Friday, March 28, 2008

Five Former Secretaries of State Call for Engaging Iran

On March 27, five former Secretaries of state from both Republican and Democratic administrations said the next president should open talks with Iran, each saying it was important to maintain contact with adversaries and allies alike. Colin L Powell, Henry A. Kissinger, James A. Baker III, Warren Christopher and Madeleine K. Albright spoke at a round-table discussion sponsored by the University of Georgia. They also reached consensus that the next administration should close the Guantanamo Bay prison because of its legal implications and the damage it has done to America’s image abroad.

Madeleine Albright stressed the importance of finding "common ground," and Warren Christopher urged diplomats to explore opening contact with other "vectors of power," such as clerics and former political leaders.

James A. Baker III suggested the dialogue could center on a common dilemma, saying a "dysfunctional Iraq, a chaotic Iraq, is not something that's in the interest to Iran. There's every incentive on their part to help us, the same way they did in Afghanistan." His comments were consistent with recommendations that were included in the 2006 Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report that called for engaging Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria. Henry Kissinger said, "One has to talk with adversaries.” Colin Powell compared the potential talks to difficult visits he made as Secretary of State to Syria, "They are not always pleasant visits. But you've got to do it."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sound Familiar? Is it 2002 and Iraq or 2008 and Iran?

In the last two weeks, both President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have repeated claims that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Vice President Dick Cheney charged in an interview with ABC's Martha Raddatz released on March 25, “Obviously, they're also heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels.” The previous week, President Bush said at the end of an interview with Radio Farda on the occasion of Nowruz (Persian New Year), “...[The Iranians have] declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people – some – in the Middle East. And that's unacceptable in the United States and it's unacceptable to the world.” A White House spokesman later backpedaled, calling the president's remarks "shorthand."

Meanwhile, Senator John McCain told reporters on March 18, “Well, it’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known.”

Someone should start keeping a database of these comments now so that the Center for Public Integrity doesn't have to do it later.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sanctions Bill Rears Its Ugly Head

On Tuesday, April 8, the Senate Finance Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, S. 970, introduced by Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR). The legislation currently has 70 co-sponsors.

I have been told that Section 10 in S. 970 on World Bank Loans to Iran has been deleted. As a result, there are now jurisdictional issues being worked out between the Senate Banking Committee and the Senate Finance Committee and the bill will now also be referred to the Banking Committee. Section 10 would have required reports on the number of loans provided by the World Bank to Iran; the dollar amount of such loans; and the voting record of each member of the World Bank on such loans. It would have also reduced the U.S. contribution to the World Bank for fiscal year 2008 by the same ratio of the total of the amounts provided in the preceding year by the World Bank to entities in Iran to the total of the amounts provided by the Bank to all entities, and for all projects and activities.

One of the biggest shortcomings in U.S. policy towards Iran is that the so-called “diplomatic option” has been defined as sanctions. But, sanctions are punitive measures, not diplomacy. There has been no real diplomacy with Iran and the U.S. has maintained preconditions for negotiations. I am baffled as why there is such a stigma for diplomacy with Iran. Diplomacy is not capitulation to an enemy; it is a strategic and vitally important component of international relations and foreign policy. Let’s not forget that President Reagan negotiated with the “Evil Empire.” And, it has become acceptable under this administration to engage in diplomacy with North Korea, another member of the “axis of evil.”

Unilateral sanctions against Iran are likely to fail. They will continue to push Iran into a corner, where it will be less likely to negotiate and more likely to act out against the U.S. In the past, groups that have favored confrontation between Iran and US have closed small windows of opportunity for diplomacy by pushing to sanction Iran. Unilateral sanctions not only undermine diplomacy with Iran, they also significantly increase the risk of conflict, particularly since there is an absence of U.S. diplomacy with Iran.

In addition to the consequences of attempting to coerce Iran through sanctions mentioned above, another key issue with S. 970 is that it will further undermine U.S. relations with Russia, which is specifically targeted under Section 6 of the bill.

Section 6 of S. 970 essentially threatens Russia to end nuclear and missile cooperation with Iran or the U.S. will not enter into any 123 Agreement for nuclear cooperation with Russia. This has actually been the long-standing policy of both the Clinton and Bush administrations in trying to gain leverage on Russia regarding the issue of Iran. A Section 123 Agreement is the necessary agreement for the U.S. to enter into nuclear cooperation with another country, as stipulated originally in the US Atomic Energy Act. It provides and outlines the “terms, conditions, duration, nature, scope, and other requirements of proposed agreements for cooperation; Presidential exemptions; negotiations; Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement.”

