Tag Archives: Iran

The Case for People-to-People Ties Between Iran and the U.S.

2017wrestlerAmerican wrestler James Green shakes hands with spectators as they photograph him with their cell phones following his match at the World Wrestling Cup Final in Kermanshah, Iran, Feb. 17, 2017. (MEGHDAD MADADI/AFP/Getty Images)

by Dale Sprusansky , assistant editor of the  Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

In November 2006, President George W. Bush restored Iran’s participation in the International Visitor Leadership Program, allowing hundreds of Iranians to engage in cultural, academic, scientific, athletic and other exchanges with Americans. It was the first time in 25 years that Iranians were invited to participate in the State Department program.

A decade later, proponents of people-to-people initiatives now hope that a Republican president will once again embrace such exchanges between the peoples of Iran and the U.S. Several advocates of these exchanges gathered at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC on May 5 to assess their future viability under the Trump administration.

Bahman Baktiari, executive director of the International Foundation for Civil Society, is optimistic that these exchanges will remain in place, citing USA Wrestling’s February participation in the freestyle wrestling World Cup held in Kermanshah, Iran.

Shortly before the U.S. team was set to depart for Iran, President Donald Trump announced his travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran. In retaliation, the Iranian government denied visas to the American wrestlers.

Wrestlers in both Iran and the U.S., however, refused to let this diplomatic tiff disturb the long tradition of sports diplomacy between the two wrestling teams, which have met 32 times since 1998. The Iranian Wrestling Federation immediately lobbied its government to reconsider the visa applications of the American wrestlers, Baktiari noted, while the American wrestlers approached both the Trump administration and the media to stress the importance of sports diplomacy.

Shortly after these dual efforts were launched, the Iranian government decided to reverse its decision. While Tehran attributed its reversal to a U.S. federal judge’s decision to suspend Trump’s ban, Baktiari believes the pressure the Iranian wrestlers put on their government played no small role in getting the American wrestlers’ visas approved.

Baktiari is encouraged that voices in favor of sports diplomacy now carry great weight in both the U.S. and Iran. Wrestling exchanges between the two countries have been institutionalized to the extent that “no matter what government is in power in Tehran or Washington, these relationships will continue,” he stated.

Politicians in both countries have come to accept—and even endorse—U.S.-Iran wrestling exchanges, Baktiari added. In the U.S., this includes extremely conservative congressmen, he noted. “USA Wrestling right now has compiled a list of all the congressmen who are former wrestlers, and they are now making direct connections with them—and several Tea Party members are former wrestlers—and they have gotten these people on board,” he said.

In Iran—where wrestling is the treasured national sport—Baktiari pointed out that a presidential candidate recently endorsed wrestling diplomacy during a televised debate. “There is this natural energy, I think, that is not shown in the media, that is brewing,” Baktiari said of the Iran-U.S. wrestling relationship.

Stan Albrecht, former president of Utah State University, emphasized the importance of educational exchanges between the two adversarial countries.

In particular, Albrecht highlighted the critical role Iranian students play in the American college educational system. More than 12,000 Iranians are currently studying in the U.S., he observed, three-fourths of whom are graduate students. Half of these graduate students are studying the important fields of science and engineering, he added, saying, “They’re absolutely critical to what goes on at our universities, as teaching assistants, as research assistants, as research collaborators on a whole bunch of projects.”

Utah State University has for decades engaged in academic and research exchange programs with academic institutions in Iran, Albrecht continued. One such program allows researchers to cooperatively study two of the world’s largest inland saltwater lakes—the Great Salt Lake in Utah and Iran’s Lake Urmia. “It would be a tragic loss if something happened that we were unable to continue those types of partnerships,” he said.

Excluding Iranians and other international students from entering the U.S. would have a devastating impact on the country’s universities, Albrecht warned. The “constant historical and current infusion of intellectual power that comes from across the world” is the reason American universities have grown in prestige, he said. “We have a history of bright young people coming to the United States, studying at our universities, many of them staying, making a major contribution to our country, many of them returning home and making major contributions in their country,” he said.

These academic exchanges also have real economic and political impacts. Albrecht pointed out that international students contributed $32.8 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2015-2016 academic year. Denying access to brilliant minds from abroad, he added, puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage to countries such as Australia and Canada, who will gladly accept individuals disregarded by the U.S. Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, observed that virtually all the Iranian negotiators involved in the successful nuclear talks received Ph.D.s from American universities.

