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Iran: Towards a New Context for Regional and Global Security
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by Hilde RAPP
Co-Director of the Centre for International Peacebuilding

For page I>

The current conflict involving Iran, is not really a conflict about Iran, Islam, nuclear programmes, or even oil. It is fundamentally a conflict about inclusivity, world views, social justice, governance and communication. It highlights the urgent need to make all the voices heard that should, by right, be active participants in our debates about our shared future and our common humanity, both within countries and between countries.

We must finally have the courage of our convictions and follow our conscious and largely sincere renunciation of colonialism and empire building by at last leaving behind the extraordinary presumption that knowledge and expertise should flow from North to South and from West to East. A similar point is made be Timothy Garton Ash (2006) when he argues against inviting Eastern nations to impose Western solutions and argues for encouraging East to East dialogue and Eastern intervention in injustices in neighboring Eastern countries- in this instance in relation to the oppression of the Burmese people and their democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a personal friend of mine with whom I have not been able to communicate for years.

Two- way sharing of experience and expertise both North- South and South- North as well as South- South is becoming more and more common as people recognize that people at grass roots level have the will and the way of finding sustainable solutions to problems of poverty, ill health and environmental and humanitarian disasters. Poverty eradication programmes in Glasgow, have drawn on expertise from Bangalore, and Kenyan and Palestinian peace workers are running peace building and conflict transformation workshops in the UK. Grace Kodindo, an obstetrician in the poverty-stricken central African country of Chad travelled to Honduras, which has cut maternal mortality far faster than some of its wealthier neighbours, in order to learn how change the appalling record for women in Chad, who have a 1 in 11 chance of dying during pregnancy or in childbirth. (The risk for women in the UK is 1 in 5100). Cutting maternal mortality by three quarters by 2015 was number five of the eight Millennium Development Goals set by 189 countries in 2000. Uganda has set an example to all for curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS infection (MGD 6) through its implementation of forward looking public health policy at the grass roots level.

Those who advocate that a new American led empire is needed to spread freedom and democracy may have more in common with those who advocate that we should fight for a new Islamic Caliphate than might at first appear. Both approaches are founded upon the belief that we cannot tackle corruption, low levels of educational attainment, rural poverty, social injustice, organized crime and other social ills without putting in place designed top down systems of effective governance. Both believe that designed solutions will assist the civilisatory process, and both believe that they are serving the Allmighty in this quest.

Both President Bush and President Ahmadinejad derive inspiration from their respective country's imperial past. However, neither the Islamic caliphate of the middle ages and the Ottoman empire that followed it, nor the French, British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch or American empires which brought democracy to the East and the South, did their civilisatory work without huge costs, which, in current moral climate, would be unacceptable to most forward thinking people. Indeed, the current conflict between Iran and the United Arab Emirates about three very small islands in the straights of Ormuzd, called the Persian Gulf by one side and the Arabian gulf by the other is itself the aftermath of no less than five centuries of competition between Western powers, especially Portugal, Holland, France and England, all keen to secure privileged access to this new trade route to India by wooing the Arab and the Persian rulers in turn (Kirk , (1948 (1964), Rastbeen, (2006) , Ansari, (2006)). The economic interests of Western powers are still major drivers for many purportedly political engagements, just as economic interests and, on occasion naked greed, shape the way in which forms of political organisation are negotiated within democratic societies and, alas, within imposed in dictatorships. However, there is a growing focus on good governance and social responsibility, even if that too may be motivated to a degree by commercial or political self interest within market driven systems.

In the alleged "clash of civilizations" the commonalities may well outweigh the differences at a fundamental level. However it is vital that we make a determined effort to explore the real differences between the aspirations of different leaders and how these are reflected in their relationships with the people the govern. It is vital that we explore the different priorities in how values are ranked, both between countries, and between different sectors of civil society within countries, and to examine the justification for decision making processes which determine what actions may be pursued at the expense of others. This interrogation of authority and its relationship to governance is not only the traditional role of universities and the media, but must be an inalienable part of the social contract that exists between any government and its people (Rapp This is as necessary in the North and the West as it is in the South and the East, and it is imperative to create a level playing field for robust debates about approaches to governance world wide. Iranian contributions to this field within the ulema and the umma, as well as contributions from Muslim society at large, should be much more widely known than they are and form an integral part of much wider international debates than we have at present.

History may be on the side of the emancipators, who strive to assist the emergence of local bottom up solutions through meshworks and informal mutual help networks. However political power elites themselves arise out of communities of interest, meaning and practice that work towards increasing the influence of their particular values and interests through real or virtual empire building, be this political or economic. Both emancipators and empire builders make up such communities and both may see themselves as liberators. There are those who believe that good governance depends on educated power elites, be they left or right wing, religious or secular, because, in their view, human beings are not yet everywhere mature enough to make informed and wise decisions "for their own good". On the other hand there there are those who advocate that with empowerment through facilitation , education and capacity building ordinary people will make competent decisions about what is good for them and their community and society.

