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Controversy Flares over Iran Arms to Iraq

Semira N. Nikou

      Tensions are deepening between Washington and Tehran over new claims about Iranian military aid to Iraqi militias. The Obama administration charges that the Iranian arms have been increasingly used in attacks against U.S. troops. The U.S. holds the radical militias responsible for the deaths of 18 American soldiers since June1 —the highest monthly death toll in two years.
       New U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta repeatedly addressed Iran’s arming of Shiite militias in Iraq during his July 8-11 trip to Afghanistan and Iraq. The following are Panetta’s statements and Iran’s responses.
       "We're very concerned about Iran and weapons they're providing to extremists here in Iraq…And the reality is that we've seen the results of that — in June, we lost a hell of a lot of Americans ... and we cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen." June 11 statement in Iraq
       “We did lose an awful lot of troops last month, and we’re continuing to see attacks.  And a lot of this that we think can be tracked to Iran and their supplying of weapons to insurgents here who are conducting these kinds of attacks.  That raises a lot of concerns.” July 11 interview with NBC News
       “I think it's very important to let them know that, you know, we do not appreciate their support for terrorism, here or anyplace else in the world.  And they've been in engaging in basically not only equipping terrorists but supporting them…that's not just a responsibility that we have; I think it's a responsibility that the world has to send the signal to Iran that we're not going to tolerate that -- they can't just go around supporting terrorism in the world.  The world is going to respond to that kind of behavior.  If they want to be a member of the family of nations, they've got to act like it.” July 11 interview with NBC News
       "We're seeing more of those weapons going in from Iran, and they've really hurt us."  July 11 statement in Iraq
        “We cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue to happen…I assure you that this is not something we’re just going to walk away from, we’re going to take this on, straight on.” June 11 statement in Iraq
        “I think the key right now is to go after them in Iraq and do what we can to prevent those weapons coming into Iraq and go after those groups that would make use of those weapons.  That’s what the principal focus has to be on.”  Afghanistan—July 10, 2011, in response to a question on how the United States can prevent Iran from selling weapons to Shiite extremists.
        “Obviously, whatever we can do diplomatically to send that message, we ought to do that as well.” July 10 statement in Afghanistan
Iranian response
Ramin Mehmanparast, Foreign ministry spokesman
        “It seems that the Americans do not have a favorable position in the region, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, so they are making every effort to continue their presence in these countries at any cost.” July 11
Ali Akbar Salehi Foreign minister
        “[The United States] has been making such statements for 30 years. We don't consider the U.S. to be able to rule on what is right and what is wrong…The international community and nations do know that Iran usually meets its commitments." July 11
Hassan Danayeefar, Iran envoy to Iraq
        "These comments are repetitious and display the United States' trouble in earning the attention of the Iraqi parliament and government for extending its presence in Iraq." July 10
Parviz Sorouri, member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission
        "The groups that wage terrorist attacks in Iraq today have all been created by the U.S…Evidence and documents display that most of the terrorist operations in Iraq have been carried out by the Al-Qaeda network which receives direct support and backup from the U.S.”
        "All the groups that are killing Muslim people in Iraq are born by the US and intend to portray Iraq as insecure (country)." July 12 interview with the semi-official Fars News Agency

