OpEd: To Prevent War, the U.S. and Iran Need to Negotiate the Sacred

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Written by Thomas Buonomo

“Seek peace and pursue it.” –Psalm 34:14

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. …Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you….” -Matthew 5:9, 44

“And if they incline to peace, then incline to it….” -Surah 8:61

Russia’s introduction of its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system onto the Syrian battlefield in October, intended to deter future Israeli attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah military targets, reveals Russia’s intent to support Iran’s aggressive moves against Israel.  Although the Israeli Air Force has the capabilities to mitigate this threat, this development should spur the Trump administration to strive for a compromise solution to a regional conflict that is in serious danger of coalescing into something much worse for all parties involved.

Russia’s goals up to this point appear to have been limited to preserving its Syrian client state and the geopolitical advantages it derives from it.  The Islamic Republic of Iran maintains the more ambitious goal of annihilating the state of Israel, employing Syria and Lebanon as sources of military recruits, materiel, and territorial fronts in its escalating conflict with it.  Liberation of the Palestinians from Israeli occupation and the return of Jerusalem to Muslim control remain Iran’s ultimate objectives, as its two Supreme Leaders have declared virtually since the founding of the Islamic Republic.

The resentment the Trump administration has generated within the international community makes it less likely that sanctions on Iran will achieve their desired effect than when its more diplomatically savvy predecessor was in power.  The current U.S. administration at the very least needs to make a compelling effort at constructive diplomacy with Iran in order to secure sustained international support for an effective sanctions regime.

War with Iran would be a highly costly affair, especially without Russia’s acquiescence, which does not appear to be forthcoming despite the efforts of senior Trump officials to obtain it.  Russia clearly has other priorities: namely, destabilizing its primary adversary, the U.S.

As Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn wrote in his book The Field of Fight, “Although I believe America and Russia could find mutual ground fighting Radical Islamists, there is no reason to believe Putin would welcome cooperation with us; quite the contrary, in fact.” Flynn interpreted Russian military actions as “indications that Putin fully intends to do the same thing as, and in tandem with, the Iranians: pursue the war against us.”

Considering the potentially disastrous consequences of a US war with Iran and the dubious effectiveness of sanctions and other coercive efforts at behavioral or regime change (in the absence of complementary constructive diplomatic efforts), how might the Trump administration pursue a peaceful resolution of this highly complex and precarious problem?

The first step is to acknowledge the importance of Jerusalem, not only to Iran but to the Muslim world broadly.

International conflict resolution expert Daniel Shapiro, Founder and Director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, advises in his book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts, “Negotiating the sacred [requires] gaug[ing] [the other side’s identity] well enough to frame your message with words that will emotionally resonate within them.  …If the other side is in a fundamentalist sphere of identity…discuss sacred issues from within their context of doctrines and absolutes.”

It is counterintuitive to shift dialogue from the transactional, where Trump himself is most familiar, to the religious realm, where he is out of his element and where opportunities to make offense would abound.  A well-credentialed envoy appointed directly by him, however, would have greater appreciation for the potential of religious dialogue along with sufficient empathy and diplomatic sensitivity to attempt such a venture.

Shapiro continues, “A pragmatic way to reconcile sacred differences is to come to an agreement that each side can interpret in accordance within its own sphere of identity.  Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called this constructive ambiguity. “

Another possibility is to explore “alternative interpretations of the sacred”, which is “located not within a piece of land…but in the mind.”

Several passages from the Quran would be subject to varying interpretations within this context but are worth delving into:

Surah 4:94: “O you who have believed!  When you go forth [to fight] in the cause of Allah, investigate, and do not say to any one who gives you [a greeting of] peace, ‘You are not a believer.’….  You [yourselves] were like that before, then Allah conferred his favor upon you….”

Surah 5:8: ….do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just.  Be just; that is nearer to righteousness….”

Surah 8:61: “And if they incline to peace, then incline to it….”

Surah 42:40: “…but whoever pardons and makes reconciliation—his reward is [due] from Allah.”

Surah 60:7-8: “Perhaps Allah will put, between you and those to whom you have been enemies among them, affection. ….and Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.  Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes—from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them.  Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.”

Certainly one could find seemingly contradictory and even repulsive passages in the Quran (e.g. Surah 5:338:12) as in the Bible (e.g. Leviticus 25:44-46Deuteronomy 21:10-13Deuteronomy 22:20-2128-29Joshua 8:24-27).  Which verses are emphasized and how they are interpreted depends at least in part on the disposition of the parties in conflict.  These are variables subject to the influence of diplomacy.

Certainly, diplomacy has not been easy for either side to sustain, nor will it get any easier.  It can succeed, however, if all parties decide that defending the right of all to worship in freedom and security is more important than one side attempting to impose its religious narrative on others through force of arms, which will only end in tragedy, as it always has.

About the author: Thomas Buonomo is the Humanist Studies Coordinator with the American Humanist Association and a former Evangelical Christian. His writing on Middle East affairs has been published by the Atlantic Council, Middle East Policy Council, Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Fikra Forum, Securing America’s Future Energy, and other publications. His views do not represent an official position of the American Humanist Association.