We urgently need to engage advocates of both positions in debate, dialogue and conversation that is as objective, rigorous and vigorous about points of substantive difference as it is respectful and compassionate regarding our common humanity as subjective participants in project humanitad (Wilde (1881) 2)).

Neither side will have all the arguments. Rather, top down designed solutions must co-evolve with bottom up emergent solutions in a living system which can accommodate complexity and uncertainty within stable governance structures and processes, locally, nationally and globally. Both institutions and people need time, infrastructure, an implementation roadmap, support and challenge in order to embrace change. In addition, human beings, need love and compassion, beliefs, a role, and, always, hope. Change management must be anchored in a robust dialogic process for continually negotiating shared meaning and collaborative solutions .

In order for such dialogue to succeed, we must recognize that there are significant cultural differences in the language political leaders use to engage with each other and with their people. There is much misunderstanding in the West of a style of rhetoric, going back to the style of the 13th century Sufi poets such as Farid ud- Din Attar, that traditionally uses metaphor, hyperbole, and simile as well as a poetic device which involves stringing pearls of wisdom on a thread to create a poetic chain of associations. It would seem from many of his speeches and his open letter to President Bush, that President Ahmadinejad is strongly rooted in this rhetorical tradition.

Perhaps we need to grant that President Bush may likewise be drawing on the strong rhetorical tradition of traveling hell fire preachers in his country which goes back centuries also. There certainly is some interesting academic discourse analytic research which traces similarities in the rhetorical style of President Bush and the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein (Denisa Brandt Jacobsen, pers com). We need to acknowledge the potential of style and spin to significantly affect public perception of the quality of the engagement political leaders have, firstly, with the issues, secondly, with one another, and thirdly with their supporters and detractors. Attention to the role played by rhetoric should not distract us from giving considered and careful attention to similarities and differences with respect to substantive issues, ranging from the personal and religious beliefs, their political ideologies, their style of governance within the context of the institutional frameworks of their respective countries, their commitment to human rights, international law and their commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (Alavi (2006)).

Governance increasingly relies on relationship building and effective communication as leaders realize that human needs can only be met through an increasingly globalised entrepreneurial economy which depends on the involvement of civil society actors in providing essential services. Even left leaning environmentalists such as Jonathon Porrit have recently reluctantly embraced capitalism (Porrit, 2005) and the British Labour government has been engaging in public- private partnerships on a scale far greater than any previous conservative government ever dreamt of. NGOs are springing up everywhere and civil society initiatives that raise both consciousness and money are becoming commonplace, as the Live Aid campaign for Africa has demonstrated. One such civil society initiative is campaigning for a negotiated peaceful settlement of the Iran crisis ( another is <> and there are many other initiatives expressing solidarity between ordinary people calling for peace between individuals, peoples and governments.

Leaders who prefer to have followers may feel threatened by emergent and emancipatory civil society networks for mutual help and self governance as long as they do not fully realize that they can no longer govern their people without their full and informed consent. I am viewing the business community in general as an integral part of civil society, mindful, however, that transnational companies are political and economic power brokers on a scale that exceeds the size of the smaller governments of this world.

Everywhere leaders struggle to a greater and lesser extent to find that balance between emergent and designed systems that help to stabilize their country in the face of the challenges of modern society. True leaders educate future leaders. This is as true in the North as it is the South, and it holds in the West as it holds in the East. Transnational Corporations are increasingly making leadership training available because they have realized for some time that they need to equip people with the confidence and skills to manage contingencies and to make responsible and complex decisions in difficult circumstances concerning, often, "wicked" problems. In the same way, education for citizenship must also be education for responsible participation in decision making. In Iran this has led to educating women to a very high level, and women are taking their power to demand that they should now use this education for the purpose for which they were given it: to be productive contributors to the intellectual, moral and material wealth of their country. (Mahrizi (2004), Ebadi (2006).

However, especially in the South and the East, people need to find the confidence to build much more on their own indigenous as well as personal capacity for research and strategic thinking and effective social action, rather than to graft solutions grounded in Western values onto a culture which is much more communitarian in its value base than the largely individualistic and entrepreneurial solutions typical of the North and the West. Research done in Egypt on the differences between Islamic and non Islamic businesses that shows higher levels of worker participation, profitability and remuneration in Islamic businesses is instructive here. An interesting study by the US economist Karen Pfeifer, (Pfeifer (2000)) compared Western and Islamic businesses in Egypt with respect to a number of corporate governance indicators. One interesting finding relates to the ratio between profits retained by the business and salaries paid out to employees, where Islamic owners retained 1.5 in profits and non Islamic owners retained 13.14 percent, and where the average salary across all Islamic business was around LE 450 compared to that of workers in non Islamic firms of LE 256 (statistically highly significant difference). There is increasing interest in the West in Islamic economics and Muslim approaches to profit sharing (Shakespeare and Challen (2002), Mofid (2005), El Diwani (2003) and the (interfaith) Forum for Stable Currencies, convened in the UK House of Lords by Lord Ahmed of Rotherham) are some examples.

