I Hope that Peace Will Be Established Between Iran and US

Monday, June 9, 2014

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Elaine Padilla
By: Kourosh Ziabari

Although Iran and the United States have not had close diplomatic relations for more than three decades, and despite the fact that the two countries have been at loggerheads over many grievances, academic and cultural exchanges have usually brought the two nations closer together and created opportunities for increased mutual understanding between the two peoples that in spite of their greatness and magnificence, have usually failed to take note of each other’s concerns and sensitivities.

It’s possible to remove the acrimonies of the past in the Iran-U.S. relations through constructive and meaningful dialog and negotiations. Academicians, scholars, intellectuals and media people can play a significant role in making this happen.

Earlier in January this year, a group of 10 American scholars and academicians traveled to Iran to meet the country’s officials and university professors as well as ordinary citizens and talk to them about the future of Tehran-Washington relations and the ways for eliminating the obstacles for the expansion of the bilateral ties. The trip was jointly sponsored by the U.S. Academics for Peace and the Institute for Political and International Studies in Tehran.

Prof. Elaine Padilla was one of the members of the 10-strong delegation who traveled to Iran and took part in different meetings and sessions with the Foreign Ministry officials and academicians.

Padilla is an Assistant Professor of Constructive Theology at the New York Theological Seminary. She has obtained a Ph.D. in Theological and Philosophical Studies from the Drew University. Prof. Elaine Padilla is also the co-editor of a three-volume project with Peter C. Phan titled “Theology and Migration in World Christianity” published by Palgrave MacMillan. She is also a member of the American Academy of Religion and the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Iran Review has conducted an exclusive, in-depth interview with Prof. Elaine Padilla about her trip to Iran, her viewpoints about the Iranian society and the Persian culture and the difficulties ahead of the Iranian and American people on the path of repairing and restoring the marred relations of the past three decades. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: You were part of the delegation of U.S. scholars and academics that traveled to Iran in January to meet the Iranian people and officials. What’s your impression of Iran, its people, its culture, civilization and lifestyle? Have you achieved the objectives you had planned before coming to Iran?

A: Iran is a well-developed country with fairly stable forms of democratic systems that seek to integrate people, male and female, into their decision-making processes at various levels of their political and social strata. Iranians invest much in raising an educated generation. It currently has about 4 million students in their universities and employs a highly educated faculty. And even when I use the adjective “fairly” simply because it was not apparent to me whether anything political could be done without government approval, including our visit and the places we went to, it was evident to me that Iran enjoyed a measure of autonomy intended for long-lasting stability founded upon the principles of joint participation of its citizens. For instance, one of the places we visited was a think tank called the Kharazmi University Development Center, which was composed of professionals from numerous fields such as engineers, architects, sociologists, economists, urban planners, and psychologists. This think tank appeared to have been created for the development of healthy infrastructures aiming at the common good of all Iranians. Among some of the topics we discussed were sources for autochthonous economic development, improvement of education and health institutions, creation of family crises intervention programs, and the place of women in Iranian society.

I also use the term well-developed, not simply because of its highly educated population, or because there were numerous high rises, good road systems, advanced internet access and communication systems, and good drinking water, among other visible factors, but also because I caught a glimpse of their forward thinking manner of searching for ways to address their needs beyond the usual Western methods. One aspect that comes to mind is how Iran is promoting scientific research and seeking to employ sources of renewable energy. This innovative research was brought to our attention by one of the Iranian scientists who participated in the forum put together by the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology. According to her, algae, which has become a source of global warming worldwide, is being employed in the Caspian Sea and producing excellent results as a renewable source of energy. She further explained that the ample supply of algae could help reduce Iran’s dependence on fossil fuels, and in being put to good use, it can help ameliorate the effects of global warming that plague not only Iran but also the world, in addition to improving Iran’s economy. Her goal was to find enough governmental or private funding to expand her reach so that even internationally her scientific research and results could be implemented. My hope is that her dream comes true.

