U.S. and Iranian Governments Block Citizen Peace Talks

About five years ago, a young Iranian man became involved with the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisburg, Pa., where he joined a program through which college students and recent graduates learn practical skills in conflict resolution. At the end of his stay, he returned to Iran, where he became a member of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, via email, kept in touch with his religious friends in the United States.

In August 2006, the man (his U.S. contacts wouldn't name him) called the Mennonites to tell them that the recently elected Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would be coming to New York to speak before the United Nations General Assembly. He brokered a meeting in a ballroom at Ahmadinejad's Manhattan hotel. David Culp, legislative representative at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, was among the approximately 40 Americans who asked the Iranian president, among other things, about his country's nuclear ambitions and his thoughts on the Holocaust. "I came away convinced he was not interested in developing nuclear weapons," Culp said, adding, "His thoughts on Jews and the Holocaust were not very satisfying."

Nonetheless, the meeting was a success. And Ahmadinejad, intrigued by the connection, invited the contingent to Tehran. Soon thereafter, an interdenominational delegation of about 15 traveled to Tehran and met with the president, with religious leaders and with members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- becoming, according to their hosts, the first Americans to step inside the ministry's building since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

It would be fair to call these encounters the beginnings of a sustained dialogue -- and the Americans wanted to continue it. With the permission of the State Department's Iran desk, they invited a group of eight Iranians to the United States. Early in 2007, the first four of those Iranians traveled to Dubai to apply for visas -- since the U.S. has suspended diplomatic relations with Iran -- which the State Department swiftly granted.

Then, suddenly, progress stopped. And in September, just days before the dialogue was to resume, the department rejected visa applications for the remaining four Iranians -- the leaders of the delegation. It was among the more striking examples of how the administration has thwarted attempts to create pressure valves for U.S.-Iranian hostility.

Critics say these sorts of citizen-driven dialogues represent the gateway to more significant talks -- and may help interrupt a violent crisis, should one emerge. "Engagement should not be limited to government-to-government contact," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., insisted in a speech earlier this year. "We must reach out at all levels." But up and down the line, arbitrary and easily lifted barriers have stood in the way of doing just that.

"There are a lot of bureaucratic hurdles that interfere with the free flow of both people and information," gripes Dr. Norm Neureiter of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who has worked on recent outreach efforts with Glenn Schweitzer of the National Academy of Science. Schweitzer has been visiting and hosting Iranians for about eight years and argues that the visa acquisition process must be made more lenient. "Our criteria for success is whether the relationship [with our Iranian counterparts] can be sustained."

Hagel has proposed a fix: "Reopen a consulate in Tehran ... not formal diplomatic relations ... but a consulate ... to help encourage and facilitate people-to-people exchanges. U.S.-Iranian parliamentarian exchanges would be beneficial to both sides." The idea remains a political nonstarter, however.

The Iranian government isn't much help lately, either. Several influential members of Congress -- including Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and others -- have expressed strong interest in visiting Iran, but their intents have been thwarted by Iranian officials' lack of understanding and suspicion of American politicians. The Iranians have offered only tourist visas, and congress members traveling on official business require "official visas." Of course, the visas themselves are controlled by functionaries of Ahmadinejad, who isn't necessarily allies with the members of Iranian parliament who could meet their American counterparts.

As a result, American legislators have been forced to visit with Iranian officials under extremely constrained circumstances, including a handful of meetings that members have had with Dr. Javad Zarif, the American educated official who, until earlier this year, was the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. There are also murmurs of staging sometime next year an interparliamentary dialogue in Geneva, where visas are easy to come by. And private efforts like those of the religious leaders continue. But the questions remain: Will the government block the meetings, and will American legislators push hard to make sure that some sort of effective dialogue emerges?

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