AIFC position on Iranian elections and US-Iran negotiations, September 2009

September 23, 2009

American Iranian Friendship Council (AIFC) position

on Iranian elections

and US-Iran negotiations.

Introduction

Presidential elections were held in Iran on June 12, 2009, following a campaign in which the three candidates Mir Houssain Moussavi, Mehdi Karrubi, and Mohsen Rezayi challenged  President Ahmadinejad and were able to mobilize large crowds.  While international observers were not allowed and domestic independent observers were very limited, the voter turnout was at a record high with above 80% participation by eligible citizens.  Despite irregularities during the day of elections the Interior Ministry announced in the early hours of June 13 that current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won his re-election with well over 60% of the votes.  Neither one of the reformist candidates Moussavi and Karoubi nor the other conservative candidate Rezayi accepted the official election results.  Studies such as one conducted by professors at Chatham House and the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland found major discrepancies in the results of the elections, forcing the government in Iran to acknowledge that voter participation was above 100 % in some areas.  There was no breakdown of the vote by province and the voting patterns were identical everywhere all the time, which is statistically impossible.  The days following the elections saw the largest protests in Iran since the 1979 revolution.  In some cases millions of people marched in the streets of Tehran in silence. 

Iran scholar Gary Sick talks about a "political coup" and writes in his blog Gary 's Choice: "The willingness of the regime simply to ignore reality and fabricate election results without the slightest effort to conceal the fraud represents a historic shift in Iran 's Islamic revolution. All previous leaders at least paid lip service to the voice of the Iranian people. This suggests that Iran 's leaders are aware of the fact that they have lost credibility in the eyes of many (most?) of their countrymen, so they are dispensing with even the pretence of popular legitimacy in favour of raw power."

Reese Erlich, renowned writer and investigative journalist who visited Iran during the elections wrote in Common Dreams on June 29: "Based on my observations, no one was leading the demonstrations. During the course of the week after the elections, the mass movement evolved from one protesting vote fraud into one calling for much broader freedoms. You could see it in the changing composition of the marches. There were not only upper middle class kids in tight jeans and designer sunglasses. There were growing numbers of workers and women in very conservative chadors." Protests were not limited to Tehran but erupted all over the country.

Women, who make up the majority of university graduates, are on the forefront of the protest movement. The protests are largely non-violent, sometimes silent.  People continue to go to their rooftops at night and shout "Allah-o-Akbar" ("God is great" and "There is no God but God"), which challenges the ultimate authority of the regime and other slogans such as "Death to the dictatorship."  The color green became the unifying code among protesters, whose demands include better economic opportunities and improved human, civil and women's rights. The government responded by having police and militia assault and arrest protesters in large numbers. Some of the killings, such as the death of a young woman named "Neda" that was captured on video, resulted from protestors being shot from rooftops.

In an environment where phone text messaging has been disabled, cell phones only work sporadically, phone connections to other countries are blocked, many internet websites are filtered, parasite signals interfere with certain satellite TV channels, journalists have been arrested and foreign journalists are not allowed to report from inside Iran, the citizens of Iran became journalists by posting videos, photos and news on social networking sites, using the high-tech skills of a population whose majority is very young and media savvy.

The struggle through legal channels (to no avail) as well as the popular demonstrations have continued this far.  The latest outpour of protestors was seen on September 18th 2009, the first time a large public event, marking the last Friday of the month of Ramadan, was allowed.  This last demonstration shows that despite mass arrests, summary persecutions, forced public confessions, closure of opposition newspapers and websites, and allegations of torture and rape, the authorities have not been able to control the dissents.  The Green movement for democracy continues to organize and strategize its approach to move forward for change.

The American Iranian Friendship Council (AIFC) did not endorse any of the candidates before the elections and is not in a position to judge the results after the elections.  We believe that as became apparent during the weeks and months after the elections, people in Iran are knowledgeable enough to judge the situation and capable enough to continue the struggle as they wish and see fit.  We are, however, disappointed to see that a golden opportunity to move towards a national reconciliation was lost and a large percentage of the population was consequently isolated and disfranchised.  A major divide now exists between the leadership of the Islamic Republic and their constituencies that might raise doubt on the government's legitimacy in its foreign relation.

Iranian American scholars like Reza Aslan and Hamid Dabashi have warned the US government to not get involved directly in the internal struggle that has started in Iran , given a history that includes a CIA coup against a democratically elected government in Iran and the US support for Iraq during a 9 year Iran/Iraq war. Direct US meddling will fuel the eagerness of the Iranian regime to find outsiders to blame.  Dabashi wrote on 6/30 for CNN that US government funds for Iran will be abused by and benefit only "expatriate and entirely discredited opposition groups" and that a movement that has been in the making for decades does not need American money or military operations to sustain itself.

AIFC agrees with Dabashi and Aslan in regards to US interference in the current political events in Iran .  We believe that President Obama's approach not to get directly involved while morally supporting the people of Iran in their self-determination is the best strategy.  On the people to people level, however, we appreciate the support that Americans in general and citizens in Oregon and Southwest Washington in particular have shown towards Iranians and their movement for Democracy.  Educating ourselves about the reasons behind the current unrest and providing information and technological support for people inside the country are some of the ways in which we can help the popular Green movement.  Human to human connections are the primary means to build confidence and trust between the two nations and a friendship in need has always been a friendship indeed.

