Omid Memarian

Monday, June 23, 2008

Q&A: "Neglecting Democracy Is More Dangerous Than Nuclear Weapons"
Interview with Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 20 (IPS) - While the United States and Britain are talking about tougher sanctions on Iran, including sanctions on its gas and oil industry -- Tehran's major source of revenue -- Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Noble Peace Prize laureate and international human rights defender, argues that this tactic has not weakened the government, but the Iranian people.

(Read the rest of my interview with Shirin Ebadi here...)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

After the Historical Race Speech, Obama Should Address Islam and West
This piece first appeared on
Huffingto Post

The barring of two Muslim women from sitting behind Barack Obama during his Detroit rally last Monday illustrates that now more than ever, Barack Obama must address the issue of Islamophobia in the United States in an exclusive speech.

Rally volunteers were concerned that the Muslim women wearing their traditional headscarves would appear on camera with Obama, thus giving Obama's opponents the opportunity to suggest that Obama is pro-Islam and, therefore, pro-terrorist. Yet this was not just an "unfortunate" experience for Aref and Shimaa Abdelfadeel, the two women involved in the incident; rather, it is a bold reflection of a deep-rooted fear about the Muslim identity in the United States, which has become a matter of security, a fear which harms many Muslims everyday.

The fear expressed by the volunteers is a general reflection of what the Bush administration, mainstream media, Hollywood, and, recently, a part of blogsphere have done to portray Islam and Muslims as a security threat rather than a historical culture with its own identity.
By asking the Abedelfadeels to remove their scarves before being seated, the volunteers bluntly showed the penetration of this fear into the campaign. Any connection to Islam, is automatically perceived as a negative factor for Obama campaign.

Evidently, seven years after the declaration of the "war on terror", little has changed regarding the general mood of Americans towards Muslims. No wonder, Republicans and their advocates help spread this fear by suggesting that Obama's childhood connection to Islam is a valid reason why Americans should not vote for him.

However, one of Obama's major foreign policy challenges is dealing with the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East and as a result Obama's personal understanding of the most dominant religion in the region should be something that is welcomed, not criticized.

Millions of moderate Muslims have been the first victims of the failed policies of the war on terror doctrine. They want to see a man in White House who has a basic understanding of "other" religions, ethnicities, and cultures. Obama's knowledge of Islam could help the United States find ways to address terrorism without senseless and violent military attacks.

Though race has been one of the deepest, oldest struggles in United States, religion, specifically, the way in which the United States perceives and interacts with Muslims, is one of the country's most vital, urgent and crucial international issues. Americans may cast their votes based more so on the candidate's stance in domestic issues, but Obama's campaign should also highlight for voters the importance of international issues and how foreign and domestic policy are interrelated.

Obama should use his understanding of different faiths to help voters realize the commonalities among all religions and challenge the identity the "War on Terror" Era has left Muslims. He should emphasize that terrorists, not Muslims, are the enemy, and terrorists can be found among the supporters of all religions.

Like McDonald's, Disneyland, Starbucks, and other cultural symbols, America's horrible characterization of Islam has spread to other countries. With a speech on this issue, Obama could start to end this trend.

Just a few days ago, I was amazed watching a movie on "modern terrorism." The Russian documentary "World War 3" depicted the effects of stereotyped hate speech centered around Muslims and Islam as a whole. This was screening at the United Nations, not at a radical right-wing organization in Washington. It was graphic, even offensive to some of the attendees, but it left one question unanswered: with this horrible global mischaracterization of the Islam and Muslims, how can America deal with this huge amount of hate and cynicism in the coming years?
Unfortunately, the widespread nature of this mischaracterization makes it hard for even people knowledgeable of current events to distinguish the Muslim reality from the myth.

Millions of Muslims worldwide closely follow the US election process, and they should not be treated with disrespect and prejudice as the Abedelfadeels were for wanting to express their religious beliefs along with their political affiliation.

Obama, As the next president of the United States, will not be able to negotiate with either America's friends and foes as long as American culture continues to propagate such a gross mischaracterization of Muslims.

