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Hooman Majd Answers the Nuclear Question

Question: How do you respond to concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

Majd: Stop worrying.  Don’t learn to love the bomb, but stop worrying.  First of all, Iran is so far away from having a nuclear weapon.  I know there are all these reports, these alarmist reports: Iran has enough enriched uranium to build a bomb tomorrow.  Well, building a bomb is not as simple as it sounds.  Yes, the designs are on the Internet, but to actually create a nuclear weapon is going to be so difficult for Iran to do quietly, secretly.  Yes, they have enriched uranium to 3% or 4%, whatever the number is that is useful as fuel.  To then enrich it to 90 or whatever percent, it would have to be done under the watchful eyes of the IAEA, so we would know about it the minute they do it.  It’s not like they have this other secret facility or, at least, even the IAEA doesn’t think they have a secret facility where they’re doing exactly what they’re doing in front of the IAEA and they could then secretly go out and enrich it to a higher level.  Even if you enriched it to a higher level, surely you’d want to test a nuclear weapon before you just fired it off.  I mean, Iran is so far away from testing a nuclear weapon so we would even know. . . .  The North Koreans tested weapons, and we’re not even sure that they worked.  We do know that Israel has nuclear weapons; we do know that they have a delivery system for those nuclear weapons — they have those kinds of missiles that could deliver, accurate missiles that could deliver a nuclear weapon to Iran.  Iran is so far away from having that ability.  Some would say, “You’re being, you know, naïve.  They could do it in a year, they could do it in 2 years,” but there’ll be so many signals before that happened that we could get . . . we could become really alarmed.  If Iran suddenly shuts down the IAEA cameras, 24 hours a day on their facility where they’re using the enriched uranium, they’d shut down those cameras, you could say, “Okay, that’s the beginning of a cause of alarm.  What are they doing that they want to get rid of the IAEA inspectors?”  So, I mean, we’re so far away from that I think that we should let the IAEA do their job.  We should, at least, talk to the Iranians.  I mean, the thing is that they have the technology to enrich uranium.  You’re not going to bomb that technology out of it.  There are plenty of people in Iran that could start up a centrifuge program even if this program is completely eliminated.  So the question now becomes, “how do we incentivize the Iranians to never take that step?”  We know that they have the knowledge to build centrifuges to enrich uranium, and a lot of people, analysts, will tell you that nuclear science will say, “It’s not a big step to then go to a bomb.”  It is actually a bigger step than we think because you have to test it, you have to create that perfect sphere, you have to have the mechanism, you have to have the delivery systems to deliver it.  Presumably you want a second strike capability, not just a first strike capability because the first strike capability and if somebody has a second strike on you, you’re done.  So you want to have that to be unequal in terms of nuclear power with Israel, for example.  So how do we incentivize them to not take that step?  That’s where negotiations come in, because there are plenty of countries that do have that ability.  Japan is one, they’re never incentivized to go and build a bomb.  Brazil, South Africa, these are countries that have the ability to enrich uranium, have the ability to probably even build a bomb if they wanted to, but what stops them from doing it?  Well, they have no incentive, none whatsoever.  They have all the disincentives to build a bomb.  So what we have to do is figure out how to disincentivize Iran from ever taking that step.

Hooman Majd Considers Israeli Policy toward Iran

Question: Is Israel waging a secret war against Iran?

Majd: I don’t know if that’s true.  I mean, Israel has had a strange relationship with Iran.  During the Iran-Iraq war, Israel was actually giving arms . . . secretly giving arms to Iran, it’s like, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” on that basis.  For my understanding, what I understand from the Israelis that I’ve spoken to — the Israeli journalist I’ve spoken to and some Iranian-Israelis, the Iranians who live in Israel — the Israeli government really doesn’t think Iran is an existential threat to Israel.  They don’t believe that Iran is going to build a nuclear bomb and drop it on Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.  First of all, it would kill way more Palestinians than it would kill Israelis.  Secondly, it would invite a retaliation of the sort — I mean, they’re not suicidal, they’re not looking to wipe Iran off the face of the map.  But there’s this question of power.  Israel is definitely wary and concerned about Iran’s power because you have this country that at least rhetorically is saying it’s against Israel, against the existence of Israel, is supporting a one-state solution when everyone else is supporting a two-state solution.  Iran is the only country that is supporting Hamas and its one-state solution.  Syria is a little bit different because Syria’s main concern with Israel is the Golan Heights and their security with Israel, the security arrangement . . . whatever security arrangement they make with Israel.  But Iran is a different country: it’s standing up and saying, “We are the one country that is standing up to Israel,” and if Iran were to have a military that is capable of challenging Israel, which it doesn’t have right now — and that would mean that if it were to ever posses nuclear weapons that were deliverable and usable — then Israel’s stature as the sole superpower in the region would be challenged by a country that is not subservient to America, at least does not take orders from America, and would challenge them on the Palestinian issues, so that is a grave concern to Israel.  I think Israel would like to see Iran weakened however they can — it weakens Hamas, it weakens anybody who challenges Israel — but a secret war?  I mean, yes, I’m sure that Israel is doing all kinds of things to try to either sabotage the nuclear program, sabotage the Revolutionary Guards, sabotage Iran’s military.  I’m sure it has a vast network of espionage in Iran, much, much better than ours if we have any network at all.  So I’m sure there’s that kind of thing going . . . and by the way vice versa, you know, Iranians have probably a network inside Israel.

