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Reconciliation After Intractable Conflicts

While an event may have happened long ago, the conflict surrounding that event often persists today, said Peter Coleman, Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) at TC, as he addressed the topic of "intractable conflicts" at a panel discussion held on April 29 at Teachers College. The discussion, "Reconciliation After Intractable Conflicts," was sponsored by ICCCR and featured Executive Director of External Affairs Barry Rosen's experience as a hostage during the Iran Crisis nearly 20 years ago.

The discussion was broken out into three segments: background on the U.S. and Iranian relations, Rosen's experience in reconciliation with his captor, and a panel discussion based on reactions to Rosen's talk.

While Rosen served as a press attaché for the U.S. embassy in Iran, a revolution occurred led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Shah was overthrown. The U.S. granted the Shah asylum and provided him with medical treatment. Many Iranians resented the U.S.'s intervention and support of the Shah. As a result, several months later, the American embassy in Tehran was seized. Rosen and 51 others were held hostage for 444 days, from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981. After Rosen and the others were finally released in 1981, he had to come to terms with the anguish he felt due to his horrific experience. "Conflict is ever present in my mind, body and soul," said Rosen, "but not everyone understands the complexity of it. Both Iran and America were victims of policies initiated during the Cold War."

As part of what Rosen recalls as not so much an "act of reconciliation" but as an "opening of communication," he went to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris this past August to meet with his captor, Abbas Abdi. At first, Rosen said he felt conflicted about attending the meeting, but he noted the need to "react to changing circumstances." "Rather than carry around anger, I wanted to resolve issues," said Rosen, giving his reasons for attending the meeting. It was Rosen's "desire to close the circle of 444 days of incredible pain" that prompted him to make the trip to Paris and meet face to face with Abdi.

"Although Abdi and I are worlds apart in thinking…we welcomed the opportunity to put the past behind us," said Rosen, as he commented on his newfound friendship and reconciliation with his former captor. "You don't have to forgive and forget, but be sensitive to others' feelings."

Morton Deutsch, a panel member and ICCCR Director Emeritus, related Rosen's experience to everyone's experience in facing issues of forgiveness and reconciliation at some point in their lives. "You must force deep emotions in one's self…and be able to place them in the past, to deal with the past on the past, and deal with the present and future as they exist," said Deutsch. He then noted some approaches toward forgiveness: focus on the victim to see the complex being within themselves-both good and evil-and recognize that this is true of all people.

According to Deutsch, reconciliation also takes interaction and negotiation between victim and offender so a reality is established where both parties are satisfied. Dr. Betty Reardon, Director of Peace Education at TC, added that while there is a range of circumstance that makes us either the victim or the perpetrator, at some point in our lives we will be both. In the constant process of reconciliation, Reardon said, "we need to know what comes after the mediation and understanding, and what came before it."

Both panelists Coleman and Reardon agreed that there is a call for innovation in the area of conflict resolution. Coleman said, "different issues [require us] to think in a different manner in order to address them effectively." Reardon said that "reconciliation takes courage, skill and imagination" and that there is a need to cultivate the imagination so even at awful times, you can envision possibilities.

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