Protect the middle ground on the Iranian nuclear issue

Mahyar, the breadwinner and the eldest son of his family, volunteered for the Iran-Iraq war when he was only 17. After the war he died in the streets of Tehran, where he came for the treatments of injuries caused by Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons. His mother, who was waiting to see him well again after four years, never had the chance to say goodbye.

Occasionally she now travels 186 miles from Rasht to go to the massive cemetery in south Tehran to "talk" to her son. For such war veterans and their families, eight years of war did not really end in August 1988. Even now, the lives of those affected by chemical weapons are being lost.

During a visit to Rasht, my wife and I went to see this woman. It occurred to me there that we must do something to prevent yet another international conflict, because we have suffered so much. No one wants to go through all those hardships again.

I fully understand the worries in the West about Iran. Western leaders think that a regime that has no mercy for its dissident citizens would surely show no sympathy for its many opponents around the world if it had nuclear bombs or weapons of mass destruction. For this very reason we have always called on the Iranian government to observe human rights and countenance the rights of its opposition, to win domestic and foreign trust and respect.

At the same time, however, I believe there is a will among global powers to use human rights and nuclear issues as an excuse to push forward predetermined objectives, and that the Iranian government is unintentionally bringing these ambitions to fruition by violating human rights inside the country and following inappropriate foreign policies.

One sees here an odd mincing of words, on both sides, to confuse public opinion. The United States and Europe accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, and because of their distrust they want to nip this risk in the bud. Two reasons reinforce their skepticism: Iran's secret nuclear activities for 18 years, and ideological slogans of the new government, such as "the future is in the hands of Islam and Islamic revolution" (which indicate that if Iran possesses nuclear weapons it would surely use them to spread its version of Islam).

Iran, on the other hand, insists on its right to have nuclear power and technology. Both sides define the nuclear issue according to their own interest. Iran must not enrich uranium because this would enable it to become even closer to having bombs, the US claims. Iran counters that enriching uranium is essential for indigenous nuclear technology and being independent.

There is yet a third voice here that believes the two sides are talking about two different issues: having nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and having nuclear weapons - two subjects that can be dealt with distinctly when clearly defined and universally supervised.

The confusion caused by the wordplay on both sides is jeopardizing peace, and brings the possibility of another conflict. I still believe that this problem of altering the conduct of the Iranian government toward global concerns can be solved within our country through active participation of reformists and others concerned about our national interest. Today in Iran there is a high degree of political sensitivity and social consciousness, as well as dispersed authority. There are influential figures and institutions, even traditional nongovernmental religious institutes, student unions, and NGOs - all with their own social power capable of imposing pressure on the decisionmakers.

Even today in what seems to be a uniform state, after the so-called reformists have been swept aside, there are controversies between the new fundamentalist president and the parliament dominated by conservatives over designating ministers and provincial governors and officials. One should not forget that the Iranian experience of democracy, with all its ups and downs, has resulted in a relative division of power. Today an individual cannot impose absolute power even if he wishes to do so.

We have to extend this by enlarging civil society. So we are ready at all costs to endure all hardships, imprisonment, and deprivation to develop our own democracy. Any military attacks or any economic sanctions would ruin the basis of democracy in Iran and make fundamentalist terrorism more predominant.

Now that both sides are expressing their position in loud voices, this third voice calling for dialogue, negotiation, and peace is not heard and is sometimes suppressed. And yet it is the ordinary people who will suffer the most if these different stances on Iran's nuclear issue are not resolved diplomatically. After eight years of bloody war with Iraq with more than 200,000 dead and many more injured and disabled, Iranians are against war. In order to preserve their culture and civilization, they do not intend to get involved in yet another conflict. They are against nuclear weapons but would like to have this power for peaceful purposes.

As a first step, the members of Iran's negotiating team ought to be replaced with more realistic people who are well aware of modern global developments. Second, Iran has to start holding talks with the US.

Supporting democracy in Iran ought to be carried out through valuing civil society and not through military action or economic sanctions. If required, Iranians can control their state. Reformists and even traditionalists can isolate fundamentalists from within, as they have done on many occasions. Mahyar's mother does not want to mourn over her other children, or witness their poverty and misery.

Emadeddin Baghi, an Iranian journalist and human rights activist, is founder of The Society for Defending Prisoners' Rights.

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