A Case for U.S.-Iran Diplomacy

Interview with Roberto Toscano

Semira N. Nikou
Roberto Toscano served as Italy’s ambassador to Iran between 2003 and 2008.
  • Along with five former European ambassadors to Iran, you wrote an open letter in June 2011 encouraging the United States and the European Union to engage Iran on its controversial nuclear program. Given the failure of diplomacy since 2003, what are the prospects of engagement--realistically?
Let me turn it around—what are the prospects of non-engagement? The strategies pursued until now are definitely not producing results. At the same time, centrifuges, doubts and tensions increase. The idea that prompted us former ambassadors to suggest a different approach was to see whether this stalemate can be overcome, and how.
We should have two priorities in addressing the nuclear issue. One is to prevent conflict--preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which by itself is a threat to international security, and preventing conflict that might arise around proliferation issues. Second is to follow a policy that does not diminish, but increases, chances for a democratic Iran.
On both counts, what we, the West, have done until now has been counterproductive. If you ask me about the chance of engagement now, I would stay it is slim. In 2003 and 2004…the position of the Unites States and Europeans was that Iran have zero centrifuges. The idea was, since you, Tehran, were a suspicious fellow, you had no more rights. But in international law, especially on non-proliferation, you need rules that are applicable to all.
The assessment of the majority of experts—both technical and political--is that what Iran wants is threshold capacity—to arrive at a stage where it can produce a nuclear weapon if it wants to. The same situation Japan is in, for instance.
We should prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons—and make its attainment of threshold capacity more difficult --by applying strategies that are realistic. There are several elements. One is to shift from the impossible goal of eliminating Iranian capability and instead increase control over Iran’s nuclear program. The shift would be from prohibition to enhanced controls.
For instance, Iran had adopted the Additional Protocol from 2003-05. It did not ratify but still applied the protocols. The difference between the present system and the Additional Protocol is that now inspectors still inspect Natanz regularly, but they cannot go to undeclared sites. And of course, the real guarantee is when they can go to undeclared sites. But the Additional Protocol is not universally ratified—meaning, not all signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have ratified it. So the Additional Protocol has to be a part of the negotiations. It cannot be imposed as a rule because it is not a universal rule.
The nuclear issue has been singled out as being the only one of concern for us. There are many more—regional problems, Iranian policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan, etc. If you do not contextualize the nuclear issue…it will always be looked at as a zero-sum game. 
Good diplomacy is when you give and take on a wider front…After all, I am not talking about a “grand bargain”—for which there are no conditions right now, especially given the recent regime and internal political situation—but at least an attempt to begin talking about the wide range of issues.
In 2003, there was a letter sent … to the United States. Not only did the United States not reply, but it reproached the Swiss ambassador for having transmitted the proposal. It was a very basic, generic proposal…but somebody should have answered, asking the Iranians to be more explicit. At that time, the idea was different—that there was an unstoppable wave of democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
  • What tangible steps can the United States and Europe take toward negotiations with Iran?
We have a prerequisite--which is unfortunately in the Security Council resolution--that enrichment should stop before negotiation [begins]. This is a bad idea because the result of a negotiation is required as a prerequisite to negotiations. It is very difficult to know how to get out of this. I am afraid we have painted ourselves into a corner.
  • How has Iran’s political crisis affected the regime’s interest or position in negotiations on nuclear issues?
There is a common interest in not damaging the system—because in that case all in the regime would go under. But things could get out of control because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is reckless.
The political confrontation between the supreme leader and the president is…not on whether the nuclear program should be maintained, but on how. The impression is that the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei gang would be more innovative—(Esfandiar Rahim Mashei is Ahmadinejad’s controversial chief of staff.) The supreme leader is more of the status quo. We do not know what exactly others want, but they are probably more willing to change. Having said that, there is no way that Ahmadinejad can prevail over the supreme leader, so this is all very theoretical.
The nuclear negotiations have changed several times…So the West should prove to be more imaginative—to test, provoke, and challenge. We should not let the status quo just lie there because it is festering; it can go wrong—also by mistake. I am afraid if we do not do something to address those issues, starting with the nuclear but not only the nuclear, conflict could arise out of carelessness, mistake. Just accidents.
  • Since 2009, the Obama administration has gradually shifted from a policy of engagement to heightened pressure through sanctions on human rights and nuclear issues. How do sanctions affect the chances of future negotiations between the two countries?
The first problem is a sort of disconnect between the political dynamics in the two countries. I have no doubt that if Obama had been president at the same time as Khatami, something would have happened.
You do not have to overestimate your adversary. George F. Kennan had it right: You prevent your adversary—in his case the Soviet Union-- from shifting the competition with you onto a military field. From then on, you just have to let everything else play—your economy, open society, culture. The Soviet Union was not invaded, was not bombed, not isolated—and it was the Soviet Union! You mean that Iran is more powerful than the Soviet Union?
So why see this Iran as a devilish, all-powerful system that you either destroy or it will destroy you. Iran is not capable of even a match with Israel. Everyone is talking about the possible nuclear weapons in the future of Iran when Israel already has them.
  • Do you distinguish between human rights sanctions and those against Iran’s nuclear program?
Yes. The difference is not in the effect of sanctions but their political significance. They have a different tag and political impact…People who want democracy in Iran have welcomed sanctions against human rights violators.
As far as sanctions against the nuclear program, Iranians—even democratic Iranians—are not so unified in approving them because of nationalism and because they think it is legitimate for the country to develop a nuclear energy program under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The idea of saying that since we [the West] do not trust you [Iran] the normal rules do not apply, is hard to sell—not only to the regime but also to the people.


