Interviewed by David Barsamian
KGNU, Boulder, CO 28 May 2019
Nader Hashemi is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and teaches Middle East and Islamic politics at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author of Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy and co-editor of The People Reloaded, The Syria Dilemma and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 sent the proverbial shock waves throughout not just the Middle East but to Washington itself, which had banked heavily on the Shah as a key ally. How has that relationship evolved over the ensuing four decades?
It has been a relationship that was always fraught with deep tension, anxiety and the potential for conflict. Under Obama, especially after the nuclear agreement was signed in 2015, there was hope that the worst period was behind us. I think now, under the Trump administration, we are witnessing the worst moment in U.S.-Iran relations over the last 40 years because it looks like we are on the precipice of a major war.
Even more than the hostage crisis?
I think so. During the 1979-80 hostage crisis, while there was that one moment when Jimmy Carter tried to rescue the hostages with a failed military expedition, there was never the type of rhetoric that we’re hearing today from the United States about regime change, about trying to cripple the Iranian economy and the “obliteration” of Iran that we’re seeing right now. The early days of the revolution were of course, deeply tense moments. I think it’s accurate to say that what we’re seeing right now by the Trump Administration is by far the worst tension between the two countries since the 1979 revolution.
What would you identify as the root of that hostility that Washington has for Tehran?
Iran has an independent foreign policy. By that, I don’t mean it has a necessarily good foreign policy. It has a foreign policy that is independent from direct control and deep dependence on the great powers. This should be contrasted with the period prior to 1979, when Iran was closely allied with United States and where Washington had a lot of influence over Iranian politics. For reasons that most of your listeners will know, the story begins in 1953; when the United States toppled Mohammad Mossadeq and
installed the regime of the Shah remain in power for the next 25 years. The nature of the hostility is rooted here. It has little to do with Islamic Republic’s sordid human rights record. Iran has a different vision and pursues policies that clashes with the interests of the United States and its allies in the region.
Let’s talk about 2009. There’s a presidential election in Iran. You co-edited a book called The People Reloaded about the events that occurred in 2009 and after. Give us the context and the background of what happened.
2009 was a presidential election year. The sitting president was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a bombastic conservative. Four years earlier, there was a large-scale boycott of the elections. Many middle-class Iranians did not go to the polls because they were frustrated with the state of politics, specifically the inability of Iranian reformists who controlled the presidency and the parliament, to deliver meaningful change. That resulted in Ahmadinejad getting elected in 2005. His policies alienated large constituencies within Iran, young people, intellectuals and women. In 2009, a moment of opportunity presented itself for the people of Iran. Not to radically transform the Islamic Republic into a democracy but the choice was between Ahmadinejad, a hawkish hardliner versus a moderate reformist candidate who campaigned on a platform of greater democracy, human rights and better relations with the outside world. What you saw in that election and the lead up to it, which I followed very closely, was this opening up of Iran’s political society. For the first time, Iran had presidential debates on television where millions of Iranians were glued to their television sets to see the back and forth between the candidates.
There was massive political mobilization and voter turnout. People stood in lines for a very long time to cast their ballots. The generally accepted figure was between 80 to 85% of Iranians voted. Immediately after the vote took place, and the results announced, there was a widely held perception that the election had been rigged. Ahmadinejad was declared to be the victor. That led to great street protests that lasted roughly for six months. State repression soon followed; thousands were arrested and tortured, between 100-200 people were killed. This event was the biggest shock to the Islamic Republic of Iran in terms of the stability of the regime that the senior clerics had faced in 30 years. This point was openly acknowledged by Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Senior Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, who said that the protests that followed the 2009 election were the biggest threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran, much greater than the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
The opposition candidate who ran against Ahmadinejad was Mir-Hossein Mousavi. He was prominent in the struggle for democracy as was his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a well-known artist and Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and reformist politician. What has happened to them since then?
About a year and a half after those 2009 protests, they were arrested and put in jail. The circumstances that led to their incarceration and now their ongoing house arrest, which has lasted for roughly eight years, was that they refused to stay silent about the abuse of political power in Iran and growing authoritarianism. Specifically, they refused to genuflect before the Supreme Leader. After the 2009 election and the public protests, Khamenei ordered an end to public debate on the topic. He validated the results and instructed Iranians to accept them. They refused those instructions. They continued to organize, to issue manifestos. The event that actually led to their arrest coincided with the Arab Spring protests in the region. It was in February 2011. They called for public protest in solidarity with Tunisia and Egypt. The slogan that was shouted on the streets of Tehran was, “Mubarak, Bin Ali, Now it’s time for Sayyed Ali [Khamenei].” It actually rhymes in Persian. This shocked the political establishment and it led to their immediate arrest. The Islamic Republic of Iran was in a very vulnerable position at that time because they did not want to be compared to other Arab dictatorships that were facing popular protests for democracy.
This is exactly what the Green Movement protesters were doing. It was a very telling moment. After these protests broke out in February 2011, there was this incident that took place in the Iranian parliament where hard line members gathered around the podium of the speaker and publicly called for the execution of the Green Movement leaders. It looked like medieval lynch mob ceremony.
Iranian hardliners were embarrassed and exposed. The regime couldn’t control the narrative, it couldn’t stop people from coming into the streets and they were deeply petrified by the comparison that was being made by the opposition leaders in Iran between the Arab Spring protests for democracy and similar circumstances in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thus, they were arrested, never officially charged or put on trial, because doing so would have affected the stability of the Islamic Republic. They remain under house arrest until today.
How would you characterize the nature of the resistance that culminated around that election? Was this an elite group with connections abroad and speaking English? Or was it more grassroots?
It was much more grassroots. It was overwhelmingly middle class and urban-based. Having said that, there were people from lower socio-economic classes who participated. The overwhelming bulk of the protesters were young people, middle class men and women. If you know anything about contemporary Iranian society, 70% of the population live in urban centers now. I think the protests were representative of the majority of Iranian society. Of course, the attempt by the regime to delegitimize these protests were to make arguments exactly as your question just hinted at. They were foreign inspired.
The official regime narrative – which is straight out of the authoritarian regime playbook – is that this was an attempt by the CIA and Saudi Arabia to try and foment changes within Iran that had no indigenous support. This is completely false. The protests lasted consistently for about six months until they were eventually crushed brutally by the regime. That ended what I would call Iran’s second moment for democratic transformation.
The first moment being the 1953 period.
Actually, no. I’m talking about the post-revolutionary period. Yes, you are correct if you take a longer historical view that includes the 20th century more broadly. The early 1950s was the best moment that Iran had for a democratic transformation. The prospects for democracy at this time looked good. We all know how that story ended with the CIA-British coup. After the revolution in 1979, I think the first serious moment where there was a lot of optimism for political change and democratization was in the first term of the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. This was from roughly 1997 to the year 2000.
Khatami ran on a democratic platform and wins. The clerical establishment is completely shocked. What happens for the first two to three years after that 1997 election is a revitalization of civil society. Independent journals and newspapers are published, a lot of organizing at the grass roots level takes places, there are public debates on basic questions like the proper relationship between Islam and democracy, tradition versus modernity, human rights etc.
