Sleepless in Tehran

Sleepless in Tehran

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2:00 AM. I woke up suddenly from a nightmare.1 It takes a few days to get over the jetlag. It may take a lifetime to get over this trip. Since arriving a few days ago, I plowed through a busy schedule and crashed each night after eleven, only to wake up again an hour or two later. Should I take a sleeping pill a fourth night in a row? Run the math. The pill takes one hour to take effect. I will be out for four-to-five hours. I need to be up by seven and meet my colleagues at eight to head to Summit Hall, a short bus drive up the hill through the crowded traffic. Short enough to walk, but not easy given the six lanes rush hour with which to contend. My mind kept racing, but I knew I needed sleep.

We stayed at the Esteghlal Grand Hotel in North Tehran. My room was on the twelfth floor. I had a small balcony which looked out on the Alborz Mountains north of the city, still covered with snow in early May. From the elevator side, I had a view of the smog filled sky looking south into this bustling city of 14 million.2

Through Metanexus Institute, I had helped to organize a delegation of Western scholars to participate in this International Congress on Religion and Science. This was the first conference of its kind to be held in the Islamic Republic of Iran, even as our governments battled it out with harsh rhetoric and reciprocal threats. Our delegation was composed of seven Americans, one Brit, an Aussie—all of us Christian scholars in the rarified field of religion and science. There were other Westerners too who had responded to the Call-for-Papers on our website, who had made their way to Tehran.

I was disappointed and relieved that the two Jews originally part of our delegation had backed out. The anti-American slogans and rhetoric, I could abide. The anti-Israeli slogans had a different edge, recalling my argument the year before in Tehran with a British-trained Iranian psychiatrist, who went on at length about the Protocols of Zion. Other Western scholars had been invited, but declined. Iran!? I was responsible for bringing these people here, to this very complicated country. I wanted it to go well for all involved. I had cajoled and corralled everyone in the group to make this long journey into Bush’s “Axis of Evil”. Although I had been here the year before, the truth is I still had no idea what to expect.

A small grant request to support the delegation, including a reciprocal visit planned from the Iranian side, had languished at the Templeton Foundation for eight months. After the always, protracted correspondence with the officers at the Foundation, the grant was finally approved six weeks prior to our departure. Good thing too, because our tickets were already booked. The conference was going to happen no matter what. Our arrival was expected.

It took a lot of paperwork and several phone calls to the Iranian Interest Section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., but our visas from the Iranian-side also cleared a few short weeks before our departure. Unfortunately, it was not so easy for the seven Iranians we had invited to the Metanexus Congress in Philadelphia in June 2006. They had to make their application outside of Iran at great cost in time and money. They were interrogated by harried and rude young U.S. Foreign Service officers working “the line” in Istanbul. Three were rejected without explanation, including Gholamhossein Ebrahimi Dinani, one of Iran’s greatest living philosophers, an elderly gentleman with ten books to his name, presumably a clear terrorist threat in the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Homeland Security. In the end, only one of the seven actually got a visa to come to the United States. Now we were arriving into their care, knowing that our hosts had already been rudely rejected by the U.S. government. How does one say diplomatic faux pas in Farsi? So very sorry.

As a condition of funding our travel, the Templeton Foundation required us to all sign a hold-harmless release, acknowledging that “visiting Iran involves numerous substantial risks to my health and safety, including without limitation, risk of kidnapping, murder, physical and mental torture, mutilation, decapitation, and extreme psychological and emotional distress.” We laughed it off. They’re confusing Iran with Iraq, but we all had secret fears.

Few Americans who lived through the 1979 Iranian Revolution can easily forget. For 444 days, the hostage crises at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran dragged on. Images of radical, revolutionary Islam were etched into our collective TV unconscious. As far as Ayatollah Khomeini was concerned, overthrowing President Jimmy Carter by dragging out the hostage crisis was pay back for the 1954 CIA overthrow of Mossadegh and the installation of Shah Pahlavi. If it had not been for Ayatollah Khomeini, Ronald Reagan would probably never have been elected President of the United States. The Iranians wanted to make it all perfectly clear by finally releasing the hostages on the very day of Reagan’s inauguration, January 20,1981.

