by John Bryson Chane
I have had the opportunity to travel to Iran on seven occasions since 2005. Most recently, in November 2016, I went there to participate in a conference with Christian and Muslim religious leaders from around the world. While there I received word that Donald Trump had just been elected president. Iranian academics and religious colleagues as well as Iranian citizens I met during my visit asked with deep concern whether Trump’s election would alter or even terminate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement with Iran to terminate its development of nuclear weapons.
The Iranians I met were excited about the agreement reached July 14, 2015. They saw it as a positive step toward removing sanctions that would allow Iran to grow its economy, improve the quality of life for its people, and build better relationships with the West. The JCPOA also gave new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate political force in Iran, the support needed to begin political and social reforms in the country.
Iran is not North Korea, Israel, India, or Pakistan. These four countries have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), while Iran has. The JCPOA goes beyond the directives of the NPT and prevents Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. It places Iran under a highly invasive, on-site international nuclear monitoring process under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran has unequivocally stated that under no circumstance will it ever seek to develop or acquire any nuclear weapons. Just last month, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee that “we don’t believe Iran is currently undertaking the key activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.” Coates’ commentary about Iran directly conflicts with President Trump’s deceptive public comments about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Just as he did as a presidential candidate, Trump continues to disseminate misinformation that the Iranian nuclear deal “is a horrible one-sided deal” and “the worst deal ever.” Last May, he claimed that he was withdrawing from the “nuclear deal” because to remain in it would lead to a Middle East nuclear arms race:
It is clear to me that we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying and rotten structure of the recurrent agreement. The deal is defective to its core. It didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will.
With little or no understanding of Persian political history and no understanding of America’s foreign policy with modern Iran, Trump has pushed his Iranian agenda forward using inaccurate and false assessments that have isolated the United States from its Western allies. In doing so, he has made the United States and the world more vulnerable to violence and asymmetrical warfare. He has dumbed down the political realities and complexities of the Middle East and has mindlessly supported Saudi Arabia’s efforts to make Iran a regional pariah.
Iran’s early relationship with America has a lengthy history beginning in the early twentieth century and the Rev. Howard Conklin Baskerville in 1907. An ordained clergyman and missionary, Baskerville was educated at Princeton University. He taught English History and geometry to mixed classes of boys and girls at the American Missionary school in Tabriz, Iran with the understanding that, as a Christian, he would not engage in proselytizing to convert Muslims to Christianity. He honored that agreement.
In 1909, a Constitutional Revolution was underway in Iran. Baskerville decided to gather a force of armed volunteers to defend the emerging democracy in the country. Leading a group of approximately 100 volunteers in battle against troops of the Royal Qajar Dynasty fighting for Mohammad Ali Shah—which was supported by Cossack brigades commanded by Russian officers—Baskerville was killed by a sniper’s bullet. He was buried in the Christian Armenian cemetery in the City of Tabriz with over 1,000 attendees at his funeral. He was eulogized as a patriot and martyr for Iran.
Unfortunately, Iran’s Constitutional Revolution ended with shah imprisoning or executing politicians, journalists, and leaders of the movement. Today, even with the enmity that exists between Iran and the United States, a bronze bust of Reverend Baskerville is on display in the Tabriz Constitutional House. Each year on the anniversary of his death, Iranians place yellow roses on his gravestone. Iranians continue to embrace him as their American martyr.
During the Iranian takeover of the U.S. embassy in 1979 and the incarceration of 52 American hostages in Evan Prison, a delegation of American religious leaders was permitted to travel to Iran and meet with the hostages. While there, an Iranian student revolutionary asked the clergy, “Where is your Baskerville?’ The remark was both a reminder of the reverence Iranians still have for Baskerville and a condemnation of the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh by Great Britain and the United States and his replacement by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran.
Another American, William Morgan Shuster, travelled to Iran in 1906 and was appointed by the Majlis to help manage Persia’s tenuous financial affairs because of the high levels of debt owed to Russia and Great Britain by the Persian royal family, the Qajars. His active support of the Persian Constitutional Revolution was unacceptable to the nationalistic interests of Britain and Russia, forcing the vice-regent of Persia to expel Shuster to the United States in 1911. Back in America he authored a book, The Strangling of Persia, which asserted that “It was obvious that the people of Persia deserve much better than they were getting, that they wanted us to succeed but it was the British and the Russians who were determined not to let us succeed.”
This history shapes the future. Kermit Roosevelt, a key player in overthrowing President Mossadegh, wrote the following in his book Countercoup:
[I]n the late summer of 1953 after the overthrow the Shah said to me truthfully, “I owe my throne to God, my people, my arms and to you.” By “you” he meant me and the two countries Great Britain and the United States I was representing. We were all heroes. Now I must say sadly, that is no longer true. What was a heroic story has gone on to becoming a tragic story.
In his modern-day effort to strangle Iran, Donald Trump ignores this history at his—and America’s—peril.
The Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, former episcopal bishop of Washington DC, is the senior advisor for inter-religious dialogue at the Washington National Cathedral.