"Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, 'you owe me.' Look what happens with a love like that, it lights the whole sky ." - Hafiz, a 1300 century Persian Poet
Josh Fattal, one of the three American hikers held hostage in Iran, recited this poem while addressing the crowd during the Washington, D.C. stop of his book tour for A Sliver of Light: Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran. Together with his friends and fellow prisoners Shane Bauer and Sarah Shroud, Josh writes about their experiences being arrested at the Iraqi Kurdistan border and his more than two-year imprisonment.
When I heard him recite this poem, I was surprised. Taken in the context of his immense suffering, Josh's recitation of this poem speaks to his unique capacity for appreciating Iranian humanity. During their incarceration, Josh, Shane and Sarah described building invaluable alliances with Iranian prisoners -- many of whom had been recently detained in the wake of the Iranian post-election crackdown.
The three hikers undoubtedly understood that their imprisonment was a direct result of the long-standing tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Josh's willingness to forgive and to push for a resolution to this long-standing conflict is needed at this historic moment more than ever. That is why, this week, Josh will come to the Hill to talk with members of Congress about the importance of supporting, not sabotaging a final nuclear deal.
I had the opportunity ask Josh a few questions about his imprisonment, his release, and how it has contributed to the ongoing Iranian nuclear talks that could prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear weapon and signal a new era in U.S. and Iran relations.
Maiya Zwerling: As we approach the July 20 deadline, what do you want to say to negotiators and members of Congress who have a key role to play in the outcome of these negotiations over Iran's nuclear program?
Josh Fattal: The most important point I'd like to impress on our negotiators and members of Congress is that this is a historic opportunity. Additionally, the human toll from decades of confrontation is immeasurable. My suffering as a political hostage in Evin Prison from 2009 to 2011 was a result of decades of mutual hostility between the U.S. and Iran. But, taken in context, I got off relatively easy with only 26 months behind bars. A resolution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear capacity will finally lead us down a different path that no longer punishes the Iranian people for the actions of their leaders.
Much of the media around your imprisonment in Iran focused on the fact that you are Jewish. How has being Jewish influenced your perspective on these historic negotiations with Iran?
Jewish Americans are not as single-minded in regards to strategies for Israel's security as some may believe. The New York Times reported that the Presbyterian Church voted to divest from companies that assist in occupying the West Bank partially because many Jews also call for such divestment. As an American Jew with half of my family in Israel and as someone who has spoken at synagogues and Jewish community centers around the country, much of the Jewish electorate are looking for a more permanent strategy to ensure Israel's security and the security of the region. The idea of "cutting the grass" that the current leaders in Israel espouse is an idea for permanent war in the region. We need to find a permanent resolution in the region that do not include continued hostility and recurring war. This must start by deescalating regional tensions. Creating a permanent nuclear agreement with Iran is a step in that direction.
In your book, you described paying close attention to the Iranian news as they covered the nuclear dispute with the U.S. because you knew it would provide clues about your release. Now that there is progress in the nuclear front, what does that mean for progress on other issues?
Oman opened up the dialogue over our incarceration between Iran and the United States. This dialogue paved the way for my release and that of my friends. It established a back channel between the two countries that also paved the way for a first step nuclear deal and the potential for a final nuclear deal. Other pressing issues such as ending Iran's human rights abuses, curbing the smuggling of a large percentage of the world's opium from Afghanistan through Iran to Europe, or engaging Iran diplomatically to end the violence in Syria and Iraq will depend on whether we can build mutual trust, cooperation and respect between our countries.
In your article published in the LA times, "The Iran I saw -- in 781 days in Evin Prison", you argued that [President Rouhani's] "election owes more to the inmates of Section 209 and to the millions of Iranians who have refused to accept the status quo than to the economic sanctions imposed from abroad." Could you elaborate on why this is the case and your view of the impact that sanctions have had on Iran and the Iranian people?
Just as in Cuba, Libya and Iraq, sanctions do not yield end-goal results and, in this current case, were not the primary reason Iran came to the table in October. Since Obama took office in 2009, the United States has made several gestures for diplomacy to the Iranian government, recognizing that the Iranian people were also calling for peace. Powerful street protests in 2009 forced the Iranian Government to allow the reformist platform of Presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani to gain ground because they feared another popular backlash against them. And once Rouhani was elected last year, Iranian government unclenched its fist. It is important to note that the Iranian uprising in 2009 that spurred these events before the devastating sanction legislation of 2010. Ordinary Iranian people have borne the brunt of these draconian sanctions, while hardliners have been enriched by them. Sanctions are a weapon to wage a cold war, and as they fail to reach their objectives, they create the conditions to make a hot war more likely -- which is something the American people do not want.
When in prison I became a student of Iranian state government propaganda and I argued with guards and interrogators about politics. I am the first to attest to the fact that Iran has a poor human rights record. I also found it impossible to argue against their claim that the United States holds Iran to a double standard. It is a double standard because we have close relationships with many countries with deplorable human rights records like China, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. Citing their human rights record as a reason to refuse nuclear engagement leaves the United States open to their charges of hypocrisy. Refusing to resolve the nuclear dispute because of Iran's human rights record could move the United States closer to war and will do nothing to resolve such human rights abuses in the long-term.
As we near the July 20 deadline for a final deal, let us hope that Josh's vision for a more secure and peaceful Middle East is realized.