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A Candid Discussion with Ramin Jahanbegloo


Ramin Jahanbegloo on Iran’s Crises of
Ethics and Institutionalized Violence

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Ramin Jahanbegloo is an internationally known Iranian-Canadian philosopher known for his intellectual work and efforts on fostering constructive dialogue among divergent cultures and for his advocacy to bring about social and political change based on principles of non-violence. He has written numerous books and articles in Persian, English and French on the subject of Western philosophy, modernity, and the importance of non-violent change. In 1993 he taught at the Academy of Philosophy in Tehran and later conducted research at the French Institute for Iranian Studies. Dr. Jahanbegloo was also a fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

Dr. Jahanbegloo taught in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto from and later served as the head of the Department of Contemporary Studies of the Cultural Research Center in Tehran and. He was also Rajni Kothari Professor of Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, India. In April 2006 Dr. Jahanbegloo was arrested at Tehran’s international Airport and charged with preparing a velvet revolution in Iran. He was placed in solitary confinement for four months and later released on bail.

In October 2009 Dr. Jahanbegloo became the winner of the Peace Prize from the United Nations Association in Spain for his extensive academic works in promoting dialogue between cultures and his advocacy for non-violence. Currently, he is the Visiting Chair in Islamic Studies at the Noor Center at York University in Toronto. He is the author, most recently, of The Gandhian Moment (2013).
Dr. Jahanbegloo sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of Foreign Policy Association to discuss Iran’s crisis of ethics and the country’s upcoming presidential elections.


Iran seems to be in the grip of a political crisis that has impacted it both socially and economically.  What in short-term do you see as potentially the most plausible exit strategy from this multi-faceted crisis?

It would be difficult and illogical to talk about a unique exit strategy in regard to Iran’s multi-faceted crisis. I think any approach in planning, strategy and policy toward the Islamic Republic must necessarily take into account the sophisticated and paradoxical political culture of Iranians and the Machaivellian orientations of the Iranian political nomenclature. It goes without saying that any short term strategy in regard to the Iranian system, either domestic or international, needs to keep its expectations low as to how far change can go. In other words, at this time, we need to talk more in terms of an ongoing strategy rather than achieving some fully elaborated democratic utopia. From the point of view of the Iranian civil society, the best option would be to encourage the development of a moderate, nonviolent and responsible key groups in the Iranian society which could create a sense of inevitability about the process of a negotiated change in Iran, so that it becomes widely accepted as a necessary and natural course of development in Iranian politics. We should not forget that in the Iranian context, the maintenance of exit options in the form of domestic political action is just as important as the availability of exit options at the international stage. In a country like Iran engaging non-state actors as a force for transformational change remains a challenge. This is because opportunities for dialogue among the civic actors are often limited. As such, maybe we should talk of a “no-exit” strategy which is directed at promoting a negotiated solution rather than a violent one. A “no exit” strategy is a strategy that does not automatically look for the emergency exit when the house is on fire, but seeks to gather cooperation to control the fire locally. Therefore, I think a “no-exit” strategy in Iran should be considered to have a capacity to change at the domestic level before the case for change becomes desperately obvious at the international level. That is to say, more attention today needs to be paid to leadership development in Iran. This will require negotiating with and cultivating those who show rational and moderate political talents inside Iran. This requires flexibility and a willingness not to overcommit to violent change. With P 5+ 1 nuclear talks with Iran seemingly stalled and the waiting for sanctions to become harsher, it is time to recommend a bigger commitment and a stronger approach to a negotiated solution, a la Mandela, between the Iranian political nomenclature and the Iranian civil society. The primary purpose of these negotiations would be to strengthen the hand of “moderate” politicians and nonviolent civic actors in Iran and pave the way for their involvement in the process of reforming the Iranian constitution. Iranian civil society still has a long way to go, but it is difficult to deny that it has embarked on a new path of political development. Many lives have been lost and much treasure spent on what increasingly looks like “mission impossible” in countries like Iran. After 35 years, it is still too early to say what the future holds.

In the upcoming presidential elections, should an agreement emerge between competing ruling factions on key presidential contenders, what could be the obstacles in reaching such an agreement?

In Iran’s complex politics, such an agreement could only take place under the watchful eyes of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, since he is the one who ultimately decides on the fate of Iranian politics. However, the opposition between Mr. Ahmadinejad and the Larijani brothers and some of the Revolutionary Guards commanders who supported his candidacy in 2005 makes any agreement difficult, not to say impossible, especially because Ahmadinejad’s call for political change is seen as an expression of full support for his favored candidate to succeed him, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, who is accused of trying to undermine the power of the clergy. Let us not forget that even though Ahmadinejad was backed by Ayatollah Khamenei after the disputed 2009 elections, his candidate will not have any chance as the Supreme Leader will most certainly attempt to support one of his loyalists in top of the list for the Iranian presidential elections. Add to this, the powerful Revolutionary Guards, who are deeply wary of Ahmadinejad and show little tolerance for his efforts to influence the votes during the elections. Now, whether or not Ahmadinejad will succeed in getting his own candidate onto the ballot, the factional wrangling is an expression of the deep political mismanagement of the country and the domestic crises that are strangling the Iranian public sphere. Following the rigged elections of 2009 and the ensuing violence, all the key presidential contenders in this year’s elections face an uphill struggle in elaborating a popular message for a highly skeptical electorate. This will not be an easy task by any stretch of the Iranian politics. The problem for all the candidates, including the reformists, is that they have made many promises before and failed to deliver.

