Media freedom needed to fight corruption, says Iranian VP Ebtekar

Media freedom needed to fight corruption, says Iranian VP Ebtekar

Cansu Çamlıbel ISTANBUL
Media freedom needed to fight corruption, says Iranian VP Ebtekar

Iran is looking forward to the improvement of relations with the US and the resolution of the nuclear issue, Iranian VP Masoumeh Ebtekar (L) tells Hürriyet. HÜRRİYET Photo / Levent Kulu

Corruption thrives in the absence of free media, according to Masoumeh Ebtekar, the first female vice president of Iran, who has called on the Iranian and Turkish governments to work together against corruption.

“One of the major strategies that the government of [Hassan] Rouhani is pursuing is to combat corruption,” Ebtekar told Hürriyet in Istanbul recently when asked about the corruption allegations in Turkey, which also have links to Iran.

Ebtekar comes from an activist background. At the age of 19, she was the spokesperson for the students who occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held American diplomats hostage.

She continued her career as an academic and was appointed as the head of the Environment Protection Organization of Iran during the administration of President Mohammad Khatami.

When asked about the relations between the U.S. and Iran, Ebtakar said Iran “looks forward to an improvement of relations.”

Environment and technology are sometimes at odds with each other. Countries like Turkey aspire to have a nuclear power plant, countries like yours are already developing a nuclear program. How in a modern world can these two go together without conflicting?

That is a major theme that we are pursuing in the ECO ministerial discussions. We have to make the connection between development and environment. The sustainability of the development process has to be maintained. That is an important aspect of our efforts. That has been done in many parts of the world. They have made proper processes whereby through different development activities, they have to perform an environment impact assessment before being able to actually execute that plan or process. We have that law now in Iran. We recently adopted the legislation in the Cabinet and we are going to have a bill in the Parliament. That means that we will have a permanent law on environmental impact assessment. Before we implement any large project, we need to perform an EIA before. The EIA has to be integrated in the actual master plan. It applies to all countries in the region. Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan are pursuing a development process. So integrating environmental concerns are very, very important.

You have been an environment activist all your life. Is it difficult in a government to pursue goals that prioritize the environment? Do you sometimes feel like an activist inside your own government?

That is true because our governments have priorities like economic growth and employment generation schemes. We still have pressing issues of poverty in some parts of our countries. We are trying to prioritize the environmental agenda in the framework of the Cabinet … that is very true. Sometimes we have a struggle to be able to push that agenda forward. But the important thing is that attitudes are changing. President Rouhani has a very forward perspective on this issue. The government has come to the understanding that we need prioritize environmental issues into the mainstream agenda of the government. Now we have many sessions devoted to environmental legislature. I think it is very important that the countries in the region take the same perspective and bring the environmental agenda higher up on their list of priorities.

What is your personal take on your country’s nuclear program?

I personally think that Iran needs an energy mix. We need a different type of energies in the country. We need to explore … because currently our energy resources heavily rely on fossils. We have natural gas and petroleum. But that has also cost us a lot in terms of environmental … greenhouse gases. So we need renewable energies as well as nuclear energy. We are looking forward to make it valid between different energies … just as much as we have invested in our peaceful nuclear energy program, we also started in many different areas solar and wind energy. Also we are looking forward to increasing energy efficiency and that is possible through nuclear energy. These are all strategies that the government has adopted. This means we need to see all those different kind of energies. We need to perform research in different areas pertaining to new and renewable energy sources.

In Turkey last two years, there have been a lot of movements and street protests because of environmental issues.

Yes, exactly.

What do you think about civil society asking for more green … along with more rights and freedoms, et cetera. But the starting point was the environment.

I think that the public is becoming more aware of their rights about the environment, and it is turning into a civil rights movement. In a sense, people are realizing that their rights are being undermined by a certain group or a certain power structure. They like to speak up about their rights and the fact that the environment is important to them and also to the future generations. That is also happening in Iran. We have a very vibrant civil society now in Iran. … With the government of Dr. Rouhani there is more openness, basic civil freedoms. People are voicing their concerns on many different issues, for example air pollution or protection of the environment. We have had a recent debate within civil society and it was in the press … an eco tourism scheme … there is a lot of debate on the pros and cons. I think it is very important that people are aware of these issues and they get involved. The government has to lay the framework for that oversight because when people get involved there is more control and regulation. People can actually determine the outcome of many of these strategies.

