Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week

Washington, DC – April 21, 2008 . . . Major stories this week included Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States; follow-up to the April 12 explosion at a Shiraz mosque; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi receiving increased death threats; an exclusive interview with Congressman Joe Sestak (D-PA), senior military advisor to Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, focusing on her reason for low-level talks with Iran; the debate between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in advance of the April 22 Democratic presidential primary; Akbar Ghahary, on politics and the US presidential race; lawyer and activist Mehrangiz Kar on Amnesty International’s release of its annual death penalty report; with academician Davoud Hermidas- Bavand on what the future holds for reformists in Iran; human rights specialist Elahe Hicks on rape in conflict; Paris-based economist Jamshid Asadi on the mismanagement of Iran’s economy; Sweden-based women’s rights activist Maria Rashidi; and with writer Partow Nooriala on the women’s movement in Iran.

News and Views April 14 interviewed Reza Taghizadeh, a professor of Political Science at Scotland’s Glasgow University, about the blast at a local mosque in Shiraz that killed 12 people and wounded more than 200. Mr. Taghizadeh said it is no coincidence that the explosion took place at that specific mosque. He said that is where different groups with the Revolutionary Guards get trained to fight Bahai and Wahabi followers. Iranian authorities were quick to blame Iran’s Sunnis and the Bahai community for the blast, but Mr. Taghizadeh said the explosion cannot be attributed to Bahais, saying they have been accused of spying, but not of bombing. He said the Islamic regime cannot say it is the Mujahedin, because the Mujahedin acknowledges its attacks. “Whether this is an internal matter, an inside job or the work of outside sources remains to be seen. But the regime’s response has been slow and contradictory.”

VOA/PNN April 16 interviewed veteran Iranian political analyst Hassan Massali on the explosion at the Shiraz mosque. He said the incident could not have been carried out by opposition figures inside or outside of Iran. “That would only target innocent people without hurting the government,” he said. Mr. Massali also said, “The current flow of events only benefits the Revolutionary Guard and those who want to militarize the country.”

News and Views April 14 talked with Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a prominent journalist in Tehran, on the Shiraz blast. He said Iranian authorities have now stated that the deadly blast was not a terrorist act. They said negligence may have caused the explosion since an exhibition of achievements of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s had recently been held at the site. Mr. Shamsolvaezin said, “If the authorities believe that the exhibition caused the explosion, then the relatives of the people who were killed in the blast may file a legal complaint against the responsible authorities.”

Roundtable with You April 15 featured London-based political analyst Alireza Nourizadeh discussing Iran-related news of the past week. The explosion in the southern city of Shiraz April 12 was a major point of conversation. Mr. Nourizadeh said although the Iranian government has ruled out any act of sabotage, and called the blast an “accident,” he believes some extremist groups are trying to take the advantage of the situation to go after the Bahais and Sunnis. He also noted Iran’s presence in Iraq and the way the US views it as a threat to Iraq’s stability. Iran’s nuclear program dilemma, death threats against Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi for representing Bahais, and religion intolerance also were covered.

Roundtable with You April 18 talked about Pope Benedict XVI beginning his US tour with Stephen M. Colecchi, Director of the Office of International Justice and Peace with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Mr. Colecchi, who appeared on News and Views immediately following the reception given by President Bush in the pontiff’s honor at the White House, said the Pope’s invitation to visit the United Nations was extended by the UN Secretary-General for the Pope to come and spread his message of peace and justice among US countries. “The Pope’s visit is important in two ways. One is his message of peace to the world and [the other is] building peace through justice and caring for the poor and the most vulnerable.” Mr. Colecchi added that the Pope chose the name Benedict because the last Pope whose name was Benedict tried to avert World War I and after the war started, tried to help end the carnage. Mr. Colecchi said the Pope will bring up his opposition to the Iraq War with President Bush and will point to him that the justification for invading Iraq which was based on the “preventive war” theory was not consistent with the Catholic Church’s theory of a “just war.” He said the papal visit also is significant because Benedict XVI will try to set a moral compass for the Catholic Church in the United States.

