met quite a few who reminded them of their own situation as dissenters in the United States. Just as there are American citizens who worry that George Bush is hurting the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world, Amidon points out, there are Iranians who believe their leaders are doing the same.

“They would say, ‘We like the American people, but how did you get that president?’ ” says Ferraro. “And we would respond, ‘How come you elected Ahmadinejad?’ And they would understand. It was a similar thing.”

The American visitors were surprised that the Iranian and Syrian citizens were able to make the distinction between American citizens and the American government, as it seems Americans have a hard time doing the reverse. In their experience, Americans seem barely able to differentiate Iranian citizens from the Iraninan government—or even Muslims from terrorists.

During the group’s presentation at a nursing home in the United States, a member of the audience demanded to know, “How can there be peace when they hate us so much?”

Diane Reiner says the attitude that all Muslims and Muslim countries are dangerous and that they are the ones exclusively creating conflict is exactly what made her decide she had to go on the trip. “I wanted to see for myself,” she explains, “and by the time I did the research and got on the plane, I was convinced that there was no danger. And it was true. The concept of terrorists being on every corner was absolutely nonsense.”

Says Amidon, “The people I did talk to—there was a peace about them. They are in favor of peace. They wanted peace. As Carole said, the distinction they made between the people they were meeting and the governments was very clear.”

President Bush himself decided to make the distinction between the Iranian people and their government in his 2006 State of the Union address when he said, “Tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.” Bush’s appeal to the Iranian people came directly after making it clear that the United States will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.

Reiner says Bush’s message to Iranian citizens was for the benefit of the American people, not the Iranians. “The average schmuck in the street [in Iran] isn’t going to get his message. [Bush] wants to look diplomatic.” She adds, “We know there are Iranians inside who would be OK with getting rid of their present government,” citing some Iranian tea-house managers who “said quite clearly they would be happy to get rid of this government, but they weren’t the majority, and I don’t know [if they were the majority], because we couldn’t speak to everybody and because some people were afraid to speak in public.”

Five children in the Old City of Damascus, Syria

The trio notes that while the Iranian people do not fall lockstep into line with their political and religious leaders, that does not mean they would support a U.S.-led attack on their country. The group notes that just as Americans from different sides of the political spectrum swell with patriotic furor at just the mention of their country being attacked, so do Iranians. “Clearly, there would be a number of people who would be happy to see their government gone,” says Amidon. “However, if we attack them or Israel attacks them, their nationalistic pride will be intact, completely.” Adds Ferraro, “If we put pressure on their governments, it makes their leaders stronger. It makes it easier for them to paint things as right and wrong, black and white.”

As for potential solutions, Ferraro says that American diplomacy with Iran has been strictly superficial. “The thing with diplomacy is that there isn’t really any happening,” she declares. “There’s a hope that they will find a way to change things . . . and there are groups inside Iran working to change things. . . . It’s not Islam; it’s the mullahs who are corrupt.”

“There is a distinction between what is truly Islam and what is a manipulated form,” says Amidon, “much the way Bush uses Christianity. It’s like the disparity between Jimmy Carter and George Bush. One represents the religion in a much more clear and Christian way than the other.”

Since the American group’s fall visit, another question Iranian citizens had for the trio must now be even more prominent in the minds of the Iranian public. “ ‘Why can’t we have nuclear energy?’ They wanted to know that,” says Ferraro. She reports that Iranian citizens saw the United States as holding them to a double standard. “They would say, ‘We are a country, we are an old country. Why can’t we have this technology?’ and we couldn’t explain that. It didn’t make sense. If we wanted to help the Iranian people, we would help them get more sustainable, renewable energy sources. They will be out of oil in a little while.”

Satellite dishes above an archeological dig

According to Iranian Oil Ministry deputy for international affairs Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian, Iran’s oil supplies could be exhausted in 90 years. “We’re telling them, ‘No, we can have it, but you can’t have it, all your surrounding neighbors can have it, but you can’t have it,” says Reiner. “We’re the only country who has ever used a nuclear bomb, so what are we so afraid of?”

While the majority of the group’s talks in Iran and Syria had to do with improving human rights in those countries and improving those countries’ images around the world, Iranian and Syrian members wanted to remind the visiting U.S. delegation that things could improve on both sides of the fence. The trio says that after decades of manipulation of Iranian politics by foreign governments, “There is a sense of conspiracy in the air.”

And Reiner adds, “Many people said to us how much they knew about us and our country. They would say, ‘We know more about your country than you know about ours.’ And sometimes, if they were speaking correct English, they were saying, interestingly, ‘We understand more about your people than you do about yourselves,’ because we are so isolated mediawise [that] we don’t have a sense of history.”

Ferraro’s suggestion? “Turn on Al Jazeera and you will see what we’re doing to the Muslim world.”

Although Iran was an original member of George Bush’s Axis of Evil and Syria was later added by U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, most did not see U.S. action against Iran or Syria as imminent. However, some, such as former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, were predicting the United States would attack Iran by last June. As of late, with the United States bringing Iran before the U.N. Security Council and pushing the United Nations to find Iran in violation of nuclear treaties, Iranian leaders have begun responding with their own brand of inflammatory rhetoric.

Amidon notes that their heated response may be exactly what the Bush administration is looking for. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken in early February, Americans’ concerns about Iran were very clear, as were their concerns about how our government will deal with the situation. While 59 percent polled thought Iran would use nuclear weapons against the United States, 77 percent thought the Iranians would give those weapons to terrorists, and 81 percent thought they would use them against Israel, 69 percent thought the Bush administration “would be too quick to use military force.”

2,500-year-old ruins in Persepolis, Iran

Amidon says that the United States’ approach may simply be making the regime they want to do away with stronger. “There are real complexities,” he insists, “and our leaders don’t seem to be capable of nuance or anything too complex besides their manipulations for war. They’ve made Iran a real power in the Middle East, and that’s the consequence of their policies.”

Upon their arrival in Syria by jet, the activists were met by a brigade of limousines that whisked them to their meetings. They report that red carpets were rolled out for them as they arrived to meet with Syrian President Basar al-Assad and his wife. They say they were treated as if they were an official delegation from the United States and that the Syrians seemed hungry for diplomacy. (The United States recalled its ambassador to Syria in February 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; U.S-Iran diplomatic ties were severed in 1980.) They say President al-Assad made it clear he wants good relations with the United States, but instead is being further isolated and blamed by the United States for fighters crossing the Syrian border into Iraq. Assad insisted that no matter what pressure the United States puts on him, he can control the border with Iraq only about as well as the United States can control its border with Mexico.

The three say they certainly do not take the Syrian president’s word as bond and are aware that as any politician does, Assad had an agenda.

None of the three sees either side of the U.S.-Iran or U.S.-Syria conflicts as being absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Instead, they hope both sides can recognize the human cost of conflict. “What we had was a two-week experience in two countries,” explains Reiner. “It is hard to feel any other way than that we met good wholesome people on the outside, politicians, educators, people in the street, but there is more in the countries than what we saw.”

That being said, if America were to launch an attack on Iran today, Reiner knows what she would have to say about it: “I’d like to say it is ass backwards. We’re putting the cart before the horse. We haven’t tried diplomatic means in a sincere way with the governments, and we’re just using the rhetoric to escalate conflict.”

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