Building Understanding and Relationships
The Aim of My Story
Building Understanding and Relationships is an academic-political exposé of my life. In it I intend to explain the key events that have shaped my life and to summarize the numerous milestones I have already reached been achieved in creating a bridge of understanding both among Iranians and between Iran and the international community. Nonetheless, in the interest of space and clarity, I have excluded a number of momentous developments that have shaped my life and the Iranian political economy over the past four decades. Thus, for a more thorough account of my academic background, teaching, scholarship, public service, and professional activities, I wish to invite you to browse my personal website, in Persian and English, at www.amirahmadi.com, as well as the websites of the American Iranian Council at www.american-iranian.org, Caspian Associates, Inc. at www.caspian-associates.com, and the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at http://policy.rutgers.edu . I also kindly invite you to consult my extensive portfolio of writings for further insight into my worldview and global engagement.
For over 20 years, while I have been relentlessly active in harmonizing Iranian politics and cementing U.S.-Iran relations, my words and actions have often been seen as controversial. While disagreement and division are, of course, natural, and indeed are to be encouraged, I am often surprised how relatively little is known about my educational background, writings, ideas, politics, and professional activities. In the interest of further transparency, healthier dialogue and better understanding, I seek to introduce myself in this concise ‘autobiography’ as accurately as possible. Before proceeding, I would like to mention from the outset that the ideas and deeds presented here are interconnected and have been developed and sustained over many years; I hope they demonstrate my persistent, assiduous, sensible, compassionate and attentive leadership.
By presenting my ideas and actions over many years, I hope to elucidate upon my academic achievements, political beliefs, and nationalistic efforts as being inseparable components of my life process - and to clearly demonstrate my personal drive for justice, freedom, peace and prosperity for all people, including especially the Iranian nation. I wish to show how I have tried for many years to offer theoretical and practical leadership within a realistic and pragmatic philosophy aimed at leading Iran towards a higher level of achievement and success. I will also contextualize this political autobiography by highlighting important events in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran so that it fulfills an educational purpose. For the sake of brevity, and at times for the privacy of those involved, I have excluded countless happy and sad moments in my life and have refrained from naming many extraordinary people who have contributed to my life story and personal achievements.
The Formative Years in Iran
I was born in 1947 into a landlord family in the beautiful Talesh Region on the Caspian Sea coast in northern Iran. I completed my primary and secondary schooling in Talesh in institutions founded respectively by my grandfather, Amanollah Amirahmadi, and by another benevolent landlord, Anamgholi Masali. I earned my high school diploma from Reza Shah Kabir High School in Rasht, the capital of Gilan Province, of which Talesh is a major county. I then attended Tabriz University and became an agricultural engineer in 1968. My undergraduate years coincided with a growing student movement against the Shah. As was commonplace during those dark days, some of my close friends were either imprisoned or murdered.
Upon graduation, I began compulsory military service and served in the Agricultural Corp (AC) in Lahijan city in my province, Gilan. AC was an agricultural extension and education service that was created as part of the Shah’s so-called ‘White Revolution’ (1963), imposed on him by President John F. Kennedy. My service area included a small town called Siahkal where a guerrilla movement began in 1970. Witnessing this struggle firsthand, I became further radicalized. In 1971, I joined the Industrial Development and Renovation Organization (IDRO) of Iran and worked for five years in sugar factories in the underdeveloped Lurestan and Kouhkiloyeh-Bouirahmad regions. IDRO had been established to help kick-start new industrial projects and to make the nation’s bankrupt or loss-making industries in the private and public sectors viable or profitable.
I also maintained my love for writing short stories and poems and for cooperating with several literary-political publications. My short stories were published in Ferdowsi Magazine, Post-e Iran, Baran, Keyhan Daily (the literary section), and several other local and national periodicals. Many of these writings, influenced by the radical intellectual tradition of the time and the guerrilla movement, were ‘revolutionary’ in form and meaning. My keen interest in literary work grew out of my love of painting, which I had developed during my undergraduate years. At the time, I was also helping a few publications with their drawing needs, including the Daneshjou Magazine of Tabriz University published with the help of Samad Behrangui, a progressive Iranian author of children’s books. Among my other literary works is a booklet I published which includes the late Ahmad Shamloo’s controversial speech on Iran’s legendary poet, Ferdowsi, at the conference of the Center for Iranian Research and Analysis (CIRA) in the University of California, Berkeley in 1990.
By the late 1960s, the White Revolution, designed to quell a possible revolution in Iran, had run out of steam. The Shah had used his revolution to eradicate all forms of secular and socialist nationalist opposition. The religious opposition was, however, more or less tolerated as per the Cold War U.S. policy, even though the Shah had violently crushed a protest movement by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1963 - which eventually culminated in the cleric’s expulsion from Iran. While hardly any independent political voice was tolerated, Dr. Ali Shariati, a religious political sociologist, among other religious critics of the Shah, could openly speak at the Hoseiniyeh Ershad, a popular Mosque in Tehran. Before the Shah could take a deep breath, radical students and urban guerrilla movements began to emerge in the final years of the 1960s. Instead of reforming the dictatorship, the Shah tightened his grip on the nation, established one-party rule, and made membership in his Rastakhiz (Resurrection) Party mandatory for mid-level and high-level government employees. The political environment was truly suffocating as the Shah’s dictatorial political system had destroyed democratic opposition, thus providing a fertile breeding ground for extremist opposition groups.
Academic and Professional Advances in the U.S.
After losing my position at the Yasouj Sugar Factory for refusing to join the Rastakhiz party, I left Iran in 1975 for the United States. There I first earned an MS degree in industrial management from the University of Dallas (1977) and then a Ph.D. degree in planning and international development from Cornell University (1982). My Ph.D. dissertation was on The Transition from Feudalism to Manufacturing Capitalism, 1780s-1920s. Focusing on many domestic and international factors, this dissertation explained why Iran was unable to make the transition from backwardness and absolutism to a democratically-developed nation. The choice of topic was influenced by the ‘Islamic Revolution’ that had begun in 1978, the year I started at Cornell. I wanted to know if this revolution could lead to a democratic Iran. The research had already made me doubtful at best.
These were tough years for Iranian students in the United States: The Revolution had disrupted families, businesses, scholarships, and the flow of funds from Iran; the hostage-taking in Tehran had turned many Americans against Iranian students; and the Iran-Iraq war had become a serious psychological drain on almost every Iranian. For those of us in the United States, the hostage episode was most unsettling. For 444 days, we suffered from the dreadful actions of the radical students in Tehran for which we were neither responsible nor had the power to end. The specter of the hostage episode has never left my soul, and its impact on U.S.-Iran relations has been no less destructive than the 1953 U.S.-British-engineered coup against Dr. Mohammad Mosadeq, Iran’s democratic Prime Minister. The day the hostages were freed was my day of freedom as well, just as it was for many Iranians in the U.S.
In 1983, I joined Rutgers University (www.rutgers.edu) as an Assistant Professor of planning and international development. Currently I am a full Professor at the University, and in the academic year 2008-2009 I was a Senior Associate Member at Oxford University. I have taught courses on international economic development, globalization and public policy, urban political economy, and spatial economic planning. My academic research and writings have focused on economic development and social justice, civil society and the state, political reform and human security, regional equity and ethnic politics, foreign investment and technology transfers, special economic zones and free trade areas, and information technology and knowledge industries. My professional efforts have focused on peace and development, and the areas of my activism have included helping with policy formation for the cease-fire between Iran and Iraq, facilitating constructive dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, as well as helping with postwar reconstruction, disaster mitigation, strategic management and national spatial development planning. The geographic focus of my interests has spanned the developing world, including the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region, concentrating on Iran’s economic and political development, foreign policy, and relations with the United States and the entire Arab World.
