Letters: Dealing with Iran

Learn the lessons of history and start negotiations with Iran
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Sir: The West's response to the Iranian nuclear issue is uniting the Iranian community inside and outside the country in a remarkable way, reminiscent of what happened after the 1953 US/UK-sponsored coup that toppled the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.

The coup brought short-term benefit to UK/US oil companies but long-term damage to the West's interests in the Middle East. Most Iranian experts believe that had Mossadegh remained in power, Iran would have become a beacon of democracy, something American and British troops have failed to achieve by force in Iraq. But the long-term effect of the coup was the Islamic revolution, and the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic movement across the Muslim world.

We are again facing an important historical crossroad. We can again try the short-term gain, economic sanctions, which hurt Iranian civilians, or military action which will have a very limited effect. Longer-term, the latter will finish Iran's pro-democracy movement for many years.

Again the Iranian people's wish for a democratic society is being crushed by the outside interference of the US and UK. Iran is an ancient civilisation and Iranians, whatever their political persuasion, will not forgive such interference for a long time. The best option is to engage the Iranian government in serious negotiation. The Iranian government has already indicated they are happy to accept a more rigorous inspection regime by the IAEA as part of the negotiation process.

This is clearly the wisest path and one which will be in the long-term interests of both the West and the Iranian people. I hope that this time wisdom will prevail, and Western governments, especially the UK and US, can learn from the lessons of history.



Language classes lack sex and violence

Sir: It seems foreign languages are going the way of science and maths in this country, and I think it is ultimately for the same reasons; a failure to see real-life relevance or excitement within the subject (" Government blamed for 'catastrophic' decline in numbers studying languages", 25 August).

In the 1990s, when I did my GCSEs, I detested French, because none of the vocabulary (the subject's staple) related to anything which seemed exciting, or relevant to me, and I was not the only one. On the other hand, I also studied Latin, and loved it, because instead of learning how to ask strangers where the station was, we read stories about ghosts, politics, scandals, wars, sex, volcanoes and monsters.

Two things will help teenagers take an interest in learning other languages; making the topics covered relevant and exciting, instead of focusing on tourist vocabulary, and the teenagers admiring bilingual friends and wishing to share the advantages which come with a greater understanding of languages which are not one's mother tongue.



Sir: "Brethren, you are in trouble. Brethren, you deserve to be." My informal translation of a line from the Jesuit priest's excoriating sermon in Albert Camus' The Plague sums up my feelings as yet another sense of crisis in foreign language learning hits the headlines.

Having been involved in language teaching as a practitioner, teacher trainer, consultant and inspector since 1962, I read the reports with a depressing sense of déjà vu. So many opportunities have been squandered.

Removing compulsory language study within barely a year of the high-profile Nuffield Inquiry of 2000 was folly. Teaching resources and examination syllabuses have effectively called the shots for language teaching and learning. Course-books frequently resemble rather poor comics and much of what goes on casts the learner in the role of a disinterested tourist.

Ask the average secondary school language student when they last read, wrote, heard, saw or said anything that they found genuinely interesting, anything that really mattered to them. Even the proliferation of computers and internet access in schools is rarely seriously exploited. Little wonder that, given the chance, students walk away.

In 1990, my research project on motivation and language learning, focused on the role of teaching resources and the aspirations of teachers and learners. The main finding was that learners wanted a more sophisticated and real diet that appealed to their interests and stimulated their curiosity. Until we do that, I suggest the ritual hand-wringing and stock exhortations about improving our performance in languages will be fruitless.



Sir: The language crisis goes well beyond numbers doing GCSE. I am a German teacher with 34 years' experience and have just been offered and taken voluntary redundancy by a large FE college in Swindon. The decision was made by an external management consultant.

They now no longer employ a full-time language teacher, and almost no full-time students learn a foreign language. Evening classes have undergone drastic cuts and large rises in enrolment fees.

Auf Wiedersehen.



To avoid obesity, try eating less

Sir: Three cheers to Maxine Frith for her hard-hitting article on the problem of obesity (24 August). To concentrate on exercise before tackling over-eating is to put the cart before the horse. The fatter one is the more difficult and the less appealing it is to take physical exercise, or even to take the ridiculous government advice and get off the bus a stop early. Eating less is more effective more quickly than taking the amount of exercise which most obese people would be able to do.

Over-eating is a habit often acquired in childhood and fostered by the intensive advertising of unhealthy food and confectionery. Children are usually introduced to sweets and other "goodies" at an early age, and anyone who has visited a sweet-shop near a school at a time when the pupils are arriving or leaving must marvel at the amount of sugar-loaded stuff children are able to buy for a very modest sum.

Ms Frith is also right when she says the Government will get nowhere in reducing obesity unless they have the courage to confront the commercial interests of the food industry. One strategy which proved effective in discouraging smoking was to put up the price, so why is the Government not considering a steep increase in the price of sugar and consequently of products containing a large amount of sugar?

A local hospital was recently obliged to spend thousands of pounds on wider wheelchairs and scanners because patients were becoming wedged. There is no way to solve this problem without upsetting anybody. The Government must act effectively.



Sir: This week's coverage of the obesity crisis highlighted the need for Government to clamp down on irresponsible junk-food marketing. Missing, though, was analysis of why there is so much junk to sell in the first place.

