Normalization of Iran-U.S. relations will normalize Iran's foreign & domestic policies, says Nayereh Tohidi
January 8, 1998
From a speech by Nayereh Tohidi at the Symposium on U.S.-Iran Relations sponsored by the Society of Iranian Professionals in northern California and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley in November 1997. Tohidi, professor of sociology and women's studies studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, was a co-panelist at the symposium with Iran's former ambassador to the U.N., Mohammad Jafar Mahallati, former U.S. National Security staff member Gary Sick and veteran journalist Iraj Gorgin.
Given the present status of affairs in Iran, especially the recent positive political developments, I stand for a start of a process toward a rapprochement with Iran. But first let me briefly explain where my position is coming from.
Since I have no illusion about the possibility of taking an absolutely neutral position about such touchy and controversial issues, and since I have no intension of hiding my biases, I'd better clarify that I am talking here not as an expert in political science or international relations who may pretend objectivity or neutrality, but simply as a U.S. citizen of Iranian (to be precise, Azerbaijani-Iranian) origin who, like many others, possesses a multi-national, multi-cultural and fluid identity that at times renders conflicting loyalties like in this very case we are dealing with tonight.
When I was asked to take part in this panel, I felt torn and hesitant to accept it, as Mr. Ali Shokuh- Bakhsh, one of the organizers of this event, knows and has been so understanding and graciously patient with my indecisiveness. The main reason for my hesitation was that I could not be sure whose interests I was expected to represent in this issue, as I do not believe one can remain absolutely objective and neutral about such disputes and contested issue.
I am not in favor of the U.S. hegemonic and unilateral international policies, neither can I support the Islamic Republic's totalitarian and repressive policies in Iran. Therefore, as an advocate of democracy and human rights, especially women's rights, I believe what I am suggesting or promoting here is based on my concern for the long-term interests of both American and Iranian peoples and not necessarily of this or that government. And I am well aware that this approach is neither free from contradictions nor easy to implement.
Yet, I feel obligated to try it as I believe the Iranian-American scholars, professionals, activists, and business-owners can and should play the role of a bridge linking the two great civilizations of Iran and U.S., fostering contact, interaction, understanding and eventually friendship between citizens of these two countries. This long-term citizen-oriented goal cannot be achieved unless we first bring about considerable change in the attitudes, behaviors and language of both U.S. and Iran's governments, by urging engagement, trade, cultural exchange, and dialogue between them rather than threat, embargo, and continuous demonization of each other.
I think now is the time to start moving toward such a reconciliatory direction. I emphasize the word 'start', because, realistically speaking, we are quite far from the emergence of a friendly relationship between Iran and U.S., especially at an inter-state level. We are actually just at the stage of policy debate, especially on the side of Iran, for internally, this debate at public level is just beginning slowly as reflected in some progressive, reform-minded and forward looking independent newspapers and periodicals like Iran-e Farada, Jame'eye-Salem, and more recently even in papers closer to the ruling circles like Asre-ma, Salam and Jomhuri-ye Islami who are breaking the taboo against revision and change in the IRI's policy towards the U.S.
This debate is still at an elite level since the majority of people are not concerned with foreign policy as they are preoccupied with domestic issues and economic difficulties. What I think is more realistic to pursue, at this point, is simply a normalization or rationalization of U.S.-Iran relations, ending the present deadlock of destructive hostility and a loose-loose situation for both countries. By normalization, I mean a relations like the ones exist between Iran and Russia or Iran and Turkey which though not free from tensions, are not based on outright hostility and damage to either side. Why can Iran have normal relations with Russia whose history of expansionist intension and actions toward Iran is well known and whose conflict of economic and geopolitical interests with Iran is potentially of a greater stake than those of the U.S.?
Why do I advocate dialogue and normalization of relations between U.S. and Iran, even though the lack of democracy and individual freedom and the widespread violations of human rights, particularly women's rights in Iran have forced scholars like myself to exile or migration? Let me explain some of the reasons: Although fostering friendship between Iranians and Americans is one significant objective, but my immediate concern here is to reinforce the process of change toward moderation and democratization that has been set in motion since the May 1997 presidential elections in Iran.
I believe any positive and conciliatory overture on the side of the U.S. toward normalization of the relations between Iran and the U.S. will serve not only the normalization of Iran's foreign policy, but also the normalization of politics in Iran as a whole. It will serve Iran's move to a post-revolutionary state of institutionalization and stabilization.
The presidential elections in which women and youth played a decisive role constitutes a turning point in political development of Iran. The nature and results of this elections reflect a new mood, and even a new mode in the political atmosphere of Iran. A mood which indicates a widespread desire for change toward moderation, rule of law, democracy and civil society, far from a revolutionary and confrontational mood indeed. The great majority of people in Iran are seeking change and transformation now through peaceful means and a gradual process.