Reagan did not express any gratitude to the back-handed Iranian support. On June 28, 1981, a political faction in Iran with possible support from the CIA planted a bomb that killed Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti and 72 senior statesmen. (At the conference, we met Beheshti’s son, a German-trained philosopher specializing in Heidegger). In August of 1981, the new president and prime minister were killed in another bombing. In the midst of all of this post-revolution chaos, Ayatollah Khomeini, his Islamic Republican Party, and his Revolutionary Guard consolidate power by arresting or assassinating numerous opposition leaders.

Saddam Hussein attacked Iran on September 22, 1980. By 1982, Reagan’s National Security team led by Donald Rumsfeld was helping build up Saddam Hussein’s army to wage a proxy war of “containment” against the new revolutionary government in Iran. The war with Iraq went on for eight years, a bloody stalemate that cost Iran and Iraq almost a million deaths between them. The U.S. played off both sides of the war, supporting Iraq in the beginning, but later also providing military support for Iran through the infamous Iran-Contra deals. Is it any wonder people in the region distrust the United States? Still the Iranians were not altogether displeased by the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the history, though, they cannot help but also be very suspicious of the United States.

As for the torture and dismemberment clause in the Templeton contract, Iranians are a very warm and hospitable people. Contrary to the official rhetoric, Iranians tend to be genuinely fond of Americans. Of course, there was the hot ten-hour bus trip from Shiraz to Isfahan that dragged on and on. And then there was also the noxious congestion of Tehran traffic. That was tough. “Extreme psychological and emotional distress” just goes with the territory and the history. We were after all Americans in Iran.

The U.S. State Department had recently increased funding to “overthrow the Iranian government” through increased “citizen-to-citizen exchanges” even as the Pentagon was planning various military strategies for attacking Iranian nuclear sites. The former meant that we, the citizens-to-citizens involved in this exchange were all suspect of being agents of the U.S. government.

The funding from the Templeton Foundation did not help matters either, which is closely identified with the Neo-cons in the White House and its conservative Christians base in the pews. Weeks prior to our departure, another email rant by Muzzafar Iqbal crossed the wires. Iqbal is a Pakistani Canadian Muslim intellectual involved in science and religion work, editor of the journal Islam and Science, and former staffer of the CTNS-Templeton-funded Course Program. Iqbal circulated an email accusing Templeton and Metanexus of harboring “nefarious” plans of “aggression” against Islam, trying to establish “a fifth column” in the U.S. war against Islam in general and Iran in particular.

Oy Vey! I was here precisely to try to undo some of the damaged done by my government, because I strongly disagreed with it on the war in Iraq, because of the long history of our failed policies in the region, and because I was sick of the violence and arrogance that characterizes my country’s misguided foreign and military policies. I harbored a profound and perhaps naive hope that the constructive engagement of religion and science is more than just esoteric scholasticism, that it can also be practical and powerfully transformative. I was also here because I believe that God is “compassionate and merciful,” as the Qur’an so often proclaims.

3:00 AM. I smoked a cigarette outside on the balcony with the moon lit mountain before me. The air was still, save for a cool breeze dropping under its weight from the snowfields high above me.

The conference we were attending was officially hosted by Dr. Bagher Larijani, an endocrinologist by training and now Chancellor of the Tehran University Medical School. (The Larijani brothers are an institution in Iran, not unlike the Kennedy brothers, a dynastic branch of government. For instance, Ali Larijani is the chief Iranian negotiator at the International Atomic Energy Commission talks in Vienna.)

Larijani was a gracious host, but his particular interest in medical bioethics was not where we were coming from. In our different ways, we were all trying to figure out how to incorporate contemporary science into our religious worldviews, working our metaphysics from the bottom-up and theologies from the top-down to see where they might meet using the insights of science and the teachings of our traditions.

