Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week
Washington, D.C. – April 23, 2007 . . . Major stories this week included the massacre at Virginia Tech; an exclusive interview with Governor Bill Richardson on his talks with North Korean officials; the status in Tehran of Radio Farda reporter Parnaz Azima; the arrest of more than a dozen students in northern Iran; an interview with newly exiled blogger and student activist Kianoush Sanjari; the UNHCR’s report that nearly four million displaced Iraqis need urgent aid; the upcoming Iraq regional conference in Sharm el-Sheikh; next week’s talks between Iran’s top nuclear official and the EU’s foreign policy chief; the ongoing impasse between Iran’s regime and teachers; and Iran beginning to divert water into the contested Sivand Dam.
In Blacksburg, Virginia, a lone gunman killed 32 people before turning the gun on himself. Late Edition talked with students, including an Iranian, on the George Mason campus for their reaction to the massacre in Blacksburg. The students said they still feel safe on campus and will be continuing their normal activities. One noted that the incident could have happened anywhere at anytime. Roundtable with You opened the show April 20 with a moment of silence in observance of the rampage. The program host read e-mail from viewers denouncing Iranian coverage of the killings: Iran’s media presented the murders at Virginia Tech as an act of protest against US policy in Iraq.
Governor Bill Richardson says what works in North Korea should work in Iran, too. News & Views April 20 interviewed Governor Bill Richardson – Democratic presidential candidate and governor of New Mexico – on his talks with North Korean officials, who agreed to begin shutting down their Yongbyon atomic reactor, the facility that provides fuel for the country’s nuclear weapons. North Korea says it will allow UN weapons inspectors back into the country for the first time in five years. The governor said it would be a mistake for the US to take military action in Iran before exhausting all diplomatic avenues. “Tough, direct diplomacy backed by strong international alliances can work,” he told VOA. “This is exactly the strategy that worked in North Korea and it can work in Iran.” Governor Richardson said if he wins the White House in the 2008 election, he will start direct talks with Iran, but would work to immediately stop what he characterized as Iran’s irresponsible aggression: it would have to stop efforts to produce nuclear arms and stop trying to destabilize Iraq.
Tehran-based attorney Mohammad Hossein Aghasi told News & Views April 18 that Iranian authorities are still blocking the travel of Radio Farda reporter Parnaz Azima. Ms. Azima was in Iran visiting relatives when her passport was confiscated in January. Mr. Aghasi said the seizure was unlawful, but he is hopeful the situation will be resolved by additional talks with Iranian authorities. Hadi Ghaemi, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Roundtable with You April 15 that the confiscation of Ms. Azima’s passport violates her basic human rights since “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Iran is a signatory, clearly says that everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his own country.”
A student activist at the University of Babol in northern Iran, Davood Habibi, told News & Views April 16 that authorities arrested 15 students for protesting the treatment of one of their classmates. Mr. Habibi said the arrests were meant to intimidate the students and to persuade them to stop criticizing the government. He also said the head of Iran’s intelligence service accused student activists of trying to overthrow the government through an orange revolution – implying the students were waging a campaign of civil disobedience in order to overthrow the Islamic Republic (by referring to the color worn by the Ukrainian opposition in their successful bid for power three years ago).
Blogger and student activist Kianoush Sanjari, who fled Iran for Iraqi Kurdistan two weeks ago, told Roundtable with You April 15 that he spent three tortuous months in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison after being arrested outside the home of dissident cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Kazemaini Boroujerdi. Mr. Sanjari said he was blindfolded, questioned and slapped by his interrogators, whose questions took a new turn: “The worst thing was they wanted to connect me to US politicians, especially to [neoconservative] Richard Perle. They wanted me to write about US money being allocated to the democracy movement. Where does it go? Who gets it?”
