Interview with Hooman Majd: US-Iran Relations in the Age of the Ayatollah

Equally at home in Tehran or New York, Hooman Majd benefits from a background as intricately woven as any Persian carpet.  The son of a diplomat under the shah of Iran, Majd attended schools in California, India, Iran, North Africa, and England.  After the tumultuous 1979 Islamic Revolution, return to Iran for Majd and others like him suddenly became highly unlikely if not impossible.

But with reforms and an easing of restrictions on dual-passport holders under former President Mohammad Khatami, Majd returned to Iran for the first time in three decades in 2003.  Since then, he has written about Iran full-time for, among others, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, Politico, and Salon.  His first book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, was widely lauded for its keen insight into Iranian society and the Islamic Republic.  Majd has also interpreted for both Khatami and — at the UN (2006-2008) — for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Majd has repeatedly traveled inside Iran since the disputed 2009 Iranian elections, and documents the current state of affairs in his newly published book, The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge.

Jon Letman: Were you surprised by the announcement that Sarah Shourd would be released?

Hooman Majd: No, not at all.  I anticipated there would be some move before President Ahmadinejad [came] to New York. . .   I think that, in light of what is going on between Iran and the United States and the West in general — the sanctions, the military threat from Israel and so on — I am sure they would rather not have [the hikers] be the big issue.

I think it was a perfect time for them, also with the end of Ramadan the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] pardons all these prisoners every year anyway. . .  It’s a tradition in Islamic society to issue pardons at the end of Ramadan, so this just worked for them very well.  I would have been surprised if nothing had happened.

JL: So possibly the other two hikers might follow?

HM: I don’t know.  The thing about Iran is there are many political factions and it’s not quite the dictatorial, authoritarian state with one person always making every single decision. . .  Even if President Ahmadinejad would prefer to have all hikers released, there are people who are going to be opposed to that — even conservatives who normally would be on his side on some things — so he doesn’t really have the power to do it.  This may have been a compromise for him, like, “Don’t push too hard, but we’ll let one of them go.”

If the Supreme Leader ordered them all to be released, they would be released, but the Supreme Leader doesn’t play the game the way we might imagine a supreme dictator would.  He prefers to listen to different people, different factions, and come to some sort of consensus.  In a case like this, I doubt very much that he would even get involved and he would leave it up to the judiciary to give advice. . .

You never know, but I would imagine that between now and the end of the year, they will try to find an excuse to let the other two hikers go.

JL: You have indicated concern about how statements by Ahmadinejad were translated.  The frequently-cited comment about “no homosexuality in Iran,” the idea of “wiping Israel off the map,” and the infamous Holocaust denial have become hallmarks of Ahmadinejad among Americans.  Would you say this question of translation is a widespread problem between the US and Iran?

HM: Absolutely.  Often words are misinterpreted if not mistranslated, and that is a recurring problem in U.S.-Iran relations.  On the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad has questioned, if not denied, its existence, which is indeed reprehensible, but some take that to mean he is keen on perpetrating another Holocaust, something both he, and more importantly the Supreme Leader, have denied.  Americans also tend not to distinguish between political rhetoric and real intentions, which can lead to great misunderstanding.

JL: Are there any North American politicians who, you believe, have a good understanding of Iran?

HM: I’m not sure there are many, if any at all, who truly understand Iran and Iranians.  It’s often not their fault, of course, and one of the problems is that Iranian exiles, many of whom are staunch opponents of the Islamic regime, can influence the thinking of Western politicians with their thinking, which is often geared to an agenda not necessarily reflective of reality.  Think Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraq question before the invasion in 2003.  I’d say that there are, however, some politicians who are more open-minded, and people like John Kerry and Dennis Kucinich come to mind, both of whom I’ve met and seem far more understanding of the intricacies and complexities involved in Iranian politics.

JL: In large measure, American politicians, the media, and the public sat back in silence, or vocally supported the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq.  Nearly a decade later, many of those one-time supporters now regret their earlier stance or at least express doubts.  With sustained calls for increasing pressure and sanctions on Iran, and the frequently repeated mantra “all options are on the table,” do you think the American public or Congress would support military force against Iran?

HM: It seems that way, based on polls and sentiment around the country.  The problem is that Iran has been identified as a dangerous enemy, and the longer the media forwards that proposition — and the media is guilty, just as it was in the Iraq war — then the easier it becomes for Americans to accept that we might just have to resort to military force to remove any Iranian threat.  The Israelis, of course, would like to see the U.S. take a stronger stand against Iran, even if it means war, and their thinking has an effect on Congress, certainly, if not on [the] Obama White House.  Even liberals, or liberal hawks, have bought into the idea that war might be necessary, and that is discouraging, to say the least.

JL: You’ve said you think it is probably inevitable that relations between the US and Iran will improve and that the current situation will not continue indefinitely.

HM: I can’t see how it can.  I think both countries realize that it is in their interest ultimately to have some form of relationship.

I think it is going to take America realizing that, in the region, we are accustomed to having relations with weaker countries and we are very much the superior party that can dictate terms.  Iran has resisted that for 30 years.  I think Obama is the first president who’s acknowledged at least that it’s a problem and that we are going to have to probably deal with Iran on the basis of being equal.  Even though we all well understand that we’re not equal in terms of economy, military might, and the like, but Iran is never going to come to the table if it feels like it’s coming as a second-class citizen.

I still think there is an American attitude that is very hard to break which is “We’re great.  Who wouldn’t want to be like us?  Who wouldn’t want to have the benefits of our largesse, handing out aid and having American companies based in their countries?” and “Our culture is great,” and all that.  It’s hard for us to imagine ourselves as not being the greatest country on earth.

If you are an [American] politician it’s very hard to imagine.  “Now we are going to treat these guys as our equals?  That’s ridiculous.  What have they ever done to deserve that?”  We can barely do that with Europeans, let alone what was once a backward, third-world country.

I also think the current situation is untenable because nothing that we want to accomplish on a foreign policy front is going to be accomplished without some form of reconciliation with Iran.  We’re not going to achieve our goals in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in the Palestinian territories without some form of understanding with Iran.  That doesn’t necessarily mean Iran is going to be [our] best friend like Saudi Arabia with the president of Iran at a state dinner at the White House, but there will eventually have to be some form of reconciliation or understanding between the two countries — which I think means that ultimately that will lead to relations and an American embassy reopening and an Iranian embassy in Washington.  I think it just has to.

JL: What kind of potential exists between the US and Iran if relations improve?

HM: Iran is a huge country and much, much more sophisticated than most people imagine. . .  It certainly has the potential to be at least the way Turkey is to most Americans.  Turkey is viewed as a very modern country and a great place to go and visit and yet Islamic as well.  Iran is in some ways like that . . . with the difference that Iran is probably more influential than Turkey in affairs that are of interest to us.

JL: If the US or Israel were to launch either a limited or full-scale attack on Iran, what might we expect in response?

HM: It’s very difficult to say, and it depends very much on what kind of attack there is on Iran — whether it is simply a bombing run on the nuclear facilities or whether it is designed to inflict serious damage to Iran’s military capability as well, in order to mitigate a response, such as taking out Revolutionary Guard bases.  I think there’s no question that Iran will most probably respond first in the immediate region, in the Persian Gulf, and try to attack U.S. interests there.  It doesn’t take much to inflict serious damage to shipping, to the economies of small countries such Bahrain and the Emirates, both allies of the U.S., and to generally ensure that the price of oil skyrockets.

If Israel is the attacking party rather than the U.S., I think one would see a response by Hezbollah from across the Lebanese border, and maybe from Hamas in Gaza.  If it’s the U.S. only, I imagine Iran won’t want to start a fight with Israel.

JL: Do you see a shift in Americans’ perception or interest in Iran?

HM: It comes and goes.  Every time Ahmadinejad says something really obnoxious unfortunately it hurts the cause of getting Americans to understand Iran better and makes us assume the worst. . .  But I think Americans generally would like to understand.  There’s a reason why there is so much interest in books and articles on Iran and why the mass media pay so much attention to Iran.

I think the more we talk about things like war with Iran, I think Americans want to know.  I think a lot of people regret not knowing enough about Iraq when we kind of blindly said as a nation, “Well, ok, if we need to go to war, we need to go to war,” without really thinking what war and the aftermath would mean with this society.  There wasn’t a lot of information on Iraq except we knew we had a dictator we had been demonizing for years — and rightly so: he was an evil person — but Americans didn’t show, on the whole, a lot of interest in knowing what we were getting ourselves into.

I think that experience, particularly combined with the experience of Afghanistan, which I think a lot of people think is a lost cause. . .  I think there’s [a feeling] like, “Wait a second — with all this talk of going to war, with all this talk of threats and sanctions and belligerent rhetoric that comes out of both sides, let’s understand what is going on here.”  I think that’s good.

This interview was first published by Truthout on 1 October 2010 under a Creative Commons license.  See, also, Hooman Majd, “To War?” (MRZine, 14 July 2010).

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