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Iran RPCV Barry Rosen speaks out on American-Iranian relations: Moving From Myth Toward Relationship
Iran RPCV Barry Rosen speaks out on American-Iranian relations: Moving From Myth Toward Relationship
Moving From Myth Toward Relationship
By Barry Rosen
July 28, 1998
I want to express deep appreciation to the organizers of today's panel. They deserve congratulations for the extraordinary efforts that gave birth to this event. I should caution that I am speaking, not as a former press attache, but as a private citizen, and not for the other Americans who shared my fourteen-plus months of captivity.
Let me start with a scene from a young American's visit to Iran.
It came during his stint as a Peace Corps volunteer, when he felt deeply involved in the lives and doings of students, friends, and families, which were a kind of surrogate for his own. Then his last day arrived: a time for his students and him to say good-bye after two years of English classes. Following some formal ceremonies, they went to the teacher's house to spend some final moments together. Soon, a class leader approached him with a large book and asked his "ostad" to open it. It was the Koliyat-e Divan Shams-e Tabrizi, the complete collected poetry of the famous Iranian mystical poet, Rumi. All the students had inscribed their names in perfect Farsi calligraphy.
Yes, it was into MY grateful hands into which the magnificent book of classical Persian poetry was placed that day in 1969. Of course I was deeply moved. Beyond that, however, it confirmed that my work in Iran was valued and respected by the people most directly involved.
Now, why am I meeting with Mr. Abdi today, whom I know only as someone who helped cause much personal trauma to innocents? I hope you'll understand that my most difficult dilemma in nearly twenty years was whether to agree to join this panel with him Ñ meaning put my resentment behind me. But it was precisely that opportunity that felt right to me, both in timing and as an expression of an old conviction of mine. I sensed the time had come to put "closed" on 444 days that brought me great pain Ñ partly because I want to enjoy the anticipation that a new page in Iranian-American history may soon be turned.
Released from Iran to an overwhelming American reception, I happened to glance at a sign in one of the celebratory parades. "US 52, Iran 0!" it read. Even then, and more now, such nonsense was wishful thinking, mostly nurtured by people who resented that we HADN'T won, part of the proof of which lay in me and my distress. What we called the hostage crisis was actually closer to a defeat for both sides, and no amount of celebrating could transform it into triumph for anyone. Its legacy of distrust, misunderstanding, and hatred diminished us for two decades, making both sides losers.
But must both sides remain BAD losers? Isn't it time to face that unhappy legacy? It is rooted in myths Ñ which like most contain elements of truth but also enough exaggeration to make it very difficult to break down that "wall of mistrust" that leaders on both sides now want to surmount.
This is not to suggest, not for a second, that the past need not be confronted by both peoples. On November 4, 1998, some 50 Americans who served their country, seeking genuine Iranian-American reconciliation after the revolution of February, 1979, will enter the 20th year of reflection about a defining episode in our lives and those of our loved ones.
I must be candid about that. The people who squashed the human rights of those Americans may continue ignoring their blatant violation of accepted international standards. No matter how they rationalize, however, they must face up to that wrong and admit, if only to themselves, that it was unjustified.
But this platform is not for remembering only my pain, or blows to American honor alone. Iranians also suffered deeply. Looking back at a relationship exclusively through one's own point of view isn't very helpful. It's crucial to understand why Iranians, in turn, feel pained and hurt by the United States.
Not to launch into a history lesson, it's worth remembering that the American presence in Iran began with the idealism of missionaries, educators, and advisers. Later Ñ and until the 1960s Ñ it shifted to serving as a kind of guarantor of Iranian independence against Soviet incursions, as well as a provider of generous economic aid. But our intervention against the legitimate nationalist movement of Mohammad Mosaddeq dimmed the Iranian perception of America. A re-awakened sense of nationalism Ñ which I believe, Iranians feel as keenly as they did 45 years ago Ñ encompassed hostility to America almost by definition.
Yes, the United States continued to work to insure the mutual interests of both countries by preserving Iranian territorial integrity. Unfortunately, the same power realities that led us to play a key role in preventing Moscow from separating Azerbaijan and Kurdistan from Iran in 1946 Ñ a very positive outcome for her ÑÊled us in 1953 to 1978, to policies that alienated Iranians. Those policies derived not from malice but from geopolitical demands, as we saw them, of fighting Communism. Still, we often saw Iran more in terms of mutual needs for continuing that fight than in terms of what most interested Iranians themselves.
But let's not indulge in the easy exercise of looking backward to recount hurts. I'm convinced the personal, national, and international crises that followed our long captivity and the two subsequent decades of animosity between our countries is coming to an end. Whether my presence here can have meaning beyond this room is something for others to discuss. But I want to stress that both countries say they want a cultural dialogue like today's. It is an essential step toward reconciliation.