Hooman Majd Weighs Iran as a State Sponsor of Terrorism

Question: Does Iran aid and abet terrorists?

Majd: Well, as far as the Iranians are concerned, it’s not.  And when I say that, I don’t mean just the government of Iran.  I think most of the Iranian people — most of them, including those who are very against Ahmandinejad in particular or even the Islamic republic as a system — would not agree with that characterization.  Iran specifically supports two organizations that in the United States we have deemed terrorist organizations — one is Hezbollah, the other is Hamas — those are the two specific organizations that Iran has actively supported.  They claim not militarily, the United States claims militarily, but certainly morally and certainly financially they have supported it.  And they make no bones about it.  They say that they do not characterize either of those groups as a terrorist organization.  Hamas, even though the Israelis and the United States consider it a terrorist organization, the Western Europeans consider it a terrorist organization, most of the Muslim world do not, they consider them a resistance group, they consider them a democratically elected political party in the Palestinian territories that is also a resistance group that is fighting the Israeli occupation.  That’s an argument that we could have for hours if I took one position and you took the other.  Hezbollah is actually an even simpler thing because, as far as the Iranians are concerned, it’s a group that was formed to get rid of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and was successful in getting rid of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and has actually not really attacked Israel and doesn’t even have as its charter — for example, as Hamas does — the destruction of Israel.  It’s a Lebanese group, it’s a political party, it’s going to be in parliament, it’s going to have politicians in government, and it’s there to protect the Lebanese people, and that includes a very large population of Shiites who Iran has very close relations with, and in fact, Iran created Hezbollah.  So they don’t consider that a terrorist group.  I mean, by and large, it’s not just the Iranian people who don’t consider it a terrorist group, the vast majority of the Muslim world don’t.  So we’re . . . I’d say that we’re on a different side than the Muslim world or even the Third World to a large degree on the issue of whether Hamas and Hezbollah are terrorist organizations.  The fact of the matter is that even Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran’s support of Hamas and Hezbollah is up for debate and up for negotiations.  They made that clear once before that they would be willing to bring that to the table, if the United States wants to talk about it.  So far, we haven’t taken them up on that.

Hooman Majd Explains Iran’s Role in the Arab World

Question: How do other Arab countries regard Iran?

Majd: Well, with Syria and Lebanon it’s very good.  Syria is a very close ally: it’s the only Arab country that supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, all the way back at 1980.  Its relations with other Arab countries is ebbs and flows: it could be very good at times, it could be very bad at times.  Right now, it’s not very good with Egypt.  It’s not very good with Bahrain: there was a bit of problem recently ’cause a former official in Iran claimed Bahrain as part of Iranian territory.  Morocco just broke off relations with Iran.  A lot of the Sunni countries in the region have been, for 30 years, they’ve been wary of this powerful Shiite country.  In the early days of the revolution, one of the reasons Saddam Hussein invaded, with the support of all the Arab countries and with the money given to him by the Arab countries, invaded Iran was the idea of, you know, let’s clamp down on this Islamic revolution ’cause it’s a dangerous thing, these people could come into our country or they could stir up trouble among the Shiites.  Saudi Arabia has 3 million Shiites for example who are an underclass in Saudi Arabia.  So there’s a wariness of Iranian power partly because they’re not Arab: it’s the Persian Empire, they have a long history, it’s the only country in the region, the only nation in the region, that’s been a country for longer than 100 years as a nation-state.  So there’s wariness.  But Iran has made efforts in the past under President Rafsanjani and then following that under President Khatami, there was a great effort to mend relations with Saudi Arabia, with a lot of the other countries in the region, and they were successful in that.  Under Ahmadinejad it’s been a little bit bumpier, I would say.  Egypt is a specific problem going all the way back to the Shah being admitted to Egypt by Anwar Sadat, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, there’s a major boulevard in Tehran named after Anwar Sadat’s assassin, there’s a billboard of him as a martyr hero.  The Egyptians have always said, “You have to change the name of that street.”  The Iranians at one point said, “Okay, we will,” but it’s still there, the name of the street.  My cousin’s office is there, I go there all the time.  Those are little issues that are problematic for the Egyptians, and they feel like the Iranians are, you know, supporting anti-Egyptian forces throughout the region, and Egypt is an important Arab country.  Now, that said, Ali Larijani, the speaker of Parliament, went to Egypt last year, Khatami has been to Egypt, there have been efforts to fix the problem of the relations between Egypt and Iran.  Saudi Arabia, the same thing, whenever there’s a problem, you know, somebody goes to Saudi Arabia or the Saudi foreign minister comes to Iran, so they try to work it out.  But in general there’s a wariness among the Arab populations — Arab leaderships, sorry — in the region, a wariness of the Iranian leadership and the power that Iran has.

