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Monthly Archive: November 2005
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November 26, 2005

Khatami, Human Rights, and Secularism
Babak Seradjeh  [info|posts]

burqa.jpg Iran's former president Khatami's visit to Germany, Nov 15-20, was mostly headlined in the international news around the current nuclear crisis in his talks with German politicians. However, the visit was made upon the invitation of the Körber Foundation. Following a reception at the Bergedorf Round Table in Berlin he gave an evening speech

... at the Berlin Institute of Advanced Studies on "Religion and Pluralism." At this event, which took place within the Institute's current project "Modernity and Islam," Khatami detailed his views on Islam's relationship with secularism. He said it is his firm conviction that secularism is a purely Western phenomenon and is not an option within the Islamic world. At the same time he reaffirmed his founding idea of the dialog of cultures, saying for example that he supports equal rights for men and women.

In Khatami's speech I see a repeated pattern common in the kind of thinking that largely led the reform movement intellectually 8 years ago. Khatami gives a very flashy high point in his speech on the equality of rights of men and women. But he comes short of the more fundamental issue of secularism. Why? Here's the crux of his reasoning:

Khatami pointed out that ethics must be the foundation of human thought and economic and political affairs [...] He said: "Of course we may assume many general and non-historical meanings for secularism, but turning a subject that is in all its existence a historical matter into a non-historical matter is a balatant mistake" [...] He explained: "Secularism is the experience of the Western culture and thought. Insisting on spreading it to places where the underlying intellectual background, and the political and social reasons for its appearance are lacking, is clearly a mistake, regardless of being desirable or not."
This argument is based on the assumption that secularism is a historical artifact. Of course, in the sense that anything has a history, any social or political aspect of various human societies are historic artifacts. But that is not what we mean by "historic artifact." What is meant is, as Khatami singled out, that the particular experience is not transferrable to other human societies. This historic fatalism is at the core of the failure of the intellectual basis of the reform movement. It deprives its adherents of a most important source of progress: human experience.

There is of course no direct way of showing that history has its own destiny, since we are the ones making that history. There is in the same way no direct way of showing that it does not. But we may see, indirectly, that in coming up with an understanding of our human societies, we are able to assume that certain aspects of a human society are "universal" human experiences. This will then lead to consequences through arguments that base on that assumption with very far-reaching results. Respecting a code human rights is such a "universal" human experience. Secularism is another.

Here is the basis for separating the state and religion that applies universally to all human societies of today's dimensions: we must separate politics, which makes categorical decisions for all members of the society, from practices that cannot possibly be agreed upon by all those members without foregoing their chance of changing their mind. Prominent among all such practices is of course religion. This is closely linked to, say, the equality of rights of men and women, which Khatami apparantly advocates. Otherwise we cannot ensure a minimum of rights for all the members of the society, since the political power will use its own religious practice to set those right unequally for the members of the society it is ruling. Combined with Khatami's assertion that "ethics must be the foundation of economic and political affairs" the absence of secularism is a recipe for the deadliest kind of social order history has ever witnessed in various forms and names. Khatami repeatedly admited in his previous public speeches that even if all (or a close-to-all majority of) members of the society consider themselves muslims their individual "interpretations" of what they consider Islam will be different from and even in conflict with each other, yet he cannot see the logical link between this fact and secularism via human rights.

November 16, 2005

 Women 
Ideological Tyranny in Iranian Women's Studies: A Response to Shahrzad Mojab
Guest Auhtor: Golbarg Bashi

Introduction

parsuabashi.jpg

Courtesy of Parsua Bashi.

As a secular feminist1 I initiated a re-debate over the crisis in Iranian women's studies/activism2 (intertwined) so that our scholarship and activism embraces more lives inside Iran. My major concern today is in gathering the scattered efforts, good-will and resources which we Iranians have an abundance of, and lend a helping hand to the women's and progressive movements inside Iran (regardless of their religious and political convictions). I would like to thank Dr Shahrzad Mojab, Associate Professor and Director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, in Canada for her contribution in this debate (in Ideological Crisis in Iranian Women's Studies: A Response to Golbarg Bashi, posted on 21 August, 2005). It has helped me strengthen and refine my own position3.

