(Remarks delivered at a farewell dinner in honor of Ambassador Mohammad Tanhaei of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Philippines at the Manila Polo Club on November 26, 2019.)
My wife Gina and I and our family, together with Chairman Chen Youhou and Madam Chen, are pleased – and honored – to welcome you all to this get-together for Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Philippines Mohammad Tanhaei.
Ambassador Tanhaei, a humble, soft-spoken, brilliant, and great diplomat, has further advanced economic, political, and cultural relations between Iran and the Philippines.
Ambassador Tanhaei is also a patriot, writer, and farmer. He fought in the battlefield during the Iran-Iraq war and lost his leg. He authored various publications on regional and global affairs. And how he loves his farm in Iran, which trees he planted and cultivated himself.
Persia: One of the greatest and oldest civilizations in the world
Persia, as Iran was known before 1935, was one of the greatest empires of the ancient world, dating back around 7,000 B.C., or more than 5,000 years ago.
Historians and Vikipedia tell us that “the Persian Empire ruled from the Balkans to North Africa to Central Asia, spanning three continents, from its seat of power in Persepolis. It was the largest empire, the first world empire. And it was the only civilization in all of history to connect over 40% of the global population, accounting for approximately 49.4 million of the world’s 112.4 million people around 480 BC”.
Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979, following the Iranian Revolution, also known as the Islamic Revolution, which overthrew the monarchy and clerics assumed political control.
The epochal events of February, 1979, have made Iran a unique political power – one with spiritual and moral authority that extends well beyond its secular frontiers.
We had the privilege of seeing the new Iran at first-hand.
In the course of our foray into parliamentary and political diplomacy, we travelled to Iran many times since the first year of the shah. And in 2006, in Tehran, we conferred with Iran’s highest political leaders on possible ways and means of engaging Iran in the global community’s effort to ease the multiple wars in the Middle East, the foremost of which are the Sunni and Shi’ite inter-Muslim conflicts, the violent struggles in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and associated politico-religious and tribal conflicts in Africa.
We met then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Speaker of Parliament Haddad Adel, our close friend former speaker Nategh Nouri, now principal adviser to Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei; then Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki; and our dear friend, the late great former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose daughters became friends with my wife Gina.
We found the Iranian leaders proud of their country’s enhanced importance in the Middle East and in the world.
They were even more proud that the European, American, Asian, Latin American, and African powers were beginning to acknowledge the reality of Iran’s rising power and influence.
They were fully aware of their own need for Iran to exert its influence on the side of peace in the Middle East.
To this day, we believe that Iran, under President Hassan Rouhani, can and must play a crucial role in bringing about peace, security and development in the Middle East and the global community.
Institutionalizing the interfaith dialogue
In the United Nations, Iran and the Philippines were the closest allies in promoting the concept and practice of interfaith dialogue.
In partnership, the Philippines and Iran successfully sponsored a resolution in the UN General Assembly in November, 2004, binding the UN to promote interfaith dialogue as a way of helping resolve politico-religious conflicts, strengthening religious moderates, and isolating those who advocate terrorism in the name of religion.
As speaker of the House at the time, we had the privilege to present these initiatives of Iran and the Philippines to the UN General Assembly and to the Security Council.
We also proposed the creation an Interfaith Council in the UN or at least a focal point in the Office of the UN Secretary General, at a time when discussion of religion was somewhat taboo within the UN system.
We have partially succeeded. Today there is an Interfaith unit operating in the office of the UN secretary general.
Today, not only the United Nations and individual governments, but also civil society groupings have been holding these important dialogues on local, national, regional, and international levels.
A dialogue for peace
As other pundits have spoken of the dangers of the “clash of civilizations” in our modern period, Iran’s then President Mohammad Khatami and other scholars introduced the more strategic, more pragmatic idea of a “Dialogue Among Civilizations.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whom I conferred with in Tehran last year, proposed a “Dialogue for Peace in the Middle East,” by itself a facet of Iran’s great proposal in the recent past for a “Dialogue among Civilizations.”
For our part, we have been advocating the “Sunni-Shi’ite Dialogue” and wrote letters to Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Saudi Arabia’s then King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.
We spoke of a distant hope that someday, somehow in God’s own chosen time, the most difficult but not impossible Shiite-Sunni dialogue may yet come to pass in our time.
There was also an episode in recent years when the late President Rafsanjani expressed hopes that Iran and Saudi Arabia would have a close political and religious relationship. He said, “If the two countries are harmonized on regional issues and the Islamic world, seditionists will not be able to induce differences between Muslims.”
In conclusion, let me say that Iran has a special place in our heart.
Tehran, Iran’s capital, is home to the secretariat of the Asian Parliamentary Assembly (APA), now composed of more than 40 parliaments in Asia, which, with all humility, we co-founded, to create the beginnings of an Asian Parliament.
As our modest contribution in strengthening Iran in its parliamentary initiatives, we transferred the APA headquarters from Manila to Tehran, despite objections by some parliamentary leaders in the Philippines and in Asia.
Iran’s political parties are also members of our International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP), which represents some 350 ruling, opposition, and independent political parties in 52 countries in Asia, and which we founded and launched in Manila in September, 2000. Iran’s Former Vice President and Minister of Energy Hassan GhafooriFard is one of the co-founders of ICAPP and sits in the 39-member ICAPP Standing Committee.
We also remember that when democracy was restored in our country in 1986, President Cory Aquino initially offered us to be the Philippine ambassador to Iran, but we politely declined, with deep gratitude, as we informed her that we wanted to run for congressman in the fourth district of Pangasinan in 1987. We instead briefly served, from 1986 to 1987, as ambassador-at-large under the Cory Aquino administration.
We also wish to point out that then President Rafsanjani visited Manila, following President Fidel Ramos’ visit to Tehran in 1995 – the last visit of a Philippine president to Iran and vice versa.
Then Speaker Nategh Nouri, on our invitation, also visited Manila. His and President Rafsanjani’s visits advanced political, economic, and cultural relations between our two countries.