Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Jan Oberg

By: Kourosh Ziabari


The First International Conference on World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) held in Tehran on December 9-10 last year following the endorsement of President Hassan Rouhani’s proposal for the establishment of a global front against terrorism and extremism was a landmark event in the final days of 2014 in Tehran and brought together hundreds of government officials, diplomats, peace activists intellectuals, scholars and academicians from some 40 countries to the Iranian capital.

The big international gathering underlined the leading role Iran has been playing in confronting terrorism and violence in the Middle East, especially following the rise of the terrorist group ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the intensification of its terror campaign against the innocent people of these two countries.

The majority of the participants lauded the initiative taken by the Iranian government, and praised its timeliness while war and unrest is taking in the Middle East, already an unstable and turbulent region.

The renowned Danish academician and peace researcher Jan Oberg* was one of the attendees whom we’ve interviewed on the sidelines of the WAVE confab. Dr. Oberg told Iran Review that during the conflicts and controversies which erupt in the global stage, negotiation and dialog are the final solutions which the involved parties come at, while they actually should be the first resort.

On the pressures imposed against Iran by the United States and its European partners in the recent years, Jan Oberg says, “[n]ow the West should say, Ok, if you do these things, we will give you something positive that you need!, but then there are these hardliner fools in the West who come up with saying that, if you don’t do what we say, we will kill you! I say, show me one psychology textbook anywhere in the world which says that if I threaten your life, if I kill your children, if I take the food away from you through sanctions, increase your expenses so that your life becomes difficult, then you’ll become more cooperative!”

Dr. Oberg believes that Iran is being punished because of the transparency it has offered in its nuclear activities, while Israel possesses up to 200 nuclear weapons, and is never questioned or held accountable

Iran Review conducted an extensive interview with Dr. Oberg on peace and conflict resolution, non-violent resistance, the rise of extremism in the Middle East and Iran’s nuclear program. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: I wonder if you differentiate between extremism, violence and terrorism. Is practicing certain political, economic and social policies in a radical manner a representation of extremism? And can you cite examples if you agree with the fact that extremism can take different sorts, different facets or different representations?

A: Yes, extremism is a political concept and not a scientific or academic concept. To be extreme is something which has some kind of scale; you say somebody is very far off, let’s say, to the right or far off to the left or far off to non-violence. To be extreme is along a dimension of some kind. And I’m not happy with the concept as such because like terrorism, people don’t define it when they use it; you know, everybody can be a terrorist nowadays. Nelson Mandela was once considered a terrorist; also the Albanians in Kosovo were considered as terrorists until they came under the wings of the U.S. and so you can continue with such examples. What I think is important to say is to have something that are really solid or acceptable, common definition of the words we use. And extremism is not a scientific or academic concept. The WAVE conference is of course basically a political conference. It’s more a political than an academic conference. If I think of extremism in terms of violence, the most extremists are those who plan mass violence and that is nuclear powers. I mean an extremist attitude is to say that I have a right to kill millions of people. That’s extremism to me.

But you can say it’s extremism also to just say I have a right to kill one person, which the Islamic State is doing and which national governments do. I mean everybody who has an army is an extremist if that army will be used before civilian and diplomatic means have been used. If you had a peace army, if you had an army of mediators or reconciliation experts, that would not be extremism. But the ultimate purpose of any military is to be able if necessary to kill. I’m not saying they want to kill but it is to be able to kill. If we consider human life sacred, then it’s an extremist attitude to say we should be equipped to kill. That’s where Gandhi comes into the picture, in my view. Gandhi said you’re never allowed to take life; life is a creation of God and therefore I could make a politically valued statement that I think anybody who thinks that they can plan violence, should have tools for policies, strategies for the killing of even one human being is in a way an extremist. But within that, you have big extremists and small extremist! Nuclear powers that are willing to kill millions of people for a political goal are more extremists than other extremists! [laughing] Let’s formulate it in this way!

