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Commentary & Opinion

Iranian diplomacy, American politics, and the barrier of prejudice

Bruce Lawrence, a college classmate and distinguished Duke professor, specialized on Islam and the Muslim world, and recently spoke to us about Allah. A classmate asked about the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. Bruce explained there’s no principled difference. In a seventh century palace revolt, those called Sunni followed descendants of a male cousin of Mohammad against those called Shia, who followed descendants of Mohammad’s daughter, Fatimah and her husband, Ali. Scholars and clerics in the two lines of descent created competing but similar traditions. Iran commemorates Ali’s assassination on holy days.

But Sunni-Shia hostility goes beyond religion. Bruce commented that Iran has been more cosmopolitan and sophisticated than many neighbors. It sat across major trade routes putting its people in touch with other civilizations. Great Persian poets like Ferdowsi, Saadi, Hafez and Omar Khayyam seeped into western culture.

I listened to news of the six-day Arab-Israeli war with my Iranian host, an agricultural engineer. He’d studied in England and Israel, and came back admiring how Israel made the desert bloom. He felt he should support the Muslim countries fighting Israel, but if seven countries couldn’t take Israel on, they deserved to lose, Muslim or not.

Iran’s treatment of women has problems. I met my wife when she needed a male escort to go through the Tehran bazaar. The locals looked out for her where she worked, though she tells an amusing story of conversing with a Mullah through a translator, even though she understood everything he said. But Tehran was huge and she wasn’t known there. The bazaar would have been dangerous, especially for a blond American. Still, women do better in Iran than in most of its neighbors.

Nevertheless, American Middle-Eastern policy has been a muddle of nonsense. The US supported Iraq against Iran in “a terribly bloody cataclysm” only to fight two wars against Iraq to undo Iraqi power after that struggle. After 9/11, America went after Iraq and Afghanistan though the attack and ideology behind it came from Saudi Arabia. But taking Iraq out of the Middle-Eastern balance of power strengthened Iran. That bugged both the US and Israel. Iran and our country could put common interests ahead of our disagreements. Iran has strong democratic institutions in spite of the Guardian Counsel, had its own reasons to condemn Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, and repeatedly offered to negotiate disagreements with the US. But while going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, this country described Iran as the “axis of evil” and pushed them away, leaving us in an endless round of mutual retaliation, and the Middle East continuously unsettled.

Most of us who’ve lived there found Iranians genuinely wanted better relations with the U.S. What they wanted from us was to be treated with respect. Obama understood that, which made possible an inspection-backed agreement to stop development of nuclear weapons. Respect is cheap – done with words, politeness, awareness of the other’s legitimate concerns. That’s why diplomacy is conducted in diplomatic language. Flaunting power, and making threats, drive pushback and make it impossible for world leaders to sell agreements to their own people. Real diplomats are diplomatic.

Our difficulty with Iran reflects a broader American problem – extending the same foolish and dangerous prejudices to Islam abroad that we inflict on people of color here at home leads to wild swings of mob mentality toward the Middle East. America hasn’t been able to distinguish peaceful Islam and Muslim movements from its generic fear of Islam. Some people think every bit of respect shown to non-white people here and abroad is disrespect to white people. I think we save our skin when we welcome friendship and show respect for others.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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