VOA/PNN covered the Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Washington, DC and New York City. In New York, PNN reported from live from both the United Nations and Ground Zero. Stéphane Dujarric, Deputy Communications Director for the UN Secretary-General, said Ban Ki-Moon invited the pontiff because he is the messenger of hope, peace and reconciliation, that he can be of help and that members should listen to him. Mr. Dujarric said Mr. Ban and the Pope will discuss Darfur, hunger, arms proliferation and the Middle East during their meeting. Because the Catholic leader also is meeting with young people in New York, VOA/PNN interviewed a number of young people from different backgrounds: an Iranian girl whose father is an Iranian Muslim and whose mother is Jewish; some Orthodox Christians and others. Some said they believe the Pope’s visit is significant because he is an icon of humanity. Others said they didn’t particularly care about the visit one way or the other, but said the Pope is welcome because of freedom of religion in the United States.

News and Views April 14 reported on the increased number of death threats being received by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and esteemed human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi. Her attorney, Abdolfattah Soltani, said that “Those who are not close to the authorities do not dare to send such letters.” Ms. Ebadi described the death threats in a letter to Iran’s police chief, saying “It is not difficult to find those who send such letters.”

News and Views April 15 interviewed Jamshid Asadi, a prominent Paris-based economist, on the mismanagement of Iran’s economy. He said Iran is now earning $250 million a day from oil and gas exports, which has been a windfall for the Ahmadinejad government – but an increasing inflation rate is creating a fall in the purchasing power of Iranian currency. Mr. Asadi blamed the state of Iran’s economy on the Islamic regime, saying “The Iranian government is mismanaging and damaging all of the Iranian economy because of its poor relations with the international community.”

 VOA/PNN April 14 interviewed Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a university professor at various institutions of higher education in Iran who also has worked at the UN’s International Law Commission representing Iran. Mr. Bavand said the conservatives who wield power in Iran kept former President Mohammad Khatami and many of his allies off the reformist list of those eligible to run in last month’s parliamentary elections. “Laying Khatami off the reformist list is a means of keeping him on reserve, possibly for the next presidential election,” Mr. Bavand said. On the future of social-right movements inside Iran, Mr. Bavand said the current situation under the Islamic regime cannot deny the righteous movements of Iranians to ensure their social rights. He said the clergy will “have to listen to the masses eventually.”

News and Views April 15 interviewed Mehrangiz Kar, a Visiting Scholar at Wellesley College’s Newhouse Center for the Humanities, on Amnesty International’s release of its annual death penalty report. It shows a significant increase in executions in a Iran – at least 317 people executed in 2007 compared to 177 in 2006. Iran is ranked second among countries that have the highest number of executions, and according to the report, approximately 24 people are executed every week in Iran. Ms. Kar said, “The judicial system in Iran is unjust and the increase in the number of executions shows that there is no room for discussion and discourse in civil society. Some of the people on death row or those who have been executed are activists who advocate non-violence and a move toward civil society. Also, public hangings are a way to spread more fear among people. This also is an example of how the Iranian judicial system is unjust and against the law.” Ms. Kar – an attorney, writer and activist – came to Wellesley via the “Scholars at Risk” network. In 2000, she was arrested and imprisoned on charges of acting against the national security of Iran. Charges against her are still pending, for which she may again be arrested upon her return.

