I am convinced now more than ever that people learn nothing from history. Monday night, the Iranian government hosted a lavish dinner buffet in the delegates’ dining room at the UN to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Hundreds of delegates and their guests were in attendance, among them UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Flat screen televisions showed video clips of Iranian rocket launches and bombs as part of the celebration. Three months earlier, Iran’s supreme religious leader referred to another UN member country as an “unclean rabid dog” and its prime minister as “the sinister mouth of the filthy, rabid dog of the region.” Three days before the party at the UN, Iranian state television aired a film depicting a computer-simulated attack on that same country. But none of that seemed to deter people from celebrating alongside the Islamic Republic of Iran on Monday night.
The next day throughout Iran crowds at celebratory rallies shouted, “Death to America.” There were some chants not heard before: “Death to Kerry,” “Death to Sherman.” (Wendy R. Sherman is the lead US negotiator in the nuclear talks.) People carried posters which read, “We are ready for the great battle.” The rally in Iran’s capital Teheran was a rather bizarre affair combining bellicose rants with elements of ‘family fun night’ at the local school. Clowns explained to the children the importance of brushing their teeth. Parachutists dropped candy into the crowds. Actors re-enacted scenes from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s (Iran’s idea of family-entertainment?).
As is customary with the Islamic Republic on the anniversary of its revolution, Iran showcased its growing military capability. This year’s commemoration included the test-firing of two new domestically-made missiles. An even more spectacular achievement for the Islamic Republic was that, for the first time ever, Iran dispatched a flotilla of warships into the Atlantic. The flotilla included the Khark, a helicopter-carrier warship, and the Sabalan, a destroyer. Countering the US presence in the Persian Gulf by having their own ships ply the waters just off the US marine boundaries has been Iran’s goal since 2011.
A lesser-known event that took place on the 35th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution was a press conference called in Rome by Iran’s ambassador to the Holy See, Mohammad Taher Rabbani. To the journalists gathered there Rabbani expressed a strong desire for the Holy See and Iran to collaborate for the sake of peace. There is a role for religion in international diplomacy, claimed Iran’s ambassador. Since the Holy See and Iran hold common views on a number of issues such as the Syrian crisis, Christianity and Islam should therefore work side by side to address problems, urged Iran’s ambassador. He praised Pope Francis for his “modesty and high morality.” According to Rabbani, “when the circumstances are favourable, we hope to plan a meeting between His Excellency Dr. Hassan Rohani and the Holy Father Pope Francis.” (I wonder how many at the press conference realized that February 11 was also the date of the signing of the Lateran Pacts between Mussolini’s fascist government and the Holy See eighty-five years earlier.)
I believe Pope Francis will engage the Islamic world in a significant way soon. Such engagement could very well include Iran’s president, given Iran’s growing clout in the Middle East. The Pope, one recalls, chose the name ‘Francis’ because of his great admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi. One of the things for which the 13th century saint is remembered is his bold outreach to the Muslim world. In 1219, in the middle of the Fifth Crusade, Francis crossed enemy lines to gain an audience with the Sultan of Egypt, Sultan al-Kamil. Opposed to war, Francis thought that if he could only convert the Sultan to Christianity, then peace would follow. Francis failed to convert the Sultan. In fact, it was Francis who changed. Francis, impressed by the Moslem call to prayer five times a day and Muslim prostration at prayer, called for Christians to follow suit on his return from the Sultan’s camp. Francis brought back only one gift from Egypt: an ivory horn used by the muezzin to call the faithful to prayer, which Francis then used to summon Christians. After spending time with the Sultan, Francis appeared to have lost his former missionary zeal. Rather than trying to convert Muslins, Christians were required now only to live harmoniously with them.
Can the Catholic Pope truly partner with Iran’s president to address the many problems in the Middle East and in the wider world, as the Iranian ambassador to the Holy See suggests? Those who think that Rouhani’s election signifies a gentler, more moderate Iran should think again. The rhetoric that keeps coming from Iran’s leaders reveals their goals remain unchanged. There has been a change in strategy, not substance. Some–like those who attend buffet dinners hosted by the Iranian government on February 11–seem prepared to overlook the vile, dehumanizing language coming from Iran, perhaps regarding it as just an ‘Iran thing’. History should have taught us that dehumanizing language is merely the prelude to something much nastier. It would appear it hasn’t.