U.S. needs diplomats who know religion, Iran

WASHINGTON – Diplomats who understand the religious sensibilities of Iran are needed to act as translators between Iranian and American officials to resolve peacefully the dispute over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, said the executive director of Pax Christi USA.

“We have seen no evidence in this (U.S.) administration to practice any skilled” diplomacy, Dave Robinson told Catholic News Service after a Feb. 26 press conference by U.S. Christian leaders who had returned that morning from a weeklong trip to Iran. Pax Christi USA is affiliated with Pax Christi International, a Vatican-recognized Catholic peace movement.

Iranian society is “a deeply devoted society and culture” of Muslims, and the administration of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is “particularly pious,” he said.

U.S. President George W. Bush “doesn’t understand this language” of a country where religion and society are one, and diplomatic solutions can be lost in translation, Robinson said.

The Iranian president “was much more comfortable talking with us as religious leaders,” he noted. Ahmadinejad said he wants to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, Iraq and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but only if the dialogue is “under fair conditions” and Iran and the U.S. “engage as partners,” said Robinson.

Young professionals in the Iranian government “recognize their future and their children’s future is riding on what happens in the next few months,” and “they all hope for normalized relations,” he said.

Robinson said that while he was in Iran television programs were full of footage of the Iranian military.

“Iranians are holding nationwide war games,” he said. Both Iranian and U.S. ships are in the Persian Gulf.

“There is always a mistake when you lead with the military instead” of diplomacy, he said, because one miscue can escalate into a larger conflict.
Though Iranian Christians do not feel jeopardized now, “if the U.S. moves militarily against Iran, they would be in great danger from fanatics who associate Christians with the West,” he said. “When the West acts, the fallout falls on them.”

Christians in Iran make up less than 2 percent of the overwhelmingly Muslim country.

Robinson was the only Catholic member of the Christian delegation, the first American group that has met with an Iranian president in Iran since its 1979 revolution. The delegation members, who also included representatives of the Mennonite, Quaker, Episcopal and United Methodist churches, had been invited to visit Ahmadinejad in Iran when they met with him in New York City in September. Robinson was also part of a 25-member delegation that traveled to Iran in late May.

The February delegation’s goal was to discuss important issues with Iranian officials while showing them that an American delegation can listen to their responses respectfully, Robinson said. The delegation met with Ahmadinejad for more than two hours on the final day of the trip.

The religious leaders were encouraged when Ahmadinejad clearly stated “Iran has no intention to acquire or use nuclear weapons,” according to a statement released at the press conference.

The statement also said the delegation was encouraged to hear the Iranian president say “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved through political, not military means.”

Delegation members were to meet with U.S. officials March 6-7 to report on their trip.

Robinson said he is unsure how receptive U.S. policymakers and other officials would be, although before the trip some officials had expressed their support.

U.S. officials increasingly have pressured Iran to stop parts of its nuclear program.

Iran has ignored a U.N. Security Council demand to stop nuclear enrichment, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Robinson said he continually questioned Iranian officials about Iran’s involvement in Iraq.

He said Manouchehr Mohammadi, Iranian deputy foreign minister, denied “Bush’s allegations” that Iran is supplying Iraqis with explosive devices. Iranian officials believe the allegations are a rhetorical precursor for expansion of the war across their borders, he added.

Iranian officials are also concerned with the influx of Iraqi refugees to their country, he said.

Robinson said Ahmadinejad gave him a “clear and strong response” about his willingness to accept the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation that Iran join an international support structure for Iraq’s stability. Robinson said Mohammadi told him Iran “made an offer but never got a response” from the United States about the recommendation.

He said the American-Iranian relationship regarding Iraq all boils down to “a question of respect.”

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.