On the downside, as a woman who believes in equality at all levels of social life, and as a someone drawn to public expressions of joyfulness, I must admit, I felt restricted. I understand how human value can be accorded distinctly in different cultures, and saw evidence of women participation indeed, yet the manner in which male dominance permeates the entire Iranian life was for me an obstacle in enjoying all that Iran had to offer. Another piece that caught my eye was the level of formality in which almost everyone seemed to be conducting themselves, and this even as we drove around and walked by the streets of Tehran. There seemed to be a lack of loud laughter, casual clothing, music and dance in the streets. Perhaps we were too much of an oddity and disturbed the usual behavior of the citizens of Tehran. Still, only in one occasion, when eating lunch at one of the restaurants where a wedding reception was being held, did people listened to a band play, celebrate, clap and laugh out loud. Generally speaking, people seemed to be in need of exuberance, and I wondered how truly happy Iranians are.

I am not certain at what level an Iranian could be critical of existing political and social structures, but my visit there led me to conclude that Iran appears to be quite open to self-criticism and self-improvement, and that this young democracy can provide an example of how a liberational movement of today even if religiously informed can be mindful of the whole and revolutionary in forging an identity that allows itself to evolve. It would be nice to witness greater forms of freedom granted to its people in the future. I regard Iran as a country with the potential for higher levels of true native progress.

Q: While in Iran, you took part in a conference jointly sponsored by the U.S. Academics for Peace and the Institute for Political and International Studies in Tehran. One of the themes of the conference was “The Role of Religion and Religious Dialogue in Peace”. Can you elaborate on it, especially as a tool to alleviate misunderstandings between Iran and U.S.?

A: I was not able to visit the holy city of Qom with the rest of the delegation. Still, based on my participation in the various forums that I attended and the various trips through the city of Tehran, the impression I have is that Iran allows for various religious groups including Jewish to co-exist alongside Shiite Muslims, and for some which in other countries would be even persecuted, like the Armenian Orthodox, to worship under the protection of the government. I was also most impressed by the fact that Zoroastrians, whose temple was being remodeled at the time of our visit, are able to gather without apparent government interference.

In addition, some among the imam community also seemed open to dialog and the vision towards a form of pluralism (even within Islam) approximating that of other countries, had relatives whose mosques were in the U.S. and European countries, and gave indications of their willingness to explore ways to build bridges between Islam and other traditions. The fact that Iran allows for the existence of interreligious councils such as the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization where ties among religious groups are constantly in the making is another indication that Iran is seeking to build peace also by increasing acceptance within its own religious communities. Of course, this would come to no surprise for those who understand the ideal to which the Muslim community of Iran aspires in seeking to follow the non-violent stances of the revolution led by Imam Ayatollah Khomeini.

What continues to be disconcerting for many members in our delegation is the lack of support for new Christian Protestant groups and churches. Also, and most disturbingly, have been legal cases such as those of Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery for marrying a Christian, and of Christian convert and pastor of dual Iranian and American citizenship Saeed Abedini who has been under prolonged imprisonment since September 2012. These forms of treatment threaten any possibility for Christians in America to see the good of a non-Western yet religious democracy that Iran is hoping the world to witness. Understandably, Iran might be tempted to reciprocate for the harm that is done to Iranians, especially in the U.S. denying entrance to Iran’s most recent delegate to the United Nations, Mr. Hamid Aboutalebi, and possibly the overall mistreatment of Muslims in many of the Western countries. U.S. Americans can admit to the ills of their own government, how it has established measures that imprison, treated inhumanely, and even tortured some of its presumed militant or terrorist Muslims. Iran must then arise to the occasion and set itself above it. My hope continues to be that in the entire globe peace is reached as much for individuals as nations, within and between them, by means of ensuring the wellbeing of the whole.

Q: In the past three decades, Iran and the United States were embroiled in a corrosive conflict over a number of issues, mostly stemming from the ideological differences between the two governments. Are there chances that the differences can be removed and the disputes can be settled in a peaceful manner, finally leading to a comprehensive agreement, especially on the nuclear issue?

