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Semira N. Nikou's Blog

Photo Essay: A New Mood in Iran

Semira Nikou 
            The voice of Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliament speaker, disrupted our dinner party.
            We left our plates filled with fruits and nuts to huddle around the television, as the speaker read the names of President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet picks one by one, announcing whether or not each had been approved by the parliament. One of the guests, a journalist, let out a sigh of relief with Bijan Namdar Zangeneh’s approval as petroleum minister. Zanganeh, who had served in the same position under former President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist administration from 1997 to 2005, was a key candidate whose nomination had been hotly challenged by Iran’s conservative parliament.
            With parliament ultimately approving 15 out of the 18 proposed ministers, the administration of hope—as Rouhani’s presidency is referred to—had delivered a competent cabinet. Now we could eat.
            There is a new mood in Iran. I recently visited Tehran in August 2013, four years after my last trip in June 2009. Much has changed since.  The Iran of 2009 and the Iran of 2013 are two different places.
            Tehran has gotten greener and more developed, the value of Iran’s currency to the dollar has dropped by threefold, and it has become nearly impossible to find good sangak bread anywhere. But the real change is subtler. There is an optimism I sensed when listening to family members—even those who had not voted in the 2013 election because of their disillusionment over the 2009 results—journalists, including one who was now ecstatic that his efforts to get a U.S. work permit had failed months prior and forced him to return to Iran, and an elderly taxi cab driver who dropped me off at home late one evening, refusing to drive away until I had safely entered the house.
            As an artist friend who voted for Rouhani described to me, “After the election, people would smile for no reason. I cannot point to anything specific, but something has changed.” He continued to tell me about the night of Rouhani’s election, how he and his friends had poured into the streets in affluent northern Tehran, booze in hand, joined by hundreds of thousands of others. “I was taking vodka shots in front of police officers. They did not say anything.”
            The election of a 64-year-old cleric had elicited the level of excitement typically seen only after soccer-match victories. In fact, the celebration continued days later when Iran qualified for the 2014 World Cup by beating South Korea.
            On June 20, 2009, I had arrived in Tehran a day after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s famous Friday sermon, in which he validated the contested election results and essentially sanctioned the use of violence against protestors. I went to a demonstration that afternoon. Thousands of others marched around me but the environment was eerie. Black-clad police officers with batons attacked people who tried to agglomerate, while plain-clothes officers and basij paramilitary forces engaged in their own unchecked violence against protestors. Neda Agha Soltan was shot and killed that evening. The young woman’s death, captured on video, became a symbol of both the opposition Green Movement and of government brutality.
            This year, I was in Iran for the Friday sermon itself and, again, there were thousands around me in the streets. It was Eid-al-Fitr, the holiday signaling the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The supreme leader’s Eid-al-Fitr sermon had historically taken place at the massive Mossalah mosque, but has relocated to the smaller, and more controlled, Tehran University campus since the 2009 election to prevent protestors from disrupting the sermon.  Despite some predictions, the sermon was once again held at Tehran University this year.
            I decided to attend out of curiosity; to see how many Iranians actually participated in this event. Despite living in Iran for six years—and even serving a brief tenure as prayer leader at my elementary school—I was taken aback by the crowds that swarmed the area on that early Friday morning.
            “You will feel like it is judgment day,” a journalist aptly told me. The area around the university was so crowded that the taxi had to drop me off a mile away. Buses shuttled people to the prayer area. I started walking in the same direction as hundreds, and soon thousands, of other people. I felt extremely awkward in my bright orange, Hawaiian print scarf among the sea of black, brown, and dark blue chadors and other conservative Islamic wear. I half expected a police officer to target me for my ostentatious clothing. But that did not happen because the atmosphere was celebratory. Families jubilantly walked together as the hum of prayers permeated the area and tens of sadaqeh stalls encouraged visitors to give charity. The crowd got denser and denser. Lacking perseverance, I left before reaching the prayer area.