Just as he addressed the issue of race during the Pennsylvania primary, Obama should address America's islamophobia. In a speech he can say that by reducing the whole Islamic World and all its contributions in world history to a few terrorists groups and characterizing Muslims as security threats, America has done itself more harm than good. Hate mongering and ignorance are the foundations of terrorism. Such a speech clarifying this point would beneficial for both Muslims and the United States.

(Also on,,

Also read: Confirmed: Obama Practiced Islam

Thursday, June 19, 2008

What if the Iranian Government does not accept the incentive package?

Last week, in a very brief meeting with reporters after the Security Council meeting on Zimbawe, Secretary of State, Condoliza Rice responded a few questions and didn't respond a few others, including my question. " What if the Iranian government does not accept the European incentive package? What will be the United States' stance on it?", I asked her. She said that she was going to talk about Zimbabwe, not the other things...Still, the question is on the table...more sanctions? more political pressure? military option? ...?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

RIGHTS-IRAN: List Sheds Light on Death Row Children

Omid Memarian

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 18 (IPS) - A human rights group has published the first detailed list of juvenile offenders on Iran's death row, finding that at least 114 children under the age of 18 are awaiting the ultimate penalty.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran says that two child offenders have already been executed this year, and notes that Iran's judicial system is so opaque, it is unclear whether others on the list have already been put to death. At least one of those awaiting execution, Ahmad Noorzehi, was just 12 years old at the time of his crime. "Iran is the only country putting child offenders to death in great numbers," Hadi Ghaemi, a spokesperson for the campaign, told IPS. "This barbaric practice is justified in the name of Islamic law, but many religious scholars have challenged it," he added.

Launched on Wednesday, the list is the result of comprehensive research by prominent Iranian human rights defender Emad Baghi. It forms part of a book he has written called "Right to Life II", which argues that such executions are not sanctioned by Islamic law as claimed by Iranian authorities. (Read the rest of this piece here.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Q&A:"Grand Bargain With Iran Was a Missed Opportunity"
My interview with U.S. Representative Henry A. Waxman

(This is first published in ISP News Agency and reprinted on Asia Times)

WASHINGTON, Jun 17 (IPS) - Last week, the European Union offered Iran an incentives package to stop enriching uranium in order to initiate negotiations with the West. Mere days later, and before Tehran had responded, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the Europeans planned to freeze the assets of Iran's largest bank in a bid to discourage Tehran from developing "nuclear weapons".

Iran has since withdrawn around 75 billion dollars from European banks to prevent the assets from being blocked -- although it is unclear when they will actually be imposed, and several rounds of economic sanctions in the U.N. Security Council have been largely ineffectual.

With U.S. President George W. Bush leaving office in January 2009, many in Washington -- particularly Democrats with an eye on the White House -- believe a new approach is needed toward the Islamic Republic.

In an interview with IPS correspondent Omid Memarian, Henry A. Waxman, the influential chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the U.S. House of Representatives, said that, "The next [U.S.] administration would need the full range of talks, sanctions, coalitions with the other countries, and the threat of war to resist Iran's nuclear ambitions."

He added, however, that a Democratic administration would pursue direct discussions and would try to reopen the possibility of "a grand bargain" regarding Iranian influence in the region that is acceptable to both sides.

Waxman, who is also a super-delegate pledged to presumed Democratic nominee Barack Obama, represents California's 30th Congressional District, which includes a number of cities that are home to a large Iranian American population.

IPS: What would you suggest for the next administration regarding its policies toward Iran?

HW: I think a Democratic administration would take the position that they want to have more open conversations with Iran, perhaps without any preconditions. It may be wishful thinking that it would induce positive results, but I think it's important to pursue direct discussions. The United States has to keep the pressure on Iran, working through the U.N. to stop developing of nuclear militarism, and sanctions have to be kept in place, but it should be pursued at the same time there are actual negotiations. I think we were better off with North Korea having actual discussions with them even though it involved multi-party discussions.

Also we need the threat of war, even though I hope to hold that off. We should never drop it, take it off the table, because it is always something you want on their minds.

IPS: Do you think the next administration will renew Iran's membership in the "axis of evil" club?

