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Questions About Iran for Ed Martin

February 11, 2010

Today in Tehran the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution will be celebrated.  The world is watching.  Fierce contests of political-will may erupt on the streets there between the current government officials and its Green Movement opposition.

Interpretations here of whatever happens there will be employed to support or oppose U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran and to support or oppose U.S. confrontation with Iran.  I asked Ed Martin — in Lancaster, PA — to please put down his snow shovel to answer a few questions about his 20 years of experience with the people of Iran.  Here’s what he said …

JV:  Ed, you have a lot of experience working in Iran with people at all levels of that society, right?  When did you start?  What did you do?

Ed Martin:  I made my first visit to Iran in January, 1991, to assess how MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) might assist with reconstruction following a disastrous earthquake that happened in northwest Iran in June 1990.

We wanted to respond because of the scale of the tragedy–more than 35,000 killed–and also because of the geopolitics of the time.  The Berlin wall had just come down, the Soviet Union was collapsing, and the Cold War was ending. It seemed to some of us that in the eyes of the US government  Islam was replacing communism as the enemy and Tehran was replacing Moscow as the source of evil in the world.

We wanted to demonstrate that MCC would respond to human need wherever it occurred, irrespective of political and religious differences, and we wanted to find ways to promote engagement between Iranians and North Americans to learn to know each other and to overcome stereotypes that one found in the media and government propaganda on both sides.

JV:  You say you worked for the Mennonites.  Are you a Mennonite?  What’s a

Mennonite, anyway?

Ed Martin:  Yes, I am a Mennonite.  Mennonites are a Protestant denomination that came out of the radical part of the reformation movement in Switzerland.  Mennonites are, along with the Friends and Church of the Brethren, an historic peace church.  Mennonites are conscientious objectors to war and killing.  Mennonites emphasize service and peacemaking, and the Mennonite Central Committee is the relief, development, and peacebuilding organization of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches of Canada and the United States.  It was during my role as Area Director for Middle East and South Asia for MCC that I began involvement in Iran.

JV:  Did all those years of working with Iran bring you into contact with

ordinary people?  What’s your impression of the Iranian on the street?

Ed Martin:  I had considerable interaction with ordinary Iranians on my 25 or so trips to Iran.  I have traveled over much of Iran with staff of the Red Crescent Society and encountered many different people in Iran.

Iranians are highly educated, and politically informed and sophisticated.  They are suspicious of officialdom, both at home and abroad. I found Iranians to be incredibly hospitable and generous.

JV:  I imagine the Iranian authorities would be skeptical of your

intentions as a  westerner who is a Christian.  Did you have to deal with

the Ayatollahs and the government officials?  What kind of contact did you have with them?

Ed Martin:  As a citizen of the United States, I had to be invited to visit Iran and have a host arrange for my visa to travel to Iran.  On the very first visit as a member of a four-person delegation in January 1991, I was very clear in describing MCC as the relief agency of the Mennonite Church and that we were motivated to do humanitarian service by our faith.

I think our being a faithbased organization made us more acceptable and understandable to Iranian officials than if we had been a secular humanitarian organization.  I have had the privilege of meeting high-level officials such as key foreign ministry officials including the Minister, Deputy Minister for Europe and America, as well as former president Khatami and current President Ahmadinejad and several ambassadors and other embassy staff of the Iranian Mission to the UN in New York and Geneva.

I have met a number of high level Islamic leaders including several ayatollahs and the leaders of several Christian denominations in Iran and the Jewish and Christian representatives in the parliament.  I have also had meetings with the president of the Iranian Red Crescent Society.

JV:   On a trip to Ohio last month, I visited friends.  They were amazed that

I had been in Iran – with you in 2007 – and had met with ayatollahs

and government officials.  My friends asked “weren’t you scared?”  and

“how can you talk with people who are such fanatics?”  Have you gotten

those kind of questions, too, over the years?

Ed Martin:  Before nearly every visit to Iran, someone has asked me, “aren’t you afraid to go to Iran?”  My usual reply, after visiting there several times, has been, ” the only time that I have felt any fear is occasionally on the highway.”  Drivers in Iran can go pretty fast, and the traffic in Tehran can be somewhat crazy.  People also express surprise that Iranians, and particularly Ayatollahs and government officials would be interested in talking with American Christians.

JV:   What’s your view of the U.S. media coverage of the anniversary of the

Islamic revolution in Iran?

Ed Martin:  I think it is very hard for the US media to give accurate coverage of the situation in Iran because the Iranian government has not allowed US reporters into the country since the presidential election when  many foreign journalists were admitted.

It is hard to get access to the variety of opinions in Iran–including those in support of the government and the opposition.  Because of the lack of access and the repression of independent Iranian reporters, I think it is hard to verify the credibility of anonymous reports coming out of Iran.

JV:  What is your view of current US policy toward Iran?

Ed Martin:  I started out very well impressed with the policy of the Obama administration–a welcome change from the former administration.

President Obama’s emphasis on engagement without preconditions is what is needed.  His Norouz speech to the Iranian people and government, and his comments to Iran in the Cairo speech to the Islamic world were encouraging.

At that time, both he and President Ahmadinejad were talking about engaging each other from a position of mutual respect.The questionable Iranian presidential election and the turmoil it generated since have derailed this.  I think it is very good that the US government has been participating with the P5 + 1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States — plus Germany) negotiations with Iran over the nuclear program.  However, there have only been a couple direct meetings, and I believe the administration is giving up too quickly on negotiations.

After 30 years of intense suspicion and no relations, a few meetings are not going to result in a breakthrough.  I believe the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and addressing the broad range of issues, including Iran’s security, is the only way to peacefully handle the nuclear program and the other issues between Iran and the US.