News and Views April 14 reported on ongoing US-Iraqi talks that began last month on a strategic framework agreement that defines long-term bilateral ties and a separate “status of forces” deal outlining rules and protections governing US military activity in Iraq. The issue has become highly charged in Washington, with members of Congress saying it could tie the hands of the next administration by locking the United States into a long-term military presence in Iraq and arguing Congress should give its consent. Senior US lawmakers have great doubt about the success of the Al-Maliki government. Some still believe withdrawal is the only solution. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday that President George Bush’s stance regarding a US pullout from Iraq is wrong-headed. She also said the biggest obstacle to peace in Iraq isn’t Iran or al- Qaeda, it’s the Iraqi government. “Generals on the ground there, have said the biggest obstacle to peace in Iraq is not the Al Qaeda, it’s not the Iranians, it’s not the Sunni militias. It is the government of Iraq. They haven’t made the decision necessary to take the actions that are commensurate with the sacrifice of our troops… you’re talking about Iran – troops would be in the region, over the horizon, but not an occupying force in Iraq.”

Roundtable with You April 15 focused on rape in conflict with human rights specialist Elahe Hicks. Ms. Hicks said, “The United Nations and humanitarian organizations are very significant in acknowledging the problem of rape in conflict.” She compared the rape in conflict situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and highlighted recommendations to reduce the occurrence of rape in conflict, including greater government intervention and less social stigmatization. Ms. Hicks discussed the rape in conflict situation in Iran, acknowledging that during the Iran-Iraq War, rape in conflict was a problem experienced by Iranian women. The program acknowledged the social and psychological impact victims of rape in conflict undergo, noting that rape may be used as a weapon with the purpose of humiliating and demoralizing a people. Other segments of the program discussed cultural responses to rape in conflict circumstances and outcomes as well as the different ways rape during conflict occurs: in refugee camps, prisons, and when women tend to family needs such as gathering wood or getting water. The last segment acknowledged how military police and peacekeepers may be war rape offenders.

News and Views April 14 reported that former President Jimmy Carter defended his plan to meet with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Syria in the coming days. In a US television interview, Mr. Carter said he will try to persuade Hamas to stop attacks against Israeli civilians. He also said he will press Hamas to cooperate with the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in restoring Palestinian unity. Hamas drove Fatah from power in the Gaza Strip last year, restricting Mr. Abbas’s authority solely in the West Bank. Mr. Carter said he is not representing the US government on his Mideast tour, which began April 13 with a visit to Israel. US officials and lawmakers urged Mr. Carter not to meet with Hamas, which Washington views as a terrorist group.

News and Views April 20 reported on ongoing violence in the Middle East, with Palestinian medics saying an early morning Israeli strike killed at least one Hamas militant east of Gaza City. At least five others were also wounded in the raid. Earlier, Hamas militants in Gaza drove two cars packed with explosives into an Israeli border crossing, killing three of the militants and wounding 13 Israeli soldiers. Israeli military officials say the attack may have been part of a larger plot to kidnap Israeli soldiers. Hamas claimed responsibility for the bombing, and vowed to stage more attacks to break Israel’s blockade on the Gaza Strip. In other violence over the weekend, Israeli attacks killed at least six Hamas militants, and one other Palestinian in Gaza.

Roundtable with You April 17 addressed the role of the private sector in the western world’s economy with businessman Babak Emamian, president of the British-Iranian Business Association in London. Mr. Emamian presides over the 2400-member association. He is an advocate of free enterprise and believes that in a healthy economy, it is the private sector that takes the lead in directing economic developments. He said the role of government should be limited, and, in fact, invisible. Mr. Emamian compared the economy of developed countries with those of developing countries, and in particular to Iran, saying that in spite of so much wealth, Iranian resources must follow directions from the government. He said this is unfortunate because the government suffers from incompetent officers who have led Iran’s economy to record levels of inflation and unemployment despite revenues almost doubling from the jump in oil prices on the world market.