The UN refugee agency says conferees in Geneva agreed that nearly four million displaced Iraqis urgently need aid. News & Views interviewed the spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Astrid Van Gender Stort, April 18 on the just-ended international conference organized by the UNHCR to focus on the humanitarian needs of the four million Iraqis who have been displaced inside and outside of Iraq. Ms. Stort said 450 representatives from 60 countries, participated in the meeting and recognized the need to help those neighboring countries that are bearing most of the burden of hosting Iraqi refugees, especially Syria and Jordan, until they can return home safely.
The upcoming Iraq stability conference in Sharm el-Sheikh appears to be a lose-lose proposition for Iran. Roundtable with You reviewed US foreign policy during the week as it pertained to Iran. Guest Nasser Mohammadi, assistant editor-in-chief of the Keyhan newspaper in London, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s Mideast visit was meant to bolster Iraq’s government – to let Iraqi officials know they have US support against Iran’s missile and nuclear threat. “Iran still hasn’t decided whether to attend the Iraq conference in Sharm el-Sheikh the first week of May. If they don’t attend, it will be clear they don’t want a stable Iran. If they do attend, their interference in Iraq would be discussed. And Iran doesn’t have anything to say.” Another guest, political scientist Shayan Samii, said Iran’s boycott of the conference would be a sign that the regime is not pro-peace or pro-stability.
International security expert Farbod Talaee talked about Iran projecting its influence in neighboring countries and posing security challenges in the region on Roundtable with You April 21. Speaking from London, Mr. Talaee said “Iran has two options in the long run: Either it ought to sit down with the United States and resolve its disputes diplomatically or this will ultimately lead to a military confrontation.” Mr. Talaee said the US must employ different tactics in its dealings with Iran and al Qaeda, since one is a state while the other is a shadowy organization. The guest said he hopes Iran participates in the Sharm el-Sheikh conference and plays a constructive role as a regional power. “It will do well not to set pre-conditions for attending the conference,” he said.
President Bush says Iran is one of two of the biggest security issues facing the United States. News & Views covered President Bush’s remarks in Tipp City, Ohio, on April 20. “Two of the biggest issues we face for the security of this country today and tomorrow [are] al Qaeda and Iran,” the president told a group of business leaders and students. “And the Iranian people must understand if they stop their enrichment process, that they can have a better relationship with countries such as the United States. If they aren’t meddling in Iraq, they can have a better relationship with a country that wishes them no harm.”
And on next week’s talks between Iran’s top nuclear official, Ali Larijani, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Mr. Mohammadi (from Keyhan newspaper) predicted failure. The meeting will be the first time since February to assess the possibility of resuming negotiations. But Mr. Mohammadi said Iran isn’t interested in diplomacy. “Sanctions against Iran are working and the West does not consider war with Iran an option.” He said Iran is whipping up talk of war to gain popular support for its unpopular policies. London-based political analyst Alireza Nourizadeh disagrees. He told News & Views April 21 that the talks could be positive. He noted that former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s recent exhortation to find a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear program shows that the Iranian’s regime’s concerns are increasing. “It shows,” Mr. Nourizadeh said, “that they are looking for some solutions. Therefore, the meeting and talks could be productive.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addressed the Young Global Leaders Policy Roundtable on April 19 and VOA Persian was there. One audience member from Iran asked the Secretary if she thinks America can bring democracy by war. Secretary Rice said no. “Only people in the region can bring democracy. What we can do is to help support people who want to bring democracy, speak out for them, provide opportunities for training, opportunities for people to come and visit here. But if I can just say a word about Iran; I really do look forward to the day when Iran and the United States can have good relations….We have been fortunate to have some people-to-people exchanges as of late. We had a wrestling team in Iran. We've had people here who are disaster relief workers…. And so I'm so glad that you're here and I hope that you know that whatever differences we may have with the Iranian Government, we want to work them out through diplomatic means. We would like to see the Iranian people have access to technology for a civil nuclear program, but in a way that does not cause proliferation risks. That is why the international community has been concerned about enrichment and reprocessing. But the Iranian people and the American people should be friends and I look forward to the day that relations between our governments permit that to take place.”
