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Rethinking Iran: Perceptions On U.S.-Iran Relations
by Scott Simon
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Feb. 7, 2009
Read Bios Of The 'On The Couch' GuestsFeb. 3, 2009
Weekend Edition Saturday, February 7, 2009 · As the Obama administration establishes its foreign policy, it must grapple with a strategy for U.S. relations with Iran, which has continued a controversial nuclear program and launched a satellite into orbit this week.
Weekend Edition Saturday has invited several guests to talk about Iran, share their advice for President Obama and examine the impact of the Iranian Revolution, which brought Muslim clerics to power 30 years ago.
The discussion launches a new segment on Weekend Edition Saturday called "On the Couch." The idea is to put guests of different backgrounds together to speak with one another — discovering different points of view and perhaps sparking some unexpected ideas.
There are certainly different points of view on Iran, a country with a 2,500-year history that is now ruled by the world's first modern theocracy. Iran's influence seems to be growing in parts of Afghanistan and Iraq, even as the ruling mullahs contend with young Iranians who are exercising more liberties and growing impatient for change.
Neighboring states in the region are impressed but uneasy. What has this society become, and what will it mean for America?
Perspectives On Iran, And Messages To Obama
Patrick Clawson is deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the author or editor of numerous articles and books, including The Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Military Action Against Iran.
On nuclear proliferation: "Iran signed on to the nonproliferation treaty many years ago, and it was its membership in that treaty which gave it the right to have access to lots of nuclear technology. One thing Iran gave up when it joined the nonproliferation treaty was the right to build a nuclear weapon. The reason countries sign on to this treaty is not because they are doing good for the world, but because they're doing good for themselves. They don't want to start arms races where all of their neighbors also develop nuclear weapons and the region where they live becomes more dangerous, without any improvement to their own security. … That's the great risk with the Iranian program … that it would start an arms race in the region that would leave everyone in the region worse off, including Iran."
Patrick Clawson's Message To Obama
Rudi Bakhtiar, a former CNN anchor, is now director of public relations for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a lobbying group.
On diplomatic ties: "PAAIA conducted a Zogby survey where we found that a majority of Iranian-Americans would like to see diplomatic negotiations between the two countries. ... And I think that we at PAAIA all agree on one thing: Negotiating is always better than a military option. But what I would say to our new president, who has become the hope of the whole world, I think, is that when you do think about negotiating with Iran, think about the fact that you are going to do things that affect a people."
Rudi Bakhtiar's Message To Obama
Joseph Cirincione is president of the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit foundation that supports nuclear disarmament. He teaches at the Georgetown University Graduate School of Foreign Service and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
On negotiations with Iran: "The Iranians rejected various overtures by the United States, particularly in the last few years of the Clinton administration. But we rejected overtures from Iran, as well, particularly in 2003, when they tabled an offer to talk about their nuclear program — before it was advanced as it is now — as well as their relationship with Israel, their support for Hezbollah. But at that time, the Bush administration wasn't interested in negotiating with Iran. We had just toppled Saddam Hussein, and there was a lot of heady talk in Washington about serial regime change in the Middle East. So both sides have made miscalculations. The question for me is whether the current Obama administration can learn the lessons of that and have a consistent policy that, over a period of time, works to engage both the Iranian people and their leaders, and understands that there are vying factions in Iran. That sometimes the hardliners don't want to see the reformers get the credit, and that we've got to make sure we're appealing to the right factions."
Joe Cirincione's Message To Obama
Azar Nafisi is an acclaimed writer and academic. She is the author of the award-winning book Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books and the newly published book Things I've Been Silent About: Memories.