Roundtable with You April 14 focused on politics and the Olympics in light of the controversy ignited by China’s treatment of Tibet and the upcoming Beijing games. Journalist and sports commentator Iraj Adibzadeh covered the 1976 Olympics and he talked with VOA/PNN about the politics of the present and past Olympics, including the discrimination in Iran that prevents female athletes from competing in the Olympics. The modern Olympic Games were created by Baron Pier De Coubertin, as a way for the countries of the globe to become more connected, and to stay away from politics to keep the spirit of Olympics intact. In real world, however, politics creeps into most of the games: the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972; the boycott by 60 countries of the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980 because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and the retaliatory boycott of the Los Angeles Games in 1984 by 13 Communist countries. This year the Beijing Olympic seems to be no exception, and the trouble over the Tibet issue has disrupted relaying the Olympic torch in many major cities.

News and Views April 15 reported that Iraqi authorities say two separate bomb blasts have killed at least 53 people and wounded scores of others. The authorities said a car bomb Tuesday killed at least 40 people and wounded more than 70 in Baquba, north of Baghdad. Police said they expect the death toll to rise. Police in Ramadi, west of the capital, said a suicide bomber blew himself up at a restaurant, killing at least 13 people and wounding several others. On Monday, attacks in other parts of Iraq killed at least 22 people. In another development Monday, radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demanded the Iraqi government reinstate all security forces fired for abandoning their duty in recent fighting.

News and Views April 15 reported on a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee in which the Pentagon was seeking authority over training and equipping foreign militaries from the State Department. Among those testifying were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Both Secretary Gates and Secretary Rice sought Congressional approval for the change, as well as authorization for the Pentagon to spend $750 million dollars in 2009 to help foreign militaries. Mr. Gates said the foreign military assistance program is “a vital and enduring military requirement, irrespective of the capacity of other departments, and its authorities and funding mechanisms should reflect that reality.” Some lawmakers said it raised questions about the military’s growing role in domains traditionally reserved for diplomats. Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) said there was strong support for the goals of the proposals. But he criticized the Iraqi government for not taking advantage of opportunities the US has provided for them. Congress is increasingly adding pressure on the Bush administration to ask the Iraqi government to take care of its reconstruction expenses from billions of dollars in oil sales without depending on US taxpayer assistance.

News and Views April 16 interviewed Congressman Joe Sestak (D-PA), the highest-ranking former military officer to serve in the US Congress and the senior military advisor to Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Congressman Sestak serves on the House Armed Services Committee, which held a hearing April 15 in which Iran was a hot topic. He explained Senator Clinton's reason for low-level talks with Iran in an exclusive interview with VOA/PNN. “Iran doesn’t want instability [in Iraq] if we are not there,” he said. “So as [the US] begins redeployment, as Senator Clinton has said, commensurate with that I believe the road of Iraq diplomatically is to Tehran, we need to work with that nation. We need to sit down and have them help ensure that there is stability as we redeploy. We will remain strong in the region, and in our bases that we have throughout the area, and in our carrier battle groups.” Congressman Sestak said he thought bilateral talks with Iran could be conducted at the Assistant Secretary level. “That would be a good way to get [talks] going, to engage them with the US leadership, not outsourcing this to another country. This is in our interest. This is in the region’s interest.” Earlier, speaking at a meeting of newspaper publishers, Senator Clinton sought to strike a balance between the hawkish approach taken by the Bush administration and her Democratic rival Barack Obama’s call for face-to-face talks with the Iranian president. “The approach that the Bush administration has taken toward Iran has been a loser. It has neither changed behaviors nor produced results,” the Democratic White House hopeful said. “I’ve advocated both that carrot and that stick, and I think that would be what I (would) take to try to create the beginning of lower levels of diplomatic engagement, some ongoing process.”