Q: Such words as “religious fundamentalism” and “religious extremism” these days are being employed in order to portray what the ISIS is doing while the majority of Muslim scholars, both Sunni and Shiite scholars, are stating and affirming that ISIS is not an Islamic organization. It’s a terrorist organization doing horrific acts and horrendous acts under the guise of Islam or under the flag of Islam, while it does not have a purely genuine Islamic ideology. What do you think about that?

A: Let me tell you very honestly, because I have no authority on what I speak about if I speak on everything. I’m not an expert on religious ideology; I’m not an expert on IS; I’m not an expert by any means on Islam or how to interpret the Holy Quran or something like that. I want to be clear even right now perhaps. I cannot imagine that an organization that does what this organization does can find any religion that justifies what it does. They cannot be believers, let’s say. But you have Christian extremism and you have Muslim extremism in the sense that concepts of religion are being misused. Maybe we should say it’s misused Muslim terrorism and misused Christian terrorism. You have Buddhists and Muslims killing each other in today’s Thailand and Burma (Myanmar). In Christianity you can use, – the Old Testament and you can use the New Testament; you can have the idea in the Old Testament of “truth for truth” and “eye for an eye”, that type of stuff which Gandhi always talked about. And eye for an eye is a philosophy that makes us all blind which is a very good formulation. And you have the parts in the New Testament which is “turn the other cheek”: be kind; love your enemy, that type of stuff.

You know, my hunch would be that there are various interpretations depending on which parts of a religious doctrine you read; and secondly it is always possible to misuse something. I mean you take the word “peace”. Is there any politician, any president in the world who has not said that his or her country is for peace? Everybody is for peace and everybody has armies and nuclear weapons and intervenes and kills and represses their own people in some cases, and whatever they all say: we’re peaceful country! Does that mean that peace involves, you know, extremism and violence and repression and intervention and military? No, it doesn’t but “peace” is a grossly misused word by many.

Q: Right. I read on your website that one of the ideals and themes that you promote as way for establishing global peace is “non-violence”. Do you think it’s really possible to establish peace through non-violent means given that fact that the situation in the world has changed a great deal since Gandhi brought independence and freedom to the people of his country or settled the disputes between the Muslims and the Hindus? The situation has changed a lot and the world powers are gaining more military power, the nuclear weapons have been developed more immensely and everything has changed. Do you think it’s still possible to promote peace through non-violent means?

A: One, it’s more relevant than ever, intellectually, philosophically. I’m not saying it’s considered realistic by the majority of people or media or politicians. I don’t care about what other people think is realistic because the main thing is if you go through two chains of modern history; one is that of violence and war and there are very few examples except the colonial liberation wars from colonialism in Africa, and you know, in Vietnam or whatever. With those exceptions where you can say that it has been successful liberation thanks to the use of military, all other wars are mistakes and have failed. You have a failure in Afghanistan; you have a failure in Libya; you have a total failure in Iraq; you have a total failure for Israel’s policies vis-á-vis Palestine. If there is anything that we know today by empirical fact, it is that wars and other forms of gross violence have never realized their allegedly peaceful objectives, have killed and maimed people for no good reasons, have created worse situations for human beings economically, socially, culturally, etc.

Secondly, you have the other chain which is non-violence that has succeeded in India. You can start up with Gandhi fighting the strongest military empire at his time with millions of people behind him. And he did the smart thing saying “we don’t mind and we are not against the British people; we want to get rid of the structure and the system.” And secondly you go partly to the revolution here in Iran against the Shah. Ok, there was violence, but it is relatively little compared to the fact that Shah’s regime at that time was one of the most militarized in the world. You go on to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and Václav Havel; you go to Yugoslavia, Serbia. Serbia was the object of sanctions for ten years; it was diplomatically isolated. Milošević was considered a bad guy and then they bombed him for 78 days. None of that made him fall; what made him fall was a popular uprising in the October Revolution in the year 2000. Now if you tell me that violence is strong and non-violence is weak, I wonder whether these people have read their contemporary history. If you ask me, the Soviet Union dissolved at heart thanks to non-violence; it was a peace movement; it was a human rights movement; it was a women’s movement; millions of people demonstrated all over Europe, East and West, as did dissents against the Soviet system such as Sacharov, all the people and poets and authors who sat in flats in Moscow and Leningrad and wrote against the system, and Gorbachev demolished and dissolved the Soviet Union by non-violence and not by starting a war. I mean he had enough weapons that could he have started a war, even a nuclear war, you know.