2000 was the year of parliamentary elections. Building on the tide of strong support for reform and civil society mobilization, it looked like a new parliament would be elected that would be controlled by reformists. The hope was that with control of two key state institutions, the presidency and the parliament, reformists would be able to advance serious and substantive political change. This does not happen. Iranian hardliners, seeing control slip from their hands begin to fight back. Using intimidation, threats, arrests the court system, and assassinations, the hardliner-controlled establishment gradually crushes and rolls back that moment for democracy. It officially ends in 2005, when Khatami ends his second term in office but in truth, it was effectively crushed by 2000.
Perhaps, whatever openings there were for democracy at the beginning of the revolution were compromised first with the hostage crisis and the subsequent hostility from the United States. And then crucially, the Iraq invasion of Iran. The country is under attack, people rally around the flag and there’s not an opening for a democratic space.
The Iran-Iraq war began in September 1980 and lasted for eight years. It was a key moment in Iran’s post-revolutionary history. Iraq’s invasion was backed by the United States and other Western powers. As a result of this event, the post-revolutionary doors for political change that had briefly opened were closed. There is a rally around the flag moment. There is a consolidation of the regime as hard line Islamists loyal to Khomeini use this war as justification to silence all dissent. Absolutely, I would agree with that observation.
One of the iconic moments of that resistance in 2009 was the video of the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan. For people who didn’t know anything about Iran, it was maybe the one image that made an impact. Talk about that.
The 2009 election results were effectively rigged and Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. Lots of evidence has surfaced to prove this case. At the time, massive street protests broke out. Among the many protesters in Tehran is this young woman, not very political but someone who like others of her peer group, was out on the streets protesting a stolen election. She was killed by a bullet that came from the weapon of a member of the Basij, one of the paramilitary militias that is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards. This was caught on camera and it went viral.
Many people were on the streets at that time calling for political accountability. The most popular slogan in the early days of that revolt was, “Where is my Vote?” Neda Agha-Soltan is killed for this reason and her story becomes widely disseminated. She becomes a symbol of the non-violent resistance to authoritarianism in Iran. There is a very good PBS documentary on Neda that is worth watching for those interested in the background and significance of her martyrdom.
You write about three moments of democracy in Iran. Could you discuss them?
After the revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic emerges after crushing all dissent. In the first year and a half, there was some political pluralism in Iran. By the time that the Iran-Iraq war begins in 1980, effectively, the hardline Islamists have consolidated control. There is a suffocating political atmosphere. All the attention is on the Iran-Iraq war. Gradually, after the war ends in 1988 and Khomeini passes from the scene; a period of reconstruction begins. Around this time, a series of intellectual debates from within the loyalist camp/supporters of Khomeini also begins. These debates are related to the future of Iran and the trajectory of the revolution. Global trends effect this debate such as the ending of the Cold War, the expansion of democracy and civil society, the end of apartheid in South Africa, etc. This overlaps with the gradual relaxing of restrictions on civil society and political mobilization related to presidential and parliamentary elections in Iran during the 1990s. During this period, we also see the emergence of factional rivalry among supporters of the Islamic Republic that leads to these “moments” of potential democratic transition.
The first one was the one that we’ve already referenced. It was the 1997 surprise election of Mohammad Khatami a reformist candidate. He came to office on a platform of democracy and civil society. He was an intellectual with a keen interest in philosophy and religious reform. There was this sense at this time, especially during his first term, that this might be a transformative moment for Iran. Long story short, the hardliner elements of the regime consolidate control, using the institutions of repression that are under its control, particularly, the courts and the various security organizations, primarily the Basij militia crush to crush this moment of democracy that seemed to be on the horizon.
Some people actually designate the turning point of this moment to be when George W. Bush gets elected and identifies Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil.” It is claimed that this policy significantly undermined the transformations that were taking place in Iran. My reading is different. This moment of democracy was already crushed by Iranian hardliners before George Bush makes his infamous speech. Of course, the policies of the Bush administration after 9/11 feed into and indirectly support the policies of hard-line factions in Iran who play off the rhetoric coming out of the White House to consolidate their power.
Here we see a long-standing theme of Iranian politics where hardliners in the United States calling for tough action against Iran bolster their counterparts in Iran. Hard liners in Iran play off this rhetoric. It actually has a mutually reinforcing effect. This is the first moment of democracy, from 1997 to the year 2000. The second moment was the Green Movement in 2009. Again, it looked like there was a moment of change that was on the horizon. According to the regime itself, three million people were on the streets of Tehran in the summer of 2009 calling for political accountability and serious political change. That moment too was brutally crushed.
It’s interesting, if you listen to some of the debates here in the U.S., about the 2009 Green Movement protest, neo-conservatives and other Republicans blame Obama for not siding with the protesters, for not speaking out more vociferously in favor of the Green Movement. The reality I think was that Obama played his cards very correctly. I’m not a huge fan of Obama but his response to the Green Movement protest was careful, calculated and correct in the following sense. He realized right from the beginning, he didn’t want to insert the United States into an internal Iranian political debate over an election and give an excuse to Iranian hardliners to blame the protests on U.S. support.
When the repression increased, Obama did issue statements condemning the repression. The argument that you often hear is that Obama should have spoken out much more vociferously and intervened in the middle of the post-election fury in Iran. I think that would have backfired and it would have assisted in a greater crack down on protesters. The regime would have exploited Obama’s statements to paint the protesters as American agents. They would have turned the debate away from a stolen election and internal repression and made it all about the U.S. The third moment of democracy is less clear than the previous two I have mentioned. Sadly, I think it too has just passed us by. This moment begins in relation to the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani who campaigns on a platform of greater reforms, greater openness, freedom for opposition leaders. Also, critically, the key argument that he advances in that election is that he wants to resolve Iran’s problem with the international community that pertains to Iran’s controversial nuclear program. He pledges that within 100 days, he will make progress in that direction. He actually does this. Robust diplomacy leads to an interim nuclear agreement in 2013 and a final agreement in 2015.
The political hopes that were attached to Rouhani’s election and the nuclear agreement was that a nuclear agreement would remove the threat of external military attack on Iran. This would then allow for sanctions to be lifted. That process, if given enough time would lead to greater integration, exchange, openness between Iran and the international community.
Critically, it would allow for better economic and social conditions to emerge in Iran. The political benefits from this would be that it would allow for better social conditions to organize, mobilize and to challenge authoritarianism in Iran. This would be in sharp contrast to the period when there was little organizing or opposition as many people were simply fighting for survival, which is what was happening in Iran during the heavy sanction regime that Iran was placed under during the Obama administration prior to the nuclear agreement. There was a sense among Iranian democratic forces that if given enough time, the nuclear agreement and economic benefits would then eventually lead to some political change down the road. I characterize that as Iran’s third moment of possible democratic opening.
Of course, with the caveat – this moment was not as clear as the two earlier moments were when the question of democracy, political change and accountability were much more direct and much more visible for people to see.
Just to circle back to the several months right after the September 11th attacks. There was a candlelight vigil in Tehran and other Iranian cities. People turned out. Trump was talking about seeing Muslims dancing in the streets in Jersey City, which was a complete fabrication. There was actual solidarity in Iran with the United States. More to the point during that period, during the invasion of Afghanistan, Iran was helpful to the United States. In December of 2001 at the Bonn Conference, Iran was instrumental in getting Hamid Karzai selected. Tehran put pressure on its allies in Afghanistan to do that “favor” for the U.S.