            Two elections, two presidents, and two very different outcomes. I hope that the new mood in Iran will not only facilitate national reconciliation, but also renew efforts for diplomacy. Nuclear negotiations between Iran and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) largely failed in 2009 because a wide range of Iranian political actors refused to rally behind President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s effort at a nuclear deal, viewing it as attempt by the administration to consolidate power.
            But today, the mood is different. The country is ready to heal and move past the trauma of the past four years. That is why we watched and discussed the televised parliamentary debates over the new administration’s ministerial nominations and the final results read by Larijani so attentively. We felt that who was chosen actually mattered.
1) Customers waiting in line outside Kia Gallery, a popular and trendy jewelry boutique in northern Tehran. Sanctions don’t seem to have affected this store’s business!
2) Mehr Housing Units in the suburbs of Tehran. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad introduced the “Mehr Scheme” for low-income housing. But the program has been criticized for failing to deliver to all those it had promised, its poor quality construction, and contributing to the country’s inflation and budgetary problems.
3)Haft-e Tir (7th of Tir) Square in Tehran. The square gets its name from June 28, 1981, when a bomb explosion at the Iran Islamic Republic Party headquarters killed 73 Islamic Republic officials. At Haft-e Tir, like elsewhere in Tehran, pedestrians can opt to cross the city’s infamously busy streets by using pedestrian bridges—though Iranians tend to brave the crossing by foot.
4) A vendor’s spread at Jomeh Bazaar (“Friday Bazaar”), a popular market that takes place in Tehran on Fridays. Hundreds of vendors fill a multi-floor parking lot selling crafts, textiles, and antique goods from Iran and its neighboring countries. Haggling is a must.
5) A quiet afternoon at Chitgar Lake, an artificial lake in northwestern Tehran. The 120-hectre lake was officially opened in May 2013 and is popular with residents who want to take strolls, ride paddle boats, or enjoy recreational facilities. Despite the lake’s popularity with visitors, critics are concerned over its environmental impact, in light of Tehran’s limited water supply.
6) A show of lights at the Holy Defense Museum in Tehran. The museum and its surrounding areas, which include Taleqani Park, were packed with thousands of people and hundreds of honking cars during Ramadan nights. The city organized lively events every night during the holy month, featuring live music (including gheri—danceable—music), comedy skits, and stories about martyrs and the Iran-Iraq War. The park had built-in BBQ grills and tents, where people grilled kabobs, smoked ghelyoon (hookah), and watched the show on large projectors.
7) Folks exchanging currency at the Tehran Grand Bazaar. The rates change daily based on a variety of factors including reactions to domestic and global events. It is higher than the official rate. Few people, usually only importers and exporters, are qualified to get the official rate.
8) Iftar (evening meal during Ramadan) at a family gathering.
9) Hikers breaking fast at Darakeh, a popular hiking area in Tehran’s Alborz Mountains. During fasting period (daytime) in Ramadan, people are not allowed to eat or drink in public, so restaurants do not open until sundown. This café started serving customers before the day officially ended because it was the last day of Ramadan and, well, it was okay to take it easy.
10) Road to Bargeh Jahan (“bargejoon)—meaning “leaf of the world” in reference to the way the village looks like a green leaf cradled among mountain slopes. Bargejoon is a village in northeast of Tehran. It becomes nearly deserted during the cold winter months. In summer, villagers return to harvest a variety of agricultural products, including fruits such cherries, apricots, apples, and walnuts, while Tehranis use it as a summer retreat.
11) The Tehran metro, which currently has four operational lines and a fifth line is being built.
12) View from Borj-e Milad (Milad Tower). At 435 meters, the Milad tower is the tallest tower in Iran and the sixth tallest telecommunications tower in the world. The tower features a panoramic view of Tehran, a shopping area, restaurants, and art exhibits.
13) Visitors at Borj-e Milad (Milad Tower).
14) Tehran’s two-level Sadr Highway. Construction on the second level was to be finished earlier this year, with the city using a countdown to widely advertise its completion. But the project remains unfinished. Part of the difficulty in completing the second level is that it requires closing sections of the busy Sadr Highway—which is why knowing detours and shortcuts in Tehran is a highly valued skill.
15) Visitors at Emamzadeh Hashem Shrine outside Tehran.
This article was originally posted on Muftah.org.
Semira Nikou is a research associate at the Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG) and is pursuing a degree at American University Washington College of Law. She previously was a contributing author to The Iran Primer.


