An Open Letter to President Bush
Regarding U.S. Relations with Iran
January 30, 2002
Dear President Bush,
Please allow me to introduce myself. I am a native and resident of the state of New Mexico, and I am a professional scientist, having earned a Ph.D. in astronomy from New Mexico State University in 1992. As a scientist I experienced my proverbial "15 minutes of fame" five years ago when Comet Hale-Bopp, of which I am a co-discoverer, was shining in Earth's nighttime skies. While I am not an expert on political affairs I do my best to keep informed of the various issues that affect our nation and our planet.
I am writing to express my alarm to some of the statements made in your State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 29. In particular, I am referring to your statements about the nation of Iran, i.e., that it is part of an "axis of evil" and that it "exports terror." Such statements appear to reflect the common American mindset of Iran that is based upon events that happened over twenty years ago. I know that mindset well, for at one time I shared it. I was a midshipman in my senior year at the U.S. Naval Academy at the time of the U.S. Embassy seizure in Tehran in 1979, and I can still vividly recall the half-serious "Tehran Movement Order" signs that proliferated in Bancroft Hall afterwards. I even considered it within the realm of possibility that my graduating class would be graduated early so that we could be sent off to Iran and fight, and I was ready to do so if that occurred.
But that was then, and this is now, and I can assure you and any American who cares to listen that the elements of that 20-year-old mindset bear almost no resemblance to the Iran of today. I say this from personal experience, as I have made two visits to Iran within the last three years. Four years ago I became intrigued by President Mohammad Khatami's call for a "dialogue of civilizations" and his request for exchange visits between our respective countries and, keeping in mind the notoriety that fate had bestowed upon me and with the knowledge that a total solar eclipse would be crossing that country in August 1999, I conceived the idea of bringing a delegation of American scientists, students, and educators to Iran for that event. With the collaboration of and assistance from the organization Search for Common Ground I was successful in bringing such a group for a stay of 1 1/2 weeks at that time. As a result of that visit my scientific colleagues in Iran decided to host an international astronomy conference in the city of Esfahan in July 2000, and I was invited to bring another delegation over for that event. Again with the assistance of Search for Common Ground, I was able to do so, for a stay of one week.
Our reception from the Iranian people was nothing less than overwhelming. Our host organizations, the Zirakzadeh Science Foundation in Tehran and the Adib Astronomical Society in Esfahan, welcomed us with open arms, and repeatedly went out of their way to make our stays pleasant and enjoyable. The students we addressed and mingled with at places like the Institute for Advanced Studies of Basic Sciences in Zanjan and Lorestan University in Khorramabad, as well as at the astronomy conference in Esfahan, were intelligent and articulate, and as friendly and gracious as one could imagine. Perhaps most telling were the random "person on the street" encounters, for example, a man from Esfahan named Hossein who, on a moment's notice, dropped what he was doing so that he could chauffeur me and another American scientist around the city in search of an Internet site (and then help us search for the rest of our group afterwards), and a young gentleman in Esfahan who stopped me in a restaurant to tell me "After 20 years, it's great to have Americans back in Iran again!" Everywhere we went we encountered these types of reactions, with the Iranian people continuously going out of their way to reassure us that they liked and welcomed Americans.
I and the members of the delegations continue to correspond regularly with the friends and colleagues we have made as a result of these visits. After the horrifying events of September 11 I received numerous letters of sympathy and support from friends and colleagues around the world; many of these, and among the strongest, came from my friends in Iran, who were as shocked and horrified by that day's tragic events as was I.
Iran is not a perfect country. It is a complex society and culture, the complexities and nuances of which cannot be summarized in a sound bite or displayed on a bumper sticker. Its society and government confront numerous internal (and external) challenges, and there are disagreements within that society and government on how best to confront these -- but the same can also be said about the American society and government. I accept that the American government may have legitimate grievances and differences with the government of Iran -- but perhaps the reverse is true as well. These should all be addressed and resolved in negotiations conducted within an atmosphere of mutual respect, and not by threats and intimidation which, if escalated, can bring about hostilities that, among many other things, will shatter the peacemaking endeavors that I and many citizens of both countries have struggled to implement.
The people of Iran are not our enemies. They are human beings who desire peace, and a secure future for their children, as much as does any American. With this is mind, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to reconsider your comments in the State of the Union address, and instead to lead in genuine efforts to build a mutually respectful peace between our nation and Iran and, indeed, with all the nations of the world.
Cloudcroft, New Mexico