Iran’s Women Two Years after the Uprising

Interview with Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh

Semira N. Nikou

       Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a women’s rights activist, is a founding member of the Stop Stoning to Death Campaign and the Iranian Women’s Charter. She was director of Entesharat-e Banoo (Banoo Publications) and Entesharat-e Jamee Iranian (Iranian Society Publication). She was the director of the Association of Women Writers and Journalists NGO. She is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
  • What is the status of female political prisoners in Iran?
Human rights organizations have reported around 300 female political prisoners since the Green Movement’s emergence two years ago. The accuracy of this statistic is uncertain since some women have chosen not to publicize their arrests.
We know that around 80 women’s rights activists have been arrested since 2009.  At least 34 are still in prison. Examples include student activist Bahareh Hedayat, journalist Jila Baniyaghoub, and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. Others have been temporarily released but are still waiting for their final verdicts.
Extended prison sentences and/or punishments are an issue. Before the 2009 presidential election, prison sentences were usually less than three months—a worst case scenario being two years of house arrest. But since the election, the same crimes have been punished with years of imprisonment and the number of people arrested has increased. Currently, the shortest prison sentence has been six years. Baniyaghoub, for example, has been banned from pursuing journalism for 30 years.
Circumstances in Evin Prison are also dire. All 34 women reside in one room. They have to sleep on the floor. Before the Green Movement, prison standards were far better—higher quality of food, sanitary environment, warm clothes, more living space, etc. Now, that is not the case.
  • On what grounds have female political prisoners been arrested?
They have been accused of being a threat to national security. The regime targets activists from all spheres who can in some way keep social movements alive. The regime does not want the Green Movement to benefit from any other movements. The regime has always targeted women’s rights activists but the rate greatly increased after the emergence of the Green Movement. 
  • Women were at the forefront of the 2009 demonstrations that produced the Green Movement.  What is the current status of the women’s movement two years later?
Since Iran’s 2009 presidential election, the women’s movement has focused on the status of female political prisoners and the daily government crackdowns. Women’s rights activists have broadened their human rights efforts. They are pursuing their cases not just in Iranian courts, but also in the international arena in their attempt to confront state violence with non-violence.
These activists simultaneously continue to battle gender inequalities, which are getting worse. Inequalities still exist in family laws favoring men, gender segregation in universities, and the exclusion of women from educational opportunities.
  • Have the women’s rights campaigns changed since two years ago?
The Green Movement and the women’s movement have influenced each other. Before the Green Movement, the latter focused only on gender equality.
The Green Movement broadened the discourse on equal rights—which women’s rights activists had been pursuing for decades—to democracy. Religious and ethnic minorities such as the Turks, Kurds, and Arabs, and other movements, such as the labor and students movements, began to speak about civil rights. The women’s movement, for its part, worked to ensure that the discourse on democracy included issues of gender inequalities.
The women’s movement increased its activities in human rights organizations—both in Iran and internationally. There are many human rights organization in Iran but they often function in secret. They spread information through social media and various other networks.
A number of Iranian women’s rights activists, after leaving the country, now work either in international human rights organizations or have created their own organizations. One example is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer and former judge, who still focuses on human rights issues while residing outside Iran.
Interestingly, however, the Green Movement did not push the women’s movement from a social movement into a political movement. The women’s movement has not joined any political movements active inside or outside of Iran.
  • What is the status of the One Million Signatures Campaign, which seeks to collect one million signatures to change discriminatory laws against women in Iran?
The campaign is still functioning but has had to change tactics. It now functions underground because of the heightened government crackdown. Many of the campaign’s members have also become active in the Green Movement, helping to further democratize the opposition.