Political analysts disagree on the effectiveness of nuclear energy and UN sanctions. Appearing on NewsTalk April 20, Jamshid Asadi, an economics professor at the American University of Paris, said the best way to deal with Iran would be through talks, not sanctions. The head of industrial management at the University of Maryland, Bahram Bahramian, said the best approach is sanctions. He says talks would help stabilize Iran’s Islamic regime. The two guests also disagreed on the efficacy of nuclear energy. Mr. Asadi said nuclear energy is a source of clean energy; he also said Iran’s oil supply is finite, in addition to which the government has not been making the investments necessary to enhance the industry’s aging infrastructure. Mr. Bahramian said nuclear energy is outdated and Iran is wasting its money by spending money on its nuclear program. The two analysts did agree on one thing. Both believe construction of the Sivand dam will destroy Iran’s cultural heritage.
Roundtable with You April 17 focused on non-political Islam, which in Iran is embodied by Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi. Ayatollah Boroujerdi, an Iranian Muslim cleric who advocates the separation of religion and politics, has been incarcerated at Tehran’s Evin prison since 2006. Guest Jahangir Salehi, a secularist, said Mr. Boroujerdi is in solitary confinement and is not allowed to meet with his attorney or with family members. Political analyst Alireza Nourizadeh said many clergymen in Iran have paid a heavy price for their opposition to Islam’s role in the political affairs of state, adding that a number have even been executed for their convictions. Both Mr. Salehi and Mr. Nourizadeh said Ayatollah Boroujerdi has repeatedly warned authorities in Tehran of human rights violations as well as suppression of women, teachers, workers and students. Mr. Boroujerdi has called the behavior of Iran’s ruling clergy “excessive” and he has said it will eventually turn the people against Islam. He says Islam is a religion of peace, and by definition cannot support terrorism or promote violence, both of which the Iranian regime embraces.
One of Iran’s most prominent human rights organizations, the Tehran-based Center for Human Rights Defenders, has issued its winter report on human rights conditions in Iran and as expected, it is very critical. Lawyer Mohammad Saifzadeh, one of the association’s founders, told News & Views April 18 that the report names specific violations, including student call-ups by disciplinary committees, a crackdown on union members and teachers and violation of women’s rights. Mr. Saifzadeh said Iran is a signatory to all important international treaties addressing human rights – making the listed violations in the winter report not only an affront to the treaties but to Iran’s own domestic laws.
As the date for a major teacher demonstration draws near, authorities and teachers remain at an impasse. A spokesperson for the Teachers Independent Association, Hami Taghavi, told NewsTalk April 17 that increased pay is the least of teachers’ demands. “We want a fundamental change in Iran’s educational system. We want the Education Minister’s resignation. Our educational system doesn’t teach students how to think – it teaches students to believe whatever the regime wants them to believe. Students are not offered choices. The content of schoolbooks is terrible. Basic information is missing.” Mr. Taghavi said 30-40% of teachers in today’s classrooms are unqualified. “The regime’s policies have forced many teachers out. We need to demonstrate to the government that we don’t threaten national security, indeed we contribute to the country’s security.” London-based journalist Nasser Mohammadi said Iran’s Islamic regime interprets every action, every protest, as a security issue. “The regime is training one dimensional people. Before the revolution, students would sometimes go abroad for additional training and then return home. Now when people leave, they don’t come back.”
Iranian lawyer and author Mehrangiz Kar talked with Roundtable with You about her book “Crossing the Red Line: The Struggle for Human Rights in Iran.” Ms. Kar has been working toward the promotion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights within the framework of Islamic law in the Islamic Republic of Iran. She told Roundtable’s viewers about passing the bar in 1979, the year of the revolution, and working within Iran as a lawyer and activist until 2000, when she spoke too strongly for the government’s liking about the need for constitutional reform. She was arrested and imprisoned on charges of acting against Iran’s national security, but was allowed to leave the country for medical treatment in 2001. Three of the five charges against her are still pending, for which she may again be arrested upon her return.
