Iran Beyond Fables

Tasneem Jamal

Nathan C. Funk

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2006 Volume 27 Issue 2

Nathan C. Funk is Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.

Excuse all the seventy-two nations at war.
They did not see the truth, and took the road of fable.
— Shams ud-Din Hafiz, p. 99

Though composed in the fourteenth century, these words of the great Persian poet could easily have been penned in modern times, as a protest against fables that—by deafening the people of one culture to the moral claims of others—prepare the human mind for war.

Nowhere is the need for transcending fables more urgent than in contemporary Iranian-Western relations. Tensions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program testify not only to extreme distrust between Western nations and the Islamic Republic, but also to a condition of mutual ignorance and estrangement that has deep historical and political roots. This condition has predisposed many in the West to view Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confrontational rhetoric as a sign of impending crisis, and has led many Iranians to regard Western “containment” efforts as part of a campaign against the religion of Islam.

Deeply concerned about the escalatory potential inherent in the nuclear standoff and convinced that there can be no end to hostility without genuine human encounter, I spent two weeks this winter in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Together with 11 traveling companions in a group organized by the Mennonite Central Committee, I sought to put fables about Iran and Western-Islamic relations to the test of personal experience.

Throughout my visit to Iran, global headlines were ominous. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) decided to send Iran’s nuclear file to the UN Security Council. The re-publication of anti-Islamic cartoons that had first appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten generated an outcry from Muslims around the world. Yet in markets and city streets as well as in lecture halls, Iranians approached our group with gracious welcomes and diplomatic courtesy.

I did not agree with everything I heard, and was discouraged to realize that internal Iranian political discourse—which only a few years ago was remarkably vibrant—now appears subdued. While society feels less constrained than in most of the Middle East and private criticism of the government is commonplace, advocates of a more cosmopolitan and dynamic Iranian future have not yet found a way to channel widespread dissatisfaction with their government’s performance into a coherent social and political movement. It appears that some supporters of the reformist movement of former Iranian President Khatami (1997-2005) became disillusioned by his inability to deliver an effective political program or connect with the concerns of the poor and underprivileged. Though many individuals I spoke with expressed strong reservations about Ahmadinejad’s intensely conservative religious beliefs and combative rhetoric, I also heard a number of highly educated Iranian professionals express hopes that his economic populism would deliver at least modest improvements for those who have seen the fewest benefits from the Islamic Revolution.

One of the most important lessons I brought home from Iran is that Muslims and Westerners need to overcome self-referential storytelling and develop greater sensitivity to the historical narratives and “hot buttons” of the “other.” For Europeans and North Americans, this means recognizing that Iranian leaders cannot and will not heed a US government that is perceived as a “bully.” Iranians resent interference in their political and economic affairs, and are quick to recall the Anglo-American-sponsored coup against a democratically elected prime minister in 1953 and the American economic embargo that followed the ousting of the Shah. They do not wish to remain dependent upon other nations and hope to become, as much as possible, a modern and self-sufficient country.

Giving weight to the perceptions of others is also vital for Iranian Muslims. Especially important at this time is a clear understanding that justice for Palestinians cannot be achieved by defiantly contesting the starkest truths of modern Jewish history. Through his complete and willful insensitivity to the realities of the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad is weakening diplomatic efforts and strengthening the hand of those who are inclined to play the “preemptive war” card against Iran. Through his reliance on needlessly inflammatory language, he is also diverting attention from legitimate claims that can be made on behalf of the Palestinian and Iranian peoples.

Throughout my visit, I was repeatedly struck by the consistency of Iranian views concerning the nuclear issue. Despite dissatisfaction with government performance, most Iranians accept their leaders’ assertions that the Iranian nuclear program is not only peaceful, but also necessary for the continued technological development of a proud and modern nation. Iranians are largely united in their belief that Western efforts to monitor and restrain their nuclear program are driven by an egregious double standard that allows a select group of nations to maintain large arsenals of nuclear weapons and generate nuclear energy with minimal oversight, even as others are threatened with attack or economic sanctions for attempting to emulate the West’s technological achievements.

One of the more frequently ignored facets of the “Iranian nuclear issue” is that there appears to be a strong basis for rejecting nuclear weapons in Islamic shari’a law. On August 9, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, Iranian officials announced that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, had issued an authoritative fatwa against producing, stockpiling, and using nuclear weapons. While Western analysts characterized the pronouncement as a mere smokescreen, this authoritative statement could yet provide an effective justification for scrupulous compliance with reasonable demands from the IAEA.

Still, Iran’s past lack of openness with the IAEA does provide grounds for outsiders to infer that Iranian leaders hope to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, many non-Iranian commentators wonder why, in the present international climate, Iran would not seek a nuclear deterrent. Iraq had no nuclear warheads, and was subjected to an invasion. India acquired nuclear weapons without the slightest deference to international non-proliferation efforts, and is now gaining acceptance as an up-and-coming great power.

By visiting Iran I did not discover an easy solution to the problems that fill our headlines. I did, however, begin to wonder if perhaps the present impasse could be transcended if we in the West could view Iran with fresh eyes. Iran’s past experiences of humiliation at the hands of powerful nations generated profound skepticism about foreign intentions and gave powerful impetus to the Islamic Revolution. The turbulent events of the Islamic Revolution, in turn, made it challenging for non-Muslim Westerners to empathize with the Iranian people and recognize their aspirations for dignity.

But there are opportunities for a new beginning. Western nations and Iran share interests in smooth, occupation-ending political transitions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many nations, including the US and Iran, depend economically on the stability of the Persian Gulf, and could benefit from confidence-building efforts and improved regional governance. And people from both sides of the divide would benefit from renewed cultural, commercial, and political ties, from mutual security guarantees, and from sincere cooperative efforts to begin removing nuclear weapons from the strategic equations of the Middle East and the larger international system. Because the United States now encircles Iran militarily, it is vitally important for US leaders to express openness to direct negotiations with Tehran, to resolve differences through recognition of each country’s rights and responsibilities under international law.

The time has come to renounce fables and to build bridges rather than moats and walls. This process can only start if, on a deep level, both sides find the security to transcend past resentments through substantive acts of moral courage and political imagination. Iranians and Westerners could do much worse than to heed the words of another great classical Persian poet, Sa’di Shirazi (Arberry, p. 136), a wanderer whose love of homeland never prevented him from crossing borders and counseling wisdom to those who were strong enough or wise enough to listen: “If wrong be done, thine injurers forgive,/ By pardoning them thyself may’st pardoned live!” In the face of great danger, this spirit of humility and reconciliation is our greatest hope.



Shams ud-Din Hafiz. 1995. The green sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Diwan of Hafiz. Trans. Elizabeth Gray. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press.

Arberry, A. J., ed. 2005. Persian Poems: An Anthology of Verse Translations. Tehran: Yassavoli Publications.

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