Iranians Ponder Future U.S.-Iranian Relations in an Obama Administration

Travelling to Iran as a Citizen
Diplomat for Peace

Just a month ago, while Israeli
Prime Minister Olmert and U.S. President Bush met for the last time
as heads of state in late November, 2008 in Washington and continued
their relentless bellicose rhetoric toward Iran, I and three activists
from the United States were in Iran as citizen diplomats talking with
Iranians on their views of a new American presidential administration
and their hopes for their country.

We went to Iran with no illusions.
We knew well the history of United States involvement in Iran.
We knew of Iranian support for organizations U.S. administrations have
labeled as "terrorist" groups. And we were very familiar with
international concerns about Iran's nuclear enrichment program and
human rights record.

We wanted to talk with members
of the Iranian government as well as with ordinary Iranians. We ended
up meeting with officials in the President's office and the Ministry
of Foreign Affairs and with two women members of the Iranian Parliament
(Majles). We also spoke with businesspersons, members of nongovernmental
organizations, writers, filmmakers and university students and faculty.

Writing about the concerns
of the Iranians we met leaves one open to comments of being one-sided,
not speaking with enough Iranians to provide the "real" voices and
of picking and choosing voices to record. I acknowledge the possible
criticism in advance, but believe our discussions are worthy of presentation
to those who have not been so fortunate to have travelled to Iran to
see and hear for themselves. So here goes.

Iranians Want Peace Not War

Codepink Women for Peace co-founders
Jodie Evans and Medea Benjamin, Fellowship of Reconciliation Iran program
director Laila Zand and I were reminded in virtually every conversation
that Iranians want peace with the United States, not war. Not
one person in Iran told us that first, she believed her country would
begin a war with the United States, or any other country to include
Israel, and second, that if the United States initiated military actions
against Iran, that those actions would resolve problems in Iran or with
the United States.

They reminded us that, unlike
the United States that has invaded and occupied Iran's neighbors Iraq
and Afghanistan, Iran has not attacked any country in the last 200 years.
They reminded us that Iran was the victim of an eight year war in the
1980s when Iraq invaded Iran and in which the United States and European
countries provided Iraq with military equipment, intelligence and chemical
weapons that were used at least 50 times against Iranian civilians and
military forces. We learned that during the eight year war the Revolution's
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini had mandated that it would be against
Islamic precepts to bomb Iraqi cities or use chemical or unconventional
weapons on Iraq-and Iranian military forces complied-even though the
Iraqi military bombed Iranian cities including Tehran and used chemical
weapons on Iranians.

Most Iranians Have Issues With
Their Government, As Most Americans Have Issues With Theirs

Iran is a county with a population
of about 70 million (two and one-half times as many people as Iraq)
and a geographic area about the size of Alaska (four times as large
as Iraq). Tehran, the Iranian capital, has 7.5 million people in the
urban area and 15 million in surrounding areas. It is a modern
city, with a beautiful subway, cosmopolitan shops, as well as a huge
traditional bazaar and an incredible number of cars, trucks and motorcycles.
Tehran and Iran have recovered from the Iraq war that ended 20 years
ago and are holding up remarkably well to U.S. and international sanctions.

Most Iranians with whom we
talked openly said they have issues with many aspects of their government.
Many said the Iranian people share a common dislike with Americans--dislike
of their governments, noting that President Bush's and the U.S. Congress's
approval ratings with the American people are extremely low, as is Iranian
President Ahmadinejad's ratings, particularly in urban areas. But,
they strongly said they do not want outside interference in the internal
political events of their country and definitely do not want a political
system and government installed by invasion and occupation. Their
democracy, even with its flaws, is better than a U.S. enforced democracy,
they said.

America's best policy would
be to treat Iran with respect and not with threats of military action.
Any attempt to overthrow the Iranian government would be met with stiff
opposition, even from those who don't like the government, they repeated.
"Regime change" will come in due time and in an Iranian manner.