In July, 2006, Presidents Bush and Putin announced they were open to negotiations on an agreement that would permit full nuclear cooperation between the two countries. Russia has long sought a 123 Agreement with the U.S. Nonproliferation experts have noted that a 123 Agreement between the U.S. and Russia could yield important nonproliferation benefits such as providing the international community with greater access to Russia’s civil nuclear facilities. A 123 Agreement could also lead to increased efforts to secure and dismantle Soviet-era nuclear weapons.

Additionally, Russia is also an important partner for any diplomatic efforts with Iran. The U.S. needs Russia’s support to maintain and increase international pressure on Iran, which is more meaningful and will have better results than U.S. unilateral sanctions and coercion. If in fact this section of S. 970 becomes law, Russia could feel threatened and would not have any incentive to be a party to diplomatic efforts to end the political standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

The fact that Russia is cooperating with Iran on the Bushehr reactor is not the heart of the matter and targeting Russia for this cooperation in S. 970 only deters focus from the real issues surrounding the political standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. While the U.S. initially opposed Russian participation in building the Bushehr reactor and supplying it with fuel, the Bush administration changed its position last year in order to get Russian support for United Nations sanctions on Iran. The reversal in the U.S. position on the Bushehr reactor also followed Iran’s agreement to return spent nuclear fuel from the reactor back to Russia to ensure it doesn't extract plutonium to make nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has since been pointing to the Bushehr program to support arguments that Iran does not need a uranium enrichment program.

Instead of pushing forward with legislation that will only undermine prospects for a real solution to U.S.-Iran relations, the Senate should employ a more far-sighted, responsible approach that includes sustained, direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with Iran, and include in such an approach engaging, rather than isolating, strategic allies and partners.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Event: Iranian-US Relations: Signs of Hope?

For those in or near the Charlottesville, VA area, I hope you will consider joining us on March 30th for the event below.

Iranian-US Relations: Signs of Hope?
All are invited to a panel presentation and discussion. Panel: R.K. Ramazani, Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs University of Virginia; Carah Ong, Iran Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, and W. Scott Harrop, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Politics, University of Virginia. Location: Charlottesville Mennonite Church, corner of Monticello Ave and Avon St.(701 Monticello Ave), March 30th, 6 p.m.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Notes from Meeting with President Khatami

President Khatami opened our meeting with his thoughts on whether it has become the human destiny to always experience conflict or whether we might experience peace. He believes that while war has dominated human society throughout history, it is not part of human nature, but rather has been imposed on mankind.

The greatest problem facing the world today, he said, is insecurity. It is not only in Palestine, Africa or Iraq; it is even in the center of the most civilized countries. According to President Khatami, “Either everyone has security or no one has security. We should fight the causes of insecurity, which are injustice and lack of understanding.”

The greatest injustice is humiliating human beings, which results in reactions, which is the reason we find that terrorism derives from violence. From one side, we see violence and humiliation and then we see terrorism as a reaction from the other side. If we want peace, we must understand the causes. He said the lack of justice, love and compassion has led to the situation we are in today.

President Khatami works for peace through religion because he believes that the soul of all divine religions is love and compassion. According to Khatami, if we refer to the spirit of the divine religions and do not allow superficial difference to cause misunderstandings; if we make a return to religions and cooperate in the spread of religion and if we encourage people to withstand the activities of those who wish to cause war, then our mutual concerns will be ameliorated.

In Fall 2008, President Khatami and his Center for the Dialogue of Civilizations will be partnering with the National Cathedral and Vatican to have summit in Washington DC in attempts to start a movement to bring together the Abrahamic faiths.

President Khatami also expressed concern for the situation the region is facing in regards to Palestine. He asked how we can expect peace in the region to be established when such atrocities are occurring. He said he was sorry that the U.S. does not want the United Nations Security Council to issue a statement against such crimes. If powers work and support justice, than we can attain justice. Terrorism is condemned, but the root cause of terrorism is suppression and humiliation and these must be addressed.

President Khatami said the U.S. is a great nation and its Constitutional Law is one of the most important in the area of human rights, democracy and freedom. It holds a high position economically and in scientific fields. Why then should violence and humiliation come from such a great nation?

He said American policies have been hostile toward Iran and these are the causes of misunderstanding and drifting apart. He tried during his tenure as president to take many steps to eradicate misunderstanding and he is sorry that forces on both sides did not wish to see understanding.