So, the problem in your question, I mean the question is a good question, but the problem with the substance is that we don’t see it. You take the ecological, the environmental movement, it’s a world movement based on non-violent action. And arguments and research and demonstrations and appeals and email campaigns that have changed the world in 30 years. You take the women’s movement; they all are non-violent changes. They are much more constructive than the wars we’ve seen. I’ve now given you ten to fifteen examples where non-violence has led to positive change, where non-violence opened doors to a better future. Violence always closes communication, closes opportunities, closes a better future. If I smash your face, you and I are not going to be friends in the future whereas if I smile to you, there is a chance [for friendship] at least; if I do something useful to you instead of something destructive to you. So, yes. If you ask me, it’s the media, it’s the history books, it’s a political discourse that we have that hides the strength of non-violence. It’s not that non-violence is weak; we just are not made to see it. Our school children do not see it in the history books. The examples I’ve given you now are not given in the history books; what is in the history books is, you know, wars that we have fought, battles here and there, emperors who won and Hitler’s war and things like that. There is nothing about all the other things that are much more constructive. So, I’m not a pessimist about that. Humanity will one day find out its way as we found out that we don’t want slavery, we don’t want cannibalism and we don’t want absolute monarchy. We want to find out that weapons have to go, particularly nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are totally against human civilization. I know it’s a hard battle; I’m not going to see much of this in my lifetime but there is no doubt that in civilization process, all these military craft has to be faced out.

Q: Do you believe in the power of negotiation, talks or frank conversation between the rivals, adversaries and enemies for bringing an end to the hostilities and acrimonies? For example, if we refer to the experience of South Africa, we see that F. W. de Klerk talked to Nelson Mandela, released him from prison after almost three decades. He made concessions, although he was a white man, he had slaves and he was a pro-Apartheid politician; but he made concessions anyway. So is it possible for the contemporary crises, the contemporary problems of our era, 21st century, to be solved through negotiation and making compromises?

A: Let me tell you two things as an answer: one is, it’s not a matter of whether it can be done or cannot be done only; it’s a matter of following international law. International law is unanimous and cannot be interpreted in any other way than saying every civilian means – negotiation, sanctions, pressure, political pressure, whatever – shall be applied and proved to be in vain before we use violence. It’s in the United Nation Charter, sir. The Preamble of the United Nations Charter, which is the most important document humanity ever signed for its common life on earth, says that war shall be abolished. In Article One, it says that peace shall be established by peaceful means. That’s what the first six chapters are about. It’s only when you get to chapter seven where it is clearly stated that if everything has been tried and secondly found in vain, for instance to get an aggressor in another country back to his own country, then the UN can organize a military struggle on behalf of the world community to throw the aggressor back to where he came from. Those of us who are for non-violent change, for negotiations, for consultations, for personal meetings, etc. – we have international law on our side. International law is not talking about, you’re welcome to intervene and occupy and bomb and rape and kill if you like! Mr. Obama is now at the moment a violator of international law. I’m not saying he’s the only one. But his latest speech about ISIS was basically, you know, saying that we have a right to kill; we don’t like them, so we kill them. He has no diplomatic strategy; he has no future for the Middle East; he has no consultations. We’re bombing and killing them; that’s what we do.

You’re not allowed to bomb and kill; you’re not even allowed according to international law to threaten the existence of a country. What has been done to your country is a serious international law violation. I mean you can court almost any right wing politician in the U.S. who has uttered at some point that Iran should possibly be bombed. You have sanctions which is a violent means, at least in some sense, where this violence last long enough it’ll be, you know, horrible to your people. This is against international law.

