God’s Will: Iran’s Polity and the Challenges of the Future
Key West, Florida
Some of the nation’s leading journalists gathered in Key West, Fla., in May 2007 for the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life.
Ray Takeyh, a leading expert on Iran and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, shed light on the complex and diffuse power structure of the Islamic Republic, arguing that three distinct tendencies – hard-line, reformist and pragmatic – continue to shape political life. Takeyh also answered questions from journalists on nuclear negotiations with the U.S., Iran’s involvement in Iraq and how U.S. presidential candidates can position themselves vis-à-vis Iran.
Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Michael Cromartie, Vice President, Ethics & Public Policy Center; Senior Advisor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: America’s leading religious historian, Martin Marty, once said there is no news that’s not somehow related to religion. The reason we’ve been running these conferences since 1999 is that, as you all know, there is not any subject you cover in politics or culture in which you don’t run into the religion and faith angle.
It also applies to our next topic. One of the reasons we’re looking at Iran is the religion angle of that government. We have got one of the leading scholars on Iran and America today with us, and –
RAY TAKEYH: When is he coming? (Laughter.)
CROMARTIE: He’ll be here any moment. (Laughter.) But until he gets here, we have Ray Takeyh. What’s the title of your new book?
TAKEYH: The Guardians of the Revolution. It’s about Iran’s foreign policy from 1979 onward.
CROMARTIE: We’re delighted you’re here, and we look forward to hearing from you.
TAKEYH: Let me say this is a complicated subject, which is the way you always introduce a subject you’re not that sure of.
I will start out by giving you an institutional chart of the Islamic Republic, with its complexities, and then move on to three political-religious tendencies that have dominated this peculiar system of government and are likely to dominate it from here on as they constantly jockey for power. My operational goal is to talk about Iran for the next however many minutes without mentioning the nuclear issue. Let’s see if we can all stick to that.
Arguably, from a comparative perspective, there is nothing like the Islamic Republic that was created in 1979. Sometimes it is compared to Eastern European communist dictatorships, but it’s not that weak, and it has much more influence throughout the country, and it has an ideology that for some has not been entirely discredited. Sometimes it’s compared to populist dictatorships in Latin America, but it is simply not that interesting or colorful. It is a system all of its own. That’s why the comparative examples usually fall short. Understanding some of the complex web of formal and informal institutions that govern this country may give you some idea of its complications and contradictions.
The 1979 constitution that established the Islamic Republic, even after it went through the 1989 revision, has an entire set of institutions, some elected, some not, that respond to different constituencies. Of the non-elected institutions – and you should start from there because they’re the most relevant and important – there is, for instance, the Guardian Council. The job of the Guardian Council is to make sure legislation that passes the parliament, and the candidates that run for office, conform to certain Islamic standards. Who determines what those Islamic standards are and how rigidly they’re enforced?
Over the years the Guardian Council has exceeded its constitutional authority. For instance, it routinely sends back budget legislation saying, “This is un-Islamic.” What’s so Islamic about urban planning? What’s so un-Islamic about allocations for health insurance? It is headed by – the names will come fast and loose, but no reason for you to commit them to memory – Ayatollah Jannati, who is rather rigid in his ideological pretensions. He has an interesting family: two of his sons were executed by the Islamic Republic for being Marxists.
On the other hand, there is an institution called the Assembly of Experts, which is an elder clerical body. I think it has 86 members, and they say the average age is deceased. (Laughter.) It meets maybe once, twice a year, and the primary obligation of the Assembly of Experts is to choose the supreme religious leader, should he die; Iran has had one such succession since 1979.
That leads me to the supreme religious leader, which is an office of august powers. It can declare war and peace; it is a commander of the armed forces; it can nullify and affirm elections. The current occupant is an individual whose name I’m sure you know – Ali Khamenei – who has gone through his own ideological transformations over the past 18 years. In the 1980s, Khamenei was a moderate. Now he’s a rather rigid conservative. He presides over the entire system, and he has a right to overrule and override what happens, but that’s not the way the system actually works. It works much more on consensus. He has the power to decree, but he often does not. He exercises power with some degree of judiciousness.
On the other side, there are a series of elected institutions. There is a parliament that gets elected every four years, and the parliamentarians are boisterous. They always have a mind of their own, whether they’re conservative or reactionary, since those are the two options you have. But nevertheless, it has institutional prerogatives that it tends to exercise, irrespective of its ideological complexion.
There is an office of the presidency, which is of course an elected one. Iran’s elections tend to be boisterous, and they include the entire ideological spectrum, from moderates to liberals and so forth. Of course the current occupant of that office is well known.
There has always been a conflict between the parliament and the Guardian Council because the parliament would pass a legislation, and the Guardian Council would say, “No, no, no, this is unacceptable,” so an institution was created to mediate the differences between the Guardian Council and the parliament. That institution is, curiously enough, called the Expediency Council. Whenever Iranians run into trouble, they create another bureaucracy, and the Expediency Council today is headed by Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who was previously the president, so he has some institutional power.
On the other hand you see the emergence of security services as important players in the politics of the country, particularly the Revolutionary Guards, which is a 125,000-strong body. Their leadership is now making not just security decisions but also economic decisions. Increasingly the Revolutionary Guards resemble the Chinese army; they own enterprises and businesses. This is like Halliburton: no-bid contracts. They bid on contracts, and you bid on contracts; who is going to win that? Pipelines, telecommunications, cell phones – the Revolutionary Guards are monopolizing cell phones, and ominously enough, they are the owners and operators of most of the front companies that deal with nuclear procurement issues.
I have already violated my own injunctions against talking about the nuclear issue, but that ownership makes the resolution of the nuclear issue all that more difficult because it is a profitable industry for the guards. That’s why every time we introduce a sanctions bill against Iran we add four more members of the Revolutionary Guards to the list of names – six by May 23rd when we revisit this issue.
There is also a succession crisis taking place in Iran in which a younger generation of conservatives is coming to power. The Iranian current president is an example of that. They tend to be more austere in terms of their lifestyle, certainly more religious and devout in terms of their practices; if you ever have meetings with the new Iranian leadership, you have to stop all the time for them to go to prayer. It depends on how devout they are; the new conservatives take longer. So you’ll be sitting for 45 minutes waiting for the guys to come back.
That new generation is much more religious, and it has a serious problem with the elders of the revolution about their corruption and their passivity toward the imposition of Islamic injunctions. It’s an austere generation whose ideological perspective was molded not so much by the 1979 revolution as by the Iran-Iraq war. As the revolution matures, those who were present at the creation are beginning to recede and a more dogmatic generation is coming to hold the reigns of power. In that way, Iran is violating and contradicting the normal pattern of revolutionary states, which tend to abandon their patrimony for more mundane considerations as they mature.
Within this institutional structure, there are three religious-political tendencies that dominate the state. If you’re part of the elite – and there is a difference between the governing elite and the political elite – Iran is a land of the permanent second chance. You can always come back. These three tendencies tend to jockey for power, but it is inclusive. After you lose an election, they don’t shoot you. How many times have people made comebacks in the Islamic Republic? Quite often.
If you’re part of what they call – the name doesn’t translate – khodeh, one of us – at the end of the day, you’re one of us. You might have some crazy ideas about democracy, but you’re one of us. This standard of behavior is being violated by some of the younger conservatives who tend to view things in much more black and white terms. Now, of those three tendencies, two of them are very much based on religion and one of them, not so much. I’ll start where you always have to start with Iran: with the more dogmatic and hard-line reactionaries, young and old.
For Iran’s reactionaries, as represented by the supreme leader and to a large extent by Iran’s president, Ahmadinejad, they see themselves as a vanguard class, as those who have some divine ability to interpret the scriptures and therefore establish the pattern for governance in Iran. That particular privilege should not be infringed upon by popular will, elected institutions, plebiscites or referendums.
The quotes on this are – I can give you some of them. One of the champions of this view, [Hojjat-ol-Islam Moslemin] Ghavarian, says, “In my view, a despotism which is rational must be accepted. Genuine despotism means obeying the divine decree.” Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a spiritual advisor to the current president says, “The prophets of God did not believe in pluralism. They believed that only one idea was right.” Hamid Taraqi, another important figure of the right, says, “The legitimacy of our Islamic establishment is derived from God. That legitimacy will not wash away even if people stop supporting it.” You see here an open contempt for democratic accountability. The legitimacy of the system is not predicated upon citizenry’s approbation, upon the fact that people believe in it, or participate in these elections. It comes from sources above. Who gets to interpret whether God is happy or not with the system?
When we talk about whether the Islamic Republic is popular or unpopular, for an entire category of reactionaries, that is an immaterial consideration. The function of the state is imposing God’s will, and the purpose of government is the realization of God’s will, as interpreted by them, and if 20 percent of the people participate in elections or not, whatever.
In terms of how much popular support this segment of the clerical community has, election after election and informal results show it to be about 15 or 20 percent of the population. That’s more than enough because that 15 or 20 percent can be mobilized and put out on the streets. They have access to corrosive power, which they use. Here is the difference between the new elite and the shah’s elite: the shah’s elite ultimately saw a future for themselves outside Iran. They moved to the United States, Canada. These guys don’t. Who wants them? They’re much more entrenched.
In terms of how this religious perception affects cultural issues, economic issues, and foreign policy perceptions: in cultural politics, they spend much of their time worrying about the segregation of sexes – in the film industry, through newspaper censorship. If you have a chance to talk to them, they’re baffled that Iranian youth would like to listen to music as opposed to read their ponderous theological texts. They have a running battle with the Iranian population, particularly the 70 percent that is under 30, about how to impose these cultural standards: control of media, female dress codes. Right now there is yet another campaign of trying to prevent headscarves from being this far back as opposed to this far back, and an extraordinary amount of time and money is spent on imposing these cultural ordinances because, after all, an Islamic state has to look like an Islamic state, as they understand that concept.
This religious cohort has a level of contempt toward the Iranian population. If you listen to what they say, “It’s not the responsibility of us to change; it’s the responsibility of the population to change. They have to purify themselves. They have to become better Muslims. They have to become more in line with what we’re saying.” One of them said, “The Leader” – that means the system, the supreme leader – “is analogous to the head of the family, and he has a right to interfere in the house where he has delegated the housework.” So there is not much trust in the population. There is an open contempt for the Iranian people themselves, for the citizenry that is the basis of this republic.
However flawed this perception may be, the idea is, “It is their responsibility to ingratiate themselves to us, not the other way around. If they don’t like us in elections, be that as it may, we’re going to go on with our policies,” which are rather unpopular.
