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Iran and the Future: an Interview with an Iranian Dissident
"Iran has two governments: one that is elected but powerless and one that is unelected but powerful. It’s the unelected government operating in the shadows that runs the country."
The subject of this interview is an Iranian American journalist and dissident who moved to the United States in 2007. He has worked for a number of publications and has been published in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and many others. His name has been removed from the interview due to security concerns.
Faisal: Where did you grow up? What’s the most distinct memory you have of your childhood that is indicative of what was happening in Iran at the time?
I grew up in Kermanshah, Isfahan, and Tehran. My father traveled a great deal, and we moved around. I had an opportunity to see a lot of Iran. It was a peaceful and fun childhood, visiting historic cities like Shiraz and enjoying a lot of the countryside.
Faisal: Many criticize US foreign policy for ruining the country by overthrowing Mosadiq, and they caution against any future intervention. How do you respond to that?
The history of the overthrow of Mossadeq is complicated, and there are many narratives as to what happened. Was it a CIA coup or an uprising against Mossadeq? My own view is that the US wanted to overthrow him, but at the same time, the internal political tide had shifted, and he was not enjoying as much support as before. There was a crisis of legitimacy facing Mossadeq, and he had lost the support of the clerics and large sections of the population. The whole episode has to be put into the context of Cold War rivalries, and we should not judge the past through the current lens.
Faisal: Do you think Iran can remain as one country despite all the cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity in the country? Why do some argue that multiculturalism doesn't work in the middle east?
Iran has been a multicultural society and country for millennia, at least three thousand years or more. From the times of the ancient first Persian empire. It was a multicultural and multiethnic empire in which people from various religions, languages, and ethnic backgrounds got along with each other very well. Iran is a melting pot. Of all the countries in the Middle East, Iran is one in which ethnic tensions are the least of the problems.
Faisal: Iran is a big country with a big population that can’t be generalized or united. What would you say about what the average Iranian thinks about the current state of the country?
I think the average Iranian wants a good economy, a decent life, and a healthy environment with clean air and water, just like people everywhere. They want a secular government. They want access to the freedoms that are denied to them. They are peaceful and loving people who want a democratic government.
Faisal: What do you think will happen if the regime falls?
There will be a transition period, after which there will be a constitutional assembly that will determine the path forward after the new constitution is written. There will be free elections and likely some turmoil, but I think the society is ready for a change, and therefore the turmoil will be short-lived. There are processes in place that will ensure the constitutional assembly will move forward speedily.
Faisal: Do you see the US going back to the JCPOA, or do you think there is very little interest in going back to the deal?
I don’t think they will go back to that deal ever again. I think, at the moment, the US is going to find it very hard to make concessions to a regime that is helping Putin’s war efforts against Ukraine by supplying weapons and drones. Iranians don’t trust the Americans, so they want to reach a point of advocating as close as possible to nuclear weapons and then stopping right before they reach critical mass. I don’t see either of them making any effort to revive the deal.
Faisal: Has the Iran deal helped the average Iranian, or does it just strengthen the regime?
I believe it has helped strengthen the regime much more than it has helped the Iranian people. We have seen a large expansion of religious foundations and organizations that are designed, devised, and created to promote and publicize the regime’s activities which have been expanded since the beginning of the deal. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been expanded as well. The money that came from the JCPOA went straight to the regime and did not help the Iranian people.
Faisal: What do you make of the actions of Iran’s neighboring countries since the recent protests began?
The recent protests forced a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic. The two countries are mending fences now, which is not unusual as there have been breakups and make-ups There is an interesting dynamic going on. This is because the Iranian regime felt threatened by the Woman, Life, Freedom revolution. The threat of being overthrown caused them to reach out to Saudi Arabia, which is funding the most popular diaspora television news station, to try and stop the station from broadcasting.
Faisal: Is this a signal from Arab states that the Iranian regime is here to stay?
The general feeling in Arab capitals is that the Islamic Republic could be toppled, but it may take as long as three years. The Saudis think the US is pivoting away from the Middle East and will abandon them, so they will need to insure themselves against Tehran’s threats. Saudi Arabia is spending billions to build new cities and create a tourism industry, but it is the oil revenue that drives the economy. A diplomatic outreach to Tehran is protection against terrorism, and this is a move that will help them secure their oil fields.
Faisal: What would you say is the current state of the Iranian opposition? What defines Iranian opposition?
We have a widespread, multiethnic, multigenerational opposition. What is very unique about it is that we have the participation of women in the protests. It has continued, maybe with less fervor than before, but the protests have been ongoing for 8 months. This is unique in Iran’s history. This has been a protest movement unlike anything we have seen before because of the participation of women, and because these protests are not just over economic necessities but over the dignity of the Iranian people, which has been compromised by the Islamic law that reigns over them.
Faisal: What do you think the average Westerner or foreign policy wonks get wrong or don't know about Iran?
