In a rare diplomatic opening, the United States and Iran are set to take part in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program that could potentially end U.S.-led sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy. On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in one of the highest-level contacts between the two nations in years. In speeches before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, both President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani backed calls for diplomacy that have grown since Rouhani’s election earlier this year. We discuss the potential thawing of U.S.-Iran relations with Narges Bajoghli, a graduate student and filmmaker whose documentary, “The Skin That Burns,” tells the story of the 100,000 survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: In a rare diplomatic opening, the United States and Iran are set to take part in high-level negotiations tomorrow on Iran’s nuclear program that could potentially end U.S.-led sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy. On Tuesday, both President Obama and Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, addressed the United Nations General Assembly. During his speech, Obama insisted the United States is not interested in regime change in Iran and said the U.S. respects the rights of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy. Obama also welcomed what he called Rouhani’s popular mandate for a, quote, “moderate course”.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want to be clear: We are encouraged that President Rouhani received from the Iranian people a mandate to pursue a more moderate course. And given President Rouhani’s stated commitment to reach an agreement, I am directing John Kerry to pursue this effort with the Iranian government in close cooperation with the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China. The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.
AMY GOODMAN: While Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani did not meet at the United Nations or shake hands, Rouhani echoed Obama’s call for diplomacy. He reiterated Iran has no nuclear ambitions, but noted Iran has a right to enrich uranium on its territory within the framework of international rules.
PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] Iran seeks constructive engagement with other countries based on mutual respect and common interests, and within the same framework does not seek to increase tensions with the United States. I listened carefully to the statement made by President Obama today at the General Assembly. Commensurate with the political will of the leadership in the United States and hoping that they will refrain from following the shortsighted interests of warmongering pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences. Nuclear weapon and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Iranian President Rouhani’s speech to the United Nations comes after weeks of Iranian outreach efforts to the West, reportedly at the behest of the Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Lastly week, President Rouhani appeared in a rare interview with NBC News and wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post calling for, quote, “constructive engagement.” Then, on Monday, the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, wrote an op-ed in The Guardian also calling for a renewal of diplomacy. And in the lead-up to the U.N. General Assembly, the Iranian government released a number of political prisoners, including a leading human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Narges Bajoghli. She is a graduate student and documentary filmmaker at New York University researching military culture in Iran, director of The Skin That Burns, a documentary film about survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.
Narges Bajoghli, welcome to Democracy Now!
NARGES BAJOGHLI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of the new Iranian president’s message at the U.N. yesterday.
NARGES BAJOGHLI: I think a couple of things that President Rouhani did yesterday which were key was that, first, he addressed the domestic audience in Iran, especially the hardline audience that I think has been a little bit weary of seeing where this is going to go after Ahmadinejad, and he was very forceful in saying that Iran should, in his opinion and in the opinion of the Islamic Republic, continue to pursue nuclear enrichment for peaceful purposes, and at the same time come out against the sanctions and compare it to the Iraqi sanctions from before 2003, which was very big to do for him. But at the same time, he came out and said that Iran does not want war, and Iran wants peace. And that, I think, was addressed both to the domestic political elite, but also to the American audiences and the U.N. that was watching his speech at the—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, who is the domestic—who are the domestic constituents that he was appealing to? And to what extent does his position represent a substantive change from his predecessor?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: I think Rouhani came in at a moment which was very crucial in the Islamic Republic. Three things, I think, came together to bring him to the presidency, because up until a week before the elections, many people that we would talk to in Iran were not going to vote. Many people didn’t even think that Rouhani had the slightest chance to even win this election.
But three things, I think, came to play a very large role in this election. One was the sanctions. The economy in Iran is hurting extremely badly, and the middle class is—doesn’t have a lot of the things that it was able to have beforehand. Two is that Ahmadinejad’s—the way in which the 2009 elections happened in Iran and having millions of people come out onto the street and chant against the supreme leader and chant against Ahmadinejad really showed the political elite in Iran that they have a significant portion of the population that is against the current course, and that led to domestic fractions and political infighting in Iran among the Revolutionary Guards and among the political elite.
Those three forces coming together, I think, brought about this change that we see, because the Islamic Republic, at the end of the day, wants to be around. It is a pragmatic regime. It does not want to go anywhere. And it realizes that in order not to go anywhere, it has to give in on certain issues. And right now the biggest issue in Iran is the economy, and they know that the way that they can better the economy is through nuclear negotiations.
AMY GOODMAN: This is President Rouhani describing the impact of the U.S.-backed sanctions.
PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] These sanctions are violent, pure and simple. Whether called smart or otherwise, unilateral or multilateral, these sanctions violate inalienable human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: There is the president, Rouhani, talking about those sanctions. There has a lot been made in the U.S. corporate media about Iran snubbing the U.S. Maureen Dowd said today, talking about President Obama, “The man formerly hailed as a messiah was having a bad day. The Iranians snubbed him. The Brazilians upbraided him. Ted Cruz fauxlibustered him. And you just know that, behind the scenes, the Russians were messing with him.” But the—a lot was made over the weekend, White House officials saying that President Obama possibly would be shaking the hand of Rouhani, and so it is believed that it was Rouhani that wasn’t willing, at least until yesterday, to do that.
NARGES BAJOGHLI: Yeah, it seems that from what Rouhani said yesterday to Christiane Amanpour last night in his interview, that the Iranians are willing to engage, but that it became too complicated last minute, and that there wasn’t enough time to kind of have that meeting take place. I think it’s that it would be too quick. And he, Rouhani, and his camp in Iran still have hardliners that would not, I think, appreciate something happening as quickly as this. So—but the message is there, both from Rouhani and from Obama, that both presidents seem to want to engage. And tomorrow high-level negotiations will be taking place, and so that’s a step in the right direction.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you’ve also spent a large part of the last nine or 10 years in Iran. So could you talk about some of the effects of these sanctions in the day-to-day lives of the people, as you’ve seen the sanctions become more strict over these years?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: Right. Well, the biggest thing that we’re seeing in Iran right now is that medicine, vital medicine, especially for those who are dealing with chronic diseases and cancer, is no longer available. Survivors of chemical warfare, which we have in Iran about 100,000 survivors of chemical warfare, don’t have access to the vital medicine that they need. And anything from birth control pills to any sort of even over-the-counter stuff, like, you know, anything that has to deal with women’s health or anything like that, is extremely hard to come by today in Iran. And beyond the pharmaceuticals, also the price of meat and the price of everyday staple food has gone up at least six to seven times in the past about six, seven months.
AMY GOODMAN: During his address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama talked about the roots of the distrust between the United States and Iran.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States and Iran have been isolated from one another since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This mistrust has deep roots. Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs and of America’s role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War. On the other hand, Americans see an Iranian government that has declared the United States an enemy, and directly, or through proxies, taken American hostages, killed U.S. troops and civilians, and threatened our ally Israel with destruction.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama yesterday in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly. Can you talk about the significance of President Obama referring to the U.S.-backed coup against Mosaddegh in 1953?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: Well, it’s huge that he did that. The main—one of the main points of the nuclear issue for Iranians, and especially for the Iranian political elite, is that because of the experience of the 1953 coup, that the United States and the United Kingdom backed a coup that brought—reinstated the Shah against the popularly elected Mohammad Mosaddegh, who nationalized Iran’s oil, is that the Iranians, both the general population and the political elite, believe that the United States and foreign powers do not want Iran to have access to its energy and not have control over energy. And so, because of that, the nuclear issue is a national issue in Iran.
So, having Obama talk that way about the 1953 coup in the United Nations yesterday, I think, was very significant, because he’s trying to come out and say that—at least the rhetoric is that we want to engage with Iran and understand the mutual respect between the two countries and understand the history of adverse involvement in the country. And so, I think he’s coming out and saying that we understand what we’ve done, and we don’t want to do that now. Whether the Iranians will take it that way, I don’t know, but it was significant to have him say that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, a lot of people have suggested that the reason that Rouhani is able to make these overtures is because of the support he’s received from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Could you explain why Khamenei’s position has shifted from the time of the Ahmadinejad government to now?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: Sure. Well, Khamenei came out in extreme support of Ahmadinejad in his first term in office, and especially after the disputed elections in 2009 when people were protesting against the results. But, interestingly enough, about a few—let’s say a year after his re-election, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei kind of went head to head, and for the last couple of years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the supreme leader and him were not seeing eye to eye. And what’s significant about that is that that became known to the Iranian public. There were news reports and there were rumors going around, and Ahmadinejad didn’t even show up for work for about 11 days at a time. He didn’t show up a couple of years ago.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What was the nature of the dispute, the disagreements between them?