Find Out What Iran Really Wants, From Iran Expert Hooman Majd

Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, smiling and waving

I recently had an opportunity to talk with Hooman Majd, an expert on Iran-U.S. affairs and author of bestsellers The Ayatollah Begs to Differ and The Ayatollah’s Democracy. His new book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, will be published on November 5. Majd is also a contributor to many publications and appears frequently on various television networks to discuss Iranian affairs.

He also recently went to Geneva to cover the P5+1 talks. Below is our interview.

AMIR SALEHZADEH: Some argue that the election of President Hassan Rouhani is a new beginning for Iran, or at least a new opportunity to resolve the diplomatic impasse between Iran and the West. Do you think that argument is true? Why is there a change in tone? 

HOOMAN MAJD: I definitely agree. It's an opportunity. Not that there haven’t been opportunities in the past, but with Rouhani there is such a difference in tone and rhetoric from the past, and the kind of administration he’s put together is promising in terms of ability and reasonableness, or moderation as he puts it. I think with a certain reasonableness, there is opportunity for progress on the nuclear front and other issues facing Iran.

When you had someone, like former President Ahmadinejad, who denied the Holocaust and talked about 9/11 conspiracy theories, the impression was that he was an unreasonable person, someone impossible to do business with. So a nuclear deal seemed out of reach, and the obstinacy of his administration in international affairs in general made it impossible for anything to get done.  

But I think there is a real desire for a solution to the nuclear issue on Iran’s part. The truth is that the Iranians are much more exhausted than we are over this issue, and want to resolve what’s been ongoing for more than a decade, and what has been a part of their daily lives for that long (in terms of sanctions, the economy, isolation from the West, etc.).

Compared to the last election, almost all Iranians viewed the recent presidential election as fair. Rouhani was the one candidate who was by far the most reform-minded. He ran on the slogan of “change” and the slogan of “hope” and on being able to conclude a nuclear deal and promised to get Iran back to business. So he has a mandate and the Iranian people expect him to deliver.

That being said, I don’t think they’re not going to cave and close down their nuclear program just because we tell them to. They want to be treated like any other country, as equals in any negotiation.

AS: You were in Geneva for the recent P5+1 talks. Do you think those talks are going anywhere? What sort of concessions is Iran willing to make?

HM: Yes I was, last week. I went as a journalist, with NBC News, and I guess we had as much of a front row seat as is possible with these things.

Again, at least the tone and mood coming out of the talks was better than ever before. The Iranian team came in with a real proposal that was detailed, and according to other parties, significant. I would say that one should be somewhat optimistic at this point.

That the parties set the dates for the next round of negotiations so soon is another positive outcome this time. [The P5+1 will sit down again with Iran in the same place just three weeks later, on November 7 and 8.] I assume that in the next round the Iranians will want to get some sort of response to the plan they presented last week.

I don’t think Iran will agree to permanently shutter any nuclear sites necessarily, but they are probably willing to concede quite a bit beyond that. They’re probably willing to concede the 20% enriched uranium; the only reason they enriched at that level themselves is because they argued, rightly actually, that the international community would not sell them fuel rods for the Tehran reactor that required 20% enriched uranium.

But at some point they don’t really need to enrich to 20% anymore. They have enough fuel for that reactor for years now, and that 20% enrichment is a big concern of the West. I believe that they’re also probably willing to compromise on the number of kilograms of enriched uranium they store. It’s speculation at this point, though, since details of the proposal are being kept secret.

In my opinion, the Fordow nuclear site, which the West wants closed and dismantled, is a tough one; the reason they built it is because they are being constantly threatened by a military attack — so they’ll want a site that is somewhat impervious to a military attack. They may restrict the number of centrifuges or the amount and level of enrichment, but I doubt they’ll mothball the plant, at least not while for the U.S. and Israel “all options are on the table”.

AS: There is a lot of patriotism and nationalism surrounding the nuclear issue. How will that factor in?

