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June 13, 2007

NIAC President Speaks at World Economic Forum

Amman, Jordan – NIAC President, Trita Parsi, spoke at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East in Amman, Jordan last month. The forum, which highlights the need for peace in the region in order to bring about sustained and widespread economic development, held a panel addressing the rise of Iran in the Middle East.

The panel touched on a wide range of issues, including the stand-off over Iran's nuclear program, its involvement in Iraq, and its relations with the U.S., Israel, and the Persian Gulf states.

Discussions were at times very tense, particularly exchanges between Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's Foreign Minister, who had been added to the panel at the last minute, and other participants.

Abdulaziz Sager, Chairman of the Gulf Research Center in the United Arab Emirates, criticized Iran's nuclear program, indicating that Iran did too little to alleviate the fears and concerns of its neighbors. "We want neither an American hegemony nor an Iranian hegemony," he said.

Iran cannot break with its revolutionary identity and can as a result not make the necessary compromises to bridge its differences with the United States, Mahmood Sariolghalam, Professor of International Relations at the National University of Iran, pointed out. Iran's position over Israel is the primary obstacle to a better US-Iran relationship, Sariolghalam said.

Parsi discussed alternative solutions to the nuclear stand-off between Iran and the US, emphasizing the necessity for direct negotiations without preconditions. Pointing out that delaying negotiations so far only had served to strengthen Iran's negotiations position, Parsi suggested that rather than a suspend-for-suspend mechanism, embodied in the Security Council resolutions, a freeze-for-freeze formula could provide all parties with a face-saving way out.

Freeze-for-freeze would require both sides to freeze their activities from further advancement, but not require these activities to be halted. This would enable talks to begin yet still prevent both sides from enhancing their positions by creating new facts on the ground. Iran would continue its current nuclear activities, but it would be prohibited from expanding the program or adding new centrifuges. The upside for the West is that a freeze would in essence delay the Iranian program and provide the U.S. and EU with much needed time.

Western powers, on the other hand, would not have to roll back the U.N. sanctions against Iran — a step that Washington seems to appreciate mindful of the difficulties it faced getting the Security Council to impose them in the first place. By keeping the sanctions intact, the U.S. would avoid a scenario in which Russia and China would resist efforts to re-impose sanctions after a failed negotiations attempt. Washington would, however, be prohibited from seeking to enhance the sanctions regime during the duration of the negotiations.

Immediately after the event, Parsi took the opportunity to hand over to a senior Iranian official a letter from Amnesty International demanding the immediate release of Haleh Esfandiari. Seconding the message and demand of the letter, Parsi expressed strong opposition to the Iranian government's human rights violations.

Dr. Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was detained in early May by the Iranian authorities. She has been charged with endangering national security, and has yet been denied access to her lawyer, Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi.

Esfandiari's detention has been followed by the arrest of three other Iranian-Americans; Kian Tajbakhsh, a prominent sociologist, Parnaz Azima, a journalist with Radio Farda; and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the University of California, Irvine, Center for Citizen Peacebuilding. While Azima is out of jail on bail, the other three remain in custody.

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