What you are saying reflects the change of perception with the new government in Iran. We remember those days when the street protests were handled very heavy-handedly. Now is the Iranian government embracing civil movements?

That is very true.

The opposite is happening in Turkey. Many of these are taken as a coup attempt. Are Turkey and Iran going in different directions in dealing with civil society?

Actually we had a students’ day ceremony last week in Iran. It was very different from the previous years. Student groups from different political tendencies were allowed to speak out. There were debates in different universities. Students voiced their political and social concerns. There was much more openness and a very different atmosphere in Iran. That brings about a lot of hope to see a vibrant civil but also political spectrum in Iran where different political tendencies within the framework of the law … they express their views and engage in a debate. The student movement now is quite different than before. They feel that there is more room now in the government of Doctor Rouhani, to speak out and criticize. The government welcomes criticism and it is heavily criticized by both its opponents and those who wish to criticize to improve the conditions of the economy.

So you believe that the success of a government is very much tied to the opposition that they get so they can fix problems, correct?

Exactly, that is very so. Because if you don’t have the opportunity to see your mistakes, weaknesses and shortcomings, then you will never be able to address them or fill those gaps that you have. It is very important to be able to appreciate criticism, of course in the framework of law. Peaceful demonstrations … to make sure that there is a legal process for this. In the early months of his administration, President Rouhani put forward a civil rights act which is very important. And he is working on that civil rights act. We hope to see many more reforms and changes in the political atmosphere.

The Turkish government seems very concerned about civil movements. The Turkish government took it as a threat toward themselves when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was ousted. Why would the Turkish government be offended by street movements?

Among the different political groups in Iran, there is an analysis; some people believe that this might be due to the shortcomings that the Turkish government has had in the international arena, particularly in regional issues like Syria, Egypt, Iraq. What has happened has not been favorable turn out for the positions of the current Turkish government. That has probably taken the government to take a firm stance at the national level. That is the analysis spoken in Iran.

Back in 2010 Turkey, Iran, Brazil signed the Tehran Agreement. Turkey stood almost against the world siding with Iran. Four years later, we see that relations are much tenser, especially on Syria and Iraq. The governments took different positions. How do you describe the current state of relations?

I think we have to explore many more new areas to promote bilateral relations. We are not working at the full level of the potential of relations. The two countries have very long cultural and historical relations. Many areas of trade, economy cooperation, as well as the environment. We have to tap into those new areas. We have to look into why these relationships in recent times are not advancing in the way they should.

Is it because of Syria?

I don’t think that the relations between two neighboring countries should be so influenced by regional developments. I think they should look forward to developing their relationships within the potential of the issues they have together … to be able to face the challenges together. We have common and different challenges. We need to work together particularly in the international arena. We shouldn’t allow those regional issues to overshadow relationships between the two countries. Well, there has been a difference of opinion in all those areas you mentioned. I personally believe that bilateral relations should be improved and enhanced. We should look at the issues specifically at the level of Iran and Turkey.

In the West, Turkey has recently been perceived as playing the Sunni card and aspiring to lead the Sunnis in the region. Would you share that view that AKP has taken a sectarian line?

The position of our government, in particular President Rouhani, clarifies that point. President Rouhani has stated in many instances that we all need to take a unified stance against violence and extremism in the whole region – Shiite and Sunni; all of us together. They have to work together to champion peace and security. We have to prevent all those types of sectarian divides and conflicts which in essence have nothing to do with being Sunni or Shiite. They are pursuing a different agenda that causes discord among Muslim countries and promotes a very distorted image of Islam. What we are seeing with ISIL [The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] has nothing to do with Islamic teachings and behavior. But unfortunately they are moving forward in different dimensions. I think the main issue is that we should try to work together to put aside differences. Look at the common objectives we have and to the joint views among Muslim countries. At this it is important to take this approach.

But Muslim world is very much divided along sectarian lines. It seems that almost all the Muslim world is fighting within. Before it was the West and Muslim world, now the fight is within.

