How can the crisis over Iran be resolved without resort to violence? Scilla Elworthy looks at the possibilities for creative action at citizen level.


Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer and Nobel peace laureate, writes in her new autobiography Iran Awakening : "Bellicosity and brinkmanship are what have brought us to where we stand now, but they remain ingrained habits for both sides….The threat of regime change by military force, while reserved as an option by some in the western world, endangers nearly all the efforts democracy-minded Iranians have made in these recent years."

Even the threat of force gives the Iranian government a pretext to crack down on the opposition and undermine the civil-society groupings that are slowly forming. It also, in Ebadi's words, "makes Iranians overlook their resentment of the regime and move behind their unpopular leaders out of defensive nationalism."
Nor is it constructive for outside forces to attempt to foment violent rebellion, as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration, in the form of Condoleezza Rice's state department, has sought $75 million in emergency funding to promote democracy in Iran, in addition to $10 million already budgeted. Iranian activists say that the result of financial aid from the United States would be to inflame sensitivities and put civil-society activists in peril. So, when all traditional diplomatic means have failed to bring agreement, and the use of force would clearly be disastrous, we have to think more laterally about what can be done. In what ways can Iranians be supported to bring about the changes that the majority want to see?

Here are four practical proposals:

Listen to Iranians

We have heard very little about what the Iranian people think and want in this controversy, especially younger people. A first step would be to identify the brightest young professionals in Iran, and their counterparts in the US who are knowledgeable about the conflict. Send the Iranians to Washington for a month, and the Americans to Tehran for a month. In both cases arrange for them to have the maximum opportunity possible to debate with their peers, and support them with first-class facilitation.

This initiative could be sponsored by the largest corporations with interests in Iran. The task is to come up with proposals for resolving the conflict without military action. Their proposals are then championed by the business leaders, who go with them – amid substantial publicity – to discuss the proposals with their own government, and the government of the other side. If Paul Rogers is right that the most likely time for a US attack is before the mid-term elections in November, there is time to do this.

Use women

The brusquely-rejected letter from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to his American counterpart George W Bush is itself evidence that no substantive, official channels of communication are currently in operation between Tehran and Washington. In the absence of official channels, Track II diplomacy or "backchannels" become all the more essential, and some already exist. But women are hardly involved at all, and Iran is a nation of educated, conscious women who are agitating for their rights.

Women have played a key role in mediation and negotiation in Northern Ireland, Liberia, Somalia, Kenya, and in most countries of east-central Europe that have experienced the equivalent of a "velvet revolution". So they could usefully be involved and engaged in helping to sort out this crisis. The US and Iran are both bound under United Nations security council Resolution 1325, which recognises the vital role that women can play in conflict prevention, peace negotiations and mediation.

Respected international non-governmental organisations could help to arrange talks between women economists, oil experts, lawyers, religious specialists and policy analysts from Iran and the US. The two teams should meet supported by skilled facilitation, and brainstorm ways forward that can avert war. The best ideas could be built into a public platform, and high-profile champions – people like utterances are portrayed in the west as ridiculous or insane, we in the west have little opportunity to learn what ordinary people in Iran want; although Iranians have limited information, they do have views on how the nuclear issue can be managed.

There now exist well trained "citizen bridge-builders" from countries not directly involved in the dispute, who could travel to different parts of Iran, hear peoples' views, speak on Iranian media, and come home and speak on western media about what they have learned. In this way the demonising of Iran could be slowed down, human-rights issues could gain a higher profile, and a more perceptive communication could begin.

Move the moral goalposts

The current United States / United Kingdom position on nuclear weapons can be summed up as: "it is appropriate for us to build more nuclear weapons, but it is not appropriate for you to have any." People all over the globe observe that this position is morally indefensible and pragmatically untenable.

A way of finessing the situation would be for the British government to declare that, in the interests of achieving a nuclear-free world, it will forego the chance to rebuild its Trident nuclear deterrent. The US could, with no risk to national security, announce the disposal of its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). This missile has been around since the 1980s but is about to be "re-engined" to keep it operational for another thirty years.

These actions would provide some ground for the Iranian leadership to save face by "postponing" its nuclear plans. A treaty could be proposed, that would offer Iran concrete advantages as a reward. A further advantage of the US getting out of ICBMs might be to persuade the Russians to think about doing likewise, as they are spending heavily on their ageing fleet to try and keep it operational. The "win x three" outcome of this approach would then turn into an even more advantageous "win x four".

Conversely, if the US were to attack Iran this would be the one thing that would make Iranians use every means at their disposal to develop nuclear weapons. Thus an attack would either speed up the process or require further attacks over the coming years.

In this situation, political maturity is essential to avoid an escalating disaster. Every grain of foresight has to be employed by those in Tehran, Washington, London and Brussels. But it is not only a matter for diplomats. It is a time for initiative from others – from policy institutes who can host Track II negotiations, from women's organisations who can put forward remarkable mediators, from business leaders who could initiate the swap of the best young professionals, from NGOs and others trained to build the bridges so sorely needed.

Scilla Elworthy is founder of Peace Direct and co-author (with Gabrielle Rifkind) of Making Terrorism History (Rider, February 2006). She founded and led the Oxford Research Group from 1982, and was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize in 2003.