My well-received publications include nine written and edited works in English and three in Persian, six policy monographs, numerous journal articles, and hundreds of television, radio and print media interviews. My acclaimed books include The Political Economy of Iran under the Qajars (the most comprehensive book on the Qajars today); Revolution and Economic Transition: the Iranian Experience (the first book-length analysis of post-revolutionary Iran), and three books in Farsi on civil society, industrial policy, and geopolitics of energy. Books I have had the privilege of editing include The Caspian Region at a Crossroad: A New Frontier of Energy and Development; Small Islands, Big Politics: The Tunbs and Abu Musa in the Persian Gulf; The United States and the Middle East: A Search for New Perspectives; Post-Revolutionary Iran; Iran and the Arab World; Urban Development in the Muslim World; and Reconstruction and Regional Diplomacy in the Persian Gulf. I am particularly proud of my books on the Persian Gulf Islands and the Caspian Sea legal regime as they are the only books in English that defend Iran’s rights in those specific cases.
I have served Rutgers as Founder and Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies for many years, Coordinator of the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship Program, and Chair and Graduate Director of my department at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy (http://policy.rutgers.edu). I also helped found the Iranian Studies Program and initiate the Islam and the West Program at Rutgers. Meanwhile, in 1982I helped to establish the Center for Iranian Research and Analysis (CIRA) and was its Director for many years. I also established the US-Iran Conference, Inc. (1991), which became the American Iranian Council (AIC) in 1997 (www.american-iranian.org). I currently serve as the Council’s President, a position that has helped provide me with the opportunity to serve as a ‘peace activist’ between Iran and the United States for so many years. AIC is a non-profit and tax-exempt research and policy organization devoted to improving dialogue and understanding between the peoples of these two great nations. The Council pioneered the marketplace of ideas in U.S.-Iran relations, and in the last two decades many of the historic breakthroughs in relations between the two nations have happened via an AIC platform or were mediated through the Council.
Believing ardently in applying useful academic theories to effective political leadership, while in exile, I was a candidate for President in the 9th Presidential Elections in Iran in June 2005. As I had expected, the conservative Guardian Council disqualified me for my democratic platform upon which I stood. In a protest letter to the Council’s director, I warned that the decision to disqualify me was unwise and undemocratic, and that it did not serve Iran or the cause of peace between Iran and the U.S. (http://www.amirahmadi.com). I also outlined a brief National Plan that I would have implemented had I been elected as President. Normalization of U.S.-Iran relations, free and fair elections, economic restructuring, and social justice were the central tenets of my plan. I offered the plan to the elected president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, advising him to follow a similar path toward peace, democracy, justice and economic prosperity.
To apply my academic training in international development, I founded a strategic consulting firm called Caspian Associates, Inc. (www.caspian-associates.com). The firm, headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey, operates internationally, focusing on emerging markets and developing nations. Through this vehicle, I have helped formulate development plans for many underdeveloped and developing nations, including Iran and Haiti. I have also provided consulting services to a number of international development agencies such as the World Bank, The United Nations Development Programs and the Agha Khan Foundation. These salient experiences, along with extensive contributions to global media outlets, international travel, and speaking at hundreds of conferences, universities, and private organizations throughout the world have truly enriched my intellectual and professional growth.
Crucially, my background has also helped me evolve as leader in a number of areas: (1) I pioneered the marketplace of ideas in U.S.-Iran relations and called for their normalization long before it became fashionable; (2) I was the first to identify and write on Iranian civil society and the reform movement long before it actually materialized during the administration of President Mohammad Khatami; I also predicted its demise and the reappearance of anti-reform forces; (3) I have introduced the concept of ‘nationism’ to integrate Iranian nationalism and pan-Islamism; (4) I pioneered the national debate on the unhealthy Iranian political culture; (5) I was the first to invite attention to the middle-class nature of the Iranian revolution, despite its apparent Islamism, and posited the view that middle-class revolutions are incapable of successful social transformations; (6) My book on Iran’s political economy of transition from pseudo-feudalism to proto-capitalism is a leading contributor to the debate on why Iran was not unable to successfully modernize; (7) My books on the islands in the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea legal regime, and Iran-Arab relations are unique in the literature of Iranian studies; and (8) My writings on Iranian ethnic communities and movements, as well as provincial disparities, are also distinctive.
Fearing the Revolution and Theorizing against the War
I left Iran four years before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and did not return to the country until the revolution had toppled the Shah. As a social democrat, I was inclined toward supporting gradual changes and feared a radical revolution. I was supportive of the revolution, but feared it was going too far, too fast and becoming too intermingled with various revolutionary ideologies. I had also argued in favor of giving the last Prime Minister of the Shah, the nationalist Shahpour Bakhtiar, a chance to consolidate the revolution’s gains. This political stance was misunderstood by many including some of my ‘radical’ friends and certain revolutionary leaders of the new Islamic Republic. I stayed in exile for about seven years before I returned to Iran in 1986 when I was invited by the University of Tehran to a post-war reconstruction conference.
The new Republic had begun its life in February 1979 by framing an Islamic Constitution and executing officials and loyalists of the ancien regime. Most of these murders were motivated by political revenge; even the intelligentsia was chanting in the street demonstrations the popular slogan: “e’edam bayad gardad” (must be executed). I was opposed to these revengeful executions and became fearful of what I saw emerging: a killing ethos. Soon after, the new Republic was confronted by the original revolutionaries who demanded a share in the state power. They began a cycle of elimination that became increasingly bloody. The religious leftists were the first to be eliminated, followed by the secular leftists, and then secular and religious nationalists. Many important leaders and ideologues of the new Republic were also murdered by the opposition, depriving it of its future ‘software’ builders. Meanwhile, the ‘Students of Imam Line’ took American Embassy personnel hostage, demanding that the United States return the Shah to Iran to stand trial. The Shah was at the time in the U.S. for cancer treatment but the radical students believed that the U.S. wanted him to return to Iran just as they had done in 1953. This hostage episode, which I had vehemently opposed, forced the Carter Administration to cut ties with Tehran and freeze Iranian assets.
During the 444 days that American hostages remained in Iran, the Islamic radicals also used the episode to destroy their political rivals and consolidate their grip on power. The moderate Prime Minster Mehdi Bazargan, a dignified religious nationalist, resigned in protest, and the moderate Abolhassan Banisadr, another religious nationalist, and the first elected Iranian President, had to flee the country after he was impeached by Parliament. Meanwhile, women protesting the new regulation requiring them to adopt the Hijab (Islamic veil) were suppressed, and ethnic groups demanding autonomy were crushed. As the days went by, more new socially and politically-restrictive regulations were enacted and implemented, spearheaded or approved by many of the same Islamic forces that years later would become ‘pragmatist’ and ‘reformist’. My original fear that the revolution could go too far, too fast had now materialized as more extremist policies were introduced and actions carried out, including the formation of various revolutionary committees, guards and courts, as well as the expropriation of property belonging to wealthy Iranian merchants and industrialists and their imprisonment. By now it was obvious that this revolution would not be about emancipation and amity but elimination and enmity. I was growing ever more fearful of the future.
Worst yet, from 1980-88 the new Republic became engulfed in a bloody and cynically-imposed war with Iraq. The opposition to the new government and certain foreign powers deceived Saddam Hussein into believing that he could take advantage of a weakened Iran and topple the nascent Islamic Republic. Saddam was convinced that he would gain new territories and become the most powerful player in the Persian Gulf region and the wider Arab World. The subsequent destructive war and the despicable international support for Saddam transformed me into a ‘peace activist’ against the war. To promote a ceasefire, I began in 1985, to theorize and write articles on my view that “offensive force has become ineffective in the new multi-centric world and that conflicts cannot be gainfully resolved by wars.” I also argued that, in the new world, two diametrically-opposing forces operate, one ‘integrative’ and the other ‘disintegrative’, and that identification with the latter forces can be costly. In subsequent years, my ‘force theory’ became popular among certain Iranian leaders, including Mr. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was then the Speaker of Parliament and the commander of the war.