What has happened goes back to what happened with the history, foreign interference. More and more nations need to realize the fact that they have to rely on their own potentials, they have to work together. The unity of the Islamic ummah is the most important issue. That has always been the point we pressed in the recent years that Shiite and Sunni – all different sects of the Islamic ummah have to work together to promote peace and stability, to prevent the spread of extremism and violence. [The recent Taliban attack on a school in] Pakistan … this was done in the name of Islam. Terrible, very wrong. This has nothing to do with the authentic teachings of the Prophet – whether Sunni or Shiite. Something else is fabricated in the name of Islam. This awareness to unite has to rise. The proposal that Doctor Rouhani gave to the General Assembly of the United Nations last year … was to unite the world against extremism and it was adopted. People from all over the world, from all walks of life, should come together against violence and extremism.

All the time they are calling themselves the Islamic State … Western media portray them as Islamic State. They have nothing to do with Islamic or Islamic governance or Islamic principles. It is very clear. We have to work to display this wrong image and correct it.

Dec. 17th was the first anniversary of a major corruption allegation. Asking you this….last year when people were arrested, one of them was a young businessman of Iranian descent. Then we found out that he had an alleged partner in Iran who happens to be jailed now. His partner, Reza Zarrab in Turkey, was released long ago. How do you see what happened in Turkey?

One of the major strategies that the government of Doctor Rouhani is to pursue the [fight] corruption – different forms of corruption in the government. … Unfortunately we had instances in Iran like in Turkey. We actually had a strategy adopted by the government. We had a national conference on that issue, mobilizing all different parts of the government to work against the embezzlement of public funds and tactics pursued by corrupt government employees in the past. This is again an area that the two countries should work together. Our governments should be working together. More oversight … the civil society, an open press, a free atmosphere for criticism and oversight of the functions of the government are very important. When you have darkness in the room, anything can happen. When you shed light on things, it is very difficult to trespass on the laws. Corruption happens when you have a dark room, when you don’t have freedom of the press or a free civil society. Our government is working in that direction, and I hope that we have the necessary collaboration between our two governments.

Have you followed what happened with arrested Turkish journalists in the last couple of days at Zaman and Samanyolu?

I think that the governments must tolerate criticism more than before. Of course there might be personal complaints in these events … that is for the judiciary to decide. But otherwise, I think the governments have to tolerate criticism more than before. Freedom of speech is one way which may help governments to prevent corruption. They could bring more transparency to their processes. We have had similar challenges in the past in Iran. I think the general understanding now is that we have to welcome freedom of speech even though sometimes people have complained personally against the exposure of privacy issues. But overall more openness of the press and civil society will help a society to move toward transparency and accountability and to a more ethical approach, particularly in our societies. We are talking about societies where religion and ethics are very important, that openness may actually help to bring about more accountability.

You were one of the student leaders of 1979 and spokeswoman of the movement. Now you are among the most influential women in politics. Looking back in the last 35 years, where do you stand in your perception of the United States today? Have your views changed or do you still believe in what you did back then?

The U.S. has had a long history of interference in the affairs of different countries. Probably what took the students to take that drastic action in 1979 was the history of the coup d’état against the government in 1953. Iran has witnessed a long history of American interference in Iranian affairs. Even after the revolution this continued somehow with sanctions and different threats. And unfortunately this was seen in many different parts of the world. Many analysts believe that this wave of extremism is a reaction that unilateral and military approach that the Americans had in this part of the world, after 9/11 particularly. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria … in many Islamic countries. The major issue is that this type of approach to the Islamic world is not generally acceptable any longer. But at the level of bilateral relations, Iran is working to resolve the nuclear issue and also maintain rational, balance and equitable relationship with the U.S. on different issues. We think that we need to be able to progress on our peaceful nuclear energy program, to lift the illegal sanctions which are adversely affecting our society and environment, to be able to proceed in different areas as a developing country. We look forward to the improvement of relations and a resolution of the nuclear issue.

Are you hopeful?

Yes, we are very hopeful.

This is at least a different sentiment than probably what you had during the years of the revolution?

It is not necessarily a different approach. It is natural evolution of viewpoints. We are now emerging as a major player in the region. I think now every country recognizes the positive influence that Iran has … Iran can play a very important role in bringing about peace and security in the region, bringing about a moderate, balanced and rational approach on both international and regional matters. I think that understanding is coming and that is helping Iran to have a more positive and balanced role in the region.