The gathering, five years in gestation, was not without problems. The main organizer, Dr. Shiva Khalili, a psychologist by training, had worked diligently with an interdisciplinary committee of scholars from different universities to make this conference a reality. They worked without adequate institutional protection and support. The previous year, they had successfully organized a National Congress on Religion and Science, which I had attended as part of planning for the international congress this year. Khalili had managed to obtain the sponsorship of Dr. Gholamreza Avani’s Institute on Wisdom and Philosophy and most critically the Ministry of Health. The interdisciplinary committee’s work was opposed, however, by the powerful Mehdi Golshani, director of the Institute on Culture and Education, and previous partner in science-and-religion dialogues with the West. Most of the funding came through the Ministry of Health. The organizational demands of managing such a large event, outran Khalili and her small team. Dr. Lakranjani, head of the Ministry of Health, appointed Dr. Larijani to take charge just two days before the opening of the conference. The President’s office made the spectacular Summit Hall available, a detail that evidently still had not been resolved. Our Iranian hosts continued to argue throughout the conference through me about who deserved credit, who deserved blame, who was trustworthy, and who we should and should not associate with. That and not really knowing any details about the schedule also made for a lot of stress and these sleepless nights.

I turned some pages of a book by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a much revered scholar of Islam now at George Washington University. Nasr was the former Vice Chancellor of Tehran University and a refuge from the 1979 Revolution. Dr. Nasr has not visited his homeland in twenty-eight years, though he continues to be a revered scholar in Iran. I felt a pang of vicarious loss, imaging how painful it must be to have to leave the country of one’s birth, one’s mother tongue, and to not be able to return for fear of reprisals.

In 1973 Nasr founded what is now known as the Institute for Wisdom and Philosophy, when he bought up a pair of old houses and a garden in an old neighborhood of Tehran near the University. They now host a network of philosophers and religious scholars from around the country with offices, a library, meeting space, and a steady stream of visitors, seminars, and conferences. Earlier that week, Dr. Avani had been our host for a day of lectures by the visiting delegation.

Robert Russell, a physicist turned theologian and founder of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, gave a magnificent lecture on quantum mechanics to a small audience of Iranian scholars. Russell showed how different philosophical and religious commitments played out in the interpretation of quantum mechanics, comparing Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Bohr, and Einstein. Russell went on to present his understanding of ontological freedom and the possibility of naturalistic Divine Action at the quantum level.

Georgetown University theologian John Haught then spoke of the scientific challenge to religious notions of purpose in the cosmos and ways that theology could fully embrace evolutionary science. Haught dissected the medieval metaphysical hierarchy and showed how contemporary cosmology and evolution challenge our sense of cosmic and human purpose. Using resources from Whitehead, Teilhard, and Polyani, Haught then presented a reconstructed Christian theology to be consonant with contemporary science.

Nancey Murphy, a philosopher of science and theologian at Fuller Seminary, introduced the Iranians to the possibility of a completely non-dualistic account of body-spirit through her understanding of “non-reductive physicalism”. A nuance lost on our Iranian hosts was that these three Americans had some profound philosophical and theological disagreements. It was difficult for us to follow the nuances of Iranian-Muslim-Shiite philosophical and theological disagreements, even though they were much evident in the conversations.

The conversations were all fresh and new. Philosophy is a vital part of Iranian religious and political culture. We were humbled not only by our Iranian counterparts’ facility in English, German, and French, but also by their ability to engage modern European philosophy and philosophy of science, in addition to knowledge of the great philosophical debates in Islam. We were introduced the subtleties of al-Kindi, Abu Bakr ar-Razi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Bajjah, Al Ghazzali, Ibn Rushd, al-Arabi, and Mulla Sadra. Indeed, the best of the best in Iran are really fantastic.


4:00 AM – The city outside my window was now covered with a velvety silence. Nothing moved. The air was now fresh and clean. A loud truck with a broken muffler passed by on the highway below belching black diesel smoke. In another hour, the traffic would start to build and with it the stifling air pollution.

Iranians receive their patrimony from the government-owned oil industry in the form of cheap gas – we figured about $0.40 per gallon. Iran consumes domestically about a third of its annual production of oil and natural gas. Like Americans, Iranians love their cars and drive everywhere. I could never get used to the air pollution. On a clear day higher up in the hills of North Tehran, one sees South Tehran progressively disappear into a thick brown haze by early morning. Soon I would no longer need cigarettes, just breathing the air at street level was smoking enough.

