On the final day of the Global Media Forum 2015 and while I had only a couple of hours to pack my luggage and depart from Bonn to Frankfurt and catch my return flight to Tehran, I got the chance to talk to a leading British peace-worker and women rights activist for a 15-minute interview for Iran Review.
Scilla Elworthy is the founder of the Oxford Research Group, an advisor of The Elders and a member of several international peace organizations. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times in recognition of her work on nuclear non-proliferation and the facilitation of dialog between weapons policy-makers and their critics. A member and councilor of the World Future Council, Ms. Elworthy has also worked with the International Task Force on Preventive Diplomacy. In 2012, she was appointed the patron of Gender Rights and Equality Action Trust.
The Oxford Research Group, a London-based charity and think tank, founded by Ms. Elworthy in 1982, has several great names on its list of advisors and patrons: the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the South African anti-apartheid icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former IAEA Director General Hans Blix and the former British Secretary of State for Education and Science Baroness Shirley Williams.
Ms. Elworthy gave a presentation in a plenary session during the Global Media Forum 2015 on June 24, and provided an insightful analysis of the concern of nuclear disarmament and “great power status.”
We talked to the sprightly 72-year-old Scilla Elworthy before she delivered her speech and discussed with her the question of nuclear non-proliferation, Israel’s nuclear program and the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the six world powers.
Q: I noted that you have been working on nuclear non-proliferation and the prevention of the production of atomic weapons for several decades. Why do you think there are still lots of nuclear weapons in the world and what should we do in order to convince the world powers and also the small states in our region to abandon their military nuclear programs?
A: Unfortunately, the possession of nuclear weapons has become associated with great power status, because the five permanent members of the UN Security Council were the first ones to have nuclear weapons. And they never understood that their reasons for wanting nuclear weapons were identical to the same reasons that India, Pakistan, Iraq or any country would have to possess nuclear weapons; reason to feeling threatened, wanting to be secure and to be able to practice what they called “deterrence”. It’s now been made perfectly clear to everybody that deterrence doesn’t work. When we are in an age of sub-state groups operating, when we’re in an age of so-called terrorism, nuclear weapons are useless; completely useless. And the British government is about to consider spending £80 billion on a replacement of our trident missiles at the same time as cutting £12 million on welfare budgeting. It’s lunatic; it’s crazy.
Unfortunately, this has all to do with the need of statesmen to feel important and to be at the top table. And so far, we haven’t been able to destroy or dispel that illusion. I think it will happen when more women and more young people come into politics and start expressing their values. This is why I think that the millennial generation is very important and I’m going to talk about that later. I spent 25 years trying to bring negotiations, sometimes successfully, for the reduction of nuclear weapons and the elimination of fossil fuels.
It was an extremely hard work and I think what I would say is that the real problem is what we call “willful blindness” or the unwillingness to see what is obvious – that the system doesn’t work; that it’s excessively dangerous, because there are still over 1,000 nuclear weapons on launch, on warning. That means that if you have nuclear weapons and I have them, and my radar screen shows an incoming flight of missiles, I will launch mine before yours reach me, and it could be a total mistake. It could be a malfunctioning of the radar system as happened in Russia in 1983, when we were 16 minutes away from total nuclear annihilation between Russia and the United States. So, this is an unimaginably stupid system that humans have invented.
Q: As an Iranian journalist, it’s interesting for me to know why there is great deal of pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear program while there hasn’t been evidence proving that Iran is after nuclear weapons. Iran says that it’s trying to produce nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and the IAEA has been able to confirm this, while there’s no inspection of Israel’s nuclear arsenal whatsoever. It’s confirmed by the Federation of American Scientists that Israel has around 200 to 400 nuclear warheads. So, what’s your perspective on that? Why don’t the U.S. government and the European powers try to open Israel’s nuclear arsenal to international inspections?