Then in the following month, in George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address, Iran is labeled as an “Axis of Evil” state. This must have been not just a cruel blow to Khatami but music to the ears of the hardliners who said, “Look, you try and help the Americans. This is what you get.”
I think what you see as a result of U.S. policy under Bush 43 was that the policies that were pursued after 9/11 inadvertently played into the narrative of Iranian hardliners whose position has always been: “You can’t trust the United States. You can’t negotiate with them. They will always betray you. If you give them an inch, they will take a mile. We need to rally around the revolutionary flag. We have to constantly be vigilant because the United States is coming to get us.”
The other faction within Iran, the faction associated with the Reform Movement, Khatami, Rouhani, Zarif and others.
Zarif is the Foreign Minister.
This faction calls for political engagement with the West, including the United States, to resolve tensions via diplomacy. When Bush delivers his “Axis of Evil” speech at the moment when Iran seemed to be pursuing policies in Afghanistan that overlapped with America’s national interests, in other words, Iran had no interest in supporting the Taliban. They almost went to war with the Taliban in 1998. There was no reciprocity from the U.S. Actually, this speech was perceived by Tehran as a slap in the face. This provided another opportunity for hardliners to take advantage of the narrative within Iran and to repeat these age-old slogans about the need to be vigilant and the need to reject American offers of diplomacy. Not that there were many forthcoming to begin with but to take a very hard line stance with Iran’s relations with the outside world.
Iranian hardliners, you write are benefiting not just ideologically, which you’ve discussed but economically from Trump’s hawkish policy. Talk about how the republic’s economy is structured and the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a significant player in the economy.
Iran’s economy has been accurately described by experts as comprised of three different sectors. A public sector, a private sector and then a semi-state sector. The semi-state sector is comprised of a number of religious and revolutionary foundations that have a lot of wealth. They have their own internal accounting processes that are opaque and not accountable to the public. They employ tens of thousands of people, perhaps more. They are involved in economic production. Part of that semi-state aspect of the Iranian economy also includes the role that the Revolutionary Guards play in Iran’s economy. They own hotels. They own construction firms, shopping malls etc.
They’re involved in a massive amount of business activity. Because Iran is a close political system, it’s difficult to talk with precision in terms of how much of the economic activity is under the direct control of the Revolutionary Guards. It’s widely believed to be roughly 40%. This vast sector of the Iranian economy which is in the hands of these Revolutionary Guards and their affiliated companies includes a vast network of clients that they serve and whom they employ in exchange for loyalty and benefits. This is one of the reasons why the regime has a solid base of support.
It’s a minority support but there’s a lot of people whose livelihoods, whose jobs are dependent on maintaining the political and economic status quo. Just to cite one example, there was a very famous case in 2004 where a contract was given to a Turkish cellular phone company to build a mobile phone network in Iran. The deal was signed. The Revolutionary Guards soon protested. Eventually, the deal was broken. The contract was then given to the Revolutionary Guards to develop a cellular phone system. This is the type of the influence that they wield. It’s very difficult to rein them in because they are so deeply integrated into the DNA of the Islamic Republic. Rouhani, to his credit, after the nuclear deal but before Trump rise to power, did try to roll back their influence over the economy.
So, the IRGC is a huge part of the Iranian economy. They’re also a big reason why Iran’s economy does not function up to the level that many people hoped it would after the nuclear deal. The standard narrative is that the reason why Iran’s economy is in shambles is because of U.S. sanctions. This is true, especially today under Trump, but it clouds the full picture. The other aspect is internal corruption, mismanagement and the absence of an open business climate where there can be clear rules. Where private businesses can bid on contracts; where there can be some fair regulation of that type of business activity that is adjudicated by an independent court system. All of this is missing and it contributes to Iran’s current economic crisis.
Transparency, yes, especially the absence of it. I think this is the fundamental reason why economy doesn’t function properly. The leaders of the Islamic Republic realize at some level that one way of keeping a section of the population loyal to them, especially the security forces (IRGC and the Basij militia) is to give them an economic stake in the system.
Would you see any similarities between this situation in Iran with the Revolutionary Guards and the militaries in Pakistan and Egypt as well?
In terms of the big picture, there are lots of similarities and parallels. Differences emerges when we talk about the specifics. In many ways, in the case of Pakistan, and many other developing societies, the military is the most powerful institution. It’s responsible for external security and internal repression if things get out of control. They often have a huge stake in the economic activity of the country in ways that I have just described. Egypt fits this pattern too; it’s widely believed that 40% of the Egyptian economy, either directly or indirectly is controlled by the Egyptian military and its offshoots.
The Council on Foreign Relations in New York says the IRGC, “wields control over vast segments of the Iranian economy.” I was interested to see that they even own football teams and hotels.
Many other types of businesses as well. Often, it’s difficult to clearly identify IRGC ownership. It’s not that there’s a hotel that says, “This is owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Welcome.” They have front organizations and they often present themselves as a private hotel chain. They serve their clients. Of course, if you look behind the scenes, there is this vast network of owners and boards of directors, all of whom have ties to the IRGC. You do have this system where people who are commanders, officers in the IRGC, when they retire, they become businessmen. They give their own family, friends, relatives, clients a share in the economic activity of the organizations that they control.
Now, for the first time in relations between Iran and the United States, in fact, with United States and any other country, a government entity has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was declared to be a foreign terrorist organization by the Trump administration in April of 2019. What kind of impact has that had on Iran?
Mostly, it’s had a political and psychological impact. First of all, it really makes no sense to declare the IRGC a terrorist organization. Not because they don’t deserve the label. They are involved in a lot of nasty things internally and regionally, especially in Syria. Remember, Iran was already under heavy sanctions. Many senior members of the regime were already singled out for sanctions.
I think the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization was simply an attempt by the Trump administration to send a message to Iran that we’re coming after you. It took a place against the backdrop of crippling sanctions, attempts to apply sanctions not just on Iran’s oil and gas sector but the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization took place literally on the eve of a new set of sanctions against Iran that historically has never been applied to the Islamic Republic – sanction on Iran’s steel and mining industries.
Politically, I think the U.S. goal here is close the doors to diplomacy. This move can put someone in legal jeopardy if they have had any contact or connection with the IRGC, which is now considered a terrorist organization. Anyone who has any business or financial ties with them will then be labeled a terrorist or an accomplice to a terrorist organize thus limiting what can be done in future in terms of diplomacy. Remember, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei is commander-in-chief of the IRGC.
What’s really interesting, if you look at the forces behind this legislation, behind this directive, it’s really people who are strong proponents of a military conflict with Iran, proponents of regime change, the people who do not want relations between Iran and the United States and the Western world to take place. Many of them cut from the same ideological cloth as Bibi Netanyahu.
In Washington’s proclamation declaring the IRGC as a terrorist organization, it says, “We will continue to increase financial pressure and raise the costs on the Iranian regime for its support of terrorist activity until it abandons its malign and outlaw behavior.” This term malign actor, bad actor comes up over and over again in discussions about Iran. Even in very polite discourse, by the way, National Public Radio and the PBS NewsHour, it’s a given that Iran is engaging in maligned behavior unlike the United States for example.