On transparency: "I think that negotiations between Iran and the United States should be made public. People of both countries have a right to know how their fates are being decided, and what is being given and what is being taken. … We have a president named Barack Hussein Obama … the fact is that this is a sign of changing times because millions of Husseins around the country will now think we don't have to be considered as terrorists; we can be considered even as presidents of this country. But also he's a Hussein who is Christian so it shows that the world is changing, that identity politics doesn't work. We can have Husseins and Allees who can be Christians or Jews, and you can have Jeffreys and Hillarys who can be perhaps Muslim, you know? And I think we can use this to open relations without compromising our principles."
Listen: Azar Nafisi's Message To Obama
Kevin Hermening was a Marine guard at the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the youngest of the 52 Americans held hostage there 30 years ago. He is now a certified financial planner in central Wisconsin.
On U.S. policy: "I actually don't think that the United States, yet, has a coherent policy with regard to the country of Iran. Clearly, back during the first Gulf War, it was the goal of the first George Bush to not take out Saddam Hussein. Because Iran and Syria would have filled that void if Hussein had been taken out of power — two largely Shia populations going into the Sunni area. And you've got the challenge right now of: Is it regime change we want or is it a behavioral change of the current regime that we would really like to change? And that is the challenge that our government has failed up to this point to articulate. Not just to the American people, but even to the Iranian people — forget the leaders of Iran — but the Iranian people, who really I think most of us feel is our real audience."
Listen: Kevin Hermening's Message To Obama
Niloufar Talebi is an award-winning translator as well as the editor and translator of Belonging: New Poetry by Iranians Around the World.
On free expression: In her book, Talebi says many Iranian writers still succeed in sharing their ideas with the world despite challenges to free expression. "Over the past three decades, writers who stayed in Iran have continued creating literature under censorship, the number of women writers has multiplied, and a huge body of criticism about writers living both inside and outside Iran has emerged," she writes. "Censorship has affected their work. Some have been silenced. … Those Iranian writers living outside Iran and afforded new freedom of speech have sometimes battled self-censorship. … Nevertheless, they have also created a rich body of work — in many languages. And despite all these challenges, Iranian literature, and literature by Iranians, has marched on, now being written all over the world."
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Women's Movement in Iran: From NPR
Weekend Edition Sunday, February 1, 2009 · One of the most remarkable and under-reported stories in Iran is the strength and character of its women's movement. Through politics, literature, religion and poetry, women's voices have at times been like roars, and at others, like whispers of dissent. Women continue to be both targets of persecution and agents of change, and for more than a decade, NPR's Davar Ardalan and Jacki Lyden have been tracking those changes. It began in 1995 when Jacki went to Iran at a time when not many female reporters had been there.
I remember thinking that no one would talk to me on tape — that no one would be brave enough to question the revolution of 1979, which so many women and Iranian students had helped bring about. Few of those young women students realized that while they may have disliked the autocracy of the Shah, his pro-Western ways included a view of women as equals. For decades, Iranian women had been unveiled, had divorce and marriage rights, had the right to choose a husband, rather than have one chosen for them, and were very visible in public life. And then, almost overnight, it changed.
A Pro-Western Shah
Guity Ganji, a beautiful woman in her 40s, took me for a hike just above Tehran's Albourz Mountains.
We were hiking just past the country's infamous political prison, Evin, which is set incongruously in a beautiful valley. Ganji had been close to the Shah's female minister for women's affairs. How out of place she felt now, she said, with this hike — her moment of freedom.
"I feel sort of alienated from these people," said Ganji. "I think a lot of people feel like I do because of what's happening. [It's] especially harder for women ... because the way we are treated, the way they behave toward us. It's aggravating. And I look at professional persons — just think if I were professional and working with men and the way they would behave toward you. And they don't look at you at all."
Return Of The Veil
That was a feeling any Western woman could understand, especially one trying to conduct interviews in headscarves with earphones on. What was somewhat harder to understand was how the Islamic Republic had co-opted the revolution so that now women had to live in black scarves and head-to-toe gowns.
In a real sense, the Shah had been forcing traditionalists in Iran into modernity, causing a deep clash of culture. By encouraging women, even his own wife to go about unveiled at public functions, the Shah was handing the Shia clergy an issue every traditional Muslim elder could defend: Women should be veiled.
