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Former US Congressman Visits Iran

Interview with Jim Slattery

Jim Slattery, a former U.S. Congressman from Kansas, visited Iran in December 2014 to attend the “World Against Violence and Extremism” (WAVE) conference, an initiative led by President Hassan Rouhani. He was the first former congressman to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution. Mr. Slattery has been involved in interfaith dialogue initiatives with Iran for ten years, in cooperation with the Catholic University of America, the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, and the Vatican. During his recent visit, he met with senior Iranian officials and discussed the current state of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world’s six major powers – the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany.

You recently became the first former member of Congress to visit Iran since the 1979 revolution. Why did you go? Who did you meet with, and what did you discuss? What did you learn?
 
I went to Iran because I wanted to encourage the Iranians to issue a strong statement condemning violence in the name of religion, especially Islam. I also wanted to learn more about Iran first hand. I am amazed at how few American decision-makers have any personal experience in Iran. Very few American policy-makers have ever been to Iran and even fewer know key leaders in the Islamic Republic. I share President Eisenhower’s view of people-to-people diplomacy.  
 
I met with high ranking members of the Rouhani Government and key leaders in the Majles (parliament). They do not want to be identified in the American media for meeting with me, although some of their names have already appeared in news stories about my trip. But suffice to say I met with the key leaders. I did not meet privately with the president or the supreme leader, but I met with people who are close to them. President Rouhani gave a speech at the WAVE conference strongly condemning violence, particularly in the name of Islam. 
 
We discussed the current state of the nuclear negotiations. I left with the clear impression that the current Iranian government led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is deeply committed to getting a deal with the United States on the nuclear issue. I think the Rouhani government is prepared to enter an agreement to forego the development of a nuclear bomb. Such an agreement would be consistent with the fatwa issued by the supreme leader. But Iran will insist on retaining an enrichment capability for peaceful purposes consistent with its view of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
 
The Iranians are very worried the U.S. mid-term election will make it difficult for President Obama to implement an agreement. The Iranians have little confidence that Congress will have the ability to lift sanctions anytime in the near future. The Rouhani government is prepared to be very flexible in dealing with the technical nuclear issues, but they urgently need sanctions relief. The Iranians think their nuclear program is leverage to gain sanctions relief. The United States thinks sanctions are its leverage to persuade Iran to forego the development of a nuclear bomb.
 
I walked the streets of Tehran freely without fear. Very different than Baghdad. The Iranians I encountered were friendly and interested in the United States. I was impressed with the energy on the streets of Tehran. There are a lot of construction cranes present and the auto congestion is terrible. About every third or fourth car was driven by a woman…Very different than in Saudi Arabia. There were a lot of relatively new cars. 
 
 
 
 
What is your assessment of the mood in Tehran as it negotiates with the world’s six major powers on a nuclear deal?
 
It is hard to get an accurate measure of the mood in Tehran. Young people and the press I met all seemed anxious to see an improved relationship with the United States and Europe.  Keep in mind that 60 percent of Iranians are under age 30, and 60 percent of university students are female. My friends in Iran tell me they are very worried about what they are going to do with all of the educated women! They understand clearly that economic development is key to the stability of the Islamic Republic over the long term.
 
Some lawmakers intend to introduce legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran if talks falter. What implications could passing such a bill have on the talks?
 
It is a bad idea for Congress to pass additional sanctions at this time. This will only complicate the negotiation process while causing Iranians to question further whether President Obama can implement an agreement because of domestic political opposition in the US. The United States is concerned about whether the Supreme Leader will approve an agreement negotiated by Zarif. So both sides have similar concerns. Additional sanctions at this time send exactly the wrong message, and I fear this legislation could disrupt the talks. 
 
What could a deal mean for US-Iranian relations?
 
A nuclear deal will open the door for immediate cooperation on a long list of critical issues in the region including but not limited to ISIS, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Taliban, Hezbollah and Israel. Iran would welcome an agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. A deal could also lead to cooperation on oil and natural gas supplies. Iran is a country of more than 70 million people with enormous energy assets and resources with a smart, well-educated population that could become a huge new market for the United States and Europe.
 
You attended the “World Against Violence and Extremism” (WAVE) conference in Tehran. What stakes does Iran have in combatting terrorism in the region?
 