It gives me as much hope in an egalitarian future for Iran in reading Sa'adi Shirazi's poetry as it does reading the writings of Mehrangiz Kar, Dr Mohsen Kadviar and young pacifist and anti-racist Iranian webloggers'. Yet, I do not see theirs or anyone's work as providing all the answers to the ills of humanity, or being in any way sacrosanct and free from criticism (I may even have major objections to their framework). I do not think that any given text, declaration or political manifesto is the 'Holy Grail.'

Discussion

This article is divided into the following sections for easier navigation:

1. Introduction,
2. Discussion,
3. Conclusion,
4. Notes.
5. Footnotes.

Mojab starts her critique of my two essays4 by informing about her own work with women's issues and discussions with women at "grassroots, ministerial, and professional levels" in "Jordan, Palestine, Turkey, and Iraq" (Mojab, 2005). By doing this she signifies that cooperating and working in these nations (even at ministerial level) does not automatically render one a criminal or accomplice with criminal regimes. I refer to Jordan, Palestine, Turkey, and Iraq's abysmal human rights records here, and the label and vote of none-confidence given, by factions of the Iranian exiled groups (incl. Mojab) to Western-based Iranians who do similar research inside Iran and do not dismiss the positive contributions of reformists and Islamic feminists inside Iran under its present theocratic structure.

Having lived for one year in Jordan myself, I know from first-hand observations that sitting around the same table with Jordanian male aristocratic ministers (several of whom I met in June 1999) and working with NGOs in Amman under the gaze of the Jordanian monarch requires much 'negotiations' and 'considerations.' I hope Mojab's tireless efforts can help end hundreds of honour killings alone that occur annually in the Jordanian Kingdom, as much as I hope Shirin Ebadi's among many others' work in Iran, can help end present-day's abuse of innocent young girls and women. I see how these women are working inside political systems they do not necessarily 'represent' or 'back.' They are not 'plotting' or acting as its 'secret agents' for 'negotiating' with its 'ministers and professionals,' they do this for the higher sake of saving and helping human lives.

Mojab claims that my calls for 'dialogue', 'tolerance' and 're-negotiation' in the Iranian women's circles/meetings/conferences as "(neo-)liberal feminist politics" (Mojab, 2005). So, I am still curious to know how Mojab defines "tolerance" and "negotiation" as she works within a liberal democracy (Canada) and also works with Middle Eastern "ancient patriarchal capitalist orders." I would like to know how Mojab explains this inconsistency and contradiction in her arguments and practice?

If "negotiation" (aided with other strategies) is such a shameful and disgraceful act (with aristocrats, patriarchal ministers, Muslim veiled women in Kurdistan and Palestine etc), I would like to ask Mojab if she can show me cases of successful feminisms in successful socialist countries that have worked through a non-negotiated revolution? I would also like to know if "negotiation" does not work, which other avenues do work? I would be grateful if Mojab could give concrete examples of such avenues.

There are indeed countless problems in actually existing liberal democracies but I would like to know what actual Marxist models have been accomplished, and also if Mojab's version of Marxism has been practically implemented anywhere? I am only posing these questions as Mojab suggested that my proposal for an expanded and peaceful Iranian women's movement was an unashamed paternalistic and bourgeois request which has no hope of creating an emancipatory, positive or empowering impact—ever. So I am merely curios if hers which is clearly an all-encompassing political ideology does.

I am much interested to know if which/what women's group or feminists in Iran Mojab is supportive of? Inside Iran, there maybe no movements that fall under her definition of "true feminism" as Iranian activists are mostly either liberal or Islamic or secular Muslim or socialist leftists like Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani5. Does Mojab see my possible reaching out to any of these groups or NGOs as the same as being a neo-liberal, or a criminal or accomplice with a criminal regime? I want to help Iran achieve democracy, and strengthen the Iranian women's and progressive movement, so whom am I allowed to cooperate with, and see as worthy comrades? Should I dismiss religious women or those who work within the current framework all-together? Is there no hope—ever—of finding consensus with this group? Or is forceful conversion to Marxism a tangible possibility?

