Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week
Washington, D.C. – April 2, 2007 . . . Major stories this week included the upward ratcheting of tensions on a daily basis between Iran and Britain over Tehran’s seizure of 15 British sailors and marines ten days ago; the disappearance of an American man in Iran; deteriorating human rights situation in Iran; upcoming talks on Iraq; a Kiarostami retrospective at New York’s MOMA; and a new mayor for Beverly Hills.
Britain / Iran
VOA Persian has been covering this story since it first broke on March 23, when Iranian authorities seized 15 British sailors and marines. Iran claims the sailors were in Iranian waters in the disputed Shatt-al-Arab waterway. Britain claims the sailors were in Iraqi waters conducting business under approved UN auspices when they were overwhelmed by a larger force from Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
On the British soldiers captured by Iran -- VOA's Nazenin Ansari scored a one on one, on-camera interview with British Foreign Office Spokesman Barry Marston. He said, “We are deeply annoyed by the Islamic Republic Government of Iran’s behavior. First by its controversial claim and statement and secondly by showing films of our captive marines…I think British marines were forced to make statements… It appears there’s been coercion in writing these letters.” He added, “Iran seems to be sending all of its messages in a very contradictory way through the media. From one hour to the next it’s been saying completely opposite things.” Concluding the interview Mr. Marston said, “If these limited steps don’t have any results at all, the government, Tony Blair himself, are fully committed to doing everything they need to do in order to secure the release of these individuals.”
Tehran said April 2 all 15 British sailors in Iranian custody have confessed to illegally entering Iranian waters. The statement was made Monday on a state-run news channel, but the station did not give a source for the claim. The broadcast came after government-run Al-Alam television showed Sunday two British men in military uniforms pointing to a map of the Persian Gulf and saying the 15 Britons had intruded Iranian waters.
Both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett have strongly condemned the seizure. Speaking on the sidelines of a European Union summit in Germany March 31, Ms. Beckett said Britain wants to be told where the sailors and marines are being held and given access to them. Reacting to a video clip of the British soldiers confessing to being in Iranian waters, Mr. Blair said parading and manipulating captured personnel disgusts people and, he says, it does not fool anyone. What the Iranians have to realize,” Mr. Blair continued, “is that if they continue in this way they will face increasing isolation. The United Nations yesterday, the European Union today, we will be talking to other key allies over the weekend and we have just got to pursue this with the necessary firmness and determination, but also patience, because there is only one possible conclusion to this and that is that our personnel are released safe and sound.”
In London, British officials said they have responded to a letter received from Iran Thursday concerning the incident. They did not reveal the contents of the letter, which is believed to be the first written communication between the two nations since the crisis began March 23. Britain has frozen all bilateral business with Iran, except efforts to gain the release of their personnel.
Meanwhile, Iran's ambassador to Moscow has denied he said the British personnel could be placed on trial for entering Iranian waters. Gholam-Reza Ansari told Iran's official news agency that Tehran had begun a legal investigation into the incident, but his comments on Russian television March 30 had been poorly translated.
The United Nations Security Council has expressed “grave concern” about the detention, and called for an early resolution to the standoff.
In a related spat over the weekend, Iran protested an alleged incident in which British troops surrounded an Iranian consulate in Iraq and fired shots into the air. Iran's state news agency (IRNA) reported April 1 that a letter of complaint had been sent to the British Embassy in Tehran. The British military has denied the accusations, saying its troops briefly exchanged fire with gunmen Thursday while on a routine patrol in the city of Basra. But officials said troops did not surround the consulate building.
Speaking from Camp David March 31, President Bush said Iran must unconditionally release the seized Britons, adding they were doing nothing wrong and should be released immediately. “The British hostages issue is a serious issue because the Iranians took these people out of Iraqi water. And it is inexcusable behavior. And I strongly support the Blair government's attempts to resolve this peacefully,” he said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad March 30 again said the Britons illegally entered Iranian waters and criticized Prime Minister Tony Blair's government for refusing to apologize or express regret for the situation.
The stand-off further raises international tensions with Iran over its enrichment of uranium. That is one of the reasons the United States asked Brazil's national petroleum firm, Petrobras, to stop working in Iran. Following talks with President Bush at Camp David, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, speaking through a translator, said Brazil has no political differences with Iran and will not suspend commercial ties that are not in violation of a UN embargo. “Petrobras will continue to invest in oil prospection in Iran. Iran has been an important trade partner for Brazil. They buy from us more than one billion dollars and they don't almost sell anything to us. So I am an advocate that fair trade is the trade that you buy and sell,” he said.