The memory of yesterday evening’s dinner lingered in my stomach and my thoughts. Kebabs, pickled vegetables, and saffron rice had never been so good. We had dinner in the lovely garden of the Tehran University’s Museum of Medical History. Our host was Dr. Larijani. Special guest was Gholam Haddad-Adel, speaker of the Iranian Parliame t, who had opened the Congress three days prior. I sat at the head table with Haddad-Adel, Larijani, Russell, and Haught. The discussion ranged from his undergraduate and graduate studies in physics to his switch to philosophy resulting in a doctorate in 1975 from the University of Tehran. Haddad-Adel had been a student of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. It was reading a book by Ian Barbour in London that caused him to change his major to philosophy. In those days, Haddad-Adel made a point of telling us, he was still good friends Abdolkarim Soroush, the Iranian philosopher and dissident. Both were hoping for a revolution to overthrow the oppressive Shah. Soroush now challenges the infallibility of the theocractic government and argues for a different vision of Islam and democracy. Our discussion wandered from interpretations of quantum mechanics to the political crisis between our two countries. Haddad-Adel expressed a kind of weary impatience with the United States and hoped for better relations. We pressed him on what he might do. Would he come to the United States? Would he support additional exchanges? Haddad-Adel shared a vision of Iran creating an international research institute dedicated to exploring these interdisciplinary issues and a pledge to find the funds. Haddad-Adel was elected to the Majlis, the Iranian Consultative Assembly, and serves as head of this 290 member parliamentary body. Presumably he had access to significant government support.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has a democracy of sorts. There are local and national elections in Iran, unlike most of the other countries in the neighborhood. There are competing parties. Civil society in Iran is more robust than any other country in the region. While the press is still heavily regulated, there is more freedom of expression and real debate in Iran than in many other countries, for instance China, with which the United States maintains cordial diplomatic and extensive economic relations. There are many political parties contending for different visions of Iran’s future and numerous private organizations, businesses, and non-governmental organizations.

The ultimate power, however, resides with the Guardian Council, a supreme court of twelve unelected ayatollahs and lawyers. In 2004, the Guardian Council disqualified eighty percent of the reform candidates in the election for the Majlis. The reform movement that started with the election of President Khatami in 1997 was essentially dead. The next year, the young, largely unknown populist mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected in a run-off campaign against the old, well-known, former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Instead of delivering promised economic reforms for the poor, President Ahmadinejad is now known the world-over for his confrontational rhetoric. And of course, the Bush administration is only too happy to reciprocate. Throughout the spring, there were reports of a pending U.S. military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The Iranian constitution leaves a lot to be desired. In effect, it centralizes religious, political, and petroleum power. With oil prices at an all time high, there certainly is no need to change the system. Iran has accumulated a foreign currency reserve of some $45 billion. The government oil revenues create a rather bloated and inefficient patronage system; but with so many being patronized, it is not likely to change anytime soon.

There is perhaps a kind of natural history to revolutions. A society can only muster such utopian fervor and ideological sacrifice once in a lifetime. The memory of how bad it really was means that an intolerable status quo is always better than another hoped for revolution. The generation that lived through the Iranian revolution and the upheavals that followed will have to all die out, before another revolution is possible. Or at least, so my theory goes. Besides, with oil at $60 per barrel and promising to go higher, life is getting better all of the time.

The status quo, however, cannot really hold. Iran is changing due to powerful demographic forces. After a dramatic doubling of Iranian population in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, birth rates in Iran have now dropped to 1.7 children per woman. Seventy percent of the population is under thirty. Literacy rates are approaching 80 percent. University enrollment has gone from 30,000 before the Revolution to over 300,000 today.

Over 65 percent of the university students today are women. This latter fact was certainly visible at the conference we attended and at the universities we visited. We were impressed with the bustling female energy and industriousness of Iranian women, a power that could not be contained or hidden within the full-length black chadors still favored, if not always required, in schools and work places. The female dress-code is the outward symbol of the Iranian revolution. It is not optional. In spite of this, I was struck by how much power women have. Not only do women run the household, they drive cars and vote, in striking contrast to Saudi Arabia. Women also hold positions of significant responsibility in education, medicine, and business. Only in religious institutions and government are women excluded and the latter is more de facto than legal with some few exceptions.

