Left Justified: I’m back from Iran

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114910011115273.jpg’, ‘Photo povided’, ‘FOR Iran delegate Stanley Campbell (in Veterans for Peace hat) talks to the director of a Tehran rehabilitation center for victims of chemical attack during the Iran-Iraq war. FOR delegates visited the center May 10. Campbell is director of Rockford Urban Ministries.’);

I arrived home at 2:30 in the morning, delayed by tornadoes over O’Hare. In fact, the whole trip was blustery but exhilarating. The group of 25 American peace activists, me included, landed in Tehran and took a whirlwind tour—five cities in 12 days of an “Axis of Evil” country on the verge of acquiring nuclear reactors.

First, let me say the Iranian people send you their love. Everywhere I went, people greeted me with warmth. (They would try to guess my nationality: “Russian?” “British?”) When I told them I was American, they lit up a wonderful smile and either said how much they liked American culture or that they had a relative living in the States, usually Los Angeles.

Seventy percent of the country, supposedly, considers themselves secular Muslims and say they voted for their latest president to stop corruption and improve the economy (this from our able guide, Pasham). Their new leader has made statements doubting the Holocaust and threatening to “wipe Israel off the map.” He’d also just sent a letter to President George W. Bush outlining his grievances but offering a chance for dialogue. This had hit the news as we were coming into the Tehran Hotel.

Our little group, sponsored by the oldest pacifist organization in America, was almost consistently asked three questions by the Iranians: “What do you think of President Bush?”, “Will he read the letter?” and “What do you think of our nuclear power plant program?” I told them I apologized for my president, I doubt he would read the letter, and nuclear power is too expensive and dangerous, and they shouldn’t trust the government to keep it safe. I also suggested the United States must stop producing nuclear weapons, and the rest of the world, instead of trying to acquire them, should abolish them.

We were well received wherever we went, and we went to the following:

Shiraz, the home of wine-making (though there was none to be found) and poets and beautiful women;

Isfahan, the home of poets and bridges, where we were told “if you build one bridge, we will build 30;”

Qom, the Vatican of the Shi’ite Muslim world, although it looked more like Las Vegas in Arabia;

Natanz, where we visited an orphanage and saw (from afar) the most-targeted nuclear facility surrounded by anti-aircraft artillery; and

Tehran (of course), the capital, which looked like Chicago, San Francisco and Denver all rolled into one, with 7 million frenetic drivers.

Our group had individually spent hard-earned money to get there, but it was well worth it. Because of the letter, we were interviewed throughout the trip by the BBC, CNN, Reuters and AP. We met more mullahs and high-ranking government officials than we expected, and on the last day we were invited into a private meeting with the vice president of Culture.

Most meetings began with a religious litany that sounded like an exhortation to become Shi’ite. Those guys are more evangelical than First Assembly!

But when the vice president turned and asked us individually our opinion of the tour and how he could invite more Americans to visit, there was a stunned silence. It didn’t take us long to open up. My suggestion was to stop rattling swords so we could hear each other speak. Afterward, he bought us dinner at the finest five-star hotel in Tehran. You can catch the full report at www.forusa.org. I am available to speak at any venue about my trip.

On the way home, I heard that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is going to “hire more Farsi-speaking experts.” It’s about time! Our government hasn’t had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979, except for a short stint at trading arms for hostages and using the illegal gains to fund the Contra war against Nicaragua, but that is another column. So I will give my five-CD collection of “Basic Farsi” to my congressman to forward to Condy Rice. It’s the least I can do to get my government to stop rattling their swords and to begin to talk peace.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the May 31-June 6, 2006, issue

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