U.S. Interference in Iran's
Internal Affairs

Several reminded us that in
January, 1981 the United States signed the Algiers Accord, in which
the U.S. agreed "not to intervene directly or indirectly, politically
or militarily, in the Iran's internal affairs." The Algiers
Accord was the agreement signed by the United States and Iran to end
the 444 day US Embassy hostage crisis. (

However, this Accord has been
violated numerous times by the United States. Investigative journalist
Seymour Hersh wrote that, in late 2007, President Bush requested and
received from Democratic Congressional leadership $400 million reprogrammed
from previous authorizations to fund a Presidential Finding that substantially
increased covert activities designed to destabilize Iran's religious
leadership. These covert actions involved support for the Ahwazi Arab
and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations. Hersh also
revealed that United States Special Operations Forces had been conducting
cross-border operations from southern Iraq, with Presidential authorization,
since 2007, including seizing members of Al Quds, the commando arm of
the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and taking them to Iraq for interrogation,
and the pursuit of "high-value targets" who could be captured or
killed. Hersh said operations by the Central Intelligence Agency and
the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) were significantly expanded
in 2007 by this authorization. (

Iran's Nuclear Program

Iran has had a nuclear program
for almost 50 years, having purchased a research reactor from the United
States in 1959, during the Shah's reign. The Iranian government states
that its nuclear energy program will allow increased electricity generation
to reduce consumption of gas and oil to allow export of more of its
fossil fuels. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)
made public December 3, 2007 concluded with "high confidence" that the military-run
Iranian nuclear weapons program had been shut down in 2003, but
that Iran's enrichment program could still provide enough enriched
uranium to produce a nuclear weapon by the middle of the next decade,
a timeframe unchanged from previous estimates. (

Virtually everyone with whom
we spoke said they believe that their country has a right to have a
nuclear enrichment program and to produce nuclear energy. Many questioned
why Iran would ever need a nuclear weapons program, unless as leverage
against the United States' 30 year antagonism toward their country.
They reminded us that Iran is a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty
(unlike nuclear-states Israel, India and Pakistan that refused to join
the NPT and developed nuclear weapons purposefully outside the treaty.)
Additionally, they insist that Iran is in compliance with the IAEA standards
according to the November, 2008 IAEA report, despite the interpretations
of the report by the United States and Israel.

Some reminded us that on August
9, 2005, at the IAEA meeting in Vienna, 60 years after the US atomic
bombing of Japan, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei announced
that he had issued a fatwa, or religious mandate, forbidding the production,
stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. Importantly, the Supreme
Leader controls the Iranian military and the nuclear program of Iran,
not the President of the country, Mr. Ahmadinejad. (

Iran, Israel and the United

Iran, Israel and United States
have had a disturbing, but fascinating, history over the past 30 years.
Iran's current relationship with Israel and Western countries seems
to be defined by President Ahmadinejad's October, 2005 widely reported,
but tragically and dangerously mistranslated and misinterpreted, statement
that "Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth."
According to highly respected Middle Eastern scholar Juan Coles, Ahmadinejad
was "not making a threat, but was quoting a saying of Ayatollah Khomeini
that urged pro-Palestinian activists in Iran not give up hope-- that
the occupation of Jerusalem was no more a continued inevitability than
had been the hegemony of the Shah's government. Whatever this quotation
from a decades-old speech of Khomeini may have meant, Ahmadinejad did
not say that "Israel must be wiped off the map" with the implication
that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people." (

But the history of Iranian-Israeli
relationships is more than just Ahmadinejad's misinterpreted statement.
Israel, like the United States, had a long history of selling arms to
the Shah, which Iran's revolutionary government was willing to exploit
secretly, despite its public animosity toward the state of Israel. In
the early years (1980-82) of the Iranian Revolution and during the war
with Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini's government sold oil to Israel in exchange
for weapons and spare parts. Even during the American hostage
crisis (1979-1981) in which 52 U.S. diplomats were held for 444 days,
Israel made weapons deals with Iran. Ronald Reagan's Secretary of
State Alexander Haig gave permission to Israel to sell U.S.-made military
spare parts for fighter planes to Iran in early 1981.