I would like to see Mojab's approach to democracy, human rights, and women's rights and even Marxism (or is it Maoism?). It occurs to me that she sees democracy and human rights discourse as "liberal bourgeois" constructs and not adequate for helping Iranian women and men as it does not automatically diminish class stands. Yet, I have to remind Mojab that the emancipatory thrust of feminism is rooted in the 18th century European struggle for democracy (Enlightenment). Hence, isn't a peaceful path towards democracy the first step we can take towards liberation, human rights and dignity before we finally achieve our class-free egalitarian society? In Iran we have some popular cultural and religious codes associated with the human rights model. Thus one would think that in view of the country's present violent theocratic state of affairs, striving to peacefully and maybe painfully slowly resonate (not through a violent revolution) Iranian life with a practical human rights model is not such a bad idea.

I think a premature abandonment of the Enlightenment project in feminism6, and in it the human rights discourse in particular is detrimental for women in Iran at this moment in history. The virulence of violence and oppression across the globe "shows no sign of abating ... the language of equal rights ... does nevertheless provide a platform on which to fight some of the worst abuses of human rights7." I hope this does not render us hopeless right-wing neo-liberals in the label-naming and abrupt dismissal game so common in some Iranian circles.

This brings me to ask Mojab if she doesn't agree that even Marx believed that one cannot have socialism without first having a successful liberal democracy and prosperous capitalism (even Lenin after taking power, realised that Russia had to go through a bourgeois stage, hence he pursued NEP before beginning socialist agenda, but Stalin and Mao thought they can jump over that stage by creating a "non-capitalist path" of development to socialism and both of them failed as we can see in Russia and China).

I would hence like to know if Mojab condones the way revolutionaries in Russia and China silenced, harassed, abused, persecuted, and even killed thousands of people, intellectuals, academics and feminists, not just ordinary people, but also members of the Communist Party that did not agree with the "dominant radicals"? How is the behaviour of "regular radicals" in Iranian meetings and conferences different from such tragic historical examples?

I would like to ask Mojab if she sees stormy and constant heckling at meetings and conferences as a successful form of resistance and/or empowering? Constantly breaking conferences in disarray even when we are allowed to have our say, helps no one but our own egos. How can brawling, and insulting be an empancipatory tactic (year after year)? How can bullying fellow human-beings ever be a good thing? If holding a peaceful meeting where we see factions of all Iranian society (even our so-called 'enemies') to discuss various contributions is "undermining Iran's real opposition" (stated before Berlin 2000 by a radical left faction)8, then I see that "real opposition" and its ideological force as a rather weak one. How can allowing and listening to competing view-points, weaken and undermine one's own? This is the very tactic conservative Islamists use in Iran to silence the masses.

Feminists have waged a powerful campaign for women's emancipation precisely because they have used non-violence strategies. As Iranians, I believe we cannot afford to allow violence in our circles9.

I think whatever our common criterion for coalition building or a constructive dialogue is, let's find it, and let's find it soon. I don't care what label it may carry, even if universal human rights is a UN construct and seen by some as a global capitalist cop-out, it can save lives and may be a source for coalition building, there may be other common criterion. I would like to hear about them, hence why I have asked Dr Mojab so many specific questions.

Mojab thinks that "there is no purpose in a 'dialogue,' if there are no consequences for changing the gendered status quo, if you state your point of view and I do mine, what have we achieved? Does not this mean the perpetuation of the status quo? What is the purpose of 'negotiation' if the two sides are unequal, and if it does not lead to a shift in the position of power?" (Mojab, 2005).

