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photo of ebtekarinterview Massoumeh Ebtekar

Could you single out the one great achievement that you believe remains from [the revolution in] 1979?

... I think the greatest achievement is the independence of a nation. A nation which decided to stand on its own feet and to build upon its own human resources and natural resources ... and to bring about independence, freedom, and prosperity for the people. And also to create a new experience on the basis of a religious democracy -- an Islamic republic, something which was not experienced before us. It was a noble way of governing.

[It's] usually a secular perspective ... that the church and state should be separated totally, [that] politicians should not be involved in religion and the other way as well, vice versa. Religious people should stay away from politics.

The Islamic Revolution was, I think, an experience contrary to the previous experiences maybe that human civilization had with dealing with religion and politics and establishing a religious democracy in a country. That's the greatest achievement that today we can speak [of].

You have there a built-in tension between the secular and the religious. How do you assess the success? How has it sort of mediated itself in the last 22 years?

Well, there have been a lot of challenges, a lot of, I think, lessons have been learned. I think that that has added to the dynamism of the whole process. We have a very sophisticated system now in Iran, well-established and very well-supported by the people. We've had elections practically every year for different reasons according to the constitution. ... Presidential elections going on. Elections for the council which actually determines the leader [the Assembly of Experts]. That has also been going on in a regular fashion, regular manner. ...

This system has its own merits, and it has its difficulties, as well. It's been under pressure from foreign [countries], ... economic, political pressures. But it's also been under pressure from within, the pressure for change, the pressure for responding to new times, new expectations. The issue of modernization cannot be overlooked. And Iran has decided to work with the world to establish a dialogue, ... but also to preserve its independence, its national identity. I think that ... independence is the doorway to freedom. And freedom is the key to maintaining independence.

As Iran's vice president for the environment, Massoumeh Ebtekar is the country's first female vice president and effectively one of the highest-ranking women in the Muslim world today. She is also known to Americans as the spokesperson for the radicals who took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, a fact that she rarely discusses in public. Here, Ebtekar says that the decision to place Iran in the "axis of evil" was a strategic mistake, one that may prove costly to the reformers in her country. She says that Iran has always been a "partner for peace" in the region and that her country's support for the Palestinian cause is "just." Further, Ebtekar contends that there is a robust democratic system in place in Iran, with substantive debates in the press and in Parliament, but that work remains to be done and foreign interference hinders progress. Ebtekar was interviewed by correspondent Linden MacIntyre in February 2002.

... People in elected positions in this country -- the conventionally democratically elected positions -- must be in a very difficult position, caught in a squeeze between the forces of, say, youth, the aspirations of women, and the resistance from components of the governing structure. How difficult is that for someone in your position?

No one can deny that these different tendencies exist in the Iranian society but they're part of the Iranian society. And any political structure has to live with these -- this vast array, spectrum of different political, religious tendenc[ies]. ...

What the president tries to promote is the [rule] of the law. ... We've established a political framework and we have to abide [by] that. ... Each political tendency or each part of this power framework has a well-defined role. If they play the game according to that well-defined role, and if they keep to the law and the principles that we have within that political structure, things will work out in the long run.

There are challenges. I think every government, every political structure faces these challenges, more or less. It's part of the society being alive. I mean, it's natural. But the point here is that there's certain principles which we think are essential -- ... for example, the independence of the country, ... preserving human dignity, the moral integrity of the society -- [that are] based on our religious faith. ... This is something that the people ... asked for during the Islamic Revolution, during different elections. The people have shown that they like to see a religious and moral framework established in this society. ...

Everybody now accepts that these are the main issues and policies that we should follow to be able to maintain the dynamism of Islamic Republic and to achieve the objectives and goals that we have, in terms of prosperity for the Iranian population in terms of development, sustainable development. [It is] the chance for every Iranian to realize his or her God-given potentials and to play a part in the development of the society, and [achieve] not only material fulfillment but also spiritual fulfillment. And maybe, again, that's something different from what lies in the objectives of other political structures.

Historically, of course, modernity tends to bulldoze aside a lot of the spiritual, the religious principles of society. How will Iran in the final analysis avoid this historical trend?

You don't really think so? Do you think that, even in these days, modernity is still after pushing aside the spiritual dimension of the human? ...

It certainly seems that way in the West.

Well, I think that there are a lot of indications that that's not still the same way, and there's a lot of reconsideration, revisiting a lot of the previous perceptions that we had. We can see that in the Western world. We can see that in the East. And maybe that's the reason why we need to establish a stronger dialogue between the East and the West, between modernity versus religious perspectives. Modernity on one side, [and] the need to return back to human values, spiritual values, moral values [on the other]. ...

