In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Hooman Majd, a prominent Iranian-American journalist and author.
Those who follow international news come across mentions of Iran almost constantly. Over the past two decades, the regime in Tehran has been in the headlines for its controversial nuclear program, its muddled relations with the West — and the United States in particular — and its contentious regional policies.
The 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), agreed between Iran and six world powers, was a historic turning point in Tehran’s relations with the international community. The national economy was revived by the lifting of the draconian economic sanctions and the following spike in foreign investment. The tourism industry was invigorated by the influx of European and Asian visitors, as Western governments and the media encouraged trips to Iran.
Eventually, the country itself ceased to be considered a threat to international peace and security as the JCPOA put in place sturdy verification and monitoring mechanisms to ensure Iran’s nuclear program will remain entirely peaceful. The withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018 following an announcement by President Donald Trump, however, drew an end to the happy days for Iranians who were beginning to notice signs of reintegration into the international community after years of isolation. The Trump administration then reintroduced several rounds of economic sanctions on Iran that were lifted as part of the nuclear agreement.
As uncertainty looms large over the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, escalatory steps taken by Iran and the United States point to the prolongation of hostilities and the demise of the likelihood of reconciliation. The US has recently designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization and slapped new sanctions on Iran’s metals industry. Iran has also announced that it will abandon some of its commitments under the nuclear deal, a step the European Union considers unwelcome and counterproductive.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Hooman Majd, a prominent Iranian-American journalist and author, about the Iran-US relations, the suffering of Iranian citizens under sanctions, and divisions inside Iranian society.
The text has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: The US government under President Donald Trump has invested a lot in undermining the Islamic Republic and eroding Iran’s regional influence. Special Representative Brian Hook, who was appointed by President Trump to coordinate the US policy on Iran, is a neocon, and statements by government officials regarding Iran have been anything but conciliatory and conducive to détente. How do you see the future of Iran-US relations? Will current hostilities resume, or will they be mitigated?
Hooman Majd: I don’t see the current hostility abating. As long as those making Iran policy —meaning Messrs. [John] Bolton, [Mike] Pompeo and Hook, along with cheerleaders in DC and from abroad, namely certain Washington think tanks, [Benjamin] Netanyahu, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed — have jobs and influence with Trump, the policy they are promoting, which involves squeezing Iran as hard as possible, will remain in place.
I don’t believe Trump himself particularly cares about Iran one way or another. He certainly doesn’t care about human rights or the lack of freedoms in Iran or anywhere else for that matter, and doesn’t care about the system of government in Iran, or anywhere else for that matter. I also don’t think he has any intentions of going to war with Iran. I think, as someone who views things in a transactional way, he seriously believes that if he squeezes Iran hard enough, the leadership will come to the table and he’ll make a deal with them — one that he will then claim will be “better” than the JCPOA.
The people I mentioned, however, probably are well aware that squeezing Iran is unlikely to produce the result that Trump is expecting, and perhaps are either content to just keep Iran off-balance, or are hoping that the policy will create the opportunity for a clash of sorts — accidental or otherwise — that will bring about the rationale for war. So I don’t see any change soon, and since Iran is capable of — unhappily — weathering the most stringent sanctions, the people of Iran will suffer, but no one will be happy: neither Trump, who won’t get his summit with [Hassan] Rouhani, nor his advisers and their cheerleaders who want regime change or war.
Ziabari: One of Trump’s latest controversial decisions was to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. The decision sparked a huge uproar in Iran, and IRGC was showered with supportive gestures from domestic actors on different ends of the political spectrum. Do you think Trump’s decision will embolden hardliners in Iran and empower the IRGC?
Majd: I don’t doubt that it emboldens the hardliners and weakens the reformists and other more liberal strands of society. And yes, it probably does empower the IRGC further. It’s hard to imagine what other result it could have had. It also makes what Mr. Trump had publicly stated is his goal — to strike a better nuclear deal with Iran than [Barack] Obama could — practically impossible, while making a violent clash more likely. So it makes little sense when viewed this way, unless a violent clash is precisely what it was designed to bring about. But I don’t believe that that is what Trump wanted when he agreed to the designation.
Ziabari: Iran’s relations with many of its neighbors and regional countries remain problematic. Why do you think Iran’s leadership and foreign policy apparatus are unable to settle these differences and forge cordial ties with countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, all of which they are currently at loggerheads with?
Majd: I think the problem is probably on both sides. Under [Presidents Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani and [Mohammad] Khatami, Iran had good relations with its Arab neighbors. The Iraq War changed that somewhat, as Iran benefitted, and the Sunni Arabs were about to lose influence. And then the same thing happened in Syria. So while there is a sectarian aspect to the poor relations, there is also a matter of supremacy in the region; in other words, it’s about power.
On the Iranian side, I’m sure some of the statements its leaders have made, and the open projection of power across the Arab world — starting in Lebanon and extending all the way to the Iranian border — has made the Arabs nervous about their positions in their own world. Bahrain is prime example of deep concerns that if Shia protesters were to overthrow the regime, Iran would be further entrenched in the Arab world.