New U.N. Human Rights Rapporteur for Iran

Semira N. Nikou

            On June 17, the U.N. Human Rights Council appointed Ahmed Shaheed, former Maldives foreign minister (2005-07), as the new special rapporteur to Iran. Shaheed had resigned from the foreign ministry in 2007 to protest the Maldives government’s failure to implement democratic reforms. For his new position as special rapporteur, Shaheed is tasked with monitoring the human rights situation, visiting Iran and preparing a report for the United Nations. After the announcement, the Iranian press reported that Shaheed would not be allowed to visit the country.
           State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland welcomed the appointment of Shaheed, a Muslim, to “serve as a voice for the millions of Iranians who have suffered egregious human rights violations and are not heard by their own government. We encourage all members of the United Nations to support Mr. Shaheed in his duties, and call on the Iranian Government to live up to its commitments to universal human rights and to respect the writ of the special rapporteur.”
            Shaheed will be the fourth special rapporteur to Iran, after Andres Aguilar, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, and Maurice Copithorne. All past rapporteurs expressed concerns about human rights violations in Iran but received little cooperation from the Iranian government. Copithorne, for example, was allowed in Iran only once at the beginning of his term.
            In an interview, Roberto Toscano, who served as Italy’s ambassador between 2003 and 2008, explained the mission, purpose and challenges of the special rapporteur. Toscano is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Interview with Roberto Toscano-Former Italian Ambassador to Iran (2003-08)
  • UN Human Rights Council appointed a Special Rapporteur to investigate Iran’s human rights situation. What are the specific duties of the rapporteur?
The special rapporteur has to prepare a report. The job requires the collection and critical analysis of information pertaining to human rights violations in a given country. The rapporteur is not just a mailbox. He is supposed to vet information because there is so much of it [and] there are so many denunciations.
The rapporteur has to exert discipline because he has to be credible.  He has to gather information on any regime that deserves to be suspected. [The information-gathering] is like a legal procedure [in the sense that] even a serial killer has to be judged fairly.  So fairness is extremely important—professionalism and fairness. 
  • Why did the United Nations opt to take this step? And why now?
There was a political consensus in the Human Rights Council in Geneva that developed around the idea. My personal opinion is that what happened in 2009 gave a boost to this idea because undoubtedly [the human rights situation in Iran] became more critical. There were already human rights problems in Iran before 2009, but afterward, the situation became more critical.  There was more awareness in the international community, and therefore more countries were in favor of instituting a special rapporteur. [The U.N. council vote was 22 in favor of a special rapporteur, seven opposed, and 14 abstentions].
  • Given Tehran’s objections to the appointment, how much cooperation do you anticipate from Iran? How can a rapporteur operate effectively if he is not allowed into Iran?
It does not look good. Tehran’s attitude has been negative. Hopefully somebody [in Iran] will realize that it is better for the rapporteur to have the capacity to work thoroughly and fairy. But I am not very optimistic. The previous rapporteur, Maurice Copithorne, went to Iran once, in the beginning of his mandate, but never again because Iran rejects the function itself.
Who is it that generally gathers information about human rights violations in Iran? The human rights activists, human rights watch, Amnesty International, etc. I think the special rapporteur will inevitably have to tap into the resources that already exist in Iran. Many of these organizations are credible and can supply the rapporteur with reliable material. So that is the only alternative.
  • How might the special rapporteur’s findings impact the human rights situation in Iran?
The first important aspect of human rights activity is to make information public. What any repressive government would love is to be left alone in secret—like North Korea, for example. Do we know how many dissidents are in jail in North Korea?  Do we know their names? No way.
If [the rapporteur’s findings] were not significant, we would not understand why regimes hate the post. Governments don’t like to be submitted to external scrutiny.
  • Does Iran care that the international community is increasingly raising human rights abuses?
It makes Iran uncomfortable. [International scrutiny] would make any government uncomfortable. If someone were to appoint a special rapporteur to the United States, [Washington] would be uncomfortable—the jails, the way immigrants are treated in certain states like Arizona, etc. 