I can only wonder why Mojab is so pessimistic about a possible shift in the position of power. Mojab's pessimism disregards people's power and the fact that individuals not structures change history. The very minimum that could be realised from 'dialogue' and 'negotiations' is consciousness-raising and empowerment. It is simply in dialogue not monologue that we can reach a new level of consciousness, a new level of understanding (this is the very detail dismissed by religious fanatics thus resulting in violence and extremism). Dialogue can lead us—individuals—to change our own circumstance instead of waiting for a quick fix, a revolution or a saviour to liberate us. Power shifts not through violence but through dialogue10. So I would like to ask Dr Mojab whether or not individuals should be given the opportunity to strive for diminishing violence?

Conclusion

Meeting fellow Iranian and 'Third world' women from various backgrounds at peaceful meetings has helped me see that none of us are 'winners', 'better' or 'stronger,' we all deal with very similar types of oppressions, which by only sharing and admitting to, can we find peace, forgiveness, love, hope and strength. It is through peaceful meetings and a meaningful 'dialogue' that the process of healing can begin and a shift/re-distribution of 'power' can happen. To me it seems that by belittling and excluding those we perceive as the 'enemy' (veiled women, clerics, reformists, researchers of reformism etc), we are not only perpetuating the enemy's own channels but we create more hate and resentment, and we only put more oil on its vicious cycle.

The reinforcement of the concept of all individuals' worth and dignity, through dialogue at this very juncture in history is helping millions of human beings across the globe, and I would hate to see it abandoned, especially by Iranians. In the meantime, in the progressive Iranian movements, I think we need to meet more often, listen, note, criticise each other while being the very change (peace and none-violence) we desperately seek. I think we are not faced with a, 'You're either with Us, or Against Us' condition in the progressive movements. Let's remember that as I write this paper, women in Iran (and many other countries) are still forcefully married off, trafficked, starved, legally, morally and physically limited and humiliated. Akbar Ganji is being tortured in prison and thousands of reformist students are poor, jailed, harassed and psychologically scarred for life. Now where sits our priorities? Saving them or perpetuating political sectarianism? My primary concern is not regime change in Iran, although I'd love more than anything else for my beloved country of birth (indeed the entire planet) to overnight turn into a gender-equal, egalitarian, democratic, class-free, environmentally friendly, and peaceful state.

With peace.

Golbarg Bashi is a PhD student in Iranian Human Rights Studies at Bristol University in the UK.

Notes

For a list on all the 15 previous contributions to this debate, see below (chronologically):

September 2005

Samira Mohyeddin (English), Pragmatic with patriarchy
Leyla Pegahi (Farsi), in Shabakeh.de
Shadi Amin (Farsi), in Shabakeh.de
Maziar Shirazi (English), Oppression Olympics
Halleh Ghoreyshi (English), Stop the politics of labeling
Forough Nayeri (Farsi), in Iran-Emrooz.net
Golroch Jahangiri (Farsi), in Sedaye-Ma.org
Jamileh Davoudi (Farsi), in Pezhvak.com—September 2005, see p. 12 (PDF) and p. 37 (PDF).

August 2005

Haideh Moghissi (English), About ideological/behavioural crisis in Iranian Women's Studies
Shahrzad Mojab (English), Ideological Crisis in Iranian Women's Studies: A Response to Golbarg Bashi
Golbarg Bashi (English), in 8 Mars.
Hamid Nowzari (Farsi), in Sedaye-Ma.org

July 2005

Azar S (English), not available online.
Vida Kashizadeh (English), Nothing rude about expressing opposing views
Golbarg Bashi (English), Crisis in Iranian Women's Studies and They know best

Please note that the US-based web site dedicated to Iranian women's issues, IranDokht.com have been covering the recent debates extensively, here.

Please also note that some of the essays have been published in more than one web site (such as in Persian Mirror and Iranian Feminist Tribune). I have only cited the web sites that were first to publish the essays and those which have provided the shortest links.