This has economic implications as well because the hard-liners’ economic perspective is rather discursive. It has two contradictory elements to it, and they’re both scripturally based. On the one hand, there is reverence for private property, because after all, if you read the Koran, it celebrates commerce and private property; the prophet was himself a trader, and the mullahs over the years have proven to be shrewd businessmen.
But their conception of free enterprise is different than your conception of free enterprise. Their conception of free enterprise is a bazaar, a marketplace, that operates with minimal interference from the government – not necessarily creating a modern economic infrastructure with big bureaucracies, which are transparent and rationalized with the tax system – it’s not that. It’s much more of an informal, commerce-based economic model, essentially a basis on which their merchant allies can operate with limited state intervention. It doesn’t lend itself to the creation of a modern industrial economy.
There is another source of their economic perceptions, namely the revolution and the Koranic injunctions for social service, for lifting up the downtrodden, and social justice as a basis of economic planning. How do you deal with the economic inequalities of a private economy and the creation of poverty, class cleavages, and the unequal distribution of wealth? Is the purpose of economic planning social justice or a capitalist economy that is profitable and efficient? How do you square that circle?
The way they square it is with massive subsidies: fuel, bread, rice. Twenty percent of the GDP is spent on subsidies. That debate started in 1979 – economic justice versus economic efficiency; profits versus equality; egalitarianism versus some capitalist efficiencies, and it hasn’t been resolved yet. Now there is a discussion of cutting off the fuel subsidies, but a regime with a limited population base cannot withstand the social dislocation that would involve because most people that benefit from these subsidies tend to be of the lower classes, traditional classes, including the religious foot soldiers of the revolution, the Basij or “children of the revolution” as they’re called.
The hard-liners are some of the few people that actually benefit from the current economic system. They have created these vast religious foundations called bonyads – there are bonyads for the dispossessed, bonyads for war veterans – whose purpose was to help in terms of offering social services for the downtrodden. In practice they have become large conglomerate holding companies, which tend to dominate various manufacturing industries. So the hard-liners tend to be the beneficiaries of this opaque system. And as I mentioned, the Revolutionary Guards have also gone into business.
What the hard-liners are offering the Iranian population is what they often call a social compact, whereby in exchange for relinquishing some personal and political freedoms – social freedoms, cultural freedoms – they will create a society that offers certain celestial rewards. “You give up your freedom, and we’ll try to get you to heaven.”
It’s a social contract that has been resisted by the population, but to disagree with clerical fiats and the accumulation of power by a narrowly selected group is to engage not in a provocative act of political defiance, but in an act of religious defiance. The hard-liners tend to sublimate suppression. [In their minds,] they’re not doing it because they are worried about their hold on power; they’re doing it because your destructive political ideas are actually a violation of God’s law, and so they’ve got to do it. You’ve got to stand up for God, after all.
The inflexibility of their hard-liner outlook is in stark contrast with the changing Iranian society. Under the veneer of the Islamic Republic, Iran is a changed society. Seventy percent of the population is under age 30. A new demographic cohort has evolved under the structure of the Islamic Republic with its own demands, its own imperatives. In order to respond to this new population, two other political tendencies have come into existence, which, like everything else in the Islamic Republic, rest their legitimacy on the revolution and therefore religion.
The second tendency is sometimes referred to for convenience sake as “pragmatist,” and the model they aspire to, strangely enough, is not a mythical society of the Prophet in the seventh century, which most of the conservatives usually reference. It’s not even the great Islamic dynasties. It’s China – not a state known for practicing religious authority. The idea is to create a society that is economically efficient, culturally tolerant, and politically autocratic.
They say, “If the Islamic Republic is to survive, we just can’t say God wants it this way; we have to deal with some aspect of our constituents’ demands – certainly not the political stuff, but perhaps in trying to create a society that at least yields them some economic dividends.” It’s a concentration on economic efficiency: putting experts in control of the bureaucracy as opposed to revolutionaries; having economic planning that is judicious and rational; and integrating into the global economy and global financial institutions, which for them means borrowing from the World Bank.
It’s not a disdain for the West but accommodation of some aspects of the West. For the hard-liners, the West is objectionable on two fronts. On the one hand, it is the source of cultural decadence; it infiltrates Islamic lands with its cultural messages, which are subversive. America, for them, is an agent of cultural imperialism. But for some also within that group, like Ahmadinejad, if you look at his speeches, it’s also a North-South divide. America is not just an agent of cultural decadence; it is also a rapacious, imperial power determined to usurp the resources of the developing world for its own economic aggrandizement. The rhetoric is Berkeley, circa 1968 – dependency theory and all that.
However you look at America from their perspective, whether it’s a source of cultural decadence or an imperial power determined to subjugate the Third World, whether its part of a Huntingtonian clash of Western civilization versus Islamic civilization, or whether it’s a North-South divide, America is a source of difficulty and challenge and an entity that has to be resisted.
Pragmatists look at it and say, “America might be a bad place but it’s a rich place, and we have to have some dealings with it. We can’t segregate ourselves from the global economy.” The most ardent embodiment of that particular view is Hashemi Rafsanjani, his idea being that Iran should have some dealings with America and the West, limited to economic issues. During his reign of presidency from 1989 to 1997, there was some attempt to become more culturally tolerant and not intervene in people’s business that much.
On political issues, the pragmatist believes you should have elections. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t rig them, but you should have them. (Laughter.) You should have a process in which the population participates. If it gets too far out of hand, we’ll rig the elections – don’t worry about it – but there should be a process that gives the population a vested interest in the prolongation of the system. Along with that superficial process, you have some economic efficiency, economic benefits and, hey, everybody is happy. Largely this tendency became irrelevant, although, as I said, this is the Islamic Republic, and they still have a presence in institutions both formal and informal.
The third tendency is known as the reformists, and it’s probably the more intellectually interesting one.
The reformists in the United States have often been unfairly referenced with former president, Khatami, which is actually untrue and unfair. The reform movement began in the early 1990s. It was a vast collection of individuals. It was the liberal dissident clerics; it was politicians; intellectuals; academics; and, curiously enough, members from the intelligence community. Some of the intellectual architects of the reform movements – Said Hajarian, Abdollah Nouri – came from the intelligence community. In some way, the Iranian intelligence community resembled the Soviet intelligence community; the Soviets confiscated all the books and read them themselves. (Laughter.) “Solzhenitsyn doesn’t make sense.”
Iranian intelligence services were the same way, though they were much more sophisticated. They would confiscate books, and say, “Wow, this is okay.” It came from that – it was a coalition. Some were more radical than others; some didn’t like the statutory of gradualism, but eventually the reform movement had a number of intellectual ideas. They said, “There are two things that have to be harmonized here. On the one hand is Islam with its holistic pretensions, maintaining how the society and individual lives should be governed. On the other side is political modernity, with its representative institutions; it’s how you govern yourself.” For them, these two realms were compatible in principle and practice.
They tried to create a system called Islamic democracy, wherein the system would be religious and democratic at the same time. How do those contradictions resolve themselves? The way democratic societies always resolve those contradictions – through debate, disagreement, compromise and concession. In essence it was a much more tolerant society.
The basis of the reformist ideology was that, despite what everybody says, Islam is a religion that’s uniquely capable of accommodating political modernization. The concept of ijtihad, of reinterpretation of text, gives you an ability to make the scriptures living scriptures that change in their definition and interpretation, depending on the context of times. The Koran’s denunciation of tyranny and human inequality was used as a means of suggesting a more egalitarian society. The prophetic injunction of “the community has to be consulted” was used to suggest pluralism.
In that sense, they took concepts from the scriptures and associated modern political vocabulary with them. “The Prophet Mohammad said, ‘My community has to be consulted.’ That obviously means pluralism.” How do you assess pluralism? “Through elections.”
Two individuals – two notable ones – were the original intellectual architects of this, and one was the academic Abdolkarim Soroush. In the early part of the revolution his responsibility was to go to Tehran University library and pull out objectionable books. He was trained in science and philosophy, and over time he went back to his training. He has the concept of a religious state versus a religious jurisprudential state.
A religious state is a society in which individual citizens are given the right to vote and participate in the political process and, given that right, create a society that is religious. There is confidence in everyday citizens, confidence that if you give them power and responsibility and the ability – given the nature of the Iranian citizenry, which is basically religious, they’re going to create a religious society. You don’t have to impose it on them. A religious jurisprudential state is a state ruled by a narrow segment of the clerical community that seeks to impose demands on the population. Those demands are resisted and eventually the system becomes inauthentic and loses its legitimacy.
Soroush says you don’t have to worry about the superimposition of such views because the population itself will create that religious society. It might not be ideal, and there might be compromises and concessions. The people will behave in some ways that you don’t like.
One of the more interesting and perhaps less-known individuals in the West is a cleric named Mohsin Kadivar. He was trained as a cleric. He looked at Shia history – Shiism has, of course, 12 imams, and the last imam went into occultation, to reappear at the end of time. Normative Shiism suggests all temporal power is illegitimate, because political authority rests with the Imam, and the Imam has disappeared. But Kadivar went one step further. He said, “Therefore, in Shia political doctrine, the notion of anyone having a monopoly of power is illegitimate. Nobody said that a narrow segment of the clerical community has the right to rule.”
If clerics don’t have the right to rule, then who should rule? Somebody has to rule; chaos is not good. Under those circumstances, he said, the only plausible form of governance is a democratic governance system wherein everybody has a right to participate in the political system. Therefore democracy and representation and pluralism are not Western ideas deriving from the Enlightenment experience; they’re the natural derivative of the political doctrine of Shiism. The current system, with the supreme leader and all that, is actually not consistent with Shia doctrine as he understands it. Kadivar wrote several books on this idea and went to jail for nine months – he’s still around.
So a reform movement does come to power. The narrative is as familiar as it is tragic. Why did the reform movement fail? There was always an intellectual movement, but it never developed links to trade unions, to the working class, and that’s how political change usually comes in developing societies. It never developed a political party like Solidarity or had a leader who reached deeply into society. Their debates were scintillating but esoteric.
The reform movement created expectations it could not meet. Suddenly there was so much excitement in 1997 and 1998, with “Tehran Spring” and all that, and when those expectations were not met, it led to popular disillusionment with the reform movement itself. It also underestimated the resilience and the ability of its hard-line counterparts to inflict damage. The reform movement was always about instituting change through the Islamic Republic’s own constitutional provisions, elections, and a critical media. The movement expanded the infrastructure of the state through elections to city councils, but it never developed a cohesive strategy for resisting the totalitarian impulses of the hard-liners when they closed down newspapers and arrested people. It never developed a way to move ahead, and that’s the problem today, although there are still some activities.
