1-800-IRAN GOL
Masoud Behnoud

Between Extremes

An interview with Masoud Behnoud

By J. Javid

Masoud Behnoud may very well be the best modern political analyst Iran has produced. But among polarized Iranians, he is far from being the most popular.

With critical, yet logical commentaries, Behnoud frequently questions the wisdom of official Iranian policies on key issues, from freedoms to foreign policy.

Still, even as a veteran journalist who rose to prominence in the time of the Shah, he is allowed to publish his articles in independent Iranian magazines and is regularly interviewed by the BBC Persian Service.

This ability to speak relatively freely in an apparently closed society has aroused deep suspicions within both ends of the political spectrum.

Staunch supporters of the Islamic Republic continue to call him an agent of the CIA. Staunch opponents of the Islamic Republic call him an agent of, or at least an apologist for, the clerical establishment.

Until a year ago, Behnoud was banned from leaving the country. When he was finally allowed to leave, he was often accused, during speeches to Iranian gatherings, of collaborating with the Islamic Republic. It reminds one of the treatment received by the late journalist/author, Saeedi Sirjani.

In a world perceived divided between black and white, we have yet to appreciate gray.

Choose from topics below:

U.S.-Iran Relations:
Post-Cold War Necessity

In the post-Cold War era, there is no room for over-zealous policies based on public hysteria. You can't go on clinging to ideological principles forever.

You have to see if it makes economic sense or not. You have to say to yourself: "Is it worth it to make war, buy so many weapons and have all these enemies around? Or is it better to cut down on military spending and make peace with enemies?"

Those who continue their Cold War ways will be losers. Therefore, as a first step, we must put aside such nonsense as "Death to America" slogans and allow foreign policy experts to study the issue (logically).

In the past few months it seems that "Death to America" has not been the main concern of demonstrators or public opinion.

Back to ListBack to List

U.S.= Satan
U.S.= Savior

There are two extreme views regarding relations with the U.S. One view is that we should never have relations with it and we should fight against it, and so on and so forth.

Then there are other extremists who blame the lack of relations with the U.S. for economic problems. They have this illusion that if ties are restored, everything -- from Tehran's pollution problem to lack of freedoms -- will be resolved.

We have to find a middle ground and clarify this whole issue. We have to have relations with the U.S. because we have to have relations with all countries of the world; because we live on the same planet. It will cost us a fortune not to have such relations. We will have to rely on third countries to buy American goods at inflated prices. Are we crazy to go on like this?

Whether Iran and the U.S. will become friends, after they reestablish relations, is a whole different issue. That's for foreign policy experts to study and decide. They have to see if it is worth it to be friends with the U.S. It may very well turn out that we should not be too friendly because those who were friendly with the U.S. have not benefited that much.

Back to ListBack to List

Enough "Death to America" Already

What I'm trying to say is this: Even during the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were so much at odds, was it necessary for people to pour into the streets of Moscow and Washington and yell "Death to America" and "Death to the USSR"? Did they feel the need to close down their embassies?

I personally think that relations with the U.S. should be established and we should have dialogues like civilized people. There shouldn't be any preconditions. It is wrong for the Iranian government to say that the U.S. should first pay its debts to us before we start talking. Preconditions set by the U.S. are also wrong.

We believe that a large number of technocrats within the government also believe that relations should be restored. But when something like this has turned into a social issue, it cannot be resolved quickly. There are still anti-American slogans on city walls; there are people who have just become used to saying "Death to America" without even thinking. Their speeches start like this: "In the name of God... Death to America!"

In any case, I don't think relations with the U.S. is beyond reach. I think the next Majlis will solve this problem. It's possible. This problem will be solved the same way the war (with Iraq) was solved.

Back to ListBack to List

Closing Gap with
Iranians Abroad

During my trip abroad, I was constantly asked about what should be done to bridge the gap between Iranians (in Iran and abroad). I couldn't think of any solution other than creating more contacts and building more communication channels. The government didn't like this but that's just too bad. It has to be done.

We have to become more aware about what is going on in our lives, whether we live here or there. If we don't connect, I fear the gap would become wider.

Back to ListBack to List

Iranians in Iran and Abroad:
Not on same Wave Length

The reality is that Iran has changed a lot in these past 16 years. I won't say for the better or worse but it has changed so much that the basis for a dialogue with those who have been away for 14, 15 years has been lost. This is a cultural catastrophe.

There are two or three million Iranians outside of Iran. They did not leave because they wanted to. Conditions forced them to leave. Therefore, no one has the right to criticize them. And you can't criticize them either for still caring about Iran. But, with much regret, one could say that we -- those in Iran and those outside Iran -- no longer speak on the same wave length.