On US-Iran governmental relations

President Obama committed himself during his election campaigns to move from the hostile policies of the Bush administration to diplomacy and negotiations with any adversary, and invoked President Kennedy's famous statement that "do not fear to negotiate, but do not negotiate out of fear."  The President has been loyal to his promise and in the nine months since his oath of taking office, has offered several gestures towards Iran .  A New Year (NowRuz) message, and allegedly a couple of direct letters to Iran 's Supreme Leader are amongst these attempts.  For the first six months of this period the US administration was waiting like everybody else to see the results of the Iranian presidential elections.  This wait and see period was probably in the hope that the result would be different and the US President after all would not have to face Mr. Ahmadinejad, a scene that was used during the campaign by the Right to discredit President Obama's approach.

Unfortunately the official results of the elections turned out to be the opposite of what everybody had hoped for and the test of President Obama's policy consequently has to take place within the worse case scenario. 

On the other hand, the prospect for negotiations with Iran about the nuclear issue has become the leverage for the US administration to push back Israel and the domestic Congressional right's pressure to go ahead with much stronger sanctions and in effect institute a naval blockade of Iran , which can be perceived as a declaration of war.  Sanctions would without a doubt be seen as a preemptive blow to any dialogue and negotiations.  AIFC has always been against sanctions and still considers them to cause more hardship for people rather than the government.  We believe that the past three decades of sanctions on Iran have not produced any better results than five decades of embargo on Cuba . 

In summary: the US moved from the hostile policies of the Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters to a policy of diplomacy and negotiations parallel to threatening strong sanctions. In the absence of negotiations, however, one can expect embargoes, and with lack of success of sanctions eventually a military engagement could be on the horizon.

Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council(NIAC), in a white paper on NIAC's web site writes:

"Sanctions have in the past, and will likely in the future, constitute one of the most important political obstacles to starting US-Iran talks. This is part of the reason proponents of sanctions have pressed so hard for them - if US-Iran diplomacy is deemed detrimental to one's interest, sanctions is the perfect pre-emptive remedy. The US simply cannot walk down the diplomacy path and the sanctions path at the same time.

This is why pursuing new sanctions can be a death knell for Obama's overall Middle East policy, since it closes down the diplomacy option. Between a sanctions path that eliminates diplomacy, and a diplomacy path that may strengthen Ahmadinejad in the short term, there are no easy options for the President."

We agree with Parsi in his assessment, but we also suggest that exactly for the reasons he discusses in his paper, lack of negotiations with Iran could lead to a more disastrous outcome that would cause more harm to the Iranian people in their struggle for democracy.

Following IAEA's latest report, as well as the National Intelligence Estimates, we continue to believe that Iranian nuclear activities have not advanced in the direction of acquiring weapon grade uranium, nor can we find any evidence that such a program exists at the moment.  Consequently we do not see any reason that our previous position in regards to the nuclear issue should be revised based on Iran 's election results. 

As a further indication of the political rejection of nuclear weapons in Iran , it is worth noting that according to the BBC, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who was delivering a speech at a meeting with senior officials and people on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr on 20 September 2009, said:

"They [the western countries] falsely accuse the Islamic republic establishment of producing nuclear weapons. We fundamentally reject nuclear weapons and prohibit the use and production of nuclear weapons. This is because of our ideology not because of politics or fear of arrogant powers or international propaganda onslaught. We stand firm for our ideology." 

While this has been declared to be the policy of the Iranian government, it has never been announced before by the leader as clearly and unambiguously as this time.

From an American point of view it is reasonable to assume that the current situation might be a golden opportunity for the US to meet the Iranian administration at its lowest point of confidence due to their internal problems.  This leverage was long sought for by the US since the failed war and occupation in Iraq allowed Iran to become the rising star in Iraq , Lebanon and the rest of the region.  Unlike previous years the Ahmadinejad administration currently lacks the popular support and internal confidence it once enjoyed; consequently it may not be in a position to continue its rhetoric. One can even assume that the public declaration by Ayatollah Khamenei rejecting the production and use of nuclear weapons might have been a result of the leadership's internal loss of confidence.

A year ago we as well as others were strongly advocating the unconditional start of negotiations between the two countries, today the situation in Iran has introduced a new dilemma that is very difficult to judge, especially if one is as emotionally and directly involved as we are.  The delicacy of the situation lies in the fact that, as we discussed earlier, with the treatment of the people after the elections President Ahmadinejad's administration and the powers under the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei have lost credibility and legitimacy amongst their own populace.  Now the official recognition of President Ahmadinejad is seen as legitimization of the results of the elections and ignores the struggle that is underway. Such recognition whitewashes the blood that has been shed on the streets of Iran by the people.  Hence, it could be understood as evidence of the indifference of West about the widespread violations of human rights in the courts and prisons of the Islamic Republic.

While some may argue that Iran will not negotiate about its internal policies and the violation of human rights, the historical evidence tells us that Iranians have in fact accepted conditions related to human rights as part of their continuous dialogues with the European Union in the 1990s parallel to economic engagement.  During that period a special joint commission of Iran and the EU traveled to Iran regularly to pursue the cases of human rights violations that were reported to them and in some cases were able to meet with families of political prisoners in Iran .  These types of conditions can become a standard of practice when larger financial benefits are being pursued, such as the prospect of membership to the WTO or other international organizations, or as requirement to lift sanctions. 

We therefore propose that as long as the US can clearly state that the negotiations are about nuclear issues and express the concerns of the West with regards to violations of Human Rights in Iran and specially the condition of dissidents in the aftermath of the election unrests, the engagement with Iran in the long run could be beneficial towards democracy and progress in that country.

American Iranian Friendship Council (AIFC) is a non-profit educational organization based in Portland, OR. 

http://www.aifcpdx.org/

 

Submitted by AIFC on Thu, 10/01/2009 - 9:30pm.