Raucous Election: Politicians on the Record

Semira N. Nikou
This is the tenth in a series on parliamentary elections due in March 2012:
            Iran’s 2012 parliamentary elections will help define the country’s political course for the next four years. The campaign is already heating up, as political groups begin to mobilize in anticipation of the March elections.
           Reformist candidates are expected to face severe vetting by the Guardian Council, with hints emerging already about a potential election boycott. The government has labeled a number of reformist politicians part of a “seditious current,” a reference to the opposition Green Movement that emerged after the controversial 2009 presidential election. Reformists have become increasingly marginalized and imprisoned since the post-election crackdown. But they have not been silent.
          In December 2010, former President Mohammad Khatami laid out three conditions for reformists’ participation in the elections:
·       release of all political prisoners,
·       free and fair elections,
·       and freedom of participation for all political parties.
          Not all reformists agree. Others, who fear participation will legitimatize a manipulative electoral process, criticized the former president’s statements.
          With the reformists’ leverage reduced, if not diminished, the main competition is likely to be among conservatives and the hard-line coalition, commonly referred to as principlists. Their rivalries have turned fierce.  The biggest battle is between supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei against other conservatives and hardliners. But even the latter group of principlists has been mired by internal conflicts, evident in recent public disputes over attempts to unify the principlist camp.
          So far, the principlist political bloc has formed a committee, called the 7 plus 8 Committee, to put together a united candidate list throughout the country.  But the Steadfast Front, which includes former Ahmadinejad supporters and cabinet members, may also challenge the 7 plus 8 committee’s list. There are disagreements among the principlists on the extent to which reformists and pragmatic conservatives, including supporters of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, should compete in the elections.
            Candidates and their positions may not be finalized until two to three weeks before Iranians vote, as is generally the case during Iranian elections. But current official statements and debates give clues to the issues and alliances that will be central in this round of elections:
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
            "We have an upcoming election at the end of the (Iranian) year. To some extent elections have always been a challenging issue for our country...we should be careful that this challenge does not hurt the country's security." Aug. 31, 2011
Statements on reformist participation
Morteza Nabavi, managing editor of conservative Resalat newspaper and member of the Islamic Society of Engineers
            “Reformists have been divided into two camps. The first group has been identified as the sedition movement that has challenged the system and crossed legal boundaries…The second group consists of reformists who have not crossed boundaries and red lines, and has tried to be active within the system. Today, we witness the second group trying to define clear boundaries between itself and the sedition movement.”
            “I think the parliament’s minority faction, meaning reformists, will become stronger [in the next parliament]…There will be more reformists in the ninth Majles than in the [current one], in the same way there were more reformists in the fifth Majles than in the fourth Majles.”  July 25, 2011, interview with Arya News Agency
Mohammad Khatami, former president
            “Our demands in the past as well as the present are clear, and have been emphasized even in the aftermath of the recent [2009 presidential] election. [Favorable] conditions for broad participation of people [in the elections] and guaranteeing their rights must be provided. In addition, the elections must be held in such a way that there will be minimum hindrance of free voting by the people and maximum conditions for materializing their demands and ideals.” 
             “The minimum conditions for the reformists' participation in the elections are the release of all the political prisoners, freedom for all political parties and groups and removal of all limitations [on their activity], commitment of all, particularly the officials, to the constitution and the execution of all of its articles, especially its true spirit [meaning those articles that respect the rights of the people], and holding free and fair elections.” Dec. 28, 2010, translated by Tehran Bureau
Ali Jafari Dolatabadi, Tehran chief prosecutor  
           “We hear some leaders of sedition setting conditions for the Islamic Republic. [A reference to former President Khatami’s three conditions for reformists’ participation.] They should not think they can pretend to set conditions for us. It is the regime that has to set conditions for them and the very first one is their prosecution.” Dec. 31, 2010
Mohammad Ali Jaffari, Revolutionary Guards general
            “Those reformists who have not crossed red lines can obviously participate in political races. As for how successful [former President] Khatami could be, that depends on his political stance.” July 5, 2011