Or U.S. allies in the region. This is one of the key problems when it comes to this particular narrative. My response is, yes, Iran is involved and has contributed to destabilizing the Middle East. It is a bad actor but it is not the only bad actor in the Middle East. I think Iran is most guilty in terms of what it has done in Syria over the last eight years. From day one, it has been backing a morally reprehensible regime and it has been complicit in and has participated in clear war crimes and crimes against humanity. Iran is I think very guilty there. It’s also guilty in terms of furthering sectarianism in Iraq. I think in other theaters of conflict, in Yemen, Iran’s role is grossly exaggerated in the Western discourse on the topic. I think in Lebanon, it has played a significant role in terms of supporting Lebanese Shia forces.
I think it has played a polarizing role there. If one takes a step back and try to objectively understand the roots of instability in the Middle East, the Washington narrative does not stand up to scrutiny. The dominant view from Washington, which has sunk deep roots in American political culture, is the main reason why the Middle East is unstable today is because of Iran’s maligned activity. Period. Full stop. This is distortion of reality. Fact: there are other actors who have contributed to Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the spread of Wahhabi Islam is a huge part of the problem. The United Arab Emirates is a huge part of the problem and also, the policies of the Israel both in the past and especially under Netanyahu. The ongoing, systematic, oppression, suppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people, has been a source for regional destabilization for over 70 years. To focus all of our attention on Iran, completely distorts the objective reality of why this region is turmoil.
The Guardian has published a map of U.S. Forces in the Middle East literally surrounding Iran, in Kuwait, Turkey, Iraq, the UAE, Djibouti, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Yet Iran is defined as a rogue state committing acts of international terrorism. In fact, another frequent refrain is Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world.
That narrative again wants to put the entire spotlight on Iran for engaging in destabilizing activity, which I want to emphasize, they have engaged in destabilizing activity. Nevertheless, the point here is they are not the only actor who has pursued and promoted acts of terrorism and destabilization. The point that you just made with reference to The Guardian article is one that’s worth thinking about. Iran has not surrounded the United States with military bases and naval forces. The U.S. has done that to Iran because there is an inbuilt assumption in the U.S. foreign policy debate that the United States is allowed to do things in terms of its projection of power that no other country in the world is allowed to do, simply because it is the “home team.”
It seems that Pompeo, the Secretary of State, former CIA Director, former Congressman from Wichita where he was known as the Representative from Boeing, which has a big plant in Wichita and the National Security Adviser, John Bolton, they seem to have a particular animus toward Iran. Their language is threatening and bellicose.
I would actually take it a step further. It’s more than an animus. It’s actually an obsession. It’s an obsession that almost defies rational explanation. I think part of the reason why you’re seeing this extreme level of hawkishness from Bolton and Pompeo is less about the individuals themselves and more about the political forces that back his career. One level, I think the individuals themselves are part of the story. In the case of Pompeo, he’s known to be a Christian fundamentalist. He gave a statement not too long ago in the context of an interview with an evangelical television station where he actually said that it’s within the realm of the possible that God has sent Donald Trump to save Israel from Iran.
This is the level of thinking of Mike Pompeo. At the same time, he does have these deep ties to U.S. weapons manufacturers. I think that’s part of the constituency that is strongly supportive of ongoing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the case of Bolton, I think it is about his own individual personal hawkishness. It’s also about the ties and relations that he has with very nefarious forces both in Washington and in the region. Here is an interesting question to ask. How did John Bolton become the National Security Adviser to the President of the United States?
If you read Dexter Filkins’ recent report in The New Yorker on John Bolton, he comes pretty close to saying that the reason why H.R. McMaster was replaced and Bolton was put in his place was because of strong support from Sheldon Adelson, the hawkish multi-billionaire who has these fanatical views on Israel and who doesn’t believe the Palestinians have the same human rights as Israelis. He insisted that Bolton is our man and he impressed on Trump to appoint him as his national security advisor in return for political support. There fact highlights the very powerful and influential constituency of right-wing hawkish supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu in the U.S. whose politics on the Middle East overlap with John Bolton’s worldview. Also, there are key regional actors in the Middle East that are part of this picture.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and then of course, Israel are big allies of the Trump administration; big supporters of Pompeo and Bolton. They are a core constituency that desperately wants the U.S. to launch a war again Iran. I don’t think you can understand what’s happening today in terms of the possibility of a war with Iran without taking into consideration these constituencies, these actors who have their own lobbyists in Washington, who have a lot of influence in Congress, who now have the ear of the President.
That’s why I think the moment that we’re going through right now is probably the most dangerous one we’ve ever seen in terms of U.S.-Iran relations over the past 40 years. The prospects of a war on the horizon and this will remain the case between now and the next presidential election. I say that because I’ve read the literature. I’ve read the statements of these people very closely. They see this as a golden opportunity with Trump in the White House. This opportunity might not exist after November 2020 with a new president. This is the moment where all the stars seem to be aligned in a perfect row for a military attack on Iran.
Pompeo also has said that the Bible “informs everything I do.” Imagine if someone from the Taliban would say something like that what the response would be. It’s just another religious crazy.
I think this is one of the most dangerous elements of the current Trump administration. Specifically, the role and the influence the evangelicals have on this administration. They constitute a core part of Trump’s base. With respect to the Middle East, Iran but also the question of Israel/Palestine, they have fanatic views. The American Ambassador to Israel made a similar statement as Pompeo recently, that God is on the side of Israel and on the side of Netanyahu.
That’s David Friedman.
These are the arguments that are being invoked to justify American policy in the region. They make no rational sense. It is another reason to be very, very concerned about where we’re headed in terms of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Talk about what seem to have been a shining moment in U.S.-Iran relations and Iran’s relations with the other permanent members of the Security Council and the European Union and Germany in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called Iran deal, which was painstakingly negotiated and signed in the summer of 2015. Incidentally, Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, was the chief negotiator. He is a former graduate of the University of Denver, where you teach. It was seen as a really important step to realize, as you said earlier, Rouhani’s goal of normalizing Iran’s relationship with the rest of the world.
This is a very important story that represents a high point in terms of better relations between Iran and the U.S. Trita Parsi’s last book, Losing an Enemy, covers this topic very well as does Robin Wright’s coverage in The New Yorker. In short, due to the right leadership in Washington and Tehran, a path of diplomacy is seriously pursued by both countries. The goal is to resolve longstanding differences and tensions. The key point of contention is Iran’s controversial nuclear program. An agreement is reached where Iran agrees to roll back its nuclear program and place it under international inspection, in exchange for sanctions relief. This agreement is supported by nearly the entire world and culminates in a UN Security Council resolution. It was a major step forward in terms of enhancing international peace and security.
When Trump comes to power, he tears up the agreement and pursues a path of “maximum pressure” against Iran. This brings us to where we are today.
What happens with neighboring Turkey, which was heavily dependent on Iranian oil?
Turkey just announced its going to stop purchasing Iranian oil because of the pressure that the U.S. has placed on all countries that trade with Iran. There were waivers that were given to countries that were purchasing Iranian oil, giving them a period of several months to find other sources of oil or be subject to new U.S. sanctions. The one hold up here is China that still is buying Iranian oil. That of course, overlaps with the trade crisis that exists between China and the United States today.
The bottom line here is that Iran’s ability to export its oil has shrunk significantly over the last year. The Iranian economy is in free fall. Inflation is officially at 37% according to government statistics (which means in reality it is far worse). Unemployment has skyrocketed. The International Monetary Fund predicted that Iran’s economy would collapse by 6% in 2019. The value of the Iranian currency has been cut in half. You have this situation within Iran today where literally, people are struggling to survive, trying to figure out how to make ends meet.
