April 7, 2008

Former leader of revolution, Ebrahim Yazdi, calls for US-Iran talks, rips into VOA Persian

If you’d been living in DC this past year, you could have made a full time job out of attending all the Iran events throughout the city. It seems like every day someone’s holding an Iran talk, whether at a think tank, local university, or up on the Hill. But Thursday’s event was something special. After shaking hands and chatting with former US embassy hostages, the reformist—and former revolutionary leader—Ebrahim Yazdi, spoke to a packed house at a Middle East Institute event called “The Iranian Situation.”

Read below about Yazdi’s message to US policy makers, and to VOA Persian.

Yazdi said the US needs to “negotiate with Iran without preconditions” in order to resolve the tensions and to allow for Iran’s political development. He further said that “US policy in Iran is not helping the cause of democracy in our country. It needs a very drastic overhaul…as far as democratic progress is concerned in Iran.” He even mentioned being targeted by clerics who falsely accused him of receiving State Department funding.

Yazdi then engaged in a heated exchange with a VOA Persian reporter in the audience. “VOA Persian must act as non-partisan media,” he said in his 5 minute diatribe directed at the reporter. He argued that VOA needs to review its policies to gain credibility as a news outlet rather than being a mouthpiece for monarchists. His attack on VOA Persian was greeted by applause from a number of audience members, including a senior American journalist from Time magazine. “The age of revolutions is over,” he told the VOA reporter, and spoke candidly of how his revolutionary generation had failed to see past the short-term goal of removing the Shah (just as many are calling today for regime change). He now asks young reformers to learn from his mistakes, to not seek short term fixes for complex social problems.

It was fascinating to witness the meeting of former US embassy hostages, Ambassadors Langdon and Limbert, with Khomeini’s former assistant. There was a clear sense of mutual respect and camaraderie. This was obviously because Yazdi had been strongly opposed to the embassy takeover, and even resigned from the government in protest. Ambassador Langdon asked him why he hadn’t been able to help end the hostage situation. Yazdi told him that he had assumed that he’d be able to help (as he had in the first US embassy takeover 2 days after the revolution), but that the second time there was a faction among the Islamic revolutionaries who wanted to hijack the movement for their own purposes, and who saw the embassy takeover as meeting their own personal goals. These more radical groups eventually coalesced around Khomeini.

Hearing Yazdi advocate democratic values of acceptance of pluralism, tolerance of alternate ideologies, and the importance of cooperation and compromise—as well as his criticism of the ruling clerics whom he feels lack the qualifications to lead a modern nation state—really made me wonder what could have happened if Yazdi had been able to maintain his position of leadership in the early days of the revolution. Would the US and Iran be in the tense position they find themselves today?

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