In another remarkable relationship
known as the Iran-Contra affair, funds from the sale to Iran of U.S.
weapons by Israel in 1985-1986 were used by U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar
Weinberger, National Security Advisor Admiral John Poindexter, National
Security Advisor Robert McFarlane (President Reagan's first NSA) and
National Security Council staffer U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver
North to fund the Contras' war against the revolutionary government
in Nicaragua. This was in violation of a Congressional ban on funding
the Contras and took place during the Iraq-Iran war when the U.S. was
also providing military equipment including chemical weapons to Iraq,
Iran's opponent in the war. Iranians remember that those convicted
for their actions including Weinberger, Poindexter, McFarlane and North,
were pardoned by President George H.W. Bush who was Vice-President during
the period of criminal actions conducted by government officials during
the illegal Contra Affair.

Iranian Support for Hamas and

When asked about one of the
most contentious points in U.S.-Israeli-Iranian relationships, the Iranian
government's support for Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in southern
Lebanon, Iranians pointed out that the U.S. has consistently and heavily
funded Israel during its 62-year existence (U.S. provides about $4 billion
per year to the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces.)
Many Iranians suggested that Palestinians who have lived in refugee
camps during those 62 years must be provided assistance. Hezbollah began
in 1982 as a small militia fighting against the Israeli invasion of
Lebanon, and is now not only a military group but a political organization
that won seats in the Lebanese government, has a radio and satellite
television-station and provides social development and humanitarian
assistance for much of southern Lebanon. Iranians strongly felt
that Hamas, the elected (and they emphasize elected) government of Gaza,
needs financial support, particularly now in current extraordinary humanitarian
crisis due to the lengthy Israeli blockade of foods and services into


On the question of Iraq, many
Iranians who lived in the border regions with Iraq during the eight
year war, said they personally knew the agony of deaths, injuries, destruction
and other costs of war and do not wish that on their former enemies.
They talked of the irony of the political outcome of the U.S. invasion
and occupation of Iraq in which many Shi'a Iraqis, who lived in exile
in Iran during Saddam's regime and have long standing ties to the
Iranian government, are now in leadership positions in the new U.S.
backed Iraqi government.


Other Iranians reminded us
of Iran's help to the U.S. in 2001 and 2002 in the early days of the
U.S. military action in Afghanistan. When we asked about recent
United States intelligence analysis that indicated Iranian support for
the Taliban, we were met with laughs. The Taliban are of the Sunni
branch of Islam while the Iranians are of the Shi'a branch.
They reminded us that in 1998 the Taliban murdered 11 Iranian diplomats
and one Iranian newsperson at the Iranian consulate in Afghan northern
city of Mazar-i-Sharif, an incident which Iranians have not forgotten.
The Iranians consider the Taliban their adversaries and feel that a
Taliban government in Afghanistan would make the region more unstable.

Sanctions are Drying Up Lines
of Credit for Businesses

We found that Iranians are
proud of their creativity to outwit the 29 years of various sanctions
the U.S. has placed on their country. They say the U.S. has only
isolated itself commercially by its sanctions as Iran trades with many
other nations. The Europeans, Chinese, Russians and Indians have
had flourishing businesses with Iran. However, the recent international
sanctions clampdown on lines of credit for Iranian banks has had a rippling
effect into the business community, where money for loans to Iranian
businesses for purchase of materials is drying up. Oil dollars
that paid for an incredible amount of imports are drying up with the
downturn in oil prices, and the government is beginning to reevaluate
the large subsidizes given to the population for food, gasoline and

We spoke with four businesswomen
(an architect, a chemist, a business consultant and an agricultural
professional) who said each of their businesses had been affected negatively
with the shrinking of money available for purchase of materials from
outside the country and for continuation of current levels of operation
or expansion of their business.