Masoumeh Ebtekar, member of Tehran’s city council and former vice president and former spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy hostage-takers
             “The conditions set forth by [former President Mohammad] Khatami are necessary for reformists’ participation [in the elections]…Khatami’s proposed conditions cost him a lot since some believe that there will be no significant changes [along the lines of Khatami’ s conditions.] But he has faith in a bright future and believes that ultimately, the entire ideological spectrum will have to build Iran together.” Aug. 16, 2011
Mohammad Reza Bahonar, parliament deputy speaker
             “Reformists who believe in the constitution of the Islamic Republic can and should participate in the elections.”  Aug. 8, 2011 
            “I have announced many times that we only consider two people [Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi] as heads of sedition. Others only assisted the seditionists. We are not willing to label anyone [else] we have problems with as a sedition leader. This is unacceptable…” 
Mohsen Hashemi, member of the central committee of Servants of Construction Party and son of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
            “In the current atmosphere, making a decision to run in the election is very hard for individuals like me…. There are still no hints from the elders regarding the presence of [people] like us and hence I have not made a decision whether to run or not to run. We have to wait.
            In any case, difficult domestic and international conditions have been formed for Iran, the exit from which will definitely require the presence of the whole political spectrum and use of all points of view. With moderation and pragmatism we can definitely pass through this stage.” Aug. 22, 2011, interview with Khabar Online 
Rasoul Montajabnia, deputy head of the National Confidence Party (Mehdi Karroubi remains the head of this party in absentia)
           “Surely until conditions and situations for various reformist currents and spectra, including the National Confidence Party, do not change, these currents will not be active and introduce their own candidates in the elections for the ninth parliament.”  August 24, 2011
Statements on principlist unity
Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, current parliamentarian and former speaker of parliament
             “If we [the principlists] choose to split because of some bearable matters, wewill be responsible for the defeat of the principlists.” July 28, 2011
Ali Motahari, conservative member of parliament
             “I have said that I am opposed to [superficial] unity among the principlists, but support unity based on wisdom. Thus we can have a separate list. Ultimately, we will have to wait to see what happens, but it is also possible that our list will not be under the banner of the principlists. For example, we may have a list consisting of the moderate reformists and principlists.”Aug. 15, 2011, interview with the semi-official Fars News Agency and translated by Tehran Bureau
Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, member of the Assembly of Experts and the ideological guide of the Steadfast Front
            “Our presence in the Steadfast Front of the Islamic Republic is not a sign of fissure, conflict, and differences. But we have recognized that this group’s tendencies are closer to Islamic values and their affinities to the revolution’s principles are more than others.” July 28, 2011
Statements on the supreme leader
Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, current parliamentarian and former speaker of parliament
            “The supreme leader does not like the principlists to enter the electoral arena with more than one list.”  August 11, 2011
Hassan Ghafouri Fard, conservative member of parliament
            “Saying that the supreme leader’s view is that only principlists [should] become unified is costly to the supreme leader and is not in the interest of [the country]...since he is the leader of all Iranians” Aug. 18, 2011
Mohammad Nabi Habibi, head of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party
            “No ideological political and factional current has the right to expropriate the supreme leader to its own advantage.” Aug. 17, 2011
Statements on Hashemi Rafsanjani
Jafar Shajouni, member of theCombatant Clergy Association
             “Current difference among principlists is over [former President Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani more than anything else. A group of hardline principlists believe that Hashemi should not be considered a principlist, since he has proven not to be dedicated to this political camp. There is another group that swoon over Hashemi…”
              “I believe that the Steadfast Front (Jebheye Paydari) is standing against Hashemi Rafsanjani and wants to sideline him in any way possible. But the traditional conservatives, who are trying to preserve Hashemi’s position [in the regime], are standing against the Steadfast Front.” Aug. 20, 2011, interview with Fararu News Agency
Mohammad Reza Bahonar, parliament deputy speaker
              “I consider Mr. Hashemi [Rafsanjani] as part of the governing board of the revolution…He has never been against the regime and is not among the sedition heads.” Aug. 20, 2011
Semira N. Nikou works for the Center for Conflict Management at the U.S. Institute of Peace