A: My belief is that the human impulse towards peace is far more primal and foundational than its opposite. One could argue that the only reason why nations would misguidedly engage in the kind of behavior that lead to wars is for the sake of obtaining perpetual peace. In such cases when human rights are being violated, there is an undue imbalance in the distribution of resources, or such instances that no other option can be found for survival to be guaranteed, then instruments of war are employed as the only option. But the ultimate human aim is peace. In that regard, I am always hopeful that sooner or later there will come a time of peace between these two nations, that agreement can be established in a manner that the Iranian nuclear enrichment program can continue to be used for the good that it claims it is, though it has been proven that nuclear energy is extremely harmful to the environment, and ultimately other sources must be sought, and simultaneously there can be a guarantee of the sovereignty of the Iranian nation in its use of natural resources.

I am also not naïve. The United States has the capacity to wipe the entire globe in an instant, hence the reasons for the use of its military capabilities as deterrents. Neither can one forget its history and its traces of use of chemical weaponry and of mass destruction against other countries. Its counterintelligence (along European and Soviet nations) has deteriorated the infrastructures and thus created the conditions in many countries in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East that have ripen into the recent chaos and violence that we see arising today, not to mention the sale of weapons around the globe of which the United States is their major importer.

Therefore, if there are any breaks to be put, our two countries, and all those in the G7 would have to agree to peace by first eliminating the very systems that create the conditions that put in demand the use of terror, and last by imposing upon themselves as much as enabling in others the enforcement of the true elimination of the use of force and weapons, especially the creation of weapons of mass destruction. While peace may seem to come only by means of annihilation, I believe that only by eliminating its conditions of war and its instrumentscan there be peace. Iran should not seek to become another superpower, imitating nations that create and benefit from conditions of inequality, cripple local economies, exercise foreign sovereignty, and in the end destroy human and non-human life. Iran has the potential to do better. That is why I can be somewhat hopeful about the Iranian democratic efforts, and others such as those being made by the summit of developing nations gathering to seek the common good by and for those from the underside of history.

Q: We have seen in the recent years the rise of a wave of cultural attacks against Islam in the West as manifested in the burning of the Holy Quran by Pastor Terry Jones in 2011, the publication of blasphemous cartoons ridiculing Prophet Muhammad or the releasing of sacrilegious movie Innocence of Muslims. Do you think that such attacks on Islam can be constructive or positively contribute to the removal of misunderstandings between the Muslims, Jews and Christians?

A: From the start it is best to clarify that these personalities and events are not representative of the sentiments of the majority of the U.S. American people. They receive much media attention because they sell. Part of the population of U.S. American people is obsessed with such media sensations, sadly boosting the ratings of shows, the media production and advertisement, and ultimately the economy.

Another point that needs to be made is that of freedom of speech that the U.S. Constitution guarantees, something that U.S. Americans always feel free to exercise at every level. Not only can someone feel free to profane Islam’s most holy figures and artifacts, but also those of the Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other faith traditions. There is a certain tendency to push the boundaries of the law to its farthest extent, towards the mockery of the holy, and hence the irreverence not punishable by law that ensues. One example on the side of Christianity is a video put by Saturday Night Life (a late night show) with the title “Jesus Unchained” that received much criticism by the U.S. inter-religious community because of its profanization of the figure of Jesus. Yet the Youtube video is still up and running in the web, can be easily found through a Google search, because of the same freedom of speech that allowed for the movie the Innocence of Muslims to be put into production.

In saying this, I am not condoning any such acts. The space for the sacred should always be held high in society. When the scared in the midst of the secular is lost, decadence can reign, leading to the dissolution of the state altogether that Rome experienced. Yet again, my point is that such acts occur and will continue to take place indiscriminately in the life of U.S. America.