One of the most of incredible
stories we heard about the effect of the sanctions was on the alternative
energy sector. Since there is so much rhetoric in the U.S. about
the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program, we decided to see if there
were alternative energy companies in the country. On the aircraft flying
into Iran, we met a European businessman who said he would put us in
touch with the director of a wind energy company. He introduced
us by telephone to the director of Saba Niroo, an Iranian company that
makes wind turbines and is the largest regional wind power manufacturer
( We met with the director
and staff at the modern, state of the art, factory, in south Tehran.
Saba Niroo has installed some of the 143 wind turbines planned for the
wind farm in Manjil, Guillan province and the 43 wind turbines planned
for the Binalood wind farm in Khorasan Razavi province. They have installed
4 wind turbines in the Pushkin Pass wind farm in Armenia.

However, the director told
us that because of U.S. sanctions pressure, Vestas, a Danish wind energy
company ( with whom the Iranian company has
had a contractual relationship, has now refused to honor its 15 year
contract to furnish critical parts for the wind turbines.

As a result, Saba Niroo has
50 huge, 70 foot long wind blades and corresponding chassis and installation
towers lying useless in its warehouse and warehouse yard. Saba Niroo
may go bankrupt in six months if it is unable to complete and sell the
wind turbines-all because of U.S. sanctions and pressure.

As a part of citizen diplomacy,
we decided to defy sanctions and show our support of alternative energy
programs, by purchasing shares in Saba Niroo. We have also decided
to purchase shares in the Danish company Vestas, which has a big U.S.
headquarters in Portland, Oregon. As shareholders, we could put
shareholder pressure on Vestas to honor its contract with the Iranian

Join the campaign "Winds
for Change" to support for alternative energy and for sanctions breaking
and purchase a shares with us. (

Human Rights in Iran

On the question of human rights
in Iran, executions, political prisoners, rights of gays and lesbians,
many Iranians strongly want changes in their government's policies.
In response to a question in September, 24, 2007 from an audience at
Columbia University in New York, President Ahmadinejad drew widespread
criticism when his answer was translated as "In Iran, we don't have
homosexuals in our country , we do not have this phenomenon. I
don't know who told you that we have it." In October, 2007, one
of Ahmadinejad's media advisor's said that the President had meant
that "compared to American society, we don't have many homosexuals--In
Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country."

Homosexual acts are punishable
by law: sodomy (defined as "sexual intercourse with a male) is punishable
by execution and punishment for "lesbian acts" is 100 lashes.
However, conviction takes the testimony of four witnesses and if the
accused recants before witnesses testify, the reportedly accused will
not be punished. The discussion of human rights of youth and gay youth
combined in the much publicized 2005 execution by hanging of two young
men in Iran. Some say they were executed because they were solely
because they were gay and others say the
two young men, minors, were convicted and hanged because they criminally
sexually assaulted another youth.

Interestingly, sex change is
legal in Iran and there are more sex change operations in Iran than
any other country except Thailand. The Iranian government provides
grants up to $4500 for the operation and further funding for hormone
therapy on the theory that persons wanting a sex change have a "treatable

Iranians want change to come
from within their society, not imposed by another government, especially
one, as we were reminded, that has its own human rights issues, including
incarceration of the highest percentage of its citizenry of any country
in the world, high rates of execution (Texas in particular), state-sponsored
kidnapping from other countries (known in the Bush administration as
extraordinary rendition) , imprisonment without due process, extrajudicial
courts and a military and an intelligence agency that are notorious
for torture.