When the veil came back, for all those Iranian modern women — and there were legions of them in the professional classes — it wasn't so much about wearing a piece of cloth as it was about the abnegation of self. Perhaps no voice expressed it better than that of Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor.
'Whispers Of Dissent'
I met her in 1995 in a university classroom in Tehran. Today, Nafisi is an internationally renowned writer, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and one of Iran's best known women in exile. As a professor, she used Western writers such as Nabokov as a way to challenge autocratic thinking.
Now living in Washington, D.C., Nafisi says women remain for her at the forefront of the cultural struggle within Iran even though her own dissent, and that of thousands like her, was increasingly repressed by the new regime after the revolution.
"It is very unreal, going back 30 years ago to the way these whispers of defense, these whispers of dissent were articulated," said Nafisi. "I was one of the dissenters. I was very, very active in the student movement here. We were demonstrating against the Shah. ... We were asking for the overthrow of the regime, and among ourselves — those, for example, who were religious, those who were Marxist, those who were nationalists — there was a polarization."
Nafisi devoted much of her 20s in America to political movements dedicated to abolishing the monarchy in Iran, which was seen as a puppet of the United States. She was typical of the young student abroad, and Iran sent many young women abroad. Other young Iranian women were recruited into joining communist and non-communist guerrilla groups. But a far greater number were uneducated, lower class women who participated in street demonstrations in 1978 and 1979, answering the call of the Ayatollah Khomeini to demonstrate against tyranny.
By 1979, the pro-Western Shah was sick with cancer and on a plane to Egypt. Of all the groups that had opposed him — women, nationalists, Marxists — no group won hearts and minds like the Islamists.
The new regime under the Ayatollah Khomeini executed thousands of people. Women went from being judges and lawyers to being non-entities, if they were lucky.
Repeal Of The Family Protection Law
One of the women who never went home again after the Revolution is Mahnaz Afkhami, the Shah's former minister for women's affairs. Under the Shah, she'd worked for women's rights and helped push through the Family Protection Law. That made her a post-revolutionary target. To go back to Iran meant death, yet she never gave up working for women's rights in her homeland.
"People, individual women, are feeling that they need to assert themselves as individuals," said Afkhami. "They need to have a role, they need to have a say, both in what they want to be and how they want to lead their lives, and how they want to relate to other members of their family and their society. It's not necessarily the same answer for everyone."
The Family Protection Law was repealed in 1979. That meant women, among other things, had no right to divorce. For a time, women's voices were banned from the radio and female singers were barred from television. Family planning was abolished and the birthrate soared, straining the economy. But Iranian women never really resigned to this. By 1997, almost 20 years after the revolution, women were demanding change.
'I Won't Be Silent'
It wasn't just secular female intellectuals who wanted reform. I met Azam Talehgani in 1997. The daughter of a prominent ayatollah, she was 58 and ran a settlement house for poor women. Talehgani had decided to run for president, even though she said she knew the Ruling Council of Guardians would never choose her — a woman.
"Let them be silent. I won't be silent," said Talehgani. "And even if I remain silent, the women won't be silent. I can't tell you how many phone calls I've received in the past few days of people thanking me for speaking out and demanding that woman be considered as presidential candidates. And I tell them that our government officials have been put on notice and our movement will continue."
Another woman who would not be silent was Shahla Lahiji, a publisher who would eventually go to prison for peacefully pushing back. She wrote stories in which she demanded equal rights for women. By the 1990s, the Iranian state had reversed itself — family planning clinics distributed contraception.
"Ten years ago, we couldn't talk about women rights as well as we can talk about this," said Lahiji. "Maybe it is the result of our struggle, which was not with any violence, but it was daily, like bees, like ants."
Women once again rose to become lawyers and investigating judges — women like Mehrangiz Kar. But she, too, would spend time in prison.
