Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week
Washington, D.C. – May 28, 2007 . . . Major stories this week included coverage of bilateral talks between the United States and Iran for the first time in almost three decades; the uproar created by the detention of several Iranian-Americans in Iran, including the incarceration of two at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison; the ongoing suppression of minorities, including Sufi dervishes; continuing deadlock on Iran’s nuclear program with talks scheduled for May 31 between Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, and the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana; and a new bill that would create an international nuclear fuel bank.
In an exclusive one hour discussion with VOA’s Persian Service, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was asked what the U.S. government was expecting from the one-day meeting in Baghdad. He expressed hope that the Iranian government would follow through with its commitment to alleviate the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. “Is Iran going to continue its support for Iraq’s sectarian militias or not? Iran needs to be a responsible neighbor and help bring stability to Iraq,” he said.
“It’s in the interest of all Iraq’s neighbors to have a secure and stable Iraq. In the long term, the consequences of an unstable Iraq will spill over to the entire region,” he added.
“We don’t want the Iraqi people to pay a price for our differences with the Iranian government. They ]Iran[ need to extend a helping hand to their neighbor.”
In response to the Iranian foreign minister who had remarked that for the U.S.-Iran talks to succeed, the Bush Administration needs to admit that its policies in had failed and change course. Mr. McCormack responded, “I don’t know what the foreign minister is referring to when he says ‘our failed policies’ because the Iraqis are now liberated and they lived under a brutal dictator. He had invaded his neighboring country in Iran and was responsible for hundreds of thousands of death.”
On the recent U.S. naval exercises in the Persian Gulf McCormack added, “Iranians have nothing to fear from these military maneuvers. We have no issues with the Iranian people per se. It’s with its government and its behavior. Iranian culture is very rich and we would benefit from it if our relations were normalized. We wish to have good relations with the Iranian people.”
VOA Persian covered the meeting in Baghdad May 28 between the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi, to discuss the security situation in Iraq. The talks, described as cordial, were apparently limited to the agreed-upon topic. Earlier, the White House had said the talks would not touch on the international standoff with Iran over its nuclear development program, nor would there be any discussion of Iran's detention of US citizens. On the question of Iraqi security, the United States said Iran has been training, supplying and financing extremist groups operating in Iraq. US military commanders have displayed captured Iranian-made military hardware to support those charges, but authorities in Tehran deny they are responsible for insurgents’ attacks in Iraq.
In an exclusive interview after the conclusion of the talks, Dan Screebny, Communications Director at the US Embassy in Baghdad and Senior advisor to Ambassador Crocker in Iraq told the Persian Service, "The talks were focused only on Iraq and this was an Iraqi hosted event. Ambassador Crocker talked about concerns; certain specific actions by the Iranian government that are not helpful, lots of explosives are coming from Iran, the actions of the "Quds" Army. The next step rests with the government of Iran in terms of the next actions they will take. We all agreed that the situation needs to improve and we are willing, for the sake of Iraq, to talk to all its neighbors. We also believe that Iraq should have good relations with all its neighbors including Iran."
Analysts had predicted the talks would yield little. Appearing on NewsTalk May 25, National Endowment for Democracy Fellow Ali Afshari said Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants to use the talks for his own purposes, not for any positive outcome. From London, Keyhan newspaper editor Nasser Mohammadi said he could not foresee any positive outcome from the talks. And from Berlin, researcher Ghasem Kardavani said Iran’s appointment of Hassan Kazemi as its representative to the talks showed that Iran wasn’t taking the talks seriously. London-based political analyst Alireza Nourizadeh told News & Views May 26 that Ambassador Kazemi was not a good match for Ambassador Crocker.
Appearing on Roundtable with You May 26, political activist and USC chemical engineering professor Muhammad Sahimi said, “Talking to one’s enemies is a good thing, but whether these talks will lead to improvement of relations and a resolution of all issues, I guess time will tell.” Mr. Sahimi said he did not believe the Iranian representative to the talks, Hassan Kazemi, has the full authority of Tehran. “He is not a high enough ranking diplomat to make commitments that would satisfy his American counterparts.” Mr. Sahimi said some radicals in the Iranian power structure oppose talks with the United States, but he said they are just pandering to their base. “They have chanted the slogan ‘death to America’ for the past 28 years. They can’t just turn around and say we support talking to our number one enemy.”
