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A Mother's Day Message from the Ladies of Boise

The Senate’s Peace Quilt

by Col. DAN SMITH

Diplomacy has at least one trait in common with war: its course is unpredictable and therefore can catch governments by surprise.

As the still unsuccessful occupation of Iraq continues, some analysts see signs that the Bush administration is planning for a fight with Iran. This view is empirical–Bush had not completed the process of regime change and building democratic institutions in Afghanistan before vital assets–personnel, funds, intelligence platforms, unmanned reconnaissance-strike drones–were diverted to plan or be available for invading Iraq.

Even as the White House insists it wants a multinational diplomatic solution, what it really wants is a "solution" on U.S. terms. And Iran, for its part, has demands of its own.

But first a little background.

The list of U.S. grievances against Iraq goes back to August 1979 when militant Iranian students–reportedly including Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad–stormed the U.S. embassy and then held 52 embassy personnel captive for 444 days. The Shah of Iran had been ousted a few months earlier by a popular uprising encouraged by the religious leadership against many of his western "reforms." (This was one of a series of intelligence failures by the CIA over the course of the Cold War." The sense of humiliation in being unable to secure the release of the hostages was intensified when the rescue mission suffered disaster at Desert One when a helicopter and a fixed wing aircraft collided while maneuvering.

Other tensions have from time to time manifested themselves. With a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group usually in the Persian Gulf and Iran’s expanding fleet of very fast small boats armed with anti-ship missiles, everyone expected an encounter. But when it came, it was neither an exchange between surface vessels nor did it involve a submarine. The captain of the guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes mistook an Iranian civilian airliner with some 260 persons aboard for a warplane getting into position to attack the U.S. warship–and fired, bringing the aircraft down.

Iran has a history of supporting Palestinian organizations that reside in the Bekka valley in Syria, from where attacks are mounted against targets in Israel. President Bush cited Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil" along with Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea under Kim Jong Il. But Bush so far has refrained from alleging a link between the Shi’ite establishment in Iran and the Sunni dominated al-Qaeda movement of Osama bin Laden.

Nonetheless, in this year’s State Department publication on terrorism, Iran is listed as the number one state-sponsor of terrorism in the world. And this gets to the real issue for the United States: Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran says is confined to nuclear energy and the U.S.–citing 18 years of deception of the International Atomic Energy Agency–alleges is a cover for acquiring the knowledge and equipment to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels so Tehran could secretly produce nuclear weapons.

Iran’s list of grievances against the U.S. goes back to post-World War II when Iran’s struggle to create a democracy threatened the interests of the Anglo-Iranian oil company. Washington’s support for its wartime ally led to regime change in Tehran in a coup planned and carried out by British MI6 and the U.S. CIA (its first). Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a nationalist who had been elected in May 1951, had nationalized much if not most of Iran’s petroleum industry that same month. But on August 19, 1953, he was removed, and Iran’s experiment with democracy end as the young Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi mounted the Peacock Throne.

There was so much petroleum in Iran, the U.S. simply could not let the country go its own way. With a common border along the Caspian Sea with the USSR, Iran was "vulnerable" to a possible coup by its indigenous communist movement–the Tudeh party. As the years passed, the Shah’s rule became more and more oppressive, his secret police more brutal, and the CIA more reliant on what the Shah’s sycophants told them instead of getting out and talking with ordinary Iranians. Inevitably, the embassy missed the discontent with the Shah’s regime, the lack of improvement in the quality of daily life, the massive expenditures on military hardware, and religious indifference of the ruling elite. The Shah’s fall was swift and final–and the interregnum before the theocracy of the ayatollahs equally short and final.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s rhetorical forays against the U.S., Israel, and Europeans have been so consistent in their defiance that his dispatch of a letter offering to discuss a range of issues seems to have caught the White House a bit flat-footed. Washington is focused on stopping Iran’s enrichment program so as to preclude the possibility of diverting highly enriched fissile materials for bombs. Washington’s position is Iran cannot be trusted to stop at three percent enriched fuel for energy production.

The White House also wants Iran to cease interfering in Iraq, a charge Tehran says is baseless. Ahmadinejad, for his part, says he is ready to talk on a host of issues directly with the U.S. Talk he is able to do, but in reality, his status and the status of any promises he might make are subject to the governing councils and the Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

While Washington dithers, ordinary citizens in Idaho are acting. Their dialogue, like that between Washington and Tehran, has two sides. Unlike Washington and Tehran, Idaho’s two sides are reinforcing.

The first actual begins in 1870 when, on the second Sunday of May, a "Mother’s Day for Peace" proclamation, written by poet Julia Ward Howe (who also penned the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"), was read. Its concluding paragraph was a powerful appeal.

"In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace."

As the post-Napoleonic "Concert of Europe" disintegrated, peace societies multiplied across the country. Many actively sought alternatives to war rather than relying on religious proscriptions against killing. Inevitably, the great gathering envisioned by Howe took place–but it was not restricted to women. In mid-April 1907, as diplomats negotiated what became the 1907 Hague Conventions protecting noncombatants in times of war, 40,000 marched in New York City to express their support while in churches across the United States, 50,000 sermons were delivered on "Peace Sunday."

Fast forward 77 years to 1984 in Boise where a red, white, and blue "National Peace Quilt" with 50 panels–one for each state–is unveiled. Each panel contains a child’s vision of what peace and security would "look like." The inscription on the quilt reads:

"REST beneath the warmth and weight of our hopes
for the future of our children,
DREAM a vision of the world at peace,
ACT to give the vision life."

Each U.S. Senator is challenged by the Boise ladies to take the quilt home and sleep under it for one night. In return, the names of those participating were embroidered on the quilt. Over the course of 1985-86, sixty-seven senators participated, recording in the "National Peace Quilt Log Book" their own personal vision of peace and how to achieve that goal.

This Mother’s Day, May 14, marks the 20th anniversary of the collective dreams of peace recorded in a log book in Boise following (one hopes) a restful night. The Idaho Peace Coalition will send Mothers’ Day Peace Entreaties to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–whose chairperson and ranking member took their turn resting an dreaming under the blanket 20 years ago–asking the committee to redouble their efforts to develop diplomatic solutions to will resolve the animosity between the United States and Iran.

Daniel Smith, a retired colonel and Vietnam veteran, is a West Point graduate and a grad against the war. He can be reached at: dan@fcnl.org