Iran: No Simple Answers
There is no simple answer to the question of whether Iran is genuinely seeking a rapprochement with the United States, Occidental College political scientist Hussein Banai cautioned at Tuesday’s Zocalo/Occidental event, “Is Iran About to Become Our New Best Friend?”
Iran’s long-term enmity toward the United States is a separate matter from negotiations over the nuclear issue, said Banai, co-author of Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1979-1988. Revolution in Iran “is built on an opposition to western imperialism and arrogance,” giving the Iranian regime a vested interest in keeping the enmity alive, he said.
Joining Banai at the MOCA Grand were Occidental adjunct assistant history professor Thaddeus Russell, Asia Society vice president of global policy programs Suzanne DiMaggio, and moderator George Lewis, former foreign correspondent with NBC News.
U.S.-Iran relations have been tense since the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. Now, under Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, it appears that Iran may be ready for change. President Barack Obama and Rouhani have spoken by phone, a breakthrough in diplomacy for the two nations. But given that vested interest in hostility toward America, asked Lewis, has anything really changed since 1979?
“We live in a far more transparent world today, and that I think presents a new set of difficulties, not to mention the economic situation” in Iran today, which is a tremendous problem, Banai replied.
There’s no question that Iran’s chief “decider” is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, DiMaggio said. But Iran’s government is not a monolith; it just might be as complex as our own government, with competing sectors of power and influence, she added. Right now, Rouhani is in a position of power, elected with a mandate to improve the economy and improve relations with the West. He now has a window to negotiate on the nuclear issue—but that window will not stay open for long, said DiMaggio. “Right now, we really don’t know” if we can trust Rouhani and his team, she said—but they appear to be serious about negotiating, and we must test that seriousness with diplomacy.
Russell said that too many conversations about the U.S.-Iran relationship leave out the people of both countries, and the impact of Western popular culture on Iran. Last month, 30,000 satellites around the country—many of which stream in the Rupert Murdoch-owned station FARSI1, which airs programs from all over the world—were bulldozed. And according to news reports, Paris Hilton may be more popular than Rouhani. Russell likened the conditions within Iran to those of the late-stage Soviet Union, in which Western culture ultimately inspired people to walk away from a totalitarian regime
But Banai, who grew up in Iran, said that Western culture has been a part of life there since the revolution began—in private, at least. And the regime has known and does know about these activities. They know what the public is consuming; they allow young people superficial freedoms and the enjoyment of lowbrow culture. They crack down on expressions of political dissent and oppositional views. “They’re among the most sophisticated repressive governments in the world,” he said.
Audio and video of the entire session can be found on the Zocalo website.