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Program 9950
December 14, 1999

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

PROFESSOR BEHZAD SHAHANDEH: There is need for the American public to know what is happening in Iran and what the changes that are taking place in our country.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, Iran’s changing role in the world.

PROFESSOR BEHZAD SHAHANDEH: If you would come to Iran you would witness that there are a variety of opinions. I mean, the people who are concerned about the politics of the country read about, maybe 10 or 15 papers every morning, to get a glimpse of what is happening. And this is a very, very healthy development in Iran.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Inside Iran there has been a major debate taking place over the depth, style, and impact of their engagement with the rest of the world. This debate is especially sharp when it focuses on Iran’s engagement with the United States. This week we are joined by two scholars and government advisors from Tehran University. Nasser Hadian is a Professor of Law and Political Science; Behzad Shahandeh is head of the Asia/Pacific Division at the International Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations. Much of the discussion in Iran has been driven by their more moderate, reform-minded President, Mohammed Khatami. But Professor Hadian points out that the push to strengthen ties between Iran and the European Union began even before President Khatami was elected.

pROFESSOR nASSER HADIAN: Since he was elected to the presidency, that, in since, in fact has been even higher, to have a better relationship with the European countries. And Khatami’s trip to Italy and to France was a manifestation of this incentive and this will to improve the relationship with European countries.

PORTER: Professor Shahandeh, anything, to add to that?

PROFESSOR BEHZAD SHAHANDEH: I think that it’s not only to do with the European Union. I think it concerns every other country in the world. That is, we went to have relations. Of course we have a few countries that are kind of—apart from, a few countries like for example, Israel. The other countries we don’t have any inhibitions or obstacles to have relations with.

PORTER: Do you think that this same kind of effort will be made with the United States?

SHAHANDEH: Well, it takes time. We are, we have, I think the ball is in the American court, because we have done all the things that we have to do. But we have to, we’re waiting for genuine efforts on the parts of the United States government.

PORTER: Professor Hadian.

HADIAN: I believe as Khatami, President Khatami, has already said, I mean, Iran is willing to go with détente and to reduce the tension, even with the United States. And as Khatami has said in his interview with CNN last year, there is a wall of mistrust which somehow we should bring down. And as both American and Iranian has argued, both Iran and in US, sort of, create a cultural relationship, and also, a sort of economic relationship should be the first steps for bringing down this wall of mistrust. And I’m an optimist and hopeful that can be achieved and done soon.

PORTER: You talk about this wall of mistrust. There are people in Iran who may tolerate closer ties with European nations. But aren’t there many people in Iran who will not tolerate a close relationship with the United States?

HADIAN: What I have to distinguish is between what the perception of the people is in regard to the American people and the American political system. There is no hostility toward the American people. And in fact I can say almost everyone wants to see, to have a good relationship with American people. But in regard to the state and the government, there are people in Iran who think that I mean, still, the US is acting very, with a very hostile intention toward Iran. And they don’t want to see the wall of mistrust to come down before, in fact, some of that hostility is to be ceased. But I believe there are others inside the government and inside the society that, who are willing to take some steps and to take some initiative on the part of Iran. In fact, to further improve the relationship and to help to bring down this wall of mistrust. Thus, that’s a matter of domestic politics in Iran. And the sort of disputes between different factions and groups who are, in fact, basically dealing with foreign policy in general and United States in particular.

PORTER: Professor Shahandeh?

SHAHANDEH: All-in-all I think that there are, there are, in Iran there are certain groups, there are many different factions, that some do agree to have, to start a dialogue with the United States. Others, I think—others say that we should wait a little longer for, for the environment to blossom. But I predict that in the not-very-distant future our two people can sit down as Professor Hadian said, that there are cordial relations between the two people of our two countries. I think that we should try and maybe start working through the NGO’s and pave the ground for having relations in the future.

PORTER: Professor Hadian, earlier this year—earlier in 1999—President Clinton sent a letter to President Khatami where evidently he said, ‘If you turn over the suspects in the Khobar bombing, Khobar Tower bombing case, we may have better relations.’ And for our audience, just to refresh their memory, Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, 19 American were killed and hundreds were injured in this bombing. Are the people responsible for this bombing inside Iran?