There are many strikingly beautiful Iranian women, who somehow struggle to be fashionable in spite of the dress code. The wealthy young women are making quite a different fashion statement in the hotels, boutiques, teashops, and restaurants of North Tehran. At school and at work, however, the old dress code still reigns. Female head cover is the outward symbol of the revolution, no less so in Khomeini’s Iran than across the border in the opposite sense in Ataturk’s Turkey. The U.S. women in our delegation struggled to adapt to the official dress code and this frequently provide us with much needed comic relief.

There were eight of us in the Metanexus delegation. In addition to those already mentioned, the delegation included: Noreen Herzfeld, a computer scientist and theologian at St. Benedict’s College, working on artificial intelligence and the doctrine of Imago Dei; Barbara von Schlegell, an Islamic scholar at the University of Pennsylvania who provided a deep familiarity with Islam that we all lacked; Christopher Southgate, a poet-philosopher-biologist, associated with the University of Exeter; and Mark Worthing, an American theologian down under at Tabor College Adelaide, Australia. We were also accompanied by Faeze Woodville, an Iranian American from Philadelphia, who had helped me the previous year in visiting Iran and who would again provide invaluable assistance. There were a number of other international speakers participating, most notably Kurt Richardson, a theologian from McMaster University in Ontario working on comparative scriptural reasoning.

We met with Iranian scientists, clerics, intellectuals, government officials, and others in the context of the conference and other meetings. Our impressions were varied. Iran may be our mortal enemy, but it is also our natural ally. We looked beyond the “Death to America” posters and the harsh rhetoric of its leaders to see a complex society in the midst of seismic changes.

Iranians frequently complain about their government and privately ridicule the mullahs. Sometimes they also get in severe trouble for doing so. Iranians are a fiercely proud and nationalistic people. They are also a philosophical and literary people. They read a lot. They relish debate. Common people recite the verses of the great Persian poets – Hafez, Saadi, Rumi and Khayyam – along with the Qur’an. The mullahs receive twelve years of formal training, including significant exposure to Western philosophy. Iranian clerics are not of one mind and also engage in significant debate amongst themselves and with their colleagues in the universities.

Iran can be characterized as a series of dichotomies – traditionalists and modernists, rationalists and mystics, conservatives and reformers, xenophobic suspicions and extravagant hospitality, male and female, rich and poor, and young and old. What one cannot do in making these generalizations is line up individuals in neat columns and categories. It is all mix and match, embracing dichotomies differently in unpredictable combinations. There are no simple stereotypes of Iranians, contrary to the caricatures often presented by the U.S. media.

In the conferences and meetings we attended over two weeks, we encountered a great deal of enthusiasm in Iran for a thorough going dialogue between science and religion. As in the United States, we encountered ridiculous fundamentalist interpretations of scriptures, in this case the Qur’an, but also sublime metaphysical interpretations of scripture consonant with the fine points of contemporary science. Unlike the public debate in the United States, evolution and other sciences are taught in schools and universities with their own internal integrity, independent of the powerful religious authorities. Iran, a deeply and overtly religious culture, is also committed to growing scientific and technological excellence.

5:00 AM. The sky behind the Alborz Mountains to the East began to lighten ever so slightly as the city began to stir. Today was the day that I would present my paper “Science, Religion, and the Bomb”. Never one to avoid controversy, I wanted to directly address the topic which had so poisoned relations between our two great countries. I pulled out the paper one more time to massage it, to make sure that every word was right. My paper was mostly a review of the alliance between scientists and religious leaders in the anti-nuclear weapons movement in the West and the continued ambivalence about nuclear power. This was sensitive stuff, I knew, but I figured I had the liberty and obligation to speak factually and frankly in a way that few Iranians could.

After reviewing the history in the United States, I turned to the situation in Iran. In the 1970s, Iran received significant assistance from the United States and Europe in developing civilian nuclear power. The Shah had plans to construct 23 nuclear power stations. Iran spent many billions of dollars in contracts with Western companies to build these plants. In 1976, U.S. President Ford (with Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz running the show) authorized helping Iran build fuel reprocessing facilities without any thought of the proliferation issues; other U.S. plans existed to help Iran build a uranium enrichment facility. All of these agreements ended with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.3 The Iranians today want to assure their independence and are entitled by the flawed Nonproliferation Treaty to do so.