This has an enormous impact on the struggle for democracy. If you’re wondering about your next meal, how you’re going to get medicine for your ailing parents, you can’t be thinking about social change too much.
It has a catastrophic effect on the struggle for democracy in Iran, which is why the indigenous grassroots leaders, civil society organizations within Iran were the biggest proponents and supporters of the Iran nuclear deal. They are extremely critical of this policy of broad-based sanctions. Just two days ago, one of the most prestigious universities in Tehran, Allameh Tabataba’i University, students had a protest. The slogans at that protest were very revealing. The slogans were as follows. “No to war. No to sanctions. No to authoritarianism. Freedom for political prisoners. The policy of sanctions is inhuman. National security is meaningless without freedom and democracy.”
You see a mix of both slogans here and two main targets; strongly critical of sanctions and U.S. policy. In addition, students are directing criticism at the internal repression by the regime. I think these two things are deeply linked now because you can’t have a struggle for democracy when the economy has collapsed and people are struggling to figure out where their next meal is going to come from.
Under the Geneva Convention sanctions are regarded as a form of collective punishment.
This is the problem with these sanctions. The official U.S. claim is that sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran aimed at changing regime behavior. The senior leaders are the targets. But these sanctions do not directly affect those particular elements of Iranian society. We know this from other cases. The one classic case is what happened in the 1990s in Iraq where there were strong punitive sanctions, which ironically strengthened Saddam Hussein. They devastated Iraqi society. But he emerged in a stronger position along with his supporters. The same applies to Iran. The IRGC have their smuggling networks. They have their bank accounts. They have their alternative forms of income revenue. The average citizen who doesn’t have those ties are the one who’s really are being hit by these sanctions.
On my last trip to Iran a couple of years ago, I met a couple of young people who had applied to U.S. universities and have subsequently been denied entry into the U.S. because of the travel ban. They were so disappointed and spoke in admiring terms about the U.S. and what a great opportunity it would be to study there. You must know with your friends and connections in Iran of similar cases.
I’m personally familiar with similar cases. It just so happens that right now there is a student of mine at the University of Denver who was accepted into our master’s program. He couldn’t come in September because of Trump’s travel ban against five Muslim majority countries. He finally arrives four months later right at the time when sanctions were starting to have a deep effect. Now he can’t pay his tuition. His parents can’t afford it. He’s struggling to make ends meet. What you see is that a lot of Iranians, as you just mentioned admire American society, the education system, the freedoms that exist. They don’t admire U.S. foreign policy because in this case, it is U.S. foreign policy that is crippling and hurting Iranians.
More broadly, U.S. foreign policy during the latter half of the 20th century overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister and then supported a repressive regime. You have I think a sense among young Iranians that many of them want to come to the United States, want to study here, want to be engaged with the global community. Because of policies coming out of Washington, that’s incredibly difficult. Notwithstanding the claims by Mike Pompeo about supporting the people of Iran, there is little evidence to substantiate this. In fact, it is the exact opposite. I can tell you many other stories as to how the policies that the United States has pursued has inadvertently hurt the average Iranian citizen while strengthening the regime.
Something as simple as opening a bank account is extremely difficult if you happen to be Iranian living in the United States or Europe. If the bank finds out there’s any transfer of money from your parents/relations related to the payment of tuition, the bank account gets shut down. If you are Iranian it is almost impossible to travel to the United States. This is one of the huge ironies that expose the Trump/Pompeo claim that they seek to support the Iranian people. If you really want to support the Iranian people, then why is there a travel ban on Iranians preventing them from coming to the United States? Remember, these are people who are not responsible for the policies of the regime; in most cases, they are critical of the Islamic Republic. It doesn’t matter. Trump prefers a policy of collective punishment.
What about medical supplies?
Medical supplies are also affected by sanctions. Not officially but when financial transactions with Iran are sanctioned and the value of the currency drops, this makes access to medicines more difficult. The result is a serious increase in basic health problems that normally can be treated. You’re starting to see physician organizations, hospitals in Iran, etc. complaining about the inability to access basic medication that results in a lot of unneeded suffering.
Now the question has to arise given the allegations made by such distinguished representatives in the Senate as Tom Cotton and Lindsey Graham and others of a grave threat that Iran poses to the United States. Why would Iran risk being demolished in any kind of conflict with the U.S., which has overwhelming military force? Do you know how much the Iranian military budget is? It’s around $15 billion.
It’s incredibly small compared to not just to the U.S. military budget but it’s very small in comparison to the military budgets of neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These countries are far ahead of Iran in terms of military spending. Thus, these statements that you hear from Tom Cotton and from Lindsey Graham make no sense. In fact, what they do is they actually remind me of the rhetoric that we heard in this country in the 1980s with respect to Central America and Latin America. Recall, back then, we were told that the key reason why this region is so unstable was because of these huge “threats” coming from Nicaragua and Cuba that were aimed not just at the region but at the United States too. What flowed from this was the need to support military dictatorships in the region.
Hook, line and sinker, a similar narrative is visible today in the context of the Middle East. Iran is the only problem facing the region; it must be confronted before the world comes to an end. This is then used to justify arm sales and to support authoritarian regimes. Now, again, I don’t want to diminish or ignore the repressive nature of the Islamic Republic, the way it treats its people, the way it treats its minorities, what it’s done in Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Those are all true. The broader claim that the Islamic Republic of Iran is posing a grave threat to the United States of America that accompanies this claim is simply not believable.
The New York Times on May 23rd has a story entitled, “Iran Stiffens Its Resolve as the Trump Administration Keeps Increasing the Pressure.” How would you rate the most prestigious U.S. newspaper’s coverage of Iran?
Recently, there’s been a lot of hawkish and incendiary headlines that I think have fed into this war narrative. There’s a lot of room for criticism there. The New York Times does have a very good reporter in Tehran, Thomas Erdbrink. He does a good job in reporting on what’s happening on the ground. Their editorial page has gotten a lot better. I give the New York Times credit there. In terms of the reporting over the last month and a half, there has been this depiction of Iran’s behavior that often exaggerates the threat and contributes to war hysteria. But there has also been some very thoughtful and sound reporting as well.
You mentioned analogies with the 1980s. What about the attack on Iraq and all the hysteria that we were subjected to in 2002 and 2003 about mushroom clouds, mobile chemical labs and weapons of mass destruction?
It seems like deja vu all over again, doesn’t it? The lead up to the war, the attempt to portray Iran as a threat not only to the United States but a threat to the entire region unless it’s contained. Thankfully that we have 2003 in the background to these debates. Now, there’s much more opposition, much more criticism, both in Congress, among some Democrats but also in the broader society. When you have someone like David Frum writing a piece in The Atlantic saying, “I made a mistake in 2003. I contributed to that war. Let’s not make the same mistake today with Iran” you know things have changed.
It’s an important intellectual development. People very close to the Bush administration, who were directly involved in the 2003 Iraq War narrative, are now issuing mea culpas and saying, “Look, let’s not make that mistake again.” I think in that sense, there is some cause for optimism. Of course, on the other side of the ledger, we have Bolton. We have Pompeo. We have these actors in the region, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates who are really gunning for war. They all have the president’s ear.