Where does Iran go from here?
The Islamic Republic will not develop, in my view, into a standard post-revolutionary state. What’s so communist about communist China today? The Soviet Union in the 1970s was a corrupt, bloated, bureaucratic state with an ideology that convinced no one. The Islamic Republic will not develop into such a state. Islam, however distorted and politically motivated, will remain a pillar of the state. Why? Because for many within the state, their ideology is a religion. Whatever you think of their definition of Shiism, it’s a religion. To be an ex-Marxist is intellectual maturity. To be an ex-Shia is apostasy.
Once the ideology of the state becomes an interpretation of the religion of the state, that state is unlikely to move into a post-revolutionary phase where there is articulated adherence to a governing dogma that, in practice, is ignored. There are a series of institutions, unelected and uninfringed by popular will, that will continue to seek to impose Islamic ordinances and standards on the population, however reluctant that population may be. That tug of war will continue.
These three political tendencies will always battle for influence. The reform movement may ebb and flow. It was dead in the early 1990s. It went through renovations and came back in the late 1990s. Now it has to figure out how to come back again. As I said, the Islamic Republic is the land of the permanent second chance. I wouldn’t be surprised if a reformist came to power in the 2008 election, especially now that they’re talking about the so-called anti-fascist front. It’s hard to see who’s outside the anti-fascist front, but nevertheless.
The way out of this contradiction is constitutional reform, and the Islamic Republic had constitutional reform in 1989. Ultimately, this system cannot be fully reformed unless the powers of the supreme leader are mediated by elections. He has to have some accountability to institutions beyond narrowly defined clerical ones. That’s the way out. There are a lot of suggestions out there that maybe after Ali Khamenei dies, we’ll revisit the office of the supreme leader and make it an elected office in some way. That’s the way out of the current situation where you have elected institutions and non-elected institutions. They can’t dominate one another, and nevertheless they negate each other’s power. You have a system that appeals to nobody.
The way out of that is, in my view, constitutional reform. The other way out of that is revolutionary upheaval, which I don’t anticipate, so maybe the system can reform itself. It’s unlikely to happen during the lifetime of the current occupant, but after that things may change.
MIKE ALLEN, THE POLITICO: Thank you for that vivid description, which gives us a new pair of glasses with which to look at the news. You just said you did not anticipate revolutionary upheaval. If this government is going to fall, what is the relative likelihood of it occurring from within or because of some confrontation from without – or do you see a realistic scenario for either one of those?
TAKEYH: How would this government fall? I’m not a political scientist, but a couple of years ago I tried to look at how revolutions come about. I went to a number of prominent political scientists and said, “What’s the literature of the field?” They said, “There are only four books.” The political science community doesn’t really deal with this issue. I asked, “Why not?” They said, “It’s a rare phenomena and therefore the data we accumulate tends to be very haphazard, so we don’t deal with them.” I read the four books, and now I go around saying I mastered the literature. (Laughter.) I’m an expert on how revolutions come about.
How do revolutions come about? You need an elite that is divided, core services that do not have strategic depth, a population that is literate – Iran has 85 percent literacy; for comparison, Egypt has 40 percent – and therefore knows what’s wrong with the society and who is responsible for it. Also, a history of political activism. Iran has had a number of political actors and constitutional revolutions – 1953, 1968, and of course 1979. Revolutions need a population accustomed to taking to the street to reclaim power. You put all this together, and, wow. I wrote a piece saying, “Iran is entering a revolutionary phase.” That was 2004. The revolution didn’t come.
That was one thing I learned: things don’t happen just because they should. (Laughter.) There is no reason for this government to remain in power. It’s economically inefficient; it has an ideology that appeals to a narrow segment of the population; it has transformed a country of rich civilization into an outlaw state. There is no reason, but it keeps on going.
The Iranian youth and the Iranian population as a whole have learned to circumnavigate the state but not subvert it. For many within the Iranian political elite, they’re happy to have a binary system where they govern here and have a subterranean existence there. You have parties and cultural outlets, and we’ll pretend not to notice it.
They have created a system that seems to function. A serious economic downtrend could provoke some dislocation, but in spite of all the inefficiency, in spite of the regime itself, Iran is the 20th largest economy in the world today. It has five percent annual growth. Of course inflation is high – higher now because of some of the problems – and unemployment is chronically at about 14 or 15 percent.
Iran today is a young population, but paradoxically it’s also an aging population. If you go to public schools in Iran – fourth grade, third grade – half of the school is empty because they expanded it after the population explosion of the early 1980s, but over the years, population control has managed to reduce it. People my age aren’t revolutionaries. If they manage to survive the demographic bulge, which gives them 6 to 7 years, Iran might experience the Japan problem: how do you deal with social security for an aging population?
Revolutions are rare historical phenomena. It’s almost impossible to predict them ahead of time. The 20th century had four – Mexico, China, Russia, Iran – maybe I’m missing one – four or five revolutions. They’re rare and impossible to predict because an ordinary event happening today may take on an extraordinary dimension and yield a cascading effect that’s beyond anyone’s control.
I have read almost every book on the 1979 revolution in Iran, and I always hope it turns out differently – (laughter) – but they always win.
UNIDENTIFIED: You might find one yet.
TAKEYH: I think Marvin Zonis at the University of Chicago has probably written the best book on Iran, called Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah. It’s from the University of Chicago Press. In the book he does a psychological profile of the shah in which he suggests the system wasn’t overthrown; it collapsed. The shah had so centralized the system, he had to make all the decisions. Once he fell sick and had mental issues, he was incapable of making decisions – then the system collapsed.
At any point during the revolution, the shah could have survived. The memoirs that are coming – the Iranian political leaders are prolific at writing their memoirs. They’re awful. (Laughter.) The historical scholarship is not well developed in that country, but two of the leading clerics – I won’t belabor you with their names – came back to Iran in 1979, and one guy recounted it. It’s February 1979, and they are driving together in a car. One says to the other, “How did we succeed? All we did was have a few demonstrations.”
At any point during the revolution they were prepared to back down, as late as November 1979, when the shah declared martial law. They were prepared to adhere to that. Khomeini in Paris said, “No, we’re not going to adhere to it.” All of them were prepared to adhere to it. So there’s no reason for the shah’s government to collapse.
How does that translate to this government? At some point, people like my father said, “This has been fun, but I’m going to take my chances in America.” He left. An entire range of Iranians were willing to leave because they saw no future for themselves there. My father thought he would do better economically in the United States than Iran. He turned out to be wrong – (chuckles) – but that’s what he thought.
These guys aren’t going to do that; they’re going to live and die where they are because they know there’s no future for them outside the system. They have also, as I said, sublimated their rule. They are potentially willing to shed blood to stay in power.
The Islamic Republic did its own study on this. Between 1968 and 1979, in this draconian, absolutist, bloodthirsty monarchy, there were 1,500 political fatalities in Iran. That’s it. Maybe that’s 1,500 too many, but that’s not a bloodthirsty – compared to what these guys are capable of doing. So, no, I don’t anticipate the collapse of the system.
I do anticipate its possible transformation. Maybe it evolves the way the Chinese Communist Party evolves – not to the same degree of abandonment of its revolution heritage and patrimony, but to some extent a society that is more culturally tolerant, more politically representative, less religiously extremist, and inclined to integrate as opposed to isolate itself from the international community.
DAN HARRIS, ABC NEWS: Given the ideological entrenchment you described, where do you stand on the Huntingtonian debate you mentioned before? Do you think this is a group of people with which we can ever reconcile? Secondly, could you describe for us, in Cliff Note form, the major differences between the Shiites and the Sunnis?
TAKEYH: Huntingtonian debate – I don’t believe civilizations are compact entities that do not influence one another. Islamic civilization has been greatly influenced by Western political thought. The West has been influenced by Islamic contributions. For the Huntingtonian idea of two civilizations to work, you have to believe they are not only mutually antagonistic, but also mutually apart. The transference of ideas is much more common in the global society and global economy today. There are many more interconnections between the societies, and I don’t think they develop in mutually antagonistic ways as neatly as he suggested it.
Can we reconcile with this system, these people? What does reconciliation really mean? It’s more of a diplomatic-political issue. What’s the end point? Where are you trying to get to with negotiations between the United States and Iran, or negotiations between Western Europe and Iran?
If you’re trying to get through negotiations what you couldn’t get through coercion, then no. If the end point is a more ambiguous position – Iran with some nuclear capability, Iran with some influence in the region – what are you willing to live with? If you see negotiations and/or coercion as a means of getting the Islamic Republic to conform to the totality of American priorities and policies in the region, then the differences are irreconcilable.
You have to first determine in your mind, what am I going to live with? What disagreements are going to be acceptable to me? What sort of ambiguity am I willing to countenance? Those are decisions the local leadership of the United States, Europe and Russia have to make because there are serious issues with Iran that are somewhat irreversible and immune to either coercive pressure or economic and trade concessions.
The Sunni-Shia divide largely began as a political disagreement about succession after the prophet. Where Shias – the party of Ali – believed succession should rest in the family of the prophet, the Sunnis believed it should be open to a larger segment of the community of believers.
Over the years this political disagreement yielded some doctrinal differences. In the Shia community, a series of imams developed who were vested with supernatural authority and infallibility, leading ultimately to occultation and a reappearance of the final imam. These things were rejected by the Sunni community. The Shia community develops a clerical class, a priestly class, which is structural and hierarchical. The Sunnis never do that; they have a clerical system, but it’s not as formalized or organized.
In the 20th century in particular, there have been attempts by the communities to reconcile their differences, develop some links, create mutual tolerance; it has been successful in some cases. The more radicalized strain of Sunnism – Wahabism – tends to reject Shiites as apostates. But within normative Sunnism there’s some acceptance of Shia diversity. Within Shiism there are different branches, including Twelvers, Sixers, Niners and so forth, but largely it’s political differences that over the years developed into some doctrinal differences.
The Shia also developed their own political ideas about how to live within a society where they are a minority. Most Shias live in states that have Sunni majorities. An entire doctrine developed about how to preserve one’s self in this minority situation. That’s changing with the ascendance of Shiism in some places. The differences may become more acute, but once again those differences are political, which, in due course, take on a religious coloration.