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: There seemed to be—I mean, there were rumors going around everywhere. There wasn’t a way to know exactly what it was, but that what we did know was that for the first time, at least publicly, we were seeing a lot of political infighting at the top levels of the Islamic Republic. Now, that, on one side—one thing that’s important to note is that Ahmadinejad and the people he—his closest advisers were very much against the clerical elite in Iran, and they wanted to push forward another sort of politics in Iran that moved away from the clerics. Khamenei, at the end of the day, is the cleric and has support among at least some portions of the clerical elite in Iran. Rouhani has come out and is trying to at least kind of show a different face for the Islamic Republic. But what’s important to know is that because of all of this political infighting, there is a significant portion of both the Revolutionary Guards and Iran’s politicians who were very much against Ahmadinejad.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re an Iranian filmmaker. You’re getting your Ph.D. now here in New York at New York University, and you’ve been looking at chemical weapons. Of course, a big issue is Iran’s support of Syria. In a recent headline, we reported that newly disclosed CIA files show the United States provided critical intelligence to help Iraq’s Saddam Hussein launch chemical weapons, a chemical attack on Iran. In the waning days of the Iran-Iraq War, the United States provided Saddam Hussein with satellite imagery showing Iran was poised to exploit a hole in Iraq’s military positioning. The U.S. gave Iraq the location of Iranian troops, despite knowing Saddam Hussein would use nerve gas. The attacks killed anywhere from hundreds to thousands of Iranians. You’re doing a film on the effects of the chemical attacks on Iranians. How much of that is understood? For example, these released CIA documents of the U.S. role in this. And how do Iranians feel about this?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: You know, it’s very interesting, because the first sort of known attack that’s known in Iran where chemical weapons was used was 1981. In 1984, Ayatollah Khomeini, at the time, and the Iranian leadership appealed to the United Nations and said that we need investigations to happen in Iran because we believe that there have been chemical weapons used here. Three official investigations took place in the mid-1980s, and although there was significant evidence found and reported to the United Nations that chemical weapons had been used by the Iraqis in the war, all three investigations were ignored by the international body.
This is very well recorded in Iran. And then also, post-2003, after the U.S. invaded Iraq, many more documents came to the surface at that time, as well, since Saddam Hussein had left power. So, the documents are there, especially with the United Nations. However, at the time, because the United States and the Western powers were against the Islamic Republic, many of this did not come to fore, including the attack of 1988 against Iraq’s Kurdish populations in Halabja, in which almost 5,000 people were killed.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip—
NARGES BAJOGHLI: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —of your film, The Skin That Burns, the documentary about Iran’s volunteer soldiers who were exposed to chemical bombs during the Iran-Iraq War.
IRANIAN SOLDIER: [translated] Iraqi warplanes dropped chemical bombs on us. My battalion was exposed. All the civilians in that area were also exposed. We were exposed to mustard gas.
IRANIAN PHYSICIAN: [translated] Mustard gas leaves no part of the body unharmed. They call it the poor man’s atomic bomb.
AMY GOODMAN: That was from Narges Bajoghli’s film, The Skin That Burns. The significance of that experience today in Iran?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: It’s huge. There are a reported number of 100,000 survivors of chemical warfare in Iran. It’s the biggest in the world. That includes both military survivors and civilians, because many civilian towns, especially in the Kurdish parts of Iran, were attacked by chemical weapons. And the significance of chemical bombs is that it’s a slow death, and that up until the Iran-Iraq War this sort of combination of chemical weapons had not been used in other parts of the world, and so what the Iranians are facing is that physicians nowhere in the world know exactly what’s going on inside the bodies of the survivors of these attacks. So what we see is that it’s a trial-and-error sort of game that the physicians are playing. But what we know now is that about 20 years after exposure, the survivors develop extreme forms of cancer and begin to pass away, unfortunately.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And very quickly, before we conclude, Narges, could you say something about people who have been skeptical of Rouhani’s intentions, including Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as some here in the U.S.?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: I mean, I think it’s always good to have a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to politicians anywhere in the world; however, I do think that as far as Netanyahu is concerned, I think he’s taking too much of a hard line, and for other skeptics, I think that Iran is in a position in which if it doesn’t do something, there is so much discontent in the country on the ground itself that they are afraid of another sort of demonstration to happen, you know, especially because of the economic situation. The Islamic Republic knows that. The Islamic Republic wants to stay; it does not want to go. And I think it’s being very pragmatic in taking this approach.
AMY GOODMAN: Iranian filmmaker Narges Bajoghli, we thank you very much for being with us.
NARGES BAJOGHLI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: The film that she is working on is called The Skin That Burns.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Jeremy Scahill on President Obama’s address at the U.N. General Assembly and the attacks on the mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that have left about 70 people dead and many others injured. Stay with us.