For sixteen years I was banned from the leaving the country. Last year the ban was lifted and I traveled abroad and made speeches in several places, including at University of California at Berkeley.

There I said we have changed in many, many ways. One big difference is this: It is the unconscious tendency of those of us living in Iran to look for tiny improvements; we sit and hope for just one opposition figure entering the Majlis; I hope that one day I would open the pages of (radical newspapers) like Sobh or Kayhan Havaie and not see attacks against people like me; we hope to see a book published that might indicate a more open atmosphere.

I feel like I'm in a pressure cooker and hope that a bit of steam would be let out so that I can breath. We over here would much prefer to hear about improvements in living conditions, welfare and so forth.

Those living outside Iran, however, don't think this way. They wouldn't mind if there were riots in Iran because if the conditions inside the country improves, it would undermine their raison d'etre.

Back to ListBack to List

Political Swings

People here have become like people in other parts of the world. What matters most for people in the United States is lower consumer prices or lower taxes. They don't care as much about whether the White House is run by Clinton or Bush. It's the same in Iran.

This may be bad news for people like me who want to sell political books and magazines. But if we look at the big picture, it isn't a bad thing.

Our country has swung to the extremes like a pendulum. During the Shah's time everyone abandoned politics and they were concerned about their Eyves Saint Lauren clothes and luxury homes in Europe. The revolution came and everyone suddenly swung to the other extreme and became political. They joined political groups or commented about politics without any deep understanding.

Back to ListBack to List

Politics: Heartbreaker

Our people have the potential to be involved in politics but they have become disheartened.

In the West, people have not become disheartened. They have confidence in the fact that their political system is running smoothly and so, they go about their own lives. Once there are problems, like Watergate, people come back to the political scene and no one stops them from getting involved; they demonstrate and they speak out through newspapers.

Here, people -- the middle class -- are disheartened. The urban middle class feels that its ideals have been betrayed. Leftists feel betrayed in one way and nationalists, monarchists and others feel betrayed in other ways.

Back to ListBack to List

Need for Balance

We have become absolutists in a relativist era. We must become a balanced society. This is our greatest problem inside and outside Iran. There is no balance.

What makes me feel good is that I'm always finding people who have found that balance.

Back to ListBack to List

1997 Presidential Elections:
Constitutional Amendment?

Iranian technocrats fear that they will not be supported as much as they have been supported by Mr. Rafsanjani. Therefore, they are saying "Let's find a way to keep him president." This is the feeling among technocrats in the government, in the periphery or even in the private sector.

If one is to go along with this feeling, part of the Constitution has to be suspended.

[Even though it is not pro-Rafsanjani,] I the conservative majority of the Majlis goes along when it comes to issues that are important to "the interests of system" manafe' nezam . In the velayat-e faqih system of government the leader has powers that are beyond the law and he can use his authority not just for religious matters, but also to intervene in matters related to the interests of the state. Such as this one. In the past, when Mr. Khomeini was alive, there were instances when laws were temporarily suspended.

[But] I do not think it is very likely. The information I have is that Mr. Rafsanjani himself is not in favor of this.

Back to ListBack to List

Mayor Karbaschi:
A Phenomenon

After the revolution, Tehran's population had doubled in a short time. In addition, (before Qolam-Hossein Karbaschi became mayor) Tehran had not been taken care of for ten years. We could even say that Tehran was buried under ten years of garbage.

(When Karbaschi became mayor) for three years there were 3,000 trucks a day carrying garbage out. When the war ended, Tehran had to be cleaned up; it is, after all, our country's store front. At the same time, a decision was made to reduce subsidies and therefore one could not count on more oil revenue being allocated to the Tehran municipality.

Somebody needed to step forward and say: "I'll fix the city's problems without subsidies." This person had to have solutions and carry out those solutions. And his solutions could not be so harsh as to instigate riots.

Today, the city's budget is 60 billion tomans ($200 million) -- 12 times what it was when Karbaschi first took over -- and at the same time what it gets from the government has gone down to zero. It gets no money out of the country's oil revenues. That's very good.

Government ministries have not performed this well. Even those ministries that are responsible for industry and should make money for the country, have not become this successful to be able to cut their dependence on oil revenues.

Back to ListBack to List

Easier to be
Mayor of Paris

What should be remembered is that being the mayor of Tehran is not as easy as being the mayor of Paris. For years and years Tehran has been run with subsidies and people are not accustomed to pay city taxes. It's painful for them; they don't like it.

This is the reason why I think Karbaschi is an administrative phenomenon. He has gotten no money from oil revenues and collected taxes mainly from the rich. He has tended particularly to the needs of (poorer) downtown areas of Tehran but has not collected any taxes from residents there or even from middle class people like me. He is still only collecting from the rich.