What has been happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine in the name of fighting terror has done nothing to stop terror. Today, extremists are more powerful than before the invasion of Afghanistan. President Khatami said he is afraid that the U.S. might have to arrive at a compromise with extremists in order to reach a settlement and this worries him.

Iran was happy to see the dictator of Iraq ousted, but selfish motives of the U.S. have caused more extremism in the region. It is in the long-term interests of the U.S. to change its policies. The U.S. can’t have double standards in its policies, such as depriving Iran of its rights to access to peaceful nuclear energy despite the fact that all international reports show that Iran’s nuclear program are for peaceful purposes. Yet, Israel has hundreds of nuclear warheads not being condemned; they are being supported. Such actions cause violence in the world.

He said we should focus on mutual understanding and dialogue. He said there is no problem between our two nations. The nuclear issue and what is happening in Iraq can be ground for better cooperation between the U.S. and Iran if these become the subject of unconditional talks.

He said it was very difficult during his tenure to have talks with the U.S. Iran was branded as part of the ‘axis of evil’ despite the fact that the country’s cooperation was the most important fact of the U.S. topple of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Violent-oriented actions result in violent-oriented reactions. Misunderstandings between the two countries have become even more powerful. Iran’s main policy still today is that it is willing to have such talks, but the U.S. has stopped them by making preconditions.

Robert Dreyfuss asked President Khatami to reflect on his term as president. He said that he believed in reformation. He distinguished reform as taking place within the system, not outside. When it is outside the system, it is revolution.

He doesn’t say the system is flawless, but the present government came to power with the peoples’ power. Power can be shifted. Is the soul of a democracy anything else than this? A lot of blood was sacrificed for this system. The reform movement seeks to strengthen the democratic aspects of this system through peaceful means. He believes that in the short time following the Islamic Revolution, Iran has taken great strides towards democracy, but there are factors that have impede the speed of democracy, like war, and we must be patient.

Larry Beinhart agreed with President Khatami that the ideals he expressed about religion – as agreed between himself and the pope – were wonderful ideals at the heart of all true religion. However, the historical record is that when religion acquires political power it is always as least as violent as any secular regime. He asked why should we expect the Islamic Republic to be different? President Khatami responded that religious wars and conflicts resulted in secular forms of government in the West. Secularism led to a reduction in religious wars. But war and violence still exist in a secular world. The two World Wars, which were more destructive than any other war, were in the secular West and at the hands of secular government. Therefore, we should not look for causes in religion. It is possible to set aside religion and still have violence and wars.

I asked about the offer made in 2003 that put everything on the table and what he thinks must be done in order to create the environment where such an offer and the normalization of U.S.-Iran relations might occur in the future. In his response, President Khatami said he was going to reveal a secret everyone knows – in Afghanistan, itw was cooperation between the U.S. and Iran that led to the toppling of the Taliban. He also said that Iran supported the U.S. destruction of the Ba’athist party in Iraq. He said changes in the policies of the U.S., particularly in the foreign policy, and in the implementation of more realistic policies in Iran would lead to better relations. “We can be hopeful and find factors that serve the interests of both countries. But, for success we need wisdom and being realistic.” Referring to both governments, Khatami said, “There seems to be an absence of wisdom.”

President Khatami also invited me to join him when he flies from Washington DC to California this fall to interview him and have a fuller discussion.

Quote of the Day

Here is one of my favorite quotes by a hojatollah-e-Islam we met with in Iran:

"'In God We Trust' is on your money, but it is on our hearts."

A Solution for the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff?

(Pictured here: the Natanz nuclear facility and surrounding air defense. The facility is actually nowhere near the village of Natanz, but closer to Kashan.)

Just before leaving for Iran, I noted that the New York Review of Books would be publishing a new article entitled "A Solution for the US–Iran Nuclear Standoff" by William Leurs, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Jim Walsh (a member of the Center's board of directors). The authors propose "that Iran's efforts to produce enriched uranium and other related nuclear activities be conducted on a multilateral basis, that is to say jointly managed and operated on Iranian soil by a consortium including Iran and other governments. This proposal provides a realistic, workable solution to the US–Iranian nuclear standoff. Turning Iran's sensitive nuclear activities into a multinational program will reduce the risk of proliferation and create the basis for a broader discussion not only of our disagreements but of our common interests as well."

Indeed it is a proposal that has been in the works for quite some time. The authors have spent a considerable amount of time working on such a workable proposal with Iranian counterparts.

