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Hilde Rapp

Co-Director of the Centre for International Peacebuilding

Iran: A Crisis about Nuclear Fuel or a Crisis of Dialogue and Participation?


Open letter to our International Leaders

I urge everyone who is committed to tackling the fundamental issues that face the global community today to work together to open up the space for widening the public debate concerning security sector reform. There is increasing recognition that in order to meet the security needs of individual countries we require regional and global co-operation in improving food security, disaster relief, environmental protection, economic development, governance and civil society involvement. Brigadier Michael Harbottle made this whole systems perspective the cornerstone of the Centre for International Peacebuilding, which he and his wife Eirwen founded in 1982. In 1992 he set out a modernization agenda for the military of the twenty first century advocating that it is time to shift the balance of responsibilities towards peacekeeping and peacebuilding by helping to create the conditions for viable governance through proactive involvement in state building.

Without economic and environmental sustainability there can be no security. We need everyone to participate in finding new and sustainable ways to meet our resource needs. We need to work together to build healthy societies by transcending the politically drawn dividing lines between East and West, North and South. We need to restructurie the UN to enable proper dialogue and cooperation between all nations and all peoples.

There is little doubt that climate change is fast becoming the greatest threat to global security. Now is the time to engage in inclusive multi-sectoral and multi-lateral cooperation to research how we may save our planet Earth rather than destroy it. Despite the commitment to nuclear disarmament the North and West is not giving up its nuclear weapons even though this was the incentive for all nations not already in possession of nuclear arms to sign the Non Proliferation Treaty, giving away their right to develop nuclear weapons in the future.

In view of the military intervention in the internal affairs of Iraq, the peoples of the East and the South do not experience the existence of nuclear weapons in the North and the West, a deterrent against nuclear escalation and hence guarantor of global security, but rather as a threat to their own security. Iran as Iraq’s immediate neighbour has reason to feel particularly under threat by the West, given the rhetoric indicting it as part of the ‘axis of evil’. West and the North feel under threat in light of President Ahmadinejad’s intemperate expression of his objection to the Israeli occupation of Palestine by reissuing the old threat of the sixties to drive Israel into the sea.

Much of the debate in the North and the West is fuelled by concerns about the supply of energy, especially fossil fuel. We need to consider that the debate in Iran is also about the legitimate need of seventy million Iranian people for the energy required to guarantee their own environmental and economic security. On current projections Iran’s energy needs cannot be met adequately and sustainably by the country’s own fossil fuel reserves, especially if some of their supplies go to India and China in return for essential goods and services. The long term hostility of the West and the North to the Iranian government and the threat of further sanctions only reinforce Iran’s endeavours towards self sufficiency wherever possible.

With the proviso that we find the answer to disposing safely of nuclear waste, public debate in the North and the West revolves around the potential of nuclear power to make savings in carbon emissions and thus to halt climate change. If nuclear energy could really be the clean renewable fuel of the future it would be a tragedy to encourage developing countries in the South and the East to continue meeting the energy needs of their fast growing economies and populations solely with conventional fuels, thus driving up carbon emissions further at an alarming rate, efurther endangering our environment. Under current regulations, it is, in fact, lawful, under Article IV of the Non Proliferation Treaty for Iran to develop a nuclear power programme, provided International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) safeguards are in place. As it stands, the IAEA rules do nor preclude the attainment of a level of nuclear capability which enables the building of nuclear weapons. It is entirely unclear what legal rather than political arguments might justify the North and the West in singling out Iran for a ban on developing a nuclear programme, especially if this is for energy use.

The current political war of words, far from serving to improve global security by trying to enforce a ban, is escalating a deadly game of promoting fear on all sides, inevitably inflaming a conflict in which all sides fear to loose face, especially vis-à-vis their respective electorates. It would be a much clearer political message if the key actors in this conflict were to take the lead in a truly international initiative to re- examine the current agreements enshrined in the Non Proliferation Treaty. We need a new ‘coalition of the willing’ to set out a clear roadmap for 1) phasing out existing nuclear weapons ; 2) committing not to build new nuclear weapons; 3) co-operating in researching safe and sustainable renewable energy which may include nuclear energy production for economic use; 4) firming up on a globally acceptable Kyoto agreement; and 5) tying this into funding the delivery of the Millennium Development Goals. Iran should be an active and welcome partner in such an enterprise.

The current international conflict surrounding the wish of the Iranian government to develop a nuclear fuel capacity needs to be seen it the context of this much wider debate. We are facing an impasse which is to a great extent exacerbated by a serious failure in communication with the Iranian government, compounded but the even more serious failure to engage in proper dialogue with the Iranian people, and, indeed, with civil society in Muslim countries in general.

The Huntingdonian rhetoric, proclaiming that we are embroiled in a ‘clash of civilizations’, is both dangerous and misguided. It invites us into the trap of ‘black and white’, ‘us and them’ thinking, rather than opening a space for sustained and serious, truly inclusive, international dialogue about differences between nations, cultures, ethnic groups, generations and the sexes. These turn on conflicts between vision and values within and between all sectors of society, leading to complex conflicts between strategic objectives, mission statements and operational implementation plans. It is the purpose of democratic forms of governance, and indeed the rationale for setting up the UN, to negotiate such conflicts by peaceful means.