HW: Well, I always thought the idea of saying there's an "axis of evil" was stupid. It was unproductive; it didn't serve any purpose. After you've called another country a name, then what happens? When the president gave that speech, I sat in the House chambers and wondered what was this all about? A lot of my friends were very happy that he pointed out how evil they are, but so what? That just made things more difficult rather than easier to try to find solutions. You don't have to like each other.

IPS: The nuclear issue has been at the centre of the U.S.-Iran relationship for the last decade. The Iranians insist that they will never give up enriching uranium. Would the United States be able to live with a nuclear Iran?

HW: That's very problematic. And I think that might happen, but I think it's a very big problem to contemplate, if for no other reason [than that] Israel would be very concerned if Iran was nuclearised -- had nuclear weapons that they could deliver. I don't know what Israel would do without the United States because I don't think Israel could handle the problem militarily by itself.

IPS: What will be the major difference between a Democratic administration and a Republican one when it comes to dealing with Iran?

HW: A Democratic administration is more open to using diplomacy as an additional tool, maybe less likely to want to sabre-rattle. But sabre-rattling doesn't do much unless it is credible, and I think the Bush administration's saber-rattling has not been credible because Iran simply has to look and realise we are in Iraq and they can cause a great deal of problems for the United States if we pressed them too hard. It is a danger when the U.S. is more provocative to Iran, then Iran uses it to clamp down on its own people, especially those who are more moderate and would like better relations with the United States.

IPS: In 2003, the Iranians offered the United States their "Grand Bargain" proposal and asked Washington for a comprehensive dialogue. Why did politicians here ignore the offer?

HW: A Democratic administration would go back and try to open that possibility up for discussions of a grand bargain of one sort or another. I don't know how successful that would be, but I think Democrats would certainly have seen that as a missed opportunity.

IPS: I see a lot of pictures of you and leaders of Middle Eastern countries on the wall of your office. Can you ever imagine a picture of yourself and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on this wall?

HW: Do I see that as a possibility? Possibly. I wouldn't restrict pictures. And I hope someday we can have open contact with Iran -- but I would hope at that point Ahmadinejad is not president.

IPS: I find the U.S. idea of negotiations with Iran that are coupled with the military threat to be a bit weird. Why should one expect such combination to be successful?

HW: You don't say it's on the table, but you don't go into a negotiation and say you are going to give up all your levers, and one of your levers is we don't want you to become a nuclear power. One option is for you [Iran] to abandon that, have inspections and try to become part of the rest of the world in terms of commerce and greater prosperity. The other is we put sanctions on you and quite frankly, it will be so unacceptable that military tactics is an option. We will not take off the table.

IPS: Is there unanimity in Congress on talking to Iran?

HW: No, no. Speaking of a Democratic administration, Obama has been criticised that he is naive to want to talk without preconditions, and the Republican position is 'they are our enemy' and they want to be much more tough on Iran and not talk to them. I don't want to say that all Republicans take this position, but for the most part, Republican leaders have not talked about why we don't pick up and go back to the 2003 offer and why we don't have more direct contacts and discussions -- I haven't heard that from too many Republicans.

IPS: What is the message that you're getting from the Iranian-American community in your constituency?

HW: I get very mixed messages from my constituents became some say don't even talk to these guys, we don't want to work out anything with them -- we want a regime change. And then more often than that, I get 'don't go to war, don't use military against Iran, that would be the worst thing to do'. [On the other hand], my Jewish constituents do not like the fact that he [Obama] wants to talk [to Iran].

IPS: Do you think Bush administration will launch an attack, or an air strike, against Iran before the general elections?

HW: No, no. Send the message to Iranians (laughing).

Saturday, June 14, 2008

No Alex - Counter attack for fear mongering political ads...

Another impressive political ad, by I think it's a kinda counter attack to messages that Republicans promote on the basis of fear and terror. This ad uses the "fear factor" in a very smart way, simply because it seem obvious that people react to fear-based ads positively, meaning that hit their unconscious and change affect the way they make decision in elections...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

IRAN: Ahmadinejad Faces Heavyweight Foe in Larijani
(My piece about Iran's new speaker of the parliament and his relationship with President Ahmadinejad, publishe in the IPS News Agency)

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 10 (IPS) - This week, Iran's new speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, proposed forming two joint committees of the legislative and judiciary branches in an effort to reconcile new legislation with the Islamic penal code.
The step is viewed as part of Larinaji's enthusiasm to build strategic alliances within Iran's political establishment to enhance the stature of Parliament, which been criticised for a lack of independence and efficiency in the past four years.

