I recently attended a meeting of former Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Iran. We shared the fundamental perspective that Iran should be an ally, not an enemy, and that the current standoff is the result of government mistakes on both sides.
Iran has a democratic tradition going back to 1906, with an elected legislature or Majlis. It also had a democratically selected Prime Minister, until deposed with the U.S. C.I.A. taking credit. Iranians never forgot–their attachment to democracy is one of the strongest in the Middle East.
Their strongest hostilities are directed toward Sunnis – not Israel, not us. Iranians told me Arabs enslave people, particularly women. They consider themselves much more civilized. Iranians despise the Taliban. Before 1979, Israel was the enemy of their enemies and they had friendly relations. Beyond internal politics, Iranian support for Hezbollah is a strategic effort to outflank Sunni hostility, particularly important once they drove American support away in 1979. Like everyone else they’re looking for security in their own neighborhood. Middle Eastern politics are changeable, and regional, so we need a global view.
Despite complaints about American policy, Iranians outside the government are very friendly toward the U.S. Many Americans feel hostile toward Iran but there’s nothing like that there. Iranian views are nuanced and friendly. All of us who served there, including those who’ve been back recently, know Iranians as very well-disposed toward the U.S.
Some Iranian-Americans were invited who knew Peace Corps Volunteers in Iran. They’ve been back repeatedly to see their families. One called his brother in Iran, a retired blacksmith, and handed the phone to a former Volunteer who knew them well in Iran. The two had an emotional and impromptu telephone reunion on the spot. The American brother said to me that the more Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khomeini attacked the U.S., the more the Iranian people rallied to our support.
But there’s more than politics. Iranians admire our freedoms, both political and personal. Graduate students, planning to stay, described getting used to America. Back home, family, from parents to cousins are an important part of everyday life. Here, we’re mostly on our own. We find companions at work, by joining, through our children’s activities, or with people walking their dogs. That’s disorienting but most Iranians adjust and live here happily, and we have many Iranian-American friends.
Iran is not a nation of religious fanatics, despite the theology in power. It has been a diverse people for millennia: Jews since Biblical times, a shrine to Esther and Mordecai in Hamadan; many Armenians and other refugees from the World Wars; Kurds, Turks, Azerbaijanis; multiple native tribes and more. Iranian culture has influenced the region for 2500 years and Iran has absorbed many of the region’s people. They are a proud and a welcoming people.
So we pray that our leaders will find ways to overcome their suspicions. We have a great deal in common if our leaders could learn to share. Whether a democracy, whose administrations change every four to eight years, can pursue a sensitive, restrained strategy consistently depends on us – if we react to every conflict with the instinct to fight, we will not find peace with Iran, but we’ll have to share the blame.
— Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 22, 2013.