President Bush said he hopes nations would be very careful in dealing with Iran because it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon that would be a major threat to world peace. Mr. Bush had little choice but to accept President Lula's decision to maintain commercial ties with Iran. “Every nation makes the decisions that they think is best for their interests. Brazil is a sovereign nation. He just articulated a sovereign decision,” he said.
In an interview with Fox Television, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said “The British government has gone out and demonstrated that these people were in international waters. I think they need to be released and the international community needs to say to Iran that they need to be released and that is what we’re doing. We’re trying to do anything that we can with other parties to help the British.”
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told the Financial Times, “There is still time for diplomacy with Tehran. Iran’s leadership is divided, its nuclear program is less advanced than many think and the world is stepping up the pressure on Tehran. As a result, there is still time to reach a negotiated solution on dispute others fear could end in military conflict. It is not a monolithic regime. It’s a cacophonous government that is fighting, we think, within itself. We do know that there are people there who want to negotiate and we hope that they will be able to engineer a decision to do just that.” And in testimony before the Senate, Mr. Burns said “I think there’s been universal condemnation of the Iranian government. I was at NATO in the earlier part oft his week and all of the NATO countries agreed to be supportive of the United Kingdom.
Deputy State Department Spokesman Tom Casey said March 27 that the United States “backs Prime Minister Blair’s call for the immediate release of the British sailors. It is up to the Iranians to explain their motivations. This action was a violation of international law. The British forces were acting in Iraqi territorial waters. The seizing of them by the Iranian forces is an illegal act.”
Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “Some in Iran may prefer confrontation to cooperation. But it is important Iranians understand that our hand is extended. We are not the ones standing in the way of peaceful co-existence, and even fruitful cooperation.”
White House Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said, “The President fully backs Tony Blair and our allies in Britain.”
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana said, “What Iran has to do is to liberate immediately all the soldiers that have been taken, according to the data that we have, in an illegal manner. I think it is a great mistake that Iran is making.”
Acting Assistant Secretary James Jeffrey told Roundtable with You that diplomacy is a priority for the US to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran. “We are confident that diplomatic measures along with financial pressures on Iran will bear fruit. We are confident that the 15 British soldiers were in international waters when they were apprehended by Iran. Even if they were not in Iraqi waters, there possible entry into Iranian waters was inadvertent and Iran must release them.”
The head of England’s Middle East Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Barry Marcen, said broadcasting “confessions” from the marines is useless since “they were written under force. The sailors were not in Iranian waters, so there is no reason to apologize.”
Iranian opposition leader Manouchehr Ganji told VOA “It will take many, many years for our reputation to be restored…acts like these have dragged the reputation of the Iranian people into the gutter. Mr. Ganji noted that the seizure of the British sailors took place just one day after the UN Security Council imposed another round of sanctions on Iran for continuing its uranium enrichment program. “The main reason behind this Iranian behavior,” Mr. Ganji said, “is to distract public attention from his and create a new crisis to deflect any criticism for its increasing isolation.”
Sorbonne professor of Sociology Ramin Kamran said, “It’s not important who ordered the seizure of the British sailors or whether it was pre-meditated. What is important is how Iranian leaders react to the arrests. As you will recall, Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t react immediately to the seizure of the US Embassy in 1970 and the capture of US diplomats. He waited for a few days to see how the US government would react and when he realized the Carter administration was not going to take a hard line, he threw his full support behind the hostage-takers.”
With the lone exception of Brazil’s refusal to suspend commercial ties with Iran, reaction has been uniformly critical. Former Iranian diplomat Mehrdad Khonsari, speaking to VOA Persian from London, said it is important that Britain understand Iran’s intentions in the current crisis. “This is a hostage situation, and Tehran is trying to keep the sailors separate from other issues.” From Paris, writer Cyrus Amoozgar said this crisis has been a “good opportunity for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. People hope he can solve this problem. It is a test for him.” Mr. Ban discussed the problem March 29 with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in Riyadh on the sidelines of the Arab League summit. Mr. Mottaki said the standoff could be resolved if Britain acknowledged its personnel were in Iranian waters when seized. Political activist Mohsen Sazegara said in addition to Prime Minister Blair freezing British trade with Iran, “he could also get the cooperation of the commonwealth countries, the United States, and the European Union. Since 40% of Iran’s imports are from the EU, this could create commercial and economic problems for Iran.”