Alongside my peace activism for ending the inhumane Iran-Iraq war, I also helped build the Center for Iranian Research and Analysis (CIRA) and later served as its Director for many years. The Center had been established to fill a void in research and analysis on Iran and to help connect Iran to the global community. It was during this period and through the instrumentality of CIRA that I brought, for the first time after the revolution, a great number of distinguished Iranian academics and literary figures to the U.S., including Ahmad Shamlou, Hooshang Golshiri, Manouchehr Atashi, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Abdolhousein Zarrinkoub, Homa Nateq, and Mohammadali Sepanlou. The CIRA conferences on Iran became highly successful, and it was because of these high-profile CIRA conferences that the older Iranian Studies group felt obliged to also organize its own biennial conferences. While organizing the CIRA annual conferences, I also edited and wrote for the CIRA Bulletin. While the CIRA gave me an opportunity to serve, it also offered me the chance to form my most successful family; I met my wife at a CIRA conference I had organized at Rutgers University, a marriage that has blessed me not only with a beloved partner but also with my only child.
My research and writings during this period focused on three areas of the post-revolutionary political economy of Iran: war and its destructions; provincial and ethnic disparities and policies; and the transforming potentials of the middle class revolutions. My writings on war matters were aimed at demonstrating the banality of the call for ‘continuation of the war till victory,’ the tragic inhuman side of the conflict, and the need for a democratic peace and reconstruction. My writings on ethnic and provincial themes intended to bring attention to the cause of ethnic collective movements and to the need for a more ‘balanced national development’ and a ‘controlled decentralization’ policy towards more local participation. My research for these and other writings had made me increasingly interested in the nature of the Iranian revolution and its power to change Iran for good. I ultimately came to the conclusion that the uprising was a ‘middle class’ episode and that such revolutions have only limited potential for serious developmental and democratic transformations. I had become alarmed, if not apprehensive, that the revolution would fail to deliver on its promises. To demonstrate this thesis I wrote the book Revolution and Economic Transition: The Iranian Experience.
Understanding Iran and Helping with Post-War Reconstruction
I returned to Iran in 1986 when I was invited to present a paper at an ‘international conference on post-war reconstruction’ at the University of Tehran. From 1986 to 1988, I participated in three such conferences and used the opportunity to extensively tour the war-damaged areas when the war was still in progress. I was perhaps the first Iranian expatriate academic to return ‘home’, visit the war zone during the last years of the conflict, and try to help with reconstruction. These trips and conferences helped me document and write on the war’s human and material damages, critically evaluate the nation’s experience in the post-war rebuilding of towns and villages, and conceptualize a framework for the post-war reconstruction and disaster management. That framework and its application are articulated in my book Revolution and Economic Transition. Years later, I used the model to help with rebuilding efforts following earthquake damage in northern Iran when I was serving as a consultant to the Aga Khan Foundation. I am proud of the fact that I made myself available to Iran at times when she needed it the most. Memories of those years are eternalized in hundreds of remarkable slides and pictures.
In 1988, Iran’s Foreign Ministry invited me to Tehran to present a lecture on my ‘force theory’ . I delivered the lecture in May at the Institute for Political and International Studies of the Foreign Ministry. The speech, which also argued that the war would have no victor, was extensively reported in the Iranian media. Hashemi Rafsanjani, Speaker of the Parliament and Commander of the war at the time, also made veiled references to my ideas in his speeches and interviews, cautiously arguing for the end of the war. Surprisingly, Iran accepted the cease-fire in July 1988, only two months after that lecture. Tehran must have been looking for a pretext to end the war after the U.S. Navy had destroyed Iranian oil platforms and ships, and had shot down its civilian plane in the Persian Gulf during the ‘Tankers War’ in early 1988. Years later, we also learned that Hashemi and Mohsen Rezaei, the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards at the time, had told the late Khomeini that Iran had to either accept a U.N.-sponsored ceasefire or to procure billions of dollars in new armaments - money which Iran simply did not have. Oil prices had declined to below U.S. $10 per barrel because of over-production by Saudi Arabia beginning in 1986. Khomeini then drank from the ‘poison cup’ and accepted U.N. Resolution 598 demanding a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq.
The trips to Iran had provided me with a perfect research opportunity which I used both judiciously and meticulously. The main result was my book Revolution and Economic Transition: the Iranian Experience. It was the first book-length analysis of the impact of the revolution on Iran’s political economy, including the mainstream economy, the political divides, the war destruction and reconstruction, planning schemes, and development debates. I used the case study to develop in more detail my ‘middle-class revolution’ thesis and to argue that the ruling middle class with its Islamic and nativist beliefs had not been, and would not be, able to chart a scientific and consistent path to development. The ‘unstable’ and multifarious middle class has many ideas, but it does not have a coherent transformational ideology. Lacking ideology and structural coherence, middle class leaders cannot unite around a single path, making them fail in their transformational ideals. Their inability to successfully lead post-revolutionary changes is further exacerbated by the hostility of the imperial powers to revolutions. In a previous article, I had argued that the ‘non-capitalist path’ to development advocated by the Iranian pro-Soviet Communist Party would also not help as it often leads to dictatorship rather than democratic transformation.
The visits to Iran also provided me with an opportunity to better appreciate the dangers of the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Iran. The revolution had targeted the Shah’s ‘dictatorship’ and American ‘imperialism’ as the two most important factors in Iran’s underdevelopment and dependency. The national emancipation was viewed as uprooting both influences. Meanwhile, in Iran the idea that the U.S. was behind Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran, and that it was trying to destroy the revolution, had gained near unanimity. The U.S. had helped the British to overthrow Iran’s democratic premier, Mohammad Mosadeq, in 1953, and had made the Shah a ‘puppet’ in its wider Cold War interests against the Soviet Union. The domestic political game and culture were also feeding into this ‘wall of mistrust’ and rampant anti-Americanism. The American hostage drama in Tehran reflected these realities, and the American reaction to the tragic episode (including severing diplomatic relations, attempting to rescue the hostages by force, and imposing sanctions) had further antagonized the revolutionaries.
Believing that something must be done before it was too late, in 1990 I began my pioneering advocacy for the normalization of U.S.-Iran relations. The initial efforts included a series of high-profile conferences that brought together a great number of ‘the old Iran hands’ to discuss the various ways to enhance mutual understanding and improve relations between the two nations. After the conclusion of the first conference in 1991, I received a letter from Dr. Anthony Lake, Director of the National Security Council (NSC) under President Bill Clinton, in which he had outlined the U.S. objections to a number of Iran’s policies, including support for terrorism and opposition to the Middle East peace process, and that the U.S. was prepared to negotiate on these matters with Iran constructively in the best interests of both nations. The nuclear dispute and human rights were also mentioned, but they did not seem to concern Dr. Lake to the extent that the other two issues did in the letter – that was at least the impression I had at the time. The letter was faxed to me after a gentleman from the National Security Council called me on my office number to make sure that I was next to the fax machine when the letter arrived. With the permission of the NSC, I transmitted the letter to Dr. Kamal Kharrazi, then Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations and later Iran’s Foreign Minister. This historic ‘Lake Letter’ represented the initial formulation of future U.S. policy towards Iran – a formulation that has changed over time with respect to its core concerns, initially terrorism and now nuclear proliferation, but nevertheless the Letter has remained to this day the basis for U.S. policy towards Iran.
The conferences, which had ‘pioneered the marketplace of ideas’ in U.S.-Iran relations and stimulated significant interest in the Clinton Administration towards a resolution of the dispute with Iran, led in 1997 to the formation of the American Iranian Council. This was the year when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected as President in a landslide victory over his moderately conservative rival, Nateq Nouri. The founders of the Council included former American statesmen, diplomats, policy makers, business executives, distinguished academics, and community leaders. As the leading Founder of AIC, I was elected President, Ambassador Robert Pelletreau (who had just retired from his position as Assistant Secretary of State) became Chairman, and the late Secretary of State Cyrus Vance served as the Honorary Chairman. Also on the AIC’s Board were several former American ambassadors including Bruce Laingen, the most senior U.S. official held hostage in Iran for 444 days. In subsequent years, the AIC would play a leading role in U.S.-Iran relations – it became the main platform for public officials and private experts to exchange views and propose policies.
