Recently, I joined a group of Christian leaders to meet with Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, in New York. This was not the first time that a Quaker leader met with an Iranian leader to discuss peace. In 2007, Joe Volk, my predecessor, traveled to Iran with a delegation of faith leaders to speak for peace. They met with Iran’s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to talk about the need for peaceful relations between our two countries. For years, the Friends Committee on National Legislation has advocated for diplomacy with Iran and actions that lead to peace in the Middle East.
We entered the dialogue cognizant of Iran’s violations of the rights of religious minorities, women, and civil society groups, as well as Iran’s support of militarist responses to conflict. We believe that our withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the imposition of crippling economic sanctions, and the reliance on the threat of nuclear annihilation only push the possibilities of peacefully resolving our differences further out of reach.
During our meeting with Minister Zarif, we were clear that Americans don’t want to go to war with Iran. But the risks that we will be drawn into one grow every day, whether as a result of misunderstanding and miscalculation or by choice.
Following September’s missile strikes on Saudi oil facilities, which the United States has blamed on Iran, the Pentagon is sending additional troops and weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This move escalates the possibility of conflict.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is engaged, with American support, in a brutal, unwinnable war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Despite repeated bipartisan congressional attempts to end our participation and halt our arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition, the administration continues to provide intelligence and weapons for the war effort. Trapped in the middle are millions of Yemeni civilians in the throes of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than half the population on the brink of starvation.
As long as the war in Yemen continues – and the United States remains embroiled in it – the chances increase that we will end up in yet another disastrous Middle Eastern war, but this time with Iran. Congress must act to end its support of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE for this disastrous crisis to end.
I spoke with Minister Zarif, just as I have spoken with American leaders, describing a better way. It’s time for both countries to engage in careful, thoughtful, and skilled diplomacy. Not the pomp of summits and handshakes – at least not yet – but the long, hard process of working through differences and identifying measurable steps each side can take to lower the tensions and address each other’s concerns. It’s difficult to understand why the United States is willing to spend decades and trillions of dollars on war and not invest even a small fraction of that on peace.
Unfortunately, diplomacy is too often treated as a last recourse with a limited time-frame before military action is taken – or worse yet, not until war has stalemated. Our goal should be to prevent war by actively working to head off conflict before it begins.
Minister Zarif indicated to our group an already long-held FCNL belief - that peace between our two countries starts with peace in Yemen. Fortunately, Congress has already taken the first steps towards ending that war.
The House recently passed amendments that would end our support for the Saudi-led war and prohibit funding for unauthorized military action against Iran. This includes a repeal of the obsolete 2002 authorization for war against Iraq, which the administration refuses to rule out for justifying war with Iran. The ball is now in the Senate’s court to approve these measures.
The path we’re currently following in the Middle East only leads to continued tension, heightened danger, and possibly war. We do not believe that either American or Iranian leaders seek war, but peace requires action.
As Quakers, we oppose war and violent conflict. We know that war is not the answer – and we hold all world leaders accountable for making better choices.
Diane Randall is executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker organization.