An Iranian woman holds up a lamp during a power outage in Tehran, Iran. (Photo: Morteza Nikoubazi / Reuters)
Traveling to Iran as a Citizen Diplomat for Peace
Just a month ago, while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President George Bush met for the last time as heads of state in late November 2008 in Washington and continued their relentless bellicose rhetoric toward Iran, I and three activists from the United States were in Iran as citizen diplomats talking with Iranians on their views of a new American presidential administration and their hopes for their country.
We went to Iran with no illusions. We knew well the history of United States involvement in Iran. We knew of Iranian support for organizations U.S. administrations have labeled as "terrorist" groups. And we were very familiar with international concerns about Iran's nuclear enrichment program and human rights record.
We wanted to talk with members of the Iranian government as well as with ordinary Iranians. We ended up meeting with officials in the Iranian president's office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with two women members of the Iranian Parliament (Majles). We also spoke with businesspersons, members of nongovernmental organizations, writers, filmmakers and university students and faculty.
Writing about the concerns of the Iranians we met leaves one open to comments of being one-sided, not speaking with enough Iranians to provide the "real" voices and of picking and choosing voices to record. I acknowledge the possible criticism in advance, but believe our discussions are worthy of presentation to those who have not been so fortunate to have traveled to Iran to see and hear for themselves. So here goes.
Iranians Want Peace, Not War
Codepink Women for Peace co-founders Jodie Evans and Medea Benjamin, Fellowship of Reconciliation Iran program director Laila Zand and I were reminded in virtually every conversation that Iranians want peace with the United States, not war. Not one person in Iran told us that first, she believed her country would begin a war with the United States or any other country, to include Israel, and second, that if the United States initiated military actions against Iran, that those actions would resolve problems in Iran or with the United States.
They reminded us that, unlike the United States, which has invaded and occupied Iran's neighbors Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran has not attacked any country in the last 200 years. They reminded us that Iran was the victim of an eight-year war in the 1980's when Iraq invaded Iran and the United States and European countries provided Iraq with military equipment, intelligence and chemical weapons that were used at least 50 times against Iranian civilians and military forces. We learned that during the eight-year war the Revolution's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini had mandated that it would be against Islamic precepts to bomb Iraqi cities or use chemical or unconventional weapons on Iraq - and Iranian military forces complied - even though the Iraqi military bombed Iranian cities, including Tehran, and used chemical weapons on Iranians.
Most Iranians Have Issues With Their Government, as Most Americans Have Issues With Theirs
Iran is a county with a population of about 70 million (two and one-half times as many people as Iraq) and a geographic area about the size of Alaska (four times as large as Iraq). Tehran, the Iranian capital, has 7.5 million people in the urban area and 15 million in surrounding areas. It is a modern city, with a beautiful subway and cosmopolitan shops, as well as a huge traditional bazaar and an incredible number of cars, trucks and motorcycles. Tehran and Iran have recovered from the Iraq war that ended 20 years ago and are holding up remarkably well to US and international sanctions.
Most Iranians with whom we talked openly said they have issues with many aspects of their government. Many said the Iranian people share a common dislike with Americans - dislike of their government - noting that President Bush's and the US Congress's approval ratings with the American people are extremely low, as is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ratings, particularly in urban areas. But, they strongly said they do not want outside interference in the internal political events of their country and definitely do not want a political system and government installed by invasion and occupation. Their democracy, even with its flaws, is better than a US-enforced democracy, they said.
America's best policy would be to treat Iran with respect and not with threats of military action. Any attempt to overthrow the Iranian government would be met with stiff opposition, even from those who don't like the government, they repeated. "Regime change" will come in due time and in an Iranian manner.
US Interference in Iran's Internal Affairs
Several reminded us that in January 1981, the United States signed the Algiers Accord, in which the US agreed "not to intervene directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs." The Algiers Accord was the agreement signed by the United States and Iran to end the 444-day US Embassy hostage crisis.
However, this Accord has been violated numerous times by the United States. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote that, in late 2007, President Bush requested and received from Democratic Congressional leadership $400 million reprogrammed from previous authorizations to fund a presidential finding that substantially increased covert activities designed to destabilize Iran's religious leadership. These covert actions involved support for the Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. Hersh also revealed that United States Special Operations Forces had been conducting cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with presidential authorization, since 2007, including seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and taking them to Iraq for interrogation, and the pursuit of "high-value targets" who could be captured or killed. Hersh said operations by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) were significantly expanded in 2007 by this authorization.