"Before, it used to be said the laws on the books were like revelations from God and therefore not subject to change," said Kar. "But in the last year, there has been more dialogue in every aspect of the society about a need for change. We are hopeful that this will be a good sign toward more moderation."
'Those Who Wish Them Cloistered'
But of those who tried to bring awareness to the plight of women trying to create a civil space for themselves in a theocracy, no one attracted as much attention as Shirin Ebadi.
Ebadi, a human rights lawyer, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. At the ceremony in Oslo, Norway, she talked not just about women's rights, but Iran's ancient tradition of human rights.
"I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great, the very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it," said Ebadi, "and promised not to force any person to change his religion or faith and guaranteed freedom for all."
In 2006, she published a book in English called Iran Awakening.
"It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered," she wrote. "That belief, along with the belief that change in Iran must come peacefully and from within, has underpinned my work."
Ebadi, whom I had met during my 1995 trip to Iran, advocates moderation and the use of Islamic law to reform Iran's system. She believes in peaceful, nonviolent change from within. She had an increasingly educated class of young people to draw on — by the time her book came out, more than half of all university students in Iran were women. In applied physics at Azad University, 70 percent were female. The post-revolutionary young woman was an educated young woman.
This belief in peaceful resistance was underscored by the "One Million Signatures Campaign." The idea was that women and men from all walks of life would collect a million signatures to educate women about their rights, and to demand changes to laws that discriminated against them. When they demonstrated in Iran in June 2006, some 70 were arrested.
Perhaps because Ebadi had become such a powerful symbol, it was almost inevitable the government would crack down on her. Ebadi has experienced intensified harassment. In December, her office dedicated to the defense of human rights was shut down and her computers seized.
Human Rights Watch says it fears for her life. With the ascendancy of the conservatives, especially since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, where is the Iranian women's movement today? To Azar Nafisi, it is simply a force that cannot be defeated, no matter who is in power in Iran.
"You see what no regime can do is take away from their people the past, the memory of what they had achieved," said Nafisi. "What the Iranian women had achieved became a weapon to fight for the rights that were taken away from them. And that is why so many women go back to the past.
"They talk about the women's organization that was created. They talk about writing books. These new women who are now participating in these regressive laws in Iran are also writing about women senators at that time. They are talking about the minister for women's affairs at that time. They're interviewing her on their Web sites. You know, I think the past is creating the way to the future, and that is why the women are so much at the forefront.
The 'Lioness Of Iran'
In 1983, five years after the revolution, the great Iranian poet Simin Behbehani, known as the "Lioness of Iran," wrote Homage to Being. The poem advocates and celebrates the transcendence of three cultural fears: women's visibility, women's mobility and women's voices. Translated by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa in A Cup Of Sin, Behbehani's poem reads:
Sing, Gypsy, sing.
In homage to being you must sing.
Let ears register your presence.
Eyes and throats burn from the smoke
that trails the monsters as they soar in the sky.
Scream if you can of the terrors of this night.
Every monster has the secret of his life
hidden in a bottle in the stomach of a red fish
swimming in waters you cannot reach.
In her lap every maid holds a monster's head
like a piece of firewood set in silver.
In their frenzy to plunder, the monsters
have plundered the beautiful maidens
of the silk and rubies of their lips and cheeks.
Gypsy, stamp your feet.
For your freedom stamp your feet.
To get an answer,
send a message with their beat.
To your existence there must be a purpose under heaven.
To draw a spark from these stones,
stamp your feet.
Ages dark and ancient
have pressed their weight against your body.
Break out of their embrace,
lest you stay a mere trace in a fossil.
Gypsy, to stay alive, you must slay silence.
I mean, to pay homage to being, you must sing
From then, until now, I have no doubt that Iranian women will keep singing, keep shaping the future, simply staying alive and resisting. Always resisting.