Ziabari: Will the US sanctions on Iran bring the results the US authorities are hoping for, which is pressuring Iran into negotiating a new nuclear agreement and revising its regional policies, or will they simply complicate the lives for ordinary citizens?
Majd: It is hard to imagine that the sanctions will bring about a new nuclear agreement, or a change in regional policies, which the leadership believes are in the nation’s interests. If anyone knows the psyche and character of the leaders in the Islamic Republic — and that of their supporters among the population — they would also know that they would never give in over sanctions. Drinking from the cup of poison, which Ayatollah Khomenei likened to ending the war with Saddam [Hussein’s] Iraq, is not in the cards for them now. So yes, the people will be the ones suffering.
Ziabari: Is it realistic to expect the Iranian authorities, most specifically the supreme leader, to abandon their anti-Western stance and pave the way for more reasonable relations between Iran and the European Union, and even the United States? How does the Iranian populace perceive the ruling elite’s anti-Western rhetoric and attitude?
Majd: While I think the populace is generally weary of anti-Western rhetoric, I don’t see a change in that anti-Western attitude among the leadership anytime soon. The US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, along with European impotence, even unwillingness, to counter the US or to make serious efforts to provide the kind of benefits Iran expected from the JCPOA, only make the leadership — and even some of those opposed to the people in power — less likely to think of the West as anything but hostile to Iran and Iranians. The Muslim travel ban, along with the suffering of the people today, makes many ordinary Iranians suspicious that Westerners care about them.
Ziabari: When Iranians were going to the polls in 2017 to elect the country’s president, they were hopeful about a new opening with the international community, increased civil liberties and social freedoms, and the amelioration of their economic situation. However, the moderate President Rouhani seems to have failed to deliver many of his promises. What do you think are the reasons?
Majd: I think some of the blame has to rest with the US withdrawing from the JCPOA, and some even with Obama, who probably didn’t move fast enough to create facts on the ground in Iran that would have made it more difficult for a subsequent administration to undo the deal. As just one example, it took forever for Boeing to receive a license to sell planes to Iran. The other reason is political infighting, where Rouhani seems to have lost most battles with the hardliners who never intended to allow him to deliver on his promises. After the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the subsequent sanctions, it has only made it more difficult for him to argue his cause.
Ziabari: Do you think the mainstream media’s coverage of Iran has a tangible impact on the life of Iranian people and their relations with the outside world? For example, some observers have blamed the international community’s lethargic response to the unprecedented flash floods in Iran and the destruction they caused on the apathetic coverage of the global media. What do you think?
Majd: I don’t think the mainstream media’s coverage has much of an impact on ordinary people. Iran gets plenty of coverage, although often negative, especially on prisoners and human rights, but apathetic coverage of the floods wasn’t intentional in my view. Domestic issues, even if they involve genocide, don’t get much coverage — just look at Darfur and Sudan — and while the floods have been devastating, they did not result in loss of life on a massive scale.
Not to sound callous, but the reality is that while deserving of much more sympathy and attention by the West, the loss of life from the floods has not been in the scale of earthquakes where tens of thousands of Iranians have perished. In the US, for example, where tornados and floods this year have caused almost as many deaths, and in one case completely flattened a town, the natural disasters received much attention, but I doubt did so outside of the US.
All that said, it goes without saying that the constant demonization of Iran — and Iran hasn’t helped with this by imprisoning Western dual nationals or by arguing for Israel’s demise — has inured Westerners to having less sympathy for all Iranians and not just the government.
Ziabari: Iran is a divided society these days. People clash with each other on social media over trivial issues, their conversations easily end in bitter arguments, their confidence in the national media has dwindled, the youths are facing an identity crisis, and the population is frustrated with government corruption and mismanagement. What is the root cause of these plagues?
Majd: Some people will want to say the root cause is the Islamic system itself, others will want to say it’s the government, and yet others will blame every trouble on foreigners. I think there is a little truth to all three — the system that has been so resistant to change or reform that it keeps its former leaders under real or virtual house arrest; some in the government and some in the clerical ranks, who have been shown to be either corrupt or incompetent; and the West, especially the US, which has, especially now, shown a hostility that is virtually unprecedented.
Ziabari: Iran is a country with abundant natural and invaluable human resources, a young and aspiring population and a rich history. However, it’s lagging behind many of the countries that are similarly part of the “global south” and considered to be developing nations. How do you think Iran can move toward development and make up for its economic, social, political and developmental shortcomings?
Majd: It has to seriously embrace reforms of the sort that will allow scientific, cultural and political development. So far, the hardliners have refused to allow any attempts at serious reform, which is why many of those fed up with the situation don’t think reform is even possible, which begs the question of what the solution to Iran’s woes is. Since there isn’t a viable opposition, inside or outside Iran, and the populace has shown no inclination to violent revolt, I can’t see a rosy future anytime soon. The day of reckoning will, however, soon come, as a generation of revolutionaries passes away, and new leaders have to contend with an unhappy population for whom slogans and refuge in religion no longer suffices to soothe.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.