Iran's Nuclear Program
Iran has had a nuclear program for almost 50 years, having purchased a research reactor from the United States in 1959 during the Shah's reign. The Iranian government states that its nuclear energy program will allow increased electricity generation to reduce consumption of gas and oil to allow export of more of its fossil fuels. The US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) made public December 3, 2007, concluded with "high confidence" that the military-run Iranian nuclear weapons program had been shut down in 2003, but that Iran's enrichment program could still provide enough enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon by the middle of the next decade, a time frame unchanged from previous estimates.
Virtually everyone with whom we spoke said they believe that their country has a right to have a nuclear enrichment program and to produce nuclear energy. Many questioned why Iran would ever need a nuclear weapons program, unless as leverage against the United States' 30-year antagonism toward their country. They reminded us that Iran is a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (unlike nuclear states Israel, India and Pakistan, which refused to join the NPT and developed nuclear weapons purposefully outside the treaty.) Additionally, they insist that Iran is in compliance with the IAEA standards, according to the November 2008 IAEA report, despite interpretations of the report by the United States and Israel.
Some reminded us that on August 9, 2005, at the IAEA meeting in Vienna, 60 years after the US atomic bombing of Japan, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei announced that he had issued a fatwa, or religious mandate, forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. Importantly, the Supreme Leader controls the Iranian military and the nuclear program of Iran, not the President of the country, Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Iran, Israel and the United States
Iran, Israel and United States have had a disturbing, but fascinating, history over the past 30 years. Iran's current relationship with Israel and Western countries seems to be defined by President Ahmadinejad's October 2005 statement - widely reported, but tragically and dangerously mistranslated and misinterpreted - that "Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth." According to highly respected Middle Eastern scholar Juan Coles, Ahmadinejad was "not making a threat, but was quoting a saying of Ayatollah Khomeini that urged pro-Palestinian activists in Iran not give up hope - that the occupation of Jerusalem was no more a continued inevitability than had been the hegemony of the Shah's government. Whatever this quotation from a decades-old speech of Khomeini may have meant, Ahmadinejad did not say that "Israel must be wiped off the map" with the implication that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people.
But the history of Iranian-Israeli relationships is more than just Ahmadinejad's misinterpreted statement. Israel, like the United States, had a long history of selling arms to the Shah, which Iran's revolutionary government was willing to exploit secretly, despite its public animosity toward the state of Israel. In the early years (1980-82) of the Iranian Revolution and during the war with Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini's government sold oil to Israel in exchange for weapons and spare parts. Even during the American hostage crisis (1979-1981) in which 52 US diplomats were held for 444 days, Israel made weapons deals with Iran. Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State Alexander Haig gave permission to Israel to sell US-made military spare parts for fighter planes to Iran in early 1981.
In another remarkable relationship known as the Iran-Contra affair, funds from Israel's sale to Iran of US weapons in 1985-1986 were used by U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, National Security Adviser Adm. John Poindexter, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane (President Reagan's first National Security Adviser) and National Security Council staffer US Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North to fund the Contras' war against the revolutionary government in Nicaragua. This was in violation of a Congressional ban on funding the Contras and took place during the Iraq-Iran war when the US was also providing military equipment including chemical weapons to Iraq, Iran's opponent in the war. Iranians remember that those convicted for their actions, including Weinberger, Poindexter, McFarlane and North, were pardoned by President George H.W. Bush, who was vice president during the period of criminal actions conducted by government officials during the illegal Contra affair.
Iranian Support for Hamas and Hezbollah
When asked about one of the most contentious points in US-Israeli-Iranian relationships - the Iranian government's support for Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon - Iranians pointed out that the US has consistently and heavily funded Israel during its 62-year existence (US provides about $4 billion per year to the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces.) Many Iranians suggested that Palestinians who have lived in refugee camps during those 62 years must be provided assistance. Hezbollah began in 1982 as a small militia fighting against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and is now not only a military group but a political organization that won seats in the Lebanese government, has a radio and satellite television station and provides social development and humanitarian assistance for much of southern Lebanon. Iranians strongly felt that Hamas, the elected (and they emphasize elected) government of Gaza, needs financial support, particularly now in current extraordinary humanitarian crisis due to the lengthy Israeli blockade of foods and services into Gaza.
