Two big meetings with President Ahmadinejad — plus a third
Over the past 48 hours, I’ve had the opportunity to attend three powerful meetings that have sought to prevent war between the U.S. and Iran and to encourage dialogue and engagement between our two governments and their citizens.
Late afternoon this Wednesday, September 24th, 150 members of the U.S. peace, justice, and anti-war community held a historic first meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The private gathering in New York City was facilitated and hosted by the Fellowship of Reconciliation — an organization for whom I am incredibly proud to work. It is amazing that a small number of people were able to put together such a major gathering in less than a month.
Many people have confused the meeting that FOR facilitated with the second meeting, since the latter one was widely publicized in the national media (and took place just a day later, on Thursday night). At that second event, some 300+ religious leaders from across the country, plus several international political dignitaries, met with President Ahmadinejad. The program was organized by five religious groups (the Mennonite Central Committee, the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker United Nations Office, the U.N. office of the World Council of Churches, and Religions for Peace), and it marked the third consecutive year that Mr. Ahmadinejad met with such a religious gathering during the annual September launching of the U.N. General Assembly. (Given the fact that FOR is an interfaith organization, and that at least a couple of the people who had leadership roles in the Thursday meeting are long-time FOR members, it is understandable why there has been confusion about the two gatherings. I’ll write more about the Thursday evening meeting in another blog entry.)
Wednesday afternoon’s meeting was historic for a couple reasons. First, it brought together an unprecedented grouping of organizations committed to preventing war between the U.S. and Iran. All three major national anti-war coalitions were represented by staff and leadership — United for Peace and Justice (a coalition of more than 1,400 local and regional peace and justice groups across North America), including several members of its Iraq Working Group; Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (known as ANSWER), which has a No War on Iran effort; and the Troops Out Now Coalition, which organizes the Stop War On Iran Campaign. (Given the long-time differences of opinion in the anti-war community about priorities and leadership, many noted how important it was that FOR had invited all three groups to address the President.)
In addition to those coalitions, which represent the mass of U.S. voices that have come together over the past five years to end the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were leaders from a wide variety of other communities: religious groups (such as Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and multi-faith groups); policy analysis and professional associations (Just Foreign Policy, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Union for Concerned Scientists, Americans for Informed Democracy); advocacy and activist organizations (Code Pink, Peace Action, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Enough Fear, Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, Nonviolence International, Global Exchange, Women Against War, etc.); and a range of Iranian-American coalitions that work to strengthen business and social relationships between our nations. Participants had traveled from great distances to attend — as far as Alaska (!), and more than 20 states were represented.
Further, more than one-third of participants had traveled to Iran within the past three years — an impressive constituency, given the fact that only 300 or so U.S. citizens (of non-Iranian descent) do so at this time. I was incredibly pleased that seven members of the civilian diplomacy delegation that I co-led on behalf of FOR in May 2008 joined us for the meeting.
The second historic aspect of the gathering was the framing of the conversation. Given the number of participants and the fact that some 50 organizations had submitted statements and extensive questions for submission to the President, we wondered if we should expect a revolt from all those whose questions couldn’t be asked during the meeting. A dozen voices had been selected to represent the wide variety of concerns — which ranged from foreign policy (nuclear aspirations, relations with Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, etc.) to the challenges faced in doing bridge-building and seeking dialogue (visas, access, freedom of movement and of the press), to hopes for the future and concrete examples of future collaboration. Fortunately, the community of peace activists remained peaceful — there was no revolt — and the fact that the President addressed each and every question that had been posed to him (by name to the questioner, which made it more relational and impressive) was helpful. We had hoped for time for follow-up, but that was not possible. We had to be content with an hour and forty minutes of his time.
For me, probably the highlight of the two days was a third meeting — one that won’t get much if any media coverage. On Thursday morning, FOR convened a strategy session to bring the community of U.S. peace leaders back together and to brainstorm ways to work more effectively to prevent war between our two nations. Some 60 people attended that gathering, including a couple who couldn’t attend one of the meetings with the President — either due to schedule conflicts, or because they did not want to honor him in that way.
For three hours we worked together to discuss the challenges we face in trying to build our own movement — across religious/secular lines, across geographies, across priorities and sometimes over egos — and it was an outstanding opportunity to network and build support for one another (it’s incredible to realize the amount of grassroots work on Iran that is already happening nationwide).
Of the many prospects for follow-up, I will highlight one right now. We were reminded that the U.S. Congress has almost concluded its current legislative session, but that it’s not over yet — and there is a very dangerous piece of legislation before the House of Representatives right now with some 270 sponsors. H.R. 362 will tighten sanctions on Iran in a number of ways — economic, diplomatic, and social — and would be devastating to those of us who seek to open up new opportunities for engagement between our countries. Please call your representative and both of your senators — since they will play a role on moving this forward as well — to express your opposition to HR 362. (To learn more about that and other current legislation: one of the best sources for learning about what’s happening on Capitol Hill regarding Iran is the blog “Iran Nuclear Watch,” published by Carah Ong of the Center for Arms Control & Nonproliferation.)
I plan to write more about this week’s experience in the coming days.