We are facing major decisions that affect all of us and the survival of our planet and we must take these decisions together as one human family, however many conflicts we may have to transcend along the way. All societies, not just developing societies in the East and in the South, struggle to meet human needs and to respect human rights. In many countries in the South and the East, where arrangements for citizen participation in decision making may not conform to Western models of representative democracy, there are nonetheless lively discussions within civil society about identity and gender, economics and social justice, health and education and issues of governance in general. Iran is no exception.

Iranians, engage with the arguments of post modernism and Western philosophy, sociology, political science and so forth. They debate the pros and cons of the concept and the institution of democracy and its relationship to Islam; they worry about gender inequalities, issues of post modern identity, labor relations and wealth creation. There is a thriving scientific community and Iranians have many times expressed a great desire for playing their part in scientific, technological and cultural cooperation at an international lebvel. They do so in ways from which we, in the West, could, and should learn. Many of these writings are published in English ( see Bahmanpur, MS & Bashir,H ( 2000) Muslim Identity in the 21st Century, Institute of Islamic Studies, London, to name one, or the work done by the Khomeini Institute in Qom, for instance by the political philosopher Mohammed Legenhausen).

For every five Iranian households one person is either already a graduate or currently engaged in higher education. On average, every Iranian village has between 2 and 3 graduates, and the level of illiteracy in women has dropped from 30 percent to 12 percent in the sixteen years between 1980 and 1996 ( male illiteracy is only 8 percent) ( Hadi Khaniki, 2000, Department of Communication, Allamah Tabata University, Iran- in Bahmanpur, op.cit). Women teach in universities and hold political office and many women from rural and working class backgrounds are now literate and employed.

It is tragic that the Western media representation of Iran does little to counteract an image of Iran as the home of bearded Muslim fanatics and women in burkas , or at best, as that of saffron, pistachios, and oriental rugs, the site of the blue mosque and the birthplace of the medieval Sufi poets, of whom Jallaluddin Rumi has become a household name.

Of course, Iran has its own share of the problems that face most modern and modernizing societies such as unemployment due to educated young people joining the labour market at a greater rate than the economy can expand, disputes between employers and trade unions, drug and sexual health issues, disengagement, dissatisfaction and crime. Iranians are looking for ways of tackling these problems just as energetically as people do elsewhere.

Many Iranians are involved in NGOs, some of which are in receipt of international recognition as world leaders in their field, such as The Ladies Charitable Society (LCS) with 2,000 dedicated members and volunteers inside Iran and overseas, with branches established in London, Los Angeles, San Jose, Seattle, and Toronto. LCS has pioneered the work of the Kahrizak Charity Foundation (KCF), a private, non-governmental, charitable organization, which operates the Kahrizak Center for Living, Education and Rehabilitation of the Disabled and the Elderly, a 1600-bed, 400,000-square meter, state-of-the-art center, the like of which may not exist anywhere else in the world. It also pioneers an imaginative community support system for educating and caring for over a thousand children orphaned in the last two earthquakes.

We must stop demonizing and romanticizing the people of Iran, who are by and large every bit as curious and modern as we are, just as passionate to make the world a better place, and just as easily angered as people in the West when their convictions or beliefs are threatened. In time, I hope we will learn the art of non violent communication, but for now we need to contain and strive to prevent extreme and extremist forms of protest everywhere.

Whether in Iran or Ethiopia, in the UK or the Ukraine , dissenters put themselves at risk and may suffer human rights abuses. The UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Criminal Court, and the UN Millennium Development Goals are testimony to our common commitment that people have a right to have their human needs met and to be protected against human rights abuses wherever they are. All over the world dedicated people fight to uphold these rights, be this in Iran, the US, Croatia, Zimbabwe, Australia or in Columbia.

The current conflict involving Iran, is not really a conflict about Iran, Islam, nuclear programmes, or oil. It is fundamentally a conflict about inclusivity and justice. It highlights the urgent need to make all the voices heard that should, by right, be active participants in our debates about our shared future and our common humanity.

We must finally have the courage of our convictions and follow our conscious and largely sincere renunciation of colonialism by at last leaving behind the extraordinary presumption that knowledge and expertise should flow from North to South and from West to East. This is as necessary in the North and the West as it is in the South and the East where people need to find the confidence to build much more on their own indigenous capacity for research and strategic thinking from which I personally have learnt as much as I have learnt from Western mentors. It is no accident that Poverty eradication programmes in Glasgow, have drawn on expertise from Bangalore, and Kenyan and Palestinian peace workers are running peace building and conflict transformation workshops in the UK.

We urgently need world wide participation in dialogue and development and we need to move forward with the UN reforms to ensure that the South and the East are properly represented at all levels including the various UN NGO fora. What wee need now in the twenty first century, is the political will, the compassion and the wisdom to leave behind a century which has cost more lives through war and preventable disease than all previous centuries before it. We have the technology to make swords into plowshares, and we have the knowledge to plow and to sow, to nurture and to reap so that we can feed the poor We have methodologies for transforming conflict and violence through dialogue and development which have been tried and tested in hundreds of theatres of conflict.

We do not need another war, not even a war of words.