On the question of Iraq, many Iranians who lived in the border regions with Iraq during the eight-year war said they personally knew the agony of deaths, injuries, destruction and other costs of war and do not wish that on their former enemies. They talked of the irony of the political outcome of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, in which many Shi'a Iraqis, who lived in exile in Iran during Saddam's regime and have long-standing ties to the Iranian government, are now in leadership positions in the new US-backed Iraqi government.
Other Iranians reminded us of Iran's help to the US in 2001 and 2002 in the early days of the US military action in Afghanistan. When we asked about recent United States intelligence analysis that indicated Iranian support for the Taliban, we were met with laughs. The Taliban are of the Sunni branch of Islam, while Iranians are of the Shi'a branch. They reminded us that in 1998 the Taliban murdered 11 Iranian diplomats and one Iranian newsperson at the Iranian consulate in Afghan northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, an incident which Iranians have not forgotten. The Iranians consider the Taliban their adversaries and feel that a Taliban government in Afghanistan would make the region more unstable.
Sanctions Are Drying Up Lines of Credit for Businesses
We found that Iranians are proud of their creativity to outwit the 29 years of various sanctions the US has placed on their country. They say the US has only isolated itself commercially by its sanctions, as Iran trades with many other nations. Europeans, Chinese, Russians and Indians have had flourishing businesses with Iran. However, the recent international sanctions clampdown on lines of credit for Iranian banks has had a rippling effect into the business community, where money for loans to Iranian businesses for purchase of materials is drying up. Oil dollars that paid for an incredible amount of imports are drying up with the downturn in oil prices, and the government is beginning to reevaluate the large subsidizes given to the population for food, gasoline and services.
We spoke with four businesswomen (an architect, a chemist, a business consultant and an agricultural professional) who said each of their businesses had been affected negatively with the shrinking of money available for purchase of materials from outside the country and for continuation of current levels of operation or expansion of their business.
One of the most incredible stories we heard about the effect of the sanctions was on the alternative energy sector. Since there is so much rhetoric in the US about the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program, we decided to see if there were alternative energy companies in the country. On the aircraft flying into Iran, we met a European businessman who said he would put us in touch with the director of a wind energy company. He introduced us by telephone to the director of Saba Niroo, an Iranian company that makes wind turbines and is the largest regional wind power manufacturer . We met with the director and staff at the modern state-of-the-art factory in south Tehran. Saba Niroo has installed some of the 143 wind turbines planned for the wind farm in Manjil, Guillan Province and the 43 wind turbines planned for the Binalood wind farm in Khorasan Razavi Province. They have installed four wind turbines in the Pushkin Pass wind farm in Armenia.
However, the director told us that because of US sanctions pressure, Vestas, a Danish wind energy company with whom the Iranian company has had a contractual relationship has now refused to honor its 15-year contract to furnish critical parts for the wind turbines.
As a result, Saba Niroo has 50 huge 70-foot-long wind blades and corresponding chassis and installation towers lying useless in its warehouse and warehouse yard. Saba Niroo may go bankrupt in six months if it is unable to complete and sell the wind turbines - all because of US sanctions and pressure.
As a part of citizen diplomacy, we decided to defy sanctions and show our support of alternative energy programs, by purchasing shares in Saba Niroo. We have also decided to purchase shares in the Danish company Vestas, which has a big US headquarters in Portland, Oregon. As shareholders, we could put shareholder pressure on Vestas to honor its contract with the Iranian company.
Human Rights in Iran
On the question of human rights in Iran, executions, political prisoners and rights of gays and lesbians, many Iranians strongly want changes in their government's policies. In response to a question on September, 24, 2007, from an audience at Columbia University in New York, President Ahmadinejad drew widespread criticism when his answer was translated as "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals in our country, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who told you that we have it." In October 2007, one of Ahmadinejad's media advisers said that the President had meant that "compared to American society, we don't have many homosexuals - in Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country."