RICHARD WOLFFE, NEWSWEEK: How do the Iranian elite view America? You talked about it being seen as an imperialist force and something that’s spreading this negative cultural influence, but do they see America also as a Christian country, a crusading country?
How does the elite attempt to overcome what we see in all this polling, that in terms of [Iranian] public opinion, America is viewed relatively favorably? Is there an attempt to propagandize the country and overturn that popular opinion?
TAKEYH: When you say the Iranian elite, I imagine you are talking about the governing elite–
TAKEYH: I would make a differentiation between the governing elite and the larger political elite, those who are in power today, the extremists and militants.
For those of the Ahmadinejad coloration, their experience of America is defined through the prism of the Iran-Iraq war. What was America’s role the Iran-Iraq war? Because they were combatants, on the front lines for eight years, they view America, and an entire range of international organizations, as complicit in Iraq’s war crimes. If the United States were so concerned about Iran’s violation of the safeguard agreements, the nuclear treaty of the IAEA, why was it so indifferent to Iraq’s employment of chemical weapons against Iran?
Ahmadinejad says in speech after speech, “The chemical agents came from Germany; the missile technology came from France; the intelligence came from America.” The U.N. conducted eight investigations between 1982 to 1988, all of them affirming Iraq was employing chemical weapons against Iran, and there was no comparable Iranian use, as far as we know.
There is that level of suspicion of America as a hypocritical imperial agent, and they don’t have a problem with our nuclear activities. They say it across the board. They have a problem with the character of the [American] regime, which just cannot accept an Islamic Republic that is independent and engages in activity they don’t like. [In the hard-liners’ view, the Americans] just cannot accept that and therefore if they concede on this issue there will be another issue.
Again, the most colorful expression of the standard formulation comes from Ahmadinejad. He says, “If we give in on the nuclear issue they’ll ask for human rights. If we give them human rights they will ask for animal rights. (Scattered laughter.) There’s no end to their demands. It’s about who we are, not what we do.”
WOLFFE: Just to be clear, he’s not saying if we give in on nuclear issues or other issues they will send missionaries and convert us.
WOLFFE: It’s not a religious conflict?
TAKEYH: No, it’s more of a political conflict. It doesn’t seem in Iran like it is in Saudi Arabia. It’s not Christendom versus us; it’s more nationalistic. It doesn’t play itself out in those theological or sectarian terms; it’s more of a nationalist conflict.
There is a larger political elite who may want some accommodation, even engagement with the United States. There is this narrow public [of hard-liners] but, moving out from them, there is an appetite for things American.
Iran is a contradiction. On the one hand it is a society that views itself with some degree of civilizational pride, which rubs against the idea of being ostracized in the international community. That was one of the essential pillars of the reform movement. “We can get to a situation where we’re back in the community of nations, where our president is welcome in Italy, in France, and can be a public figure in America.” The idea is acceptance by the international community and, by definition, by the guardian of that community, the United States.
For the larger public, popular acceptance of relations with America does not mean acquiescence to American priorities and policies in the region; it means having a mature relationship with the United States whereby the two civilizations, the two countries, can engage and interact, through trade, visits, and exchanges. Sometimes that figure of American popularity in the street is distorted to imply a propensity to accept American priorities.
In the past three or four years those public opinion polls have been changing because the Iranian regime has been very adroit at the al-Jazeera thing. “This is a picture of Americans abusing Iraqis. Do you want that?” It’s a front cover of every hard-line paper almost every day.
When Ahmadinejad came to New York and a bunch of us at the Council on Foreign Relations met with him, he said, “I’m more popular than Bush is in America.” (Laughter.) We said, “No you’re not.” He said, “Then why doesn’t the State Department let me travel? I’m willing to go to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco. Why do they say I can’t even go to Columbia University?”
UNIDENTIFIED: Just read The New Republic – (inaudible, laughter.)
CLARE DUFFY, NBC NIGHTLY NEWS: You mentioned the conflict between young conservatives like Ahmadinejad and the elders of the revolution. Is there an infinite supply of those young conservatives, given that 70 percent of the population is under 30? Where is that conservatism coming from, and will it just run out? The youth have this favorable disposition toward aspects of American culture. Perhaps they don’t like this imposition of [Islamic] behavior? Is it just a matter of waiting out [the conservatives]?
TAKEYH: A standard discussion point in the late ’90s was, should the Islamic Republic have a succession? The successors were going to be, by virtue of their demographic composition, necessarily more liberal, more secular, more pro-American. The Islamic Republic is certainly capable of surprising people because the successors were not necessarily liberal or secular or pro-American. Where do they come from? Wherever they come from they’ve seem to run out. (Chuckles.)
It is largely a self-generating elite. Today they’re veterans of the war. They have this whole system of self-indoctrination and self-regeneration. They probably represent, as I said, 10 percent of the population. That has remained static over the years. Certainly it has not gone up, but it hasn’t necessarily gone down either.
To what extent will that 10 percent of the population continue to dominate the society? It’s important to recognize that most people don’t really participate in political activities. The statistics fail me, but the French Revolution involved maybe seven percent population of the public. The Iranian Revolution, which was one of the largest populist revolutions in history, maybe involved 10 percent. You can continue to govern with that limited number if you have a monopoly of power, if you’re willing to use coercion, and if you’re willing to divide the system.
At which point will the 70 percent overwhelm the 10 percent? Quite possibly the long-term trajectory of Iran, of the Islamic Republic, is toward a greater degree of tolerance, a greater degree of engagement abroad, a greater degree of being a normal country in a community of nations. That’s probably a reasonable guess. But, in terms of immediate effects, the next election is going to be interesting because opposition parties in Iran tend to be like laser beams, very focused, very united. Once they get into power they’re like flashlights, more diffuse. That happened to the reformists, and now that’s happening to the conservatives. They’re all at each other’s throats. Can they get it together for the next election or are there sufficient divisions among them? We’ll see.
JOHN WILSON, BOOKS & CULTURE: You mentioned one reformist who had a creative appropriation of Shia tradition to explain why a democratic system would be more compatible with [the Islamic Republic.] I’m trying to put myself in the place of, let’s say, a young student at a university in Iran. It seems to me that would be a very exciting idea; I would want to get this guy’s books and talk about them.
How much traction among young intellectuals in Iran does that kind of thinking have? Secondly, could you step for a moment outside of Iran and say is this kind of thinking going on more broadly? Is there ferment like this in the Islamic world?
TAKEYH: In the 1990s, the reformist ideas, which were an entire range of writing about how to reform the system, make it representative, accountable, liberal, and so forth, were quite popular on university campuses, but that’s not so true today. There is a disengagement from politics because of the reform movement’s obvious failures. That disengagement became manifest in the last elections in which the reformist candidate came fourth or fifth, whatever it was.
The idea of reforming the system, of harmonizing Islamic precepts and democratic ideals, has been a 20th century struggle in Egypt, in Pakistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Those ideas of Islamic reformism have been pervasive and widely discussed. Today, in some of the leading Islamic parties, even the Muslim brotherhoods, there’s an appreciation of the need to harmonize these two realms, which had previously been thought of as incompatible.
In that sense, Iran’s reformist struggle was not unique. What was unique in Iran was that such Islamic reformism came to power. It had executive power through the presidency; it had the legislature; it had the city councils. It was an entire range of elected officials seeking to realize this system. If they had pulled it off – whatever that may have meant – then Iran would potentially have been a model for other states struggling with reactionary politics, institutional decay, presidential dictatorships, ruling-family classes, and so forth.
In 1997 and 1998, Iran had the chance to transcend itself in a positive way – (chuckles) – if they had managed to pull it off. Iran’s reform movement was not unique in terms of its intellectual content. But it was unique in a sense that, for a minute, it appeared to go from concept to opportunity to reality. Suddenly, all the things that were talked about appeared to come to some fruition. When that faded away, the ideas, the debates, the discourse didn’t go away, but the prospective model for their realization has receded for now.
E.J. DIONNE, THE WASHINGTON POST: What role did class divisions and economic discontent play in Ahmadinejad’s election?
Secondly, how is the nuclear issue playing into these domestic power struggles? Does that have any implications for how it should be handled by the U.S. and others?
TAKEYH: Iranian presidential elections are always about something. The 1989 election of Rafsanjani was about economic reconstruction after the war. The Khatami election was about political liberalization. Ahmadinejad’s election was about social justice and not just economic inequalities, but the massive corruption of the state. Iranian presidencies also have a trajectory; they come with a great promise and soon, they fail. Usually within a year or two, the disillusionment kicks in.
It became apparent in 1991 that there was not going to be a whole lot of balanced economic reconstruction. Certainly by 1999 it was evident there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of political liberalization. It’s become evident today there’s not going to be a whole lot of social justice. So Iranian presidents start with high popularity, and that goes down; that’s the normal trajectory. When people in the U.S. say, “We’re responsible for Ahmadinejad’s popularity problem,” no, he’s responsible for it.
There are two rounds of elections in Iran. In the first round, eight or nine people run and the top two vote-getters go to the runoff. The top two vote-getters in 2005 were Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad. It is plausible the first round was rigged for Ahmadinejad. He got to the second round. The person who came third, Mehdi Karroubi – I don’t want to overwhelm you with names – was a former minister of interior. He said, “I know how elections how are rigged – (chuckles) – and this looks like it’s rigged.” They told him, “You shut up.”
In the second round, I suspect anybody in this room, possibility including me, could have beat Rafsanjani. (Laughter.) He’s a five-million man. He’s got five million votes and that’s his ceiling; he can’t go above that, in a country of 75 million. In the second round, Ahmadinejad’s campaign was very nice – though to run a campaign on corruption against the poster child of corruption is not that tough. He was showing people, “This is my house; I drive a 1979 Peugeot; this is the house of my opponent, he has a pool.”
CROMARTIE: Did an American consultant work for him? (Laughter.)
TAKEYH: He said there are two Irans – (laughter) – their Iran and our Iran. The populist campaign worked.
UNIDENTIFIED: (Off mike) – compares Ahmadinejad to John Edwards as the – (laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED: Doesn’t pay that much for the haircuts.
UNIDENTIFIED: A Bob Shrum campaign worked in Iran. (Laughter.)
TAKEYH: How does the nuclear issue play? It’s hard to gauge public opinion on this because we don’t have reliable polling data. The regime is certainly trying to promote that as a nationalistic cause. They issue currency with a nuclear emblem on it and stamps that celebrate enrichment – (laughter) – “We got to 3.5 gradation of enrichment, it’s Miller time.” Not quite.
