Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Elham Yaghoubian, an Iranian democracy activist, writer, co-founder of Marze Por Gohar (Iranians For a Secular Republic) and founder of Iran-Israel Alliance of Nations (IRISAN). IRISAN is a team of Iranian and Israeli activists and academics of varying religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds who work to raise awareness of the political and ancestral history of the two nations in order to promote understanding and a venue for receptive relations.
FP: Elham Yaghoubian, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about your new group. But first, let us begin with the problem itself that your group is trying to fix.
For instance, last Friday, Iran and a number of Muslim and Arab countries celebrated al-Quds Day. Tell us what this day signifies.
Yaghoubian: Thanks, Jamie.
Al-Quds Day is the annual anti-Zionist day. Iran commemorates this day by organizing marches and expressions of hatred towards Jews and the state of Israel.
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) in 1979, the destruction of Israel has been one of the foundations of the regime’s ideology, and the elimination of the State of Israel has become an official state policy. The same year as the revolution, al-Quds Day was invented as a result of Khomeini’s anti-Semitic propaganda, as he declared the confrontation with Israel as a “national and religious duty.” Accordingly, every year on the last Friday of Ramadan, al-Quds Day is commemorated with mass parades led by the regime to emphasize hatred of the State of Israel.
FP: How about the self-styled “reformists”? What’s their approach towards Israel?
Yaghoubian: The so-called “reformists” are expected by the West and many Iranians alike to introduce more democratic values to the system. The reality remains, however, that the regime by nature is against Israel. There is no fundamental difference between the various personalities and perspectives within the regime. Al-Quds Day was first suggested by Ebrahim Yazdi, the leader of one of the reformist parties, Freedom Movement. In 2001, Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential IRI politician, who in the recent presidential elections ran with the full support of reformists, said that “the application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but would simply produce damages in the Muslim world.”
FP: In one of his recent comments, Rafsanjani said, “We are not at war with Israel,” correct? What is the ploy here?
Yaghoubian: Rafsanjani may change the words he chooses, but not his views. He has also mentioned that, “if Arab countries are at war with Israel, we will help them.”
Former reformist president Mohammad Khatami called Roger Garaudi, the infamous French Holocaust-denier, a great thinker and invited him to Iran, in addition to expressing strong support for him while he was on trial.
This regime requires the existence of a conspiracy in order to survive. They use Israel as a pretext through which to unite Islamic fundamentalism.
FP: Was Ahmadinejad the “extremist” among them?
Yaghoubian: Ahmadinejad was the true face of this regime. Soon after he reached office, he publicly called Israel a “tumor” and quoted Khomeini, saying that Israel “must be wiped off the map of the world.” He also announced live on state television that the Holocaust was a myth made up by Zionists, and he continued to repeat this in many of his speeches and interviews. In this last month before he leaves office, he has proudly called his Holocaust Denial one of his greatest achievements.
FP: Your thoughts on the incoming President Rouhani?
Yaghoubian: Although the Western world perceives Rouhani as the moderate one, just one glance at his background shows exactly who is he and what he believes.
Though his role and involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires is not entirely clear, he has been linked to the attack; it is believed he was on the planning committee. Furthermore, in response to the congratulatory letters he received upon his victory from Syria’s Bashar Assad and Hezbollah’s Hassam Nasrallah, he expressed hope for, “comprehensive political and economic cooperation” and to “confront the plots of the enemies of the region, particularly the State of Israel.
FP: How do you see the relations between Iranians and Israelis?
Yaghoubian: For the last 34 years, there were no official relations between the two states, as the IRI has, since its formation, focused on indoctrinating its citizens, especially children, with hate and misinformation. For example, every morning at school, students are expected to chant anti-Israel slogans. Furthermore, propaganda about Israel is spread through the one-sided and biased news, or various TV programs that portray Israelis and Jews as brutal and evil creatures. Naturally, these children start believing that Israel is an enemy.
But the generation that experienced the past friendship between the two states feels quite differently. They know that the two nations have many common regional strategic interests, have supported each other during times of crises and that great things come about when the two peoples cooperate.
Luckily, the advancement of communication technology over the past few years has played a positive role in the education of the new generation, and it is a tool to connect to one another – from person to person.
FP: So let us now get to your new group. Tell us about it.
Yaghoubian: We created a group on Facebook in 2008 in order to help the young generation of both Iranians and Israelis learn more about each other and their historical connection. The group, named “Iran-Israel Alliance of Nations,” started with the idea of developing an understanding of the natural relationship between both cultures, and to show the common core values. I became incredibly excited as more and more people joined the group, and showed their interest in working on this project. The discussion of many members focused on the benefits of a close, strong relationship based on an extraordinary historic friendship.
Through this Facebook group, many Iranians have started to learn more about Israel, Israelis and their history, and the same for Israelis regarding Iran and Iranians. Here, Israelis also get a chance to get to know the Iranian people beyond the Islamic Regime.
Remarkably, I’ve seen that among those Iranians who support this movement, there are individuals who were once indoctrinated by the regime and used to advocate anti-Israel ideology. Today, they’ve learned that Iran’s interest is not in war, but rather in promoting peace.
FP: Tell us about the recent trip to Israel by an Iranian movie-director, as the first who broke this taboo.
Yaghoubian: That was a very positive step indeed, but I should mention that he was not the first to break this taboo. In 2010, Caspian Makan, an Iranian artist and former political prisoner, visited Israel, announcing that he came as an ambassador of Iranian people and messenger from the camp of peace. He also had a meeting with Israeli president, Shimon Peres.
Also, as you and your readers might know, in the last three decades, Iranian athletes have been forbidden to face Israeli athletes by the Islamic Republic, even at the Olympic Games. But recently, Hamed Haddadi, an Iranian NBA player, posed for a picture with Omir Caspi, an Israeli NBA player, breaking away from what the regime tries to impose. These are just two examples that, unfortunately, didn’t get enough coverage at the time.
FP: In your opinion, what else needs to be done?
Yaghoubian: I believe that through grassroots activism we can help nations come closer together. There are vast populations of young people from both Israel and Iran that are interested in learning more about each other, and in building a relationship – whether social, cultural or economic. That became overwhelmingly clear when “Iran-Israel Alliance of Nations” was launched.
Before the Islamic Revolution, the two states had worked with each other in several areas, including military and intelligence, agriculture and engineering. This group initiated the first step to re-establish those ties. We will expand our activities by evolving this group into a non-profit organization, and we are working on different projects which promote respect and compassion, encouraging people towards peaceful actions and conversations to actualize a healthier, safer and more tolerant society for all.
FP: What are some of your upcoming projects?
Yaghoubian: Right now, our organization, with the help of some key community members, is working on a friendly soccer game under the name of “Cyrus the Great” between an Iranian and Israeli team. We’re hoping to hold this game during the time that the Cyrus Cylinder will be in Los Angeles.
FP: Elham Yaghoubian, we wish you the best of luck. Thanks for joining Frontpage Interview.
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