(1) Feminist research or women's studies is a methodological perspective that criticises societal inequalities, with an emphasis on gender disparities. [back]
(2) As observed between 2001 - 2005 in the Iranian Women Studies Foundations' (IWSF) annual conferences. [back]
(3) I am very grateful for the support I have received from many of our Iranian women's studies scholars, especially Nayereh Tohidi, Haideh Moghissi, Valentine Moghadam, Elham Gheytanchi, Halleh Ghoreyshi, Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Nayereh Tavakoli (among others), young Iranian web bloggers and the generous and unconditional space given by Iranian.com, Irandokht.com, Parstimes.com and Gooya News in allowing me and others in expressing our views. I am very grateful to the IWSF board and Ms Golnaz Amin for agreeing to publish the 15 essays that have so far been written in response to some of the questions that I have re-raised, in the form of a book. I am also thankful to Yassamine Mather for patiently organising Pal Talk sessions in the 'Iran Socialist Forum' so that the debate could reach other audiences. I feel very humbled but immensely inspired by these generous acts of good-will and acknowledgment in the Iranian scholarly and activist/web community. [back]
(4) 'Crisis in Iranian Women’s Studies' (posted on "Gooya News on July 15, 2005 and Iranian.com). My second essay: 'Muddy Waters.' [back]
(5) Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani collaborates with liberal and Muslim feminists while never putting aside her critical view of the shortcomings of liberals nor has she failed to be silent against the ultra leftists. Ahmadi Khorasani was born in Tehran in 1969. She completed her education in health and environmental studies at Tehran University, and started her publishing career in 1992. Her articles deal mostly with women's issues, but she has also translated several books for children and young adults. She published Jens-e Dovom [Second Sex] in 1998, a journal that includes articles on literature, history, as well as social and legal matters related to women. For more about Ahmadi Khorasani, see: IranDokht and Making History in Iran: the First Women's Library (both sites accessed on 12 November 2005). [back]
(6) See Benhabib and Cornell (1987) (eds.), Felski 1989, Lovibond 1989, Soper 1989-1990. Cited in Andermahr et al, 1997, p. 65. [back]
(7) Andermahr et al., 1997, p. 65. [back]
(8) For more about the Berlin 2000 conference, see:
BBC News (accessed 12 August 2005)
Iran's Green Party (accessed 5 November 2005)
• Charles Kurzman (2001) 'Critics Within: Islamic Scholars' Protests Against the Islamic State in Iran.' In International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. Vol. 15, No. 2, Winter 2001. p. 352.
Human Rights Watch (Trial for Conference Attendees) (accessed 5 November 2005) [back]
(9) I am indebted to Elham Gheytanchi, feminist sociologist at UCLA in the United States for this illuminating point. [back]
(10) I am again indebted to Elham Gheytanchi for her generous contribution in this question. [back]

November 10, 2005

The Diaspora doesn't care about Akbar Ganji
Guest Auhtor: Nema Milaninia
ganji-wave.jpg

Courtesy of SATYAR.

On April 22, 2000, Akbar Ganji, the prominent Iranian journalist and writer, was imprisoned after publishing a series of articles condemning high-level officials in Iran for their participation in the murder of intellectuals during the 1990s. Almost six years later, Ganji's health is deteriorating and his life on the brink of death after repeatedly being denied either medical leave or care by Iranian officials.

In protest, Ganji began an indefinite hunger strike in June to protest his treatment and inspire Iranian intellectuals and the elite to curb their passivity and advocate the freedom of Iran's true political figures, its writers and journalists. For a while, Ganji was able to garner international attention, which forced the Iranian government to grant Ganji's wish and allow him access to a hospital. Shortly thereafter, Ganji was not only tortured and ill-treated by Iranian security officers in Milad hospital in Tehran, but immediately returned to prison.

It has been four months since Ganji stopped his hunger strike. In those four months, there have been numerous reports indicating that Ganji is continuously being tortured. Nevertheless, the world's elite and intellectuals continue to remain passive on his release and the release of other political prisoners. In fact, America's major newspapers contain little to nothing about Ganji's plight, but play day-to-day predictions on Iran's nuclear activities.

Like Ganji, hundreds of writers and journalists have been detained in Iran's prisons for their political writings. The government accuses them of "publishing false statements against the regime" and "attacking national security.” These are charges against any of those who publish writings that account for the government's horrific record on human rights and suppression of civil and political freedoms.