Kamiar Alaei, associate dean at the State University of New York at Albany, noted that Iranian and American scientists have been cooperating for a number of years on public health initiatives. In particular, he highlighted the work he has done to bring American researchers to Iran to help the country better respond to its HIV epidemic. The joint effort has helped Iran significantly enhance its care for both those with HIV and those most vulnerable to contracting the disease, he noted. Despite facing a setback during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—during which Alaei was imprisoned for three years due to his outreach to high-risk individuals such as sex workers—the efforts of Alaei and the American researchers he recruited have resulted in a demonstrable improvement in the lives of many Iranians.

Regardless of how the Trump administration decides to approach Iran politically, Slavin hopes Washington will remain committed to fostering apolitical people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. “We hope that, whatever decisions the administration makes about U.S. policy toward Iran, it carves out a space to continue this kind of work,” she said.


Dale Sprusansky is assistant editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

Continue reading The Case for People-to-People Ties Between Iran and the U.S.

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Trump’s Travel Ban: Exempting the Next Osama Bin Laden?

03/07/2017 09:32 pm ET |

Bahman Baktiari

Huffington Post

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The Trump administration introduced a new Executive Order that revised its previous order blocking visitors / immigrants from seven countries: Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Iran, Iraq and Sudan. In the new order, Iraq has been dropped, but the other six countries remain on the list. Trump’s new ban, like his old ban, is a policy in search of a justification.

Under this so-called revised travel ban, Osama Bin Laden (founder of al-Qaeda), Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi (ISIS leader), Hibatullah Akhundzada (Taliban leader), and Ayman Mohammed al-Zawahiri (current leader of al-Qaeda) all can apply for a visa appointment at a U.S. embassy, while Syrian child refugees, Iranian PhD students, Somali and Sudanese humanitarian workers are all banned from applying for visa to the United States.

It is ironic that the Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly, introduced the new travel ban when his own analysts warned him that citizenship is an “unreliable indicator of terrorist threats. According to a classified DHS report, of the eighty-eight individuals who carried out terrorist attacks inside the United States since 2011, more than half were born in the United States. The others came from 26 different countries.

How many terror attacks have refugees carried out in the United States? Not a single one since the Refugee Act of 1980. This is because law enforcement agencies have done a terrific job of vetting refugees, a fact that Trump refuses to acknowledge publicly. Still, creating hysteria erodes trust in the very institutions that have been protecting us against terrorism.

A report from the Cato Institute in September 2016 stated: “Of the 3,252,493 refugees admitted from 1975 to the end of 2015, 20 were terrorists, which amounted to 0.00062 percent of the total. In other words, one terrorist entered as a refugee for every 162,625 refugees who were not terrorists.” Of those twenty, “only three were successful in their attacks, killing a total of three people.” Those three terrorists were from Cuba and committed those killings in the 1970s.

Yet, in order to appeal to and appease a core constituency of nativists, Trump administration officials have not hesitated to demonize refugees and immigrants as their justification for their counterterrorism policies.

Not a single American has been killed from a terrorist act in the United States committed by nationals from the countries targeted in the so-called revised travel ban. In the case of Iranian Americans, most of whom have fled to America as the result of persecution or oppression at home, are a model immigrant community in the United States. Despite decades of acrimonious relationship between their ancestral home and their adopted country, Iranian Americans are among the most successful immigrant community in the United States. A large number of them are businessmen, doctors, lawyers and engineers. They have senior executive positions with some of the largest corporations, including Twitter, eBay, Expedia, and Google. Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi who has won two academy awards and boycotted the 2017 Oscars in protest at the Trump travel ban was represented by prominent Iranian American scientist Firouz Naderi and an Iranian-American businesswoman, Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian to go to space.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred to 9/11 terrorism as a justification for the new travel ban, he conveniently ignored the fact that Iranians held a candle vigil in Tehran for victims of September 11. One of the first responders on the scene after the San Bernardino attack was an Iranian doctor, Michael Neeki, helping the injured. If citizenship correlates with terrorism, then how does Trump explain Iranian and Iranian American outpourings of love and support for victims of terrorism?

This is not all the travel ban ignores. Out of nineteen hijackers who committed the terrorist action of September 11, our intelligence community has established that fifteen were from Saudi Arabia, two came from United Arab Emirates, one from Egypt, and one from Lebanon. The San Bernardino terrorist was born in the United States from a Pakistani family, married his accomplice from Saudi Arabia, and plotted his terrorist attack while living in a middle-class community in California. The Boston marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was from Chechnya in Russia. He was radicalized by his older brother while attending high school in the United States. The Orlando attack was committed by an American with Afghan parents. Ahmad Khan Rahimi who planted bombs in New York Chelsea neighborhood in 2016 was born in Afghanistan and first came to the United States in 1995. Even if the Trump travel ban were implemented in the 1990s, not one of these terrorist actions would have been prevented.