A: You know as well as I do, this is global power politics. It’s the Israel lobby in the United States, which is still so strong; no American president has stood up to it and even after the appalling bombing of Gaza twice, still Israel gets off without criticism. It’s incomprehensible! What we’re dealing here with is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia; we know that, between Sunni and Shiite. Everybody knows that. So, it’s been played out with this rhetoric and I believe that Iran has been very sensible. I think the Iranian negotiators have been very wise and I think they have got a good deal for the country. I hope that Iran can continue to show the wisdom of its leadership which in my way of thinking is wiser than its opponents.
Q: Well, the negotiations between Iran and the six world powers have been underway for more than 20 months and we are approaching the deadline for the final comprehensive nuclear agreement. Are you optimistic that after a possible final deal, there would be openings between Iran and the West for rapprochement, which could contribute a great deal to the global peace and security?
A: Sure, and the lifting of sanctions would contribute a lot to the prosperity of average Iranians and I would be in favor of that. However, I’m not close enough to the negotiations to know what is actually happening at this moment; it’s not my job anymore. I have colleague who are very, very close to it but I can’t tell you whether it’s going to happen. I hope and I trust that it will.
Q: You referred to the sanctions against Iran. As you know, the sanctions have taken a great toll on the civilian population, as they have cut the people’s access to medicine, foodstuff, banking transactions, etc.
Q: They have increased the price of humanitarian goods and more. So, what do you think about the concept of the sanctions? Are they adequately smart and an effective instrument for such cases while they punish the civilian population?
A: I haven’t yet come across a system of smart sanctions that penalizes the rich more than the poor. Again, I don’t know that much about it but I think it is very ill-advised to impose sanctions that penalize children – children in need of medicine, poor people and all the people, and that should never happen.
Q: You have worked with the Elders and Oxford Research Group as a founding member. First, do you think that such groups as the Elders, the Oxford Research Group and other organizations working to promote peace can realize a lasting and durable friendship between the nations that have been at loggerheads for political reasons? Do you believe that Iran and the United States, which have been estranged for more than four decades, can finally come to a meaningful understanding?
A: If you look at the gender balance of this audience, the age levels of the people in the audience and the people in the session we’ve just witnessed, it’s four older men – what we call in England pale, male and stale. You know the word “stale”?
Q: Stale? S-T-A-L-E?
A: Yeah, it means out of date. When you look at the audience, there are as many women as men, maybe more, people from every part of the world and mostly younger. This is what we need to look at, because this is where the change is coming [from]. Women in nearly every culture now are saying “we want to be part of policy-making and we will do it differently; we don’t believe in the methodology of political decision-making.”
For example, when Sweden had for the first time more than %33 female MPs, they changed the organization of the parliamentary council chamber. Before, it had been like the right-wing here, the left-wing here, sitting in opposition to each other. They changed it to a rainbow system. So, in this rainbow you sit where you like on the spectrum of right to left. And the decisions that emerged were quite different as a result, because there was no longer a fight between the two teams. Women don’t enjoy that. Sport is great for sport; politics are not sports! That’s what I should say.
Q: I’m coming from a Muslim country. I have seen reports and I have had experiences that indicate to me that living as a Muslim in the United State and Europe is becoming a little bit difficult and there are sometimes discrimination and hate speech against the Muslims because of their race, because of their religion, and sometimes they are badly ostracized. Especially we cannot ignore that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – the ISIS – is doing a very horrible job in portraying a very distorted image of the Muslims, because it’s promoting itself as a religious group, while it’s not really so. What do you think about the fact that some Muslims are facing pressures and difficulties because of the wrongdoings of the violent minority?
A: I feel very sorry for Muslims who are addressed disrespectfully in the streets and so on. But this has happened through centuries. This happened between Catholics and Protestants. This happened that the violent activities of the few have bad effect on the peaceful intentions of the many. And that’s how it is. I wish we could stop this, but so far can’t. What is great is that Muslim organizations, particularly Muslim women’s organizations, speak out in certain terms about [that] what Islamic States is preaching is not Islam and why we look at the religious leaders of both Islam and other religions to make it quite clear to the world that what ISIS is saying isn’t Islam. That’s as I understand it.
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