Of course, the only thing that is really preventing a rapid escalation toward war, ironically, is the figure of Trump himself who has issued contradictory statements but basically the one line that seems to be consistent is that he wants to have this dialog with Iran in contrast to his hawkish national security adviser. He is not keen to start another war. I don’t think he really seeks a fundamental resolution of the conflict with Iran. My understanding of Trump is that he wants what’s best for his ego. If he can get another North Korea summit where he gets a lot of publicity, get a lot of attention, lots of recognition for doing what Obama could not do, a public meeting with Rouhani. I think that is what he’s aiming for. Trump keeps repeating that he simply doesn’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. Hello? Has he actually read the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran? It precisely accomplishes this goal.
He said actually several times, “We just don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons.” First, Iran does not have nuclear weapons. Second, there was an agreement in place that Iran was complying with according to everyone who studied the topic that prevented them from making any progress toward a nuclear weapon. When Trump claims that he wants Iran just not to have nuclear weapons and then we can solve all our problems, that doesn’t make any sense. We do have this internal policy debate in the White House between Iran hawks who want war with Iran and the figure of Trump himself who hasn’t signed on yet to a military strike against Iran.
I suspect that the agenda very much among the war hawks is to try and convince the president that that a strike on Iran, could be a good thing for his reelection.
The IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency based in Vienna, the UN organization which monitored Iranian sites said that the country was in full compliance with the conditions of the Iran deal.
Not just that but senior members of Trump’s own cabinet, prior to his pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, consistently said that Iran is living up to the terms of the agreement. Jim Mattis said that. H.R. McMaster has said that. Some things are controversial when it comes to Middle East politics and U.S.-Iran relations. This is one issue where there is zero controversy. Iran has lived up to its obligations under the Iran nuclear agreement to the letter. Period.
What did you make of the president’s boast that it will be “the end” of Iran if they get involved in a war with the United States? It seems to be a genocidal threat.
It’s obviously a point of deep concern that the president is effectively threatening to annihilate Iran for no rational reason that anyone can think of. Then again, I think the takeaway here is that it just highlights how volatile this president is and how dangerous this moment really is. In the lead up to that statement, he was calling for negotiations with Iran.
“They should call me,” he said.
In fact, the president of Switzerland was in town at the time. He passed on a number to give to the Swiss who represent the United States’ interest in Iran. He then makes the statement about threatening to annihilate Iran. Literally, the next day, he starts talking about negotiations again. It is as if he suffers from bipolar disorder. Anyone who thinks that somehow the president’s views on Iran are a source of optimism because he opposes a rush to war and wants diplomacy, really needs to think again. My own reading of the President is that I seriously doubt that he could identify Iran on the map if he had to. He clearly hasn’t read the Iran nuclear agreement. If he had, he wouldn’t be making these ridiculous claims. Also, a big part of Trump’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, is simply due the fact that it has Barack Obama’s name on it.
My big concern is that Trump will be easily manipulated by much more sinister and savvy individuals within his inner orbit. Bolton, Pompeo, Kushner and his close allies in the region who I think have a lot of influence over him. I think the erratic nature of this president, his statements that are incoherent and inconsistent does not leave one with a sense of security that somehow, a potential war can be prevented.
The U.S. has diplomatic relations with some of the most notorious regimes on the face of the earth. Why not establish diplomatic relations with Iran as an easy first step?
That’s a great question. I think it’s very difficult to have diplomatic relations with Iran today under the Trump administration. When you’re threatening a military attack; when your National Security Adviser and people in your cabinet are openly calling for regime change. To establish diplomatic relations with Iran would require as a precondition some resolution of this current crisis. I think there was a serious possibility under the Obama administration that had those policies continued that eventually, back channel negotiations would perhaps have led to diplomatic relations.
There is more to this story, however. There’s strong opposition in Iran today against diplomatic negotiations and relations with the United States for reasons that have to do with internal Iranian politics. The basic identity that gives shape and unites hard line factions as a political group is rooted in deeply and unrelenting ideological opposition to the United States. I think under the current Supreme Leader, I can’t see diplomatic relations ever taking place. The Supreme Leader is 80-years old. He’s going to pass from the scene sometime in the next decade.
Possibly, there will be an opportunity down the road but not given the structure of power inside Iran today. Moreover, this current moment adds more obstacles. When Washington is crushing the Iranian economy, threatening regime change and trying to attack Iran militarily, economically, psychologically, etc. it’s tough to envision diplomatic relations in this context.
You are Canadian of Iranian origin and you spoke before the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa where you made some specific recommendations in terms of what Canada could do in promoting human rights in Iran.
I testified before the Subcommittee on International Human Rights a couple of weeks ago. The perspective that I presented was – what do human rights and pro-democracy activists in Iran want from Canada and by extension from the international community? I provided at the end of my statement, a series of bullet points. These were recommendations to the government of Canada that I think represent a broad consensus among human rights activists within Iran in terms of how Canada’s foreign policy should be calibrated to better help activists who are on the front line of the struggle for human rights and democracy in Iran today.
The first point that I mentioned was that Iranian human rights activists want Canada to shine a spotlight on Iran’s human rights record. To identify and support human rights defenders who are in jail, who have been imprisoned, who’ve had their reputation tarnished and whose voice has been silenced by regime repression. They want this form of support from Canada. Also, I think human rights activists in Iran, completely, uniformly and without any exceptions, oppose the policies that we’re seeing coming from the Trump administration today. They long for the days of Obama. Threats, sanctions against the average citizen, calls for violent, externally supported regime change, that’s a red line that most Iranian human rights activists and pro-democracy activists respect. They want the international community to observe these red lines too.
They also want Canada to be supportive and to strongly repudiate the policies of the Trump Administration toward Iran. For obvious reasons, you can’t have a human rights movement; you can’t have a pro-democracy movement when your country is being threatened with war; when your economy has collapsed; when your energy and efforts are on economic survival as opposed to political organizing. This is also a clear red line. Those are some of the key points that I think you see coming up time and time again from within Iran.
The other point that I think is important to acknowledge in terms of the struggle for human rights and democracy in Iran is that there’s no quick fixes here. You can’t flick a light switch and have a democratic transition overnight or vastly improved human rights situation overnight. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes patience. The struggle for democracy in Iran as, one prominent Iranian scholar has noted, is a marathon, not a sprint. Canada and other members of the international community can be doing a much better job to help Iranian human rights activists.
One way they can do that is by trying to be more morally consistent in terms of their own human rights record. The Iranian regime silences, criticize, and rejects Canadian criticism of Iran’s human rights record by pointing out how Canada generally has been silent on other countries in the region who are also engaged in human rights violations. When Canada is silent both publicly and at the UN in terms of what Israel is doing in Gaza, for example, that actually undermines Canadian credibility because it doesn’t demonstrate ethical consistency in terms of Canada’s commitment to upholding human rights norms.
When Canada does not speak out against the horrendous human rights situation in Egypt today under General el-Sisi, where you have 60,000 political prisoners, and were you have effectively a fascist government in power, this undermines Canada’s credibility. Canada and other members of the international community, not only do they say nothing about it, in the case of the European Union, there’s a lot of support for General el-Sisi, a stabilizing force in Egypt and throughout the region. The truth is the exact opposite.