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Women Struggle in Parliament

Interview with Fatemeh Haghighatjoo

By Semira N. Nikou
      Dr. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo is a former member of Iran’s parliament (2000-2004). She is currently a visiting professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
     This is the seventh in a series on parliamentary elections due in March 2012:
  • What role have women played in Iran's parliament since the 1979 revolution?
Women in parliament can be divided into two groups: those who have a feminist conscientiousness or awareness, and those who do not.
Once we, the reformists, won the election in 2000, we began having meetings and seminars with women’s rights activists. Our promise during the sixth parliament (between 2000 and 2004) was to change discriminatory laws against women.
There were women and men who defended women’s rights. On one bill related to women’s issues, one of our male colleagues told us, “It is important that as a member of the clergy, I defend this bill, rather than you women having to defend it.” So the sixth parliament had a very different atmosphere than subsequent parliaments.
Zahra Rahnavard—then president of Al Zahra University and wife of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi—sponsored one of our seminars. It explored which women’s issues should be prioritized in parliament. All of the female MPs formed a caucus to address these issues. Even though some of the 13 women had values, they had all been elected on a reformist platform. 
But women have played different roles since in the seventh (2004 to 2008) and eighth parliaments (since 2008). In both parliaments, women have been very patriarchal. Unfortunately, they have not challenged any gender inequalities that are justified in the name of Islam. For instance, they defend polygamy because they consider it an Islamic value. They also defend segregation and the gender division of labor.
In another example, Eshragh Shaegh—a representative from Tabriz in the seventh parliament—said that if ten prostitutes were executed, there would not be any more prostitution in the country since it would be considered too dangerous or criminal. 
  • Why did conservative women dominate the recent parliaments?
There is an unwritten rule that some women have to be candidates for parliamentary elections. Since the 1979 revolution, most political parties have included at least two women in their lists for Tehran and other large cities.  
But the Guardian Council, which acts as a vetting body, banned reformists from participating in 2004 and 2008. More than 2,500 reformist candidates were disqualified. Only those seen as loyal to the regime were allowed to run. So conservative women won.
  • What type of women--political affiliation, religious background, social class--generally run as candidates?
Non-Islamic women cannot run for parliamentary elections, which is the case for both men and women. Only those who are loyal to the regime and the supreme leader (velayat-e faqih) can participate. So from the ideological perspective, we can say that only religious women can run.
In terms of social background, we often see women from the middle class. For example, many teachers have run as candidates.
Some female candidates have also been relative to authorities, such as:
  • Gohar Dastgheib (daughter of Grand Ayatollah Dastgheib)
  • Ategheh Rajai (wife of former President MohammadAli Rajai) 
  • Faezeh Hashemi (daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani)
  • Azam Taleghani (daughter of Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani)
  • Jamileh Kadivar (wife of former minister Ata’ollah Mohajerani and sister of Mohsen Kadivar)
  • Fatemeh Karoubi (wife of former speaker of Majles and opposition leader Mehdi Karoubi).
In politics, family ties are is important, and not just for women. For example, Mohammad Reza Khatami got the most votes in the sixth Majles because of his relation to the (then President) Mohammad Khatami. The two are brothers.
For example, Soheyla Jelodarzadeh (member of the fifth, sixth, and seventh parliaments) had no family connections. She represented the Islamic Labor Party (Hezb-e Eslamieh Kar) in parliament. I represented the Islamic Iran Participation Front (Jebheye Mosharekate Iran-e Eslami) as well as the student movement. I was active as a student, which led to my inclusion on the political list. In most cases you have to be supported by one of the political wings.
But Iran has also had independent women who do are not affiliated with a political party and do not have a family relation.
  • Which women tend to get more votes?
It depends on the period. Different types of women have been voted into office, based on the atmosphere of society at the time.
For example, Faezeh Hashemi came in near the top of the list of candidates from Tehran in the fifth parliament (1996-2000) not just because she was the daughter of former President Rafsanjani, but because her campaign promises and personal actions—such as riding a bicycle—were attractive, particularly to young women.
But even though she did well in the fifth parliament election, she lost in the next election]. She played the family card; she ran as the daughter of Rafsanjani--a move that was not popular at the time. 
  • Why has the number of female parliamentarians decreased since 2004?
The role conservative women played in the seventh parliament (2004 to 2008) caused women to question whether female parliamentarians would in fact work in their favor. The patriarchal positions of conservative parliamentarians probably affected the voting pattern. As a result, Iran did not have female candidates who could represent women’s needs and issues in the seventh and eighth parliaments.
  • What positions do female parliamentarians generally hold on issues affecting women—such as on divorce or controversial family laws?
Changes favoring women have often been drafted by female parliamentarians. As a general pattern, women in all parliaments have tried to liberalize the law—even if by a little bit-- in favor of women. Personal status laws, such as divorce laws, have been the main issues that female MPs have tried to revise. But each time they have only made minor changes. We still have not been able to bring equality in divorce.