Larijani is expected to be a serious critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the coming years. He has close ties to new technocrat leaders, such as the former head of the Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Rezaii, and the popular mayor of Tehran, Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf -- considered the leading potential rival of Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential elections.

Larijani is also one of the closest and most loyal politicians to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- who has reportedly called him "my son" in private gatherings -- and the traditional fundamentalist clergy. Over the past two decades, Larijani has held some of the highest appointed positions in the country, such as the supreme leader's representative on the National Security Council and Expediency Council. The position of speaker of Parliament is his first elected office.

Larijani is the son of a grand ayatollah and is son-in-law to Ayatollah Motahari, a cleric for whom Khamenei holds great respect. Over the past 20 years, he has maintained a close relationship with fundamentalist clergy, to the point where prior to running in the parliamentary elections, he visited many leading clerics in Qom, later stating that his candidacy was a direct result of their urging.

Larijani shrewdly decided not to contest the more competitive constituency of Tehran, choosing to run in Qom instead, a city which is the seat of his main base of support. Even so, speculation about a move to Parliament started last year when he resigned just as then Russian President Vladimir Putin was visiting Iran.

Ahmadinejad had engineered Larijani's resignation as head of the negotiating team on Iran's nuclear issue. Whenever Larijani made any progress in his negotiations with the Europeans, Ahmadinejad would deliver a speech to discount his achievements.

At one meeting in September 2006, Larijani had agreed to a western offer that Iran suspend its enrichment activities just for a few days, claiming equipment failure, so that Tehran could save face and European countries could announce an agreement.

But before the news of such agreement could even be analysed in Tehran, in a speech in Karaj, Ahmadinejad exposed the contents of the negotiations and declared that Iran would never concede to such a proposal. It put an immediate stop to weeks of talks aimed at easing a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions against Iran.

Larijani, who had assumed his role as chief of the negotiating team after relentlessly criticising then President Mohammad Khatami's policies on the nuclear issue, was later surprised to see the Iranian dossier move rapidly from the International Atomic Energy Agency Board to the Security Council, learning quickly that while some political stances are tolerated inside Iran, they will not be tolerated within international diplomatic circles.

The novice diplomat earned three U.N. Security Council resolutions against Tehran in less than a year, leading him to depart his most unglamorous position in a short time and with ill feelings.

In the 2004 elections, out of eight presidential candidates, Larijani came in seventh, but he never accepted Ahmadinejad as his boss, acting as though they were equals. For his part, Ahmadinejad was determined to take back Larijani's appointment to the National Security Council from the supreme leader. Perhaps Larijani realised too late that he may have acted hastily in accepting Khamenei's consolation prize for his failure in the elections.

Though Larijani never explicitly addressed his differences with Ahmadinejad in public, he was vociferous in attacking his policies in private. In the political atmosphere of Iran, this endeared Larijani to analysts and the public, somewhat mitigating the negative memories of his mismanagement of the nuclear negotiations.

What makes Larijani unpopular among most reformists and even some conservatives in Iran is his utter devotion to Khamenei. During Larijani's 10-year tenure as head of the Islamic Republic's state television (IRIB), he accepted and carried out assignments that caused politicians of all ideological stripes to be disgusted with him.

Under Larijani's leadership, IRIB permitted members of the security services to film political prisoners giving fabricated confessions, aired a fake political teaser to destroy Khatami's presidential bid, and selectively broadcast portions of a conference in Berlin which led to imprisonment of many Iranian intellectuals.

These defamation campaigns created a wide impression that Larijani was a puppet of the conservative camp. Interestingly enough, rumours of his disagreements with Ahmadinejad are now reviving his reputation and his entirely-by-appointment political life.

Larijani's presence in the Iranian Parliament while Ahmadinejad aspires to a second term has generated excitement in political circles. With skyrocketing oil revenues accompanied by out-of-control inflation rates, soaring costs of living and the international threats looming over the country, the Iranian Parliament will face growing pressure from Iranians to do something about Ahmadinejad's performance. This could lead to a rift between the government and parliament.