The Common Agricultural Policy is one factor. The excess fat and sugar in the nation's diet is in part a legacy from decades of perverse incentives. Policy reforms in 2003 severed the link between production and subsidies, but the CAP continues to make payments to farmers growing cereals and beef, for instance, that are not available for fruit and vegetables.

Government is gearing up for further reform of the CAP in 2008-09. The Treasury sees this as a chance to cut spending and Defra wants to focus on the environment. The Department of Health should make sure public health tops the agenda.



Training to be a safe cyclist

Sir: Like most things in life, cycling is not risk-free ("Children and cycling: It's a wheel shame", 22 August). Fortunately, serious accidents are rare and any risks associated with cycling are far outweighed by the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle.

Doing nothing can be just as dangerous. In fact, cycling for just 30 minutes a day gives people a level of fitness equivalent to being 10 years younger. With the Department of Health predicting that one quarter of all adults will be officially obese by the end of the decade, we should be encouraging young people to learn to ride safely to school.

There are significant improvements that need to be made but the biggest is not through infrastructure but professional training, which gives children the skills and confidence to cope with modern traffic.

This is why Cycling England has worked closely with more than 20 bodies including road safety officers, RoSPA and CTC to produce a new national cycle training standard. This is recognised by most highway authorities as the first key step to improving safety and security on the roads.

Infrastructure does need to be improved, but this will take time and investment. Experience in London, in line with other European cities, shows that with the right degree of political will to promote it, cycling can increase dramatically even before improvements in road layout. The entire package of measures, most especially training, is vital to safer cycling and will inspire a new generation of children and their parents to get on their bikes.



How Hungary saves its conker trees

Sir: The horse chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridella), a species of micro-moth, has been a problem here in continental Europe for 21 years. Like the tree, the insect originates in Macedonia, where it was first found in 1985. It has spread through Europe wherever the tree is planted, and here in Hungary, where the moth was first noted in 1993, the tree is as widely used for public planting as in the UK.

As your article (24 August) says, the most noticeable feature is the " early autumn", here starting in early July, when the leaves start to brown and curl. This is distressing and unattractive.

But trees dying and branches dropping off? That is something I have not witnessed in 10 years of observation, even in untreated trees. Also, schoolboys will be relieved to hear that the conker yield is not initially less, although untreated trees seem to produce progressively smaller nuts.

And if you are looking for conkers under the trees now you will not find any, but it has nothing to do with the moths; the nuts are not due for another month.

The Budapest authorities have been using two ways of treating the problem, spraying the trees or injecting them, and they have a third treatment ­ a kind of long-term plug ­ which will apparently solve the problem. Perhaps interested parties in the UK should get in touch with them?



Belief is a phenomenon

Sir: Scientists try to understand and explain the natural world, and many will agree that our understanding consists of a collection of hypotheses, all of which are potentially capable of being disproved. A far cry from believing that science is "the truth" (Pandora, 21 August).

Religion, or more properly belief, is a phenomenon scientists can attempt to explain in the same way they try to explain other aspects of human psychology. It seems that we humans have a predisposition for belief (perhaps analogous to that for language), and this trait must, in times past at least, have had survival value. This would have been "useful" only in a Darwinian sense, and it would be dangerous to go any further and to attach moral value to the trait.

At present, one can do little more than speculate on how this helped our prehistoric ancestors, but one possibility is that a strong and cohesive belief system gave its adherents an edge in the messy task of defeating their rivals. Historical records and, indeed, contemporary events in the Middle East would suggest this trait is still at work today. Whether it is "highly useful" is debatable.



Isaac left out

Sir: Robert Fisk (24 August) has misread the book of Genesis. According to it, Jacob (also known as Israel) was not the son but the grandson of Abraham. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac according to Genesis, Ishmael in Muslim tradition; Isaac was later the father of Jacob.



A word to the wise

Sir: I am grateful to L Palmer ­ a noble name in the field of linguistics, incidentally ­ for highlighting "causive" and " argumentive" (letter, 24 August). I am content to break two small spears. One for "causative" (from "causation"), as opposed to "causive" which would presuppose the existence of " causion". And the other for "argumentative", deriving from "argumentation" rather than "argument" (which alone would justify "argumentive"). But I am more than happy to be wrong. This is all very perturbative.



Windfarms and farming

Sir: James Lovelock overlooks the fact that most onshore windfarms are not on arable land, but on marginal land that can, at best, be used for grazing (letter, 23 August). But even if they were on arable land, that should not prevent most of that land being used for food production.



Bush's world plan

Sir: In September 2000, the neocon think-tank Project for the New American Century produced a paper calling for seizure of the world's resources and establishment of permanent military bases throughout the Middle East. " Senior defence sources" are now reported as saying 4,000 British troops will stay in Iraq indefinitely. It seems Tony Blair has been in on the secret Bush plan all along.



Pecker up, Cooper

Sir: Sir Ian Blair should cease speaking nonsense about Londoners leaving their doors open and concentrate all resources on catching the hooligans who wrote racist graffiti on Cooper Brown's Quattroporte. Cooper is a welcome guest in this country and is a man of obvious culture and sophistication, and should not be subjected to mindless intimidation. Keep your pecker up, Coopster.