They’re trying to get to the point that Pakistan was at, where the nuclear issue and national identity merged. It’s hard to do that when you don’t have an existential threat. Pakistan could say, “India is going to absorb us.” Popular opinion tends to play at two different levels. Can it be exploited for political advantage? I doubt it. Can Ahmadinejad run for reelection again on the platform of more enrichment? I doubt that; I don’t think it’s that animated nationally.
But there’s also elite debate in terms of how they will deal with the program. If 85 percent of the Iranians are polled saying, “We don’t want enrichment, we want engagement with America,” then they say, “It’s none of your business actually.” They can suspend or they can resume irrespective of popular opinion. There’s an elite debate in terms of continuation or discontinuation of the program.
In terms of whether it’s a program that can be exploited for political advantage, it’s hard for me to gauge because I just don’t know the opinion polling. A substantive assessment of where the public is – which is hard to do on national security issues in the United States, much less in a country where you don’t have any access, and less so today – my gut feeling is it can’t ensure a reelection on its own. It has to be, “I’m standing up for Iran, for our national rights; I’m also doing these things economically.” It has to be part of a larger package as opposed to a straight enrichment-based candidacy.
Also, it’s hard to run a straight enrichment-based candidacy because everybody’s for it. Your opponent says, “I’m for it, too.” It’s hard to find someone in the political elite that’s against it, outside the reformers. The reformers would suspend it because the reformers tend to look at the nuclear issue through the prism of domestic politics. For them, the nuclear issue could provoke confrontation with the international community. That confrontation could be exploited for domestic crackdown.
For reformists the nuclear issue is a domestic political issue. That’s why they’re willing to suspend, so they can come back and have the debate about democracy, freedom, Islam, liberalism, reactionary politics, and so forth. This is one issue on which Akbar Ganji, the prominent Iranian dissident, is for the normalization of U.S.-Iran relations: because it takes the security issue out of the political discourse. Security issues are used not as a means of political advantage but as a means of political crackdown. That’s where it plays out.
RICHARD BUSHMAN, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: How do al Qaeda and the Iranian regime look on each other? In some ways, I would think there would be admiration on al Qaeda’s part because of the Islamic nature of the regime. Is there any chance of alliance or at least cooperation between those two?
TAKEYH: As you say, they’re distinctively different in their ideological complexion, in their religious views, and on their views of relations with the United States and the West. Having said that about their mutually distinct ideas, can there be an operational relationship? I wouldn’t rule it out. An operational relationship based on mutual animosity? What’s the basis of the Iranian-Syrian alliance? Mutual animosity to the U.S. and Israel; there’s no other compatibility.
But that’ll be tough for them to do, given the experiences they had in Afghanistan. For us Afghanistan came to surface in 2001. For them, it was a running battle throughout the 1990s about Iran’s alliance with the Northern Alliance, their opposition to al Qaeda, and their concern about what is often called the Talibanization of Sunni politics. Ideologically, it’s something that they would try to resist.
Whether they can have tactical operational relationships, that’s in the realm of intelligence. I don’t know. It doesn’t work ideologically. Can it be advantageous on some tactical issue? My mind says no, but I can’t categorically rule it out.
SALLY QUINN, THE WASHINGTON POST: I’m interested in Ahmadinejad’s relationship with religious leaders. We hear they are not happy with him. Obviously he didn’t do as well in the last election. Some people say he’s crazy; other people say he is crazy like a fox. Do they see him as a plus in terms of his position on the world stage or as a minus for Iran? Do they see him as not religious enough or too religious?
TAKEYH: The clerical community is a vast body of individuals and political tendencies in terms of religious perceptions. So it’s hard to describe his relationship with the clerical estate because there are so many divisions within that estate. Among the hard-line religious community, he has some degree of popularity, and they believe him to be an earnest person who can restore a legitimacy to the system because of his own incorruptibility.
He sometimes doesn’t do well because outside the formal structure [of Tehran.] There are a whole set of associations and institutions in the shrine city of Qom, including the assembly of seminary teachers, the senior ayatollahs that lived there. He has gotten into some trouble with them, curiously enough from the right. He made an announcement that women should have a right to participate [as spectators] at sporting events. They said, “No they don’t,” so he had to retreat.
There is some degree of suspicion toward him because he tends to appropriate religious language and put himself in a position of decreeing religious interpretations when he doesn’t have their qualifications; that infringes upon their domain. But I suspect within the hard-line community of clerics, he has some degree of popularity. Within others, there is a degree of suspicion or unease. With the official clergy, particularly the supreme leader – I often ask about this – they say it’s a good relationship but with some obvious problems. It’s hard to nail that down.
The December election results you’re referring to, the municipal councils – it’s important to recognize the conservatives did well in those elections. Conservatives basically won those elections, but different factions within the conservative community. Ahmadinejad’s wing did not do as well, but that doesn’t mean there was a revival of the reform movement or the pragmatic center. The elections manifested divisions within the conservatives, and there is an attempt now to once again unify the conservative bloc. The person who is really pushing that now is a deputy parliament speaker, [Mohammed Reza] Bahonar. He is trying to put the genie back in the bottle. I think it will be difficult.
Is Ahmadinejad crazy? I used to deal with and write about [Libyan leader Moammar] Gaddafi, and I always said that, given my own mental status, I don’t comment on other people’s mental status. (Laughter.) It’s presumptuous for me to decree on someone’s mental health. (Laughter.) Ahmadinejad comes from a certain ideological position and certain experiences. He is assertive and emphatic about his beliefs. I don’t think he is irrational. I don’t think he’s crazy, but before he takes that as a compliment, he should consider the source. (Scattered laughter.)
The long-term relationship between a religious community and any non-religious leader is difficult, especially when he speaks the language of Islamic discourse, Islamic propriety, and that gets him into a realm where he can be rebuked. As I said, among some he is popular; among others, they view him as an infringement of their prerogatives. In the Islamic Republic, in a theocracy, there is going to be a structural tension between a political leader and a religious community, and those tensions are to some extent obvious.
QUINN: I guess the question I’m asking is, are they happy with him as the face of Iran because that, in fact, is what he is?
TAKEYH: I’m not sure if anybody is thrilled with that. Again, it’s hard to say that with any degree of confidence because these opinions are expressed in private deliberations, which I don’t have any access to. I suspect the level of tension that has come about is proving unappealing to a cross section of the official and non-official clerical community, but I also think that to ascribe to him the problems that Iran is having on the international stage is somewhat inappropriate.
Two points of reference. The rhetoric he uses about Israel, calling for its eradication – they have been using that rhetoric up and down the country for 28 years. He’s not the one who introduced that rhetoric into Iran’s political discourse. I can give you memoirs they have written where they use that particular phrase.
In Khamenei’s rhetoric on Israel, he says the Holocaust happened but the numbers were exaggerated. Khamenei has said – and I cite it in the book I’ve just written – that there was a conspiracy between Zionists and Nazis to manufacture the Holocaust and exaggerate numbers in order to appropriate a moral claim for the state of Israel.
In the current context of the Islamic Republic, that has to be considered the moderate position – (laughter) – because it accepts the historical event. It accepts that something happened in Europe. It was born out of a conspiracy, out of cynicism, for the purpose of depriving Palestinians of their rights, but it happened. It was not 6 million; it was 600,000 or whatever. Ahmadinejad, who is in complete denial of the historical event, is the more extreme wing of the rhetoric but he is not alone in that landscape. There are many who are there, particularly among the traditional clerical community.
The second thing he has been blamed for is the assertion of Iran’s rights to a nuclear program. When he talks to domestic audiences, he says nezam, the system, made this decision. “It’s not me; it’s the system. If you have a problem with the level of international isolation coming about as a result, then we’re all in this together.”
If he is to blame for that rhetoric then they are all to blame for that rhetoric because it is the standard discourse. If he is blamed for the nuclear program, they are all to blame for the nuclear program because they keep pressing forward – no breaks, no return, no stop, no nothing.
Third, Ahmadinejad always says confrontational diplomacy is successful. Look how far he has pushed the Bush administration, the moral clarity people, who said, “We are not going to talk to them or begin to talk to them.” Ahmadinejad can say, “The nuclear program has advanced, the United States is willing to talk about it, and Condi Rice admitted 27 years of mistakes – a 180-degree turn.” He has got these guys saying that.
UNIDENTIFIED: Could they get rid of him if they wanted to?
TAKEYH: It would be very difficult for them to say, “You’re no longer the president now.” It’s implausible to me that would happen because it would shake the foundations of the system. They could do it, but it would be very difficult because he is not alone. He represents a certain constituency. He might be the more unappealing face of it, but it would be very difficult [to remove him,] and I don’t think they would do that because it would really shake the system.
He is not just anybody. He was born out of the security services; he has had a relationship with the Revolutionary Guard, a relationship with the Basij, the foot soldiers of the revolution. He has contacts and relationships in a reactionary wing of the clerical community. No. It’s implausible to me that his presidency could be terminated through a decree like, “Lose the election. I’m just going to rig it for somebody else next time.” He might lose the election, but his term is not going to be aborted.
PAUL FARHI, THE WASHINGTON POST: If you listen to the Bush administration, you get this sense of Iran as a regional superpower or would-be superpower that has designs in linking up with Syria and funding Hezbollah. Listening to your presentation, it sounds like it is a somewhat dysfunctional country. Is our perception of them as a big troublemaker somewhat exaggerated? That in fact they have so many internal problems that they can’t start exporting revolution?
TAKEYH: What is the basis of Iran’s international orientation? There are two pillars to it. Number one is the historical Persian desire for preeminence in its immediate neighborhood. It’s a curious thing. Iranians are suspicious of their neighbors because they have been attacked by them, and they are also dismissive of their neighbors. “The Arabs are just down from trees, and the Turks – I mean, who are the Turks?” They have that imperial arrogance. In essence they want to dominate an environment they are both disdainful and suspicious of. But that is standard Persian hubris, pre-dating the Islamic Republic.
But to suggest that national greatness is the only aspect of it is to miss the doctrinal foundation. The Islamic Revolution has meant something: solidarity with Muslims abroad – this was originally to be what they called the revolution without borders. Now, you’re right; over the years it has been confined within Iranian borders, but there is an export component to it, and that is particularly manifest in the Lebanon-Syria-Israel frontier.
Right now, the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic is not that different from that of the shah, with two important exceptions. Number one is Israel, where the shah was willing to deal with Israel and accommodate Israeli power, while this regime is disdainful toward and in opposition to Israel, and that is religiously based.