Meanwhile, I had initiated research for my groundbreaking writings on ‘the emerging civil society in Iran’, and in 1995 had published a series of articles in Farsi and then in English. I predicted the emergence of the civil society discourse and its political fallouts (as well as its demise) in the wake of its inevitable politicization – a prediction that has since materialized. The writings are now published in a book called Jame’ah-e Siasi, Jame’ah-e Madani va Touse’ah-e melli (political society, civil society and national development). I also argued in the articles that the Islamic Republic will pass through four stages of development, three of which it has already experienced: the Islam-Islam stage; the Islam-Iran stage; and the Iran-Islam stage. I predicted that in the course of its evolution, the Islamic system will enter what I called the Iran-Iran stage – a prediction that is also coming to fruition as witnessed by the words and actions of some of prominent Iranian government officials. These writings, my peace activism on behalf of U.S.-Iran relations, and the 1998 student uprisings plus the subsequent violent attacks on the dormitories of the University of Tehran turned the ultra-conservative Islamic faction against me, leading in 1998 to my second exile period.
I am from the Taleshi ethnic group in the Caspian Sea region and have lived and worked among Iranian ethnic tribal people, including Kurds, Lurs, Bakhtiaris, Qashqa’is and Boirahmadis. It was thus natural that I develop an intense interest in writing about ethnic Iranians. Iran is not just a class society; it is also a nation of unequal ethnic groups and uneven provincial development. I wanted to understand why ethnic Iranians are, generally speaking, less developed than the ‘core’ Persians and why certain provinces have lagged behind while a few others have prospered. I also wanted to understand the reasons behind ethnic collective movements and the forms in which they have manifested themselves in Iran. I concluded that the main reasons were economic discrimination, administrative centralism, and political tyranny. Under these conditions, I found that ethnic and provincial discontents remained obscured and their collective movements took a latent form. However, as soon as the central government became weak or the nation experienced a crisis, these latent ethnic collective movements manifested themselves in the forms of regional uprisings, autonomy movements, or separatist unrests. The policy implications of these findings were clear: impartiality, decentralization and democracy.
The war with Iraq had ended in 1988, and by 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini, the Leader of the Islamic Revolution, had died. The Iranian Constitution was also amended to create a more powerful Leadership and Presidency, and Ali Khamanei and Ali Akbar Hashemi became Leader and President, respectively. Meanwhile, relations with the U.S. had deteriorated as Hashemi initiated ‘post-war reconstruction’. Encouraged by President Hashemi’s pragmatism and his tendency for gradually mending relations with the United States, in 1991 I founded a high-flying conference organization. An early sign of such inclination was Hashemi’s positive response to President George Bush’s request through ‘a direct phone call’ from him to help free Western hostages in Lebanon in 1989. The American President conveyed to Mr. Hashemi that his “goodwill will begets goodwill of a higher value.” Hashemi had viewed Mr. Bush’s promise as an important opening for improved relations in the future.
President Bush had originally made the statement in his Inaugural Address in 1989. Reportedly, Hashemi had been promised in the phone conversation that if hostages were released, the U.S. would unfreeze Iranian assets in the U.S., a step Hashemi had in the past insisted that the Americans needed to take for a serious dialogue with Iran. Luckily, Hashemi was able to deliver on his promise and the hostages were quickly freed. However, the promised goodwill never materialized, and no reason was ever given why President Bush changed his mind. This first American ‘strategic mistake’ in its relations with post-revolutionary Iran was followed by a second such mistake in the Clinton Administration, when the Conoco oil company was forced to renege on a billion-dollar deal it had signed with Iran. Hashemi, who had put his credibility on the line with the Leader for the deals, never recovered from these two setbacks, nor did U.S.-Iran relations. It is no wonder that Hashemi would never put foot on U.S. soil and would continue to demand that any U.S.-Iran rapprochement for better relations must start with the return of Iran’s frozen assets.
Politics of Obliviousness and Victimization
The trips to Iran and my peace and reconstruction activities unfortunately turned many in the expatriate community against me. They argued that Iran was at fault for the war with Iraq and that Saddam Hussein was a ‘liberator’. Thus, in their view, my peace activism was against the ‘democratic aspirations’ of the Iranian people. My advocacy of better U.S.-Iran relations made my critics even more vocal in their verbal abuses, claiming that my activities were intended to “prolong the life of the Islamic Republic.” They were of the opinion that a more appropriate approach would be to make the U.S. overthrow the Islamic regime. Ironically, these enemies of the Islamic regime were joined by the ultra-conservatives in Iran who also began voicing their opposition to my U.S.-Iran peace activism, branding me as a ‘broker’ of the relations, a ‘CIA agent’, and an ‘anti-revolutionary’ who intends to “topple the Islamic regime in silence” and return American imperialism to Iran. While the pro-regime groups viewed my advocacy of the normalization of U.S.-Iran relations to the detriment of the regime, the anti-regime group saw it as an attempt to help strengthen the regime.
I had expected the extremists in the Iranian polity to contest my advocacy of peace between Iran and Iraq and better U.S.-Iran relations. After all, a major aim of the 1979 Islamic Revolution was to “export the revolution” to Islamic nations and to put an end to “American imperialism” in Iran, regaining the “national independence” that it had supposedly lost following the 1953 British-American coup against the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosadeq. While I expected opposition from the extremists, I was taken aback when I saw that moderate Iranian politicians, even reformists, were also vocal in their opposition to my views and activities for peace with Iraq and normal relations with the U.S. Happily, hard work and persistency often pays off; when I began calling for a U.S.-Iran dialogue over 22 years ago, not even five percent of Iranians were on my side; today that figure exceeds 85 percent. Also today, as a war between the two countries has become a real possibility, the majority - many among my old foes - acknowledge that my advocacy for improved U.S.-Iran relations was indeed visionary.
Because my activities had been initiated during the Hashemi Presidency, I was also increasingly labeled by the Los Angeles - Iranian television channels and radio stations as a “pro-Hashemi lobbyist.” In truth, I was neither pro - nor anti-Hashemi, nor did my activities against the war or for U.S.-Iran engagement involve lobbying. My activism was self-initiated, based on my deep belief in peace as the most critical condition for harmonious human living as per the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Indeed, President Hashemi was no help to me as it was during his term as President that Iranian television twice featured me in its ‘hovviyat’ program in which I was introduced to the Iranian public as an ‘anti-regime’ and ‘pro-American’ activist. Hovviyat, meaning identity, was run by certain ‘rogue’ elements of the Intelligence Ministry who later became involved in the ‘chain murders’ of a number of opponents of the regime. As a realist and pragmatist, while my views were not tolerated by the two extremes of the Iranian political spectrum, they also became a target of the moderates and reformists who were manifestly competitive and envious. Hashemi’s Presidency was a mixed blessing for Iran: post-war reconstruction went hand-in-hand with political and economic corruption, terrorism against the expatriate political leaders, and a significant deterioration of relations with the US and Europe following the terrorist murdering of four Kurdish political leaders in the Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin, Germany, in 1992. However, the period also marked the emergence of a ‘nascent civil society’ and the gradual revival of Iranian nationalism (the Islamic Republic entered the Iran-Islam stage). I was the first to notice this new chapter in Iran’s development. Consequently in 1994 I wrote a series of pioneering articles on the subject and published them in English and Persian. To my shock, my civil society writings became another target for attack as my pro-regime extremist opponents charged that my writings on the subject were designed to instigate political changes, while my anti-regime extremist opponents charged that I was trying to ‘whitewash’ the Islamic regime by suggesting that a civil society could emerge within such a ‘barbaric’ regime. On one occasion, I was even mockingly charged to have found a “chicken in the Islamic Republic that milks.”
My opponents were not interested in the fact that such a development was real, and that the chicken had indeed been milked. Their attention was almost totally focused on painting the ugliest face for the regime and trying to destroy it as soon as possible. However, soon after my pioneering writings, and to the dismay of my opponents, the Islamic reformist faction capitalized on the emerging idea and began propagating a civil society movement. By 1997, they were able to popularly elect Mohammad Khatami as their first civil society President. Following this development, my opponents multiplied. Now even the reformers were unsympathetic to me and for a good reason: even though I had pioneered the civil society writings and advocacy in Iran, I did not support Khatami for President. Instead, I sided with his moderately conservative rival, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri. I had my reasons but they were irrelevant to my reformist adversaries who had labeled me as ‘pro-Nateq Nouri!’
