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A Candid Discussion with Hooman Majd


Hooman Majd on Iran’s Potential for Change 

Hooman Majd


Hooman Majd is one of the leading observers of Iranian politics known for his on-the-ground view of events taking place in Iran’s complex political system. The grandson of a prominent ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat, Mr. Majd’s writings have challenged Western stereotypes around socio-political and cultural lives and attitudes of Iranians. Mr. Majd’s writings have appeared in such leading American news media outlets as Newsweek, GQ, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Financial Times, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Politico, The New York Observer, Interview, The Daily Beast, and Salon. He is also author of two books on Iran: The Ayatollah Begs to Differ and The Ayatollahs’ Democracy.  Mr. Majd sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of Foreign Policy Association to discuss the upcoming presidential elections in Iran.


Do you think of Iran as a country in socio-political transition? If that is your view, what are the key aspects of this transition?

I think Iran has to be considered so. Firstly, there’s a huge youth population — educated, connected to the outside world, and curious — and there’s disconnect between them and their leaders in many regards. While Shia Islam might still play a significant role in many of their lives, the political aspects of religion, and the unforgiving nature of the regime, are generally anathema to them. Secondly, there’s weariness — after over 30 years — with revolutionary fervor (and rhetoric) among the population at large. People, in the cities and even rural areas, just want to get on with their lives; enjoy a strong economy, raise their children in an environment that allows them to succeed at whatever they chose, and they are on the whole less interested in “sacrifice for the sake of the revolution.” That’s not to say that, for example, Iranians are unwilling to sacrifice for important things, such as their independence or their nation’s rights (which relate to the nuclear issue), but those are no longer purely revolutionary ideals — they are the ideals of any developing or developed nation. But in socio-political terms, Iran is a very different country than what it was in 1979, different than in 1997 (when Khatami became president), and even different than in 2009, the last presidential election. In my opinion, the differences contribute to the transition you mention.

For Iran’s power structure, women’s presence and appearance in public life continue to be one of the key ideological hang-ups. Is it fair to suggest the greater women’s presence in different aspects of public life, the more weakening of revolutionary principles? 

Only for the most hardline of clerics and other leaders. Otherwise, it depends on what one considers the revolutionary principles. Even Ayatollah Khomeini initially said the hejab was not going to be mandatory for women, and from the beginning the revolution allowed women a voice in politics, and of course, the workplace (with some exceptions, as we know); in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia, say, or even any of the Persian Gulf states and, of course, fundamentalist Sunni culture. But if the revolutionary principles are, as they originally were prior to the victory of the revolution, primarily nationalistic and secondarily Shia, then there’s no reason to believe that full gender equality should dilute those principles. Even in Shia Islam, which fortuitously allows for wide interpretation of Islamic law (and the Koran), something the various ayatollahs take advantage of, there is no agreed upon standard for the role of women in society or in politics. I think, if the regime endures, and as we see a new generation of clerics ascend to positions of power, or if we see some of the reform-minded clerics enhance their influence, the ideological hang-up you describe will slowly lose its relevance.

In a new Iranian administration due to take office this summer, do you anticipate adoption of a form of Iranian nationalism — as opposed to promotion of religious ideology — aimed at garnering public support among the country’s vibrant youth? Do you think Iran’s youth would embrace a revised form of Iranian nationalism — however manipulatively conducted — that would encourage them to have hope in a better future?

Religion or religious ideology hasn’t really played a primary role in presidential campaigns for a long time and especially since 2005, when Ahmadinejad became the first lay president since the early days of the revolution. And in 2009, his primary opponent was also a layman. Although Ahmadinejad early on played up his piety, and his belief in the Mahdi’s imminent appearance (which bought him some credibility among the faithful), for most voters it was his common touch, his promises to elevate the working class and to improve the lot of all Iranians, as well as his strong nationalistic views that made him appealing to his fans. I think at this point even the hardliners recognize that promoting religious ideology isn’t going to win votes: it will be the economy, sanctions relief and relations with the West, and, yes, nationalism, that will win the day. Although the fallback position of some hardliners — whenever they want to defend a policy that might be viewed unfavorably by the population — is that “Islam is in danger,” one pious and working class person said to me (in 2011 when I was in Tehran), “Islam has been around for 1400 years — it’s not in danger. It’s you (the hardliners) who are in danger.” I think that attitude is real and prevalent, and the authorities know it.

What do you make of the inter-factional jockeying in the run-up to the elections and the surprisingly slow process of introducing key presidential contenders? Is this slow pace indicative of political dynamics driven by security concerns?

I don’t think the pace of introduction of presidential candidates this time is particularly slow, by Iranian standards anyway. The campaign itself is limited by law to 30 days, and traditionally it’s after the Norouz holidays that candidates present themselves in anticipation of the Guardian Council’s vetting process. It’s true that last time (2009) former president Khatami announced his candidacy in February and withdrew a month or so later when Mir Hossein Mousavi entered the race, but this time a few prominent Iranians have also already announced quite early. It probably seems slower now because speculation has been rife for some time about whether Ahmadinejad’s pick to succeed him, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, will run, or which of the most prominent conservatives, i.e., Qalibaf, Larijani, and Velayati will, of whom none have made any formal announcement. And inter-factional jockeying is not particularly unusual in the run up to a presidential poll, especially in a year when there is no incumbent running.

Inter-factional jockeying and fighting has been ongoing since the very beginning of the revolution—either we’ve been less focused on it in the West in the past (when fewer people had any interest in the politics of the Islamic republic), or it has been less public than today, or both, and in the internet-less age it was bound to be less commented on. It has clearly been most visible for a couple of years now, ever since Ahmadinejad publicly challenged the nezam, or system, in early 2011, and with his imminent departure from the presidency, if not entirely from public life, I suppose it should only be expected that spats and infighting will continue to be more public than they have been in the past. I’m not sure that infighting and power struggles aren’t in some ways encouraged by the leadership: not only do they illustrate to some degree the relative pluralistic political culture the regime is keen to promote, they also prevent any one group from ever achieving overwhelming power. Even in the case of the reform movement, although virtually decimated post-2009, there remain some figures who maintain their influence with the Supreme Leader despite calls for their excommunication from political life.

You have made the assertion that the Green Movement should be looked at as a civil rights movement yearning for reform of the existing political order. The majority of Iranians seem to support varying degrees of peaceful reforms of the current political system with some Iranians advocating radical change. If today a wide range of genuine and democratic reforms was implemented peacefully in Iran across social, political, and economic lines, what would be the impact of their implementation on the political order? 

That’s a hypothetical that’s impossible to answer. But let’s for the sake of argument say that a reformist (à la Khatami) or at least reform-minded, albeit still conservative (à la Qalibaf, perhaps) government takes over this year, and with the reluctant blessing of the Supreme Leader there are some serious changes in the political order — in terms of human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, democratic institutions, etc. — then I think that would probably ensure the longevity of the system rather than accelerate its demise. Although I suppose that the fear of the hardliners is that the system indeed survives, but is no longer recognizable to them, and that their power and influence diminishes accordingly. Which is probably a rational fear, and would be part of the impact, as you put it, on the political order.

But I do think that there are plenty of people in Iran, politicians, ordinary folk, and even clerics, who do believe that without reform, and a complete maturation of the revolution, the entire system will eventually collapse. The hope, I think, among a large segment of the population, is that reforms that affect the people directly — such as in economic policy, job creation, and in the political system (that entails respect for civil rights but also allows for better interaction with the outside world) — will come about, rather than a complete collapse of the system, another revolution with an uncertain outcome, military conflict with the West, or worse of all, a civil war (such as the one that has developed in Syria).