Dialogue among civilizations: Obama’s nuclear deal

Peace & Justice

In 1998 the then-newly-elected Iranian president, Mohammed Khatami, overcame the opposition of hard-line ayatollahs and sought rapprochement with the West, rejecting a decades old foreign policy of confrontation. Many contended that the future for the Islamic world and the West was inevitably a “clash of civilizations”—a conclusion many Western academics and policymakers agreed with. Khatami, however, in a still-astonishing speech at the United Nations, proposed a future founded upon dialogue and asked the United Nations to designate the first year of the new millennium, 2001, as a “Year of Dialogue among Civilizations.”

The Clinton administration welcomed the overture. Secretary of State Madeline Albright opened an initiative to reimagine relations with Iran. Détente seemed on the horizon. Khatami subsequently denounced terrorism, promised that Iran would not pursue nuclear arms, and even praised the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks.

In the summer of the fateful year 2001, then nearly three years into the improving political climate between the United States and Iran, I accepted an invitation to spend several weeks in Iran. My visit began when I participated in a United Nations conference on human rights in Tehran, held under the Khatami banner of dialogue among civilizations. Academics and diplomats from around the world gathered to explore approaches to human rights from multiple perspectives: law, governance, religion, and philosophy. A large Muslim delegation reflected on rights within the context of Islamic theology, tradition, and Sharia law. Several Catholic scholars traced the idea of rights to natural law and to the Christian conception of the human person as imago Dei.

What became clear in discussion with Iranian academics, faith leaders, and low-level ministerial officials, often over lunches or lovely outdoor picnics, was their admiration and familiarity with American scholarship and culture. Away from the conference’s speeches and seminars, we talked as much about music, literature, films, philosophy, and rock music as we did about human rights. They were eager for normalization and excited about the prospect of improving relations with the United States.


Following the human rights conference, I traveled to the city of Qom where I had been invited to present a series of lectures on the Catholic theories of natural law. Qom is a holy city for Shia Islam. Like the Vatican, Qom is filled with seminaries, mosques, and religious universities and is home to prominent clerics and scholars. Mofid University was my host. Scholars at Mofid were interested in the parallel between canon law and Islam’s Sharia law. The Catholic idea of natural law as a God-given code discerned through reason—instead of revealed in scripture—fascinated them.

My hosts provided outings to nearby historical sites. One stands out in my memory. I can’t recall the name of the town, but it was full of fountains and gardens and was bustling with busloads of visiting school children. Somehow word got out to the kids that I was an American and I found myself surrounded by what I remember as hundreds (probably more like 50 or 60) teenagers. All were thrilled to meet an American. They shouted out phrases in American English, with the better English-speakers asking frank questions about American life, culture, and politics. Teen after teen spoke up, many times with a tone of daring, to say they liked America and that I should tell everyone back in Washington that the people of Iran liked the American people.

My time in Iran was not without a scary moment—a run-in with Revolutionary Guards at Tehran airport as I was departing—but the message that came through over and over during those weeks was what the mob of teenagers had such passion to shout: The people of Iran like us.

About a month after my return, on September 11, the hope for a “dialogue among nations” was dealt a devastating blow, from which it has not fully recovered. The hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center had absolutely nothing to do with Iran, but Iranian and U.S. policies in the aftermath of 9/11 dimmed any prospects for dialogue. I remain convinced, however, that there remains a deep reservoir of good will among the Iranian people that awaits only a catalyst for its release.


I support the nuclear deal that Secretary John Kerry and President Obama’s administration hammered out with the Iranian regime. I’ve studied it closely and am persuaded that it will work effectively to deter Iran from developing nuclear weaponry over the next decade. I’m convinced, too, that the deal will slow further development of Iranian ballistic missile technology. And, while concerns are warranted that unfreezing Iranian financial assets and oil revenue risks strengthening the hand of terrorist groups like Hezbollah, the trade-off for halting Iranian nuclear and missile development is in the best interests of the United States, the region, and the world. I remain disappointed that the Iranian regime has not yet released the wrongly imprisoned Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian, and would see his release as a welcome sign of Iranian good will.

Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, New Mexico, head of the American bishops’ Committee for Justice and Peace, issued a solid endorsement of the nuclear deal and encouraged hasty Congressional approval. Former Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Theodor McCarrick has strongly spoken out in favor of the deal. The deal also has elicited a strong supportive statement from the Vatican.

Beyond the crucial importance of the nuclear deal itself, I am also especially hopeful that the lifting economic sanctions on Iran will foster a renewed engagement of its people with the West. Could this be the catalyst that’s been needed to tap into the reservoir of good will that I remember? Therein lies the greatest promise for restarting our two nations’ long-stalled, mutual hopes for “dialogue among civilizations.” I am no pacifist and strongly supported U.S. military interventions in Afghanistan after 9/11, but dialogue, not clash or confrontation, is the only viable basis for an enduring international order.

As Khatami explained at UNESCO’s inauguration of the Year of Dialogue among Civilizations:


Dialogue is not easy. It is even more difficult to prepare and open up vistas upon one’s inner existence to others. A belief in dialogue paves the way for vivacious hope: the hope of living in a world permeated by virtue, humility and love, and not merely by the reign of economic indices and destructive weapons. Should the spirit of dialogue prevail, humanity, culture and civilization will prevail.

The Obama administration has done much to demonstrate the real efficacy of dialogue, as this nuclear deal demonstrates. What Secretary Kerry has achieved is a very good deal for the United States and warrants quick Congressional approval. As Catholics we should all hope for a not-too-distant future where clash and confrontation succumb to a genuine dialogue among civilizations.

Stephen Schneck’s blog, Church and state, will update every Monday. Follow him on Twitter @StephenSchneck.

Image: © iStock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz


About the author

Stephen Schneck

Stephen Schneck is a Catholic advocate for social justice and former professor at The Catholic University of America. He currently serves on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.