US officials, analysts and area experts told VOA Persian that the increasing arrests and detentions of Iranian-American scholars in Iran point to a government campaign to deter local activists from interacting with Iranians based abroad. Authorities are now holding two Iranian-Americans – Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and sociologist Kian Tajbakhsh, a former professor at the New School for Social Research in New York – at the notorious Evin prison. Associates of Ali Shakeri, another Iranian-American who recently traveled to Iran, told Human Rights Watch that he is also being detained by the Iranian authorities. Authorities are also preventing Parnaz Azima, a Radio Farda reporter who holds both Iranian and American citizenship, from leaving the country by confiscating her passport in January.
Karim Lahidji, vice president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, told Roundtable with You May 25 that these arrests are a kind of hostage taking. “Iranian laws clearly indicate that the accused must have a lawyer within 24 hours of being arrested. The lawyers for Ms. Esfandiari have not been permitted to meet with their client. In fact, the charges against her of trying to overthrow the government are simply ridiculous.” Mr. Lahidji went on to say that the “detentions are a sign of deteriorating human rights conditions under the hardline regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” He also reminded viewers that a fifth person, lawyer Abdolfattah Soltani, has been incarcerated at Evin prison for the past two years, detained in connection with allegedly disclosing information in a nuclear espionage case. Mr. Lahidji said Mr. Soltani’s crime was promoting human rights and freedom of thought.
Janet Afary, history professor at Purdue University and president of the International Society of Iranian Studies, told News & Views May 24 that the detentions are meant to add another layer of complexity to US-Iranian relations. Ms. Afary said the Society has issued a statement demanding Haleh Esfandiari’s release as well as that of the other academics arrested. She said contrary to the Iranian government’s claim, none of the detainees are a threat to the Islamic regime.
News & Views quoted State Department spokesman Tom Casey as describing the charges against Haleh Esfandiari as “just silly. She is not a threat to this Iranian government,” he said, “or the regime as a whole. In an interview with CNN, Mr. Casey urged Iran “to release her and let her come back home. She is an academic and a voice for tolerance and people-to-people exchanges between the Iranian and American people. We can’t imagine why she is considered a threat.”
The Iranian government is continuing its crackdown on women, students and other minorities as Behrooz Sarshar described on News & Views May 24 in talking about increased oppression of dervishes. Mr. Sarshar, a member of the Gonabad Dervishes from northeastern Iran, said security forces detained prominent Iranian Sufi leader Nurali Tabandeh in Mashad, but released him after transferring him to Tehran. Tabandeh loyalists claimed that several of his supporters were beaten and detained along with him. The reason for Mr. Tabandeh’s arrest is unclear, but Mr. Sarshar said he hopes the people of Iran will one day be free to practice their religion of their choice.
Ali Afshari, a Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, told NewsTalk May 25 that the situation with Iran’s nuclear program is getting worse because Iran refuses to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations. “The UN Security Council’s next sanctions will be harsher and approved faster,” he said. “Iran’s decision-makers have not found the previous sanctions harmful enough, and they do not take the US military option seriously. I think political differences in the United States have persuaded the regime to kill time. I don’t think the talks between Solana and Larijani will be fruitful.” Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, and the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, are scheduled to hold talks on Iran’s nuclear program on May 31. Iran has ignored United Nations resolutions over the past six months ordering it to stop enriching uranium.
Appearing on News & Views May 26, political analyst Bahman Aghai Diba said he believes the next round of sanctions on Iran will be harsher and will involve restrictions on the important of oil and gas. He said the Security Council has previously been against such a move because of its impact on ordinary citizens, but that the Islamic regime’s intransigence is leaving the Security Council fewer options. News & Views quoted the US Ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, as saying, “The actions taken so far have not been effective. We have to move towards tougher sanctions.”
VOA Persian covered President Bush’s May 21 news conference in which he said he would seek stronger sanctions on Iran, following a new UN report that accused Tehran of accelerating its nuclear enrichment program. The president said Iran’s defiance of international demands will not be tolerated. “My view,” he said, “is that we need to strengthen our sanctions regime.” Mr. Bush said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will begin negotiations with other nations on an expanded UN sanctions regime, adding that he will get personally involved in talks on the matter with Russia and China. “The first thing that these leaders have got to understand,” the president said, “is that an Iran with a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing for the world. It is in their interest that we continue to work collaboratively to isolate that regime.”