The Iranian society seems to have been polarized into two main camps with rather clear lines of demarcation:
a) A conservative and rather organized minority supportive of a totalitarian Islamism under clerical rule or Islamic jurisprudence, namely velayat-e faqih (reflected in about seven million votes for Majlis Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri). Even in this traditional and conservative Islamist camp, only a smaller number of people (influential in security and military organs) are still supportive of a combative and revolutionary anti-West mode as they keep fanning the fear of an imminent Western plot against Iran. While a greater number of them seem to avoid extremism and to prefer a cultural resistance against what they see as the American and Western cultural intrusion.
b) A moderate and reform-minded majority (reflected in over 20 million votes for Mohammad Khatami) who are not organized yet, but demographically, culturally and socio-economically, they represent a much more dynamic and significant segments of population ranging from the disillusioned and unhappy youth, women, students, intellectuals, state employees (in various ministries) and generally members of the urban working and modern middle classes. One significant change in the previous balance of power is that political alignments nowadays are no longer formed simply on the basis of Islamism or any other ism for that matter. It is actually the demand for the accountability of the government, respect for the rule of law, and the constitution -- even if not an acceptable constitution in its entirety but preferable to the prevailing precariousness -- that have made the line of demarcation between the two main alignment.
Rule of law, cultural, political and ideological tolerance, pluralism, moderation and liberalization, respect for human rights and basic freedom, and finally economic pressures have been primary issues around which people of wide spectrum of ideological convictions (secular as well as religious nationalists, left and liberals) and different walks of life got spontaneously united in voting for Mr. Khatami.
From a sociological perspective, I think, underneath the Islamist fundamentalist movement and cultural and political crisis of the past two decades in Iran, lies an actually fascinating and dynamic process of an overdue development of modernity and secularization. This is characterized however with an "ironic mode". To me this is an important sociological point missed by many observers of Iran to realize and appreciate. (I have discussed this in case of Islamic feminism in my recent book, "Feminism, Democracy and Islamism in Iran," 1996).
What do I mean by "ironic mode"? In line with Max Weber's brilliant analysis about the relationship between capitalism, modernity and secularization in the context of Christianity, a process of societal secularization follows out of an essential fundamentalization of religion. "In other words, it is out of the fundamentalist return to religion, characteristic of the Protestantism as interpreted by Weber, that the secular nature of modern society ironically emerges" (Mark Saroyan, 1990:28).
Therefore, it is of no surprise nor of some conspiracy that many of yesterday's Hezbollahis like Abdolkarim Soroush (Islamist thinker), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (film director), and most recently the leadership of Islamic Students Association at various universities in Iran (like Heshmatollah Tabarzadi) have turned into today's front-runner advocates of secularization, modernization and democratization. Even the city of Qum, the very center of Islamism and the idea of clerical rule, has now turned into a center of opposition to the velayat-e faqih.
This ironic unfolding is not going to go on without resistance, confrontation and backlash by the die-hard fundamentalists and their financier speculators and even old traditional segments of bazaar merchants. Any threatening pressure and hostile gesture by the U.S. can be utilized by exactly these retrogressive forces in order to interrupt the course of change by suppressing the reformers and by accusing them of complicity with the "Great Satan" and conspiracy against an Islamic state. On the Iranian side, it has been the extreme right and the fanatic Islamists, some ultra leftists, and not all, but a small portion of monarchists, and finally the Mojahedin Khalqs who have persistently opposed any reconciliation between U.S. and Iran because of very different motivations, of course.
But who actually has benefited the most from the continuous hostility between U.S. and Iran? Only the extremists and totalitarian Islamists who still hold the upper hand in Iran. Because, politically, they are the ones who need a constant presence of a real or perceived Western threat, a bogeyman, a demonized America, a "Great Satan" to frighten people, divert their attention from internal problems and rally their support against an external enemy and "its internal allies", i.e., any opposition to the status quo.
It is behind such an anti-American defensive facade that the totalitarian extremists have tried to justify suppression of dissidents as "Western spies" and silence any voice for liberalization and democracy. They are the ones who are afraid of normalization, who shun rule of law and promote "persistent revolutionary" disorder and upheaval within which they can hide their ideological fallacies and administrative incompetence and can justify repressive policies and terrorist actions inside and outside Iran.