That is the importance of religion in international relations. Number two is America, where the shah was willing to be – I want to say a subsidiary of American power – an agent of American power, each with their own prerogatives, while the current regime has a manifest suspicion of America because of their experience of revolution, which was both anti-American and anti-shah, and their experience during the [Iran-Iraq] war. There is that residual suspicion of America. Those are pretty big exceptions.
Does Iran want to export its revolution? I suspect the answer to that question is no. It’s mostly driven by practical politics. Today – and I laid this out, to the extent that I understand it, in the March issue of Foreign Affairs – the debate that surrounds Iran’s foreign policy circles is, what kind of hegemony are we going to have? What does it mean to be a hegemonic power? Can that hegemony come in collaboration or confrontation with the United States? It’s no longer a country that views its international relations through the prism of vulnerability and insecurity. Now it’s, “Wow, this is great, but what does it mean?”
There are lots of concerns. I don’t want to dwell on the theme, but Iraq is a huge concern. It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a challenge. The way Iran asserts its influence in Iraq will condition its relationship to the incumbent Sunni regimes – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan – if not the United States. If they go for a huge power grab, they could win southern Iraq and lose the region. They have to decide for everybody else. Iraq is a mind field of opportunities, challenges, and hazards. How they play this out is going to be very important.
But in some ways, the Islamic Republic’s national horizons are more limited than the shah’s. The shah talked about having a blue-water navy, [capable of deploying] in the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope. These guys don’t want to have a naval presence in the Indian Ocean, but they do seem to believe they have a right, by virtue of their civilization, culture, history, population and achievement, to have the preeminent status in their immediate neighborhood.
Is Iran going to be a hegemonic power similar to India in the subcontinent, which comes to a negotiated compact with the United States? Or is it going to be a Russian – a county that tries to extend its influence and its “near/abroad” in confrontation with the United States? Or is it going to be a China, somewhere in the middle? That is very much an unresolved debate.
FARHI: Let me put you on the spot. The day the last [American] troop leaves Iraq, what is Iran’s move?
TAKEYH: Here I disagree with everybody else who says Iranians want Americans to remain in Iraq and bleed and die and so forth. Whatever imperial pretensions [the U.S.] had has been beaten out of them, so enough bleeding. They want the Americans out.
Most people would disagree with me on that. I have more evidence if you want it. The Iranians are suggesting now that the regional powers, particularly Saudi Arabia as a leading Sunni power in the Gulf, maybe Egypt, and Iran can best mediate Iraq’s civil war in the absence of a provocative American presence; that, increasingly, the cause of sectarian conflict and the radicalization of the Iraqi situation is the American presence. I think they are wrong about that because the Sunnis hate them so much that they are not going to go for that.
Nevertheless, it’s mediation diplomacy. Even in [the international conference at the Egyptian resort of] Sharm and other places where Iranians meet, they always say this should be a province of the regional powers as opposed to the superpower of the Europeans, the U.N. and everybody else. To the extent that Iranians have any negotiations with the United States, it is always on the timeline for American withdrawal. In essence, Iran’s position is not going to be that different from the SCIRI position, Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution, whatever the name is today – Hakim’s position. Iran’s policy toward Iraq is a negotiation between Iran and Hakim.
The conclusion they have come to is a phased withdrawal of American troops – not a precipitous withdrawal, which could lead the whole system to collapse in chaos, but the gradual commitment of America to withdraw, and then the substitution of the divisive American presence with regional mediation – say, the Saudis – and not just in Iraq, but also in Lebanon.
I think they are wrong about that because at the end of the day, Sunnis hate [the Iranians] more than they fear Israel. They are more suspicious of them than Israelis. To some extent, that mediation diplomacy has been successful in Lebanon, where the principal problem in reigning in Hezbollah hasn’t necessarily been Iranians or the Saudis but the Syrians, because they want to use the Hezbollah-Lebanon crisis as a means of negating the U.N. America is saying, “No, don’t negotiate with Iranians in Lebanon because that extends Iranian reach.” But where they are at is an assertion of hegemony with a rough deference to local opinion. If the local opinion resisted, how that would change things, I don’t know.
FRANK FOER, THE NEW REPUBLIC: One of the things that seems to be hovering over the whole debate over the future of the nuclear program, in negotiations with the United States, is the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran. All indications are that the Israelis definitely consider an Iranian nuclear bomb to be an existential threat, and they are going to do everything they can to take it out.
Within the Iranian elite, is the idea of an Israeli strike something they fear? Is it welcomed? Is it the type of lever the United States should be wielding in order to play good cop, bad cop? Would that be effective in forcing them away from the nuclear threshold?
TAKEYH: There is an article in the current issue of International Security that suggests Israel does in fact have the logistical capability to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Over the years, they have modernized their Air Force, particularly air fuel capability. The article is fairly technical, and I’m not sure it’s entirely persuasive. But the argument over whether Israelis have the logistical capability of doing so, which has always been denied by military experts, seem to be challenged by that particular article, and you’re welcome to look at it.
The curious thing about Iran’s political debate today is they largely discount the possibility of military retribution. They have reacted to threats of military force by suggesting not acquiescence or suspension [of the nuclear program] but retaliation. That has been the response to various threats of military force: “If we are attacked, we will respond, with means and timing of our own choosing.”
So I’m not sure if threats of military force are going to yield suspension of the program for whatever period of time. It’s not a leverage point that is particularly usable right now. Also, there is no separation between “American” and “Israeli.” In 2004, when American forces went in to pacify Fallujah, every Iranian newspaper said, “American and Israeli commandos are killing Muslims in Fallujah.” If there is an Israeli strike, it’s inconceivable to me that America is not going to get the blame for it and whatever retaliation that follows. If there is an American strike, it’s inconceivable to me that Israel is not going to – they are conjoined in the Iranian imagination. Therefore, if there is a strike, it’s better for the Americans to do it than Israelis, because the Americans have a greater logistical capability.
From an Israeli perspective – you are right to use the word “existential” because every time you meet Israeli politicians, whatever their English-language capability is, they know the word “existential.” (Laughter.) I didn’t know what existential meant until I got to college. (Laughter.)
I have often said, in my encounters with Israelis, “The Iranian bomb is not really aimed at Israel.” When they stop laughing, they say, “Oh yeah, whatever.” But I don’t think Iranians want the bomb for the eradication of Israel. I’m not quite sure why Iranians want the bomb, because there is no explication of the strategic culture in that country. But to the extent that they do, it’s a combination of the things, including deterrence and power projection.
How does that work? If Iranians have a nuclear capability of some advancement, then in the minds of everybody else in the region, particularly peripheral states like the Gulf countries, they will be perceived as immune from American retaliation. Therefore, it will yield appeasement to Iran by others. I guess that is how a nuclear bomb can work as an instrument of diplomatic leverage.
To the core of your question: Does threatening Iran with strikes give the West diplomatic leverage to gain Iranian compliance with its nuclear commitments? There is no evidence thus far for that. The way the Iranians have responded is, as I said, with a pledge of retaliation. It is a routine part of the American discourse that all options are on the table – “We may use the military at some point.” This is what the administration says, what every Democratic [presidential] candidate says.
That particular pledge is actually a violation of the U.N. Charter. Maybe that doesn’t matter. But it matters in Chapter One, Article Two of the U.N. Charter, which says rather unambiguously that you cannot threaten the territorial integrity of a political system of a country with the use of force. So long as the state of belligerency between that country and a national community has not been codified by Security Council resolution, which it has not – the Security Council has not said the use of force is permissible – that statement is a technical violation of international law.
Why does that matter? The charge against Iran today is its nuclear program constitutes a violation of its Security Council obligations. Therefore, its nuclear infractions constitute a violation of the U.N. Charter. That accusation is being made by a country that, in my judgment, routinely violates that charter across the political spectrum – liberals, conservative. Democrats also think that in order to be perceived as credible in national security issues, they have to threaten countries with the use of force.
Maybe that doesn’t matter; maybe that is just where we are in our national narrative. You know; I don’t. But if you say, “Legal impermissibility doesn’t matter if you’re a superpower.” Fine. Let’s put that issue aside. But it’s strategically counterproductive because it tends to validate the argument of those within Iran’s national security establishment who suggest the only possible deterrence against the United States and others is development of the strategic weapon – until we get to that stage, then we’re going to be subject to such threats.
To reiterate my response to you, military leverage has not worked. What Iranians are saying today – and there is a piece in The New York Times about how nuclear activities have now reached the point of no return – is, “Our entrance into the nuclear club changes the nature of the debate. We will negotiate with the United States, but as a nuclear club member. We will negotiate about confidence-building measures that will allow us to continue with our activities as opposed to suspensions.”
That is a long-winded answer, but I don’t see that much leverage being gained by threats. The last person who successfully negotiated the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program was [former British Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw and the EU-3. Jack Straw explicitly took the use of force off the table. Read his comments. He explicitly took it off the table. That is a suspension that has eluded the rest of us since 2005. Maybe it’s a different country; maybe it’s a different region, or maybe it’s a different place, but that is where it is at.
FOER: I honestly don’t know whether the United States can control an Israeli first strike, but it just seems like the political consensus in that country is such that – I don’t see them backing down.
TAKEYH: It’s inconceivable to me that the Israelis would take such measure without the consent of the United States. I just don’t see the Israeli political establishment embarking on such a potentially precarious activity, with all kinds of ramifications, without the acknowledgment and consent of the United States.
When you talk to Israelis – I don’t have that much interaction with them – their point of view for a while was, “Bush will fix it for us.” Now it’s “Bush isn’t going to fix it for us.” Israel is not a country that is trigger-happy. It’s very judicious, and it does feel a threat, a significant threat across the political spectrum.
I don’t know much about internal Israeli politics, but I’m not sure if a prime minister who has a three percent [popularity rating]–and this was before the first segment of the report [on the war with Lebanon] was released. Who is that three percent? I don’t know if Israel is politically cohesive enough to embark on [a military strike,] and I’m not sure if that would succeed in terms of elimination of the Iranian nuclear program today.
If you listen to [IAEA Director General Mohammed] ElBaradei – maybe his comments also serve me – what he says is Iranians have now – as David Sanger’s New York Times’ piece says – mastered the technology. Whatever technological problems they had, based upon the recent inspections, they have overcome them. They are building; and they are operationalizing 164 centrifuges a week, and they are at 1,900 or 1,600, whatever it is now. If they operate a cascade of 3,000 – and the physics it elude me – efficiently and in a systematic way, then they will have, for all ostensible purposes, a nuclear weapons capability within 14 or 16 months. I’m not sure that knowledge can be reversed through a military strike.