It's awfully hard to sell that message to people in their teens, even people in their 20s who are full of energy and full of dreams and needs. They look out the big window on the rest of the world through their Internet, through their television sets, and they want that.

They've been given the message that enjoyment and fulfillment is only in that realm. But maybe it's [that] the window is opened up a little bit. There might be other ways for fulfillment, for enjoyment [of] your life. I think that spiritual enjoyment is a different way of achieving many of those standards or many of those hopes and aspirations which the younger generation have. But it's just not in the picture. ...

Those who have the culture of the people in the movie industry, in the media, they tend to put aside that aspect of the human dimension. ... They go after the more flashy aspects, and that's what attracts the younger generation. They're totally right in being attracted to that -- but isn't there anything behind it? I mean, isn't there anything more in life? ... If we're talking about the freedom to choose, we have to put all the alternatives on the table. We have to let them choose. Let them see in what world they're living. ...

I think there are many aspects of Western civilization which have to be appreciated. But sometimes they don't even come through those filters. You only get the very flashy and sometimes decadent aspect of that. ... The people here, the perspective that they have about life in the West -- not only Iranian society, but many societies now in the East -- are rethinking and revisiting those issues. And the main question is, where are we heading? What do we think about the destiny of the human race? And that's the important point.

Too often we hear stories about the use of repression, the use of censorship in order to keep people on the line, ... which again, historically, tends to be counterproductive. How does Iran escape the perils of that kind of [activity]?

The president has clearly stated his position on that issue. And he's made it very clear that he is for opening up the political atmosphere in the country. He is for the freedom of expression. He is for allowing [that] within the framework of the law, because we have a law which we have to abide [by]. The president believes that there are many areas which can be reformed, or there are many practices which need to be changed.

I think that that debate goes on within the Iranian society. You're dealing with a very mature democratic society in Iran, and we see these issues coming up in the press every day. ...

How do we square that effect with the fact that newspapers [are] being closed down, intellectuals put in jail?

Well, many newspapers have closed down. Many other newspapers now have springed up; they're working and they're speaking out and they're talking about these issues and debates. Many of these issues are being tolerated now, and there's a genuine change in the approach that even the conservative sectors now have about these issues. Many of these issues couldn't be tolerated previously. They couldn't be spoken about but now they are being spoken. Now you can see them in the press. ...

I think that those debates that we have in the Parliament -- the speeches that we have, the way that issues are being tackled in the Parliament -- this gives us the confidence that we have a democratic system in place, and we have the eyes and the scrutiny of the people on all these different processes which are going on in the country. I think that gives the people the necessary confidence.

It's a difficult process; there are challenges and it goes the same for many parts of the world, many countries. Even many Western liberal democracies have these issues.

For sure. But you have an unusual situation here. You have an unusual demographic -- the higher number of young people. And you have half of the population of the country [are] women, many of whom believe that their status is not fully recognized, that there has to be serious reforms of property rights, matrimonial rights, etc. How easily can Iran, given its constitutional framework, deal with that before it turns into a serious crisis situation?

I think that there's a lot of room for reform in Iran, and I think that a lot of that reform is taking place. In terms of, for example, the rights of the woman, no one can deny that there's still many areas [where we need] to secure the rights and to restore the rights of the woman. But also no one can deny that Iranian women have advanced tremendously during the past 20 years, despite all the initially very negative propaganda about the status of women in Iran.

The global community is not going to bow and submit to the messages of unilateralism that the Americans are sending. But women have advanced to the extent that now they are taking more than 60 percent of the seats in the university entrance exam. ... More than 97 percent of our girls that [are] of schooling age have access to primary enrollment.

The fact that more than 300 women now are sitting in rural and urban councils. ... You see women from villages where traditionally these women had no place, had no say in that village. But now today, a woman is sitting in a rural council, and she's deciding alongside with men about the fates of that council. And she's speaking out about environmental issues in her village, about how to deal with the waste, how to deal with the issue of literacy, for example. This indicates that there's a genuine change, a genuine change which takes time, these cultural transformations.

Do you have that? Do you have the time? ...

We can't say that we have a lot of time, no. This process has to go through. But it takes a reasonable amount of time. ... A political transformation might happen overnight like a revolution. Well, even that took a relatively long time to materialize. But then the transformation following that, that takes time. ...

I think that the policies of the Iranian government in promoting education, particularly for women, have been very successful. Iranian women have responded, and we see now educated women in practically every field, and they're competing with their male counterparts. They're up taking different responsibilities, different positions. In the university, we see 30 percent of the faculty members are now women, and they're playing a very positive role.