I am certain that at the end of the day both President Bush and President Ahmadinejad know that we must engage in dialogue rather than to capitulate in the face of a putative "clash of civilisations". Civil society actors need to work together to strengthen this knowledge, by analyzing in a respectful way how each leader tries to find and hold this balance and how this compares with the compromises of other international leaders. We should not collude in adversarial and denigrating attempts by anyone to assassinate the character of either President Bush or President Ahmedinejad.


In conclusion, this contribution should be seen as an invitation to ongoing world wide participation in international dialogue and development. It is a pledge to support and help move forward the UN reforms designed to ensure that the South and the East are properly represented at all levels including the various UN NGO fora, and most particularly in the new Commission for Peacebuilding.

In this twenty first century we must generate the political will, the compassion and the wisdom to leave behind a century which has cost more lives through war and preventable disease than all previous centuries before it. We have the technology to make swords into plowshares, and we have the knowledge to plow and to sow, to nurture and to reap so that we can feed the poor.

We have methodologies for transforming conflict and violence through dialogue and development which have been tried and tested in hundreds and thousands of theatres of conflict (Rapp, 2003, and in press) . Indeed about 3000 years ago the Iranian founder of what is perhaps the oldest world religion, Zarathushthra implored his followers to pledge after him : "I pledge myself to the well-thought thought, I pledge myself to the well-spoken word, I pledge myself to the well-done action (Yasna 12 (8). - I pledge myself to the Mazdayasnian religion, which causes the attack to be put off and weaponsto be put down…” (Yasna 12 (9) These articles of faith are deemed so important that they are incorporated into the daily Kusni ritual of practitioners of that religion to this day. There is then a strong and ancient tap root for peace by peaceful means in Iranian culture which has been transformed and incorporated into Shi-i Islam as well as Sufism, and which is preserved in the annual celebration of the Persian New Year, noruz. I have the impression however, that the hard line interpretation of Islam by the current Iranian government may be threatening to suppress some of these deep currents in Iranian culture and that the erstwhile characteristic inclusivity allowing ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse groups within Iranian society to live harmoniously side by side may now be challenged.

The international community has a real opportunity, and I would say, a moral obligation - to extend support to the people of Iran by building bridges at the level of civil society initiatives, connecting across NGOs, and expressing solidarity: women to women, teachers to teachers, lawyers to lawyers, and so on. There are, thankfully, already many such civil society initiatives where organisations and individuals travel to Iran holding out the hand of friendship, and I have met many Iranian professionals at international conferences who in turn extend their hand of friendship to people outside Iran.

We do not need another war, not even a war of words (Afshar et al (2006a,2006b)). We no longer need to talk about the need to talk- the time has come relate to one another without the scales of prejudice, open to a true meeting of "hearts and minds". This has also recently been passionately advocated by Scilla Ellworthy and Gabrielle Rifkind and in their much welcomed book by the same name (Ellworthy & Rifkind (2005)). Non governmental organisations such as peace direct ( are actively working to empower civil society participation in peacebuilding. The 13th century Iranian Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar concludes his famous poem "The conference of the birds", with this line:

"And I too cease - I have described the Way

Now you must act - there is no more to say"

Acknowledgements: I am deeply grateful to the many colleagues, both from inside and outside Iran who have shared their ideas with me, and who have provided me with valuable information and feedback. You know who you are, but I want to extend special thanks to Mike Abkin, Ali Ansari, Shirin Ebadi, John German, Paul Ingram, Roya Kashefi, Nicholas MacLean, Jim McCluskey, Ali Rastbeen, Elaheh Rostameh- Povey, Sacha Stone, and Bircan Uenver. The responsibility for the views expressed and any remaining errors of fact or interpretation are entirely the author's.


1) This article is an edited version of a speech delivered on 31st May 2006 at an international conference convened by the Institut International d’Etudes Stratégiques, entitled The United Arab Emirates and the Three Iranian Islands” in London at the Foreign Press Association on Wednesday, May 31st 2006, which is itself based on a Humanitad Open letter to our International Leaders that I wrote in February when the current crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear fuel programme began to gather momentum. The article will also be published in a forthcoming issue of the electronic journal of the the Institut International d’Etudes Stratégiques (IRIS) Geostrategiques.

2) Wilde's stanza:
"Mark with serene impartiality 
The strife of things, and yet be comforted, 

Knowing that by the chain causality 
All separate existences are wed 
Into one supreme whole, whose utterance
Is joy, or holier praise! ah! surely this were governance...
sets out well his vision of good governance for the ‘project humanitad".
Summer 2006
Issue# 18
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