Culturally and historically, the Iranian society has had a long-standing tendency to be in search of a hero to extricate it from its socio-cultural malaises. How, in your opinion, one can reconcile the need for the formation of dynamic social and cultural institutions with a culture that has been historically in search of a heroic figure? 

Heroes are imagined and shaped by the needs of their socio-cultural contexts. Therefore, a hero can be seen in a variety of ways: as warrior, king, divinity, or spiritual character. As the Roman philosopher, Seneca affirmed: “We all need someone whose example can regulate our character.” Essential to the idea of the mythic hero is that either he or the society in which he lives suffers from some shortcoming. Joseph Campbell describes a hero as a powerful human being embarked on a quest to win a war, gain a mystical object or to gain an understanding, then returns home with some type of wisdom and self-knowledge. The question to ask is: In which way could we apply Campbell’s model of the hero to the present social and political context in Iran? I think in an increasingly unethical society like Iran, clearly heroes in the Campbellian sense are found among those civic actors who can achieve a moral victory. There are two aspects to this: One is the aspect of “truth seeking” or, in other words, the notion of reevaluating the truth. The other aspect is nonviolence. In other words, falsehood and lie are fought through an approach which deploys a nonviolent method. The aspect of combating falsehood and lie is very interesting, and in my opinion marks the birth of a new civic maturity in Iran. This civic maturity is deployed in a socio-political context which is empoisoned by contradictions. Let us not forget that, to Carlyle, a hero is a person who flourishes in the fullest sense in a world filled with contradictions with which the hero must deal. Needless to add, that we are not talking about a savior and her/his spiritual and political capacities to save the Iranian society. The issue here is about dynamics, movements and institutions that could reverse the dangers of abusing power. During his political life, Mahatma Gandhi kept exploring ways of decentralizing power throughout society. Furthermore, to him true power was spirituality from within, instead of power being imposed from without. There are two things that the Iranian society should not give up for the sake of political power, namely, truth and nonviolence. As such, we can say that the heroic structure one accepts determines what actions one will take. A belief in a nonviolent dynamics in Iran, could, therefore, bring violence-taming politics.

With the historic institutionalization of violence in Iran in silencing dissent and its utility in critical junctures such as during the 2009 elections, what could be the key driving factors in disengaging Iran’s ruling elite from the use of violence in managing political dissent?

On all sides we hear the allegation that the peaceful and nonviolent dissent of 2009 did not yield results and that this was the reason for the movement to be forced into silence. This does not mean necessarily that we can obtain more positive results through violent means. It is to be noted that those who speak in support of violence and military intervention, rarely include in their rhetoric the ideas of restorative justice, religious and ethnic pluralism and inclusive democracy. In modern history, no example exists of a state where oppositional violence gave rise to a democratic system. It is clearly visible that the dissident project of political violence does not represent an expression of democratic aspirations in Iran. Dissident political violence in Iran will push a thoughtful and critical civic mobility towards sectarianism and extremism as the custodians of murder and revenge. So, the first condition for disengaging the ruling elite from the use of violence lies not in using a counter-violence but to withdraw one’s consent from the unethical use of violence by political institutions. We should not forget that Iranians as a people with a recent tradition of political and social struggle, and with practical experience in opposing authority, are likely to be in a much better situation to make use of nonviolent action. On the other hand, the meaning of nonviolent action is the result of moral struggle rather than following immediately from a simple examination of ruling elites and subjects. It might be objected that although the nonviolent approach is superior in terms of mobilizing moral capital, its lack of structural insight could lead to the failure of disengaging the ruling elites to use violence. This objection overlooks the immediate circumstances associated with nonviolent action. If those who plan a nonviolent dialogue and action had a deep understanding of Iran’s domestic politics, they would have a behaviour consisting of unconventional acts implemented for purposive change without intentional damage to persons and property. Therefore, a violent strategy would lead inevitably to a spiraling escalation with the Iranian state having the strategic edge at every turn in the foreseeable future. Violence also blurs the distinction between social action and hooliganism. This would result in a widespread unethical effect on an entire younger generation of Iranians who are needed to rebuild their country. Last but not least, it is possible that at a certain point some of the ruling elites in Iran would realize that they are powerless (like it was the case for the Shah during the Iranian revolution) in the last resort, to prevent the inevitable because they are trying to fight not an army but an idea that does not deny the basic weaknesses of the ruling elites as human beings.

In the current election dynamics, do you see any particular faction with a well-defined platform for and chance of mending relations with the United States?

As it turns out, the next presidential elections in Iran will be more centered on the Iranian domestic issues, rather than uniquely focused on relations with the United States. The rhetoric coming from some candidates will presumably include loud calls for better relations with the United States, but given the tradition of double-talk among the leaders of the Islamic Republic, it should be viewed with skepticism. Even if we exclude obvious outsiders such as Manoucher Motaki and  Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi,  none of the  likely candidates  such as Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohsen Rezaii, Gholam-Ali Hadad-Adel,  or Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf could become a clear front-runner and even a fully credited and legitimate winner of the elections without the approval of the Supreme Leader. What this means for the Iranian-American talks is unclear. The only certain conclusion is that Ayatollah Khamenei will resist until the last minute in order to accept a compromise with the United States. However, in any such forecast of Iranian politics, there is always an element of surprise. Over the past 35 years Iranian politics has created many surprises and I think it still has a whole lot of surprises for us.