Question: Could Iran’s secularism be a model for the rest of the Arab world?

Majd: Is it a model for other countries?  I mean, I would say it might be a model for Iraq to some degree.  Iraq doesn’t want to have what’s called the Velayat-e Faqih which means the rule of the jurisprudent which is the supreme leader.  They have their supreme leader, they don’t call him a supreme leader.  It’s Ayatollah Sistani who is the most senior cleric, almost the most senior cleric in all of Islam perhaps, in all of Shia Islam.  The government of Iraq will never do anything that he’s against, so he is in a way the supreme leader, but he doesn’t get involved in politics generally, so the prime minister of Iraq, the president of Iraq, will go and see Ayatollah Sistani, who lives in Najaf, and kind of get his blessing for elections, for this and that.  Iraq, maybe, as a Shia country — it will be a majority Shia country anyway, and if you leave aside Kurdistan, it will be a majority Shia country — could kind of look to Iran a little bit in terms of how they view Islam and how Islam is able to be.  I mean, Iraq has actually traditionally been more fundamentalist than Iranians when it comes to Shia Islam, oddly enough, and there are things about, you know, liquor stores being bombed and stuff like that.  Well, of course liquor stores don’t exist in Iran but everybody drinks, so maybe they can learn that: they don’t have to make it so public and everybody can just quietly drink.

Hooman Majd Interprets Ahmadinejad

Question: Does Ahmadinejad really believe everything he says?

Majd: He’s a politician and he understands his audience, whether he’s talking to a domestic audience, whether he’s talking to an Arab audience, or whether he’s talking to a Muslim audience in Africa, or even an American audience.  Anybody who watches him carefully and watches the interviews he gives on American television will see a kind of difference between his tone, his rhetoric, and when he gives his speech in Tehran to a group of Revolutionary Guards for example and Basij people.  He understands politics very well, and he understands that he’s immensely popular in the Arab world, for example, so his position on Israel is an interesting one.  I mean, I don’t think he believes that Israel is a lovely country that he would want to be friends with.  Of course he doesn’t.  Does he believe that Israel should not exist?  Of course he believes that Israel should not exist.  Does he believe that it should be physically demolished by nuclear weapons?  No, he absolutely does not.  Would he go along with an Iranian decision at some point at the highest levels — and I mean, the supreme leader and a group of clerics who really, ultimately, at the end of the day control Iranian foreign policy — to recognize Israel as part of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement?  Yes, he would go along with that.

Question: What is the biggest misconception about Ahmadinejad?

Majd: By and large the policies of Iran don’t — you know, certainly when it comes to foreign policy — don’t change that much between presidents as they don’t even in America.  The foreign policy tactics change, strategy changes, but the foreign policy of America doesn’t suddenly change when President Obama takes over from someone radically different like George Bush.  There are still interests that the United States has that any president recognizes or are in the national interest of the United States.  The same is true for Iran.  The misconceptions, I think, are that Iran’s leadership — and particularly someone like Ahmadinejad who uses belligerent language, uses the kind of language that Americans squirm when they hear, such as, you know, whether Israel — I mean, it was mistranslated, but what was translated as — Israel will be wiped off the map or should be wiped off the map, things like that, I mean, the misconception is that first, he doesn’t have the power to do anything about wiping Israel off the map or attacking another country.  There are checks and balances in Iran like there are in every country.  It’s not a pure dictatorship in the way that we think.  We think of Iran as a dictatorship, and here’s this guy, Ahmadinejad, and it’s easy to consider him the leader of Iran because he’s the most visible and he’s the president and he’s got his finger on the button, they don’t have a nuke right now, but maybe if they do, he could just press that button, he’s a little crazy, he talks about the Messiah coming.  All of that stuff is unrealistic.  First of all, the presidency doesn’t control the armed forces, unlike in America, he’s not the commander-in-chief, and there are so many checks and balances for him to do anything, for any president in Iran to do anything, that would affect the United States, would affect our national security.

