On Sunday, April 14, Iranian-born Hooman Majd illuminated the misconceptions that have formed the basis of U.S.-Iran relations since 1953. Now a journalist for magazines such as The New Yorker and Newsweek, Majd is the son of an Iranian diplomat and grandson of an ayatollah, but attended school in the U.S. and the U.K. He has written several books, including The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, and has served as a translator for Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during their visits to the U.S.
In the past sixty or so years, Majd said, Americans have developed a notion of Iran as a nation of religious fanatics set on destroying Israel and opposing American interests wherever those intersect their own. Supporting this image is the Western media portrayal of President Ahmadinejad as an insane despot who has declared himself the enemy of Zionism and of Iranian gays and hopes to make Iran into a superpower to challenge the United States. Yet Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric by no means represents all of Iranian public opinion. Americans also do not understand why his aggressive stances might be appealing to some Iranians, said Majd. In his work, Majd has sought to elucidate these issues and dispel the cultural misunderstandings that have kept at bay the development of a more healthy relationship between the two nations.
American grievances against Iran include the widely misunderstood Iranian hostage crisis of the 1980s, Iran’s support for Saddam Hussein as well as terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, and its hostility to Israel. In their turn, Iranians resent that the U.S. and the U.K. instigated the replacement of the Iranian shah by his Western-backed son during the Second World War. In 1953, the Americans returned the shah to power after a coup had set up a new nationalist prime minister. Iranians believe that the American support for the shah deprived Iran of its democratic and nationalist aspirations. After this, and especially since 1979, Americans seem to Iranians to attempt to impose their own ideology on them and to undermine Iran’s nationhood, especially by preventing Iran from developing a nuclear program, which Iranians see as an essential symbol of a nation’s sovereignty. This nationalism stems from pride in Iran’s 2500-year history as an independent nation-state and a belief that the country’s decline is rooted in Western influence. The current administration takes advantage of Iranian nationalism, claiming that it will make Iran competitive again and independent from the demands of the West.
Contrary to the belief of most Americans, said Majd, Ahmadinejad is not “the leader of Iran”; this title is given to the supreme leader of Iran, chosen by an assembly of experts whom the people vote into office. Elected to office directly by the people with the consent of the Guardian Council, the President must defer to the Supreme Leader on all issues. To enter into a significant discussion with the Iranians on the nuclear issue, then, President Obama must speak with the Supreme Leader, who has not left Iran since 1989.
As an example of the cultural and political misunderstandings between the American and Iranian administrations, Majd pointed to Ahmadinejad’s letter to President Obama congratulating him on his election in 2008. Not understanding the importance of the letter, Obama failed to respond, and the Iranians claimed that this was because the Americans are not interested in engaging significantly with the Iranians. Furthermore, said Majd, the American threat either to bomb Iran or cripple its economy if it does not comply with American demands is not conducive to a healthy discussion of the nuclear issue, and instead, Iranians feel, threaten Iran’s claim to independence.
Indeed, the recent economic sanctions have achieved an effect opposite to that intended by the Americans, crippling a middle class that might otherwise chafe under Ahmadinejad’s rule. The administration has used the sanctions as an excuse to paint American motives as primarily focused on finding an American-backed replacement for Ahmadinejad rather than only on Iranian nuclear policy. Ahmadinejad has also been able to label its critics as pro-American, discouraging further dissent.
Americans, on the other hand, tend to assume that the American political system is the best available, and that all countries should want the same civil rights in which Americans pride themselves. Yet other cultures are not so willing yet to accept the same liberties, especially in respect to gay rights. While not denying the importance of these civil liberties, Majd emphasized that each culture must approach them on its own terms and in its own time.
The U.S., Majd concluded, should enter into a more meaningful and respectful discussion with Iran. Iranians would be willing to negotiate on many less important issues, such as its support for Syrian president, if Americans showed more respect for Iranians’ intense desire for independence. By aligning itself with popular sentiment in Iran, furthermore, the U.S. could encourage preexisting democratic movements internally, as well as a broader discussion about human rights infringements by the current Iranian regime.