Women's Issues

When thinking of women in Iran,
many in the West immediately respond with comments about the clothing
women must wear. Few realize that 70% of all university students
are women, 30% of doctors in Iran are women, 80% of women are literate
(88% of men can read), women receive 90 days of maternity leave at 2/3rd
pay and right to return to her job, and the number of children per woman
has declined from 7 in 1979 to 1.7 now. Abortions are illegal in Iran,
but it's the only country I know of were couples must take a class
on modern contraception before being issued a marriage license.
It has the only state-supported condom factory in the Middle East and
it produces 45 million condoms a year in 30 different colors, shapes
and flavors.

In one of the most successful
instances of women's grassroots organizational pressure on the government,
in September, 2008, over 100 advocates for women's rights successfully
lobbied against proposed changes to marriage laws which were detrimental
to women and forced the Iranian Parliament to drop the regressive amendments.

Clothing Restrictions

Yes, there are mandatory clothing
rules for women, including wearing a scarf and clothing that covers
the arms to the wrists and legs to the ankles, and they are cited by
Western women as a form of human rights concern. In fact, as our
aircraft arrived at the Tehran International Airport terminal, the aircraft
crew announced "By the law of the country of Iran, women cannot leave
the aircraft without a scarf on their heads-and there will be an Iranian
official outside the aircraft to return women who are not properly covered."
While some Iranian women say wearing the scarf is burdensome, others
are comfortable with the dress code. In any case, clothing restrictions
are not the main focus of women's rights advocates. Rights to
custody of children and property after divorce, right to education and
health care are more important than mandatory wearing of a scarf.

In the Month Since Our Visit

Sparks Fly Over Iranian President's
BBC Christmas message-- "Jesus Christ Would Stand Up to Bullying,
Ill-Tempered and Expansionist Powers"

In what they surely knew would
be a very controversial request, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC)
asked Iranian President Ahmadinejad to deliver the BBC channel 4's
traditional "alternative Christmas message" to the Queen's Christmas

The head of
BBC News and Current Affairs said the decision to ask President Ahmadinejad
was because "As the leader of one of the most powerful states in the
Middle East, President Ahmadinejad's views are enormously influential.
As we approach a critical time in international relations, we are offering
our viewers an insight into an alternative world view. Channel
4's role is to allow viewers to hear directly from people of world importance
with sufficient context to enable them to make up their own minds." (

It turned out that Ahmadinejad's
short, 36 second message in Farsi with English subtitles broadcast on
Christmas Day, 2008, probably resonated with much of the world, but
predictably provoked a British government hornet's nest with
his comment that if Jesus Christ lived today he would stand up against
bullying powers. "If Christ were on earth today, undoubtedly
he would stand with the people in opposition to bullying, ill-tempered
and expansionist powers." Ahmadinejad, a devout Muslim, criticized
the "indifference of some governments and powers" towards the teachings
of the "divine prophets, including Jesus Christ" and said that "the general will
of nations" was for a return to "human values". "The crises in society, the family,
morality, politics, security and the economy ... have come about because
the prophets have been forgotten, the Almighty has been forgotten and
some leaders are estranged from God."

remarks received very little media coverage in the United States, miniscule
when compared to the news story of the month-- President Bush's encounter
with the Iraq shoe thrower. However, a spokeswoman for the UK's
Foreign and Commonwealth Office in predicting anticipated Bush administration
displeasure said: "President Ahmadinejad has during his time in
office made a series of appalling anti-Semitic statements. The British
media are rightly free to make their own editorial choices, but this
invitation will cause offence and bemusement not just at home but amongst
friendly countries abroad."

