Thursday, February 12, 2009
Last night CSI held its first formal program of 2009 at All Souls Unitarian Church titled: “Anniversary of a Revolution: Perspectives on Iran.” More than 40 people gathered to listen to the expert opinions and commentary of six distinguished individuals as they elucidated the many dynamics of a country that is not well known by the American people.
International political economist Allison Johnson moderated as the speakers each took a few minutes to present the issues they deemed pertinent, specifically when thinking about Iran 30 years after the revolution. The first speaker was former deputy director of the National Cathedral Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation Evan Anderson. He was able to reflect on the history and mindset that brought Iran to revolution in the first place and how those viewpoints inform Iranian decision-making. This was especially important to hear considering the state of Iranian-U.S. relations after their mention as a member of the "Axis of Evil" in 2002, now with a new U.S. Administration and in the future with the upcoming Iranian elections. “If there’s anything we need in this country,” Anderson said, “it’s fresh perspectives on Iran.”
Jamil Shami followed Anderson’s presentation with a lively recounting of the dynamics among the U.S., Arab and Iranian world. She spoke about how the U.S. relationship with Israel affects Arab and Persian perceptions of America, and also about the seeming U.S. hypocrisy of allowing its allies nuclear weaponry but not allowing Iran to develop nuclear capabilities that they consider peaceful. Towards the end of his presentation he also noted the recent empowerment political parties with financial support from Iran have received in the past few years after military engagements with Israel, such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Director of the Islamic Information Center, Nassar Haider was next to speak, choosing to focus on the dynamics between Shia and Sunni Islam, along with adamantly pointing out that “in the last 30 years, Iran has not invaded a single country.” He also spoke about civil liberties in the United States before and after 9/11.
As a reporter for London-based Financial Times, Simon Henderson was a correspondent in Tehran during the revolution, which he described in his presentation as “a chaotic time… it was one day of chaos followed by another day of chaos.” He spoke of the difficulty in putting the events in a regional context as they unfolded, but the ease later in understanding the developing signs of revolution. As a somewhat gray prediction of the times to come, Henderson said in his closing statement: “I’ve had a tremendously interesting time writing about this and writing about it for the past 30 years… but it is unfortunate that it will remain a troublesome area to write about for the next 30 years.”
Fatemeh Mohammadi, a deputy director of diplomatic affairs with the Iranian Interest Section in Washington rounded out the speakers’ comments by describing what she saw as the “peace-loving country of Iran,” a democratic state that guarantees the rights of individuals, including women like herself who choose to cover their heads out of piety, rather than out of fear of retribution. She criticized the biases of the U.S. media where “fiction takes place as fact.” She also chastised the U.S. for holding the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world and accusing Iran of enriching uranium for WMDs. She then praised Iran for it's technological developments, like the launching of a satellite last week.
During the brief Q&A section, two of the brave souls to stand up to the microphone were Iranian-born. One mentioned the victims of chemical attacks perpetrated by Saddam Hussein and the other spoke of her concern over the bias of American media. The third question brought to the discussion some of Iran’s more controversial political moves like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s demonstrated hatred towards the Israeli state, and also Iran's financing of American-recognized terrorist organizations. Mr. Henderson, Mr. Shami and Mr. Haider all responded in their own ways, Henderson stating that “there hasn’t been any indication that there will be a change in unhelpful behavior of Iran” and Haider talking about some of the similarities between Iran and the U.S. in regards to their controversial behavior.
To close, Anderson discussed U.S. engagement with Iran in the Obama Administration versus in the Bush Administration and Mohammadi reminded us all of the large population of Jewish people in Iran. But I think the most lasting message of the final comments to this intriguing discussion—organized by a small, independent organization like CSI— came from the moderator, Allison Johnson: “We are witnesses to the power of the grassroots movement… our voices make a difference.”
And here are some parting words from the CSI President:
Contrary to popular belief, America today is a polarized place. Our event on Iran was one of the very few exceptions. If you go to an event run by Islamic or pro-Iranian groups, you will never hear the voice of the American mainstream with their criticism of Islam. But if you go to any lecture by mainstream organizations, you will never hear the other side. Any foundation with institutional or government money (and those are the only ones that in the end survive) will ever host official Cubans, Iranians or other people that are hostile to the US. We are trying to bring both sides of the same issues under one roof, building bridges.
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