Instead of focusing on symptoms, we should focus on the conflicts that have destabilized the Middle East, leading to wars, terrorism and refugee crises.

Currently, Saudi Arabia and UAE, two of the countries whose nationals were responsible for 9/11, are carrying out a bombing campaign against four countries listed in Trump’s new travel ban: Syria, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. The United States is assisting these countries with their military campaigns. We provide them with massive amount of military hardware and training as we did with the Taliban in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. It is folly not to expect blowback. As if that were not enough, we are also turning a blind eye to the Talibanization of Turkey as we did with Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s

For all its anti-Muslim bluster, the Trump administration approved more than $1.85 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, part of the $40 billion in transfers agreed by the Obama administration in 2015. Why does Saudi Arabia need $40 billion of arms? The Obama administration offered over $25 billion worth of weaponry to the UAE. The rulers of UAE made a strategic decision to sharply increase their military budget from $9.7 billion in 2004 to $22 billion in 2014. If Trump wants to prevent terrorism, he should start by rethinking America’s strategic role and relationships with Arab partners, instead of publicity stunts like the travel ban.

Meanwhile, Trump has a deepening credibility issue. While American soldiers are bearing the brunt of the backlash against the Muslim ban in Iraq and elsewhere, Eric Trump traveled to Dubai in the UAE recently to open a golf club. In the midst of the greatest crackdown on Turkish civil society, the Trump Organization has licensed its name to two luxury towers in Istanbul, and a Turkish company manufactures a line of Trump-branded home furnishings. And it gets worse. A New Yorker report has revealed ties between the Trump Organization and a corrupt network of officials working to build a new Trump hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan. According to the report, the Trump Organization was literally doing business with a front company for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Is there any connection between Trump’s business dealings in the Muslim world and the Trump’s decision to include or exclude countries from his travel ban list?

Iran & Arab States of the Persian Gulf

As Iran and the United States inch closer to a nuclear agreement, the Arab states in the Persian Gulf are pressuring the United States to increase security assistance and commit to their political security. President Obama has invited the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Washington for a security summit to assure them that a nuclear deal with Iran will not undermine their security. But for these Arab monarchies the enemy they should fear most isn’t Iran but their own people and popular rule. No matter how much military assistance they get from the United States, conventional military capabilities will not help them repress domestic discontent and dissatisfaction. As President Obama elaborated in his interview with Tom Friedman of the New York Times: “The conversations I want to have with the Gulf countries is, first and foremost, how do they build more effective defense capabilities,” the president said. “I think when you look at what happens in Syria, for example, there’s been a great desire for the United States to get in there and do something. But the question is: Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what Assad has done? I also think that I can send a message to them about the U.S.’s commitments to work with them and ensure that they are not invaded from the outside, and that perhaps will ease some of their concerns and allow them to have a more fruitful conversation with the Iranians. What I can’t do, though, is commit to dealing with some of these internal issues that they have without them making some changes that are more responsive to their people.”……One way to think about it, Obama continued, “is [that] when it comes to external aggression, I think we’re going to be there for our [Arab] friends — and I want to see how we can formalize that a little bit more than we currently have, and also help build their capacity so that they feel more confident about their ability to protect themselves from external aggression.” But, he repeated, “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. Now disentangling that from real terrorist activity inside their country, how we sort that out, how we engage in the counterterrorism cooperation that’s been so important to our own security — without automatically legitimizing or validating whatever repressive tactics they may employ — I think that’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”

Understanding IAEA’s Capabilities in Monitoring & Inspecting Iran’s Nuclear facilities

As Iran and members of P5+1 move closer in signing a nuclear accord with Iran, the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is paramount in monitoring and verifying Iran’s commitments and obligations. According this analysis, “the fact sheet released by the US State Department regarding the Plan of Action places the agency squarely in charge of verification, calling for the agency to, inter alia: have access to both declared and undeclared facilities through Iran’s implementation of an Additional Protocol; provide “continuous” monitoring of the removal and storage of centrifuges; investigate suspicious sites or allegations of covert facilities anywhere in the country; and continue its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program…..The agency is the only international, technical organization capable of this kind of nuclear stock-taking and verification, and it possesses experience in dealing with extraordinary situations—witness its roles in South Africa and Iraq.”

Opinion-Iran and the West should consider ending their estrangement

By Roger Shanahan, The Australian, May 9, 2015

“”In one Middle Eastern country, the practice of any religion other than Islam is banned, women are not allowed to drive, the screening of films is forbidden, there are no elections and last year 87 people were publicly beheaded.