HM: Iran has been spending 12 years telling its people that they have a right to a nuclear program. Telling Iran they can’t have nuclear rights sounds a lot like telling Iran that it has to essentially give up rights to its oil, as the UK told Iran in the 1950s, and then conspired with the U.S. to instigate a coup when they refused.

To Iranians, it seems as though the West is asking them to give up their right in the same way they demanded Iran continue its oil concession with the British. To them it’s a matter of national security, national interests, and their rights as a nation. It’s viewed by Iran as discriminatory for Japan, say, to be able to have a nuclear program, but not Iran.

The view is also that once Iran agrees that it does not have that right to an indigenous nuclear program, it will be impossible to assert that right later. 

AS: What is the current state of Iran in terms of the government's stability? You've said in the past that Iran is not in a pre-revolutionary state, and that the regime is strong. How has the Iranian government changed since the Green Movement? 

HM: I’ve always argued that Iran has not been in a pre-revolutionary state for a long time. The regime was certainly unstable in 2009, and we know that millions of Iranians wanted and supported change. However, people by and large didn’t want to overthrow the system.

Today, Iran is much more stable than other neighboring countries. The regime is confident, and it’s not teetering. But the economic situation is the country’s most pressing challenge, and then of course there are political and social issues.

I think Iranians look at the rest of the region, at countries like Syria and Egypt, and say, “we don’t want that”, so they look more for gradual change or reform instead of a sudden overhaul or overthrow of the system. That seems to be the consensus inside Iran. Outside Iran and within the Iranian diaspora there are different views. 

AS: Do you think Israel or even Saudi Arabia will stand in the way of progress between America and Iran? 

HM: They’ll try. They’re trying now. Israel does not want to see the Iranian issue resolved, short of a complete capitulation on the part of Iran. They want to see Iran with no nuclear program, as they view Iran as a threat.

Israel would feel threatened by Iran if it were to grow into a formidable economic and military power, which it can if relations with the West are normalized and the nuclear issue is resolved, since Iran is opposed to Israeli policies in the Middle East. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, who are close to the U.S., also don’t want to see a competing powerful neighbor.

But I doubt that they’ll succeed. Obama understands the parameters of what a diplomatic solution looks like and he’ll deal with the Saudis and Israelis and convince them that diplomacy is only the solution.  

AS: Twitter diplomacy, is that a thing? How significant is it that Rouhani has a Twitter account, which is censored in Iran? 

HM: I think it is significant. Rouhani has said repeatedly that he does not maintain his Twitter account himself, but people who worked on his campaign do and he doesn’t disapprove of it. His stated opinion is that social media should not be banned.

Inside Iran alone, there are 17 million Iranian Facebook users, despite the government censorship of the site. So for Rouhani and his administration it’s a way for then to connect with their supporters and for supporters to connect with them that is a sea change from before.

Rouhani doesn’t have the authority to change the censorship laws or practices, but he perhaps does have influence, at least for now, over other elements of the regime that are responsible for censorship. But I suppose that remains to be seen in the longer run.

AS: Is the presidency more powerful? Since Rouhani received the largest proportion of the vote and won in a landslide, doesn't it make it harder for the supreme leader to exert as much power? 

HM: The presidency has more power now ironically partly because of Ahmadinejad, because he forced the system to accept his assuming more power than any other president before him, with the exception of Rafsanjani perhaps. He took it upon himself to make policy without checking with the clergy or the supreme leader, and made decisions that were not sanctioned by the supreme leader — and he mostly got away with it.

Ahmadinejad defied and even threatened Parliament. At one time, Parliament wanted to impeach him, but was prevented from doing so by the supreme leader. So in many ways Rouhani’s presidency is more powerful than, say Khatami’s, because of the ways in which Ahmadinejad transformed the office.

Iranians have made it very clear that they gave a mandate to Rouhani, but much like with U.S. politics there is a honeymoon period for the president who wins an election. The power centers in Iran are certainly aware of the mandate, and the honeymoon period will cover their behavior, too.