Iranian American Journalist Freed

Last year, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Sebari was arrested in Iran for bringing a bottle of wine into the country. Sebari, who has dual citizenship with Iran and the United States had been living in Iran since 2003 as a freelance journalist for NPR and the BBC. While detained, her charges had been elevated to reporting without a license and espionage for the United State government.

While the Iranian government has arrested foreign reporters in the past, most of them had been deported to their home country. Ms. Sebari, on the other hand, stood trial. She was found guilty of spying and was sentenced to eight years in prison. The United States government immediately called for the release of Ms. Sebari, insisting that she has never worked for the government in any form, especially as a spy. After her trial in January, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad filed for an appeal–a move unheard of in modern Iranian history.

The appeals court rejected the initial sentence of eight years and called for the immediate deportation of Ms. Saberi. On Monday, she was released from jail to the custody of her parents and will return home to the United States this week.

Analysts say this is an important milestone in Iranian/American relations. President Ahmedinejad is up for re-election next month and his hard line rhetoric of his early administration has fallen away in response to falling approval ratings. The Iranian president has made many gestures to normalize relations with the American government. His election-night call to President Obama was the first call of congratulations an American president has received from Iran since the revolution of the 1970’s. The United States has continued to welcome Iran as a partner in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their continued participation has helped us stay an accountable partner in the region.

We, at the UUA, applaud the release of Ms. Saberi. We also encourage increased diplomatic negotiations with the Iranian government. We believe the United States can be a good model of religious freedom and tolerance to the Iranian government and they, in turn, can be important allies in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We hope the US State Department and Iranian Supreme Council will continue to work toward normalized relations.

U.S. and Iran Share Table at Afghanistan Meeting

This week The Hague, Netherlands, hosted a meeting to discuss the future of Afghanistan. Attendees included representatives from 73 nations, 11 international organizations and several observers from non-governmental organizations.

This meeting was very important and we at the UUA applaud the use of multi-lateral discussions and diplomacy to find a speedy and responsible end to the war in Afghanistan.

The UUA also approves of the United States and Iran joining together in dialogue over this cause. Iran has become an important ally in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this meeting, Iran has agreed to strengthen its control of the Afghani/Iranian border to prevent the opiate and heroin trade.

Reports indicate that the U.S. Envoy to South Asia, Richard Holbrooke, shared a short conversation with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Mehdi Akhundzadeh. If this is true, this would signal a monumental shift in U.S. foreign policy with Iran. In previous years, Iranian and American officials never spoke with one another. A mending of relations between the United States and Iran after a thirty year rift is crucial to the progress and security of the Middle East. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the meeting between Akhundzadeh and Holbrooke was “cordial” but “unsubstantive.”

However, today the Iranian government denied any such meeting happened. While Iran is committed to working alongside the United States to bring peace to Iraq and Afghanistan, Iranian officials refuse to meet directly with American officials.

We encourage the Obama Administration to continue working with Iran and opening up relations between the two countries. As one of its legislative objectives for the 111th Congress and the Obama Administration, the UUA calls on the government to “…prevent armed conflict with Iran, through multilateral diplomatic engagement.”

The Roadmap for Peace

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations recently endorsed an initiative spearheaded by the American Friends Service Committee called The Roadmap for Peace. Over 30 national organizations have joined together to call on the next U.S. President and administration to engage in a new foreign policy based on these five core principles.

  1. Our nation should invest in peace.

    Our country should invest in diplomacy, development, and conflict prevention — cost-effective ways to improve national and global security.

  2. Strengthen the civilian agencies that work on peace and development issues.

    The military is not an effective relief agency. The government needs a strong civilian foreign assistance and crisis response team.

  3. Give diplomacy a chance.

    With a highly skilled diplomatic corps, the United States can prevent conflict and restore its international reputation.

  4. Be a part of global peacebuilding efforts.

    We must work with renewed commitment in international institutions and partners to address major global conflicts and challenges, such as nonproliferation, climate change, migration, public health, and poverty.

  5. Create justice through good development and trade policies.

You can join the UUA and the AFSC by personally endorsing the Roadmap for Peace.

When I Looked Ahmadinejad in the Eye

Two weeks ago, I sat 15 feet away from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as part of a dialogue between him and 150 members of the U.S. peace and justice movement.

I find it odd that I have been closer to the president of the world’s 18th most populous country than has my President. And since then, I have been listening to Senators McCain and Obama spar over whether they would have a diplomatic relationship with Iran, and if so, how “tough” that diplomacy would be.