The controversial family protection bill (that would allow men to marry additional women without the consent of their first wife, among other issues) introduced to the seventh parliament actually came from the government--the judiciary and the president's office.
The women’s movement in Iran has played an important role in influencing parliamentary positions on women’s issues, especially on the family protection bill. But female parliamentarians are not necessarily sympathetic toward the women’s movement. The women in the seventh parliament (2004 to 2008) and eighth parliament (since 2008) are very traditional; many support polygamy.
The women’s movement has been able to organize and speak with unity—from the secularists to the Islamists as well as from the left to the right—against issues such as polygamy, which would be allowed under the family protection bill. Why do you think the family protection bill of has been sitting in parliament for the past seven years? It has not passed because of the independent women’s movement’s opposition.
This women’s activism in society and the bottom-up pressure on the parliament and the clergy have been a success story for the independent women’s movement. They reflect how even the conservative parliament can be pushed toward policies favoring women.

Source: Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System published by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
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Factoids on Parliamentary Election

Semira N. Nikou

         This is the third in a series on parliamentary elections due in March 2012:

  • Iran’s first parliament was formed after the Constitutional Revolution in 1906. Its current parliament was created by a new constitution written after the 1979 revolution ousted the monarchy and established an Islamic republic. The first revolutionary parliament was elected in 1980. Iran has elected eight parliaments since then.
  • Average voter turnout for the eight parliamentary elections has been 63 percent nationally. But in the past 15 years, the average for Tehran province—which includes the capital city—has been 44 percent, the lowest in the country.*
  • Parliament originally had 270 seats but increased to 290 members in 2000. There may be another 20 seat increase for the 2012 elections.
  • Citizens are not confined to voting for candidates from their own district and can cast their votes in any district (or province).
  • Five seats are reserved for religious minorities—one seat each for Jews, Zoroastrians, and Assyrian-Chaldean Christians, and two seats for Armenian Christians.
  • In 2008, a combination of conservatives and hardliners won more than 67 percent of seats, while reformists won around 18 percent. The rest ran as independents. 
  • Clerics now represent 14 percent of parliamentarians, a significant decline since they held half of the seats in the first parliament.*
  • Eight women serve as deputies in the current parliament. The highest number of female MPS (14) and the highest proportion of female representatives (5 percent) were in 1996, when the total number of deputies was 270.*
  • Ali Larijani is the current Speaker of Parliament. He is Iran’s former nuclear negotiator (2005-7). His brother, Sadegh Larijani, has been the judiciary chief since 2009. The Larijani family now controls two of the three branches of government.
  • Only Iranian citizens living in Iran can vote in parliamentary elections—unlike presidential elections in which members of the diaspora can also vote.

 * Source: Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System published by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

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Hossein Mousavian: Iran is Ready to Negotiate--If