My reasons? First, I saw civil society as nascent, and feared that its premature propagation and involvement in politics would lure its enemies into strangling it; second, I did not believe the reformist faction was willing or capable to advance democracy beyond the limits of its own political project in a transparent bid to seize power; third, I feared that in the absence of a well-developed political society, the emerging civil society would become too politicized and thus derailed from its correct development path; and fourth, I was worried that the defeat of the moderate Nateq Nouri would lead to the rise of an extremist conservative force. I was also convinced that Nateq Nouri would definitely try to improve relations with the United States. He even had asked me to come up with a workable plan for the purpose. Finally, Nateq had privately told me (and I had reasons to believe him), that he would “break the legs” of any religious fanatics who would try to disturb political peace or cause disunity among the people.
While it is impossible to know what kind of president Nateq Nouri would have been, we know for sure that he was not as ‘ultra-conservative’ and ‘dangerous’ as his reformist enemies portrayed him. Indeed, years later, early in the 2009 Presidential race, Khatami, Hashemi, and Karubi asked Nateq Nouri to run for President, but he declined. Hashemi and Nateq Nouri are currently moderate critics of the Islamic regime and serious adversaries of President Ahmadinejad. They have tacitly sided with the Green Movement led by Khatami, Mousavi and Karubi. Even more satirical is the fact that many of the same people who had blamed me for supporting these political figures in the past now proudly consider themselves among their supporters in the popular movement. In retrospect, I was right in supporting Nateq Nouri, one of the most misunderstood Iranian politicians of modern times.
But I was also right regarding my fear of the premature takeover of state power by the reformists. Indeed, my key predictions materialized, including the failure of the reformists to cause meaningful changes to the existing condition, the rise of an extremist conservative faction, and the early death of Iranian civil society because of its inevitable politicization in the absence of a mature political society. Relations with the U.S. were also stalled by conservatives who distrusted Khatami on the subject and squandered a few important opportunities the American Iranian Council had created. Furthermore, many reformist proposals that the Khatami Government had tried to implement were also torpedoed by his conservative opponents. Significantly, the country became further polarized as extremists in both the reformist and anti-reformist camps took center stage. Even serial murders were committed by certain rogue members of the Intelligence Ministry during the Khatami presidency and, of course, without his authorization or knowledge.
While I had lost my reformist cohorts, my civil society writings and Khatami‘s presidency had also engendered serious enemies for me among the rising extremist conservatives in Iran. Following the student uprising in the summer of 1998 (18 Tir), conservative newspapers identified me as the ‘master-mind’ behind the ‘anti-revolutionary movement’ and called for my punishment. Fortunately, I was in the United States at the time, and cancelled a planned trip home to Iran. In reality, I had no role in that student movement. The next time I would travel to Iran would be in 2008, almost 10 years later. Thus, Khatami’s presidency led to my second period of exile, this time for a whole 10 years, including his entire eight-year term as President. This was despite the fact that I was always kindly received by President Khatami and his Foreign Minister, Dr. Kamal Kharrazi, whenever they were in the U.S.
Theorizing U.S.-Iran Relations and Advocating Engagement
In exile, I continued my advocacy for rebuilding U.S.-Iran relations and for steadfastly promoting democracy in Iran. With respect to U.S.-Iran relations, I argued that a weaker Iran is not a better Iran for the U.S. or the West. I insisted on this proposition because I came to believe that the U.S. saw Iran through the prism of an age-old assumption, namely that “a strong Iran is a dangerous Iran and that a weaker Iran is a better Iran” for its region and beyond. The original idea was initiated by Great Britain in the mid-19th century to protect its “prized Indian colony” from a possible Iranian threat. I was the first to remind the Americans through writings and speeches that in the last 250 years or so Iran has never initiated a war with any country and that anytime Iran has been weak, its region has been less stable. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, including obliviousness by the Islamic Republic to this mistaken Western assumption about Iran, the idea of the ‘Iranian threat’ was even sold to the U.N. Security Council.
With respect to democracy in Iran, I also waged the analytical argument that no country has ever become democratic in the absence of diplomatic ties with the U.S. and that anti-American regimes are harder to change than pro-American regimes. In the case of Iran, this argument meant that a diplomatic solution to the U.S.-Iran dispute and better diplomatic ties were more productive than sanctions, isolation and destabilization. Of course, I did not mean to argue that diplomatic ties would make Iran democratic, but rather that improved U.S.-Iran relations is a pre-requisite, though it not a sufficient condition, for democracy to develop in Iran. Unfortunately, enemies of peace and democracy rejected this argument in favor of calling for even more sanctions and the threat of war. Meanwhile, U.S. policy makers also failed to realize that the most formidable obstacle for democratic change in Iran was the absence of normal U.S.-Iran relations. As a result, U.S.-Iran relations spiraled to an even greater level of animosity and the Iranian domestic polity became ever more military-security oriented.
I did not just advance sensible arguments but also organized a Council to communicate my ideas into policy and action. Significantly, I founded, with the help of prominent Americans and Iranian-Americans, The American Iranian Council (AIC) in the first year of Khatami‘s presidency (1997), and organized a series of path-breaking conferences on U.S.-Iran relations. The late Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State in the Carter Administration, joined AIC as its Honorary Chairman in 1998 and, after 15 years of silence on Iran, gave his first speech at an AIC event. Emphasizing “the time has come,” he called on President Bill Clinton and the Supreme Leader Khamanei to join forces to rebuild the relationship. The late Vance had resigned when, despite his objections, President Carter ordered the disastrous hostage rescue mission in April 1980. The AIC in a short time became the most important organization ever established between the U.S. and Iran - indeed between the U.S. and any other developing nation. In praising the Council, Houshang Ansari, a minister under the Shah, told me in a private meeting that: “even the Shah could not found such a powerful organization to help Iran in the U.S. despite all the money and power that he threw behind the idea.”
The AIC is a unique organization of Americans and Iranians and the only organization entirely focused on U.S.-Iran relations. The Council does not receive government money and its board members, including myself, serve strictly on a voluntary basis. The AIC is the only organization of its type that has remained true to its cause: never has it supported sanctions of any type; never has it opposed negotiation between Iran and the U.S.; and never has it tried to condition U.S.-Iran dialogue on any matters peripheral to the core problems of the relationship. The Council also has an unparalleled track record of success. Significantly, in the spring of 2000, Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, delivered her historic speech at an AIC conference when she extended an apology to the Iranian people for past mistaken U.S. policies towards Iran (including the overthrow of Dr. Mosadeq in 1953), lifted sanctions on carpets and certain food items, and offered Iran a ‘global settlement’. Iran’s Ambassador, Hadi Nejad Hoseinian, also spoke at the conference in a positive tone. This was the first time that high-ranking officials of the two countries joined together at an event on U.S.-Iran relations.
The Albright speech sent shock waves throughout the world, raising expectations that the two nations may indeed imminently resolve their disputes. However, conservatives in Iran only focused on her statement to the effect that, despite advances by the reformers, the main levers of state powers were still in the hands of a few ‘“unelected’ leaders. Iran’s official response came in the form of a speech by Supreme Leader Khamanei in which he heavily criticized the Clinton Administration for intervention in Iran’s domestic affairs. Then, days after the speech, Saeed Hajjarian, the ‘mastermind’ of the religious reform movement in Iran, was also shot. The hopes for a breakthrough in U.S.-Iran relations were again dashed. Years later, Iran's President Mohammad Khatami would characterize this event, which had been designed to break the wall of mistrust as a "missed opportunity."