From NPR: Economic Struggles in Iran
Morning Edition, February 3, 2009 · Iran, a nation made rich by oil money, is now struggling with a troubled economy — one that's counted on to support a population of about 70 million.
Most of that population is made up of people under 30, like the two young lovers out for a stroll in Tehran on a recent day who stop before the glittering gold in a jewelry store window. They are shopping for a wedding ring; they plan to marry in two months.
Reza wears a black leather jacket — almost a uniform for young men in Tehran — while Faizah wears loose black clothes of the kind insisted on by the government. As they speak through an interpreter, it becomes clear that they must be marrying for love, since they don't have any money. They can't afford the rings that shine in the store window.
When asked to consider their country's economic and political situation, they say it's definitely not a good time to get married.
Young people like Reza and Faizah, both 24, didn't experience the Islamic Revolution of 30 years ago — when Iranians overthrew an American-backed king — or the years before it. Ali Askar Vafaei, the curator of what's known as the Martyrs Museum, which honors Iranians killed in the 1979 revolution, says younger people don't realize how much Iran's economy has improved since then.
The museum is across the street from the former U.S. Embassy, still standing in Tehran three decades after Iranians seized it and took hostages. It's now used as a school for Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Inside the museum, three floors of display cases show artifacts from decades' worth of Iranian revolts and the Iran-Iraq War.
The curator says Iran's unhappy younger generation is like a fish that is desperate for water, not realizing it's already in the ocean.
A Population Explosion
The government knows that some people are restless. Islamic morals police move about the city in green and white vans. Opposition newspapers are being shut down.
Reza, the young man admiring wedding rings, says it's risky to talk about how he feels about his country's economy — because there's a possibility someone would overhear. "I have to say it's very good," he says.
Reza, a building superintendent, makes the equivalent of $500 a month. He says his entire salary probably wouldn't pay the rent for a decent Tehran apartment. He and his fiancee aren't sure how they will move out of their parents' homes.
Iranian businessman Bijan Khajedpour is among many who see young people's struggles as a side effect of the 1979 revolution.
"There are some mistakes that you can see. Look at the Iranian demography, for example," he says. "You see immediately that they discontinued birth control policies after the revolution. So in the '80s, we had an explosion ... We had, in mid-'80s, a population growth of almost 4 percent. Exactly that age group of 20 to 30 years now are the bulk of our unemployed population, because we cannot provide jobs for them, so that retrospectively you can see what a big mistake that was."
Facing A Difficult Economy
Since the 1980s, Iran has faced the overriding question of what to do with a population that doubled.
In recent years, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised more jobs and subsidies for the poor. But falling oil revenues made that hard to sustain, and inflation as high as 28 percent canceled out many of the benefits.
The effects of all this are visible in the office of a real estate broker in a working-class section of southern Tehran. The broker, named Talibi, says business was very good until six or seven months ago. That's when Tehran's real estate bubble burst.
Now, he says, almost nobody is buying the properties listed on slips of paper taped to his wall.
A few customers do stop by, including Bimani Tahkhani, an elderly woman looking for an apartment.
When asked about the economy, she says she lives with her son. "We can manage," she says, and leaves the office. Then, several minutes later, she bursts back in the door — to say what she really thinks.
"Greetings to the people of America," she declares, "especially to your new president."
Then she tells her story: Her son is a taxi driver who makes the equivalent of $10 a day, not nearly enough for both of them. She pulls a worn-out shoe off her foot and flings it on the ground. She says she cannot afford a new pair. She's about 70 years old, and the stairs in her apartment building are killing her.
Tahkhani must climb five flights of stairs in all before she reaches the tiny apartment she shares with her son. In a building with no elevator, a top-floor apartment is the cheapest, and she says she can't afford to move.
The Other Iran
February 2, 2009
The Other Iran
By ROGER COHEN
At one of the embassies offering islands of peace from the gridlocked, grinding Iranian capital, a Western diplomat said this of United States and allied policy toward Iran: “You could argue that our policy has not yet failed.”
