Middle East
5:31 am
Fri December 20, 2013

Report: West Can Use Science To Forge Ties With Iran

Originally published on Fri December 20, 2013 10:13 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Western and Iranian negotiators have a tough job to conclude a long-term deal on Iran's nuclear program. Many in the U.S. Congress want tougher sanctions on Iran rather than the reverse. Iranian conservatives argue the United States cannot be trusted. The National Iranian-American Council says it wants to weaken those Iranian hardliners.

The group has urged loosening sanctions on Iran for years, and now Trita Parsi, the group's president, says he wants to challenge a powerful Iranian narrative - the story that the U.S. and its allies are simply out to oppress Iran.

TRITA PARSI: This narrative has roots that date back a hundred years because of the history of Iran with the West. Now, of course like all narratives there's some grains of truth in it and there's a lot of falsehoods in it.

INSKEEP: The narrative is that the West has been a colonial power here in the past. They've put us down in the past. They're still trying to do it now. They're not being honest about their...

PARSI: Exactly. And at the core of this narrative is that the West does not want Iran to develop scientifically. And when there's been assassinations of nuclear scientists, it's been a narrative that's become very strong. But thanks to the elections, a group of people came to power who, for a very long time, have believed that it lies in the interest of Iran to have a better relationship with the West and that they actually can find many areas of collaboration and cooperation.

INSKEEP: In other words, that the West can, to some limited extent, be trusted.

PARSI: Absolutely. In fact, one of the core individuals of this narrative is the foreign minister. He oftentimes says that there can only be a win-win solution or there will be a lose-lose scenario.

INSKEEP: Iran Foreign Minister Zarif.

PARSI: Either both lose or both win. It was the dominant narrative of the Khatami administration; that's part of the reason why the Iranians collaborated extensively with the United States in Afghanistan in 2001. It was people like Zarif who were at the helm of that. Thanks to the elections, they're now back into power, but they have one big challenge.

They have never truly been able to prove that their narrative of collaboration and greater flexibility actually yields any positive results for Iran.

INSKEEP: And this matters, I guess we should emphasize, because while Iran is far from being a Western-style democracy, there are a lot of different power centers within Iran and whose idea of the world prevails determines how much Iran might be willing to make a final nuclear deal.

PARSI: Absolutely true. But not only that, this may also help define who determines the direction of Iran going forward for decades to come, not just on the nuclear issue, but on its domestic politics, everything from the degree of repression to Internet freedom to just plain acceptance and respect for human rights.

All of this can be affected by what happens with this nuclear deal and if we can manage to disprove the hard line narrative to show that there is much more for Iran to gain by being collaborative, by taking a risk for peace.

INSKEEP: If you can prove that, but how would you prove that?

PARSI: Well, we're suggesting seven different projects that all focus on expanding collaboration between Iran and the United States in the scientific field. These have nothing to do with the nuclear program. It would be, for instance, collaboration in neuroscience. The Iranians are actually very, very advanced in that area, and I know a lot of American neuroscientists who would like to have far greater collaboration.

It's a win-win.

INSKEEP: I want to be sure that I understand what you would hope to accomplish with these kinds of efforts. You don't think that the most hard line Iranian officials are going to change their minds about the United States or the West because of a scientific conference, do you?

PARSI: No. But we believe that the receptivity for the narrative amongst the population and within the elite will significantly weaken.

INSKEEP: Since we're talking about competing narratives in Iran, let's talk about narratives in the West. I'm imagining an Israeli official or quite a number of American officials too saying to you, what on Earth are you talking about? These guys are very dangerous. We need to keep the pressure on and you're talking about scientific conferences and green energy for them? Why give them anything?

PARSI: If we're afraid that the Iranians have green technology, which actually makes nuclear energy less attractive, if we're afraid of that, then perhaps there's something to that hard line narrative that says that the United States is against development of science in Iran. I don't think that's true. I think there's some elements here who have become so ingrained in this belief that this enmity is unresolvable so they want to take it to the final logical conclusion, which is a military confrontation.

Certainly there are people in Iran who are very much afraid of losing an enemy. I hope that's not true in the United States.

INSKEEP: Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council. Thanks very much.

PARSI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.