In light of the struggles and problems faced by political prisoners inside Iran, what has the Iranian Diaspora done? In September, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the United Nations, whose pictures did our Diaspora waive in front of television stations and millions of television viewers? Did they display the pictures of prisoners inside Iran, dying in jail like Mr. Ganji? Did they express messages condemning torture? Did they show sympathy toward the plight of Iranians in Iran when the media finally paid attention to their words? Sadly no. A historic moment was lost to historical egoism that is still fixated on the personalities of Iranians living lavish lives in foreign countries.

Akbar Ganji, not Reza Pahlavi or Maryam Rajavi, symbolizes the struggle for human rights and democracy in Iran. His Republican Manifesto has become the hallmark for democratic change in Iran. In an Iran where no one man or woman has risen to lead toward greater liberties and democratization, Ganji has eloquently called for social, rather than personal, heroism. In his own words, "a democratic people build democracies" and that only through non-cooperation and deligitimization of the ruling government can the foundation for democratic institutions take place in Iran. Ganji demonstrates that being a political dissident does not mean renouncing the Islamic faith, but renouncing interpretive conformity.

President Bush's previous support for Ganji's freedom should be welcomed and more should be asked for. It shows a step in support of Iran's political dissidents rather than America's political hawks. However, until greater opposition is voiced by the world's leaders about human rights in Iran, more and more journalists and writers will be subject to arbitrary detainment, torture, and abuse.

Cooperation with the Iranian government and rapprochement should not be conditioned on Iran's nuclear and terrorism record. It should begin once the Iranian government begins taking sincere steps to promote and protect human rights for all its citizens. Like South Africa's detainment of political prisoners during apartheid, the Iranian government should similarly feel the brunt of global cooperation in universalizing the respect for human rights. When the global community begins taking these steps, Iran would evolve to the level where people like Akbar Ganji will be its leaders rather than its martyrs.

Nema Milaninia is the executive director of the International Studies Journal and editor of the Iranian Truth group blog.

November 07, 2005

The Israeli Question from an Iranian National Interest Perspective
Guest Auhtor: Omid Paydar

Introduction ahmadinejad.jpg

The rhetoric of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with regards to "removal of the cancerous tumor of Israel through the upcoming wave of Palestinian resistance" was nothing new for the Iranian public. True, there had been far less of that rhetoric during the Khatami years, and there had been reconciliatory tones in the Iran-based Hebrew language radio "Voice of David" (which the Iranian public is faintly aware of and doesn't understand anyway). But for many of us who grew up in Iran, burning flags of Israel, repeated clips of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms of Palestinian stone throwers during the first Intifada and the beating of veiled Palestinian women who protest at army checkpoints are familiar sights. As young school children in the 1980s and 1990s, those of us old enough had to walk over Israeli flags in our schoolyards and shouted "Death to Israel" (along with the U.S., previously also Soviet Union, the infidel Saddam Hussein, sometimes Britain, sometimes France, and maybe even Saudi Arabia once or twice) before starting class every morning.

I don't want to go into the motives behind the recent statements. Briefly they could include basic stupidity, sheer diplomatic ineptness, genuine ideological belief or an intentional desire to radicalize Iran's foreign policy discourse, which had been relatively rational over the past decade or so. Of course whatever it is, it has totally ruined whatever Iran may have achieved in its nuclear negotiations to date, since it makes it hard for the international community to accept that a country intent on wiping out another could be merely after a civilian nuclear program.

What I would like to address in this posting is to open up the discussion on Iran's relationship with Israel from an Iranian national interest perspective.