That would be the most charitable view. But it is failing. Where Iran had a handful of centrifuges enriching uranium four years ago, it now has at least 5,000. With its enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan removed by American military force, it has extended its regional influence.
This city, whose real-estate boom has rivaled Manhattan’s in recent years, is still awash in cash from the giddy oil price season. Those billions, even ebbing, equal confidence. The Iranian Revolution, at its 30th anniversary, has recharged its batteries on a global wave of Bush-inspired, Gaza-cemented, anti-Western sentiment.
It’s time to think again, not merely to recalibrate old formulas, in order to end the three-decade impasse in U.S.-Iranian ties, a breakdown of huge cost and menace. A non-relationship has locked itself in stereotypes as American threats (“the military option must be kept on the table”) and demands (stop the centrifuges) meet a wall of Iranian pride.
One place to begin that reflection might be in southern Tehran, where I was the other day on the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumphant return from France. I’d been at an airport ceremony, featuring a kitschy reproduction of the Air France jumbo jet that brought him home, and found myself surrounded by graves near the Khomeini shrine.
The graves, many adorned with wrenching photos of 16-year-olds, stretch away, hundreds of thousands of them, mostly for victims of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which followed the 1978-79 revolutionary violence. Iran bled for a decade.
The psychological impact is still palpable. Iranians don’t want to bleed again; they want to get ahead. In this, they resemble the post-Cultural Revolution Chinese.
For all the inflammatory official rhetoric, pragmatism reigns. Money, education and opportunity drive people. Years of mayhem in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan have concentrated Iranian minds: who needs that?
“Overthrowing regimes is no longer on the agenda,” Mohammad Atrianfar, the former editor of a reformist magazine shut down by the government, told me. “Reform, yes, upheaval, no.”
Young people — and well over half the population is under 30 — may want a freer press or freer dress. But cellphones, widespread Internet access and satellite TV (government restrictions are as easily circumvented as Western sanctions) sap confrontational adrenaline. The Islamic Revolution has proved resilient in part through flexibility.
In this land of competing currents, the U.S. has focused on one: Iran as an expansionist, would-be nuclear power. Iran’s political constellation includes those who have given past support to terrorist organizations. But axis-of-evil myopia has led U.S. policy makers to underestimate the social, psychological and political forces for pragmatism, compromise and stability. Iran has not waged a war of aggression for a very long time.
Tehran shares many American interests, including a democratic Iraq, because that will be a Shiite-governed Iraq, and a unified Iraq stable enough to ensure access to holy cities like Najaf.
It opposes Taliban redux in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda’s Sunni fanaticism. Its democracy is flawed but by Middle East standards vibrant. Both words in its self-description — Islamic Republic — count.
These common interests and the long misreading of Iranian priorities demand that President Obama innovate. The radical Bush presidency produced a radical Iranian response. While modern Iraq was sketched on a 20th-century map, Persia is a millennial thing. Its pride requires treatment as an equal.
To suggest, as a recent report from the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington did, that Obama must “begin augmenting the military lever” to complement intensified diplomacy is to recommend burrowing deeper into failure.
Blinking is never pleasant but can be shrewd. America and its allies should drop their insistence that enrichment at Natanz cease before talks begin (Iran could always restart enrichment anyway). Obama should also say the military threat has moved under the table in the name of restoring dialogue. These steps would place the onus on Iran.
Can revolutionary Iran live without “Death to America?” Powerful hard-line Iranian factions think not, but I’m with the majority of Iranians who believe their Islamic Republic can coexist with a functioning U.S. relationship.
Obama should do five other things: Address his opening to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, because he decides. State that America is not in the Iranian regime-change game. Act soon rather than wait for the June Iranian presidential elections; Khamenei will still be around after them. Start with small steps that build trust. Treat the nuclear issue within the whole range of U.S.-Iranian relations rather than as its distorting focus.