So what of a possible Iranian nuclear bomb? I also noted that strategic planners in Iran might feel well justified in seeking their own nuclear weapons. Iran is surrounded by the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf. Many of its neighbors already have nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan, Israel, and Russia, not to mention the United States with forward deployment of weapons on our navy fleet in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Given the United States’ own lack of compliance with the terms of the Nonproliferation Treaty, along with our support for Israel, Pakistan, and India, most Iranians believe that the U.S. is hypocritical and harbors designs on overthrowing the Iranian government (again) in order to dominate the region and its oil resources.

An Iranian bomb will hardly change the balance of power in the world. An Iranian nuclear first strike on Israel, for instance, would result in a massive Israeli retaliation. Therefore any rational leader should be deterred from using these weapons. Even the prospect of a nuclear terrorist attack on Israel would probably result in a massive “retaliation” against Iran, so hypothetically Iranians should be concerned about the proliferation of these weapons and possible transfer to terrorist groups. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is coming to rule the region, much as it did between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. This might have a sobering effect. The only other rational option to a MAD strategy, strange and improbable as it may seem at first glance, is to pursue detente with Israel, with the United States, and with its neighbors. Rationality, regrettably, is not in great demand in the world politics today.

Religion and science, I argued, were inextricably tied up in this mess, both as sources of the problems and resources for solutions. The paradox is that we are so much more powerful than our ancestors, but not any wiser, not more compassionate, not more moral. I ended by quoting Martin Luther King — “We have guided missiles and misguided men” – and by calling us to pursue the love, justice, mercy, and compassion that we affirm as God’s nature and desire for humanity.

There was polite silence in the room. None dare comment; none dare talk openly about this aspect of government policy. So our discussion turned quickly back to metaphysics and mysticism with veiled commentary about the political situation. Copies of the paper were circulated. I gave copies to all of my hosts, but the intended audience was as much the American reader, as any Iranian. But I am getting ahead of myself. I still had to get through a sleepless night.

6:00 AM. The sky had brightened. The sun already shown behind the mountains, which still cast a shadow over North Tehran. I sat on the balcony and waited for the shadow to recede and the sun to cross the ridge above.

While we were in Iran, news spread about a long personal letter written by President Ahmadinejad to President Bush. It would not be until we returned to the United States, however, that a published translation was available. The letter began, as everything here does “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.” It continued:

“Mr George Bush,
President of the United States of America,
For sometime now I have been thinking, how one can justify the undeniable contradictions that exist in the international arena — which are being constantly debated, especially in political forums and amongst university students. Many questions remain unanswered. These have prompted me to discuss some of the contradictions and questions, in the hope that it might bring about an opportunity to redress them…”

The long hand-written letter from Ahmadinejad goes on to question apparent Christian hypocrisy, to question the U.S. invasion of Iraq, to condemn Saddam Hussein, and to criticize the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The letter displays some ignorance of European history, even as it queries the premise of the Israeli state and deplores the last 60 years of violence that followed from the creation of “the Zionist regime”. The letter notes the hypocrisy of the United States in enforcement of UN Security Council Resolutions. Ahmadinejad historically frames debate about nuclear technology in light of colonialism. He deplores the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. As one leader to another, he discusses the sacred duty of government to defend their countries. Circuitously, Ahmadinejad suggests that United States was justified in attacking Afghanistan. Ahmadinejad wonders what purpose can be served in the US spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the Iraq War. He criticized liberalism and Western-style democracy. Like Bush, he expressed confidence that God was on his side. He ends with list of rhetorical questions shared by many around the world today:

“How much longer can the world tolerate this situation?
“Where will this trend lead the world to?
“How long must the people of the world pay for the incorrect decisions of some rulers?…”

[A week latter, back in the United States, I met with Henry Wooster, head of the Iran Desk at the U.S. State Department. I told him that the letter from Ahmadinejad was an example of religiously-based moral reasoning and that this was a great opportunity to establish diplomatic dialogue. Wooster confirmed what had already been said publicly by the Bush administration. He ridiculed the letter, denouncing it as “the work of a madman”, and the U.S. government “would not dignify it with a response”. This may be the second largest foreign policy mistake made by the Bush administration, because there will be no exit strategy from Iraq without the cooperation of Iran.]

