Grawemeyer Award Winner Trita Parsi Talks about Middle East

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

While Trita Parsi, winner of the 2010 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, was in Louisville to receive his award from the University of Louisville, he also spoke at the Jewish Community Center at a noon event sponsored by Interfaith Paths to Peace.

Parsi, the co-founder and president of the National Iranian American Council set forth his award winning ideas about improving relations among Iran, Israel and the United States in his 2007 book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S. There were 54 nominations for this Grawemeyer Award. He also received the Council on Foreign Relation’s 2008 Arthur Ross Silver Medallion for his work.

With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spewing venomous anti-Israel rhetoric and denying the Holocaust, Parsi says the situation today is very grave, but it has not always been like that.

In fact, Jews and Persians have a long history of positive relations that date back to 539 B.C.E. when Cyrus the Great liberated the Hebrews from Babylon. A third of the Hebrews chose to remain in Babylonia, Parsi said, a third returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the temple – funded by Persian tax dollars – and a third settled in Persia where they flourished for many years.

More recently, many Persian Jews have emigrated and made aliyah to Israel, although some 25,000 remain in Iran.

Parsi posits that Iran has been struggling to achieve democracy for over a century, and as was demonstrated in the elections last fall, much of the Iranian population does not agree with the current leadership’s hard-line stances.

The current situation, he believes is the result of the interplay between internal and external dynamics. In 1953, Iran was a democracy, he contends, and the United States and Britain masterminded a coup that reinstalled the Shah. It was under the Shah, with encouragement from the U.S. and Britain, that Iran started its nuclear program.

Parsi also explored the relationship between Iran and Iraq, Israel and the United States as the different parties jockeyed for power in the Middle East. For example, Iran sometimes provided funding for all sides in regional skirmishes in countries like Afghanistan so that all elements would be dependent upon the Iranians and it wouldn’t matter which side won.

He also found a parallel between Iran and Israel – both are isolated from their neighbors in the region. He described Iran as a Persian Shiite state in a sea of Sunnis and Arabs.

As antagonists, Parsi observed that to date, Israel and Iran have only engaged each other through proxies. Iran uses Hamas and Hezbollah, so it has never engaged in direct warfare with Israel.

The increasing danger of direct conflict, he views as disastrous. If Israel would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Parsi believes it could not win despite superior military capacity. As a democracy, he pointed out, Israel can’t sustain a long war. The Israeli public, when engaged in the Lebanon war, quickly pressed for the end of the hostilities. It couldn’t tolerate bombs landing in Haifa. And at best, he contends, such an attack would only set Iran’s nuclear program back by two to five years.

Iran, on the other hand, as a tightly controlled society, has the tenacity to sustain attacks over a long period of time. During the Iran/Iraq war, which lasted eight years, bombs landed in Tehran regularly. Iran would wait out any war with Israel and even with some military success, Israel would lose in the international community as it did in Lebanon.

Parsi also believes the U.S. can’t afford a third war in the Middle East, especially if it is triggered by a third country.

Instead, Parsi advocates open dialogue.

With patience, he believes the internal situation in Iran will change and sooner or later democracy will succeed there. He believes the current ayatollah, the religious leader who is regarded as more powerful than Ahmadinejad, will be the last to hold sole power. Parsi believes he will be replaced by a council of four.

He advises the United States to do more to support the people of Iran. Sanctions, he believes will not work. They hurt the people without affecting the leaders. He also advises to keep the language of war at a minimum so Iran’s leadership will not be able to get the people to accept security measures that constrain their human rights.

Parsi also advocates revising current sanctions to allow technology exchanges that promote the flow of information like Facebook and Twitter. Images of violence following last fall’s elections reached the rest of the world through Facebook, however, the way the current sanctions are written companies that provide that access may be in violation.

In addition, he reminds western leaders to be patient. Iran will change, he believes, but on its own timeline, not one imposed on it by others.

At the present time, the Jews remaining in Iran are safe, and as a religion that existed before Islam, they have rights. In fact, he believes many of the Jews that left Iran for Israel did so with an end goal of coming to the United States, and if they don’t like what they find, they will go back to Iran.

He also believes the presence of Jews in Iran is another factor restraining Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear program.

The Baha’i community, however, does not enjoy the same protections. Since the faith was established after Islam, Iran does not give its followers any rights or protections. Today, seven Baha’is are on trial, accused of espionage, and are expected to be sentenced any day. The entire Baha’i community is at risk.

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