What all of this does is reminds me exactly of the type of rhetoric that we heard from Western governments toward the Shah in the 1960s/70s. The Shah was a liberalizer; a modernizer etc. He was our friend in the region. We were told that the Shah had progressive views on social issues, women, minorities, etc. Of course, this was partially true but let us also remember, he was a brutal dictator too. He presided over a very repressive regime. People often forget the history. The United States and the West have a problem with Iran today because in large part we in the West backed a brutal dictator for decades, whose polices set the stage for the 1979 revolution. Which is why Ervand Abrahamian, whom you recently had on this program says, “If you want to understand the 1979 revolution, you have to go back to 1953.”
It was the Shah who wanted to develop nuclear power for Iran.
And the U.S. was basically supportive of this policy. I’m of the view that had the revolution not taken place and had Iran become a nuclear power under the Shah, the U.S. would have been perfectly fine with this outcome.
What do you make of this notion of a Shia arc?
The Shia arc is a term that was coined by King Abdullah of Jordan in 2004. It was a statement made to claim that Iran was now taking over the Middle East. It was a reflection of the changing regional dynamics that took place primarily in Iraq after the American invasion of Iraq. This ironically, led to the rise of Shia political parties in Iraq which had close connections with Iran. There was this deep fear among the authoritarian regimes in the Arab world that were mostly pro-American, that the status quo would be disrupted. In short, they did not want political change. They did not want political openness; political pluralism and especially they fear, free and fair elections.
There was a fear that politicized forms of Islam modeled on the revolutionary example of Iran was taking over the region. Of course, there was an attempt to sectarianize that development by putting a Shia stamp on it. I think what the real fear for King Abdullah of Jordan was; the real fear of the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia; the real fear of the dictators in the United Arab Emirates is not Shia Islam. It’s all politicized forms of Islam that are challenging authoritarian regimes and their deeply entrenched stronghold over their societies. This is the real fear that animates their thinking and shapes their policies and rhetoric.
Which is why you see a similar form of paranoia and fear that is directed against Iran also being directed against the Muslim Brotherhood. They are Sunni so you can’t play the sectarian card; instead you play the terrorist card. Now, these despotic regimes are trying hard to convince the United States that the Muslim Brotherhood should be labeled a terrorist organization. It’s really a question of political power – the fear of losing it. These regimes don’t believe in sharing power, don’t believe in political change, don’t believe in dissent. They are political tyrannies. I think the reason why they’re so obsessed with Iran is because the 1979 Iranian Revolution demonstrates an alternative example of how Muslims can be political and in the process of doing so, to challenge authoritarian regimes. These countries, I call them the “Axis of Arab Autocracies”, naively believe that if somehow Iran can be contained or crushed, then they won’t have any more political problems on their hands. If you just think about it for a moment, the Arab Spring revolts and protests that broke out throughout the region had nothing to do with Iran. This is wishful thinking on their part.
The 2011 Arab Spring protests were all about opposing political tyranny, the lack of social justice, the expansion of authoritarianism. People were revolting because they wanted a better future. In fact, the model that people were pointing to was not the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was Erdogan in Turkey when he was observing democratic norms. This is prior to the 2013 Gezi Park protests where things in Turkey took a turn for the worst. Many Arabs were pointing to this model. The blame is all on Iran as if somehow, Iran is responsible for political dissent and opposition in the Arab world is a gross distortion.
This claim of a Shia crescent is one of the many obsessions that these authoritarian regimes have. One of the responses that they adopt to deflect demands for political change, is a strategy of regime survival that tries to play the sectarian card. It seeks to mobilize people around sectarian identities to shift the conversation away from dictatorship, demands for democracy, demands for political change and make it seem like the Shiites are taking over and we, Sunnis have to mobilize around that narrative.
Iran becomes what Edward Said would call the Other, non-Arabic speaking, different ethnically, culturally. Its civilization had developed along different lines from its Arab neighbors.
Arab dictators seek to exploit this difference, this perceived sense of otherness, to mobilize people around the sectarian/ethno-nationalist narrative. They’re not part of us. They represent theologically a heresy. If you listen to the rhetoric that comes out of Saudi Arabia, there is this constant reference that Iranians are fire worshipers. They are Zoroastrians. They’re not really Muslims. They are an evil force that must be confronted. Sometimes, you’ll hear the term, Safavi thrown into the equation, which is related to the 16th century dynasty that ruled Iran.
That made Shia Islam the national religion.
Correct. Before 1501, Iran was a majority Sunni society. In closed authoritarian societies, when you control the narrative, at least the official narrative on state television, it’s easy to mobilize people. Iran has played a role in Syria that’s very destructive and in Iraq that has contributed to sectarianism. Of course, these regimes amplified that and used these policies as a way of fundamentally shift attention away from their own corrupt and incompetent role and to try to place all on Iran’s doorstep.
Are you worried at all about your own personal safety? I know you’ve mentioned that your name has come up in interrogations at the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran.
After the 2010 green book volume that I edited with Danny Postel, I started to get harassing phone calls from unknown people criticizing me. Every time I would give an interview on Iranian politics where I would say something sympathetic about the Iranian opposition, I would get a phone call or an email. It got to the point where elements from within Iran, who I think are associated with the IRGC, set up a website trying to impugn my reputation as a professor. This website was distributed to other academics in my field.
I get that type of feedback when I’m publicly critical of the policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I also get harassed on the other end of the political spectrum, from these radical groups within the West who are closely affiliated with this cultish organization known as the MEK, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, which is basically an arm of the John Bolton, Saudi-Israeli lobby. To cite a recent example, just before I was to testify before the sub-committee of the House of Commons in Canada, there was a vociferous campaign to ban me from testifying. I was invited to testify, as was Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council. There was a lobbying campaign against us both. They managed to get him banned but I was able to go through. This is the type of response that you get from people who have a lot of entrenched power both within Iran but also in the West. They just don’t like what you have to say. Thankfully, we still have something left of a democracy here where we can still speak our minds particularly at KGNU and Alternative Radio without fear of retribution and harassment.
What would a rapprochement look like between Iran and the United States?
I don’t think there could be a serious diplomatic rapprochement unless policies change in fundamental ways in both countries. That would require a new president in the White House. It would also require some major change in Congress. Because if you know anything about the view in Congress with respect to Iran, it’s incredibly hawkish.
People forget that in the negotiations on the Iran nuclear accord, Trump had to every 90 days issue a series of waivers preventing the enforcement of American sanctions on Iran because Congress had already decided to sanction Iran. The president had the right to stop that from happening. This gives you a sense that it’s not just the president of the United States but it’s the Congress and of course, the lobby groups that support candidates in Congress that also needs to change as they are a huge source of the problem. How it changes, when it changes, I don’t know. I think if Bernie Sanders gets elected, that’s one box that can be checked.
I think Bernie Sanders would want to sign back onto the Iran nuclear deal and pursue diplomacy. He’s been pretty vocal on that position. Then there’s the other side of the equation. It takes two to tango. I don’t think given the current structure of power within Iran today there can be serious steps toward rapprochement and diplomatic relations for reasons that are poorly understood. To make a long story short, hard line groups within Iran rally around a common narrative that give them purpose and an identity- opposition to the United States.