[Karbaschi taxes the rich] by being tough and offering business opportunities. For instance, he widened and beautified Mirdamad Avenue and turned it into a investment opportunity. When builders asked permission to build hi-rises there, the municipality told them that they could, for example, build 13-story buildings but they had to pay several million tomans for each additional story.

So, his management style is more like those you see in the West, not the kind you see in subsidy-dependent cities in Third World countries.

Back to ListBack to List

Karbaschi for President?

Karbaschi is under great pressure from the fundamentalists. Now that there is talk that he may become a presidential candidate, he is severely attacked by the right-wing faction. They strongly oppose him.

Nobody will stop him from becoming a candidate. But when the right-wingers don't want him and oppose him, becoming a candidate will be a difficult move in a practical sense .

Back to ListBack to List

Hidden Pressures
Against the Press

I have been a reporter for 32 years. During all this time, I have never felt more tranquility (aramesh) than I do right now. There is no specific pressure on me right now.

This does not mean that we are completely free. There are some pressures. The fact is that we do not feel any pressures being exerted by the government but there are pressure groups that do exert pressures on us.

There are two or three publications that are obviously very close to the state and some of their managers have official government positions. They exert pressure when they suddenly start attacking with harsh accusations. For instance, they call me a member of the CIA or the British intelligence service and so forth.

You could say that they are free to say whatever they want and I'm free to say whatever I want. But since the purpose of their attack is to defend the ruling system, it instills fear.

Back to ListBack to List


For example, Resalat is the most radical publication right now. It belongs to the right-wing majority in the Majlis. It curses and accuses the likes of me. Its political influence certainly worries those who are the subject of its attacks. And this causes self-censorship. This is what I mean by pressure.

But as a political journalist I don't recall the government telling me in the last five or six years, "Why did you write such and such?"

I'll give you an example. In the last issue of our magazine ( Payam Embrooz ) we printed something from (former President Abol-Hassan) Banisadr and we quoted an article (printed in the Washington Post) from Houshang Ansari (an influential politician before the revolution).

In the past, it would have been difficult to publish these things. And we do interviews with the foreign press as well. It seems that the government has basically decided not to bother us.

Back to ListBack to List

Harsh Pressure Groups

There is no pressure on us when we talk about political issues. For instance, they know that I favor the restoration of ties with the United States. And I have clearly written this many times.

Officials don't like what I say. Seven or eight years ago, when I would write something controversial, they would call me all sorts of names. Now, they're criticism is polite and reasonable. We don't expect more from them.

But it's a different story when we talk about non-political subjects. Like cultural issues. I don't write about cultural matters but my colleagues tell me that they are under pressure. When it comes to issues dealing with "sin," the Intelligence Ministry, or in other words the government, imposes censorship. And when some issue escapes the attention of the officials, the pressure groups take action, which is usually harsher.

Back to ListBack to List

Official Tolerance
only for Behnoud?

I don't think so. When (in the 1960s) Jalal Ale Ahmad wrote critical (political) articles, which we regarded as harsh, we would make the same complaint too. We would say "How come he can say those things and we can't?"

During the Shah's time, someone from the SAVAK (intelligence service) or the Information Ministry would sit next to me and read my articles. Today nobody looks at your press material before it is published. You can say the ball is in the writer's court. That is self-censorship. Some censor themselves more than others.

Some think they have the "skill" or "art" or "courage" -- depending on what value you want to put on it -- to avoid self-censorship.

Back to ListBack to List

Reform, not Revolution

What I do know is that I, personally, without wanting to represent anyone else, am not in favor of revolution. Another revolution. And because of this, I do not support any kind of effort to overthrow the government. This is not just my current belief. I did not believe in it before (the 1979 revolution) either.

I am a reformist. There are few governments in the world that would suppress reformists as harshly as they would put down those who advocate overthrowing the government. During these past 16, 17 years, despite our reformist beliefs, there have been times when we have been under pressure.

Back to ListBack to List

No need to
Silence Views

Our argument with those in power is that in the early days of the Islamic Republic, the country was in a mess, there was war, there were problems in Kordestan and the south. And officials felt weakness and instability. Under those circumstances, the government carried out (suppressive) actions -- actions which we think were not right.

But now this government is like all other governments. Its enemies have become weak. There is no clear opposition or alternative force (that is seeking to overthrow it). Therefore, there is no need to stop a minority like us from expressing our views.

In fact, we have to remind those who are in power -- those who are not that young or inexperienced any more -- that no one is going to believe that there is no opposition among 60 million people. Is that possible?

Back to ListBack to List

CoverPrevious ArticleNext ArticleSend Comments
WWW Design by:  Multimedia Internet Services, Inc.

Send your Comments to: iranian@interport.net. Copyright © 1995 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form.