Interview with Seyed Hossein Mousavian

By Semira N. Nikou
Seyed Hossein Mousavian was foreign policy adviser to former nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani (2005-07), former spokesperson of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team (2003-05), former head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the National Security Council of Iran (1997-2005), and the former ambassador to Germany (1990-97). He is currently a visiting research scholar at Princeton University. This interview was conducted after Mousavian’s first public presentation since his arrest in Iran in April 2007.  He spoke to an audience of 5,000 people at Chautauqua Institution.
  • What are the prospects, realistically, for progress this year in diplomatic efforts? What are the realistic options for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement?
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the ultimate decision-maker and he will be ready to negotiate once Iran is offered the right package. He does not object to transparency because he already issued a fatwa in 1995 against weapons of mass destruction. But he is against discrimination, suspension [of uranium enrichment], and the deprivation of Iran’s rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
I do not understand the notion that the supreme leader is not willing to negotiate—considering how the issue of Iran’s right to enrichment has never been approached properly. Ultimately, prospects for negotiation depend on whether the P5+1 (five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) offers Iran an acceptable package.
Even during the 2003-2005 negotiations, Iran’s confidence-building measures—including suspension of enrichment, implementation of the Addition Protocol, and inspections beyond those required by NPT—all had to be approved by the supreme leader. Otherwise, we would not have been able to implement those policies. This is the same leader.
By early 2005, the supreme leader had lost confidence in the ability of the Europeans—Iran’s main negotiating interlocutors at the time—to deliver on their promises. This was before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
Now, after eight years, there is still a dispute among the P5+1 members over Iran’s rights. In 2005, Russia, China, Germany, and even France were prepared to recognize Iran’s rights to enrichment, but the United Kingdom and the United States were not. The U.S. position at the time was that Iran could have not any centrifuges.
Since Barack Obama won the presidency, there has been a clear change. As far as I understand, the United States is prepared to recognize Iran’s rights to enrichment under certain conditions—such as intrusive inspections, temporary limit on the number of centrifuges, etc.
I am surprised that the Europeans—led by France—are now resisting. Paris is pushing the United States to discuss enrichment at the end of negotiations, rather than at the beginning. So, while Washington has come to understand that no agreement can be reached without first recognizing Iran’s rights,  France has a different position. 
That is why the P5+1 policy towards Iran has failed and will continue to fail until there is willingness to accept Iran’s rights to peaceful nuclear enrichment. The suspension era is over.
It is simply not acceptable for P5+1 countries, which control 98 percent of the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, to deprive others from the pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy and fuel cycle.
  • What conditions need to be met for negotiations to be successful? What does Iran need to do? What does the U.S. need to do?
The P5+1 want a step-by-step approach toward negotiations, but Iran wants to see the final result. The step-by-step approach does not work. A comprehensive package acknowledging Iran’s right to enrichment should be placed on the table at the start of negotiations. In other words, both parties should see the final outcome.Otherwise, the Iranians will not enter a road where they cannot see the end.
After agreeing on a comprehensive package, the parties can then further negotiate on the implementation of the package in a phased manner, with an agreed upon timetable. Without a timetable, Tehran will again hesitate to enter an agreement given its concerns about the P5+1’s intentions to play with time and prolong the negotiation process.
On the nuclear issue, the end state for the Iranians is full rights under the NPT, without discrimination over enrichment. Other countries enrich but do not face sanctions. The nuclear impasse will not be resolved as long as U.N. resolutions are enforced because they require Iran to indefinitely suspend enrichment and provide access to sites and scientists for an indefinite period.  These conditions extend beyond the framework of NPT.
Parties negotiating with Iran have pushed for measures beyond the NPT and the Additional Protocol, with no definition of what those measures are and no limit on their scope.  That is why I think Iran will never accept these resolutions.
  • What would convince Iran to cooperate with the world’s six major powers?
The focal point of the P5+1 negotiations should be assurances about the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program and non-diversion toward weapons program in the future. If the P5+1 is seeking the above outcomes, then talking about suspension—especially indefinite suspension—is both meaningless and useless. Suspension has nothing to do with transparency. Iran views indefinite suspension as a way for the P5+1 to buy time for a long-term ban on Iran’s enrichment program and ultimately its discontinuation.
Instead, the P5+1 can ask Iran for objective guarantees. The Europeans are the ones who first introduced the term “objective guarantees” in 2003-04, during the Paris Agreement. We [the Iranian negotiating team, of which Mousavian was a part] asked them to define what they meant, including the measures they expected from Iran for full transparency. They were never able to fully define what they meant.
