As we find ourselves on the brink of another unnecessary war in the Middle East, I am reminded of the night the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. At the time I was taking an international studies course titled, “Islam and the West.” Beyond teaching about the historical context that informed our contemporary politics, our professor’s objective was to give us the needed tools in order to “bridge the gap” between these erroneously divided worlds. Then a wide-eyed undergraduate student, my fellow classmates and I embodied the characteristic idealism of youth, the belief that with our convictions and our humanity we could change the course of events.
Then came the night of March 19, 2003, which was during our week of final exams, the university was open 24 hours a day so students could study. I will never forget the feeling of sitting in a study hall with so many students huddled around a television watching the news. You could hear a pin drop as we sat pensive and deflated. With little sleep and even less hopefulness, the next morning we walked into the final exam. I raised my hand and posed a simple question, what was the purpose of what we had learned, if we were powerless to prevent continuous conflict?
Our professor did something incredible in that moment. She reminded us that she herself had lived through the Lebanese Civil War and understood our dejection, but that things would only change if we continued the path, educated ourselves, and engaged in honest discussion with others. Despite the very real fear and feeling of despair I have now, I remind myself of her wisdom at a time when her young students were seeking inspiration.
Now, as an adult with the bitter experience of the Iraq war, we are on the precipice of a more disastrous conflict. We are a generation defined by those experiences, 9/11, the “war on terror,” Afghanistan, and Iraq. But in that class, all those years ago, my peers and I learned how every conflict we were facing had roots in the past, a cycle of violence that people in power explained away with less convincing arguments every day.
East and West are not clean divisions of “clashing civilizations,” they are historical constructs meant to divide human beings against each other. When the President of the United States threatens to destroy Iran’s cultural sites, it is not only an assault on Iran, but an attack on human history and civilization. Though on its surface the current conflict is between Iran and the United States, a war would reverberate through the world. As such, the international community should intervene and mediate an end to this escalation before it is truly too late.
Some will say those lines have already been crossed, but we always have choices, a cease-fire, a period of calm, a true negotiation, in short, diplomacy. Seventeen years ago, when we invaded Iraq, young and naive, I tried to appeal to people’s emotions. Now as an adult, I am still moved to tears as I write these words, but I have learned to appeal to logic. There is no hope in the foreseeable future to shed the mutual enmities of Iran and the U.S., a painful truth for an Iranian-American, but there is a way to reverse course and save the world from more futile destruction.
Though adversaries, our two countries — along with the international community — have already gone through arduous diplomacy, resulting in the nuclear deal. It is now weak but not dead, as seen by Iran’s most recent decision not to abandon the deal entirely. The framework of the deal exists, and Iran has specified that if sanctions are lifted and it obtains the benefits promised in the deal, that it will return to full compliance. The first step is to end the destructive cycle of violent escalation. But hitting the breaks is not enough, we must reverse course entirely, a reset to the last point in which we remember not being in tense conflict. That is the nuclear deal.
President Kennedy once said that, “Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable. By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all peoples to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly toward it.” The negotiations that facilitated the nuclear deal are precisely the sum of small acts that Kennedy envisioned — not a perfect peace, not one where all are friends, but a peace among adversaries. A model for cooperation, which can be replicated to address the ever-growing challenges that we face as a planet.
Upon reflection, I may still hold the hopeful idealism of the student I was before March 19, 2003. You may think I’m naive to believe war can be averted now — as it looks like it may have for the moment — and a fool for advocating still for a deal many call dead. But, one may argue it is naive to believe such a war will have a “winner” and even more foolish to think the human cost can be justified. Now more than ever, anti-war voices are crucial to end the madness of our ineffective policies. No matter the coming days, weeks or even years, I will continue to move irresistibly towards peace, the alternative is unbearable to imagine.