Larijani enjoys a strong political background and is generally a decisive and charismatic politician. When the fundamentalist majority representatives gathered to vote for their leadership, he won 160 of 227 votes, with former speaker Haddad Adel receiving only 50 votes.

At the same time, Larijani is known for his unquestionable obedience to the supreme leader, and depending on Khamenei's outlook and decisions, Larijani will not have a lot of room to manoeuvre. If the supreme leader orders a stop to Ahmadinejad's wasteful economic and political plans, however, Larijani is the man who will be capable of mobilising resistance in parliament.

While Larijani's elitist rhetoric may not have the same appeal as Ahmadinejad's populist persona, his position as speaker can do a lot of damage to the halo the president has successfully wrapped around himself.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

And now whose foreign policy is naive?
My piece in the San Francisco Chronicle today

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain has repeatedly accused Barack Obama of wanting to negotiate with Iran's infamous President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hoping to paint a picture of the likely Democratic presidential nominee as naive because of his willingness to open dialogue with U.S. adversaries.

Obama's speech at AIPAC last week may have put McCain's claim to rest. Obama, in an effort to move himself from the left to the center of Democratic Party, told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, "I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon - everything." Yet he still maintained that he would like to see the United States "open up lines of communication, build an agenda, coordinate closely with our allies, and evaluate the potential for progress." He clarified his position on discussions with Iran by stating that "as president of the United States, I would be willing to lead tough and principled diplomacy with the appropriate Iranian leader at a time and place of my choosing," with emphasis on "the appropriate Iranian leader."

Yet, the actions of each nation's president do not necessarily reflect widely held views within those nations. The general perception is that negotiations with Iran mean talks with Ahmadinejad, whose series of controversial remarks about Israel and the Holocaust have angered many Americans.

In Iran's political system, the president is second in command to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Ayatollah is the commander in chief and has the last say in foreign policy, law reform, nuclear programs, defense doctrine, and even cultural and social policies.

Ahmadinejad and his supporters may actually fancy a U.S. military strike and continuation of Bush's confrontational policies through a McCain administration, in hopes of strengthening their power within Iran by rallying all factions behind the flag.

Prior to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, it was Khamenei who allowed Iranian diplomats to sit side by side with Americans in Germany to talk about the future of Afghanistan. However, in return for this cooperation, Iran was inducted into the "axis of evil" club.

It was Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who authorized three rounds of direct talks between Iranian diplomats and Americans over the security issues in Baghdad last year.

Again, this January, it was Khamenei who expressed willingness to restore diplomatic relations with the United States as soon as hostilities between the two nations abated. "I would be the first one to support these relations," state radio quoted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying. "Of course we never said the severed relations were forever."

Negotiations are unlikely to occur before Iran's next presidential election in 2009 for fear that Ahmadinejad could use them to his advantage in a re-election campaign.

Khamenei does not seek these negotiations because he desires U.S.-Iran relations, but rather he seeks them more out of necessity. Iran's economy is fragile: It suffers from the highest rate of inflation in the Middle East and a lack of foreign investment. It is stymied by the threat of an American attack, and increasing pressure from Arab countries concerned about Iran's growing regional power. Iranians cannot count on their Arab playing cards (Hamas, Hezbollah and Iraqi militia groups) forever. Iran's Shiite allies in the Middle East identify themselves as Arabs (rivals of the Persian Iranians) first, and then as Shiites, indicating that their support of Iran will only be lukewarm. In order to overcome these domestic and regional obstacles, Iran must end the no-peace-no-war situation with the United States. Otherwise, the consequences could be disastrous.

Obama's willingness to open talks with Iran suggests that he, unlike McCain, recognizes this reality - and that his foreign policy approach is far from naïve. By opening a dialogue with Khamenei, the next U.S. president could seriously undermine general international perceptions of Ahmadinejad's power, while bringing Iran and the United States closer to reconciliation.

Omid Memarian is World Peace Fellow at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He is the recipient of Human Rights Watch's Human Rights Defender award.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

This is the most hip political ad, I've seen so far...