From London, journalist Nasser Mohammadi said it doesn’t help Iran that Britain and the United States describe the British sailors as hostages, with memories of 1979 and the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran still vibrant for so many. Political science professor Shayan Samii, speaking from Calgary, said Iran is using the seizure of the Britons to distract Iranians from the nuclear standoff with the United Nations. London-based political analyst Alireza Nourizadeh said whatever sympathy the English people might have had for Iran is dissipating quickly. “If this situation does not get resolved in a few days, Iran will have no support in the United Kingdom.”
The State Department is investigating a report of an American citizen missing in Iran. Spokesman Sean McCormack said April 2 that “We don’t see any linkage whatsoever between this case and any other ongoing cases that may have been in the news recently,” McCormack said, apparently referring to the 15 British sailors and marines who were seized by Iran more than a week ago. The American – described as older and retired – is believed to have been in Iran working for an independent author/producer, trying to set up an interview, several senior U.S. officials said. The State Department said the man has been missing for more than a week and hasn't been in touch with his family or his employer. Officials said the man went missing on Kish Island off the southern coast of Iran. The island is part of a free-trade zone under Iranian authority. Under most circumstances non-Iranian nationals do not need a visa to visit Kish. The State Department is in touch with the man's family and is in the process of sending a message to the Iranians through the Swiss government, the officials said. The message is a “welfare and whereabouts inquiry,” which is a request for information about a missing American citizen. At this point, Mr. McCormack said, U.S. officials have no indication the man is being held by any Iranian entity.
Talks with Iran
Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the United States is open to higher-level talks with Iran. But he says there should be no illusions about the nature of the regime, its designs for a nuclear program, its intentions for Iraq or its ambitions in the Persian Gulf region. Mr. Gates said recent regional talks in Iraq were a good start toward improved cooperation, but there are no “moderates” among the Iranian statesmen.
Iran reportedly may not send a delegation to a key meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, tentatively scheduled for next month, unless six Iranians detained by the United States in Iraq are released. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns says, “Javier Solana has reached out to the Iranian government on our behalf to attempt once again to convince Iran to join the talks.”
Iran / Human Rights
Ladan Boroumand, research director at the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, told VOA that the human rights situation in Iran has deteriorated in the past year with a rise in executions, including those of minors. He said there were 274 extra-judicial executions in Iran in the past year, with increasing persecution of Iran’s religious minorities. “One thing we need to do as advocates of human rights,” he said, “is to report all violations to major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.”
Kurdish human rights activist Roya Tolouei said many student associations were closed down and publications shuttered during the past year, with 117 journalists summoned to answer different accusations before the courts. She says Reporters without Borders claims Iran is the biggest prison for journalists in the world. She said most journalists released from prison had to pay huge bonds to gain their freedom, with this being used as a technique to intimidate the opposition.
From Geneva, human rights activist Elahe Hicks reported that the UN Human Rights Council decided March 26 to drop its examination of violations in Iran at the recommendation of Azerbaijan, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe – “themselves gross violators.” Ms. Hicks said such a decision “calls into question the entire credibility of the United Nations.”
New Mayor in Beverly Hills
VOA Persian reported on the new mayor of Beverly Hills, California. Jimmy Delshad, the first Iranian-born mayor of Beverly Hills, was installed at City Hall March 27. Mr. Delshad – who changed his first name to Jimmy from Jamshid when he became a US citizen – is a 66-year-old Jewish immigrant. Roughly 8,000 of the approximately 35,000 residents of Beverly Hills are of Iranian descent – an influx that began in earnest nearly 30 years ago after the fall of the shah of Iran and has fundamentally changed one of America's most iconic cities. The sensitivity of the situation was underscored recently when the city, for the first time, printed its entire ballot in English and Farsi -- a move that prompted an outpouring of complaints, including a number from Iranian-Americans.
New York’s Museum of Modern Art is holding the first retrospective of an Iranian artist – of Abbas Kiarostami, probably Iran’s best-known modern filmmaker. The films are very much rooted in Iranian lire and are shot inside Iran, although most cannot be shown there. Many of Mr. Kiarostami’s films are making their first US appearance, but are still attracting considerable interest. In 1997, Mr. Kiarostami’s “A Taste of Cherry” won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, securing his place in the pantheon of modern cinema. In an interview with VOA Persian, Mr. Kiarostami criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “for humiliating Iranians around the world and for starting the Iranian revolution all over again.”
Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography
Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, is Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, talked with VOA Persian about an upcoming photography exhibition from Iran, the first such survey of contemporary Iranian photography. Mr. Hakkak said the exhibition provides a rare, revealing view of Iranian life and experiences with more than 80 photographs by renowned Iranian photographers.
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