As George W. Bush focused his final presidential visit to Europe on Iran's nuclear program, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus joined a group of peace activists on Capitol Hill at an event designed to foster dialogue between everyday Iranians and Americans.
On Tuesday afternoon, the activist groups Enough Fear and Campaign for a New American Policy on Iran set up a phone bank outside the Cannon House office building, inviting activists, reporters, and passersby to speak with people in Iran. Leaders of the two groups seek to build lasting person-to-person ties between Iranians and Americans in the hope of building sentiment against a military confrontation between the two nations.
"The main idea is that if more people in this country have friends in Iran the two countries are less likely to go to war," explained Nick Jehlen, co-founder of Enough Fear. "It's as simple as that." The event, called "Time to Talk to Iran", was Jehlen's brainchild.
Jehlen invited every member of Congress to attend this week's event, but only five, all from the House of Representatives, participated: Lynne Woolsey and Barbara Lee, both California Democrats, joined Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas. All are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which Woolsey and Lee co-chair. Ron Paul, the Republican presidential contender from of Texas, crossed the aisle to appear with the congresswomen.
Barbara Lee has long advocated person-to-person contact as the solution to the current stand-off with Iranian leaders over their nuclear program, which President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice contend is a precursor to weapons development. In January, Lee, who also sits on the foreign affairs committee, introduced the Iran Diplomatic Accountability Act of 2008, which, she told the gathering, "directs the president to appoint a high-level envoy empowered to seek to conduct direct, unconditional, bilateral negotiations with Iran for the purpose of easing tensions and normalizing relations between the United States and Iran." Her legislation has idled in committee for the last six months with 14 cosponsors. Proposals in both houses of Congress intended to block the administration from using force against Iran have similarly stalled.
The Washington, D.C., event marked the third staging of a "Time To Talk" event. The first took place in Boston in November 2007, and the second in New York in January. "Having congresspeople here [at a 'Time to Talk' event] is really an aberration for us," Jehlen explained. "If we can facilitate dialogue between members of the American and Iranian governments in the future, we'd like to."
At each staging, a bank of four or five old-fashioned red desk phones takes center stage, though the phones are actually fed through hand-held wireless devices. The set-up is designed to resemble the crisis lines that connected officials in Washington with their Moscow counterparts during tense moments in the Cold War. About 50 people -- including students and Code Pink activists -- braved wilting heat and humidity to participate Tuesday's event. Many relied on interpreters, young volunteers fluent in both English and Farsi, who joined them on the line.
The conversations tended to be brief, and were often beset by technical problems. But they were substantive, too. Friendly chats quickly developed from exchanges of simple pleasantries (How's the weather? What do you do?) into earnest discussions about the deteriorating political situation between the two countries.
The organizers put me on the line with Morteza Rassul-Shirazi, a 60-year-old engineer in Tehran who agreed to speak on the record with an American reporter. The connection was poor (the line dropped twice), but Shirazi, along with many of his peers, he said, is concerned that U.S.-Iran hostilities could mushroom into a violent conflict. "We should not talk about war at all," he told me. "Instead, we should try to show Americans that we are peaceful people."
Rassul-Shirazi and his friends and family in Tehran are understandably nervous. Visiting with European leaders this week, Bush sent mixed signals, focusing his early remarks on rallying European support for sanctions on Iran if it did not agree to stop enriching uranium, leading some to speculated that he was backing off from earlier saber-rattling. Then, before he left the continent, he added, "All options are on the table."
These latest remarks capped off several weeks of escalating anti-Iran rhetoric from the administration. In a last week's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the White House, Bush said, "It is very important for the world to take the Iranian threat seriously." Speaking this week in Europe, Secretary Rice accused the Iranian regime of evading international oversight, saying,"I think that no one is of a mind to allow them to stall very much longer."
A December National Intelligence Estimate found that the Iranian government suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Iran does, however, continue to pursue a uranium enrichment program, which its leaders contend is for use in peaceful projects, such as energy production.