What can be done is the minimization of these events that capture media attention, and most importantly that fuel further hatred and distort the imagination of the uninformed. This happens in some lower scale when the media also presses against it in bringing up its opposite to the attention of the public—the shunning and denunciation of such acts. Several news stations and newspapers in the U.S. have conducted interviews with clergy and political leaders, regular citizens and scholars, and included articles promoting pluralism and acceptance, more so than tolerance. Another example is that of the Indian film released in the U.S. American box office with the title My name is Khan whose main character, an autistic immigrant, symbolizes the plight for equal acceptance of the Muslim people in the U.S. So, while the removal of such instances in which a blatant public act of profanity cannot be eliminated because of constitutional laws that guarantee the rights of everyone, the same law allows for dialog and a constructive view to be expressed so that the occasion can be turned into something positive, to inform the public and to promote human engagement, love, and acceptance. That is, such instances should not occur, yet in spite of them one can continue working towards peace between all humans by taking advantage of them to dismantle its erroneous claims. That is why eliminating the right or such freedom of speech, suppression, will not be the way to enhance dialog, but rather to hamper it.

Q: Successive U.S. governments have usually accused Iran of violating the human rights and supporting terrorism. On its part, the Iranian government has always complained of the U.S. interference in the country’s internal affairs and violating the terms of the 1981 Algiers Accords that binds the United States to stay away from meddling into Iran’s domestic issues. However, now chances have emerged that the two sides sit at the negotiation table and talk for the settlement of the disputes. How is it possible to eliminate the grievances and move toward a comprehensive and long-term reconciliation?

A: This is a very complex question. As stated above, both sides have to be fully committed to the promotion of the good human life at all levels, including the economic, gender, cultural, technological, religious, and scientific, and not only locally but also globally. And the sovereignty of the Iranian people, as with any other self-governing nation, whenever seeking to promote the universal human wellbeing, should be upheld. The fact that some Iranian top officials, imams, and responsible citizens are not in support of terrorism and instead adhere to the fatwa of imam Ayatollah Khamenei that forbids the stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons brings much hope to the world that stands behind Iran.

The issues that become points of contention have to do with the harming of this potential for the good life. With that potential being increased by means of such efforts like establishing proper deterrents (i.e., officials laws and political procedures), and reliable and proven systems of internal as well as global accountability, there can be an open path toward long-term resolutions. That being said, the world ought to witness and trust in that witness of that potential for the global support for Iran to increase.

No one personality and no single body in either country should be allowed to block the path toward dialog. So another factor in the equation that is often overlooked, yet can be a powerful advocate in the U.S. and perhaps also among Iranians, can be the people themselves. Do we want the good of the human life, which includes the health of the non-human life, for everyone, therefore, the true conditions for peace, bad enough as to advocate for it? We, the people, can play a role through religious bodies, committees, think thanks, peaceful protest movements, interests groups, religious and political, and our vote. Are we willing to take the initiative, to inform others, so that skewed perceptions, incendiary speech and destructive efforts change, and perhaps also the warring decisions that are made at the top levels of our governments? The potential for peace rests also in the hands of the people.

Q: The U.S. government has long been pursuing a policy of imposing economic sanctions, not only on Iran, but on many countries around the world, including Cuba, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Burma and most recently on Russia. Do you consider this policy of embargoes and sanctions productive in solving the U.S. conflicts with the other nations? It seems that the sanctions simply deteriorate the livelihoods of the ordinary citizens and never bring about the change that can be otherwise achieved through talks and dialog. What’s your take on that?

A: Economic sanctions are among the most ancient of war tactics employed to weaken a presumed enemy to the point of physically subduing it. It is used in larger and smaller scales as one nation or a group of nations against another or as in one tribe or small community against another, and of individuals or groups of people within one society against another. It is intended to ostracize people and create a stigma that can effectively deter anyone from belonging to or even aiding that group, an attitude that usually propagates and so spreads across boundaries and generations. Ultimately, sanctions create an outcast system that goes beyond mere stereotypes and that is very difficult to overcome.The stigmatized is seldom able to transcend the vicious cycle hence the perpetuation and multiplication of obstacles that these individuals face. For the most part those who are least affected are those already in power, hence the loss of civilian life, the lack of medicines and food and water supplies that reaches to them. Not only no positive social and political transformation might result, resentment and hatred among the vulnerable can lead to violence that can appear to be justified. Where such forms of injustice thrive, then war and the exercise of terror might seem like the only solution to ensuring some measure of good for one’s kind.