In the other, religious minorities have seats reserved in parliament, and churches, synagogues and Zoroastrian temples to pray in, there are three female vice-presidents in the government, the country’s film directors have a worldwide reputation and one of its films won an Oscar in 2012, parliamentary and presidential elections take place, and the state does not behead people.

Yet the former country is a close ally of the West while in the past the latter has been labelled part of the “axis of evil” by the US.” Read the Full Article Here.

Luxury car crashes & the rising inequality in Iran

For many observers of Iran it is hard to fathom that a country under severe international sanctions can also be the hottest market for luxury cars in the Middle East. According to one report, “Maserati and Porsche sell more cars in Tehran than in many metropolitan areas in the United States or the European Union.”

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Parivash Akbarzadeh, 20, has drawn scorn in Iran after the crash of a luxury car she was driving killed her and the car’s rich young owner, Mohammad Hossein Rabbani-Shirazi.

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But the recent fatal crashes have revealed another side of Iran: A country in which the gap between rich and poor is on the rise, and nepotism and corruption is making a minority super wealthy and a majority struggling to make a living: “It might have been surprising and confusing to discover that, at the peak of sanctions enforcement, hundreds of luxury cars found their way into Iran’s markets. At that time, government officials were not able to import the necessary medical supplies and food — and yet the rich and the well connected managed to get their Maseratis using hard currencies. One could say that, for them, a Porsche is more important than bread. Children of privileged officials enjoy these luxuries to the fullest, and feel protected from any possible intrusion.”

U.S. Senate votes overwhelming in support of the Iran legislation

After extensive infighting in the U.S. Senate in which a small group of hardliners attempted to derail the Iran legislation, the Senate voted 98-1 in favor of the bipartisan bill that gives the U.S. Congress a chance to express its view on the final nuclear accord between Iran and the United States. “The lone vote against the bill was cast by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas.” It is useful to remember that a month ago 46 Republican senators signed a letter coordinated by Tom Cotton that attempted to derail the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Today, Tom Cotton was alone in his vote.

New WSJ/NBC Poll: 54% of American public support nuclear negotiations with Iran, 37% want more sanctions

New WSJ/NBC public opinion pollreveals the continuing support of the American public for diplomacy with Iran.

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Even though critics of Obama’s diplomacy have mounted a relentless public campaign to persuade Americans that it is better to put more pressures on Iran in order to force its government to capitulate on its nuclear program, it seems that the American public is reluctant to exacerbate the conflict with Iran: “When given two options, 54% of adults said they think it is important to have an agreement in place with the Iranians, compared with the 37% who believe the emerging framework is too risky and that economic sanctions would be a more effective deterrent to prevent the country from building a nuclear weapon.”

Iran & the United States : Moving Beyond 36 years of Mutual Satanization

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Huffington Post Article: Unmaking of an Adversarial Relationship: How Can Iran and the United States Normalize Their Relationship After 36 Years of Mutual Satanization?

Huffington Post  May 4, 2015

Bahman Baktiari

Two years after his election, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is about to go down in history as a leader who defused an intense and bitter conflict that could have led to a military attack on Iran. A nuclear deal that the majority of Iranians hope will bring an end to the isolation of Iran, much needed relief from international sanctions, and a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations is now in sight. If other enemy countries have faced each other on the battlefield and ultimately managed to work out their differences, why is it impossible for Iran and the United States to do the latter?

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Prior to World War II, the hostilities between France and Germany far superseded the more recent enmity between Iran and the United States, and the former two ultimately became partners in the European Community and NATO. The United States and Vietnam were once engaged in military hostilities, yet today they coexist in peace and cooperation. The enmity between Iran and the United States has certainly never risen to the levels of hostility that previously existed between the countries mentioned above. If the countries in question were able to work out their differences, Iran and the United States can surely do so too. Moreover, there is sympathy for the United States among Iranians, and there is apprehension about foreign conflict among Americans. The public at large is ready for an understanding. In a July 2014 public opinion poll conducted by the Program for Public Consultation and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, 61% of Americans favored a nuclear deal with Iran. There is a highly vocal group in each country that opposes diplomacy and rapprochement between Iran and the United States. However, both groups’ policy statements lack the active support of the general public.

