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From left: Holzer, Nephew, and Abdi. (Photo Credit: Ecumenical Advocacy Days)

From left: Holzer, Nephew, and Abdi. (Photo Credit: Ecumenical Advocacy Days)

by Barton Gingerich (@bjgingerich)

When religious leftists from multiple Christian traditions gathered near Capitol Hill at the 11th annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days, some workshop attendees were graced by the presence of DC analysts to discuss “Iran: Food, Sanctions & Human Need.” A combination of nonprofit lobbyists and State Department officials came to discuss the reasons, effects, and conditions of United States sanctions against Iran. These diplomatic measures are all part of a wider strategy to prevent both a nuclear (belligerent) Iran and funding for various international terrorist activities. Nevertheless, the District experts found themselves faced with a very vocal opposition in their activist audience.

Holly Holzer, the State Department’s Deputy Director at the Office of Iranian Affairs, said that the Department’s two main goals are “the protection of U.S. citizens and the promotion of U.S. values.” Iran, in its oppressive Islamist government and outspoken hatred for Western civilization, remains a prickly nation for American officials. “Why worry about a nuclear Iran?” queried Holzer. She informed her listeners that Iran with nuclear capabilities may spring an arms race with its neighbors. Moreover, time and time again, Iran has proven itself to be an unreliable actor. Coupled with atomic armaments, the country would definitely destabilize the entire region. “We prefer a diplomatic solution,” the deputy director said, “The sanctions are oriented towards the nuclear issue and human rights problems…[The sanctions] have humanitarian exceptions built-in.” Holzer noted that Iran would almost assuredly abuse unregulated aid; the resources it gains from oil production have already been used corruptly. “The allocation priorities are wrong,” she declared.

The Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy Richard Nephew gave more diplomatic history. He also thought that the main point of contention on the panel would be the 2006 intensification of sanctions. Clarifying the specifics of the sanctions, the coordinator stated, “If you supply Iran with goods that can be used for human rights violations in Iran, you cannot do business in the U.S.” Nephew revealed that he did not mind Iran bringing a reactor online for the sake of electricity. Nevertheless, the nation-state seeks not just power, but weaponry: “Iran has put nuclear capabilities to the forefront of national, international, and even cultural policy.”

In the midst of these comments, a rambunctious activist interrupted the lecture to condemn how Iranian people do not have medical supplies, presumably because sanctions work to block provision. Nephew quickly responded that these humanitarian resources are allowed into the country, though the Iranian government is often free to distribute as they see fit. After the advocate’s persistent badgering, moderator Kate Gould from the Friends Committee on National Legislation warned that, if such outbursts continued before the Q&A session, the guest would be asked to leave.

After this kerfuffle, Jamal Abdi, Policy Director of the National Iranian American Council, questioned the sanctions of technology such as computers and smart phones. He recounted how a public beating was captured on video by iPhone and uploaded for the world to see on Youtube. Abdi observed, “These things can be instruments to bring democracy to Iran…Some sanctions thus aid to impede freedom.” “People are squeezed between oppressive government and repressive sanctions by other nation-states,” he complained, “We’re undermining tools to form civil society and thus helpful change.”

The United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries’ own David Wildman was dissatisfied with the panel’s conversation. He shrilly decried the U.S. government’s “rhetoric of war.” He also worried that America had not learned from the sanctions experience with Iraq before the first Gulf War. Nephew answered that Iraq veterans in the diplomatic corps often quip, “We don’t want to do that again.” He reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to peaceful diplomatic means. What is more, medical companies are more worried about financial and banking difficulties associated with Iran. Since the country uses banks to funnel support for terrorist networks across the globe, the United States has to continually freeze and sanction various banks. “They [the Iranian regime] are the ones who have created this problem,” Nephew added.  Holzer commented that the State Department is trying to give the Iranian government an “honorable way out”; the goal is “not regime change, but changed policies within the same regime.”

At this point, the aforementioned zealous activist stood up, asserting that the United States would have the blood of innocent children on their hands for overly-strict sanctions. Wagging her finger at Nephew, the slightly-deranged advocate exclaimed, “This—what you just offered—is just State Department boilerplate!” Before anyone else could react, she announced, “This is what EAD is all about!” Satisfied for her execration against political injustice, she stormed out of the room, no doubt to search for like-minded prophets in the conference’s liberal milieu.

Next to voice concern was the General Board of Church and Society’s Mark Harrison. “You all make my job difficult,” he grumbled at the State Department officials, “You treat Iran really harshly, but then you’re nicer to other countries who also commit human rights violations …You’re never fair…I have a hard time getting my mind around that and explaining to people why the American government does this…It seems so many in government want to saber-rattle and pull the trigger on a war.”

Harrison’s thesis was thoroughly trounced by Nephew. The deputy coordinator reported that Iran under the Shah had signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and that the revolutionary government explicitly reaffirmed the commitment to not pursue nuclear arms. However, over the course of twenty or thirty years, Iran formed a nuclear program in secret. When intelligence services discovered the facilities, the Iranian regime denied their existence. Since Iran broke its agreements, lied about it, and flouted international politics; it has received harsher censures for reneging on its promises. There must be consequences. Nephew instructed, “In this situation, you only have three options really: do nothing and let them get away with it (and who knows what else), impose sanctions, or prepare for some kind of violent retaliation. We’re doing everything we can to be proactive while avoiding the last one.”

The narrow partisan opinions of outspoken activists and powerful denominational elites often prove frustrating for moderate and conservative church members. Thankfully, these naively strident views certainly lacked winsome traction with important government officials at EAD 2013. While such rude advocacy may be a cause for denominational embarrassment nowadays, it probably will not significantly threaten the common good with regard to Iran since religious left apologists lack persuasiveness in the public square.