Iran is very worried about ISIS and terrorism in the region. We must not lose sight of the fact that ISIS is Sunni, not Shiite. ISIS hates Shiites as much as they do Jews and Christians. Don’t forget that Iran cooperated with the United States in taking down the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran is going to play a bigger role in the region - given its geography, history, religion, population and energy resources - whether we like it or not. We must engage Iran at this historic time when its elected leadership wants engagement with the West.  
 

Photo credits: President.ir, Tehran bazaar by Maral Noori, Wikimedia Commons

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Iran’s Diverse Coverage of Paris Attack

Several Iranian newspapers ran front page stories on the killing of 12 people at the Paris headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Some focused on the tragic nature of the attack and labeled it terrorism. For example, Etemad published the headline “Black Wednesday in Paris.” But both conservative and reformist papers criticized Charlie Hebdo for publishing inflammatory cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. And a few hardliner publications shifted the focus to criticizing French policy in the Middle East or rising “Islamophobia” in Europe.

The following is a sampling of the diverse imagery used in Iranian coverage of the Charlie Hebdo shooting.
 
Mardam-e Emrooz
 
The daily ran a picture of American actor George Clooney, who wore a pin with the now viral phrase “Je Suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”) —to the Golden Globes on January 11. The headline read “Clooney: I too am Charlie.”
 
 
Another headline read “Nightmare in Paris” over a caricature of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
 

Shahrvand
 
A headline read “Air of Death in France.”
 
 
Shargh Daily
 
Shargh Daily took the bold step of tweeting a photograph of slain editor Stephane Charbonnier holding a cover of Charlie Hebdo depicting an imam and a rabbi. It did not, however, run either photo in print.
 
The publication also tweeted caricature from Charlie Hebdo mocking al Baghdadi.
 
Ghanoon
 
Iran
 
A headline read “Terrorists staged a bloody show in Paris, killing 12 people.”
 
 
Ebtekar
 
 
Photo credits: Mardam-e Emrooz via Facebook and other headlines via Iran Front Page news
 
Tags: Media, Offbeat

Iran Condemns Paris Shooting

On January 9, President Hassan Rouhani condemned violence perpetrated in Islam’s name. “Those who kill and carry out violent and extremist acts unjustly in the name of jihad, religion or Islam provoke Islamophobia whether they wish it or not,” he warned in a meeting with International Islamic Unity Conference delegates in Tehran. Rouhani did not directly reference the recent attacks by Muslim extremists in Paris. But his comments came two days after gunmen killed 12 people at the headquarters of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. The attackers reportedly said they aimed to avenge the Prophet Mohammed, who the magazine had depicted in political cartoons along with other religious figures. Two suspects, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, were killed in a raid on a printing plant on January 9 by French security forces.

The following are excerpted remarks by Rouhani and other Iranian leaders.
 
President Hassan Rouhani
 
“Those who kill and carry out violent and extremist acts unjustly in the name of jihad, religion or Islam provoke Islamophobia whether they wish it or not.”
 
“We are very happy that Muslim people in the region from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine to Pakistan and Afghanistan resist extremism, violence and terrorism and achieve new victories on a daily basis.”
—Jan. 9, 2015 in remarks to the International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran
 
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham
 
“All acts of terrorism against innocent people are alien to the doctrine and teachings of Islam.”
—Jan. 7, 2015 in remarks to the press
 
“Taking advantage of freedom of expression and ideological extremism, and character assassination of respectful figures of religions and nations, as well as insulting divine faiths and their values and symbols, which are respected by those religions, are not acceptable and are condemned.”
 
“These acts are a continuation of the wave of extremism and unprecedented physical and ideological violence prevailing worldwide during the past decade.”
 
“Inappropriate and double standard policies in dealing with violence and extremism have led to the spread of those acts and behaviors.”
—Jan. 8, 2015 in remarks to the press
 
Former President Mohammad Khatami
 
I condemn in the strongest terms these attacks which are an example of the ominous and inhumane consequences of terrorism and extremism in the East and West. But the U.N., international organizations, governments, civic institutions, and the elite are expected to do more than mere condemnation.
 
Terrorism and violence are not a war between religion and freedom; they are not a conflict between the East and West; nor are they part of confrontation between religions, ethnicities and nations. They are a grave new threat that has multiple roots. They should be uprooted and the world should be pulled back from the brink of "extremism."
 
In September 2001 New York’s Twin Towers were brought down as a result of an appalling terrorist act. Subsequently the threat of “terrorism” which already existed came to surface. The Islamic Republic of Iran condemned those attacks hours after they were carried out. Iran also put forward the concepts of “Dialogue among Civilizations” and “World Coalition for Peace” as a solution.
 