The AIC continued to provide significant opportunities that were missed. For example, when Vice President Joe Biden, then Chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, wished to propose a dialogue between the U.S. Congress and the Iranian Parliament, he chose to do so at an AIC conference (Senator John Kerry, as a Presidential candidate, gave a keynote speech at another AIC event and made a similar gesture); when Speaker Mehdi Karubi, now a leading proponent of the Green Movement, wanted to engage his American Congressional counterparts, he chose an AIC event in Manhattan (this event helped in the release of 13 Iranian Jews who had been accused of spying); when Iran decided to offer America a helping hand in the war against Saddam Hussein, and then in 2003 offered the U.S. a ‘Grand Bargain’ by engaging the AIC to architect the ideas; when we proposed to extend the Council's activities to Iran, the U.S. government in 2008 granted the AIC a rare license; when the AIC brought the civilian airline tragedies in Iran to the attention of President Obama, the U.S. government responded positively, agreeing to entertain a proposal from Iran to purchase spare parts from the U.S.; and when American hikers needed help to secure their freedom from an Iranian jail, the AIC offered them its good office.
The Council has also participated in Track II diplomacy, produced several policy papers, including the 2009 White paper, published 15 books (under my editorship) on U.S.-Iran relations, and maintains one of the most useful websites on U.S.-Iran matters (www.american-iranian.org). A significant example of such activities is my meeting with Secretary George Shultz at his home on the Stanford University campus in the summer of 2001. He summarized the American view of Iran since the Revolution in four points: first, Iran is a very important country and we should have never lost its partnership; second, no regime has harmed the U.S. more than the Islamic Republic of Iran, and that it is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to mend relations with this regime; third, the Iranian religious leadership would change its behavior if subjected to American military force; and fourth, there is only one mutually-beneficial solution to the problem - to begin a dialogue that will help normalize relations, and that this dialogue has to begin with building confidence at the highest level. He offered to help and I took a message from him to Ambassador Hadi Nejad Hoseinian which he delivered to Iran but to which Tehran never responded. The Council also engaged some of the most important American business and community leaders in U.S.-Iran Track II dialogue and policy conferences.
Finally, although the Council has not traditionally itself intervened in Iranian domestic politics, we nevertheless condemned the acts of violence that followed the 2009 disputed Presidential elections, and suggested a coalition government as a potential solution. We, of course, support the guarantee and protection of human rights in Iran but believe that foreign relations must be kept separate from domestic issues. The Council was the first organization in the U.S. to draw attention to Iran’s human rights record and we subsequently organized a conference in 1991 on the subject. Andrew Whitley, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, spoke at the conference, along with other prominent Americans and Iranians. The Council also took the lead in introducing the Iranian-American community to U.S. politics. The AIC continues to remain relevant and is providing distinguished services to the constituencies of U.S.-Iran relations through its various projects and programs listed on its website. These include a project reviving Iran’s good image in the West and protecting Iranian–Americans from sanctions.
Revealing Abnormal Iranian Politics
Due to my success in organizing the Council and because of the important works of the AIC, I became the subject of a series of vicious articles in a number of major right-wing Iranian newspapers. Importantly, the ultra-conservative and semi-official Keyhan daily published a nine-part story about my life in which I was portrayed as a ‘special agent’ of the United States. The publication would print my picture alongside that of Secretary Albright in the front page of the newspaper and below the picture would write: ‘remember the face of this man: he is a special agent.’ Keyhan even published a book called The Hidden Half in which I was featured as an enemy of the Islamic system and was accused of trying to ‘softly overthrow’ the Islamic system. Tragically, none of the reformists ever objected to Keyhan’s vicious attacks on my character.
But my character was not just assassinated by my opponents in Iran. In the United States, too, I was denounced as an ‘agent of the Islamic Republic.’ Extremists in the expatriate community (through their television and radio programs) who in the past had accused me of being pro-Hashemi, now claimed that I was ‘pro-Khatami’, and that I wanted to mend U.S.-Iran relations in order to whitewash ‘the criminal’ Islamic Republic and prolong its life. In sharp contrast to my peace-making activities, my opponents wanted sanctions and war imposed on the Islamic regime, deceptively arguing that through those means the Islamic regime would be overthrown and Iran become democratic. They conveniently ignored the fact that their Shah was a close ally of the U.S. and that he was overthrown when the American Embassy in Tehran was in full operation.
As if ‘opposition’ was the only acceptable political position, even the so-called reformists did not openly support improved U.S.-Iran relations. Some would even voice strong opposition. Still, less relevant to them was my conceptually-sound argument that diplomatic ties with the United States were a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for democratic change in Iran, and that as long as the two governments remained inimical, democracy would have little chance, if at all. It was not just that they objected to my views and activities on some ideological basis; their interest in character assassination was also rooted in a fundamental flaw of the Iranian political culture: instead of encouraging competition with the contestant, this culture often promotes envy and character assassination.
As I had predicted, Khatami‘s government failed to deliver on its important promises, including ‘free and fair elections.’ Indeed, by subordinating that critical requirement for democracy to an abstract ‘political development’ goal, and by over-politicizing the nascent civil society, the Khatami reformers gave the Conservatives the pretext they needed to increasingly tighten control over elections and strangle the emerging civil institutions. The Khatami administration also failed to adequately advance political reform, social justice and economic development. Nor was it able to engage the U.S. in a serious, meaningful and sustainable dialogue as Khatami’s U.S. policy remained confined to the outdated ‘détente.’ Ironically, his ‘dialogue among civilizations’ excluded the U.S. government and the Iranian moderate opposition.
From the beginning, the Khatami reformers, focused solely on just grabbing power, had ignored reality and used Western political reform theories as their guide for political development in Iran. Consequently, they saw the Iranian people as mere loyal ‘voters’, the secular opposition as ‘irrelevant’, and argued that their reform movement was ‘irreversible’. They were proven wrong and subsequently, upset with Khatami and fearful of the rising ultra-conservatives, a faction of the reformists advocated a more radical approach, including ‘bypassing Khatami’. This was a rather naïve idea as was their previous tactic of ‘pressure from below, negotiation from above’. They had already destroyed the center by defaming Hashemi as a corrupt politician and the man ‘most dangerous’ to the reform movement.
The struggle between the ultra-conservatives and the radical reformists over the control of state power, with little mediation from ‘the center’, was now more direct. Indeed, in the Ninth Presidential Elections in 2005, the Islamic Participation Party and its ally, the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution, would not join forces with Hashemi pragmatists, non-Khatami religious reformers, and secular democrats to help prevent an ultra-conservative victory. Specifically, refusing to support Hashemi or Karubi, who were running against Ahmadinejad, the Khatami reformers fielded their own, less popular candidate. They were particularly unfriendly to Karubi, and propagated the idea that he was an unpredictable compromiser, making him ‘unelectable’. Incidentally, Karubi won many more votes than the reformist candidate.
The story of the 2005 Presidential elections is more tragic than the disputed 2009 presidential elections, a fact nobody in the Iranian polity will ever acknowledge. Not only did the Khatami reformers fail to build a coalition with other reformers and democratic forces to support one candidate, but also most of the ‘political intelligentsia’ and the educated middle class boycotted the election. Even when Ahmadinejad and Hashemi went to the second round, reformers, including Khatami and Mousavi, would not openly or actively support Hashemi, and the so-called democracy advocates, inside and outside the country, including Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, did not participate in the elections. Consequently, the lesser known Ahmadinejad won the elections with a wide margin.
Assessing the developing political situation in 2005 as critical, I became a presidential candidate in-exile to counter the boycott movement and advance the cause of free and fair elections. I also wanted to have on record that I was not among those who boycotted the 2005 elections. I entered the race too late and before I could make an impact, the Guardian Council, as I had expected, disapproved my candidacy for the bogus reason that I had dual citizenship. To my disappointment, the Khatami reformers and many other so-called pro-democracy forces did not bother to object to this undemocratic decision. In a long letter to the Secretary of the Guardian Council, available on my website, I objected to the disapproval and argued that the decision disserves Iran.
After the disapproval, I continued to remain active and spoke about my plan for the country and participation in the elections. Significantly, when Ahmadinejad and Hashemi went to the second round, I wrote an open letter to the Iranian people (available on my personal website), reminding them that this election marked a turning point and that they must exercise good judgment in their choice. I advised that they vote for the candidate closer to my position, i.e., the one who would support dialogue with the United States, fight for free and fair elections, and advocate a social-market economy. I also asked that they vote for pragmatism, wisdom, and experience. While the views of neither candidate fitted my presidential platform, Hashemi was obviously closer.