HADIAN: You know, that’s a matter of precise information. But to the best of my knowledge I don’t think so they are in Iran. And I believe President Clinton probably did that mostly because of the domestic situation in US. And the response, which was, which was also given to the demand, was also very concerned about domestic politics in Iran. Thus, I don’t think so the exchanges of such letters and such demands are going to be very helpful in improving the relationship between two countries. And I know both the demand and the response was to a large extent shaped and influenced by the domestic politics in both countries.

PORTER: Professor Shahandeh?

SHAHANDEH: Genuine steps should be taken towards normalization of relations between the two countries. For example, I think that if the United States released the funds that we have in the United States, that that would be the first step. And then in this, in regards to the Khobar bombing, the Saudis, Saudi Arabia, has emphasized that Iran has no involvement in the bombing. But, I’m afraid to say that some circles in the United States are pushing. And this is for domestic consumption. I think that President Clinton or other people in the government, they, I think they know very well that Iran was not involved. But they’re using it for their own political purposes.

PORTER: I guess the bigger question—I’ll start with you Professor Shahandeh, that what Americans think of when they think of things like this, is whether or not Iran supports terrorism. Does Iran support terrorism?

SHAHANDEH: Actually, the opposite. We are ourselves victims of terrorism. We have, as you know, lots of Iranian officials have been shot by terrorists. And we are ourselves the victims. And in order for the Americans to know that, I think that we should, we should tell the American people through the media. I think that the Americans should have a better picture of Iran. Because I think this, the problem of image-making is very, very important. There is a negative image of Iran in the American media. And that needs to be corrected. I don’t know who can do it but then, I think there is a need for that. I mean, there is a need for the American public to know what is happening in Iran and what the changes that are taking place in our country.

PORTER: Professor Hadian, any comment on that question?

HADIAN: Well, I believe Professor Shahandeh said it right. I mean, that Iran has been itself among the victims of terrorism. And also there is a dispute in regard to what act would be counted as terrorism. And that’s a matter of dispute even inside the US. Because as you know, State Department, for instance, considered the MKO—that’s a guerrilla organization, opposing, opposing force of Iranian government who reside, who live in Iraq—State Department considered that organization as a terrorist organization. But it still, the attack of Iranian government to the bases of this organization would be conceded as an indication of a terrorist act on the part of the Iranian government. And that criticism in fact has been leveled against the US government even among a lot of United States think tanks and individuals. They have criticized the State Department. Why is it possible that if US attack on a terrorist organization that would not be counted as a terrorist act, but if Iran does, that would be counted as a terrorist act? So there are some disputes in regard to what is the exact definition of terrorism. And what kind of act can be considered as terrorist act.

PORTER: Okay. I think Professor Shahandeh already touched on this but I want to get your response. What are the concrete steps that we would take to improve US-Iran relations?

HADIAN: I believe we have to begin in a cultural sphere. I mean, I’m considering the cultural sphere very broadly—like sports, art, in all areas of arts. And also economy would be fine, too. Although there is a sanction in the US. But somehow if sanctions can be relaxed and removed and revoked. So that area is very much open. And in fact, with the coming of these cultural ambassadors to Iran and also a lot of these companies to Iran, I believe the atmosphere—the same thing for, and vice-versa as well—I believe the atmosphere would be ready for a sort of, bringing down the wall of mistrust. And then the situation would be ready for further improvement and establishment of diplomatic relationship between the two countries.

PORTER: All right. Professor Shahandeh, anything to add to that?

SHAHANDEH: I just wanted to add something to it, to what Professor Hadian has been saying. We are actually a victim of not only terrorism, but a victim of the, what do you call it, this narcotics that is being smuggled through Iran. I don’t know if, I don’t think many of the American public know that 40 of our police forces were shot down by smugglers. And we are really very, very active in anti-narcotics activities. And this, this is something, you know, that because of the situation on our eastern borders, we are put in a very, very difficult situation. And security-wise it causes all sort of problems for Iran. So, but I think that the American public, I think they’re not very well, they’re not much aware of what is happening in our country.

MCHUGH: In a moment, more on Iran’s attempt to reach out to the rest of the world.