For more than four decades, Islamic Republic has confounded Western policy analysts. It is a theocracy that has no place in the modern era, and yet it has survived decades of sanctions and isolation. The country has seen a number of widespread riots and uprisings and has survived them all by resorting to brutal crackdowns. The regime should have been overthrown a long time ago, and yet it stumbles along. Many analysts live in the hope that the regime can be reformed, and yet there is scant evidence for any such change. There are nuances that need to be taken into account when talking about the Iranian regime. Iran has two governments: one that is elected but powerless and one that is unelected but powerful. It’s the unelected government operating in the shadows that runs the country. In the West, they don’t make that distinction; people often continue, at least until recently, believing the myth that Iran is a democracy.
Faisal: Are you optimistic about the protests? Do you think it is possible for Iran to become a democratic country? If so, what do you think it would take to see that come to fruition?
I am optimistic about the democratic process in Iran. I think it will take longer than some expect it to for the country to become democratic. At best, we are looking at a three to five-year project. Hopefully before then, but in the next five years, I believe we will have a true transition to democracy in Iran.
Faisal: How do you see the collusion between Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia playing out? What’s the worst/best-case scenario?
Iran, Saudi, and Russia are all interested in keeping the price of oil as high as possible because that’s what their economies depend on. So that common interest allows them to be a united front in a sense. Iran, Russia, and China are united in an anti-American front. However, Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to join that because, ultimately, there are more benefits to them in being allied with America. For the time being, because of political differences in the US between democrats and Saudis, Saudi Arabia is playing a dangerous game of footsy with Iran and Russia.
Faisal: If you had it your way, what would you like to see the Biden administration do right now?
I would like the Biden administration to continue with diplomatic pressure or conversation with European allies so that they will expel Islamic Republic diplomats from Europe. I would like them to work with the United Nations and NATO to isolate the regime and keep the Islamic Republic out of committees. I would like them to enforce political sanctions on the regime to isolate the Islamic Republic. Anything short of military action.
Faisal: What financial interests are at play here? Will sanctions have any effect?
The Europeans are reluctant to impose sanctions because of commercial interests. The crippling sanctions really have not yet been applied, but nevertheless, sanctions do have an impact. Yet, I caution that the more they are used, the more they encourage the target country to find ways to bypass their impact. We need to be smarter about how we apply sanctions.
Faisal: What is at stake for women, in particular, in this revolution?
If you are a woman born in Iran, you’re either a massive criminal or a second-class citizen. Women cannot get a job without their husband's permission, they cannot get a passport without their husband's permission, they cannot travel abroad without their husband's permission. Certain positions in societies are not available to them. It is forbidden for a woman to be a judge in Iran, for example. Women cannot become the president or the supreme leader. Women cannot sing solo, women cannot show their hair. Marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody laws go against women’s interests. If women resist, they are treated as criminals. If women are without their compulsory hijab and they go into a shop, that shop could be legally closed down to punish the storekeeper. Therefore storekeepers are incentivized to stop women from not wearing their hijab. They are using traffic cameras to catch women who aren’t wearing their hijab, and they can be fined if caught. If they do this more than once, they could be arrested. Being a woman is not a fun thing to be in Iran.
Faisal: We’ve seen uprisings and protests in Iran before that yielded little results. How are these protests today in Iran different from the 2009 election protests?
The 2009 election protests were about an internal dispute between two political factions of the Islamic Republic. It was about how to reform the system, not overthrow it. Since then, we have had two major protest movements that were shut down with tremendous force, and many lives were lost. At least 1,500 people were killed in the November 2019 protests. This one is different in that it has been much more widespread and has continued on for 8 months. It’s not about economic issues. The current protests are about cultural problems. The protests started because of the murder of Mahsa Amini for wearing her hijab inappropriately. The protests have continued because everyone thought that was so unjust. To kill someone because of their hijab. It has brought to the surface how little this regime is supported by the people. If it weren’t for the brutal and oppressive force that this regime uses, the Islamic Republic would have been gone a long time ago.
Faisal: Would you ever want to go back to Iran? On what conditions?
Of course. The timing depends on how well the revolution is going. Transitions are always hard to manage, but I would travel back to Iran to help rebuild the country.
Faisal: How can the average person support protesters in Iran?
There are a number of organizations that provide support to people inside Iran, from the Boroumand Foundation to My Stealthy Freedom to organizations supporting the PS752 flight that are working to change conditions in Iran. Helping those organizations is the best way to ensure a smooth transition to democracy.
Faisal: If there is ultimate regime change in Iran toward a true democracy, will the Iranian society support America and the West?
I think what we have seen is that the only people that want to burn American flags are pro-regime goons. The average Iranian harbors no ill will toward America or anyone else. They are chanting in the streets that the real enemy is the Islamic Republic. America and Israel have never been our enemies. Many Iranians have friends or relatives who live or study in the West.
Faisal: What keeps you going?
Food. Food, water, and sleep. That’s what keeps me going.
Faisal: Well, I look forward to our next meal together!
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