U.S. Religious Leaders Find Hope in Iran

On Thursday we had a meeting at the Iranian Foreign Ministry headquarters, in some of the most beautiful and historic buildings I have ever visited. I wish I were able to send a picture to show you all the beautiful architecture and attention to detail in the craftsmanship of the building. Our meeting was with the Deputy Foreign Minister for Europe and the United States, a very senior level official in the Iranian government.

The meeting was held in a grand ballroom in the main building at the Foreign Ministry, and we were told that we were the first American delegation to have an official meeting in this building since the Islamic Revolution in 1978. The meeting did have a certain formality and historic feeling to it. The amazing thing was that the Deputy Foreign Minister spent over two hours with our delegation, both making statements and asking questions.

There were a couple important lessons that I took away from this meeting. First of all, the Deputy Foreign Minister is just a few months younger than me, so I felt an immediate connection with him. As he spoke of the history of relations between our nations, it was clear that the narrative and experiences he was speaking from were very different from my own. For him, the relationship between Iran and the United States begins in 1953, when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped to overthrow their elected leader (Mossadegh) and install the Shah. For Dr. Jalili and most of the Iranians we have spoken to here, there is a great deal of pain associated with the 25-year reign of the Shah that ended in 1978 in the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The Shah was a very oppressive dictator who ruled with an iron fist.

As he was telling this story, I was reminded of the tour we had been on the day before of the Shah's "summer palace," where we saw opulence and grandeur beyond description. That image was contrasted with the home where Ayatollah Khomeini lived before and after the revolution and up until his death. It was a very small home with simple furnishings. Quite a contrast between the two most recent leaders.

Dr. Jalili talked about his feeling as a 14-year-old, being set free from the oppression of the Shah during the revolution. For him, the revolution was a momentous event in his life and the history of his country, a day worthy of celebration and thanksgiving.

As he told his story, memories of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 began to flood my mind. I could see the images of American citizens being held hostage, with blindfolds, paraded in front of televisions cameras. I remembered seeing Ted Koppel on "Nightline" every night, starting the show with "The Iranian Hostage Crisis: Day 123," and continuing on for 444 days. I can still remember the yellow ribbons on trees, cars, and buildings all over the country, and prayers being offered up for the American hostages every time we were in church.

I don't think I have ever realized how traumatizing those events were for me, and how seared into my memory and psyche they are. How they serve as a filter, even today, 28 years later, to the way I (and I surmise many other Americans) see Iran. It is the narrative that informs my thinking about Iran today and the relationship between our nations.

What I have been thinking about the last few days is not whose narrative is right and whose is wrong. In this case, I'm not sure the facts of these past events are as important as the ways Dr. Jalili and I experienced them. The truth is they are both right, because both of us have a right to tell our own stories.

What is clear to me, however, is that we must find a way to tell our stories and to have our stories heard. And then we must begin to write a new narrative together. One that comes out of humility, mutual respect, and shared understanding. I am convinced it is the only path for a true and lasting peace with justice.

May God help both our nations and peoples to begin the healing and reconciliation process so we may avoid war and build that lasting peace.

Learn more about this delegation here at the delegation's website.

Jeff Carr, Chief Operating Office of Sojourners/Call to Renewal, joined a delegation of religious leaders to Iran last week to open a dialogue between some of the country's top religious and political leadership, including President Ahmadinejad. This was the first meeting of religious leaders with an Iranian president since 1979.