JOHN FUND, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: We had an Iranian visit The Journal who said, “Of course we want a bomb. The Americans invaded the Afghanistan, our neighbor on one side; the Americans then invaded Iraq, our neighbor on the other side, and the message is, if you don’t have a bomb, they might come after you next.” To what extent is this discussed in Iran as a plausible pretext or excuse for their nuclear program?
TAKEYH: I think if they say that, it’s an excuse. I don’t think they want the bomb to deter an American invasion because there is not going to be an American invasion. I’m very confident of that. As I said, I don’t think they want the bomb for defensive purposes, for deterrence, per se, against America. I think they want the bomb as an attribute of a great power, as a means of consolidating control in the Gulf. The aspirations of nuclear capability are more offensive than defensive today. That is my judgment.
That has changed over the past three or four years. In 2003, it might have been a different set of calculations, but today, with this regime in power, I don’t think they want the bomb because of fear; they want the bomb because of opportunity. I’m not sure historically if nuclear weapons have been used as a successful instrument of diplomatic coercion. We couldn’t compel Stalin to do anything, despite our monopoly, so they might have an exaggerated appreciation of what that buys them, but I don’t think they do it from a perspective of fear, but more of seeing an opportunity.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, NPR: You have talked about the reactionaries, the pragmatists, and the reformists, and I am wondering who is at the table? Who is making the decisions right now as they decide their nuclear policy?
TAKEYH: Iran is a country of institutions, and the nuclear decisions are made within the Supreme National Security Council. Strangely enough, on the nuclear issue, a government that has been exclusive has been rather inclusive, in that leading representatives across the political spectrum are involved in deliberations, maybe not in the final decision. Everybody is at the table. Khomeini has purposefully done it this way because the argument has been that if this works, we all take the credit for it. If this doesn’t work, then we’re not going to blame each other. We all bear our own burden of blame.
In July of 2005, or whenever it was, when the Iranians terminated the suspension of the nuclear program, the leading paper at the time called Sharq – a really good paper, suspended since then – had a lead article saying, “We will lift the suspension.” There were four people pictured making that announcement. There was the supreme leader. There was the incoming president, Ahmadinejad; the current president at the time, Khatami; and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was prime minister during the war, between 1980 and 1988; he was an iconic figure of the revolution because he brought the country through the war without external debt and so on.
Together they represented the future, the present, and the past, consecrated by the supreme leader. That was a message they were sending to the international community. “This isn’t a factional decision; this is a national decision.” Nobody in the international community got it. I saw it; I said, “Wow, this is a national decision.” But who am I? They were sending a signal of diplomacy to the wrong country because we didn’t get it.
Since then, there has been a lot of criticism of the nuclear strategy, but not necessarily an abandonment of it. Where the political elite is, right now, is, “If he gives in on this, it will be something else. The fact that we have achieved these accomplishments in the nuclear field changes the terms of the debate.” For a long time, there was an anticipation that Iranians would assemble 1,300 centrifuges, and that would be a prelude to suspension. They would say, “We could be a nuclear power, and now we are going to suspend.” That is simply not the case.
The nuclear accomplishments are designed to change the terms of the debate for the West. “You can no longer talk to us about suspension and reversal because this is an irreversible reality. So the question for you is, what structure do you want to govern this new reality?” I fully anticipate there will be U.S.-Iranian negotiations, but both parties are coming to negotiations in a conceptually different way. The Iranians are coming to negotiations offering confidence-building measures to persist with the program. The Americans are coming to negotiations hoping to bribe them into suspending the program. They are conceptually different, and that is why I’m not sure they will succeed.
The United States has a precondition: “You have to suspend before we talk to you.” That is nonsense. That precondition is going to go; it’s already eroded. When the Secretary of State of the United States is chasing the Iranian foreign minister in Sharm, saying, “Please, please talk to me,” what was the precondition? And when Ambassador Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, talks to them about it, and they don’t bring up the nuclear – you know what that is called? That is called negotiations without suspension.
Suspension is a very technical thing. When [EU foreign policy chief, Javier] Solana says, “What is suspension anyways?” — when a very exact technical procedure is turned into a metaphysical question then one party is about to cave, and it’s not the Iranians.
ALAN COOPERMAN, THE WASHINGTON POST: I would like to hear your thoughts and especially your humorous asides on the scenario sometimes called the Lebanization of Iraq. Let’s suppose sometime after most or all U.S. troops have left, Iran either wholeheartedly or not wholeheartedly gets deeply involved in trying to end a civil war in Iraq, much as Syria did in Lebanon.
What would the impact of that be on the domestic Iranian political scene? I’m intrigued because you have said a number of times that for one important cohort of Iranians, life is viewed through the prism of the Iran-Iraq war. Judging by what statements they have made, how do they view Iraq? Do they view it as a quagmire that, by all reasonable standards, they want to not get stuck in again? Or do they view it as a continual threat, something that they just can’t leave untouched?
Could their involvement in Iraq lead to a situation where for a time it works very much to their advantage, as it did to Syria’s advantage for a time, but ultimately the population turns against the Syrians, or in this case, against the Iranians?
TAKEYH: The lessons that the Iranians have drawn from the Iran-Iraq War. The cause of Iraq’s revisionism and aggression was the Sunni domination of Saddam’s politics; the Sunni minority tried to sanction his monopoly of power by having a transnational, pan-Arab foreign policy. Other segments of Iraq’s Shias and Kurds also have an international orientation, but one that calls for better relationship with Iraq’s non-Arab neighbors, such as Turkey. So that is one lesson for them: the prevention of Sunni domination.
Two is to prevent Iraq from once again having dominance of the Gulf. The way you get that is with a weak central government and strong provinces, which is ostensibly the Iraqi constitution today. Weak central governments don’t have strong standing armies. That removes a barrier to the assertion of Iranian power, Persian power.
Number three is Shia domination of Iraqi politics, but with some room for moderate Sunni inclusion, because that provides a degree of stability. The Shia parties coming to power today in Iraq are religiously based and have intimate ties to the Islamic Republic. That means SCIRI and the Dawa party. In 1985, the State Department put Dawa on its list of terrorist organizations because of things it was doing on behalf of the Iranians.
The forth is, as I said, using strong promises, because it’s easy to assert influence. The fourth, also, is the increasing economic integration of at least southern Iraq with the Iranian economy, including consumer goods, the export of Iraqi oil, and the provision of electricity.
The way you achieve all those objectives is ostensibly through a democratic process, not through violence and sectarian conflict and deepening of the civil war. Democratic process, as it unfolds, by definition, leads to diffusion of power among the provinces, empowerment of the Shia community, a veneer of stability provoking an American withdrawal, and perhaps an opportunity for some Sunni moderates to be participants in a government they do not dominate.
They don’t want to leave them out nursing the grievances. The idea is, if the Sunnis have important political leaders in the cabinet or the parliament, then the Sunni community is provided with leadership other than the insurgency and al Qaeda, some place else where they can channel their grievances, and a political process that is somewhat responsive to those grievances. That is the ideal.
The fear is what you outlined, that the deepening conflict will provoke a regional war. The Saudis will come into it, the Iranians will come into it, maybe even the Turks in the north. Historically in the Middle East civil wars, with the unique and problematic exception of Lebanon, civil wars have managed to be self-contained. That was the case in Algeria. But everybody is involved in Iraq. Israelis may be involved in the north of Iraq. Iraq is a one-stop shopping place; everybody is in it.
Do Iranians view their reengagement with Iraq as a quagmire? No. They view it as an important historical opportunity, a moment in time. Maybe not an endless moment, but a moment that has to be exploited to its full extent.
As they think through mediation diplomacy and other options, they could potentially create that system. Those are lofty goals. I’m not sure they are achievable because Iraq is like a dark room. You walk into it; you never know what you might step in. You might step in something toxic or nothing at all, but it’s a dark room for everybody.
Iranians seem to think they have a greater feel for it because of their previous intervention in Iraq, because of their associations with Iraqis through pilgrimage traffic, family connections, cultural links and commonalities of religious beliefs. They seem to think they can operate in an environment of ambiguity better than the Americans can, which is true. I’m not that sanguine about the long-term prospects of Iran in Iraq, but I’m not in the leadership of the country. All of this nonsense about how Najaf could emerge and eclipse Iran’s clerical community: that discounts the collaborative nature of the Shia [clerical] community.
Let me give you an example. How do the Americans go to Iraq? When was the last time it was announced, “Tomorrow morning Rice will land in the airport and she will meet with the -” They never meet with Sistani. No, they sneak in in the middle of the night; they wear those jackets. In 2005 when Iranian foreign minister Kemal Kharrazi went to Iraq, it was announced in the papers, “Kharrazi tomorrow will go to Iraq.” He didn’t fly into the airport, because it was dominated by Americans; he drove. He drove from Iran through Basra to Baghdad. It’s just a three-hour drive. So it’s not unsafe for everybody.
When Kharrazi went, Iran was in nuclear negotiations. He met with Sistani; he met with everybody, so the level of threat and fear and apprehension we have about Iraq is not shared among everybody. As I said, Iraq has the possibility of segregating Iran in a Shia ghetto. I think that is what is going to happen, and it will be a defeat of a revolution that thought of itself as a Muslim power, not a Shia power.
It was the Saudis who called it a Shia power, to segregate it in a sectarian ghetto. Iranians said, “No, no, no; we’re not Shia; we’re Muslims; we appeal to everybody.” I think Iraq will finally segregate Iran. When I talked to an Iranian official, I said, “You should be happy with southern Iraq and southern Lebanon, because you are not going to get more than that.” That is not bad. (Chuckles.) You have the Gulf; you have got everything you want, but the aspiration to become a pivotal power in the Middle East is going to be undermined by the leading power in the Shia community, however empowered and expansive the Shia revival may be, to quote my friend, Vali Nasr.
ANNE KORNBLUT, THE WASHINGTON POST: I’m always struck when I see quotes from the Jewish member of parliament. Does having even a small Jewish population have any impact on the discussion?
TAKEYH: Iran is a multi-ethnic society. I think Persians count as 55 percent of the population. Some of the ethnic groups are well integrated. The Azeris are the largest. They are 30 percent of the population and are well integrated in the structure and society of Iran; the supreme leader is Azeri. They tend to be in the north or west of the country. The minority groups that are not well integrated are the Arabs in the Khuzestan area bordering Iraq and the Baluchis near the Pakistan border area. These are also the ethnic groups the Iranians suggest Americans are trying to rile up.