Homosexual acts are punishable by law: sodomy (defined as "sexual intercourse with a male) is punishable by execution and punishment for "lesbian acts" is 100 lashes. However, conviction takes the testimony of four witnesses and if the accused recants before witnesses testify, the accused will not be punished. The discussion of human rights of youth and gay youth combined in the much-publicized 2005 execution by hanging of two young men in Iran. Some say they were executed because they were solely because they were gay and others say the two young men - minors - were convicted and hanged because they criminally sexually assaulted another youth.
Interestingly, sex change is legal in Iran and there are more sex change operations in Iran than any other country except Thailand. The Iranian government provides grants up to $4,500 for the operation and further funding for hormone therapy on the theory that persons wanting a sex change have a "treatable disorder."
Iranians want change to come from within their society, not imposed by another government, especially one, as we were reminded, that has its own human rights issues, including incarceration of the highest percentage of its citizenry of any country in the world, high rates of execution (Texas in particular), state-sponsored kidnapping from other countries (known in the Bush administration as extraordinary rendition), imprisonment without due process, extrajudicial courts and a military and an intelligence agency that are notorious for torture.
When thinking of women in Iran, many in the West immediately respond with comments about the clothing women must wear. Few realize that 70 percent of all university students are women, 30 percent of doctors in Iran are women, 80 percent of women are literate (88 percent of men can read), women receive 90 days of maternity leave at two-thirds pay and right to return to their jobs, and the number of children per woman has declined from seven in 1979 to 1.7 now. Abortions are illegal in Iran, but it's the only country I know of where couples must take a class on modern contraception before being issued a marriage license. It has the only state-supported condom factory in the Middle East, and it produces 45 million condoms a year in 30 different colors, shapes and flavors.
In one of the most successful instances of women's grassroots organizational pressure on the government, in September 2008, over 100 advocates for women's rights successfully lobbied against proposed changes to marriage laws which were detrimental to women and forced the Iranian Parliament to drop the regressive amendments.
Yes, there are mandatory clothing rules for women, including wearing a scarf and clothing that covers the arms to the wrists and legs to the ankles, and they are cited by Western women as a form of human rights concern. In fact, as our aircraft arrived at the Tehran International Airport terminal, the aircraft crew announced "By the law of the country of Iran, women cannot leave the aircraft without a scarf on their heads - and there will be an Iranian official outside the aircraft to return women who are not properly covered." While some Iranian women say wearing the scarf is burdensome, others are comfortable with the dress code. In any case, clothing restrictions are not the main focus of women's rights advocates. Rights to custody of children and property after divorce, right to education and health care are more important than mandatory wearing of a scarf.
In the Month Since Our Visit
Sparks Fly Over Iranian President's BBC Christmas message - "Jesus Christ Would Stand Up to Bullying, Ill-Tempered and Expansionist Powers"
In what they surely knew would be a very controversial request, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) asked Iranian President Ahmadinejad to deliver the BBC channel 4's traditional "alternative Christmas message" to the Queen's Christmas address.
The head of BBC News and Current Affairs said the decision to ask President Ahmadinejad was because "As the leader of one of the most powerful states in the Middle East, President Ahmadinejad's views are enormously influential. As we approach a critical time in international relations, we are offering our viewers an insight into an alternative world view. Channel 4's role is to allow viewers to hear directly from people of world importance with sufficient context to enable them to make up their own minds."
It turned out that Ahmadinejad's short, 36-second message in Farsi with English subtitles broadcast on Christmas Day 2008, probably resonated with much of the world, but predictably provoked a British government hornet's nest with his comment that if Jesus Christ lived today he would stand up against bullying powers. "If Christ were on earth today, undoubtedly he would stand with the people in opposition to bullying, ill-tempered and expansionist powers." Ahmadinejad, a devout Muslim, criticized the "indifference of some governments and powers" towards the teachings of the "divine prophets, including Jesus Christ" and said that "the general will of nations" was for a return to "human values." He declared, "The crises in society, the family, morality, politics, security and the economy ... have come about because the prophets have been forgotten, the Almighty has been forgotten and some leaders are estranged from God."