London-based journalist Ahmad Vahdatkhah told NewsTalk April 16 that Iran uses suppression to handle problems instead of looking for reasonable and practical solutions. “Here,” he said, “we can understand the important role of the media as a bridge between the people and the government. But in Iran, the government easily closes papers just because it criticizes a policy or official. This is a regime that harasses journalists.”
Iran began diverting water into the Sivand Dam in southern Fars province on April 19 to the dismay of historians and archeologists, among others. A panel of guests on NewsTalk uniformly criticized the action. Historian and Persian antiquities specialist Shokoh Mirzadegi said the dam becoming officially operational will destroy historical artifacts. Lawyer Bahman Aghai Diba said Iran appears to have ignored all concerns about preserving the country’s heritage and culture in violation of certain treaties and conventions under which Iran is obliged to preserve antiquities. He said the archeological sites of Pasargard and Persepolis have nothing to do with Islam and are therefore of no interest to Iran’s Islamic regime.
Roundtable with You focused on Persian literature on April 22 with panelists Ezzat Goushgir and Pouran Farrokhzad. Ms. Goushgir, who teaches playwriting at DePaul University in Chicago, said she left Iran in 1986 because her gender was such an impediment to her professional and creative growth in post-revolution Iran. “I could not continue writing with honesty and candor any longer,” she said. She read a passage from a novel in which she writes about a woman who is about to be stoned for committing sexual improprieties. “It is incomprehensible to me,” she read, “when I see people casting stones at a helpless woman who is half buried, a woman whose only sin might have been using bad judgment. The best way I can fight this cruel and inhuman punishment is by writing about it.” Ms. Farrokhzad, a writer and researcher in Tehran, is the sister of the late Iranian poet, Forugh Farrokhzad. Renowned for her groundbreaking poetry, Forugh Farrokhzad’s poetry dealt with taboo issues such as eroticism and illicit love. Her sister told VOA that Forugh “would have found the climate [under the Islamic regime] absolutely intolerable. She wasn’t the type to leave the country and start a new life abroad. Every fiber of her being was connected to Iran.”
Mahmood Karimi-Hakak was the featured guest on Roundtable with You April 18 to discuss the arts – and their suppression – under Iran’s Islamic regime. A professor of creative arts at New York’s Siena College, Mr. Karimi-Hakak has written, produced, directed, designed and/or acted in over 50 stage and screen productions in the US, Europe and his native Iran. Mr. Karimi-Hakak discussed the premiere of “Benedictus,” a new play that he wrote with collaborators from the US and Israel, and inspired by an actual event. In 2005, President Mohammad Khatami of Iran and President Moshe Katsav of Israel were seated alphabetically at the service for the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Although the two countries had broken off diplomatic relations in 1979, the two presidents apparently shook hands and exchanged a few words in Farsi, since they both had been born some 50 years earlier in the Iranian town of Yazd. The play deals with the bilateral meeting that could have taken place at the Vatican. Mr. Karimi-Hakak said he believes art can help build peace.
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News Talk, an hour-long program featuring a panel of experts discussing the day's top news stories, had its debut in October. News Talk opens VOA's daily four-hour Persian-language television block every day with a brief recap of the day's top headlines. It features in-depth discussions of the issues of greatest concern to Iranians and closes with a segment on worldwide media coverage of Iran. News Talk is followed by News and Views, Roundtable with You, and Late Edition, all one-hour shows that constitute a four-hour daily block of Persian-language television broadcast by satellite to Iran. News and Views, which debuted in 2003, features correspondent reports, interviews, and the top news stories from Washington and around the world. Roundtable with You, which debuted on television in 1996, takes calls from viewers and features a wide variety of guests discussing issues ranging from popular culture to politics. Late Edition, a youth-oriented program which first aired in July, looks at major world events and issues of interest to young people.
VOA's Persian television shows complement VOA Persian's daily radio broadcasts and Radio Farda, a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, youth-oriented radio program that is a joint project of VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. VOA's Persian language Internet site is at www.VOANews.com/persian.