Background on Iran-Israel relations

Prior to the Iranian revolution, Iran and Israel were political and military allies both assisting the United States in policing the neighborhood in different ways. It is widely believed that Israel helped train Iran's intelligence apparatus (the SAVAK) in creating better networks for fighting Iranian Marxist guerillas (rumor has it this even continued for some time after the revolution for the newly created SAVAMA). On the civilian side, Israeli scientists, engineers and businessmen interacted with their Iranian counterparts extensively. The friendly relations between the governments however did not necessarily translate into good relations between the two peoples. In fact the Shah's support of Israel may have been one of the major factors leading to his demise. The opposition to Israel in Iran existed both in secular and religious elements, primarily focusing on the issue of Palestinian rights. While on behalf of the religious populace this may have had to do with the fact that the Palestinians were fellow Muslims, for many of the secular people it was mostly the issue of justice or (for leftists) opposition to western colonialism and imperialism. This became evident after a friendly soccer match between Iran and Israel in which Iran's victory resulted in mass demonstrations in Tehran celebrating a symbolic victory and clashing with the police shouting anti-Israeli slogans.

At the beginning of the Iranian revolution, the Israeli embassy was given to the PLO (later transferred to Hamas, when the PLO fell out of favor). Yasser Arafat visited Ayatollah Khomeini, but lost his support when he took the side of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. The anti-Israeli tendencies were not merely an Islamist tendency but were also shared for different reasons by the liberals, nationalists and leftists. The MKO (Washington and EUs current favorite opposition group), an Islamic-Marxist organization, even adopted the music of the Palestinian national anthem for one of its revolutionary songs in Persian.

With the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, Israel became the only hidden supplier of arms to Iran. At that time Israel saw Iraq as the main threat and deemed it best to have Iran and Iraq exhaust each other militarily. Iran, while publicly denouncing Israel, would purchase U.S. made weapons from Israel at higher costs and deliver oil to unmarked Israeli tankers in high seas. By the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Israel started to change its approach and started to consider Iran a major threat to its existence.

The rest is recent history and probably fresh in everyone's mind. The Iranian government has used Israel as the boogieman, that the Iranian people need to be protected from and legitimized its existence strongly through this imagery. The Israeli right wing has benefited from Iranian public statements to justify a more militaristic society. The issues of Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah and Israel's nuclear weapons have put the two countries in a continuous verbal and political war, in which the Iranian Jewish population has sometimes been the victim. While Israel has been more successful in undermining Iran's interests through extensive internal lobbying and legal cases, Iran has also periodically made it difficult for Israel through playing the card of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Additionally, it is important to note that at this point the tension in Iran-U.S. relations are not independent of Iran-Israeli relations.

Contention Points

Iran and Israel do not have a common border. This removes many of the potential contention points that many neighboring countries can have, including territorial disputes, water issues, support of ethnic separatist movements etc. Regardless of the current regime, essentially two main contentions exist between Iran and Israel: The Palestinian issue, and Regional Rivalry.

a) The Palestinian Issue

The Palestinian problem has been used time and time again by the Islamic Republic to justify its legitimacy. It is doubtful that the Iranian leadership really cares about the solution of the Palestinian problem, since it would diminish its raison d'Ítre. Of course the Iranian government is not an exception, given that the entire Arab leadership justifies its shortcomings by pointing to the Israeli threat.

On the other hand, the general view of the Iranian public vis-ŗ-vis the Palestinians has changed to a certain extent within the 27 years after the Iranian revolution. While the majority of Iranians still sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians, many do not like Iran's involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the one hand, they remember Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. On the other hand there is the perception that the Iranian government spends more money on Palestinians than on the Iranian population, which is a somewhat distorted fact, but nevertheless often discussed in the public. The Persian Radio Israel has quite a few listeners in Iran, and many people are sympathetic to the Israelis merely due to the fact that the regime in Tehran tries so hard in their propaganda to demonize them.

Rising anti-Arab sentiments is also an emerging factor. There are (a minority of) young people who actively support Israel and despise the Palestinians. They believe that Iran and Israel should be allies to stand up against Arabs in the region.