However on the other side of the world, some thought they could eliminate the ominous phenomenon – whose flag was believed to be borne by groups like Alqaeda – through forming a coalition to wage “war on terror”.
 
If that method worked, why is that today we are witnessing the spread of terrorism around the world; [why is that] the waves of terrorism have struck Paris and have created havoc everywhere, from the easternmost to the westernmost corners of the world, in Iraq and Syria, in Palestine and Lebanon, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Nigeria and Myanmar and elsewhere in the world. Violence, bloodletting and terror have tightened the screws on people – from Shiites, Sunnis, Izadis, Christians and Jews to religious scholars, intellectuals, politicians, children, the old and the youth.
 
Furthermore, the use of force and violence against these groups – as the experience has proved – will do nothing but deepen deviant tendencies and help them grow. Also it will help depict them as the oppressed [victims] and help them bring on board more suppressed people.
—Jan. 18, 2015 in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon (translation via Iran Front Page)
 
 
Tehran Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami
 
“We strongly condemn the terrorist attack in France and believe that Islam does not allow the killing of innocent people, be it in Paris, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan or Afghanistan.”
 
“U.S. dollars, U.K. pounds and the European Union’s euros are to blame for these killings.”
—Jan. 9, 2015 in a sermon
 

 

Tags: Terrorism

Iran on Islamic State

On December 29, 2014, Iran held a funeral for Brig. Gen. Hamid Taqavi, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander who was killed in the Iraqi town of Samarra, home to a Shiite shrine. The Revolutionary Guards did not detail the scope of Taqavi's role in Iraq. But he was reportedly the highest-ranking Iranian military officer to be killed in Iraq since the 1980s.

The general's death highlights Iran’s expanding role in Iraq since ISIS - also known as ISIL, Daesh, or the Islamic State - seized large swaths of Iraqi territory in June 2014. Iran is a firm ally of Iraq’s central government. After ISIS's advance, Iran sent military advisers to Baghdad and ramped up support for Shiite and Kurdish militias trying to push back extremists on the ground. Iranian officials denied sending combat troops to Iraq, and they have been critical of foreign intervention in the Iraq crisis. On June 14, President Hassan Rouhani said “Iran has never dispatched any forces to Iraq and it is very unlikely it will ever happen.” But he noted that the fall of Shiite holy sites in Karbala and Najaf to extremists would constitute a red line.  Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said in August that “if something like this happens, there will be no limit to our operations.”
 
In late 2014, evidence of Iran’s evolving strategy in Iraq mounted. In September, photos began to surface of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Guards' elite Quds force, on the ground in Iraq. In late November, Iran bombed ISIS targets in Diyala, Iraq using American-made F4 Phantom jets, likely sold to Iran before the 1979 revolution. Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour confirmed on December 5 that the strikes had taken place, but denied any cooperation with the United States. “We will not allow Iraq to descend to the level of Syria,” he said. Since June, Iran has sent elite units, more than 1,000 military advisers, and one billion dollars in military aid to Iraq, according to a senior cleric quoted by the Washington Post.
 
The following are the most important quotes by Iranian and Iraqi officials on ISIS in 2014. 
 
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
 
“We are strongly against the interference of the US and others in Iraq’s internal affairs and do not approve of it.”
June 22, 2014 at a meeting with judiciary officials
 
"We believe that the Iraqi nation and government, particularly the country's youths, are capable of overcoming terrorists and establishing security and there is no need for the presence of foreigners."
 Oct. 22, 2014, according to Iranian Student News Agency
 
 
 
 
President Hassan Rouhani
 
“Iran has never dispatched any forces to Iraq and it is very unlikely it will ever happen.”
— June 14, 2014 during a press conference
 
  
“When we say the red line we mean the red line. It means we will not allow Baghdad to be occupied by the terrorists or the religious sites such as Karbala or Najaf be occupied by the terrorists.”
 