News and Views April 17 reported on the debate between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in Philadelphia in advance of the pivotal Pennsylvania primary scheduled for April 22. Senator Clinton, who has painted herself as stronger on foreign policy issues than Senator Obama, said the United States should offer to protect countries in the Middle East from Iran if those countries forgo nuclear weapons of their own. “I think that we should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel....We will let the Iranians know, that, yes, an attack on Israel would trigger massive retaliation, but so would an attack on those countries that are willing to go under the security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear ambitions....We’ve got to begin diplomatic engagement with Iran, and we want the region and the world to understand how serious we are about it.” Senator Obama said keeping Iran free of nuclear weapons would be one of his top priorities in the White House. “I will take no options off the table when it comes to preventing them from using nuclear weapons or obtaining nuclear weapons and that would include any threats directed at Israel, or any of our allies,” he said. “I believe that that includes direct talks with the Iranians, where we are laying out very clearly for them: Here are the issues that we find unacceptable, not only development of nuclear weapons, but also funding terrorist organizations.”

Roundtable with You April 19 talked with Akbar Ghahary about politics and the US presidential election from the perspective of Iranian-Americans. Mr. Ghahary, an Iranian-born American executive in the manufacturing sector, is CEO and Chairman of the Safas Corporation, an equity partner with General Electric Capital Corporation. He also is a member of the Board of the Iranian-American Political Action Committee. Mr. Ghahary said IAPAC is not going to endorse any of the major party candidates in advance of November’s presidential election. He said IAPAC’s mission is to support and promote the election of candidates for federal, state and local office regardless of party affiliation who are attuned to the domestic needs and issues of the Iranian-American community. He added that IAPAC also supports and promotes Iranian- American candidates for public office, pointing to Darius Shahinfar as an example. Mr. Shahinfar is an American of Iranian origin who is running for Congress from Albany, New York. Mr. Ghahary said IAPAC’s mission also includes supporting and advancing legislation as it affects the concerns of the Iranian-American community and encouraging Iranian-Americans of all political persuasions to actively participate in the American electoral process.

Roundtable with You April 20 examined the possibilities of a US-Iranian dialogue with Hassan Dai, an independent researcher based in Phoenix, Arizona. While the United States and other western countries are applying increased pressure to make Iran comply with UN resolutions regarding its controversial nuclear program, Iran is increasing its anti-American actions both in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Mr. Dai said he believes Iran doesn’t want improved relations with Washington, pointing to Iranian allies around the world who are outright reactionary and anti-US. Mr. Dai said he believes that by looking at the Islamic Republic’s friends, it is clear that the regime’s goals are not in the interests of the Iranian people, but instead, the regime is trying to build an Islamic caliphate, auctioning off Iran’s resources in the process. Mr. Dai said compromise may prove difficult or impossible because of the two countries’ conflicting interests. He said the Iranian government’s intentions make it a threat to others, giving the Iranian people and the international community a common interest in countering the regime.

Roundtable with You April 16 focused on the women’s movement in Iran with Partow Nooriala, a prominent writer and poet, who has fought for women’s rights most of her adult life. She also is a leading supporter of the One Million Signatures Campaign. Ms. Nooriala talked about the campaign’s call for an end to discrimination against women in Iran “amid the ongoing efforts by Islamic hardliners to distort and misrepresent the true goals of Iranian women.” She also discussed the crackdown against campaign activists and the news of new arrests of a number of women activists. Viewers who called in to the program responded in one voice, saying that Iranian women face an unjust world despite protests from Iranians living in exile and by those who support gender equality within Iran.

Today’s Woman April 16 focused on women activists in Iran. Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser. a physician and chairman of the Arizona-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy, reviewed recent punitive measures targeting Iranian women activists. “Women activists in Iran have courageously launched a campaign to end discriminatory laws,” he said. “The women of Iran have the most freedom amongst Islamic countries. The way you ask a question determines the answer you will get. For example, if you ask which women in Islamic countries can drive, and women in Iran are allowed to drive whereas women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive, then it seems the women of Iran are free. If you want a correct answer regarding the women’s movement in Iran you must ask the women activists directly about the obstacles they face.” Today’s Woman took Dr. Jasser’s advice, and spoke with Maria Rashidi, a women’s rights activist and former victim of domestic violence, who now lives in Sweden. She talked about realizing all the freedoms that were missing in her lifestyle in Iran after making the move to Europe. Her husband, who came to Sweden several months after she had already been living there, didn’t like the new changes he saw in his wife. “Men who come from traditional societies are less likely to allow liberal changes in their wives,” Ms. Rashidi said. “But I wanted to think for myself, I wanted to be my own person.” Such freedom came at a high cost. Ms. Rashidi recalled her experience when a man hired by her husband threw acid on her face. The moment, in addition to causing great suffering, also changed her life forever, “because I felt needed to do something with my life and not let the accident get in the way of my ability to help others.”