The restraints which exist, the problems which exist are mostly in the marital law and the issues related to the rights of the woman within the family. But that deals with the issue of the paradigm of development that we see for women and her role in the family, and how we see the family here in Iran and according to Islamic perspectives. ...

What we are looking for in our legislation is to make sure that the spirit of Islam -- which deals with human dignity, human freedom, the right for every human being to decide about his or her future and destiny -- this should be safeguarded within the political system in the country. And then this should be worked out in a way that we also preserve the sanctity of family. Because we feel that when you're dealing with the family, it's not only the rights of two individuals, the man and the woman. But it's also the rights of children, who are expecting normally to live in a milieu where they can have more room and intellectual development. ...

The revolution in a work in progress, I believe. But what happens if the reform process stalls? And there is always that possibility that you do have an immovable force in one side of the political equation in this country. What happens if that immovable force causes this whole reform process to stall? What do you face then?

I don't think that the whole process will stop or come to a phase where it can't move ahead. I don't have this perspective.

You haven't considered beyond that?

I haven't considered beyond that, because I believe that basically the Iranian society is a religious society. Even the younger generation, the recent surveys and polls indicate that they are very seriously religious. They adhere to all the basic principles of the religion. And they believe in having these religious principles of these moral standards established in the society. But they also have other expectations, and the challenge is to meet those expectations within the framework of those principles. I think that it's not that difficult if all the parties involved play according to the rules of the game. And that's the challenge.

The other challenge is foreign pressures, which are intervening in our [affairs]. ... Usually the pretext for violence, for unlawfulness in this country, has been foreign pressures. And if we were left as an independent country to seek our destiny, that's doesn't mean breaking off relations with the world or anything, no; that means working with the rest of the world, just as any independent country can and does, but [without] having different pressures interfering.

Where do you see these pressures, and where do you see this interference coming?

I think that that's evident. ... This is the 24th year of [the] Islamic Revolution. The Islamic Revolution has been continuously threatened by political pressures, by war, by economic blockade. These pressures have not helped us in establishing a democracy. They have made things more difficult. ...

What about the most recent statement by President Bush that portrayed Iran along with Iraq and [North] Korea as agents of international terror? What does that do?

That's a strategic mistake that they're making. I think Iran is a very successful example of an independent state, a democratic state. I think that the example of Iran in terms of being able to establish an independent economy, an independent political structure, a new example of bringing together religion and democracy, this is very different. ...

The example of the Islamic Revolution in the world is an example of where many nations within the world look up to. They see that in this model there has been a reasonable amount of success and achievement. And anyone who takes a look at this country and the advances that we've made -- the fact that we are following a serious policy of sustainable development, the fact that the people are engaged in the political [system] -- this indicates that. ... Just take a look at our foreign policy, the fact that we have been a factor of peace and stability of this region. Iran has had no aggressive intentions. Iran has always been a partner for peace and trying to promote that, particularly in the recent case of Afghanistan. ...

But I think President Bush is referring to Lebanon. He's referring to Palestine. He's referring to South America. ...

The Islamic Revolution has always been a supporter of the Palestinian cause. The Islamic Revolution has always believed that the Palestinian cause is a just cause. And the Iranian people have always supported the Palestinian people. If that is a reason why the Iranian people should be punished, well, then that [decision] should be opened up for the world to make.

It's a discussion of methodology that's at issue here. It's the question of the tactics of organizations that test the law militarily. ...

Those are claims that need to be substantiated it, claims and issues which have never been proven. And the fact is that the Iranian nation supports the Palestinian nation, supports the just cause of the Palestinians. And if there's any reason to be worried about weapons of mass destruct[ion] or terrorism, I think that the Zionist state is a serious reason to be worried. The amount of weaponry that [that] state has can't be compared to any state in this region, the way that they've been using that against the Palestinian people, and the way that they've been occupying Palestinian territory. Even if the Americans try to get away with this, I don't think that human society, humanity would never accept these double standards.

That said, President Bush has drawn, as his father once did, the line in the sand. ... You have a reform process here. Whether or not it's adequate, I guess time will tell. What does it do to the reform movement, and to people who are in positions where you have to deal with the demand for reform, when someone with the power of the president of the United States makes a statement that this country and this regime is part of the agency of terror, part of the agency of destruction in the world? ...

... The response is an overwhelming response: All different factions [are] united. ... I think that that's natural, because it's a response to preserve the independence and the integrity of Iran. There's no question to that. So in a way, it's brought together these different factions on a common point, on a common stance.