But of course nobody can replace the activity and engagement of a country’s people. The international community can be helpful, counterproductive, etc. But the job belongs to each of us within our own country. The future of Iran will definitely not depend on what is decided in Geneva, New York, or even Washington D.C. From the outside, we should at the very least do no harm. We should not enter into strategies that are detrimental to the possibility of an improvement in the life, democracy and human rights of the Iranians.

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Interview with Maziar Bahari

Semira N. Nikou

         Maziar Bahari is an Iranian Canadian journalist and film maker who was imprisoned in Iran between June and October 2009. He is the co-author of a new book, "And then they Came for Me," which chronicles Bahari's 118-day long solitary confinement in Iran's notorious Evin Prison.
  • Two years after the presidential election, what is the political situation in Iran?
The main development is the infighting between people around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supporters of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Since the downfall of different dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and uprisings in other countries--Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya--Ahmadinejad and his clan realized that they have to distance themselves from the establishment of Supreme leader Khamenei and his supporters.
Since they cannot directly attack Khamenei, they are attacking the foundations of his power—the marjaia, or emulating a high ranking Shiite cleric during the absence of the twelfth Imam, the Shiite Messiah. So what Ahmadinejad’s supporters are preaching—not openly, but among their followers—is that we do not need the clerics.  We do not need the objects of emulation in order to be good Shiites and to prepare ourselves for the return of the twelfth Imam. That essentially means undermining the authority of the clerical establishment and Khamenei whose followers regard him as the Velayat-e Faqih, the supreme leader or jurisprudent. This is, of course, the subtext of what is happening in Iran.
What we see on the surface is bickering and open arguments about which official should be in charge of which office, especially in the oil sector and intelligence ministry. For four years, from 2005 to 2009, Ahmadinejad and his gang—and I consciously use words such as “gang” and “clan” because I believe Ahmadinejad and the people around him have a cult-like closeness and mafia-like organization—were openly supported by Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. During that time, they managed to put their allies in positions of power and have access to different financial resources and buy loyalty. They have created a class of supporters—especially in the hashiehs, or outskirts of cities—who have become dependent on government handouts.
  • What is the status of human rights in Iran?
None of the factions in the regime really believe in human rights. Rather, they believe in human privileges. The supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei openly admit that freedom of expression, freedom of press and women’s rights are really not rights of the citizens, rather they are the regime’s gift to people. Different groups within the Islamic Republic use whatever tactics they can to remain in power. This can include arresting, imprisoning, torturing, and interrogating people... shutting down newspapers, arresting the families of prisoners, confiscating properties.
There is no rule of law. Reformist or conservative members of the establishment can be arrested, imprisoned, tortured, when different parts of the intelligence apparatus deem appropriate. In most cases, the law is interpreted by security agents, whether in the Revolutionary Guards or Ministry of Intelligence according to the short-term interests of their bosses.
  • What is the status of political prisoners? 
It is impossible to know how many people are jailed. It is a revolving door -- some are released and others are arrested and kept in prison. Political prisoners in Iran are not regarded as political prisoners because there is no description of political crime in Iran. So political prisoners are mostly charged with endangering the security of the state. Writing an article, making a film, giving an interview, or talking to someone can lead to one’s arrest and being charged with treason. Most political cases are not handled by the courts and judges. They are handled by security agents in charge of interrogating a person. If someone is arrested by the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit, it is the interrogators of that unit who make the decision regarding that person’s fate and not the judge. They can just come up with charges and with different evidence for the charges.
