Visit to Iran

From June 9-18, I was part of a nine member “Abrahamic delegation” that visited Iran at the invitation of its Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi.

By: Douglas Johnston
July 10, 2003

As the first high-level delegation to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution, our nine days of meetings and discussions were akin to sipping from the proverbial fire hydrant. The following are representative of the kinds of observations and exchanges that took place. They are by no means exhaustive.

  1. As descendants of the Persian Empire, Iranians are the custodians of a rich cultural heritage. We had opportunities to observe this richness first-hand in visits to Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Qum, and Persepolis – the remains of a palace compound that once served the early Persian emperors. Particularly noteworthy among the latter were the enlightened reign of Cyrus the Great in 550 BC (in which conquered peoples were neither massacred nor enslaved, but assimilated into society on an equal basis) and the far-reaching manifesto on human rights crafted by his son King Darius, the first such dictum on human rights in recorded history and every bit as sweeping in scope as what one would find in today’s pronouncements on the subject. This provided a useful touchstone for later conversations with Iranians in which the manifesto could be cited as a worthy example for all to follow.
  2. Amidst the steady drumbeat of anti-US rhetoric (including a vitriolic anti-US diatribe by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani following Friday Prayers at the University of Tehran while we were there), we were greeted warmly on an individual level everywhere we went. Iranians seemed genuinely glad to see Americans, once they got over their surprise at learning where we were from.
  3. Based on what we observed, claims that students want to overthrow the regime appear to be exaggerated. Those students with whom I spoke indicated a desire for greater freedom within the existing system, having already had their “revolution” in 1979. The immediate cause for the unrest that took place during our visit appeared to be the prospective requirement for student tuition arising from the government’s drive to privatize education (along with everything else in the country). The fact that some students would be able to pay while others would not was perceived by some to be a betrayal of the revolution. On a more general level, they want increased transparency in government and greater consistency between pronouncements and action.
  4. While there are elements of democracy at the grassroots, i.e. the President and Parliament (also known as the Majlis or Islamic Consultative Assembly) are elected by the people, it is the Supreme Religious Leader and the leading Ayatollahs who have the final say on major decisions (consistent with the workings of a theocracy). Although the President and more than 70% of the members of Parliament are reformists, their efforts to reform have largely been stymied by the unelected, higher placed conservative clerics. There is clearly a need for democratic institutions beyond the ballot box.
  5. Iran’s treatment of minority religions is uneven at best. On the one hand, Iranians are quick to point out that their country is the only Muslim state to recognize the rights of religious minorities in its constitution. They also reserve a minimal number of seats in Parliament for them. On the other hand, these same minorities are often subjected to inequitable treatment. Two cases in point: (1) Christian hospitals were taken over by Shiites during the revolution in 1979, but the responsibility for supporting and maintaining these facilities continues to reside with the Christians; and (2) the “blood money” that one would be required to pay the family of a Muslim who was killed in an automobile accident for which one was responsible is significantly greater than the amount that would have to be paid to the family of a Christian victim in the same circumstances.
  6. We visited with the President, the Foreign Minister, the Supreme Justice, the Head of Parliament, and numerous Ayatollahs and other officials. The principal power broker in the country appears to be former president Hashemi Rafsanjani who currently heads the Expediency Council. Although he was out of town most of the time that we were in Tehran, he indicated a willingness to meet with us upon his return. Because his first available opportunity was the day after we were scheduled to depart for the United States, the meeting did not take place. The fact that he was willing to do so, however, sent an important signal.
  7. In a visit with Dr. Mohammad-Reza Khatami, Vice Speaker of the Parliament and President Khatami’s younger brother, he noted that democracy requires a significant cultural transformation and that Iran will need another 10 years to achieve significant change. However, Iranian democracy will not be a secular democracy. Nevertheless, he indicated that delegations like ours can help pave the way for better relations.
  8. Similarly, President Khatami in a later visit noted that major technological advances had done nothing to help mankind relate more effectively; and he saw a need to harness religion for this purpose, particularly by drawing people together on an Abrahamic basis. As expressed in different words by a highly influential Ayatollah, “there is a need to respond from higher ground.”
  9. Another Ayatollah noted that “axis of evil” rhetoric is not helpful to initiating a constructive dialogue. Left unsaid was the fact that 24 years of denouncing the United States as “the Great Satan” is not very helpful either. Commenting on the country’s demographics, this same Ayatollah noted that 50% of all Iranians are under the age of 20; 75% under the age of 30. He went on to say that the government would learn to solve the problems of university unrest.
  10. In contrast to the fanatical image of Shi’ites that is often portrayed in the media, it was interesting to observe a Shi’ite culture that was considerably more liberal and relaxed than its Sunni counterparts in its observance of certain religious practices such as prayer time and the like. One Iranian philosopher with whom we spoke observed that Shi’ites abhor Wahhabism. He also observed that “Jesus is the living word of God. The Prophet, on the other hand, is the bringer of the word.”
  11. The following comments were offered by a group of seemingly uninhibited Iranian artists:
    The primary grievance that most Iranians have with the US is its former complicity in supporting the reign of the Shah, under whom most of them suffered a great deal. Relative to that period, there is greater freedom and little fear of coercion at the grassroots level. (If one holds public office, however, it is a very different matter.)
    • Shi’ism is characterized by humility in response to friendship and arrogance in response to hostility.
    • Internal debate disappears in the face of external threats.
    • Finally, they opined that Iranians are a complex people with a simple government, in contrast to the United States where they see the opposite to be the case.
  12. To build upon this initiative, a number of possibilities come to mind:
    1. Provide debriefings of the trip to the Executive Branch and Capital Hill.
    2. Reciprocate Iran’s hospitality by inviting an Iranian religious delegation to visit the United States.
    3. Lay the groundwork for sending an American Muslim delegation to Iran.
    4. Initiate a Parliamentary exchange (or arrange a meeting between parliamentarians from both countries in a neutral location).
    5. Facilitate direct communications between the top leadership of both countries.
    6. As opportunities arise, promote joint media appearances of high-level U.S. and Iranian officials.
    7. Initiate an exchange (or meeting) of university students from both countries.
    8. Facilitate youth camp experiences similar to those that Seeds of Peace provides for Israeli and Palestinian youngsters.
    9. On a selective basis, seek Iranian participation in the rebuilding of Iraq.
    10. Rather than treating Iraqi Shi’ites with suspicion because of possible Iranian influence, assist them in reestablishing the former prominence of Najaf, with a goal of promoting a friendly competition between Najaf and Qum (the Iranian city that replaced Najaf as the spiritual capital of Shi’ism when Saddam Hussein clamped down on the Shi’ites). Such a competition could help engender a healthy spiritual pluralism, particularly since Iraq’s Shi’ites have already indicated their opposition to creating a theocracy.

Because ours was a religious delegation, there was little opportunity for realpolitik kinds of discussion. Thus we are no wiser than when we left about whether or not Iran is developing a WMD program. Recent statements by top Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Khameini, President Khatami, and former president Rafsanjani, indicate a collective concern over an increasingly hostile neighborhood. With American troops engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran has become acutely sensitive to threats to its own sovereignty. I would find it surprising if they weren’t giving serious attention to developing such a capability.

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