After eighteen months of intensive nuclear negotiations, Iran and the United States are inching closer to achieving a comprehensive nuclear agreement by their self-imposed deadline of July 1, 2015. Although more technical work is needed to refine the nature of the inspection and verification system and to institute a synchronized process that will lead to the elimination of all nuclear-related sanctions, the framework agreement of April has paved the way for a final nuclear accord. Such a diplomatic breakthrough will have a significant impact on both Iran and the United States, taking their relationship to a new level. This would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

It is not easy to reverse thirty-six years of mutual satanization. Both Tehran and Washington must deal with vocal domestic opponents who are mirror images of each other. But both Presidents Obama and Rouhani have started a carefully choreographed process of replacing hostilities with respectful language. A month after his inauguration in September 2013, President Rouhani surprised everyone by holding a brief telephone conversation with President Obama. This was the highest level of contact between the two countries since the 1979 Revolution. The major development broke the ice and prepared the ground for an interim nuclear deal, which was signed in November 2013. The historic telephone call was the climax of a dramatic shift in tone between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. After Rouhani’s return home, a large group of people greeted him with cheers, and many others expressed their excitement and praise via social media.

Realizing the significance of public symbolism, both Washington and Tehran have engaged each other at the highest levels, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry holding dozens of meetings and appearing next to each other in front of flags of the United States and Iran. For the first time in thirty-six years, the U.S. Secretary of State held a meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister in the residence of Iran’s Ambassador to the U.N., Ali Khoshroo. Even though, technically, the United States maintains a 20-mile travel limit on the movement of Iranian diplomats based at the United Nations, allowing cameras to film this historic meeting was part of the careful choreography to change Iran’s public image.

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Rouhani’s administration has also engaged in a reconstruction of the United States’ image inside Iran. He has had a much more difficult task since he does not control the state-owned television and radio. Rather, the Director-General is appointed by the Supreme Leader and is not accountable to the elected President. Despite this disadvantage, Rouhani and his experienced team of advisers know how to operate within the system. They have used social media and other media outlets effectively to gradually change the narrative of U.S.-Iran relations from that of two countries in permanent crisis to one of two countries negotiating solutions to their current problems. The Rouhani administration has quietly endorsed civil society initiatives that attempt to build bridges in the areas of sports, culture, education, music, and the arts. They have relaxed Iranian visa requirements for American visitors, encouraging more people-to-people exchanges. Moreover, for the past three years, Iranian athletes have competed in several wrestling and volleyball tournaments in the United States, and several universities in Iran are currently pursuing academic cooperation with American universities.

To encourage more civil society interactions with Iran, the Department of State accelerated its International Visitor Leadership Program with the country. Since Iran faces numerous financial and economic sanctions, the State Department had to obtain permission from the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to conduct civil society exchanges with Iran. The State Department has supported a variety of exchanges with Iran. American nuclear diplomacy is conducted side-by-side with sports diplomacy, music and art diplomacy, food diplomacy, and even bodybuilding diplomacy (which occurred when a famous American bodybuilder, Ron Coleman, visited Iran). Search for Common Ground, an independent NGO devoted to improving civil society interactions, recently sponsored several American jazz musicians’ trip to Iran.

In a carefully structured choreography, Rouhani and his team have made it possible for American visitors to Iran to receive media attention and press coverage, engaging in an Iranian version of public diplomacy. It is not unusual to see American flags at hotels, in sports arenas when American teams are competing, or at conferences and gatherings. It is a remarkable change when one considers how difficult it was for Iran and the United States to even admit to having dialogue with each other.

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Yet the road towards the normalization of relations between Iran and the United States has dangerous turns that could upend the drivers if they are not careful. The American public is still upset about the hostage crisis of 1979-1981, and media images of the burning of the American flag remain in people’s memories. The book, Not without My Daughter, became a bestseller and was turned into a film, and the film, Argo, won several awards. Republican critics of President Obama’s diplomacy count on this reservoir of negative perceptions to thwart any rapprochement with Iran. By keeping the U.S. Congress engaged, President Obama can deflect some of the criticism and maintain public support for his diplomacy.

Similarly, Rouhani must deal with opponents who have a vested interest in sustaining conflict with the United States. The dispute with the United States is so embedded in the fractured domestic politics of Iran that Rouhani has to navigate the dangerous waters of factional politics very carefully. Some perceive “nuclear negotiations” as a euphemism for broader changes that could result in a major realignment of political forces inside Iran. Others perceive the nuclear negotiation process as one that will inevitably end in the normalization of relations with the United States and the integration of Iran into the international community. Rouhani has powerful cards to play against his opponents and a chance to forge a historic new chapter in the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy.

After thirty-six years of mutual satanization, it is easy to advance pessimistic arguments and to be doubtful about a future in which Iran and the United States will no longer be enemies. However, the nuclear negotiations and the prospect of a final nuclear accord demonstrate the fiction of the idea of permanent enemies destined to be in conflict with each other.