Friday, October 4, 2013

Peace an Imperative

The Guardian published this op-ed yesterday. I am providing the text as well as links to the newspaper and related news stories here on my blog. Peace is an Imperative
The past half-century has been an era of unprecedented human advancement. Yet it is equally defined as an epoch of numerous wars and conflicts leading to millions of deaths and endless suffering. Peace has been more elusive than ever in certain parts of the world such as the Middle East and Africa. In the Islamic heartland we have seen more than 10 major wars and conflicts devastate the region in three decades. While the origin of each conflict rests in both internal and external elements, there are lessons to be learned by global leaders and actions to be taken so that such wars and carnage cease. Looking forward, these societies, with the support of the international community, need long-term efforts to address their deep wounds, mend their broken fabric, rebuild cities, reinvigorate agricultural areas and revive the shattered natural and human environment. Because of the human devastation that always follows war, environmental damage is often overlooked, and poorly quantified and evaluated. Yet this destruction is long term, destroys natural resources and inflicts major economic and environmental losses, for generations in some cases. In other instances, a deliberate destruction of natural resources and water is aimed at weakening the so-called enemy. Unconventional warfare has also been employed, causing excessive contamination of soil and water, as in the case of the use of mustard gas by Saddam Hussein against Iranian civilians – still suffering 25 years after the fact. The deployment of depleted uranium munitions by coalition forces throughout Iraq will impact that nation literally for centuries. All this underlines the imperative of peace as a prerequisite for the development and growth of all nations. A long history of foreign intervention and occupation, weak governance systems stemming from a lack of transparency and accountability, civil strife and conflicts are all reasons for tensions and war in this region. A complicated history of 19th- and 20th-century western cartographic invention, calculated poverty and frustration has fuelled flames of real hatred. One result is a distorted and violent faction of "takfiris" whose practice today remains in contradiction with the spirit and basic teachings of Islam. Although Islam advocates resistance in the face of aggression and allows the oppressed to defend their collective and individual dignity and human worth, there are also numerous references to compassion, moral standards, ethical values and avoidance of extremism in the Holy Qur'an. I believe that war and extremism are two major threats to sustainable development in today's world. Considering these circumstances, any effort to strengthen ties among nations, to resolve conflicts and to prevent further tensions is an effort to advance humanity. The west's political stalemate with Iran over its nuclear energy programme and the crisis and humanitarian calamity in Syria are two contemporary challenges that require urgent resolution. The use of force and the threat to use force are both contrary to the spirit of the UN charter. The 68th general assembly of the United Nations provided a unique opportunity for the leaders of Iran and the west to engage in constructive dialogue to resolve outstanding issues pertaining to long years of non-communication stemming from an even longer history of US intervention in Iran. These leaders came with a mandate to negotiate and demonstrated their desire to do so with the first presidential telephone conversation between the two sides since 1979. That might appear insignificant, but was of huge global political importance. The foreign ministers had previously sat together face to face and positively changed the atmosphere for dialogue and resolution of conflict in the region. This development on both sides succeeded despite strong pressure from hardliners and those looking backwards instead of forwards within the political context of their respective nations. President Rouhani, who called for change and moderation in Iran, was elected by a competitive democratic voting process in Iran. He now has the overwhelming mandate of the general populace, including the educated elite and critics who were estranged for eight years by the irrational and counterproductive policies of the former president. The new president came to the UN with an unrestricted mandate to settle the nuclear dispute with the west. President Rouhani proposed a global movement he called Wave – World Against Violence and Extremism – in his UN address. He fared well after the strong diplomatic overtures and arguments that the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, put forward on Iran's behalf. When the supreme leader called these efforts "heroic flexibility", it became clear that there is a concerted effort for the resolution of domestic disputes too. President Rouhani's election has created optimism for an internal resolution of political tensions. There has been a gradual release of political prisoners who were detained on the grounds of opposition to the results of the controversial elections of 2009. This demonstrates a unified and genuine effort on behalf of Iran to change the political atmosphere while adhering to the basic precepts and principles of the Islamic republic and the inalienable right of Iran to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. President Obama also indicated that the US does not seek regime change in Tehran and that the two countries can have a different, more open relationship after the dispute is settled. While the US seems ready to reciprocate, many observers question whether all the elements of the US administration are pulling in the same direction and whether there will be practical confidence-building measures in the near future to consolidate the fruits of this visit. In 1998 when President Khatami came to the UN with the novel approach of "Dialogue among civilisations", he faced an unrelenting storm of internal pressure while the US president branded Iran a member of the "axis of evil", thus neutralising his excellent initiative at both the domestic and global levels. With the passage of 15 years and the loss of millions of lives in global wars, perhaps we have all learned our lesson, and global leaders are more prepared to say no to militarism, terrorism, nuclear arsenals and extremism. As an environmentalist and a political activist who was involved very early on in my life in the tumultuous events of Iran's revolution, I sincerely believe that we need a global alliance today against war and violence. We need to stand up for peace. We need to sign up for protecting our precious natural environment. The past really needs to become the past. Wide open vistas are waiting for humanity to simply open its collective eyes.