In my case, I was charged with espionage, masterminding Western media in Iran, and illicit sexual affairs. But none of those charges were mentioned in my sentence when I was released because there was no proof. They fabricated other chargers against me—endangering the security of the nation, but also insulting the supreme leader, insulting the president, etc. only because I didn’t listen to my interrogator’s warning, and when I left the country I didn’t remain quiet about what happened to me in prison. I know of other cases handled by Ministry of Intelligence and the same thing happened. The interrogator tells the family of the prisoner that they’re going to sentence him to six years in prison, and the next day the judge passes exactly that sentence.
  • Who is targeted by the regime?
Different groups, in order to secure their own interests, are targeting different groups. People who are targeted by Ayatollah Khamenei’s supporters are those whose words or actions undermine his authority or can be interpreted as critical of Khamenei’s legitimacy as the Supreme Leader.
Khamenei’s followers call him their “Imam,” which not only means a religious leader, but the leader of the Islamic nation. So they have repeatedly said, especially in recent months, that opposing Khamenei effectively means opposing Islam and Allah. Khamenei’s followers compare him to Imam Ali, the first Shiite Imam. They draw analogies between Khamenei’s struggle against the reformist opposition and those who have broken ranks with the system to Imam Ali’s battles against his Muslim opponents and former allies, 1,400 hundred years ago. So they are trying to make him a saint while he is alive in order to consolidate their power, to be more effective in their campaign against the opposition, and in order to provoke people’s religious sentiments.
  • How has the situation changed?
The regime as a whole is feeling increasingly insecure about its future, and as a result different groups are violating the rights of others. As infighting inside the government grows and intensifies, the human rights situation is getting worse. At the same time, the regime as a whole is cynically pragmatic and can create a façade of civility whenever there is outside attention to its actions. Unfortunately, the situation is much worse in small towns and cities where there is no media attention. In Tehran, there are high profile political prisoners, including prisoners who were government officials in the past. Those prisoners still have some contacts within the government and the media. But in the smaller towns, unknown prisoners—prisoners of consciousness—have no profile and no contacts in the government and in Geneva. Their names and situations are not known.
  • How has the crackdown impacted media in Iran and outside coverage of Iran?
The government has two weak spots—the economy and information. The government knows that any information that cracks the veneer of its lies and fabrications can disrupt the status quo. My arrest signaled to many other journalists and filmmakers to watch their actions. There are many cases where the government has shut down a newspaper or a blog as a warning to other papers or bloggers. But of course it is futile. The Iranian regime is a 20th century dictatorship. It is not equipped to rule in the 21st century. It is a regime that is prepared to block short-wave radios and newspapers. But it cannot fight against the Internet, text messaging, and satellite television.
The mainstream media coverage of Iran has suffered greatly because of the government crackdown. But, we are witnessing the flourishing of citizen media. Young Iranians are using the government’s deficiency in targeting new media to their advantage.  So as a result of the crackdown on official media—which is very easy for the government to control—citizen journalism has flourished.
However, citizen journalism is in its nascent stages right now. It is not as organized as it could be. But I think that with time and more training, and with the help of the outside world, it could flourish and be more effective in gathering and disseminating information.
  • What is the state of the opposition?
We do not have a unified opposition right now.  There are different groups who oppose different parts of the Islamic establishment. There are even groups who were victorious during the 2009 presidential election but who now consider themselves part of the opposition. The opposition is fragmented and disorganized. But that might be a good thing. It means that Iranians are not unified behind a central figure like revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. Because of the information they have from the outside world, and because of the 32-year process of thinking and re-thinking the failures of the 1979 revolution, people don’t want a sudden change in the system. They experienced a revolution 32 years ago and have suffered its negative results. So they approach change carefully and with trepidation.
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


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