Secondly and that’s what everybody mistakes: They think you can take people from the battlefield and put them at the table and then make peace in three weeks, two days or something like that. Now if you want to negotiate a solution to something, it’s a very elaborate process. You have to first define how many people or groups are there in the conflict and you talk with every one of them. And a good mediator knows that he should never speak about his own preferences; he should listen to everybody’s two things: what does every party fear and what does every part want or hope for in the future. And he should not only look to what people’s grievances are in the past, but he should also look to what could be possible in the future; how could these people live together, how could they live separate, how could they live as good neighbors. And so that’s one thing. The other thing is you should come up to your creative models; you cannot create peace without ideas. Without doctor, you cannot get rid of your cancer; without an idea about what operation to do and how to advise the patients to smoke less or stop smoking. So everything we do in peace is constructive. It is not enough to condemn violence. It’s not enough to be against something, you know. You have to be for something else; otherwise it won’t change.

So, what I’m saying is that both media and many politicians make the foolish assumption that you can take people who’ve been killing each other straightly from the battlefield and place them at a negotiation table and then you tell them, “Hey, you’d better make peace now; sign this paper!”. It has nothing to do with peace.

Peacemaking is an elaborate process over a long time reaching each person, each group of the conflict’s participant; and there are always more than two parties in a conflict internally, externally, etc., and international community groups. That’s it. And then when you feel that you have enough common ground, then you call people to a table. The negotiation table is the last stop in a process, but it ought to be where you begin. And then people say, “oh, we take them! We will put an end to the conflict!” Take Syria negotiations in Geneva last year, for example. I mean this is such an amateurish thing from a professional point of view. I wrote two articles before they took place and predicted they would never succeed. One: the wrong people are mediators. The United States cannot be a mediator anymore in the Middle East; it’s not neutral and not impartial. Secondly, there were no people from the civil society of Syria attending the conference.

Here sits a Swedish diplomat; here sits an American diplomat; here sits this and that! Here sits the Foreign Minister of Syria. All these people talk about the civil society, NGOs and Syria’s future, but don’t talk with anybody who represented them. Nobody is there. And undemocratically reached peace is never peace.

The same happened in Bosnia 19 years ago, in 1995 where they decided what Bosnia’s future should be without ever asking or making a referendum for the 4.2 million people living in Bosnia at that time. And now about 20 years later, none of it works as we’ve just seen in the latest elections in Bosnia; they’re all nationalists and don’t want to live or work with each other. Of course, this “authoritarian”, up-to-down approach to peace is never going to succeed, and predictably, the different peoples of Bosnia don’t want to live under the Dayton Agreement or for the Serbs to live in a country they didn’t want to become independent.

So what I’m saying is be careful with the word negotiations because you have consultations, you have mediation, you have listening, you have dialog; you have all kinds of those things before you put people at a negotiation table. One should never call for negotiations unless one is sure it will not lead to something worse; a failed negotiation, because that confirms that the parties won’t can’t talk with the others. They are bastards, you know – and then they will not return to such a table in the future either.

If you put people at a table, you must be more than 50 percent sure from your tones of long term dialogs with each party and with ideas and checking and brainstorms that when they come to the same city and sit at the same table, they can be more than 50 percent sure that you will achieve at least something positive so they leave and say ok, let’s meet again later on for something more. But if they split at the table and run in all directions and say, “Never again these bastards! We can’t talk with them,” it’s better not to have any negotiation tables.

Q: The UN Security Council is the principal world body that is in charge of establishing peace through different means and different tools…

A: Not peace! Security, in fact. Security Council doesn’t make peace. It makes some kind of a military security.

Q: Well, many former UN officials including the presidents of the General Assembly such as Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann and even the former UN Secretaries General Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan have criticized the structure of the Security Council, maintaining that it is not a democratic body and it does not represent the interests of the international community as a whole. So, has it been successful in realizing its goals and establishing, as you say, security in the world or bringing an end to the hostilities, conflicts and wars in any constructive manner?