However others will interpret today's meeting, its symbolism is clear to me. The rift between Iran and the United States, to understate it considerably, began well before my captivity which, however, powerfully widened it, especially because both sides tended to see US-Iran relations as a story of heroes and villains.
The past can't be made to go away, and shouldn't. But a new beginning can be made. We can work toward a wiser, kinder time when our countries are able to agree to disagree as in all good relationships, between nation states as well as people. I'm here with Mr. Abdi because I want to see Americans and Iranians turn that difficult corner away from mutual demonizing.
Candor also requires acknowledgment that we're taking only the first baby steps on the road to reconciliation. You don't need me to tell you that major issues separate our countries. Anyone who has followed the policy nuances over the years knows them all too well. But personal knowledge from my Peace Corps experience in Iran from 1967-69 assures me that our torn relationship can be mended.
Reconciliation is possible
Finding the right soil and climate can enable us to re-sow our mutual trust and respect. The essential nutrient will be a process of "humanizing" each other, which must include acceptance that we both have viable points of view and grievances worthy of acknowledgment.
Only real dialogue, as opposed to the drumbeat of moral lecturing, can initiate that humanizing process. Its focus must be on issues important to both sides, avoiding all attempts to dig into entrenched attitudes. President Khatami's ground breaking interview with CNN where he called for "a dialogue between civilizations," was very encouraging. So were Secretary Albright's remarks last month - especially her call on Iran to help create a "road map" to normal relations. The same applies to President Clinton's announcement that Washington "wants genuine reconciliation with Iran, based on mutuality and reciprocity."
Unfortunately, Iran's test of a medium range missile only eight days ago, raises anxieties in an already tense Middle East and casts doubts about its foreign policy intentions.
Nevertheless, this is one of the rare opportunities when two previously hostile governments –and the most enlightened of their respective citizens – genuinely want change.
And precisely because it is important that both countries understand each other's intentions, for example, in regard to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Nothing can replace a direct dialogue between the two governments, without any preconditions.
I agree with some of Mr. Abdi's recent remarks in Salam last month, especially that it is useless to rationalize rejecting normalization by citing who inflicted what pain and when. If former wounds are the criterion, should not Iran, as he questions, "adopt the same attitude towards Russia because of the loss of Persia's northern cities?" His reference was to the early 19th century, when the Russian empire overwhelmed the Iranian army of the Qajar dynasty and appropriated large chunks of land in the northwest.
So here's the critical question: what will it take to enable those American and Iranian negotiators to sit down together?
It will take what peace-making has always taken: honest reflection, foresight, and courage. The alternative, leading from a difficult but rewarding path toward normalcy, is interminable confrontation.
To move forward on that path will also take something else. Both countries' leadership and the general public must deal with their domestic demagoguery that hinders progress. For example, non-experts in the United States hardly recognize the considerable recent changes in Iran. On the Iranian side, politicians who favor rapprochement are often immediately condemned because the United States essentially remains the mythical "Great Satan," on whom everything bad and unwanted is blamed.
The solution is no less urgent for being obvious: favorite myths of both countries must be deflated.
On the American side we must acknowledge that the revolution, with its anti-Americanism, was rooted in valid injuries to the Iranian people. And that the Iran of the last nine years, is abandoning much of the radicalism of the past.
On the Iranian side, leaders and people must modify their black-and-white view of the world and of the United States in particular. Yes, Washington did make mistakes.
But it did protect Iran from the Soviet threat, and will continue to do much good, even if inevitably faltering sometimes. Rather than criticize EVERY American policy and action, and rejecting relations, Iranians should criticize selectively, rejecting what they think is improper but embracing the positive. Because there MUST be some positive policies.
In practical terms, several things can be done to break down the myths that have been holding us hostage. As President Khatami suggested, people to people dialogues-like today's- are crucial. Secondly, honest statements by political leaders on both sides about mistakes and positive acts in the past and present will help ease the way toward reconciliation. We also should seek suggestions about constructive initiatives that both countries can undertake together, as confidence builders. Both countries' intelligentsia can also help deflate the demonizing myths by writing more objectively about the tangled relationship. Mr. Abdi has taken up this challenge already, and in the same article that I referred to above, he courageously wrote that "hostility towards the United States has become a matter of prestige...."
Now, I'd like to end with another scene from that same young American's Peace Corps days in Iran.
My Iranian teaching colleague, Farhad, first introduced himself to me, not by inquiring why I was so bald so young, as did many Iranians in their reaching out for chumminess, but by looking at me as if I were a long-lost friend and a man who deserves the highest respect. His eyes announced that he had no interest in competition, but that he wanted to care for me, almost take me in as part of his family. Farhad made me feel as if I were terribly important to him: that my comfort and happiness were the most interesting and significant matters he would encounter all day.
I believe that my relationship with my Iranian colleague deeply affected our lives. The impact resonated because we saw each other as real people not as mythical figures of one or another sort.
Let's now do the same. Let's see each other as we are, and the building will almost inevitably go on from there.
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