The idea of diplomatic relations between the two countries would fundamentally undermine this core aspect of the hard-line constituency in Iran that predicates its entire world view and its raison d’etre on opposition to the policies of the United States. This benefits them in various ways to retain power. It a way of justifying the crushing of dissent in Iran. The way that the dissent is crushed is that when you arrest someone, you charge him/her with spying for the CIA. If you have diplomatic relations with Iran, it would be much more difficult to blame all of your domestic and foreign policy problems on the U.S. Thus, without these fundamental changes, a serious rapprochement would be difficult, notwithstanding the wishes of Iranian reformists and most of the Iranian people.
Have you identified those forces within Iranian society that could generate the change that you’re calling for?
I think broadly, the population supports a new vision for Iran and its place in the international system. This is why the vast majority of Iranians voted for Rouhani because he campaigned on the platform of resolving the nuclear question, trying to integrate Iran into the global community by first resolving tensions with the United States. Of course, we’d have to get into a discussion on the dynamics of Iran’s political system where the president has very limited power in terms of pursuing foreign policy. Those decisions particularly on relations with the United States take place at the level of the Supreme Leader.
Until the Supreme Leader is in favor of relations with the U.S., and the current Supreme Leader is clearly not, no progress can be made in this direction. A year ago, Khamenei gave a speech where he was reflecting upon who his successor might be. He said that, “The successor to my position as Supreme Leader might have a different style of governing, he might emphasize different themes, but one issue that I hope never changes is his opposition to the United States.”
What gives you hope?
What gives me hope is not the short term. It’s very bleak. What gives me hope, despite this dark moment that we are going through with Trump, is Bernie Sanders campaign. We shouldn’t forget that Bernie Sanders emerges as a candidate with 3% popularity when he first announced his run for presidency. He had no strong financial backing. He ends the campaign, however, winning 22 states. There was even a moment when it looked like, just before the New York primary, after he won Michigan, that he actually might beat Hillary Clinton. Then the big money came in. Then the strong powerful interest groups came in.
This campaign now is back in play again. Who would have thought even five years ago that we’d be having a national conversation where many candidates for president have basically incorporated large segments of the Bernie Sanders campaign into their platform; on healthcare, the environment, etc.? This gives me some hope but it’s still a big uphill battle.
Within Iran, if you talk to young Iranians, if you engage with them, if you travel through Iran, you’ll see that there’s a lot of young people who form the majority of society, they are educated, globalized and moderate in terms of their views of the world. They want to engage with the international community. They want to travel to United States. They want a better government in Tehran that is democratic, liberal and accountable. We often ignore these important political changes within Iran because the conversation in the United States is all about Iran’s regional behavior, tensions with the United States, threats against Israel, etc.
Fact: the battle for ideas is over in Iran. Those ideas have been overwhelmingly won by reformist forces, by democratic forces who believe in certain fundamental basic principles; democracy, universal human rights, the separation of religion and state. These are values that many Iranians aspire to achieve. Of course, they can’t articulate them and translate those desires into institutional and political change because they’re living in an authoritarian regime; but they are trying.
I think the values, the political values that you see among young people both in terms of what they want from their own society, how they view Iran’s relationship with the outside world, you’ll see a lot of views that overlap with what I think many Americans want in terms of their relationship with Iran. Views that are much more rooted in diplomacy, in peace, in international law, in fruitful exchanges between societies, mutual learning and respect. Those are my hopes. They’re long term hopes. The challenge right now is trying to get over this particularly dark moment where it seems like we’re on the precipice of a war with Iran.
What resources would you recommend for people to get a better understanding of Iran?
I think you have to try and listen to Iranian voices, what Iranians want from the international community. You’d have to look at those journalists who understand Iran, who travel to Iran and know what they are talking about. There’s one particular really good website called Al-Monitor, which follows the internal media and policy and intellectual debates within different Middle East countries. Their coverage of Iran is pretty good. They have correspondents who are in Iran who understand what’s going on.
This publication breaks through a lot of the media narrative with respect to not just Iran but the Middle East that tends to overwhelmingly be shaped by the Washington foreign policy consensus. The Guardian does a good job of covering Iran, as does The Financial Times. They have correspondents there that give you a better sense of what’s happening. The Internet is a wonderful source but there is also a lot of garbage on the Internet as well, so you have to know where to look. One great resource that I strongly recommend is the Center for Human Rights in Iran. It’s a New York organization run by Hadi Ghaemi, who used to work for Human Rights Watch. It does a great job in not just covering the human rights situation in Iran but also, the political challenges that Iranians are facing. I rely on them to keep on top of what’s happening.
How do you rate Al Jazeera?
Al Jazeera is much better than other sources. I think they do a good job. They have correspondents in Iran. The BBC is generally much better than the American media corporations. Sometimes, you get some good stuff on CNN and as I said, The New York Times editorial page today is very good on Iran.
You’ve been on PBS and NPR.
NPR is much better. They have correspondents that go to Iran. PBS is hit and miss. The news coverage on PBS is good. The discussions that they have afterwards on TV after the 6 pm news tends to be people from different think tanks in Washington that again frame Iran through this American national security perspective. Al Jazeera English is far better. The European press does a much better job in covering Iran. There is this really great website in Germany that’s associated with Deutsche Welle. They have this special Middle East page called Qantara.de. It’s a website that does good reporting and analysis, not just on Iran but across the Middle East. Its articles are usually written in German and translated into English. It’s accessible online. It gives you a sense of what’s happening on the ground in ways that I think most Americans don’t get from mainstream media coverage.
The writings of British journalist Christopher de Bellaigue are worth reading. He often writes for the New York Review of Books on Iran; he is fluent in Persian and knows what is going on. His biography of Mohammad Mossadeq is highly recommended.
What can people do?
There are no easy fixes here. There are no easy answers. I think fundamentally, Americans have a huge moral responsibility that’s on their shoulders to try and prevent the slide to war. We’re in an election campaign. It matters profoundly who the next president is. We’ve clearly seen the difference a president can make in terms of U.S. policy toward Iran. This is why elections still matter. The American political system is deeply broken. It desperately needs to get fixed.
People ask me what can they do to prevent war with Iran? Get involved in politics here in the United States. Get someone like Bernie Sanders elected or someone else who has a much more principled position with respect to Iran. The other thing that people can do is try and connect with Iranian grassroots human rights organizations and ask them for guidance. They will likely tell you – stop Trump from starting a war and lift the sanctions by going back to the JCPOA. One of the things that I’ve learned a long time ago from actually listening to you, David, was a statement that Noam Chomsky made that deeply affected me. He noted that before we go about prescribing solutions for other societies in their struggle for democracy, thinking that we have all the answers, we have to exercise a little bit of humility and a little bit of restraint.
Don’t assume we know what the answers are. Ask people in those societies for guidance. Ask the grassroots activists, who are organically connected to their own societies — how can we in the West best help you in your struggle? I think that’s a general rule of thumb that I apply to all questions of political activism. It’s easy to get in touch with those groups. There are many of them. Some are in Iran. Many are in exile. Contact them.
Iran has a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Shirin Ebadi who’s a very principled person. She’s given a lot of interviews. You can follow what she has to say. Those would be a few of the things that I would suggest. You can also organize a lecture series on Iran and invite people who know the topic to come to your area.
You mentioned that New York organization.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran. Put that into your Google search engine. You’ll get accurate, honest, up to date analysis of what’s happening with respect to the human rights situation in Iran that cuts through a lot of the propaganda that you hear from these Washington think tanks and a lot of the stuff that’s circulated on the Internet that is often of dubious quality
(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)
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