Economically, it is the allies of the extreme right, that is the financial and trade networks, certain sectors of the bazaar, the wheelers and dealers and Mafia-type speculators who have made outrageous wealth out of a trade-centered economy. They have been able to utilize the situation, especially the U.S. sanctions and the resulted black market, to their own advantage. In contrast, ordinary people, working classes, and especially the modern and secular oriented middle class have paid the high cost of sanctions and have suffered the soaring prices, and the cultural and political implications of demonization of the West and Western associated ideas and policies, including democracy, feminism, liberalism and human rights.
The anti-American rhetoric has been turned into a political device in the hands of socio- economically traditional, backward and merchant-centered clientalistic networks who see their economic interests, cultural and political hegemony threatened by the development of the modern middle class and industrialization. They have found some useful allies among clericals who advocate extremist anti-West Islamist ideology. Therefore, we need to disarm these extremists from such an ideological and political weapon by taking any real or perceived excuses away from them.
If the U.S. is genuinely concerned with democratization of Iran and establishment of the rule of law, human rights, and normal and fair relations rather than a solely self-centered oil-interests, it needs to help defuse the images of demon on both sides. Indiscriminate portrayal of Iran and Iranians as terrorist and the perpetuation of Islamophobia is not going to help any side. (Compare, for example, the widespread positive reaction of Iranian people to President Clinton's respectful remark when calling Iran a "great nation" and just the opposite reaction against Mr. Gingrich's hostile comments).
In short, on both sides, particularly on the U.S. part (since this side should naturally feel more responsible and secure as the sole superpower claiming the leadership role in the world), an initiation toward a much more subtle and nuance policy toward Iran is well worth trying. For this will, sooner or later, enable the Iranian reformers to take away the excuse of bogeyman from the hands of the extremists as the desired internal economic improvement and political normalization is, to a significant extent, dependent on normalization of their relations externally.
The New Silk Road and the Caspian Region: The Oil Dimension
Given the U.S. huge economic and political interests in the Caspian region and Central Asia, and Iran's strong desire to be a major player in this new great game, only normal relations between Iran and the U.S. can facilitate the realization and materialization of great economic advantages for both countries.
Iran is not like Iraq, isolated and internationally boycotted. In obvious disregard for American sanctions against Iran, the French Oil company Total along with Russia's Gazprom (gas conglomerate) and Malaysia's Petronas (a state oil company) recently announced a $2 billion joint venture with Iran to develop Iran's gas reserves. Another big contract ($2.5 billion) is underway with Royal Dutch/Shell Group based in Netherlands to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Turkey via Iran.
Many European countries resent what they see as American bullying when the U.S. tries to unilaterally apply its national law of sanctions against a country like Iran, Cuba or Libya transnationally. So sanctions against Iran, as long as is not applied in coordination and collaboration with other advanced industrial powers, lose their intended effects anyway, depriving the U.S. business circles and Iranian buyers from fair and free competition. Furthermore, the oily politics of the Caucuses and Central Asia and the evolving balance of power in this region would force American government to re-evaluate its position vis-a-vis the major player in this region, i.e., Russia, Turkey, Iran and even China.
Realistically Iran cannot be simply dismissed from the present oil-game. The current shaky alignment of Russia and Iran against the U.S. is not necessarily beneficial to the parties involved. With a spirit of cooperation and fair competition, all interested nations can enjoy the natural resources in a more secure , stable and less costly context. Normalization of relations between Iran and the U.S., will make the final decision about the best and most economical pipeline routes for energy transmission, to be a more beneficial one for both U.S. and Iran and also may result strategically a more representative balance of power in this region rendering a higher level of security and stability, hence a lower level of risk for international investment.
One precondition is stopping of negative stereotype and demonization on both sides. Historically two dark spots or two old wounds have contributed to this two-way demonization, hurt and distrust in the U.S.-Iran relations that need to be revisited and rehabilitated: First is the CIA-supported coup of 1953 against the popular, nationalist, secular and Western-oriented Government of Mohammad Mossadeq (with no legitimate reasons for the U.S. hostile intervention) and second one is the hostage crisis of 1980 on the part of the Iranian Islamist revolutionaries that caused a great deal of hurt and resentment among American people against Iranians and also extensive economic and political damage to Iranian people and Iran's image internationally.
In the spirit of peace, justice and democracy, I congratulate the Society of Iranian Professionals and the UC Berkeley's Center for Near Eastern Studies for taking a first courageous step toward the beginning of this important process of bridge building between Iranian and American peoples.
Khatami's interview with CNN on Iran-U.S. relations
* CNN's special Iran-U.S. page on the Khatami interview
* The other peace process -- Tips on how Iran and the U.S. should start normalizing their relations. By Guive Mirfendereski & Najmedin Meshkati
* Building trust -- Interview with former U.S. National Security Council staff member Gary Sick. By J. Javid
* Cover stories
* Who's who