A: It is obvious that something that was put up in 1945 cannot be adequate today. I mean at that time we had 60 countries or something around that – don’t hang me on the figures but there were very low number of countries. After decolonization, the countries became three times more, and now we have 193 members in the UN today. Obviously that is not a leadership group anymore in any sense of the word, because yes, it’s the biggest and the worst! The five permanent members stand for 85 percent of the world’s arms trade, arms export. They all have nuclear weapons, and of course they are not representative of anything. I would scrap the whole thing if you ask me, and say how we do make a leadership group which is representative of world’s not only governments. And here is another very problematic thing about the UN: It’s not ‘we the people’ as the Charter says; it’s we the governments. It’s the governments who sit in the General Assembly; it’s governments that run everything and again people are ignored.

So, I would rather focus – of course we have to reform this – but I will focus on two other things. I would focus on reforming the General Assembly so that the General Assembly, like it has done a couple of times in UN’s can sometimes make decisions when the Security Council cannot; democracy and those things.

Secondly I would like to have a People’s Council, not a governments’ Council; a People’s Council in the sense that we need a place not to make decisions primarily but to enable a particular articulation of the world’s problems. I would like a World’s Council of Peoples and non-governmental groups that can be including finance institutions and banks; it could be children and youth organization; it could be civil society representatives; it could be artists, whatever, but people who are not representative of governments.

I don’t know exactly how to put them together but a People’s Council would be much better. We can also discuss to have an environmental council because, you know, a Security Council that works only with military security – anyone who follows these discussions in the last 20 years knows that military security is just something we have because there are economic, industrial, technically interest in it. Everybody knows it doesn’t give genuine, human or societal security anymore. We talked about common security in Europe during the 80s – we’ve had a whole new concept of human security, not of states and governments, which is basically focusing on non-violence and on helping those who are disadvantaged, etc.

We have all other security concepts that are relevant; the only one that is probably irrelevant for the future is military. And that’s what the five Ps are doing. They attempt to create security through military. It’s not occurred to them when they sit in the UN Security Council that the real security is individual; it’s human security, ecological security, social security, cultural security.

The final thing I’d like to remind your readers of and to round this answer off is what the first UN Secretary General, the Norwegian Trygve Lie had said. What he said, and he’s fundamentally right, is that the UN will never be stronger or better or more helpful to the world until member states wants it to be. So when everybody talks about reforming the UN, I say let’s reform the UN members; let them all upgrade the UN in their thinking and policies; let them all have not UN ambassadors coming to New York but United Nations ambassadors sitting within every member state and say, “are you doing what you said you would, when you signed this or that resolution?” We need embassies of the United Nations in every country.

And you can go on with other reforms. I would love to have people voting for who represents them in the UN. You know, if you ask me what is the name of the Danish or Swedish ambassador to the UN for my country, I don’t even know the name. I don’t even know the name because I’m not voting for this person! Why can I vote for a bunch of people sitting in Stockholm, but I can’t vote for who represents me in a much more important organization such as NATO or the UN or OSCE? I mean, we could begin to do a global democracy and that’s where UN will automatically also be reformed, but you have to have a completely different attitude in the member states to change the UN. The UN is nothing in itself; it’s a wrong term to say how we can do the UN reforms; how we can implement member countries reforms so that it becomes a strong organization. The problem, of course, is that everybody in governments is a nationalist; they don’t want somebody over and above their own decision-making!

Q: What do you think about the performance of these five permanent Security Council members plus Germany regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the fact that they have put great amount of economic pressure on Iran in the recent years, that have taken a heavy toll on the ordinary Iranian citizens and complicated the situation instead of, I think, finding a solution to the crisis?