SHAHANDEH: If you put this into practice and then you start listening to people, then you’ll find so much commonalties, similarities, between our two cultures, that there’s no need for violent behavior.

MCHUGH: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: In all of the press reports from Iran, at least in the American—or in the Western press—there is a lot of attention paid to a conflict or a struggle or something between President Khatami and the Ayatollah Khameni. Is there really a struggle going on there? And if so is it a healthy one for Iran? Or is a divisive one for Iran

HADIAN: I don’t think so, that’s a conflict between Ayatollah Khameni and President Khatami. Rather, it is down in the society, which the factions have dispute with one another. And Khatami, who is leading, in fact, a reformer, the reforms in Iran, has undoubtedly some people who oppose his policies.

PORTER: Again, this is Professor Nasser Hadian, from Tehran University.

HADIAN: Thus I can say, yes, there is a struggle in Iran going on between different factions, but that is not abnormal. That is very natural that there are different groups, they have different interests, and they are following their interests. Thus, it is natural that, I mean, they be somehow in opposition with Khatami and the reformers. It is going on. I mean, it is somehow becoming more and more institutionalized. It may be out of control somehow, in some part, but we are experiencing a sort of democracy. So it would take time until every faction and every group know how, what are the rules of the game, and they should abide by these rules. And they learn to play the game according to the rules. We may see sometimes, I mean they, they, may be breaking the rules. But this is due to the, due to the immaturity of, in fact, our system. So it would take still some times until these things to be institutionalized, such a competition to be institutionalized, and we can resolve our problem within the boundaries of the rules of the game.

PORTER: The Western press, when they write this stuff, usually cast it in terms of one side is the representative of modernity and the way forward and the future, and the other side is the symbol of the past and going, what they would consider to be backwards, into some dark past. What do you think about the way those, the characters are cast in the American media?

HADIAN: I believe, I mean that’s not the right way to characterize the Iranian’s political situation today. I mean the conservatives, we should not tell them that they are all devils, they are all bad, they are all dark forces who belong to the past. They have some positive points to offer as well. So that should be recognized and acknowledged. And the same thing with the moderates. It doesn’t mean that, I mean, since they are moderates, whatever steps they take they are all good. That should be put in perspective. And I believe if, if the Western journalists look at this, look at the situation, and they try to look at it in objective way, thus they would reflect and they would represent and they would in fact portray the political situation in a better way for the audiences back home. Thus, I don’t want to say, that I mean, I disagree fully with them on the way they are presenting the situation. But somehow I have some disagreement with them that, I mean, they are not giving credit for the positive points which the conservatives are offering to the society.

SHAHANDEH: Diversity is cause for celebration.

PORTER: This, again, is Professor Behzed Shahandeh, from Tehran University.

SHAHANDEH: It’s good to have differences of opinion. But of course, something that’s, that we have to take note of is that we have a framework and inside the frame you can do whatever you like. But you cannot break the frame, because it’s sacred, you know. And so within the frame there are differences, but in regards to relations between our spiritual leader Ayatollah Khameni and President Khatami, I don’t think there are really that much differences to keep them apart, in working together for the development of Iran. And something else I want to add is that we have started a dialog. As you know, the year 2001 has been designated by the UN as the year for dialog among civilizations. We have started the dialog within our society. And this is a very, very positive step. Because if once you know yourself, then you are able to know others. This is something yet we have done and as you would, if you would come to Iran you would witness that there are a variety of opinions. I mean, the people who are concerned about the politics of the country read about, maybe 10 or 15 papers every morning, to get a glimpse of what is happening. And this is a very, very healthy development in Iran.

PORTER: Professor Hadian, Professor Shahandeh just mentioned this dialog among civilizations, and this is a response to the idea that the President of Iran had. Any comment on the dialog of civilizations? Is this a good thing? Are you looking forward to this?

HADIAN: Yes, I believe that would be a positive step forward on the part of Iran and particularly in repairing our image outside, outside of Iran. Because I believe that in fact, a policy initiative which Khatami, President Khatami, proposed, our image can improve and in fact we can communicate our message better. And in fact it means that we should acknowledge diversity, the pluralism which exists in the world, and that would be also very healthy, that we understand the different cultures and different civilization. Understand one another better and we don’t have a better way than talking to one another. And in communicating in a non-violent way. Rather than fighting and going to war and resolving our differences, that would be much, much better to go and to communicate and talk to one another rather than, rather than fight.