During the conference on "Iran's Peaceful Nuclear Program and Activities: Modality of Cooperation with the IAEA" sponsored by the Institute for Political and International Studies on March 9 in Tehran, Jonathan Granoff, the only American on the general plenary panel, presented the Leurs/Pickering/Walsh multilateral enrichment consortium idea. However, the official response to Jonathan's mention of the proposal was:
1. "There was a number of sections where Iran's rights were not taken into account." 2. "We see a consortium as a precondition and it is not acceptable."3. "We already suspended for two years and there was no forward progress."4. "This is asking Iran to do more and it is not fair. This proposal is completely unacceptable to us."

In his speech to the conference, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said that the recent report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Mohammed ElBaradei shows that all of the ambiguities about Iran's nuclear program no longer exist. He said is Iran is not asking for more than its rights entitled to it under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and they will not back down from military threats or threats of regime change. According to Mottaki, “Iran's nuclear program has everything to do with fair play and double standards are a serious blow and threat to the NPT.” He also said Iran made a goodwill gesture in cooperating with the IAEA on the August 2007 Modality and in answering all the questions agreed to in it.

Mottaki concluded that Iran will not stop its nuclear program, nor does it have any reason to because their activities are legal under the NPT. He said although the Modality Agreement has come to an end, Iran will continue cooperation with the IAEA under the confines of the NPT. However, he and others at the conference seemed to suggest that Iran's negotiations on the nuclear program would be limited to the IAEA alone, at least for the time being. Furthermore, he said, “Iran has always welcomed targeted negotiations that follow a plan. The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to talk on all issues, but from now on, all proposals must be targeted, including ongoing issues around the world.”

Deputy Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Mr. Vaeedi took an even harsher stance at the conference. In his opinion, “the story is not a nuclear story to begin with.” He said “Iran is no longer willing to engage in an illogical process that ignores the experience of the past.” While he noted that Iran will continue to cooperate with the IAEA, he reaffirmed that Iran will continue its nuclear activities.

The speeches and the response to the Leurs/Pickering/Walsh proposal at the conference reflect a hardening of Iran's official public position on the nuclear issue, particularly following the new round recently passed Security Council sanctions on Iran. It further demonstrates that we really have come to a political standoff on the nuclear issue and threats of sanctions and military action will only make it even more difficult to resolve.

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran Statement on Women's Movement

Hadi Ghaemi has a new posting on the women's movement on his new and excellent International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran website. The campaign recently led a statement in support of women's rights for international women's day on March 8 that was signed by Mary Robinson, Vice President of the Club of Madrid and former Irish President and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former President of Iceland and Member of the Club of Madrid; six Nobel Peace laureates; and hundreds of other leading activists.

Meanwhile, three activists in the Women’s Cultural Center and One Million Signatures Campaign were banned from traveling to participate in international women’s day observances. While I was in Iran, women's rights activists also told me the government would not allow them to hold a meeting on international women's day and were given the reason that it was a religious holiday in Iran. Instead, they were forced to hold a meeting days later, and unfortunately after I had already returned to the U.S.

Enriched Iranium

Ethan Chorin, a Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has a new blog called Enriched Iranium (very clever). He notes that the origin of his blog "sprang from a few months’ consistent read of Arabic and Farsi sources on the US-Iranian relationship. I felt a posting offering multiple perspectives—both Iranian AND Arab, in particular—on key issues in Iran-U.S. relations might be a useful assist in framing policy." Check out Enriched Iranium.

Monday, March 17, 2008

New Video on One Million Signatures Campaign

Below is a new video on YouTube of the One Million Signatures campaign. It was prepared and arranged by: Raheleh Asgarizadeh, Nasim Khosravi, Homa Maddah and Tara Najdahmadiand narrated by: Sussan Tahmasebi. Also, here is a great article on human and women rights "dynamic duo" Taqi Rahmani and Narges Mohammadi.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Women's Rights Are No Joke

Iranians extremely value education in general. While more than 65 percent of university students are women, unemployment is rampant in Iran – the government will need to create a million new jobs per year just to keep unemployment at its current rate. Women in particular though face discrimination getting higher level jobs and especially into decision-making positions. Yet, a women’s studies professor from Tehran University told our delegation that “I think you’ve heard about women too much,” and told us there is a joke that because there has been so much focus on women’s rights in Iran, the men are thinking they should start their own organization.