A: I had a chance to see this. The last thing I published in my website is that Iran policy must change; it’s on top of the website at . It’s the answer to your question; it’s two pages and you can read it. The whole thing in my view is bizarre. Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons and it’s being punished for not having it! This country is punished for not having nuclear weapons; for maybe, perhaps, in the future, who God knows what, to get them. There is nowhere in any book of law where you can punish somebody for something that person has not done. Let’s say there was a deal that Iran should not get nuclear weapons and then it breaks it and you can discuss punishment. You cannot discuss punishment of a country that has not done anything wrong, and it’s within the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

You can, in particular, not do that when the next-door neighbor has perhaps 200 nuclear weapons and is outside the NPT. If it is controversial to say this in the Western World, I don’t care because this is bizarre. But of course it signifies that the real problem is not technology, centrifuges, enrichment, transform of fissile material and whatever they’re talking about – as I’m not an expert in this field.

The real issue is lack of trust, and grievances on both ways from 1953, the coup against Dr. Mosaddegh; and it’s all the other thing like Saddam’s invasion here supported by the West; it is, of course in the Western view, the less-than-democratic structure of Iran; it’s the support of Hezbollah, God knows what, and so on and so forth. You need to go through all these things; you can make a list of what Iran is upset about and what the U.S. is upset about. And you sit down and make a truth and reconciliation commission; you have dialogs about what bothers you, and then you will trust and when you have trusted, you don’t need an agreement, because if we should have an agreement with Iran about not to get nuclear weapons, then why shouldn’t we have it with Germany or Brazil or Mexico, etc.

There are lots of countries around the world that have the same situation as you, and who could over a few years produce nuclear weapons; and there is no objection or this kind of harassment against them while your country is being pressured. So the reason that you are being harassed is that, first, the Americans are still grumpy about what you did in 1979; your people’s uprising, your mass demonstrations and the hostage-taking that has humiliated the U.S. and, you know, it doesn’t like to be humiliated this way; nobody likes so.

All this is something we should talk about first, in my view. They’ve put their horse behind the cart! The problem is trust; the problem is cooperation, because any idiot can see that if there was a deal and both parties open up to each other, everybody would win; the Middle East would win; Iran would win; the U.S. would win; Europe would win; your 80 million consumers would win. Iran is a fabulous country with a very interesting history and amazing culture, civilization of its own; and nobody utilizes it; you know. If Iran decides and signs the paper that it will never achieve and get nuclear weapons, give this country a lot of energy technology. You have huge investment needs in your infrastructure. Clean up this city and so people would love to come here because it’s horrible and in twenty years it’ll be unlivable.

Now the West should say,”Ok, if you do these things, we will give you something positive that you need!”, but then there are these hardliner fools in the West who come up with saying that, “if you don’t do what we say, we will kill you!” I say, show me one psychology textbook anywhere in the world which says that if I threaten your life, if I kill your children, if I take the food away from you through sanctions, increase your expenses so that your life becomes difficult, then you’ll become more cooperative!

There is no psychological proof to that point, but if I do something kind to you and say “I want you to do this, would you do that for money” or “I will do this for you if you do this for me”, you begin to promise to give the carrot rather than threatening with stick. This country and its marvelous foreign policy and foreign minister here would be more than happy to make a deal. I’m not in doubt about it. This is the best opportunity for the West.


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* Jan Oberg holds a Ph.D. in sociology. He is a peace and future studies researcher and a former associate professor (Docent) at the Lund University, Sweden. He has also been a visiting professor at different universities across Europe and in Japan. Dr. Oberg is a former director of the Lund University Peace Research Institute (LUPRI) and former Secretary-General of the Danish Peace Foundation. He has also worked with the Denmark government as a security and disarmament advisor. In 2006 he was among 250 individuals worldwide nominated for the World Medal of Freedom by the American Biographical Institute. In 2005, he became a member of the Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence at James Madison University. In 2013, Jan Oberg, his wife Dr. Chrisstina Spännar and the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF) of which he is a co-founder were awarded the “People’s Nobel Peace Prize” by the Peace Movement at Orust, Sweden.