SHAHANDEH: A genuine dialog starts with listening. Just listening, it’s a very, very—what do you call it—it’s very rare. Because what most of hear things, but we never listen. Once, if you put this into practice and then you start listening to people, then you’ll find so much commonalties, similarities, between our two cultures, that there’s no need for violent behavior. Because you have so much, so many things in common. And this is something that you have to practice. I mean, listening is a very difficult practice. And we are, we have started to do it. We are willing to listen. And because we are willing to listen, there’s a détente taking place in our area among the Persian Gulf states and Iran. This is a very, very positive development that we are witnessing.

PORTER: Okay. Well, it’s possible that this dialog among civilizations will increase the notion of a, of global citizenship.


PORTER: And of people seeing themselves as part of a larger picture. Some countries might view global citizenship, or the idea of global citizenship, as a threat. Do you think that if the citizens of Iran started to view themselves as global citizens, that that would somehow be a threat to the Revolution? Or a threat to Iran? Professor Hadian?

HADIAN: That might be the case, in fact, for every citizen of every country in the world, just for, not probably, not everyone, but for many of them. But I believe as time passes, in the next century particularly, more and more we are going to be cosmopolitan in our orientation and thus we would feel that we are a part of a village, a global village, and thus we would see one another more as a human. And if that orientation to be dominant, I believe, we are not going to be fearful of considering ourselves the citizen of the world. And I believe that concept are going to be gaining more and more strength in the future, as time passes. And I’m very much optimistic and hopeful that in the next century we are going to embrace that concept and we will consider ourselves the, a citizen of the world.

SHAHANDEH: And you yourself, because you are in the media industry, a very big revolution has happened. I think as big as the industrial revolution of the 1800s. This is the communications revolution.

PORTER: I know we’re out of time but I have to ask you one more question that speaks to the relationship with the United States. And that has to do with democracy and human rights in Iran. It’s a question that lots of Americans have about democracy and human rights in Iran. But I would like for our audience for you to compare and contrast the human rights and democracy situation in Iran with the situation in American allies like Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, some of your neighbors.

HADIAN: I believe somehow we are concerned that US is using a double standard. And the United States is not examining the Saudi Arabia or other Persian Gulf countries in the same way and with the same standard which it’s using to examine the Iranian situation. And the problem with the majority of the measurement, Iran is far more democratic than many of its neighbors. And Iran is more in fact, pro-human rights and is in fact promoting the human rights, much more than many of its neighboring countries. I’m not telling that, I mean, there is no problem there; yes, undoubtedly, there is. But that’s working in, working in progress. Thus, if the United States wants to in fact play a positive role, I believe it should be through encouragement rather than brought it in the, in fact, penalizing the countries. And also, be fair in application of the standards everywhere. Not just, I mean, using it against, as a political instrument to condemn the country, but to the other countries which somehow would serve and have a friendly relationship with the United States, they don’t apply it there. So that double standards bother many people, many people in Iran.

SHAHANDEH: Can I just add one last word?

PORTER: Professor Shahandeh, please.

SHAHANDEH: I think the American, the Americans they know very well. I mean, the people who are in the bureaucracy in the United States, they know very well that Iran is the most democratic country in the whole Middle East. I mean this is something they say. I mean, I have, I have read articles, the Americans say that Iran is democratic because we have elections, we have contested elections. But they won’t come out and say it officially because maybe it’s against their national interest. The question is, what is national interest? I mean, this is, is it in the interest of a group of people? Or is it the interests of the whole nation? This is something that has to be defined. Because in some countries around Iran women do not have rights to vote. They don’t have political, rights to participate in political contests. So, you know, I mean, I think what the American public should know is, should look deeper into Iran’s situation and give a more bipartisan view of what is happening. Once that is done, then I think there will be a bridge to gap our differences.

PORTER: That is Professor Behzad Shahandeh from Tehran University. He is also the head of the Asia/Pacific Division at the International Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations. Our other guest, Professor Nasser Hadian, teaches Law and Political Science at Tehran University. For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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