In a recent article published in both US and Europe, Shirin Ebadi and a fellow academi named Mohammad Sahimi have urged the linking of Iran’s nuclear program to human rights, urging the World Bank to “stop providing Iran with loans” until the rule of democracy has been respected by the government [“Link Nuclear Program to Human Rights” International Herald Tribune, July 19, 2006]. Their advise must be music to the White House’s ear, which is now committing vast sums of money to promote democracy in Iran as a deterrent against Iran’s “nuclear menace.”
As a human rights advocate unhappy with the post-Khatami negative developments with respect to human rights, Ebadi is, of course, on the right track when calling on the Iranian government to show more respect for civil and human rights. Yet, the respected Nobel Peace recipient and her colleague are on the wrong track when advising the World Bank to stop its loans to Iran, for the following reasons:
First, had Ebadi and Sahimi bothered for a moment to examine the nature of World Bank’s current projects in Iran, they would have instantly recognized the flaws in their argument. Briefly, the World Bank renewed its ties with Iran in 2000, providing loans to Iran for health, sanitation, reconstruction of Bam after the earthquake, water supply, primary health care and nutrition, etc. Case in point, the World Bank has given a loan to support Iran’s Caspian provinces in managing scarce water resources.
Not only that, the World Bank has plans to expand its cooperation with Iran, and a recent report by the World Bank on Iran states:
“The overarching objective of the World Bank’s partnership with Iran, is to support the country’s economic transition and structural reform agenda towards a more open economy, sustainable growth with improved income distribution. Building on past experience, the CAS aims to help Iran advance key policy reforms and development objectives of Fourth Five-Year Development Plan. In particular, it will recommend an integrated reform of Iran’s oversized, inefficient and untargeted subsidies system to reach its objectives of growth and social justice. It continues the emphasis on supporting Iran’s effort in rebuilding its physical economic infrastructure and building capacity for a knowledge-based economy. Through its lending component, the CAS envisages continuing past Bank support in water resources and sanitation, the environment and agriculture infrastructure, as well as an integrated package in support of urban public transport and energy efficiency reform and development which are in the critical path of the important energy subsidy reform.”
Now, if the World Bank executives were to listen to the “expert” advise of Ebahi and Sahimi, they would put a stop to all the above-said projects and, instead, adopt a wait and see approach to see if the government of Iran cleans up its act on human rights or not, and if not, then would postpone their much-needed assistance indefinitely.
One expects such indefensible positions from the dogmatic and unreconstructed discourses of certain opposition groups abroad who are completely out of touch with the Iranian people, but to hear Ebadi echoing their sentiments without any sign of reflection on the implications of her point of view certainly leaves a lot to be desired. A more prudent approach by Ebadi would have been to, instead, urge the World Bank and other international lending institutions to increase their assistance to Iran through such projects mentioned above, which can only be implemented through collaboration with the (local) government — Ebadi and Sahimi want the World Bank to channel its loans to the non-government organizations instead, yet another unworkable idea given the nature of projects such as the sewage project, water supply, etc.
Unlike her co-author who resides in Los Angeles, Ebadi lives in Iran and, hence, one would expect her to be a little more in tune with the needs and priorities of Iranian people, on whose behalf she lectures widely around the world. Yet, sadly the respected human rights advocate is seemingly devoting too much time air shuttling from one international forum to another to contemplate seriously the complexities of Iran’s national interests.
This brings me to another questionable aspect of the Ebadi-Sahimi proposals on the nuclear issue. They defend Iran’s right to nuclear technology, which is nice, and in fact echoes an earlier article by this author and professor Sahimi in International Herald Tribune, but then go on to make a forceful argument that Iran should be denied critical aspect of this technology so long as human rights violations continue in Iran, calling for a special UN envoy on rights in Iran to give annual reports on Iran.
While a sound proposal on the surface, once we begin to peel through its content, its serious deficiencies become all too evident. Iran’s right to create nuclear fuel under international inspection cannot be put on the shelf for the sake of another right, human rights, no matter how we cut it. The former right is given to Iran under an international regime treaty, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and legally speaking, to impose such linkages is tantamount to re-writing the norms of NPT. But, the NPT is already in serious trouble partly as a result of the nuclear-have nations’ disregard for their responsibility to disarm, and Mrs. Ebadi as a trained lawyer should know better than to try to infuse extraneous considerations to an international regime such as NPT (her colleague being a chemist can be excused).
Add to this the historical argument that also contradicts the bold assumption by Ebadi and Sahimi that the West’s anxieties over Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be put to rest in a democratic Iran. This is a naive view point born by the authors’ innocence of the country’s national security concerns prompting certain strategic analysts in Iran to argue in favor of being “nuclear-ready” to bolster the nation’s national security in the post 9/11 milieu. These national security discourses in Iran will not disappear overnight and, hypothetically speaking, should the Ebadi dream of a genuinely democratic government be realized in the near future, in light of the external national security concerns there will probably be little change in the motivating forces behind those strategic discourses inside Iran. One only needs to look at the recent nuclear doctrine of France, a democratic country, promising use of nuclear weapons against conventional threats, hardly a comforting assurance by the nuclear-have nots.
But, of course, a nub of the problem is that our respected champions of rights and democracy in Iran have overextended their areas of expertise and in so doing they have to some extent mirror-imaged the very clergy they criticise for meddling in politics. Mrs. Ebadi’s colleague in Los Angeles has a vested interest in not antagonizing his circles in the US, but one expects Mrs. Ebadi to show more sensitivity to her constituency inside Iran.
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