Give US-Iranian theological diplomacy a try: By Bishop John Bryson Chane


Politicians in both Iran and the United States have been divisive, disrespectful, and inflammatory in their condemnations of each other, in effect increasing the likelihood of a US military intervention by the United States. As the Episcopal Bishop of the Dioceses of Washington, DC, who has travelled twice to Iran and found friendship and shared values with Iranian clerics, I think it's time for religious leaders in both countries to take the initiative to find ways to seek peaceful solutions to the complex problems that have plagued US-Iranian relations for years.
Clerics on both sides believe that reconciliation must come from respectful communication. But such dialogue cannot occur in a vacuum, or in environments where people are demonising each other. The stakes are high in the Middle East, and the shrill and negative discourse of both countries' political administrations will not ease the increasing tensions between our countries. We must embrace tolerance and sincere dialogue to reverse this trend.
I have been to Iran twice, the first time in 2006 at the invitation of former President Khatami. More recently, I spent five days meeting with academic and religious leaders in Iran who are very concerned about the possibility of a US military incursion against their homeland. While in Tehran and Qom, one of the holiest cities in Iran, we spent a great deal of time discussing the common religious values and themes shared by both Christianity and Islam. Our commonalities centred on issues of peace as well as the moral prohibition of developing and using weapons of mass destruction.
In addition to agreeing that politicians have been behaving childishly, my Iranian colleagues and I also think that the level of ignorance by Christians and Muslims about each other's religions has been extremely unhelpful in extending positive dialogue between these two great monotheistic religions and our two nations.
A deeper understanding of both nations' cultures, as well as a willingness to face the labyrinth of US-Iranian history, are necessary first steps.
Iran uses the development of nuclear energy and the implied fear of future nuclear weapons as a wedge issue in its relationship with the United States. In its defence, Iran says it is the only Persian, Farsi-speaking country in a region of Arab nations. Once a great power thousands of years ago and now an emerging player in the Middle East in the 21st century, Iran says its future is threatened by nuclear programmes and weapons in the region.
Iran can also look to the history of unwelcome involvement by the United States in its internal affairs. The covert overthrow of popular Prime Minister Mosaddeq in 1953, the propping up and support of the unpopular Shah, the US government's military support of Sadaam Hussein in Iraq's war with Iran, and the failure of the Clinton Administration to embrace the emerging moderate leadership of President Khatami (eventually leading to Khatami's isolation by hardliners in his government) are all painful failures of US foreign policy.
At the same time, the United States has every right to be deeply concerned about statements made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about the Holocaust and the eradication of the State of Israel, as well as the verification of anti-personnel weapons manufactured in Iran and their use by Iraqi Shi'a militants against American troops. And the hostage crisis of 1979, when militant Iranian students took over the US Embassy, still exists as an open wound in the American psyche.
Much of Iran's anti-Israel rhetoric can be attributed to deflected anger at the United States for violating known agreements about the parameters of establishing the State of Israel under the Roosevelt and Truman administrations and Israel's development of nuclear weapons without the permission of the United States. The perceived bias of the United States in favour of Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has only exacerbated anti-Israeli feelings. (It must also be noted, however, that the largest concentration of Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel can be found living peacefully in Iran.)
It is imperative that religious leaders from both countries, who are respected for their scholarship and "religious diplomacy", continue their closely held and critically focused theological conversations unimpeded by visa restrictions too often imposed by the United States and Iran.
Likewise, members of the diplomatic corps on both sides need to acknowledge that they have been unable to broker a peaceful solution to the current crisis between our two countries and that it is time for some more creative solutions. A new 21st century understanding of Track II diplomacy, initiated through theological diplomacy, must go hand-in-hand with the formal diplomatic search for the peace that has always been at the centre of the Holy Books of both Christianity and Islam.

* The Right Reverend John Bryson Chane, D.D. is the Episcopal Bishop of the Dioceses of Washington, DC. He was named one of the 150 most influential leaders in the District of Columbia by Washingtonian Magazine. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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