VOA/PNN interviewed Pooran Farrokhzad, a prominent Iranian poet and sister of the late revered poet, Forough Farrokhzad. Much of Pooran’s poetry is about women and looks at how they manage to make their voices heard despite efforts by Iran’s laws to silence them. Pooran spoke of the passing of fellow poet Parvin Dolatabadi and praised her as one of the most influential women in Iran’s contemporary history because of her contributions to poetry and children’s literature. Ms. Dolatabadi, who was born in 1924, was one of the first children’s poets in Iran. Today’s Woman April 14 focused on the special attention people pay to the lives of celebrities, and whether or not celebrities should be held to a higher standard because of their high profiles. Panelists discussed the origins of the media’s coverage of celebrities and the beginning of pop culture, mainly after World War One. They also talked about celebrities’ high salaries and whether they are fair or not. Panelists said the media pays particularly close attention to the negative behaviors of celebrities, primarily those involving drug or alcohol abuse. Dr. Hamid Ghodse, a London-based psychiatrist who is president of the International Narcotics Control Board, said celebrities are often treated with more leniency when it comes to substance abuse. “Despite being drug offenders, celebrities often get away with impunity. That of course gives the wrong message to young people.” The panelists agreed that the public is very curious about celebrities’ lives and that some publications tend to exaggerate and fabricate accounts in order to make more money. They noted that Iran’s Culture Ministry has closed two cinema magazines, Haft and Donya Tasfeer. Panelists also talked about the positive impact celebrities can have in their influence on young people or on social projects, with actors Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and soccer player David Beckham and his wife, Victoria, as good examples.

Today’s Woman April 17, focused on children’s literature, the use of steroids and viewer e- mails. The segment on children’s literature discussed the life and works of JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. Ms. Rowling recently wrote the Sudanese government about the status of children in Darfur. She also is in legal proceedings against RDR Books for planning to publish a lexicon on all things Harry Potter. “It gives me no pleasure to take legal action,” Ms. Rowling said, “but I am here today because I feel very strongly about an important issue that affects everyone and not just me. If books that plagiarize other works are permitted, authors, fans and readers stand to lose.” Panelists said children’s literature is more influential than most people think, including the ability to shape the behavior of a child and impact a child’s perceptions and views. The program recognized the recent death of Iranian children’s writer Parvin Dolatabadi. Today’s Woman then turned to steroid use, and how it can be used to help treat osteoporosis, anemia and some forms of breast cancer. But it also can put young athletes’ health at risk if misused. Health experts said risk factors include cancer and heart problems and that side effects can include acne, reduced breast development and hair growth. The program’s last segment focused on viewer e-mails. One 30-year-old woman living in Iran said she regularly watches the program and said it was beneficial to her life “because after viewing the program, my husband allowed me to continue my education.”

Today’s Woman April 18 talked with Mahnaz Afkhami, Founder and President of the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace. Ms. Afkhami talked about the Breakthrough Summit, a conference recently held in Washington, DC, where for the first time, hundreds of world leaders and members from faith, development and women’s rights organizations focused on a common cause: eliminating global poverty by empowering women. The conference was founded by influential women leaders, including former US Secretary of State Ms. Madeleine Albright, former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell and former President of the Republic of Ireland, Mary Robin