On January 8, 2007 I attended an event hosted by the University of California Washington Center entitled, ” Hope for a New Course in US-Iranian Relations.” The event featured Nobel Peace Prize winners Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams as the keynote speakers.
Ms. Ebadi, a lawyer and human rights activist in working in Iran, was the first speaker. She began her presentation with a brief historical background of US-Iranian relations, noting that Iranians have constantly decried American interference in Iran’s domestic affairs since Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was deposed from power in 1953 with the help of the CIA. In reaction to this interference, when the American-supported Shah was deposed in 1979, the Islamic Republic “acted in unlawful reaction” by taking American diplomats hostage. In turn, the United States responded by implementing stringent sanctions and embargoes, including academic boycotts of Iranian students from attending American universities. In particular, Iranian students were barred from studying the energy sciences.
Ebadi then turned to what she observed as the American government’s current three main negative perceptions of Iran:
1. Iran claims they will use nuclear energy for peace, however decisions are “made behind closed doors” and the government is not transparent, therefore it cannot be trusted.
2. For seventeen years the Islamic Republic conducted nuclear research and development activities without IAEA oversight.
3. President Ahmadinejad’s decision to hold the holocaust conference and his public wish to destroy Israel.
4. Iran lacks a transparent democratic system that fully upholds international human rights standards.
Her comments on these observations begin with a statement that the lack of transparency of human rights and democracy cannot be a real reason for a negative perception of Iran because it deals with Arab states that are less transparent and have worse human rights records. Ebadi felt that in spite of Tehran’s attempt to skirt the IAEA, Washington’s opposition to the spread of peaceful uses of energy is also completely “inappropriate,” noting that non-military uses are allowed under international law.
Ebadi then proceeded to give an in-depth analysis of the Israel and its Arab neighbors. She noted that the issue of the Israelis and Palestinians has not been resolved. She also expressed her dismay at the Holocaust conference, took note of Iran’s support for Hizbullah and Hamas, and understood why the Israelis felt extremely threatened. Equally critical of the Israelis, however, she condemned the wars with the Palestinians and in south Lebanon and opined that in the US, “the Israeli lobby won’t allow normal relations between Israel its neighbors.” She concluded her analysis of this point by noting that supporting Hizbullah and highlighting the Palestinian issue is in Iranian national interests, helping become “the forerunner in the Islamic world, making it more powerful and popular.”
Ebadi then discussed the possible aftermath of an attack on Iran. In her view, the entire Middle East would be thrown into chaos. While Arab governments do not support Iran, she believes that the people do. If an attack were to occur there would be massive unrest all of the Arab countries and governments would be thrown into disarray. Rather than military force, the first thing the United States should do is broker a fair and honest deal between the Palestinians and Israelis. Without peace between these two sides “there will be no peace in the Middle East.”
The Iranian Nobel Prize winner felt increased dialogue, rather than confrontation is needed between Iran and the United States. The discussions between both nations must take place at three levels:
3. Civil Society
While the 2006 Vienna dialog was a promising start, it is not enough. More meetings need to take place and more ideas need to be exchanged.
After Ebadi concluded her remarks, Professor Jody Williams gave her frank opinions of the prospects of US-Iranian confrontation. The focus of her remarks was on criticizing Bush administration policy, but her critique was bi-partisan: “Voting in democrats is not enough. We must hold them accountable to their promises.”
Due to severe time constraints the question and answer session was extremely brief and did not allow us to formally ask a question during the program. However after the event I did have the opportunity to probe Ms. Ebadi on the contributions a Muslim-American civil society organization and think-tank like MFI could provide in a US-Iranian civil society dialog. She responded saying that it was critical to show the real situation of Islam and Iran. Ebadi also suggested media presentations such as documentaries on Palestine because American media outlets “do not properly convey and transfer the news.”
Minaret of Freedom Institute