The U.S. first came into significant contact with Iran during the Second World War, when it was used as a route to re-supply the Soviet armies in the battle against the Nazi Germany. At that time, the Soviets and the British both had imperial designs on Iran. Cordell Hull, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time, wrote in a memo to FDR in 1943 stating “It is to the advantage of the United States to exert itself to see that Iran’s integrity and independence are maintained and that she become prosperous and stable.” This is still good advice. Unfortunately, the CIA got involved in over-throwing the Iranian government in 1953 and installing the Shah.

Today in the post 9/11 world, Iran has been an enemy but also a de facto ally of the U.S. Their intelligence service has provided active assistance to the U.S. military in Afghanistan and passive support for the U.S. in Iraq. Right after the 9/11 attacks, over one million Iranians held a candlelight vigil in Tehran in support of the United States. Continued or expanded hostility towards the Iranian government could result in a dangerous escalation of the conflict in Iraq and has already backfired by retarding the reform process in Iran itself, as is clearly the case in a crackdown on liberal academics and the press over the last year. It is time for the U.S. to try a different approach.

I came away from Iran feeling that the United States should reestablish diplomatic relationships with Iran without any preconditions. All through the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union maintained diplomatic relations. In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the midst of the escalating Vietnam War, the U.S. and Soviet Union also pursued détente building treaties and exchanges. Why should we not have a similar approach to Iran? Because the demagogues on both sides always say “don’t talk”.

The future of Iran belongs inextricably to the Iranian “baby-boomer” generation – highly educated, increasingly cosmopolitan, and increasingly led by women. We should be pursuing scientific, religious, educational, cultural, and economic exchanges to our mutual benefit and increased understanding. We should not think of Iran as a mortal enemy, but as our natural ally, and we need to engage the country at every level to make that vision the future reality. It won’t be easy, but to our amazement, it may be precisely in addressing the profound questions at the intersection of religion and science that we will best succeed in this most philosophical of all nations.

7:00 AM. The city is awake. The rush hour here was already in full force. The highway below seemed liked a congested beehive of activity from my perch on the twelfth floor balcony. Back home, eight and a half time zones a way, it is finally time for bed. I was ready to fall asleep, but now it was time to wake up. One more day in Tehran and then the conference would be over.

I suddenly remembered that today was my birthday. Last year I also celebrated my birthday in Tehran. This year, though, I was turning forty-nine and in so doing had now outlived my father, who died of a heart attack when I was twelve. I threw out the pack of cigarettes.

What a strange and wonderful journey I have been on. So much for which to be thankful. So much left to do. So little I really could do in this troubled world. So I did my morning yoga and said my prayers, putting my forehead to the ground as Muslims do. Submit. Peace. This is the double-meaning of the word, Islam. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Allah Akbar. God-by-whatever-name is great indeed! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Now, off to breakfast, a lot of tea and coffee, and back to work.

In another day, our rag tag group of academics would leave Tehran for meetings and sightseeing in Qom, Shiraz, and the magical city of Isfahan. I had fallen in love with Isfahan, the previous year, and I could not wait to get back. I wanted to pray again at the beautiful Imam Mosque in the morning, bargain for crafts in the covered Bazaar during the day, and walk along beautiful bridges by the river in the cool of the evening. Perhaps I would also finally get a decent night’s sleep. Perhaps I would awake next time not from a nightmare, but with a dream of salaam, shalom, peace, in the region and in the world.


1. Actually there were many sleepless nights in Tehran. Some literary liberty has been taken with the dates and times. William Grassie’s birthday is May 3, 1957. The closing dinner of the conference with Haddad-Adel was on May 4, 2006. The letter from President Ahmadinejad to President Bush was dated May 8, 2006. I was in Iran from April 29 to May 9, 2006. My previous visit to Iran was April 28 to May 13, 2005.

2. One hundred years ago, Tehran was a city of only 250,000. It has experienced a 56 fold increase in size since 1900.

3. , see also’s_nuclear_program. The freezing of Iranian assets in the West and the cancellation of these contracts to build nuclear power plants was part of the response to the taking of hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran. For a full account of the Iranian Revolution and its consequences, see Kenneth M. Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and American, New York: Random House, 2004.