After Ahmadinejad became president, I wrote two articles about him in Persian and English and posted them on many Persian and English websites. I was critical of his foreign policy, domestic economic programs, and political populism, but gave him credit for being a self-made individual and for supporting social justice for poorer Iranians and the lesser developed regions of the country. I also gave him credit for breaking a few red lines in the Islamic Republic’s policy toward the U.S., but criticized him for his harsh words toward Israel and the Holocaust. I also characterized him as an ‘ultra-nationalist’, for which I have been vehemently criticized by his enemies, who often call him a ‘fascist’. Ahmadinejad is undoubtedly a very polarizing figure.
As in the past, on the U.S-Iran front I continued to reject America’s coercive diplomacy, including economic sanctions and the threat of the use of force against Iran. Instead, I backed constructive diplomacy between Iran and the U.S. and remained active in the field. As if my opponents had never heard me advocating such ideas, they then charged that I was ‘pro-Ahmadinejad’! Earlier they had charged that I was pro-Hashemi and pro-Khatami! I was already the subject of their vicious attacks for becoming a presidential candidate in the elections that they had actively boycotted. Only four years later, these same ‘opportunists’ would become pro-elections, would charge that Ahmadinejad had orchestrated ‘a coup’, and would ask for reelections and then his ‘removal’!
The ‘pro-Ahmadinejad’ propaganda against me was also rooted in the fact that he had helped me return to Iran after 10 years in exile, for which I have on a few public occasions thanked him. Specifically, two years into his presidency, Ahmadinejad accepted my request for a safe return to Iran. I had repeatedly asked the Khatami administration for the same, but each time I was told that the government could not guarantee my safety. I have travelled to Iran many times since 2008. I have been warmly received, not just by friends and family members, but also by the media and the general public. I have been frequently interviewed on U.S.-Iran and domestic issues by many prominent publications and have met with high-ranking government officials and religious authorities as well as important reformist and pragmatist leaders. My interviews have been, generally, very critical of the government for mishandling relations with the U.S., mismanaging the economy, and mistreating the youth.
When travelling to Iran so frequently, I had set myself several goals: understand Iran better after 10 years of exile; convince the government and its critics that better relations with the United States are in the best interest of Iran; draw attention to the rising youth problems and their growing alienation from the Islamic system; and persuade reformist leaders that they need to form a united front in the upcoming presidential elections (2009) and focus on ‘free and fair elections’. I thought Karubi would make a good candidate and tried in vain to persuade top reformers, pragmatists, and nationalists that a coalition around his candidacy would be more appropriate than fielding Khatami or Mousavi, who were less acceptable to the much radicalized establishment.
I became increasingly emboldened in my views on U.S.-Iran relations and domestic matters, as well as by visits with key political leaders. Being away from Iran for so many years, I did not realize that I had become too bold and overly critical of a system that faced increasing pressure from a hostile West and many unhappy citizens. The last interview I gave to E’etemad newspaper ‘angered the authorities’ and led them to place selective restrictions on my further media and political contacts. Indeed, my E’etemad interviewer, Keyhan Mehregan, ended up in jail following the Green Movement. In that substantive interview, I had argued that the growing gap between the Islamic system and the youth would become increasingly unmanageable, and predicted that ‘factional’ politics would become highly tenuous and decline in favor of a more ‘national’ approach to Iran’s foreign and domestic problems. These predictions have largely materialized because of, and in the aftermath of, the so-called Green Movement.
However, what has made my opponents intensify their hostility were my attempts to establish an AIC office in Tehran. The U.S. government had issued a rare license through its Office of Foreign Assets Control authorizing AIC to operate in Iran. President George W. Bush also openly supported the opening of the AIC office in Tehran. The matter had already become a global sensation and the Iranian government had initially raised no objection. I was even directed to submit an application for permission to the Iranian Interior Ministry. I had followed the procedure and was ‘lobbying’ various offices for approval when the storm developed.
Even before the conservatives took issue with my trip, words or actions, certain reformists had begun questioning the government for welcoming me back. They also mocked my conservative opponents for remaining silent on the matter. While the government remained publically inattentive to such innuendoes, the new right finally broke silence and wrote against me in its media in increasingly harsher tones. Back in the United States, too, my opponents had multiplied their attack on me for ‘travelling’ to Iran and ‘cooperating’ with the Ahmadinejad government. Guilt by association is a deep-rooted part of Iranian political culture.
However, the reactions at home and abroad to my views and activities, all of which I thought were in the best interests of the Iranian nation, made me think that the problem went deeper than the political culture: Iranian society had become engulfed in what I called ‘abnormality’. I began digging into this problem and wrote the article “From the Discourse of Democracy to the Discourse of Normalization in the Islamic Republic of Iran” to reflect on it. I argued that since the Iranian revolution of 1979, Iranian society has existed in an abnormal state, and that a majority of Iranians are seeking to replace the discourse of democracy versus dictatorship with a new discourse of normalization versus brinkmanship. While the call for normalization included many aspects of Iranian life, particularly national reconciliation, its focus was on international symbiosis, U.S.-Iran relations in particular. The Iranian people were rightly concerned about the rising dangers facing Iran because of its abnormal relationship with the U.S. But I also noticed the fact that the ‘normalizers’ in Iran and abroad have powerful enemies, whom I labeled ‘Brinkmen’; indeed, I have been a victim of this latter group.
I was on research leave from Rutgers University in 2008 and part of 2009. During this time, I was a Senior Associate at Oxford University and I used this opportunity to frequently travel between Tehran and Washington to implement an AIC ‘shuttle diplomacy’ project. As part of that mission, I met officials on both sides and took certain ‘understandings’ back and forth dealing with the nuclear dispute, among other matters. I also used the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of concerns and policies on both sides and to formulate a new U.S.-Iran roadmap proposal. The product of those efforts is the AIC Whitepaper, posted on its website. While in Iran I was warmly welcomed by the general public. My political adversaries, on the other hand, used this opportunity for further vicious character assassination. They claimed that I was a ‘shadowy’ figure and that for certain unspecified charges, Rutgers University had fired me. This latest lie about me was first reported in Iran by a website belonging to a reformist group.
The Green Movement, Political Culture and Nationism
During the trips to Iran, I also used the opportunity to meet key reformist leaders, including cleric Karubi (presidential candidate, a leader of the Green Movement), Dr. Ibrahim Yazdi (leader of the Freedom Movement, currently in prison), Dr. Reza Khatami and Mr. Mohsen Mirdamad (leaders of Iran’s Participation Party). My purpose: to convince them that the next presidential elections (the disputed June elections) were most critical and that they demanded a united reformist/pragmatist front. My specific proposal was that they all support one candidate, preferably Mr. Karubi. Unfortunately, I failed to convince them. For the enemies of Ahmadinejad, Karubi was neither radical enough nor capable of defeating the incumbent President. They eventually settled with Mr. Mousavi as their candidate, and I stayed with Karubi.
Only weeks before the elections, I met Mr. Karubi in his home and expressed my fear that the Presidential elections could lead to serious political turmoil. My reason: Mr. Mousavi is not acceptable to the ultra-conservatives as the next President, while Dr. Ahmadinejad is unacceptable to the reformists for a second term. I was also concerned by the manner in which the two campaigns were progressing; they did not resemble election campaigns at all but instead was more akin to a civil war. Karubi at one point acknowledged that my concerns were well founded given that in his words “some in the reformist camp believe in overthrowing the system,” and he referred to them as “over-throwers”. Upon returning to the United States, I gave an interview to the Gozaar website (in English and Persian) where I reiterated my fear and the reasoning behind it. Alas, my very worst fears materialized. If I could see trouble ahead, the reformist and pragmatist leaders should have certainly seen the unrest brewing.
The Green camp has argued that Mousavi had been approved by the Guardian Council and the Leader Khamanei. This meant that there was no concern regarding the person of Mousavi, the main challenger to President Ahmadinejad. In the Green Camp’s view, the Ahmadinejad camp had ‘already decided to rig the elections’ and it did not matter who stood as a challenger to him. The Ahmadinejad camp, on the other hand, has charged that the opposition had planned a ‘colored revolution’ with support from foreign powers; they have tried to find similarities between the Green Movement in Iran and the colored revolutions in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Georgia. In a nutshell, the opposition participates in presidential elections, rejects the results, brings people to the streets in protest, overthrows the regime or forces a re-election that makes them winner!