The story from women’s rights activists is different, however. Several argued that they are most effective when they work for greater women’s rights within the structure of Islam, as opposed to trying to apply external pressure. One group convenes a monthly meeting to compare women’s rights in Islam with other religions in order to make the case for bettering the status of women in Islam.

Iranian women leaders are seeking greater exposure in the U.S. One avenue in particular they would like to pursue is the establishment of relations with women’s studies programs in universities. For them it is less dangerous if relationships in the U.S. are set up through university departments and invitations to speak are issued through universities. They would also like to invite American women professors who are not of Iranian decent to speak at universities in Iran about the status of women’s rights in other countries and other religions.

Women’s and human rights groups have also started what they call a “Peace Process,” organizing a movement in Iran calling for peace with the U.S. They will continue to be critical of the Islamic Republic’s stance on women’s rights and human rights, but they believe that any military confrontation between our countries will only set back their work on these issues and negatively impact their struggle for rights. The groups urged a common meeting between Iranian and American peace activists in a third party country to increase dialogue and lay the foundation for a joint movement for peace.

Speaking of women's rights, Farzaneh Milani has a brilliant new essay drawing on the breadth of her work entitled, "On Women's Captivity in the Islamic World." The essay was published by the Middle East Research and Information Project and is a preview of her forthcoming book. Scott Harrop reviews her essay for Just World News here.

Den of Espionage Escapade

Our hotel in Tehran was very close to the “Den of Espionage” (the former U.S. embassy in Iran, also known as the “Nest of Spies”). After lunch one day, my husband and I decided to take a walk to see the murals painted along the front wall on Teleqani Avenue. Walking along the embassy, we took pictures of the murals, which have sayings from Imam Khomeini and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei like “We will find a way to defy the wild wolf of Zionism and the Great Satan” and “Down with USA.” Out of nowhere, two military officers on a motorcycle appeared on the sidewalk to stop us. They spoke very little English, but were very polite and asked where we were from. I responded in Farsi that we were from America and that we only spoke very little Farsi. They said we had to go with them, but we were unsure where they were leading us.

One officer got back on the motorcycle and the other escorted us around the corner and into an office inside the embassy compound. There were several officers varying colors of military uniforms present. One pointed to monitors where they had been watching us from security cameras atop the embassy wall. In broken English he asked again where we were from and said we could not take pictures. He then made us delete all of our mural pictures from our cameras as he stood over our shoulder watching. He said, “we have our limitations,” though I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that.

Two days before we returned home, our “tour guides” had the bus stop across the street from the embassy so we could take pictures. Others in our group also took many pictures, including the ones posted here taken by our friend Robert Dreyfuss. Oh well, no one else in the group got to see the inside of the embassy. At least all of the officers were nice, but the encounter certainly had me on edge, if even for a bit.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Better Relations? Why Not?

During President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the U.S. last fall, he said during a meeting with religious leaders that Iran was open to such exchanges. However, there have been several Congressional Delegation (CODEL) attempts, none of which have been successful due to difficulties in getting visas from Iran. Dozens of members of Congress have expressed interest in going to Iran, though only some have a sincere interest in working towards normalization of relations, while others would use such a trip for their own purposes.

The question of intentions for wanting to go to Iran is a serious issue that is not taken lightly inside the regime. In a meeting in Iran with the Deputy Foreign Minister for North and Central America Ali Rezaei, I asked about the prospects for Congressional/Majlis exchanges. Rezaei responded that such delegations might be possible, but “the timing is so important.” He pointed to the upcoming elections as an excuse for a delay in such a delegation, but said requests should be submitted to the appropriate channels and they would be considered.

Following the discussion about Congressional delegations, we discussed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s January speech in Yazd in which he said he would be the first to approve U.S.-Iran relations if deemed beneficial. Ali Rezaei noted that positions in Iran at the highest level view the topic of relations with the U.S. as a live debate. He also said reiterated Ayatollah Khamenei’s position that relations with the U.S. is not easy and can’t be done overnight. But, as soon as the situation is acceptable, Rezaei asked “why not?”

He said Iranians see many contradictory signals coming from the U.S. and the debate in Iran centers on a cost-benefit analysis of the issue. Most people in the regime do not yet see the benefits of a relationship with the U.S. They argue that they do not see honesty from the U.S. side. Instead, they only see a desire to diminish Iran’s power, rule and influence worldwide. Elements in the Islamic Republic’s regime view the U.S. as seeking to diminish Iran’s capabilities either through engagement or confrontation. And, they see preconditions as a form of submission. They are waiting for the U.S. not to be aggressive and they argue that it is time for the U.S. to change its behavior if it wants better relations.