From Canada, political analyst Shayan Samii told NewsTalk that President Bush’s reference to talking with Russia and China is new. “He wants to talk with them and convince t hem that Iran’s nuclear program is not to the benefit of the world. Russia on the one hand does trade with Iran and on the other hand gets financial support from the West. China does the same thing. The US wants that trade to stop.”
From London, political analyst Alireza Nourizadeh told Roundtable with You May 24 that he expects Iran will face a series of harsh new sanctions from the UN Security Council because of its refusal to comply with resolutions calling for suspension of its uranium enrichment program. He said a recent tour of the Middle East by Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, elicited a cool reception everywhere: “Arab countries,” he said, “now recognize Iran could become a nuclear power and the dangerous consequences of such an occurrence.”
News & Views covered the House Committee on Foreign Affairs May 23, as it approved a ground-breaking bill to support the creation of an international nuclear fuel bank. The bank would ensure that countries seeking the benefits of nuclear energy will not have to develop a capacity to produce their own nuclear fuel, which can also be used to produce nuclear weapons. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), chairman of the committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, said “Those who truly seek to develop nuclear power solely for peaceful means will jump at the chance to take part in this fuel bank. It provides an opportunity to ensure a stable supply of nuclear fuel from an internationally supported nuclear facility located in a safe nation. This initiative will put to the test the claims of countries such as Iran that they are not working to build nuclear weapons, but want simply to generate power for civilian purposes.”
Late Edition talked with Iranian-American journalist and filmmaker, Lisa Daftari and sound editor Kami Asgar about their work in the United States. Ms. Daftari said, “I graduated from Rutgers University with high honors and then got my master’s at USC in journalism with the dean’s scholarship. Last summer, I was invited to show my master’s thesis, which examined regime change in Iran, to a Congressional subcommittee. I have interned at CNBC in New York and Los Angeles and most recently, I was hired as a researcher in the investigative unit at KNBC in Los Angeles.” Kami Asgar, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Mel Gibson’s film, “Apocalypto,” told Late Edition that he and his partner Sean McCormack left Sony after 10 years to work on Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” I’ve started my own studio and since receiving the Oscar nomination for “Apocalypto,” I am now working on six new movies. I’ve worked on 65 television series and movies over the last few years. It has been a great journey for me in this business.”
VOA Persian talked with filmmaker and film critic Mamad Haghighat who helped choose the Iranian film, “Persepolis,” screened at this month’s Cannes Film Festival. The film, which stems from a best-selling comic book series by Iranian émigré Marjane Satrapi, shows its heroine struggling with the authorities in the early days of the Islamic revolution. Mr. Haghighat said Iranian officials protested the film’s inclusion at Cannes as a political act. But he said it was a French production whose subject was Iran. He said many of the young Iranian film directors living outside of Iran still focus on Iran and things Iranian as the subjects of their work.
History Channel programming included the first segment of a series called When America was Rocked: Ten Days that Unexpectedly Changed America, including one on Elvis Presley’s explosion on the American music scene; a second on 1964’s Freedom Summer, focusing on the civil rights work and murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner; and a third on Albert Einstein’s 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging him to explore development of the atomic bomb; the remaining two programs focused on the outrageous and wonderfully creative gadgets of James Bond.
LOOKING AHEAD: Roundtable with You on June 16 will feature Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jahangir Razmi. After the 1979 revolution, a group of 11 Kurdish men were lined up and shot to death, accused of various crimes. Their executions at a municipal airport in Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan, followed a brief trial during which no evidence was presented. A photograph capturing this event was published and eventually won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography – but the photographer's identity was kept secret to protect him. His name was revealed in December 2006, and his appearance on Roundtable will be one of the only media appearances he is making in the United States. The award-winning photograph follows.
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History Channel programming opens VOA’s daily five-hour Persian-television block with news headlines followed by various History Channel programs, translated and narrated in Farsi, that illustrate the cultural fabric and political landscape of the United States. News and Views, which debuted in 2003, is an hour-long program featuring correspondent reports, interviews and the top news stories from Washington and around the world. News and Views is followed by Roundtable with You, Late Edition and NewsTalk, all one-hour shows that together constitute a five-hour daily block of Persian-language television broadcast by satellite to Iran. 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 2006, looks at major world events and issues of interest to young people. NewsTalk, which went on the air in October 2006, opens with a brief recap of the day’s top headlines followed by a panel of experts discussing the day's top news stories. NewsTalk features in-depth discussions of the issues of greatest concern to Iranians and closes with a segment on worldwide media coverage of Iran.
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.