But as I mentioned, foreign intervention, foreign pressures could also injure the reform process, the democratic processes in the country. I think that they are making a mistake, a strategic mistake, which they have been making the past years and they made initially in terms of not understanding [the] Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The strategic mistake [is] that [the] time for unilateralism has passed away. The global community is not going to bow and submit to the messages of unilateralism that the Americans are sending. The global community is looking for an international arena where democracy is cherished, like it's cherished within the American state. It should be cherished at the international level as well, if we're not dealing with double standards, if we're dealing with a set of values and standards, universal values that we have in the Charter of Human Rights.

If we're dealing with universal values, these values should apply to every society. They should apply for the Palestinian people. They should apply for the Afghan people. They should apply for the Iranian people, and they should apply for the American people.

And that's the problem. The problem lies in these double standards and the fact that an arrogant government is trying to impose its will upon the global community. It's upon the global community to sit down and watch humanity die and fade away; or to stand up for those principles -- principles of human dignity, principles of human rights, principles of democracy, which at least we all claim to believe in. Stand up and say that this is a case of serious mismanagement in global affairs. We need to put our affairs into place and to sit down and decide. America's unilateralism has damaged the global environment.

Initially, they brought a severe blow to the climate change talks. But due to the efforts of the global community, the Kyoto Protocol was kept together and we, the Islamic movement of Iran, had an important role in bringing those negotiations to a positive conclusion. They did the same in the conference on racism in Durban. ... They just feel that they don't need to abide to international standards. They have the power. They have the resources. They are the body of the world.

Well, I think this is very simple because we're talking about human instincts. God has given every human being a sense of dignity, and no one has the right to undermine that dignity

Let me ask you one final question -- and it's a question that everybody has to try to understand. The nature of Iranian democracy -- where on one side of equation, you have people who were elected, [who] go to the masses for legitimacy, and then the other side of the equation, [you have] people who [aren't elected] and ... they have primacy over the elected. What kind of a democracy is this?

I can't agree with [that], because that's not exactly the way that you've just put it. Even the [Assembly] of Experts is elected directly by the people, OK? We have a council of experts who are elected directly by the people, a nationwide election for the [Assembly] of Experts, I think every four or five years. The [Assembly] of Experts decides about the leadership of the country. So it's not an un-elected minority as they put it, or it's not the way that you just defined it. ...

[The Assembly of Experts determines] the [Supreme] Leader, and then also follow[s] up on the practices of the leader, supervising the practices of the leader and the functions of the leader. ... It's elected by the people. This is according to the constitution. ...

Liberal democracy is one form of democracy. We have other different types of democracy. We have social democracy. If you look at the political philosophies now which exist, for example, taking the different political systems in Europe and the West, you see that there is a framework for this democracy. A framework has been defined. ... You have a red line in terms of your code of conduct in your society. You have a red line in terms of your political system in the West. You have a code of moral standards. ...

But where that red line is drawn: That's the point. We draw that red line on the basis of the religious principles of Islam. ... The fact that the religious establishment has a set of moral codes, I think that these codes, these norms, these values exist everywhere. It's just how you define them. ...

I guess the problem is that when you have your red lines and your codes dictated by secular considerations, it's difficult enough to accommodate people's demands for change and reform. When it's defined by religious codes and religious standards that are very old--

Again, I have to disagree with the wording that you use. Religious principles never become old, because they have the spiritual backing. Religion is different from philosophy, from politics, in that it deals with an infallible source. An infallible, immaterial source which is supposed to respond to all needs of humanity irrespective of time, place, race, culture. This is what religion is supposed to respond to. This is what God has sent for the human race.

If we do not interpret this religion properly, if we do not understand it, that's our fault. But religion never becomes old. Islam never becomes old. This is what we believe in. It has a factor which awakens the mind and the hearts of people. That is the essence of life and that is the spirit of Islam, and that is what we have to realize. That's the challenge that we have in today's times, to bring that spirit to life in today's world and to show that this is a model. It's a different model of political, social, economic development. But it is a model which has been responding in many aspects. It has its gains, it has its losses; no one can deny. But it's the model which I think it's worth it to consider it in today's political world, in today's economic world, and to take a different perspective, instead of stereotyping it.

Now that Iran has invited the world to enter dialogue amongst civilizations, it's time to enter dialogue and make many of these basic and fundamental issues. Not only a superficial political debate, but debating some of these more concrete issues, which actually are shaping our policies, are shaping our lives, are shaping our destiny. And that's the message that President [Khatami] had been proclaiming, [that] ... the next decade [is] the decade of dialogue. ...

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