In the days following the elections, I was interviewed by IRNA, Radio Farda, VOA, the BBC, CNN, Fox and many other media outlets. I also wrote several articles and recorded short videos that were posted on the website of the American Iranian Council. I condemned the violence against the demonstrators, supported the people’s demand for a more democratic and prosperous Iran, and recommended that the leaders of the opposition see Khamanei and propose the formation of a ‘national reconciliation government’ as their solution to the dispute. I also insisted that the opposition stop calling for reelections and the removal of Ahmadinejad; rather I recommended that it channel its energy and demands toward free and fair elections in the future and use the movement toward achieving those ‘minimal demands’. I feared that, faced by ‘maximal demands’, the regime would use its military-security prowess and suppress the reform movement.
I also recommended that the Obama Administration stay away from the Iranian elections struggle except for expressing, in principle, its support for the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people, including their human rights. I feared that, given the memory of the 1953 coup, any American intervention in the struggle would further complicate U.S.-Iran relations. I even insisted that the Obama Administration continue its call for engagement with the Supreme Leader and the Ahmadinejad Government. I was particularly fearful that any explicit American involvement would ill convince the ultra-conservatives in Iran that the Green Movement was a colored revolution made in and supported by the U.S. Unfortunately, as I was advancing these recommendations, others recommended that the Administration take a harder line towards Iran, not just to condemn it for violence but to demand that the regime change course.
My fears have all materialized. Reelections never happened; Ahmadinejad did not fall; the Green Movement was crushed; the reform movement has been stalled; a more military-security system had taken hold in the country; and the hope for free and fair elections in the future has been seriously compromised. Thus, the elections and their aftermath have led to a much less desirable domestic politics; the chaotic semi-democracy that existed before the elections has been largely wiped out in favor of more authoritarian rule. Relations with the U.S. have also suffered. The Obama Administration’s increasingly vocal criticism of Tehran has led the conservative forces in Iran to doubt his ‘sincerity’ in engaging Iran, arguing that his initial opening was designed as a ‘public relations ploy’ to gain the U.S. more international support for its plan to impose more sanctions on Iran and to further isolate it.
Several months after I had expressed my views on what needed to be done, Hashemi gave a speech in which he proposed his centrist solution, more or less along the lines that I had advocated. Still months after Hashemi had proposed his solution, Mousavi, in his communiqué number 17, relinquished his demands for reelections and for the dismissal of Ahmadinejad, asking instead for a better government and a future of free and fair elections. However, by then it was too late: his movement did not have the power or the energy to support him on these new, more realistic demands, and they were not heard. Once again, political history had repeated itself in contemporary Iran: the opposition asking for its maximum demands destroyed its chance for the realization of its minimum demands. And the result for me was as in the past: while the opposition criticized my pragmatist and realist approach, they have not acknowledged the fact that my arguments and predictions have all materialized.
In an ironic twist, in less than two years, the isolated Ahmadinejad and his people began to emerge as likeable people among some of their previously most ardent enemies. Ahmadinejad and Rahim Mashaei, his Chief of Staff, had begun praising the pre-Islamic history of Iran and Iranian nationalism, and they had even come up with the idea of ‘the maktab-e Iraniyeh Islam’ (the Iranian philosophy of Islam). These developments were then followed by Ahmadinejad’s disagreement with the Leader over the dismissal of the Intelligence Ministry, among other matters. Until this time, I was often blamed for being pro-Ahmadinejad; thereafter, I was praised for being his supporter. What a twist! In reality I was never a supporter or an enemy, only a realistic academic or politician who was trying to understand the man better, appreciating his good work and criticizing his bad manners, including wasteful management tactics and exaggerated views.
The Green Movement made me reflect on why Iranian politics is so handicapped when it comes to the issue of transition to a better society. I had already written, in my doctorate dissertation, on the failed Iranian transition from pseudo-feudalism to capitalism or modernity. That thesis is now published in a book called The Political Economy of Iran under the Qajars. In that book and in another book called Revolution and Economic Transition: The Iranian Experience, I begin reflecting on the Iranian political culture as an obstacle to peaceful coexistence and change. Following the Green Movement, I started to further reflect on that subject and wrote a lengthy article that has been published on many sites. I also gave a lengthy interview to the Entekhab site in Iran on Iranian Political Culture. In these and other writings I begin discovering that Iranian political culture contains fundamental flaws that prevent the nation from coming together and coexisting with the outside world for a better future.
A key problem with Iranian political culture is its intolerance and divisive tenet, rooted in its deeply ideological character, making it an obstacle to the formation of national reconciliation and interest. This ideological oddity then causes the political culture to also generate more politicized intellectuals than intellectual politicians. Indeed, the latter group is a rarity in the Iranian polity while the former is the norm. It is no wonder that collective political wisdom should be in short supply in Iran where most people are smart. It is this lack of political wisdom that makes political opposition in Iran more of an enemy to the existing powers than an alternative to them, making national unity a difficult task. The problem does not only manifest itself in politics but also in other areas including economic development. For example, Iranian society is composed, generally speaking, of three social groups: the base, the middle and the upper classes, each with their specific needs including social justice, political freedom, and economic growth. This simple fact should have led to the formation of inclusive national plans in which these classes and their needs are reflected. Yet, never in Iran have such plans materialized; instead, exclusivity and divisiveness have been the basis for national plans.
Following on from the Iranian political culture, I began to think of an alternative way to address the Iranian dilemma. After some research, I concluded that imperfect nation building is at the core of Iran’s predicament, and that the problem is best addressed through the concept of ‘nationism’. A nation incorporates the people and their homeland, and nationism is based on the belief that nations are driven by two sets of interests: people’s interests and territorial interests. In Iran this simple fact of dual-interests has never been advanced, except for a short period during the truncated Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the 20th century. For example, Iranian traditional nationalism focuses primarily on territorial interests while Islamism focuses primarily on public (ummah) interests. This differing focus is also the cause of tension between Iranian nationalism and Iranian Islamism as well as between modernity and tradition in the country. I am now convinced that nationism can help to bring about a more complete nation-building in Iran and in resolving key obstacles to change, including national disunity.
My Plan for Moving Forward
Iran remains in flux. The change will inevitably come, at what price and when this happens we must of course wait to see. The wise thing to do is, of course, bring a productive change to bear with minimal cost to the nation. This will require new ideas, courage, wisdom, compromise, and vision. Attaining this result is still possible - though it will not be easy. But before a better future can be achieved, a better approach to change must first be adopted. Theoretically speaking, there are four alternatives ahead:
|First, a continuation of the status quo, which is becoming increasingly unrealistic by the day given rising domestic and international pressures;
Second, a revolution, similar to 1979; this will lead to chaos and the disintegration of the country given that no single person or force in Iran can hold the nation together during such an upheaval;
Third, a war or invasion as in the case of Iraq and Libya; this is a prescription for a national disaster and irreparable destruction;
Fourth, free and fair elections; this is, in my view, the least costly and most productive way to change Iran.
I am for the election approach and believe that the best electoral system for Iran is one of proportional representation as it can make true and effective coalition governments possible. To demonstrate my dedication to this road for change, I am standing as a candidate in the 2013 (1392) Presidential elections. I have prepared a comprehensive Campaign Plan which is posted on my website at www.amirahmadi.com
. As explained in the Plan, Iran is a complex country and the road ahead, both domestically and in terms of its relations with the outside world, remains challenging. I have detailed in the Plan why Iranians must take the election route as the most viable option for change, why I am the most suitable candidate, what I would do if elected, and what impact my campaign would have on Iran even if I am disapproved by the Guardian Council. I have also outlined the many obstacles that inevitably lie ahead and I have suggested how these might be mitigated. The simple fact is, Iran needs to change, the Iranian people are craving for change, and it is possible to bring about constructive change to Iran if Iranians are able to manage it in the right way.