Breaking the Silence

An Iranian diplomat’s historic visit and the Missoula man who made it happen

March 22, 2001

Perched on a grassy hillside overlooking the gentle waters of Long Island’s Oyster Bay stands a stately old Victorian house where a native Montanan might feel right at home. Inside, the rooms bear testament to its original owner’s 19th century notions of rugged individualism: The trophy heads of moose, elk, bear and African water buffalo that decorate nearly every square foot of wall space have stared down upon dozens of royalty and heads of state who once frequented these halls. It was here in 1905 that President Theodore Roosevelt negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War, for which he became the first American awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Oyster Bay became known in the history books as the safe harbor where peace was forged.

Serene locations can have an uncanny ability to heal the scarred psychological landscapes of international relations. This week, Missoula became such a healing place, albeit briefly, with a visit by Hadi Nejad Hosseinian, the permanent representative to the United Nations for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Why Hosseinian chose to visit Missoula may reveal as much about what Iran hopes to say to the American public as did any of the ambassador’s words Tuesday night at the University of Montana, in an address simply titled, “Iranian-American Relations: Time for a Change.”

Last week I sat down with the man who orchestrated Hosseinian’s visit, Ambassador Mark Johnson of the Montana World Affairs Council. Johnson, a retired 30-year veteran of the U.S. State Department, held a number of foreign policy posts, including U.S. ambassador to Senegal from 1993 to 1996. But it was his three years in the Office of Iranian Affairs and the Iran Working Group from 1977 to 1980—including the 444-day Iran hostage crisis—that undoubtedly caught Iran’s eye.

Curiously, Johnson was as surprised as anyone that Hosseinian accepted his invitation. Even days before the diplomat’s arrival, Johnson couldn’t say for sure exactly why he decided to visit Montana.

“I’m as stunned as you are,” Johnson told me. “Iran has something they want to say. They want to give their side of the story. They’re looking for a place that is honest, where they can get honest feedback from real Americans. They can’t do that now. They’re in a cocoon in New York.”

That “cocoon” is the travel restriction placed on all Iranian officials. Ever since Iran and the United States severed diplomatic ties 20 years ago, Iranian officials have been forbidden from venturing into the United States beyond a 25-mile radius from the UN without formal permission from the U.S. government. Since then, the Iranian ambassador has traveled to only two other American cities: Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, where Hosseinian was met by hundreds of protestors and any hint of thawing relations between the two countries was quickly chilled in the din.

Black Veils, Beards and Blindfolds

Ask most Montanans what images come to mind when you mention Iran and you’re bound to hear some combination of the following: Blindfolded hostages at gunpoint, women entombed in black veils, bearded clerics shouting anti-American epithets, American flags ablaze. Even for a career diplomat like Johnson, who was in Iran during the 1979 revolution and witnessed “the good, the bad and the ugly, but mostly the bad and the ugly,” old ghosts do not fade overnight.

“I had a Kalashnikov [rifle] in my belly button when I was in Teheran and I could have been blown away in a second,” says Johnson, whose departure from Iran in August 1979 saved him from becoming a hostage himself. “I’m not some dreamy-eyed guy.”

These days Johnson does not gloss over the enormous psychological barriers that have kept our two nations apart, even as he points out what both countries stand to gain from improved relations. For Americans, this includes the 241 servicemen killed in the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon, which Iran is suspected of masterminding. Since then, Iran has been labeled a “rogue state,” a sponsor of international terrorism with suspected ties to the Hezbollah and Osama Bin Laden.

More recently, many in the West have voiced their opposition to the arbitrary arrests and trials of Iranian Jews, the closure of some 40 news outlets, a new five-year arms treaty with Moscow, as well as years of flagrant human rights violations against women and ethnic minorities.

But similar scars remain in the minds of Iranians as well, dating back to 1953 when the United States aided a military coup that returned the Shah to power over a prime minister who was pressing for democratic reforms. Many older Iranians still have images of President Jimmy Carter drinking champagne on New Year’s Eve with the Shah of Iran, whose corrupt and brutal “cleptocracy” was blamed for looting Iran’s wealth and bankrupting its Islamic spiritual life.

“I think there was a sense that the modernization by the Shah left behind a valueless society,” says Johnson. “People didn’t feel they had any kind of inner meaning or anchor in their life that they could turn to.”

Many Iranians undoubtedly harbor ill-will towards the United States for the 1988 downing by the USS Vincennes of an Iranian Airbus over the Persian Gulf which killed 270 people, as well as for 20 years of sanctions that have isolated Iran economically but had little or no effect on stimulating real political change.

“I spent 30 years with Cold War blinders on,” admits Johnson, “In the Cold War—and I say this as a former diplomat—we had the luxury of drawing things in black and white.”

These days Johnson admits that there are a lot more gray areas to contend with, which is why the World Affairs Council opened a dialogue to move beyond the mutual “demonization” that has plagued both nations for two decades.

“It’s like Mike Mansfield once said,” says Johnson. “First you’ve got to hear what the other guy has to say.”

Why It’s Worth the Effort

Even in a region plagued by centuries of turmoil, Iran dwells in one of the world’s toughest neighborhoods. With all the potential flashpoints in that region— Turkey and the former Soviet Republics to Iran’s north, Saddam Hussein to the west — Johnson points to but one country where Iran and the United States share common interests.

To Iran’s east lies Afghanistan, led by the extremist Islamic regime, the Taliban, whose recent destruction of giant fifth-century Buddhist statues in the name of Islam infuriated the international community, including Muslims in Iran. Johnson cites this incident as but one example of where having a sympathetic Islamic voice in the neighborhood could have perhaps prevented this senseless act.

More serious still, says Johnson, is the flood of opium coming out of Afghanistan, which in recent years has driven down the street price of heroin worldwide. Johnson says that the Taliban are rumored to have a five-year stockpile of opium with which they could flood the world market, both as a way of raising hard currency and for thumbing their noses at the West.

“Most people don’t know it, but Iran has probably lost more narcotics agents than any other country in the world fighting drugs,” says Johnson. “Maybe if we could talk, we could combat this flood of heroin that’s coming out of Afghanistan.”

But as Johnson explains, there are two simple reasons for reaching out to the Iranians right now: Iranians like Americans, and their revolution isn’t over. As New York Times writer Elaine Sciolino points out in her new book, Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran, Iran is a nation of contradictions and flux, where the power struggle between Islamic hardliners and secular moderates has become a daily, if not hourly, joust.

“One of the ways you see [the revolution] still unfolding is through Iranian film, where they’re pushing the envelope every day in very ingenious ways,” says Johnson. “The films in Iran are telling great social stories with subtle messages that get under the religious radar.”

Those messages are reaching a whole new generation of Iranians, many of whom never knew the Shah or the Ayatollah Khomeini. Just consider how the name of a presentation about Iran given last month at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.—“Democracy, Pink Floyd and Green Cards: What Young Iranians Want”—reveals the nature of change sweeping Iran’s political landscape.

If we’re lucky, Missoula may one day be to U.S.-Iranian relations what Oyster Bay was to Russian and Japanese relations, a safe harbor where political posturing was relaxed, clearing the way for open, honest dialogue.

“I believe Iran is important,” says Johnson. “And if we don’t try now, we’ll never know.” #

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