FOR meets the Iranian Leadership at U.N.
In September of each year, heads of state from around the world arrive for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) is often actively engaged in meetings related to this event. This year the launch of the “Be On Our Side” poster campaign — http://www.twopeoplesonefuture.org/newyork/ — in support of ending U.S. military aid to Israel, has attracted additional interest because of the pursuit of statehood by Palestinian representatives to the U.N., including President Abbas. A number of us have been interviewed on television, radio, and in print regarding our support of the campaign.
In 2008, FOR was the host of 150 members of the national peace and justice community in an early example of meetings with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Iranian Mission to the United Nations. This Tuesday evening, September 20, FOR was represented by executive director Mark Johnson and Fellowship editor Ethan Vesely-Flad at the fourth annual such dinner hosted by the President Ahmadinejad.
President Ahmadinejad is one of very few heads of state to meet with leadership from civil society, and nearly 200 representatives of peace, anti-war, and interfaith groups in the United States were present. The purpose is to engage in a dialogue to promote understanding between peoples whose political leadership have not had formal relationships in over three decades.
Iran is a country with a population of 70 million people, with rich natural resources, and a nation that has not attacked another country in the past 200 years. Still, it is labeled a threat and is surrounded by NATO armies, threatened with military intervention, and suffering from ever-tighter sanctions.
At the dinner, many of the groups offered brief remarks and FOR delivered the following letter, describing our appreciation for the continuing dialogue, the encouragement we took from the President’s efforts to effect the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, and the hope that the President would exercise a similar effort to show compassion to many Iranians held in prisons in Iran because of their political views and expression.
September 20, 2011
The Honorable Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Dear Mr. President:
It is a privilege to see you again, now some four years into these annual meetings, though I suspect we might both look back somewhat nostalgically on the gathering that the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) hosted in 2008 when we brought together over 150 people from some 80 different civil society organizations to explore the role of civil society in creating social change. We noted then, and would now, that it is not always easy to effect change, and change cannot always move in a direction satisfactory to all concerned. Sometimes conditions do not improve for those for whom we advocate or the principles we advance, for a very long time. And often the call for change is most uncomfortable for those elected by those same citizens with the belief and expectation that the elected would effect the change rather than constrain it further. There is, no doubt, a deeper appreciation in the White House for your words of welcome and encouragement to President Barack Obama upon his election, shortly after our meetings in 2008. It is possible that you share moments of empathy with our President as you work through the intricacies of service as President in Iran.
I know you are disposed to rigorous analysis of complex social and political issues, and their spiritual nuance, and so I would like to focus on one particular question Iran and the United States have in common and ask for your assessment. It represents a dilemma of growing concern for many of us. It is the notion of inalienable human rights (some would call them God-given rights), as they were called in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and the tendency of governments and other institutions of authority to resist the exercise of such rights through incarceration and repression of dissent through censorship or corporate monopolies of public media.
And I would like to focus on a still more-specific aspect of that question, which is the intersection between national and international interests and the acts of citizens as individuals acting on behalf of international or global concerns and not as representatives of their home states. It is the opening of the United Nations each year that gives us the opportunity to meet like this, and it is in the context of the vision for that institution’s work that we should find ourselves raising questions like these. When do principles of faith and human identity supervene those of nation-states?
When we first met four years ago, I would not have easily imagined that, earlier this month, I would be arrested in front of the White House. I was one of 1,253 arrested over a two-week period, in a call to President Obama to reject a permit to build a pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Texas for refinement, and then, quite likely, to provision U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to sell to India and China. The U.S. citizens arrested were joined by others from around the world. We were arrested, fined, and then released.
While some, like Tim DeChristopher, serve time in U.S. jails or prison – the state’s response to nonviolent actions by individuals opposed to the threat to global warming from corporate exploitation of natural resources or to structures of militarism in the world by entering military bases – the immediate point is that protests that focus on global issues and human rights receive a respectful response, even if that includes a symbolic arrest, and demonstrate broad support for issues of concern to civil society.
Many of us here with you this evening have mobilized our global networks to urge the exoneration and release of Troy Davis, a man convicted of a crime few of us believe he committed. Mr. Davis is incarcerated in the context of a criminal justice system which perpetuates a deeply embedded race bias in America’s history and society. His execution is scheduled for tomorrow night in Georgia. I suspect that Iranian citizens have added their signatures in support for his release.
I am interested in your understanding of the responsibility of state actors to be accountable to assemblies of opposition, whether those are individuals speaking from identities broader than state citizenship, or the collective of national spokespersons like those here tonight, in the United States who speak out against an imperial agenda by the U.S. government. Both represent alternatives to more insidious forms of national policy that focus on regime change in other states.
Why should people who voice opposition to national policy, or who even more innocently congregate around issues of difference between the state and its citizens of one state relative to another, find themselves incarcerated for extended periods of time? Specifically, why do you think that Tim DeChristopher, Bradley Manning, Judith Clark, Leonard Peltier, or Troy Davis should be imprisoned in the United States, or Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, Issa Saharkhiz, Shabnam Madadzadeh, Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, Mohammad Sadiq Kaboudvand, Ahmad Zeidabadi, Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, Taghi Rahmani, Hashem Khastar, Mohammad Seifzadeh, Abdollah Moemni, Omid Kokabi, Mohammad Davari, Farzad Madadzadeh, Kayvan Samimi, Massoud Bastani, Bahman Ahmadi Amouee, Bahareh Hedayat, Mahboubeh Karami, Hassan Asadi Zeidabadi, Emad Behavar, Saeed Matinpour, Mehdi Mahmoudian, Saeed Pourheydar, Saeed Malekpour, Hamzeh Karami, Ramin Parchami, Hengameh Shahidi, Hossein Derakhshan, Mohammad Pourabdollah, Ali Malihi, Mostafa Tajzadeh, Faizollah Arabsorkhi, Chassem Sholeh Sadi, Mohammad Javad Mazafar, Javad Emam, Amir Khosrow Delirsani, Siamak Ghaderi, Sam Mahmoudi Saraee, Arash Saghar, Arash Sadeghi, Ebrahim Madadi, Peyman Aref, Ayatollah Seyed Hossein Kazemini Boroujerdi should be in jail in Iran?
We are well aware and grateful that in recent weeks you made a sincere effort to seek the release of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer. We realize that the structures of governance in Iran make it difficult to effect their release in your role as President, and yet you were willing to make the gesture of compassion on behalf of those hikers. Our President would probably present himself as similarly constrained to effect the release of Troy Davis or of Tim DeChristopher. But we do look to political leaders in this country to similarly advocate for compassion and justice in the case of Troy Davis, for example. What opportunity have you had and what use of that opportunity have you taken to speak with similar compassion for those with views that differ from the orthodox position of the political leadership in Iran?
And for those of us here this evening, who do you believe is being held, and where, under the authority of the United States or NATO, on whose behalf we might advocate for their release and return to Iran?
I want to note, somewhat incidentally, in closing, that when we met in 2008 we spoke to the difficulties of securing visas and permission to visit Iran as part of our efforts of civilian diplomacy. You charged your staff to facilitate such exchanges and we have continued to engage in that work; and to try to extend that same opportunity to Iranian citizens to visit the United States and spend time with Americans. But in an environment when there are uncertainties of safety because practices within the justice system are obscure, it is harder to recruit those who would most benefit by participating in such exchanges.
Important consequences hinge upon the free flow of people and ideas across borders and cultures. We believe a reconciled world requires that exchange. We would like to continue to do this work together. Help us to understand how such issues are understood in your political environment.
Mark C. Johnson, Ph.D.
Fellowship of Reconciliation