“We are cooperating and working... with the Iraqi government and with the Kurdish government in order to repel this very serious, atrocious group. But we do not believe that they need the presence of Iranian soldiers in order to do this task.”
— Aug. 24, 2014 in a press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari
 
“Americans are very aware that the country that prevented the [Baghdad] government from falling was Iran. Iran’s role has been undeniable.”
— Sept. 23, 2014 at a breakfast meeting with journalists (via Lobe LogAPReuters,Bloomberg, and Al-Monitor)
 
 
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has been supporting the Iraqi nation and army in fighting terrorists since the beginning, and will continue this approach and will not withhold any support from the Iraqi nation.”
— Oct. 21, 2014, according to Iranian Student News Agency
 
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
 
“The Islamic Republic of Iran realized the danger of violence and extremism in Iraq since the very first day and stood by the Iraqi nation, and we will stand by the Iraqi people including Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs until the end of [their] fight against extremism and terror.
“Today, the world has understood the reality that the first country to rush to the help of the Iraqi people in the battle against extremism and terror was the Islamic Republic of Iran, which countered these common threats.”
— Dec. 7, 2014 in a joint press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari
 
Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Rahimpour
 
"We will not allow conditions in Iraq to descend to the level of Syria, which has been created by foreign players.”
 
“We are taking our security actions at the request of the Iraqi government. On the other hand, we are assisting the Kurds in the north, our friends over there, and although there is some differentiation between the Kurdish perspective and the Iraqi government, we can make an arrangement according to both their interests."
 
"This is only an advisory presence [in Iraq]. There is no need to send Iranian troops to Iraq. There are sufficient Iraqi and Kurdish troops there."
— Dec. 5, according to the press
 
Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani
 
“The Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are our friends [in Iraq]. We have always insisted that all ethnic groups must have active and constructive participation in Iraq's power structure".
— June 21, 2014 according to Parliament’s website 
 
 
 
 
 
Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan
 
“We are hopeful that the trend of liberation of occupied parts of Iraq from the stain of the terrorists will continue with the same current strength and seriousness,"
— Dec. 29, 2014, in a meeting with Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al Obeidi
 
Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari
 
“It is the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief that no one should aid countries like Syria and Iraq unless the work is limited counselling and advising. The people and governments of these countries can overcome their problems without the aid of any country.”
— June 24, 2014 at a ceremony for martyrs of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq
 
 
 
 
 
 
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli
 
“One day they brought news that there is a possibility that Karbala and Najaf would fall [cities holy to Shiites]. At that session, the president said that this is our red line and if something like this happens there will be no limit to our operations.”
— Aug. 25, 2014 according to the press (translation via Al-Monitor)
 
Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian
 
“We supply Baghdad with necessary consultations but we have no intervention in the country.”
— June 16, 2014 according to Tasnim news agency
 
Iraq
 
Prime Minister Haider al Abadi
 
“When Baghdad was threatened, the Iranians did not hesitate to help us, and did not hesitate to help the Kurds when Erbil was threatened.”
"[The Iranians were] unlike the Americans, who hesitated to help us when Baghdad was in danger, and hesitated to help our security forces.”
— Dec. 3, 2014 according to the press
 
“Choosing Iran as my first destination after taking office indicates the depth of ties [between Iraq and Iran.”
“Terrorism is a threat to all regional countries, and we are sure Iran will stand by us.”
— Oct. 21, 2014 according to the press
 
Interior Minister Mohamed Salem al Ghabban
 
“Iran is not only a neighboring country, but also a friendly country and strategic ally for Iraq.”
— Oct. 27, 2014 according to the press
 
Ambassador to Tehran Mohammad Majid al Sheikh
 
“Iraq doesn’t need any country neither for weapons nor for the military forces at all; hence, I emphasize that neither General [Qassem] Soleimani nor any other (Iranian) figure is in Iraq.”
— June 24, 2014, according to press
 
Photo credit: Khamenei.ir via FacebookAli Larijani by Harald Dettenborn [CC-BY-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons; Leader.ir
  

Parliament Debates Nuclear Deal

On January 6, Iran’s parliament called a snap vote over Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s handling of nuclear talks with the world’s six major powers. Conservative lawmakers had accused the minister of making too many concessions in the most recent round of diplomacy in December.

But Zarif hit back, arguing that “no one today dares to question Iran’s nuclear program, demanding its suspension. The disagreement is merely on the level of [uranium] enrichment. This is our achievement.” The minister also emphasized that progress in negotiations has helped change the perception that Iran was “threatening and dangerous for world security.” The Islamic Republic is now better positioned to play “an influential and serious role on the regional and international stage,” Zarif added.

After answering seven questions posed by 40 lawmakers, Zarif won the support of a little more than half of the 229 present. Some 125 backed him, 86 voted against him, eight did not express a preference and 10 abstained. No repercussions were attached to the vote, but a loss would have damaged the credibility of Zarif and, by extension, President Hassan Rouhani.

 

 

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