Ahmadinejad's remarks received very little media coverage in the United States, minuscule when compared to the news story of the month - President Bush's encounter with the Iraqi shoe thrower. However, a spokeswoman for the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in predicting anticipated Bush administration displeasure, said: "President Ahmadinejad has during his time in office made a series of appalling anti-Semitic statements. The British media are rightly free to make their own editorial choices, but this invitation will cause offense and bemusement not just at home but amongst friendly countries abroad."
Labor Member of Parliament (MP) Louise Ellman, chairwoman of the Labor Jewish Movement, said: "I condemn Channel 4's decision to give an unchallenged platform to a dangerous fanatic who denies the Holocaust, while preparing for another, and claims homosexuality does not exist while his regime hangs gay young men from cranes in the street." Conservative MP Mark Pritchard, a member of the Commons all-party media group, said: "Channel 4 has given a platform to a man who wants to annihilate Israel and continues to persecute Christians at Christmas time."
Media Relations Not a Strong Suit of the Iranian Government
It's almost as if Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who is up for re-election in summer 2009, has hired lame ducks US Vice President Dick Cheney and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert as his foreign policy, national security and media consultants. How else could the Iranian government have come up with so many incidents in the past weeks that give ammunition to those in the United States and Israel who do not want dialogue with Iran on nuclear and regional security issues, who want human rights issues to publicize and who wish ill to the Iranian government and people?
For example, on December 22, 2008, the Iranian government closed down two human-rights organizations headed by 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. The government accused the organization of carrying out illegal activities, such as publishing statements, writing letters to international organizations and holding news conferences. The Center for Participation in Clearing Mine Areas helps victims of landmines in Iran and Defenders of Human Rights Center reports human rights violations in Iran, defends political prisoners and supports families of those prisoners. Ebadi was also taken into police custody briefly following the raids.
The first week in December 2008, in a campaign against Western cultural influence in Iran, Qaemshahr city police arrested 49 people during a crackdown on "satanic" fashions and unsuitable clothing and closed five barbershops for "promoting Western hairstyles."
And now, there is the predictable increased international criticism about the Russian government providing the Iranian government with S-300s, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems, triggered by the Bush administration's decision to put a "missile shield" in Poland and the Czech Republic. On December 23, 2008, United Press International reported that the Russian government had begun delivery to the Iranian government of some of its most modern anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems, the S-300s. These missile systems can shoot down ballistic missiles and aircraft at low and high altitudes as far away as 100 miles. Iran conducted well-publicized air force and ballistic missile defense exercises in September 2008.
The Bush administration's ballistic poke in the eye of Russia and Iran by the deployment of ballistic missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic "to protect against attacks from rogue states" is perceived by many Iranians as a strategy to ensure that tensions in the region continue to escalate. The United States is planning to deploy 10 Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors in Poland and batteries of shorter-range Patriot PAC-3 anti-ballistic missiles to protect the Interceptors.
Iranians Not Optimistic About Future Relations with the United States Under an Obama Administration
Despite President-elect Barack Obama's comments during the presidential campaign that he would have dialogue with the Iranian government without preconditions, many Iranians with whom we spoke are not optimistic that there will be meaningful change in US policy during an Obama administration. Citing appointments of former Israeli Defense Force member and US Congressman Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff; Hillary Clinton, who during the summer campaign said she would "obliterate" Iran if Iran used nuclear weapons against Israel (a statement that Iranians find incomprehensible since it is Israel that has nuclear weapons, not Iran, and Israel continues to threaten Iran), and Dennis Ross, the Middle East negotiator during the Clinton and Bush administrations, Iranians said they hoped the AIPAC lobby in the United States had not already determined Obama's agenda toward Iran.
Iranians Want Peace
To emphasize again, the overwhelming comment from Iranians during our visit was that they want peace with the United States. They hope that the new president of the United States will talk with their government to resolve issues, instead of resorting to the threat, much less the use, of military action.
Our Future With Iran - a Hope for Diplomacy, Not Military Action
As we have seen from the American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of our military to resolve security issues kills and injures innocent civilians, destroys cities and villages, creates more people who dislike/hate our country and who may be willing to use violence against us, and jeopardizes, not enhances, the security of the United States.
As a retired US Army colonel and a former US diplomat, I hope that the Obama administration will throw away the old template of 30 years of crisis, threats of military action, vindictiveness and retaliation and look to diplomacy to develop a peaceful future with Iran!