We arrived in Tehran, Iran, at 1:30 a.m. on Monday morning, nearly 24 hours after we left Washington, D.C. In some ways, the long distance and the considerable time needed to get to Iran is symbolic of just how far apart our countries seem to be when it comes to our understanding of one another.
One of the interesting things for the women in our delegation was that as we were descending into Tehran, the pilot came over the loudspeaker and announced, “… by order of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, all women need to cover their heads for their own protection.” It was a stark reminder, especially for the women in our group, that we were about to enter a country very different from our own.
As we got closer to landing, you could see the lights for miles and miles, and I was reminded of flying into Los Angeles, Calif., at night and the urban sprawl that the lights displayed. Tehran is a very similar city in terms of urban sprawl: The city is home to over 15 million people, has horrific traffic, and serious air quality problems due to the tremendous number of vehicles and coal-burning power plants.
We were met at the airport by officials from the Foreign Ministry and whisked down a ramp into a waiting bus, avoiding the terminal altogether. We took a short ride to a building where we were served tea and greeted by Ali Akbar Rezaei from the Foreign Ministry. He is a young man in his 30s who participated in the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University in 2000. Rezaei has been a tremendous contact within the government of Iran, sincerely wants better relations between Iran and the U.S., and is truly the driving force behind our trip. He told us that we were the first “official delegation” from the United States since the revolution in 1978. His children are 7- and 3-years-old, so we had a good time talking about life with young kids. That’s something that transcends culture and national identity!
We waited to get our passports processed, for the representatives to retrieve our luggage, and then we traveled to the hotel. This took over two hours, so we didn’t arrive at the hotel until after four o’clock in the morning. After a few hours of sleep, I started out the day by going for a walk around downtown Tehran. Things were bustling on a Monday morning, as people were headed to work, shopping, or on their way to school. I had read that over 65% of the population is under 25, and I saw many young people on the streets.
Our first “official” meeting was in the afternoon with the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Iran, Sebouh Sarkissian. He gave us a short history of the Armenian people in Iran, which dates back to the 5th century B.C.E. Depending on who you talk to, there are between 80,000 and 150,000 Armenians in Iran, largely concentrated in Tehran and Isfahan. It is a thriving community that seems to have a better relationship with the Islamic government than some of the other religious minority groups, probably largely due to the centuries they have lived in Iran. They have two elected representatives in the Iranian Parliament.
The Archbishop spoke English very well and was very warm and excited about our visit. He was very interested to connect with us as Christians, and we discussed the tensions between our countries. He said he believes tensions can be reduced by dialogue between religious leaders, and that we “need to move quickly to increase our understanding and overcome our animosity.”
We went to one of the important seminaries, toured the mosque next to the seminary, and then met with one of the most influential Grand Ayatollahs in the country: Grand Ayatollah Kashani. He serves on one of the 12-member advisory councils (made up of six clerics and six magistrates) that reviews every law that the Parliament passes, and either approves or denies it. The council is partially appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
He talked a great deal about the common ground between Islam and Christianity, and wanted to make sure we knew that the Iranian people have no problem with the American people, only our government. This has seemed to be a theme that we have heard from everyone here so far, and I suspect it will continue. They clearly are able to distinguish between the aspirations of the citizens of a nation, and the government of a nation. I think part of the reason they are able to do this is because this is what they do themselves. There is a great deal of openness and critique about the Iranian government officials, including the current president. I did not expect much dissent, but there really is quite a bit.
We topped the night off with a dinner and reception with a number of Ayatollahs who are religious scholars from Qom, which is where we will be heading later in the week. One of the fascinating events of the evening was a rumor circulating about a statement Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made regarding U.S. relations with Iran. According to our hosts, she said that our policy has not worked over the course of the last 25 years, and that the U.S. needs to try something different. Our hosts seemed hopeful that maybe this was a signal by the U.S. that they would like to de-escalate the current tensions.
Unfortunately, we tried to confirm this statement by looking at U.S. and British news sites, and could not confirm this report. It made me wonder if they really had heard this, or if they were signaling that perhaps some statement like this might help pave the way for better relations. We shall see. Khoda Hafez (good-bye).
Jeff Carr is the Chief Operations Officer for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. Learn more about this delegation at www.irandelegation.org.