JV:   The US House and the US Senate have just passed “gasoline” sanctions

on Iran.  If they conference those bills and send something to

President Obama, should he sign it or veto it?

Ed Martin:  As I said above, it is important to have patience and be persistent in negotiating with Iran.  The “gasoline” sanctions do not contribute positively toward reaching a negotiated agreement.  I think President Obama should have spoken out more strongly against this legislation and should veto it if it reaches him.

JV:   In your view, what can people do?

Ed Martin:  I think people should try to educate themselves about Iran and the history of Iran-US relations.  While most Americans probably knew very little about Iran before the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran during the Islamic revolution, Iranians are very sensitive to the US intervention in their country, particularly the CIA-sponsored coup in

1953 that ousted a democratically-elected prime minister and reinstalled the Shah.

Many people here in the U.S. are not aware that more than 60 percent of Iranian university students are female and that women are engaged in all aspects of the society and economy.  Iranian women, while required to wear conservative dress, are more active and politically engaged than women in any other Islamic country of the Middle East.  Iranians are a highly educated, cultured people–they are not terrorists.  They are a proud people with strong nationalist feelings.  They want more freedom to engage with the West.

Americans should encourage our government to do all that it can to engage the government of Iran, to be patient and persistent in doing this.

JV:   Probably most people think that Iran is something their government

deals with but they don’t have a role to play.  Yet, you are actively

engaged and you are not a government official.  Why do you presume

that you have a role in this US-Iran conflict?

Ed Martin:  My role has been very minor, it has been one of promoting ways for Iranians and Americans to meet and learn to know each other. Through a student exchange program and interfaith dialogue conferences, Christian Americans and Muslim Iranians learn to know each other and each other’s religions.  I think human interaction is so important to peace making.

It is such a tragedy that we have now been more than 30 years without diplomatic relations meaning that Iranian and American diplomats are not learning to know and trust each other.  Understanding each other will be essential for restoring relations, and our public should encourage our government to explore every way possible to engage with Iran.  Within a democracy, we have the responsibility to advocate our views to the government.

JV:  Where did you grow up?  What were you doing when you were 12 or 15

years old?  Did you imagine then that you’d be one of America’s experts on Iran?

I lived in Harrisonburg, VA, until I was nine.  My family then moved to southeastern Colorado (La Junta) where my father pastored a Mennonite church.  When I was 15 years old I was totally involved in sports, I lived to play baseball and basketball and hoped to be a professional baseball player.  I do not consider myself an expert on Iran, but I never imagined that I would become involved with Iran in the way that I have.  I never thought of becoming involved there until the earthquake of June, 1990.

JV:  Ed, your last sentence, about becoming involved because of the earthquake (that created a need for humanitarian action), reminds me of something William Penn said, “Love is the First Motion.”  Thanks for taking time from your shoveling snow to answers some questions about Iran today.  I appreciate it.

Contact Ed Martin at:

  1. Ellen N. Duell permalink
    February 12, 2010 11:09 am

    A year ago, in Kaiser Hospital Sunset with my very ill daughter, I met a pretty red-haired lady whose father was also there, in the Cardiac Care Unit. We talked, and I told her I was from Ohio, and asked her where her home was. She learned very close to me and whispered, “Iran”. I thought this was wonderful, and said so. We did not continue in conversation. I would like for our relationships to be such that she and other Iranian citizens would be able to speak freely and joyfully of their country.

    I think that fear, religious prejudice, and even racism fill the minds of many Americans when Iran is mentioned. I believe that the policies of our government fuel these fears, and that serves to prop up the U.S. military-industrial complex, decimating our genuine security in the world. Real security is based on trust and friendship.

    I am in favor of re-employing CIA personnel, all of them, into a true peace corps.

  2. Jeanne Snyder, Boulder, CO permalink
    February 12, 2010 1:54 pm

    Thank you so much, Ed, for your moving description of your personal experiences with the people of Iran. I wish I could meet and get to know on a personal level an Iranian, also. I’ve been fortunate to develop friendships with Muslim women in Maryland, but they have connections to Pakistan.

  3. Laura See permalink
    February 12, 2010 3:16 pm

    I believe that the only political pressure one of a different country can put on a evil government is sanctions or invasion and war.

    I too, have met Iranians, who sought political refugee status here in the States and obtained it. They left because their countrymen were for the US perceived evil government and truly believe Iran “was going in the right direction”. Most came as students and never returned after finishing school, although they were in contact with relatives still. Many will tell you they are from “Persia” thus evading the Iran connotation.

    With the continuing threats coming from Iran, I do not see how our country can not take some actions, and I certainly DO NOT WANT MORE WAR! My son is in the Army, who would have thought his military career would be policing/rebuilding other countries? What part of the Constitution & Bill of Rights makes U.S. taxpayers responsible for the rest of the world?

    Iran does have oil and close access to the main supplies of oil in the world. If we are to be concerned about the innocent citizens without gasoline, we should start to raise charity money for Iran to build their own refineries for converting oil to gasoline. It is only about $1 to 2 million (and that’s for a refinery built in the U.S.-only Iraq rebuilding expenses exceed the high U.S. construction cost) per refinery.

    It would be much cheaper in the long run, and still allow all the dictators and Presidents of the world to utilize a tool against Iran’s threats other than war!

  4. John Irick permalink
    February 12, 2010 4:54 pm

    Joe, thank you for sharing this extremely important conversation. I plan to share it with my family and friends and to encourage them to do the same.

    Thanks again,
    John Irick

  5. David Hartsough permalink
    February 16, 2010 6:18 pm

    Thanks for this helpful interview. It confirms my impressions from my visit to Iran in Spring of 2009. Yes, more diplomacy and negotiations, not sanctions and threats of war!

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