Imposing sanctions at any of the above levels will ultimately affect the planetary whole, something we are already witnessing. Putting into effect laws that eventually put in peril the wellbeing of other human beings, i.e., food, water, and health supply, will ultimately threaten the entire human survival. For these and some of the reasons in response to the above questions, I would oppose that economic sanctions be imposed. But tackling each of the countries listed above would be a tremendous feat and one to which I cannot do justice since each of them carries a specific set of circumstances and kinds of sanctions that are not necessarily universally shared.

Instead, allow me to speak of Iran. Weakening Iran can reverse the tremendous progress politically, religiously, and economically, that Iran has been making since its Revolution days, and will eventually worsen the unstable and chaotic conditions, the terrorism, plaguing much of the Arab world, the Middle East, and African nations in that region of the world. At this point, the global village cannot afford the demise of this nation. By lifting the U.S. sanctions, one can ensure the success of its strategic location, the suitable and stable forms of governance that are more democratic, even if religious, the positive use of their natural resources and improvement of its environmental conditions, the stable infrastructures and proactive ways via which Iran seeks to address the concerns of the poor and marginalized, its military superiority and inclination to ally itself against terrorism, and the manner in which many of its diverse religious groups can co-exist, among other factors. It is true that Iran has shown the world how viable it can be in spite of the sanctions, since its natural wealth is unsurpassable in the region. But by keeping them, the United States can ultimately consider itself an obstacle in bringing peace to the Middle East rather than one of its vehicles. One cannot continue believing that the troubles far away will not touch and even creep into our safe borders. Violence and terror will continue to increase to the point that no one will be at peace.

Q: What do you think about the role of dialog, cultural exchange and direct interaction between the Iranian and American people and academicians on the removal of misunderstandings between the two nations and the realization of rapprochement and détente?

A: The academic community oftentimes is among the first willing to engage in honest dialogs. It tends to see the good, the bad and the ugly of one’s own location, as much as of those with whom it exchanges views. Listening to all possible pitfalls as well as alternatives, being informed, is part of its makeup. This inclination that draws individuals from possible opposite spectrums to the center, not so that there is compromise, but rather analysis and criticism that informs ideas and actions (theoria and praxis), can be another viable way for our two countries to take meaningful steps towards peace.

The academic community can also make use of education to establish and solidify among future generations programs and systems that promote rapprochement and détente. Yet the opportunities for this kind of engagement must be more widespread. Our governments must grant visas to professors and students seeking this kind of territorial exchange; subsidize programs that seek to expand its knowledge base of Islam or Christianity, the Middle East or Western culture (without demonization), and human rights; support the types of forums that make possible open conversations on non-Western and Western forms of thinking and governing involving the public, and allow for the cross-pollination of knowledge at the level of scholarship. Both countries would need to work on creating this type of porous atmosphere.

Speaking from an American standpoint, I was surprised to hear that the United States has also imposed sanctions on academic publications of scholars, authors and thinkers residing in Iran. Iranian scholarship has been quite proliferous but relatively unknown beyond its borders, especially in the United States. As a result, the academic community of the entire globe is deficient in its true discovery and advancement, if not also its increased misconception of Iranian use of technology, science, and its cultural studies programs. This set of sanctions must also be lifted. I am not certain to what extent similar restrictions might apply for U.S. American scholarship in Iran. But if the same were the case, I would presume that their academicians would want the same.

Key Words: Iran, United States, Peace, People, Culture, Civilization, Lifestyle, Religion and Religious Dialogue, Ideological Differences, Muslims, Jews Christians, Padilla

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