Labor Member
of Parliament (MP) Louise Ellman, chairwoman of the Labor Jewish Movement,
said: "I condemn Channel 4's decision to give an unchallenged platform
to a dangerous fanatic who denies the Holocaust, while preparing for
another, and claims homosexuality does not exist while his regime hangs
gay young men from cranes in the street. Conservative MP Mark Pritchard,
a member of the Commons all-party media group, said: "Channel 4
has given a platform to a man who wants to annihilate Israel and continues
to persecute Christians at Christmas time. "

Media Relations Not a Strong
Suit of the Iranian Government

It's almost as if the Iranian
President Ahmadinejad, who is up for election in the summer, 2009, has
hired lame-ducks U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney and Israeli Prime Minister
Olmert as his foreign policy, national security and media consultants.
How else could the Iranian government have come up with so many incidents
in the past weeks that give ammunition to those in the United States
and Israel who do not want dialogue with Iran on nuclear and regional
security issues, who want human rights issues to publicize and who wish
ill to the Iranian government and people?

For example, on December 22,
2008, the Iranian government closed down two human rights organizations
headed by 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. The government
accused the organization of carrying out illegal activities, such as
publishing statements, writing letters to international organizations,
and holding news conferences. The Center for Participation in Clearing
Mine Areas helps victims of landmines in Iran and Defenders of Human
Rights Center reports human rights violations in Iran, defends political
prisoners, and supports families of those prisoners. Ebadi was also
taken into police custody briefly following the raids.

And the first week in December,
2008, in a campaign against Western cultural influence in Iran, Qaemshahr
city police arrested 49 people during a crackdown on "satanic" fashions
and unsuitable clothing and closed five barbershops for "promoting
Western hairstyles." (

And now, there is the predictable
increased international criticism about the Russian government providing
the Iranian government with S300s, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense
systems, triggered by the Bush administration's decision to put a
"missile shield" in Poland and the Czech Republic. On December
23, 2008 United Press International (UPI) reported that the Russian
government had begun delivery to the Iranian government of some of its
most modern anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems, the S-300s.
These missile systems can shoot down ballistic missiles and aircraft
at low and high altitudes as far away as 100 miles. Iran conducted
well-publicized air force and ballistic missile defense exercises in
September, 2008.

The Bush administration's
ballistic poke in the eye of Russia and Iran by the deployment of
ballistic missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic "to
protect against attacks from rogue states" ( is perceived by many Iranians
as a strategy to ensure that tensions in the region continue to escalate.
The United States is planning to deploy 10 Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors
in Poland and batteries of shorter-range Patriot PAC-3 anti-ballistic
missiles to protect the Interceptors.

Iranians Not Optimistic About
Future Relations with the United States Under an Obama Administration

Despite President-elect Obama's
comments during the Presidential campaign that he would have dialogue
with the Iranian government without preconditions, many Iranians with
whom we spoke are not optimistic that there will be meaningful change
in U.S. policy during an Obama administration. Citing appointments
of former Israeli Defense Force member and US Congressman Rahm Emanuel,
as Chief of Staff, Hillary Clinton, who during the summer campaign said
she would "obliterate" Iran if Iran used nuclear weapons against
Israel (a statement that Iranians find incomprehensible since it is
Israel that has nuclear weapons, not Iran, and Israel continues to threaten
Iran), and Dennis Ross, the Middle East negotiator during the Clinton
and Bush administrations, Iranians said they hoped the AIPAC lobby in
the United States had not already determined Obama's agenda toward

Iranians Want Peace

To emphasize again, the overwhelming
comment from Iranians during our visit was that they want peace with
the United States. They hope that the new President of the United
States will talk with their government to resolve issues, instead of
resorting to the threat, much less, the use of military action.

Our Future with Iran - A Hope
for Diplomacy Not Military Action

As we have seen from the American
invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the use of our military
to resolve security issues kills and injures innocent civilians, destroys
cities and villages, creates more people who dislike/hate our country
and who may be willing to use violence against us, and jeopardizes,
not enhances, the security of the United States.

As a retired US Army Colonel
and a former US diplomat, I hope that the Obama administration will
throw away the old template of 30 years of crisis, threats of military
action, vindictiveness and retaliation and look to diplomacy to develop
a peaceful future with Iran!

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