Many of the resentments against Israel within the Iranian public may probably recede if the Palestinians and the Israelis reach agreements on the future of Palestine and Israel. But I would not be surprised if a residual resentment would remain within 10-15% of the population due to anti-Semitic (both with regards to Jews and Arabs) sentiments. Of course the actual prevalence of anti-Semitism in Iran has not been surveyed and it may be higher or lower than the estimate that I have just given.

b) Regional Rivalry and Balance of Power

While there is a strong focus on the Palestinian issue as the main contention point between Iran and Israel, the issue of regional rivalry receives little attention. On the one hand Israel wishes to remain the strongest military presence in the Middle East, both to ensure its survival in what it considers a hostile region and because of the entrenched belief that that it deserves superiority over neighbors that it has never considered as equals. Iran on the other hand has the "Persian Empire" disease. While not listed in medical reference books as an actual disease, it is an epidemic that has infected the majority of Iranians. At the most simple level, Iranians find it hard to swallow that while they were a global superpower at one time in history (1500-2500 years ago), they are currently a nation that has fallen from greatness. This fall from grace that has been extensively lamented in Iranian poetry, music and literature has created a strong desire to be counted again. Therefore, regardless of the regime in power, Iranians have always tried to be a regional power. And they would never accept a position second to Israel or any other nation for that matter. Hence the desire to have nuclear technology, both in the previous regime and in the current one.

In fact most analysts agree that despite the rhetoric of wiping out Israel, the Islamic Republic would never endanger its own survival. Being taken serious as a regional player is the main aim of the Iranian nuclear program.

Common Interests

In addition to the contention points, Israel and Iran have common interests as well.

From a geopolitical perspective, both Iran and Israel have few friends in a region dominated by Arab nations. Additionally, a thaw in their relations would reduce security threats to their respective nations dramatically. Of course the close relationship of the United States and Israel is another geopolitical factor that affects Iran's interests.

From an economic perspective, Iran and Israel have a lot of complementary products and services. Israel would be a perfect market for Iran's energy, chemical and petrochemical industries, its heavy machineries, textiles and minerals. On the other hand Israel's advanced agricultural engineering for semi-arid areas and some of its high tech industries could be a valuable asset to Iran's economy.

From a scientific perspective, cooperation between Iranian and Israeli scientists (along with Arab scientists hopefully) could help transform the Middle East into an emerging force for scientific research.

From a cultural perspective, Iran's Jewish population has a long history that goes back to the heydays of the Persian Empire. They could play a major role in acting as a bridge between the two nations.

And finally from an environmental perspective, the sustainable management of common resources in the region cannot be done without the participation of every country including Iran and Israel.

Relations with Israel

For far too long has Iran's national interest suffered because of its animosity towards Israel. An open minded look at the above points of contention and common interest would indicate that there is indeed a better potential for Iranian-Israeli relations than one would expect. Unlike other countries in the region, Iran has never been in direct conflict with Israel. This would preclude the notion that the establishment of ties to Israel and its recognition would be a sign of weakness of Iran. Of course, it is hard to imagine that relations could be normalized with the current regime in Iran.

The Palestinians really don't want Iranian involvement in their issues. They have made that clear in response to Ahmadinejad's comments. Instead of playing a destructive role, Iran could play a far more constructive role in ensuring that the rights of the Palestinian people are upheld. If every Iranian who cares about the plight of the Palestinian people would contribute $10 to the reconstruction of Palestine after a deal is reached between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Palestine would have the potential to be a flourishing state. If Iran had a diplomatic relationship with Israel and common economic interests it would be in a far better position to support the rights of Palestinians than it is currently doing.

In terms of regional power, the issue is more complicated. But one can assume that the normalization of ties between Iran and Israel there would be less sensitivity towards Iran's quest for regional power. Even if there is resistance, Iran will be in a more favorable position in pushing its agenda when compared to today's hostile environment.
The common interests speak for themselves. The implications are clear. It is in Iran's best interest (and by that I am referring to the country and not the government) to have ties with Israel. Nothing has ever been achieved through cutting diplomatic ties. Much of the disagreements between countries can be solved through dialogue, not the threat of military action.

What is amazing is the lack of an open discussion on this issue both within and outside Iran. I hope this posting can bring on rational discussions both opposing and supporting the above arguments in a manner that helps all of us map the different considerations in this pivotal issue.

Omid Paydar is an Iranian freelance researcher on Iranian and Middle Eastern affairs.