WASHINGTON - Members of Congress joined religious and civil society leaders today in an urgent call to stop the "drumbeat of war" with Iran and open up diplomatic talks to resolve growing tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Lee joined Reps. Ron Paul and Sheila Jackson Lee in a "Time to Talk to Iran" event on Capitol Hill, organized by the Campaign for a New American Policy on Iran (CNAPI), along with groups such as Physicians for Social Responsibility and the American Friends Service Committee.
The event featured 1960s-style red "hotline" telephones that enabled people to speak with ordinary citizens in Iran, including Washington, D.C. tourists attracted by the outdoors event.
Outside Washington, Americans were mobilized to call their Congressional representative to urge direct dialogue between the two countries.
A bill sponsored by Lee, the "Iran Diplomatic Accountability Act of 2008," is gathering momentum in Congress. The Act calls for the appointment of a high-level envoy to conduct direct, unconditional, bilateral negotiations with Iran.
The Capitol Hill event reflects the sharp divisions within the United States over how to deal with the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, particularly in regard to Iran's nuclear program and activities in Iraq and the Middle East.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at producing nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons, but the Bush administration remains unconvinced. Washington demands that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment program before talks can begin.
The Bush administration also accuses the Iranian regime of fomenting conflict in Iraq and the Middle East.
In response to what it sees as Iranian meddling, according to CNAPI, current U.S. policy toward Iran is to "publicly threaten and insult Iran, while taking provocative actions such as adopting a policy of regime change, attempting to increase unilateral sanctions, deploying additional military assets in the region, and arresting Iranian representatives in Iraq."
Iran, meanwhile, is concerned about Bush administration efforts to extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the current end-2008 UN mandate.
During a Sunday visit to Tehran by Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated: "The presence of occupiers in Iraq, particularly the U.S. armed forces...is the main obstacle to unity in Iraq."
A wide spectrum of U.S. military, political, and civil society leaders, along with ordinary Americans, believe that these very real tensions should be addressed by direct talks and diplomacy, not veiled threats.
A February Gallup Poll found that nearly 7 of 10 Americans favor direct political and economic engagement with Iran over military action.
Retired Army, Air Force, and Navy officials, such as Army Generals John Abizaid and Wesley Clark and Admiral Michael Mullen, currently head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have also spoken out in favor of diplomatic engagement.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Sam Gardiner stated succinctly in a speech last month to the Academy of American Diplomacy: "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work."
Former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski and Lt. General William Odom agreed in a May 26 contribution to the Washington Post: "The United States would have a better chance of success if the White House abandoned its threats of military action and its calls for regime change."
Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton called during their presidential campaigns for direct contact with Iran as the best way to begin ironing out differences. Presidential hopeful John McCain has repeatedly belittled that approach, calling it "naive."
But McCain's Republican colleague Senator Chuck Hagel has also called for action on the diplomatic front.
Hagel wrote to President George W. Bush late last year, warning that the United States finds itself in a "dangerous and increasingly isolated position," and urging that "now is the time for the United States to actively consider when and how to offer direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks with Iran."
While issues of war and peace were not resolved through today's hotline conversations, they gave both Americans and Iranians an opportunity to remember that dialogue is possible, and served as a reminder by seasoned politicians that Congress can and must play a role in preventing war.
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