Hooman Majd Offers a Primer on Iran

Question: Is there universal health coverage in Iran?

Majd: Most people are either privately insured or have government insurance.  You can have government insurance, and if you’re not insured at all, there are free hospitals and there are charity hospitals as well.  So there is and there isn’t.  I mean, if you have a major operation, you could potentially have a problem if you don’t have insurance, and there are people who don’t have insurance, but you can get insurance from the government and it’s not expensive compared to the United States.  It’s not quite socialist, it’s not a socialist model, and it’s not quite like Northern European countries where there’s this universal healthcare paid for by the taxes, but it’s also not like America where you really are, you know, in trouble if you don’t have insurance of any kind.

Question: How much does Internet censorship curtail information?

Majd: It’s exactly like China.  They use the same software, American software, which is used by the Iranian authorities.  It’s very odd, though, because when I’m in Iran, I always find this really strange, I mean, you’ll go on . . . I can go to the New York Times site, for example, when I’m in Tehran and read the news; I can’t go on the New York Post; then I go to the Jerusalem Post, which is very anti-Iranian, it’s an Israeli newspaper, and that’s not blocked; you go on Haaretz, which is a left-wing Israeli paper, less anti-Iran, that’s not blocked either.

Question: How do Iranians view Americans?

Majd: Most of the Iranian people — I would say if you want to talk about an average Iranian — would like there to be a relationship with America based on mutual respect that also doesn’t mean that Iran will become subservient to America or has to do what America says every time.  This sense of being a weak power is kind of now gone.  Iran doesn’t have that sense, the Iranian people don’t have that sense, anymore.  They don’t want to be subservient to a foreign power, it’s really something that makes them very uncomfortable.  And given what they’ve gone through for the last 30 years, and being able to survive on their own as an independent nation, it’s a very strong sense now among the Iranian people that we don’t need to be subservient to other countries.  So, as long as America doesn’t dictate to Iran what to do, how to vote at the UN, how to do this, whether to do this or not do that, I think Iranians would love to see a relationship, the vast majority of them.  Every poll that’s been taken, an unofficial poll in Iran, has indicated that, and I think it’s true in my own experience talking to, you know, the average Iranian on the street, you know, in homes.  From the upper class to the working class, there hasn’t been a single person who said, “Oh no, we can’t let the Americans back into this country because they’re evil.”  I never heard that, it’s quite the opposite: “No, we would like to have relations, but they have to understand that they have to respect us, they have to understand who we are.”

Hooman Majd Considers the Paradox of Modern Iran

Question: What are some of the contradictions that characterize Iran?

Majd: I titled my book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.  The subtitle was something that came up, you know, as a kind of marketing tool.  Publishers like subtitles.  I think The Ayatollah Begs to Differ itself was a paradoxical title to some people, and the reason I chose that title was because I was trying to get across the fact that Iran is not this monolithic system where there’s a dictatorship and all the clerics agree and they kind of run the country in a dictatorial way.  They may be authoritarian but they’re not dictators.  The paradox of modern Iran is that almost everything you think of Iran, there’s another side to Iran that we don’t know.  For almost anything you can mention, in terms of politics, just purely on the political level — you know, what we were talking about earlier, the system for electing a president, whether the people believe that the president has gotten all the power he should have or maybe he doesn’t have the power.  Everyday life in Iran is full of paradoxes.  There are paradoxes in every society, it’s not just Iran.  But Iran perhaps more so because it is this unknown mysterious place that Americans really don’t have a lot of contact with.  I couldn’t put my finger on the one biggest paradox, but I think, perhaps for Americans, the biggest paradox would be that, for all its religious fervor that exists in Iran, it’s also an incredibly secular country in many ways.  I’ll give you one example: you could be in a cab in New York City, and if it’s prayer time, if it’s 12:00 noon, your cab driver might pull off at the side of the street and take out his prayer rug and pray right on time, and that’s in New York City where we have a lot of Muslim cab drivers.  In Tehran, there’s no call to prayer, people go about their business, you’re driving around the city at noon and this is an Islamic republic that is avowedly Islamic, there’s no audible call to prayer, people don’t stop their business and rush out and pull out their prayer mats and pray.

Hooman Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.   The videos above were brought online by Big Think on 16 March 2009.  The text above is a partial transcript of the Big Think video interviews with Majd.

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