The P5+1 can never ask Iran to give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access that goes beyond NPT and the Additional Protocol for an unlimited period. That is clear discrimination and the Iranian parliament would never accept it. But if the P5+1 asks for confidence-building measures beyond NPT for only a short term, then it is possible because Iran showed such gestures when Dr. Rowhani and Dr. Ali  Larijani’ were chief negotiators.
  • What steps could Iran take to build confidence?
We need a fair and balance “solution package” as a face-saving exit for both parties. To meet Iran’s bottom-line requirements, the P5+1 should respect the rights of Iran under the NPT, including its right to uranium enrichment; lift the sanctions; remove Iran’s case from UN Security Council and normalize nuclear cooperation with Iran under NPT.
In response, Iran could demonstrate objective guarantees, more transparency and confidence-building measures in a number of ways :
  • Commit not to enrich uranium above 5 percent during a period of confidence-building—as long as the international community sells it fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, which uses 20 percent enriched fuel (Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, made this offer in February 2010.)
  • Adhere to all international nuclear treaties at the maximum level of transparency and cooperation as defined by the IAEA.
  • Take steps toward regional and international cooperation for enrichment activities within Iran.
  • Limit enrichment activities to its actual fuel needs.
  • Export all enriched uranium not used for domestic fuel production and refraining from reprocessing spent fuel from research reactors for a period of confidence building.
  • Resolve all IAEA’s remaining technical issues within the “Modality Agreement” or “Work Plan” signed between ElBaradei and Larijani in 2007.
I also think that a parallel, comprehensive agreement on Iran-U.S. bilateral relations is essential for achieving a realistic, face-saving solution to the nuclear issue. This package should be negotiated between Tehran and the United States directly, while Iran’s nuclear issue can be negotiated within the framework of the P5+1 talks.
  • What role does domestic politics play in Iran’s position?
A very substantial one.  The reality is that the overwhelming majority of Iranians are pro-nuclear technology.
Before 1979, full rights on the nuclear program was a red line for the shah, who demanded full rights—including reprocessing and enrichment—under the NPT. After the revolution, the Islamic Republic also eventually came to view the nuclear program as a red line. It was so under the presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Therefore, it does not matter whether moderates, reformists, or principlists are in power or whether we have a monarchical system or an Islamic Republic. The 50-year history of Iran’s nuclear program has proven that it has always been a red line, regardless of the governing system.
  • How will heightened sanctions against Iran—both economic and human rights --affect future negotiations?
Sanctions have not, and will not, change Iran’s nuclear posture. This is just a reality that Iran’s interlocutors have to come to terms with.
After three decades, unilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program have not led to the intended results. For example, they have failed to change Iran's nuclear policy, the Iranian population still views the nuclear program as a national right. And Iran has been able to acquire long-range missile capabilities, a nuclear fuel cycle, and advanced chemical and biological technologies.
But there is also another reality that it is very difficult to reverse sanctions, particularly the unilateral ones imposed by the United States Congress. Existing U.S. legislation does not endow the president with the authority to waive or terminate sanctions in response to goodwill gestures on Iran’s part.
It is the understanding of these dynamics that have made Iran more insistent on seeing the end game at the beginning of negotiations. In other words, recent sanctions have made Iran more suspicious of the United States intentions. Tehran does not see unilateral sanctions as instruments of pressure but in fact as mechanisms promoted to make a comprehensive agreement impossible and maintain the regime change scenario always on the table.
  • Russia has proposed a "step-by-step" proposal for nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. What are the prospects, realistically, for the Russian initiative?
The initiative is a step forward but it is not a new proposal. The Russians first presented a similar plan to the United States in October 2010.  Now, after the failure of negotiations in Geneva and Istanbul, Moscow believes the proposal can be a breakthrough.
I do not know the plan’s details but if it is a step-by-step one, it can only be successful if does not promote yet another round of suspension and it defines an end game entailing the following:
  1. Iran’s full rights to enrichment
  2. Lifting of sanctions
  3. Removal of Iran’s nuclear file from the U.N. Security Council and the IAEA Board of Governors
Engagement is both logical and realistic. But in the absence of a negotiable framework, the two parties will not be able to compromise. If the focus is on making Iran’s program transparent and assuring its peacefulness, then a framework for negotiations can be developed. But if the idea is to force Iran to do something that no other country is asked to do, then there will be no agreed upon framework for talks. Even if there are meetings, they will not go anywhere.


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