The once-tenuous political relationship between the United States and Iran has taken a slight turn for the better recently, as Iran begins complying with an international agreement to reduce nuclear production. But United Church of Christ advocates for peace in the Middle East are urging members of Congress to pull back on their proposed sanctions and allow for a diplomatic solution that would lead to improved relations and a chance for peace.
This week, UCC ministries will ask members of the denomination to contact members of Congress and tell them to oppose any new sanctions and instead support a diplomatic course of action in negotiating with Iranian leaders.
The UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries and Global Ministries — the shared ministry between the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) and the UCC’s Wider Church Ministries — are two of the 62 global interfaith organizations that sent a letter to Congress on Jan. 14. The letter, calling to give the interim agreement a chance to produce a diplomatic outcome between the U.S. and Iran, has been reported in the New York Times and in a blog post on the Washington Post.
"As a church, we are very concerned about peace in the Middle East, due to longstanding mission relationships and partnerships there," said Peter Makari, Global Ministries area executive for the Middle East and Europe. "The diplomatic path towards peace — with Iran, for Syria, and for Israel/Palestine — is far preferable to other approaches.
"Diplomacy has resulted in an interim agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, and we should give that process a chance without further complicating it," Makari continued. "Sanctions affect far more people than a narrow target. We pray for a new relationship with Iran that can be premised on engagement."
Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons enrichment program for a period of 6-12 months, during which time a permanent agreement to end Iran’s nuclear weapon program could be negotiated. The agreement, achieved through negotiations with the U.S. and international community, went in effect Monday, Jan. 20. State news agencies in Iran reported the Iranian government began to comply.
Despite that progress toward improved diplomatic relations with Iran, Congress pressed forward recently by proposing new sanctions. Those moves by the U.S. Senate would undermine the interim agreement and end any chance for a permanent agreement, according to negotiators.
New sanctions could even be interpreted as a hostile act, risking conflict and further destabilizing the region at a time when the U.S. has pulled back its presence from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Congress’ recent introduction of legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran should current negotiations fail is short-sighted and dangerous, said the Rev. Mike Neuroth, UCC advocate for international policy.
"The current efforts by members of Congress to propose additional sanctions on Iran would derail significant efforts toward preventing a nuclear-weapon-armed Iran," Neuroth said. "Many of our church members have traveled to Iran or engaged with Iranian people and witnessed a shared hope for peace. Now is the time to let diplomatic efforts run their course, not set us back on a course toward further hostility or even war."
The Rev. Patricia De Jong, pastor of First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Calif., is someone who’s seen a different side of Iran – the side where Iranian people share hope for peace – after traveling there in 2009. De Jong believes the U.S.-Iranian tension from the past decades is more a product of both governments not wanting to cooperate on behalf of their people.
"I am really hoping that the new sanctions will not be put in place, [and] that we can take steps toward friendship," she said. "My personal point is, having been to Tehran and experienced Iranian people, that they don’t want war as much as we don’t want another war in the Middle East.
"Everywhere I went, people came up to us and said, ‘American? Good.’ If you meet people on the streets, there is friendship."
First Congregational introduced a resolution, Solidarity and Friendship with Iran, that the General Synod of the UCC passed in 2009. It is based on the church’s witness as a Just Peace church and expresses the desire for a new relationship between the U.S. and Iran built on "friendship and engagement rather than fear and isolation."
International relations between the U.S. and Iran were rocky throughout the 1980s because of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. From that point, no U.S. president had direct contact with his counterpart until October, when President Obama spoke on the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. It marked a chance for the governments of both nations to work together effectively.
"With new leadership, we have a chance to start new," De Jong said. "In terms of the Middle East, [peace] is important for the whole region."