United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Kerry, Zarif Meet in Geneva

On January 14, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif held intensive meetings in Geneva on the eve of nuclear talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers—Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. The session was intended to “show the readiness of the two parties to move forward to speed up the [negotiations] process,” Zarif told reporters before meeting Kerry. “All issues are hard until we resolve them.”

The U.S.-Iran relationship has become the most critical angle of nuclear talks. The other world powers seem to have deferred to the United States to break ground with Iran. And Iranian negotiators know that Washington will have the final word on sanctions relief in any deal.

 

 
Kerry and Zarif “had substantive meetings for approximately five hours” and “discussed a broad range of issues,” according to the State Department. The two held a morning session and an afternoon session, which included an unusual walk along the streets of Geneva.
 
 
 
 

 

Zarif and Kerry also held  unscheduled late-night meeting.

On January 16, the two met again in Paris. The two had previously scheduled meetings with others, but they carved out time to meet again to continue closing gaps.

 

 

Photo credits: U.S. State Department via Flickr

 

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

Khamenei vs. Rouhani on Non-Muslims

Garrett Nada

Iran’s supreme leader and president take two different approaches to interfaith outreach. While extolling the qualities of shared prophets with Christianity and Judaism, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei often censures other countries or groups for supposedly not living up to the high standards set by Jesus, Moses and others. President Hassan Rouhani, on the other hand, focuses on shared values and faith rather than politicizing his messages to or about Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.

For Christmas 2014, postings on Khamenei’s official Twitter account mixed praise of Jesus and Mary with backhanded condemnation of the West. Some of the remarks were more than two decades old, repurposed from the pre-Twitter age. Many of his tweets included trending hashtags referring to racial issues in the United States, such as #BlackLivesMatter and #Ferguson — references to the killing of unarmed African-Americans by white police officers in New York and Missouri. Even the caption under a picture of Khamenei visiting with a Christian family (above) had a political overtone. The tweet invoked martyrdom and Jesus because the couple's son died in the 1980-1988 war with Iraq.
 
President Hassan Rouhani, however, did not mix politics or criticism with his Christmas outreach. The tweet posted on his account was a simple wish for a merry Christmas and a blessing from Jesus, a prophet of "peace and love." Rouhani also visited with elderly Christians at Tehran’s St. Mary Hospice on New Year’s Day. Instead of referring to the Iran-Iraq War, Rouhani used the opportunity to emphasize that all citizens, regardless of age or faith, deserve proper services.
 
The difference in tone between the two leaders' words is a microcosm for how they view the outside world. Khamenei dwells on past grievances and tends to be confrontational, while Rouhani is more interested in dialogue and real outreach. During his first press conference after winning the 2013 presidential election, Rouhani called Iran's relationship with the United States an "old wound" that needed healing. "Wisdom tells us both countries need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things," he said. Rouhani's outlook has played a critical role in advancing negotiations between Iran and the world's six major powers on Tehran's controversial nuclear program.
 

Religious Minorities

Iran may be the world's only modern theocracy, but three religious minorities are actually woven into the political fabric under the constitution. Muslims account for some 99 percent of the country's 80 million people. Yet Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians all have seats in the 290-seat parliament proportionate to their populations:
 

Two seats for Armenian Christians (who number between 40,000 and 80,000)
One for Assyrian Christians (who number between 10,000 to 20,000) and Chaldean Christians,
One for Jews (who number 20,000 to 25,000)
One for Zoroastrians (who number between 25,000 to 60,000)

 
The following is a collection of tweets from Iran's supreme leader and president related to these faiths.
 
 
Christianity
 
In his tweets, Khamenei has frequently used word “arrogants.” The term refers to Western powers or Israel.
 

 
President Rouhani's Christmas tweet, on the other hand, was a more tolerant attempt at outreach.
 
The president's website also published several pictures of his visit to a facility for elderly Christians. 
 
 
 
Judaism
 
In his tweets on Judaism, Khamenei has differentiated between the religion and Zionism. 
 
In a March 2014 speech marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Khamenei questioned the veracity of the Holocaust. This issue has long been a controversy. Iran's only Jewish member of parliament challenged Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust in 2005.
 
 
In September 2013, President Rouhani wished Jews around the world and in Iran a happy new year on Twitter. He also called the Holocaust a "reprehensible" crime against the Jewish people during an interview with CNN. Weeks later, Rouhani invited Iran’s only Jewish lawmaker to accompany his delegation to the 2013 U.N. General Assembly in New York. These moves sharply contrasted with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial. Rouhani has since twice donated more than $150,000 in government funds to the country’s only Jewish hospital. 
 
In late 2013, the head of Tehran’s Jewish Association told AP that Rouhani’s government had listened to the community’s grievances and requests. “That we are being consulted is an important step forward,” said Homayoun Samiah. “Under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nobody was listening to us. Our requests fell on deaf ears.” Rouhani’s government has also agreed to allow Jewish schools to be closed on Saturday to mark the Sabbath.
 
Zoroastrianism
 
In December 2013, Rouhani sent a message to the 10th International Zoroastrian Congress held in Mumbai, India. He proudly referred to Iran as the birthplace of the ancient Prophet Zoroaster. Excerpts of the letter were also tweeted. 
 

Photo credits: Khamenei.ir and President.ir

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