The Iranian people did not pass a national declaration of animosity towards Israel, nor have they democratically chosen to pursue a nuclear program. Yet, Senator Obama mentioned in the last presidential debate that we may want to set up a blockade to prevent refined petroleum products from entering Iran. President Ahmadinejad might say deplorable things and ignore international dictates, but millions of Iranians depend on petroleum as much as we do. The Iranian people would be punished for their President’s behavior. For our own sake, I would not like to set that precedent.

Many have said that pursuing diplomacy with President Ahmadinejad legitimizes his outlandish proclamations and his worst policies. In place of diplomacy, they want to impose sanctions, blockades, and “keep all options on the table.” But ultimately, those “solutions” are isolating Iran and avoiding the issues at play.

Look, I know President Ahmadinejad is dangerous. I know that he condones and conducts huge violations of human rights. I know that there are many legitimate reasons that principled persons may not want to spend a minute of their lives in dialogue with this man. But for two powerful countries, in an ever shrinking world, to not be on speaking terms is too dangerous. Around 20-40% of the world’s oil supply passes through Iran’s territorial waters. Iran is supporting Hamas, Hezbullah, and insurgent groups in Iraq; and the U.S. is supporting rebel groups within Iran. The issues between the U.S. and Iran are too large for diplomacy to be left to folks like me.

Yet, I am one of the few Americans who have engaged Iran in some sort of diplomacy. This is what happened: Eleven members of the peace community laid out our concerns about Iran’s posturing towards Israel, pursuit of nuclear technology, and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. But we also tried to find common ground on how we could have more citizen delegations between our countries and our mutual opposition to the ongoing occupation of Iraq. You can read all of our comments and questions on-line.

President Ahmadinejad then gave thoughtful answers to each one of the concerns we raised. He did not always give complete answers and he often painted a rosier picture of Iran than we know to be true. But he did respond to nearly every concern we raised. I can not speculate on whether this meeting changed President Ahmadinejad in any way, but it did change me. I am smarter and I am wiser. I now know what it is like to be in the room with President Ahmadinejad. I know how he carries himself. I know how he responds to direct criticism. I know how he defends his actions. If knowledge is power, then I am more powerful.

Our government might have detailed satellite images of Iran’s nuclear facilities; and we have probably drawn up battle plans of how to most effectively eliminate Iran’s nuclear and military capacities in as little time as possible. But the U.S. Government does not know what it is like to sit in a room with the President of Iran and ask him to stop enriching uranium. Diplomacy is most important with your rivals and enemies. You do not need to negotiate with your friends.

If it were up to me I would only have one option on the table, diplomacy. All those other options – tougher sanctions, naval blockades, military incursions, or all out war – would be hidden under the table. Because the longer we fail to diplomatically engage with Iran without preconditions, the longer the issues between us will remain unaddressed. I am interested in peace and progress, and I believe diplomacy is the vehicle that will get us there.

Adam Gerhardstein is the Acting Director of the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy. He met with President Ahmadinejad during a meeting facilitated by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He attended the meeting with a UU delegation, including the UUA President, Rev. William Sinkford.

Sinkford, Ahmadinejad, and the Blogosphere

UUA President William Sinkford’s participation in a meeting between 150 leaders in the U.S. peace and anti-war community and President Ahmadinejad of Iran has provoked intense reactions in the UU blogosphere. Some blog posts were highly critical and angry, while others felt Sinkford’s participation in the meeting was courageous and perhaps even prophetic. A summary of UU blog posts can be found in this week’s “Interdependent Web” column.

Before deciding to participate in the meeting, Rev. Sinkford asked the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the organization facilitating the meeting, for assurances that a wide range of groups, including Jewish groups, had been invited to participate. The process of reaching out to those communities has been spelled out by the lead organizer of the meeting, Mark Johnson of the FOR.

The FOR blog contains reflections of others who attended this meeting as well discussion of Rev. Sinkford’s participation. One member of the UU delegation, Helen Lindsay, traveled to Iran earlier this year and has written about what that experience taught her.

The UUA’s Advocacy and Witness Staff Group has chosen to promote the issue of diplomacy with Iran as its Action of the Month for October, and we are inviting UUs to Publish for Peace. While there seems to be a consensus that military action against Iran would be a bad idea, there is considerable difference of opinion about how citizens and political leaders should engage with Iran and its leadership. We welcome a spirited exchange of ideas regarding how both religious and national leaders decide on participation in meetings like this one.

This is an excellent time to write a letter-to-the-editor or an op-ed and to get our views before a larger audience. You can find all the resources you need to get started at If you draft a letter, please let us know by emailing it (published or not) to the Washington Office’s Legislative Assistant for International Issues at