There is a story in The Atlantic Monthly, which suggests that $300 million is being spent on stirring up ethnic conflicts in Iran by the United States, with the money coming from the Saudis. That has always been the case, goes the Iranian argument. They have complained privately and informally to the Pakistanis for allowing that infiltration, and of course to the British and the Americans about similar activities in western Iran.
I don’t think the country is about to fragment along ethnic lines because those who are outside the power structure are rather limited in terms of their numbers and their impact. The Kurds are a case that is problematic for Iran because one of the first things the Islamic Republic encountered after it took power in 1979 was Kurdish secessionism, which it brutally suppressed. If there is a similar emergence of an independent Kurdish state, that could create some problems for them, but that creates problems for everybody: Syrians, Turks, the Kurds themselves, and the Jewish population.
The second-largest Jewish population in the Middle East is in Iran. That is not necessarily a compliment to the Arab states. That is usually viewed as a testament to what a tolerant society Iran is. It’s actually a testament to what an intolerant society the Arab countries are because there are only 25,000 Jews that still live in Iran. They tend to be older. Most of the younger Jews have migrated, especially after the 1979 revolution. Because they are older and settled, they don’t represent any sort of a threat to the state.
All ethnic minorities, the Assyrians, the Armenians, the Jews, get one representative to the parliament. So the 25,000-member Jewish population will vote –
TAKEYH: If I’m living in Bethesda, I vote in Maryland elections, but in Iran – if I’m a Jewish person, I vote for the Jewish slate.
KORNBLUT: Why do they get one?
TAKEYH: It was the shah’s practice as well. The idea is to recognize the “people of the book:” Christians and Jews get one representative to the parliament. Those representatives tend to vote with the reformists. In a sense, it’s unfair because if you live in Maryland, you don’t vote for Maryland elections; you vote for the Jewish slate – three Jewish representatives will run; you decide which one you want to vote for. Three Christians will run, you decide which one you want to vote for.
There is also a synagogue life. There is a degree of tolerance of their existence, but they are very much second-class citizens. You cannot have access to trade privileges or significant places in the armed forces – they are disenfranchised citizens. But the older, settled populations have been accustomed to such propositions. To what extent they have an impact on Iranian’s president’s mind, I don’t know.
When they had the Holocaust denial conference, there were three Jewish rabbis that attended from Brooklyn who were anti-Zionist. Their idea is Iran represents one of the most important forces for anti-Zionism. The rabbis told Ahmadinejad the Holocaust happened, but he said, “No, no; you’re wrong. You have got to look at Jewish history carefully.”
To me the presence of that Jewish population is not an indication of Iranian tolerance but an indication of Arab intolerance, given the fact that there were so many Jewish populations settled in various places in the Middle East, in Iraq and Morocco, for example, prior to ’48. In Ottoman times, the Middle East was a much more tolerant place than the Arab revolutionary states that came into existence in the aftermath of World War II. The creation of Israel led to the exodus [of Jews from Arab countries,] and a similar exodus has taken place in Iran. The Jewish population was much larger before the Islamic Revolution and has changed demographically.
KENNETH WOODWARD, NEWSWEEK: At a previous conference, there was a discussion about the relationship between the Shia of southern Iraq and those of Iran. Roy Mottahedeh said, in effect, there were more things to separate them than there was to bring them together. Maybe I’m putting that too crudely, but how do you see the relationship between the two of them?
TAKEYH: The Shia community in Iraq is obviously not a homogeneous community. There are a lot of divisions between urban Shias and Shias in the countryside. Take Sadr’s movement and SCIRI: one made of exiles and one indigenous – there are lots of divisions. There are secular Shias, but the political representation of the Shia community is coming from religious parties. The principle organizing network of the Shia community today seems to be the mosque network.
It puzzles me that the Shia community in Iraq tends to value its religious identity above its ethnic difference with Iran at this point. That has been very surprising to me. Let me give you an example.
A procession of Iraqi Shia politicians have gone to Iran since 2003. They always stop at Khomeini’s tomb and apologize for the Iran-Iraq war. The Iraqis blame Saddam and the Ba’ath Party for the war and make official apologies for it. Now, if I’m Iran and I want reparations, I have documentary evidence that Iraqi political leadership is taking the blame for it – but that is not where Iran is at right now.
These are identities in flux as Iraq has been turned upside down and upside down again. That may change. Maybe the Arab component will predominate over the Shia identity over time, but I haven’t seen that now. The exception to that, to an extent, is the Sadr movement, which tends to be Arab nationalist at times in its rhetoric, at times suspicious of Iran. There is a very problematic relationship between Iran and the Sadr movement. There is cooperation but there is some disagreement, and there is some concern about the direction of the Sadr movement. But in terms of the Iraqi clerical community and SCIRI and Dawa, it’s a curious relationship because everyone thought the ethnic identity would overcome the religious identity, but it hasn’t happened.
But also, to be fair, Iranians aren’t looking at the Iraqi Shia community as their subsidiary. They understand it has its own prerogatives, and they are hoping to have a reasonable basis for a relationship that is mutually advantageous to both parties.
The third point is, Iraqi Shias are living in a regional context where they are ostracized. They have nowhere to go. The Saudi king doesn’t meet [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki. When a pan-Arab paper suggests that [the] 2003 [invasion] was a Persian-Shia-Zionist-American conspiracy to overcome Saddam and disenfranchise the Sunnis – when that is the prevailing political discourse in Cairo and the pan-Arab papers, then Iraqi Shias, as they come into their own, have no easy alliances with Iran, which is willing to be accommodating, hospitable, and not necessarily seek their dominance, but seek more of a relationship among of equals. For practical, traditional, and strategic reasons, it is a Shia community that feels unease with this Iranian leadership.
Roy Mottahedeh has written the best book on Iran. There is no question about that. What he says I would take with a great degree of credibility and credence. I’m just offering you my assessment, and you can draw your own conclusions from it. Roy Mottahedeh has studied the Shia community, Shia historiography, and Shia ideology more than perhaps anyone else.
UNIDENTIFIED: What is the name of that book?
TAKEYH: The Mantle of the Prophet, the best book published on Iran. It was published in the mid-’80s, which gives you an idea of the state of scholarship on Iran.
CROMARTIE: Will it be better than your book?
TAKEYH: It’s better than everybody else’s.
STEVE WALDMAN, BELIEFNET: You probably get asked the question all the time, but what is your advice to the presidential candidates on how to approach American foreign policy towards Iran?
My second question has to do with American culture. We talked before about how American culture is viewed as a negative force. But the stereotype of the Cold War era was that American culture was a positive foreign-policy instrument – you know, freedom and blue jeans – in helping to bring down the Soviet Union. How did it get to be that American culture was viewed negatively, or are there parts of American culture that are viewed positively by Iranians?
TAKEYH: Advice to the presidential candidates. Actually, I don’t get that question that much. I would say, “You have got a problem.” (Laughter.) What would I say? Candidate Obama went and said, “Iran has to stop enrichment.” I would say to him, “Don’t say that because you’re going to have to walk that cat back if the candidate becomes president. And you don’t have to say that, because how many people out there are saying, ‘Iranian enrichment is the basis of my vote.’ You should just go out there and say, ‘It’s impermissible for Iran to have a nuclear-weapons capability,’ and that leaves you a lot of room.”
In the attempt to become credible on national security, I think, the Democratic Party political candidates are going to embrace positions on Iran similar to Jack Kennedy’s positions on Cuba, where he went so far to the right of Nixon that when he came into power, he had to do something about Cuba, and he did something silly.
If they get that far ahead in order to criticize the Republican Party on Iran, then they’re going to come in with expectations that are going to be difficult to mediate or resolve diplomatically. So I would say, be vague, and just say, “We are against Iran having a nuclear-weapons capability.” Meanwhile, the Iranians are enriching like mad. We’re dealing with a structure to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon. That is how far the line has changed in the intervening couple of years.
CROMARTIE: So to both parties, you’re saying be vague.
TAKEYH: Vague – ambiguous. It’s a perfectly acceptable position to say “no nuclear-weapons capabilities.” If the follow-up is from an incisive reporter saying, “What if Iran develops nuclear weapons?” You should say the standard line, “We have to exhaust the diplomatic channel.” I personally would not put the use of force “on the table”, using the formulation that is popular, which no one is going to retract. I understand that. I wouldn’t go that far because I think it’s strategically counterproductive, but I would say – (inaudible) – on the table. Blame Bush. (Laughter.) “We’re in this mess because of Bush and four years of neglect, and it’s the government whose foreign policy has empowered Iran.” You can turn that around into a partisan advantage.
I once said to a candidate on the Republican side, “This is what you should do on Iran.” He said, “The appeasement of Iran isn’t very popular. (Laughter.) If you think there is room for political consultants who call for appeasement of the Ahmadinejad’s government – (laughter) – that would be great, lucrative. I suspect, however, that would be misunderstood.”
On the question of perceptions of American culture. We tend to identify American culture with popular culture: movies, music, and so on. Interestingly enough, many Iranians – at least in the intellectual circles – are drawn by American political heritage. Khomeini and others talk about how America was born as a state with a distinct religious identity; it’s a state where there is ample religiosity among the public. It is a state where political candidates routinely express religious beliefs.
Reformists in Iran in particular are drawn to how the Americans have managed to accommodate religion in the popular political culture. They read the books that we do – Jefferson and the Federalist Papers – about how this society has been successful in integrating religion into its political structure, and in terms of accommodating individual freedom and religious identity at the same time.
So there’s an aspect of American political culture and heritage, which we don’t pay any attention to but some people do. For those who have the Huntingtonian perception in mind, then America is a source of all evil. America is a Western power determined to encroach on Muslim lands, determined to subvert the region for its own economic empowerment and for its own – but curiously enough, to go back to the question Richard had, it doesn’t play out into the idea of them trying to convert us.
But the American appeal to a developing country’s intellectual class is, curiously enough, its political heritage. That is different in Egypt or Indonesia where the intellectual classes tend to be reflexively anti-American. They immediately talk about Israel and so on. But the standard Iranian intellectual will have different appreciations of America. They have a greater appreciation for that heritage than I think is sometimes exhibited in American campuses and certainly in campuses in the Middle East.
CROMARTIE: Ladies and gentlemen, please join me thanking our speaker. (Applause.)
This transcript has been edited for clarity, spelling and grammar by Andrea Useem.