Does Ahmadinejad Speak for Iran?

Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, has an unusual background: His father had been a diplomat for the Shah of Iran, and his family fled the country to escape the Islamic revolution. His grandfather, however, was a noted Ayatollah, and taught some of Iran’s leading clerics. Majd, who became a U.S. citizen a decade-and-a-half ago, has been a frequent visitor to Tehran in recent years; he knows and has written widely about the country and its leadership. (He recently served as a translator for a U.N. address by President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad.) He spoke with TIME’s Adam Zagorin:

TIME: You’ve titled your book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. Does that refer to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?

Hooman Majd: It’s true that the Supreme Leader holds ultimate authority in Iran. But the reality is more complex, and there are many views and multiple centers of power in Tehran. In my book, I describe how the Supreme Leader operates at the top of the system to balance opposing views, trying to avoid extremes.

But many Americans find President Ahmadinejad extreme, for example when he calls for the destruction of Israel. Is that view widely shared in Iran, or by the Supreme Leader himself?

President Ahmadinejad may be extreme in some of his views, and I think it is safe to say most Iranians do not share them. The Supreme Leader has made it clear on a number of occasions, rarely reported in the Western media, that he disagrees. On Israel, for example, soon after Ahmadinejad first suggested, in 2005, that Israel would be “wiped off the map”, the Supreme Leader made a speech saying that Iran has not and would not be the first to start any war, and would not attack any country. That statement was intended to show that Iran wanted to play no part in Israel’s disappearance, regardless of the inflammatory rhetoric of the president.

The book contains a lot of descriptions of Iranian manners and behavior, and you tell stories that give readers a sense of what it’s like to be immersed in Iranian society. What do you think is a fundamental misconception that Americans have about Iran and Iranians?

As Americans, we have a tendency to believe that Iranians are a bunch of fundamentalists, even crazy. Sure, there are plenty of fundamentalists or arch-conservatives in Iran, including those in power, but the society is far more diverse than that stereotype would suggest. There are all kinds of civic groups, political activists, even secularists, along with 30 or 40 daily newspapers that offer a wide range of opinion. Even among the clergy, there are liberals and conservatives.

You describe your personal encounters with both President Ahmadinejad and some members of his administration, and you have actually translated his speeches at the U.N. Should Americans be as worried as we are about him?

I don’t think so. Even though he does represent an important segment of society, Ahmadinejad simply does not wield the kind of power in Iran that, for example, American presidents hold under the U.S. constitution. Iran’s president cannot set foreign policy, nor is he the commander-in-chief. The Supreme Leader has the last word. That said, an Iranian president does manage day-to-day government affairs, and can influence policy. But that is a far cry from being in the position of an American President, what Bush has called “the Decider.”

You talk about the overturn of Iran’s class structure after the revolution of 1979, and what that tells us about Iran today. How did that upheaval affect you personally, as someone from the upper classes under the Shah?

It affected me greatly and was part of the reason I didn’t go to Iran for many years after the 1979 revolution. People like me, whose family was associated with the Shah’s regime, would not have been welcome or even permitted to visit Iran. But things have changed. Today, the Iranian government is more self-confident and no longer feels so threatened. And now the revolutionaries have become Iran’s upper-class, but with a big difference: they try to avoid ostentatious displays of wealth. To take one example, President Ahmadinejad makes a point of dressing simply, and continues to live in the same modest house that he and his family have long occupied.

Your book includes, some might say, an affectionate portrait of Shi’ite Islam as it is practiced in Iran. In America, we tend to think of Shi’ites in terms of radical militias in Iraq, or Hezbollah in Lebanon. Do you think our perception of Shi’ism and Shi’ite Muslims is all wrong?

Not entirely, but yes, there are misconceptions. Shi’ite Islam, unlike the stricter forms of Sunni Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia, is far more flexible and pragmatic than we think. And Shi’ites, despite their sometimes hysterical rhetoric and outbursts, have generally been less fanatical than their Sunni counterparts, especially than al-Qaeda (which openly denounces Shi’ism and Shi’ites). Even in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency has been far more deadly to Americans and Iraqis than any Shi’ite militia. And it’s worth remembering that — rhetoric aside — Iran’s ruling Shi’ites haven’t started a war against another country in centuries, whether for religious or geopolitical reasons.

An interesting concept you bring up is the issue of haq, or “rights,” to show how Iranians view their place in the world, as well as their nuclear program. Are they trying to build an atomic weapon?

Of course Iranians, like Americans and others, do take pride in their country’s attempt to master a new technology. But as I say in my book, the Iranian government deliberately frames the nuclear issue as one of Iranian rights — or haq. And that’s because the Iranian people are very receptive to the idea that they are entitled to certain rights. Of course the regime insists it is not, and will never, seek a nuclear weapon. So when the argument is put that way, rightly or wrongly, it just doesn’t make sense to a lot of Iranians for the West to tell them what rights they can and cannot enjoy. Every cab driver in Tehran can tell you that Iran’s right to develop nuclear energy is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by both the U.S. and Iran.

You talk warmly in your book about [reformist] former President Mohammed Khatami, whom you’ve known for years and is, in fact, a relative by marriage. But many in both Iran and the West look back on his administration, from 1997-2005, with a good deal of disappointment because he failed to bring about many of his proposed reforms. Do you think he’s still relevant, and is he hoping to make a political comeback?

I do think he’s relevant, in some ways more than before. Iran’s economy is not performing well right now, and a lot of Iranians are worse off than they were four years ago, when Khatami was in power. And, of course, Iran is far more diplomatically and economically isolated than it was then.

I saw Khatami in early September in Tehran, and he denied that he had ambitions to run for president again. But many political observers believe he may be the only figure in the reform camp who could actually defeat the incumbent, President Ahmadinejad. I was told that Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the top behind-the-scenes power broker of Iranian politics [who preceded Khatami as President and lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 elections] is throwing his support behind Khatami, and is pressuring him to run.

In your book, you talk about the important distinction between public and private lives in Iran. Is that more pronounced under an Islamic regime, and do you think Iranians long for more freedoms?

It is by definition more pronounced under a theocratic regime, which regulates public behavior. But Iranians have a long history of separating the public from the private. Part of what makes life in Iran a little more tolerable today is that Iranians know they can let their hair down in private. But yes, I do believe that there is longing for fewer restrictions on women, more latitude for men and women to mix socially without fear, and even more freedom of the press.

It is often said that the Iranian people have a fondness for Americans, despite their government’s official stance. How true have you discovered that to be in your frequent travels to Iran, and do you think that the future of U.S.-Iranian relations could be rosier than we perceive?

It is very true. Even amongst the leadership, there is affection and some admiration for Americans and America. Of course, that ends at foreign policy. But in Iran, in contrast with much of the Arab world, people genuinely like America and openly say so. With the possibility of new leadership on both sides, there is no reason that the two countries could not have better relations.

Adam Zagorin – TIME

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