Another element of the cost-benefit analysis is the perception of the U.S. in the region. Iran sees itself as having a better reputation in the region than the U.S. Some in the regime argue that Iran may hurt its reputation by opening up to the U.S. As Rezaei put it, “We don’t want to be a card in the hand of the U.S. or Israel.”

Rezaei said that he sees the lack of alternative debates inside the U.S. about Iran as the biggest obstacle towards normalization of relations. However, he underscored that small steps towards normalization of relations are still worth pursuing.

Iran and Disaster Relief in Case of Military Strike

Our first meeting in Iran on February 27 was with the Iranian Red Crescent Society, a disaster relief organization similar to the International Red Cross. They have 16 medical centers in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

During the 1990s, Iran hosted the most refugees in the world, including more than two million Afghan refugees and more than a million Iraqi refugees.

The Iranian Red Crescent Society coordinated efforts following the Bam earthquake, which hit on December 26, 2003 at a magnitude of 6.5+. In talks, I often tell the story about Mercy Corps obtaining a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in the Department of Treasury to help with relief efforts in the year following the Bam earthquake. After the first year expired, Mercy Corps applied for an extension of its OFAC license, but was denied and forced to leave within 30 days. Mercy Corps is precisely the humanitarian emissary that the U.S. should want as its representative in Iran.

Today, the Iranian Red Crescent Society is seeking to have a joint project to establish a hospital on the Iran/Iraq border to provide special and emergency services for those inured in explosions, which might an include an orthopedic center for amputees.

At the end of the meeting, I asked whether the Iranian Red Crescent Society has prepared any contingency plans in case of a U.S. strike on Iran. The initial response I received from the Director General Dr. Seyed Hadi Samaei was that “these are political matters and we don’t pay attention.” But a young women intimately involved in relief efforts chimed in to say that they “have contingency plans in case of disasters in major population centers already in place,” implying that Red Crescent Society is indeed prepared for a disaster relief in case of a military strike.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Persian Perceptions Part I

I’ve just returned from Iran. To say Iran is a country of contrasts is a gross understatement. One simply cannot speak of Iran in absolutes; it is a complex country of layers upon layers. We saw everything from conservatism and tradition to especially young people pushing the envelope. It was an extremely interesting, nonstop, exhausting trip. We had the opportunity to meet with many clerics, current and former government officials, artists, musicians, etc. Lonely Planet Iran was an excellent companion that offered great tips for getting out at night when we weren’t in meetings in order to interact with people on the street. While most of our time was spent in Tehran, we also were able to see a bit of the country in Persepolis, Shiraz, Esfahan and Qom. I’ll be posting more in-depth observations of the different aspects of the trip over the coming days. (Pictured above: With my husband at the "Gateway of All Nations in Persepolis)

One of the highlights of the trip for me was meeting with former reformist President Khatami (pictured together here), who expressed optimism for finding a solution to problems facing U.S.-Iran relations, as well as optimism for reform in the political system and the upcoming parliamentary elections, despite the myriad difficulties facing the movement to change the political system from within.

We happened to be in Iran at the time of an international conference sponsored by the Institute for Political and International Studies on “Iran’s Peaceful Nuclear Program and Activities: Modality of Cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.” I was invited to speak on the Plenary Panel about a week before the event, but then my name didn’t appear on the agenda with no explanation. I attended nonetheless and was interviewed by several media outlets (mostly Iranian, but also Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Christian Science Monitor), which was an opportunity to present an alternative view to the party line that dominated the conference. It was also a good opportunity to see colleagues including Barbara Slavin, Andreas Persbo and Paul Ingram.

More than anything, my overall Iran experience only reaffirmed the points I was making prior to the trip. Everyone I met – from people on the street who strongly oppose the regime, to human and women's rights activists, to reformist and hard-line Ayatollahs – reiterated that threats of regime change, isolation, sanctions and military action will only have a negative effect and further harden Iran’s stance. Referring to the regime change slush fund, activists and dissidents in Iran told me over and over again that “democracy in Iran doesn’t need money” and that the fund has only undermined their work for reform.

I can not underscore enough that the worst thing that could happen for Iran’s movement towards reform and democracy is U.S. intervention. I also feel reaffirmed in the belief that, although it will be difficult, any steps we can make towards normalization of relations between the U.S. and Iran will be worth the effort.

More soon.