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A Life-Changing Journey to Iran
A Life-Changing Journey to Iran
International Engagement & Building Peace

I am chair of the peace and justice committee of the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, NJ and recently returned  from a remarkable trip to Iran to learn about their culture, religion and politics.  Since I have been back, many people have asked, "Why did you go?"  Maybe for  UUs it is obvious why I went.  For me, it is what a UU might do in the interest of working for peace.

Even before I joined an 'organized' religion years ago, I had believ ed that every human being is infinitely precious and that belief was central to my personal faith.   When the other Unitarian Universalist (UU) principles are added to the first one, it was easy for me to become a UU. Working for peace and justice puts faith and action together.

When I heard about a trip that the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) was offering to Iran, looking for ways to build peace between the two countries, I felt compelled to go.  I thought then, and still do, that the United States is sliding down a slippery slope that can easily slide to war.  FOR is the oldest peace organization in the United States and the purpose of this trip was to see how citizens can find a path for peace.

One of the most amazing things about our trip was the people.  Iranians see very few Americans.  Less than 500 Americans a year travel to Iran as opposed to the 30,000 or more Americans who lived in Iran during the 1970’s.  Many Iranians were not even alive at that time.  The mean  age is something like 30. 

The people we met were all  eager to talk with us, to  tell us that they like America and Americans, but not our policy.  And they wanted to  know what we thought of Iran and Iranians.  I could easily have said the same things . I found the people unfailingly cordial, thoughtful, and full of life. 

We were travelled through cities and met people who were decidedly  middle class.  They clearly would like a more open society but are not willing to overthrow their government for it. Instead they have formed women, student, and union groups to work for their rights, even at great risk to themselves.  Unfortunately, the government has clamped down on many of the groups, but still they  persist.

We did not meet with these dissident groups, but did have an opportunity to spend time with religious groups, state officials, a classical musician, a film maker and the immediate past president , Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005).  Khatami, a reformist,  worked for a more open society at home and for negotiations abroad.  Unfortunately, even with 70% of the popular vote, he was unable to achieve what he wanted. 

I feel that we, like the Iranians, must persist in looking for ways to achieve peace, starting with unconditional negotiations.  How can we ask Iran to stop developing enriched uranium before we negotiate, when that is what we are negotiating about?  If we pursue more sanctions and a blockade of travel we will only harden the Iranian position.

One promising proposal is an official U.S. presence in Iran that could open up lines of  communications between the two countries.  Iran has looked favorably on the idea.  It would be a start. I believe we should learn more about it.

I would add this personal message and question to the current President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

I understand that Iran has withdrawn some inspection practices. Without complete transparency, how can the world know that Iran is living up to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and not trying to produce atomic bombs?  What does the west have to do for Iran to reverse this policy and open up inspections completely?

One of the ways to create better understanding between the U.S. and Iran would be for people-to-people exchanges to occur in both directions, involving students, legislators, artists, etc..   How do you feel about this and what needs to be done to  make it happen?

Helen Lindsay is a member of the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey.