Iran? The U.S. should mind its own business

Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd separates facts from fantasies about the Iranian protests

Published June 25, 2009 10:24AM (EDT)

Hooman Majd at the Mousavi rally on May 23rd in Tehran.
Hooman Majd at the Mousavi rally on May 23rd in Tehran.

"A friend once told me that I was the only person he knew who was both 100 percent American and 100 percent Iranian," writes Hooman Majd in his book on Iranian culture, "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran."

The consummate insider and outsider, Majd served as the English-language translator for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's now infamous 2006 speech at the United Nations, and also wrote about the experience for the New York Observer.

The son of an Iranian diplomat under the shah, and grandson of a powerful ayatollah, Majd grew up mainly in the United States where he worked for many years in the entertainment industry before launching his career as a journalist and author. Although openly linked with the reformists -- he wore green Iranian slippers on Bill Maher's program last week and has also translated for former President Mohammed Khatami (to whom he is related by marriage) -- Majd's views on Iran are distinguished by their nuance and fierce independence. Indeed, in his status as a sophisticated global citizen and Iranian American sympathetic to the core ideals of the Islamic Republic, he embodies the paradox of contemporary Iran that is the subject of his book.

Majd was in Iran in April for a recent Newsweek cover story about his journey from his ancestral home of Yazd through the Iranian heartland to the sprawling capital city of Tehran. He returned again in May during the run-up to the elections and has since been in daily contact with friends and family about the crisis in the country from his home in New York City.

Salon spoke to Majd (who has been a regular contributor to these pages) by phone about whether or not the Ahmadinejad victory was rigged (yes), what reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi really wants (Islamic democracy), and why the neocons are Ahmadinejad's best friend.

How are you getting most of your news? From family? Are you following Twitter?

I'm not following Twitter so much. I get reports from people I trust and the media to the extent they are covering it. The rest is all from family and friends in Tehran. They tell me what they feel and what they know, as much as they can. People have to be careful with phones given since many phones are tapped now. I speak to Tehran at least once a day.

What about the influence of Twitter?

It really isn't the Twitter revolution. I can't remember the numbers but I think it's like 30,000 registered Twitter users in Iran.

I think it might be even lower, like 19,000.

It's minuscule. More people have access to the Internet in Iran than other Middle Eastern countries but often it's dial-up, it's slow, they don't do it like we do all day long. There is no BlackBerry. There are iPhones but they don't work because there's no data plan. The depiction of the Internet revolution isn't quite accurate. We're putting our own image onto Iran. Of course there are people Twittering from the demonstrations; they're just not representative of the vast majority of Iranians. What was so heartwarming about this whole thing is that the Iranian people stood up in mass and said you can't take this away from us. You can't take away our vote. We believed you when you said we have an Islamic democracy. We came out and voted. Now that you've said we could have change you've taken it away from us. That's what people are angry about.

Let's talk about Obama. At his press conference on Tuesday he once again condemned the government violence against the protesters.

That's appropriate.

But he also said that the crisis is about Iran, not the U.S. and the West. What do you think of this policy, and what impact is it having with the various parties inside Iran?

People in the West, especially in America, tend to think we have more influence than we do. Iranians are more concerned with their own issues than whether the U.S. is with them or against them.

What are the issues that brought such huge numbers of Iranians out into the streets?

There were too many irregularities for this election to have been fair. Even if Ahmadinejad did win more votes than Mousavi, he couldn't possibly have won on this scale. It would have probably gone to a second round if everything had been fair. And in the second round Mousavi probably would have won.

What they're fighting for is reform inside Iran, within the system. The initial protest was about the vote. That's the one thing, the one democratic thing Iranians knew they had -- the vote. It had always been fair up until now.

After the first protests, what happened?

It turned into something more, partly because of the government's reaction, which has not been what the reformers had been hoping for. It was an out-and-out rejection of their complaint.

But this is an internal matter. For the U.S. to get involved in any way is a huge mistake in my opinion. It makes Iranians very suspicious. One reason they were able to get 3 million people out on the streets from a broad socioeconomic spectrum across all political lines -- you don't get 3 million people on the streets of Tehran if they're all students like in 2003 -- is because the lower class, the middle class, the upper class, students, old people, families, religious families, women in chadors, men in beards, they all came out. These people also voted against Ahmadinejad or felt the vote wasn't fair.

At first, none of them would have believed that the U.S. had a hand in this. But the government is now trying to say that's what's happening. The story could start to stick if Obama or Western governments start coming out strongly on one side. Nationalism starts to come into play. The government's own propaganda machine, which is pretty strong, will be able to label a lot of people in the opposition as being stooges of the CIA.

What does Mousavi, the most public face of the reform movement, want right now?

What he wants is a return to the law. Mousavi is a child of the revolution. He believes in the revolution.

The Islamic Revolution?

Absolutely. He believes in the system that was created in the aftermath of the rule of the shah in 1979. He also believes that system is in need of reform. This is my articulation, but I think he and other reformers believe Iran should move into a post-revolutionary phase, whereas Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei think it should remain a revolutionary state. That doesn't mean giving up the ideals of the revolution. It doesn't mean bringing down the system.

The United States went into a post-revolutionary phase almost immediately when George Washington became president. It almost immediately made nice with Great Britain. But the ideals of the American revolution and the Constitution were never changed. The Iranian constitution may not need to be changed, or it may be amended as in the United States, over time.

This idea of moving into a different phase is in keeping with Shia theology. Shia theology allows for Islam to be adapted to the ages. That's one of the reason the Sunnis hate us. And the Taliban. Because we adapt. We have ayatollahs. We have a clergy that is empowered to adapt Islam to the ages.

Mousavi is someone who is very much an Islamic democrat.

So he doesn't want secular democracy?

I don't know if that's something he wants deep in his heart, but it's certainly not something he would admit.

Iran is not a secular nation. The majority of Iranians are deeply religious, and even though it sounds paradoxical to us, they believe in an Islamic democracy. They want most of the elements of democracy: They don't want the state to jam religion down their throats; they want a lot of freedom. But they also understand that to be guided by Islam, which is basically how they live their lives anyway, is not counter to democracy.

There's nowhere in the constitution of the Islamic Republic that says votes should be rigged if you don't like the candidate or that the president should have no power. There's nowhere it says that the people's choice does not count.

So it's entirely possible for someone like Mousavi or Rafsanjani to believe that Islam and democracy are compatible.

What about the role of the supreme leader?

Some people believe he shouldn't be the commander of the armed forces, that this should be in the hands of the president. But the reformers want to work this out internally, through democratic change, and not through violence or an uprising. And certainly not with assistance from the West.

Have you seen any signs of division in any of the military forces? So far they seem to have remained loyal to the Supreme Leader.

There have been rumors but we are unable to confirm them; for example, that one of the senior Revolutionary Guard commanders was arrested for refusing to put down demonstrations. Having met some of these people, I do know that the Revolutionary Guard is not monolithic. Some of them would have voted for Mousavi, and many have sympathies for the reform movement. Seventy percent of the Revolutionary Guard voted for Khatami in 1997 and 2001.

During the revolution, under the shah, the military actually decided it was going to be neutral, which was what ended the shah's rule. But I doubt that will happen now. It's in their self-interest to keep order. As has been proven, the security forces can stop people from coming out on the streets. They can either kill them or they can manage the traffic patterns of a big city like Tehran in such a way that it becomes impossible to actually gather in one place. They're good at that.

I'm not speaking for the government when I say this, but it seems to me that the biggest threat it faces isn't the street protests, but the divisions among the leadership. This is the first time in the 30-year history of the Islamic Republic that they've become so public.

Do you know where Rafsanjani is? Some say that he's in Qom and is actively organizing against Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Those are just rumors. But what we do know is that his mere absence from Friday prayer was a public sign of his disagreement with the supreme leader. The fact that his children were intimately involved in the Mousavi campaign and that he was rumored -- and I think there's a lot of truth to this -- to have funded part of the campaign, indicates he's been very involved. Whether he traveled to Qom or not, we don't know, but I doubt he has to be outside of Tehran right now. He's probably at home, heavily guarded. I think he's in contact with the clerical leadership, which he of course has close relations to. As chairman of the Assembly of Experts, he can call an assembly whenever he wishes; I don't think he has yet.

I'm only speculating but I assume he's counting votes in case it comes down to a battle royale over who's going to be supreme leader. Khameni would be aware of this since he knows Rafsanjani has this ability.

I think it's undoubtedly true that Rafsanjani is working behind the scenes to see what he can do to end this impasse to the advantage of the reformists. It's clear he does not want Ahmadinejad to be president for another four years and doesn't think that outcome is in the best interest of the Islamic Republic. The fundamental disagreement between Rafsanjani and the supreme leader may be less about who's president and more about what's good for the stability and longevity of the Islamic Republic, which they are both sworn to uphold.

Of course it's hard to know any of this since they won't speak to anyone directly and are unlikely to do so in the near future.

If the supreme leader and Guardian Council don't change course, the election will be certified and Ahmadinejad will be declared the winner. Will the opposition accept this and if they don't could it lead to more violence?

It's impossible to say whether they'll accept it or not. I don't know. I think that there's going to be a lot of pressure on them to accept it. There's going to be a lot of backroom discussions to figure out how to get them to accept it for the sake of the country.

There's a little bit of an analogy back to 2000, the Florida vote, and Al Gore taking it all the way to the Supreme Court, and finally accepting the Supreme Court's judgment to the disappointment of many who didn't want George W. Bush to be president at the time. It's not a completely fair analogy. The whole thing in 2000 was that, well, we have to accept the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court has obviously made a political decision and not a legal decision. But they made it to preserve the stability of the United States, the national interest of the United States. That's an argument I think that Khamenei and his supporters will make to the opposition.

What they are willing to give them in exchange for accepting this is another story. We don't know. It's unlikely that Mousavi will want to go as far as going against the entire leadership of Iran if in fact the leadership does coalesce around the supreme leader at some point. But that's not clear yet. Right now there are ayatollahs and clerics fighting with the opposition.

You said earlier that by the time the shah went down, he had virtually no support left in the country. The current conflict is not so one-sided, it seems.

I don't think Mousavi has forgotten that not only the supreme leader, but Ahmadinejad himself, still has substantial support in Iran. If what Mousavi believes is true and the actual results of the election were opposite to what the government claims, even then Ahmadinejad won 34 percent. That still gives him a solid 10 million people. Plus the military. Plus the guns.

During the revolution, a few loyal troops did fire on crowds, but no one came out on the streets in support of the shah. But Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader have ordinary people, not just people with the guns. This of course raises the danger of civil war.

Ahmadinejad may have solid support, but haven't the bogus elections put the legitimacy of the government at stake?

It's pretty clear that Mousavi probably won this election; at minimum, Ahmadinejad didn't win a plurality of more than 50 percent. Even if the Guardian Council certifies it, I think people will accept that Mousavi is putting up a righteous battle and will maintain his credibility. But his supporters could go further and turn this into a fight against the system, and say that the system that produces and certifies this result is a bad system and we have to change it. That's a danger the government does face.

Do you see any stereotypes being used in the media coverage of the current crisis that may cloud our ability to understand what's going on?

That the people who want change in Iran all want liberal democracy and reject the Islamic Republic. Many do reject it, but when the New York Times puts a big photo on Page One of tens of thousands of protesters and in the center of the photo is a woman with her scarf pushed to the back of her head with Chanel sunglasses and blond streaked hair I think it gives the wrong impression of who these protesters are. Yes, there are people like that but they would not have gotten 3 million people in the streets if that's all who came. Those people are still a minority. I'm not saying their cause is unjust or they shouldn't have the freedom not to wear head scarves or drink alcohol. I'm just saying they are still not the majority in Iran. The Mousavi protesters who came out included men with beards, women in chadors, deeply religious people who voted against Ahmadinejad.

If violence continues, if more protesters are killed, is there ever a scenario in which a more activist or interventionist policy from the U.S. or Western nations would be helpful or necessary?

Absolutely not. I don't know what the U.S. could even do, short of invading the country, which would be a disaster because you turn everybody against the United States and for the government. Other than to say it's unacceptable for a government to kill its own people who are peacefully protesting, and to make that point strongly, I don't know what else the U.S. should do.

Let's think about U.S. interests. Obama is there to protect the U.S. national interests. We don't have a dog in this fight. We don't have a preference. We should have a preference for the rule of law and for people's rights being respected. If Ahmadinejad is president, the United States is going to have to deal with him whether or not his election was the will of the people. Clearly it's not the will of the people for Hosni Mubarak to be president of Egypt. It was the will of the people to have Hamas represent the Palestinian territory and we decided not to deal with the will of the people there. I think we have to be careful. If we come out on the side of the reformers and say we can't accept Ahmadinejad, it would be the equivalent of Iran saying we can't accept that Bush is president because we don't agree with the Supreme Court ruling.

Would you say that the neoconservatives' extremely vocal calls to intervene on behalf of Mousavi are playing into the hands of the most conservative forces in Iran?

The neocons know nothing about Iran, nothing about the culture of Iran. They have no interest in understanding Iran, in speaking to any Iranian other than Iranian exiles who support the idea of invasions -- I'll call them Iranian Chalabis. It's offensive, even to an Iranian American like me. These are people who would have actually preferred to have Ahmadinejad as president so they could continue to demonize him and were worried, as some wrote in Op-Eds, that Mousavi would be a distraction and would make it easier for Iranians to build a nuclear weapon and now all of a sudden they want to be on his side? Go away.

I'm not saying Obama is the most knowledgeable person on Iran, but he's obviously getting good advice right now. He understands way more about the culture of the Middle East than any of the neocons. For them to be lecturing President Obama is a joke. I have criticized Obama; for instance, I criticized him for having a patronizing tone in his Persian New Year message. But right now I think he's doing a good job. The John McCains of the world, they're Ahmadinejad's useful idiots. They're doing a great job for him.

By Jeanne Carstensen

Jeanne Carstensen is a former managing editor of Salon and a member of the Castro Writers’ Cooperative in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Nautilus, The New York Times, Religion Dispatches and other publications.

MORE FROM Jeanne Carstensen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iran Islam Middle East Religion Twitter