Hooman Majd is the grandson of an ayatollah, son of a career diplomat, and related by marriage to former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. Born in Tehran, he spent his formative years globe-trotting for his father’s work and was educated in schools in San Francisco, New Delhi, Tunis, London and Washington D.C.
After many years in the entertainment business, heading Island Records and producing at Palm Pictures, Majd visited Iran in 2003, the first time he had been back to his birthplace in over thirty years. Over the past decade, he has traveled to Iran often and been a consistently astute and articulate observer of Iranian society and politics.
Author of the best-selling books, “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran” (2008) and “The Ayatollah’s Democracy: An Iranian Challenge” (2010) and countless articles published in Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek, The New Republic, The Financial Times, Foreign Policy, Politico, The New York Observer, The Daily Beast, Salon and elsewhere, Majd’s intellect, insight and humility are refreshing, especially in a community occupied by self-declared “experts” and agenda-driven analysts and activists.
Majd recently spent a year living in Iran researching his newest book, “The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran,” which will be published this Fall.
Muftah met up with Majd in Brooklyn recently, where he generously lent his time to answer a wide range of questions. Below is an excerpt of the conversation, which focused on the upcoming presidential election in Iran.
MUFTAH: On Friday June 14, Iranians will once again go to the polls to vote for their next president. Unsurprisingly, Western governments and media routinely cast Iranian elections as unfree and unfair, if not always because of claims of fraud, then because of the vetting proces for eligible candidates, which is conducted by the Guardian Council, an appointed body mandated by the Iranian Constitution. What are your thoughts on this?
HOOMAN MAJD (HM): I love all the comments about the Guardian Council this and the Guardian Council that. Yes, I think it’s horrific what the Guardian Council does and I think it’s really unfair, but let’s be reasonable: what country is going to have 686 people go on the ballot to run for president? It’s not physically possible for someone to go into a polling booth on election and chose between 686 candidates. What television network can arrange a debate between – forget about 686 – even thirty candidates?
Our media in America winnows those down to two because they decide who’s viable and vetted. Just ask Ralph Nader! Or Dennis Kucinich, who was a Congressman and couldn’t even get on a debate. So once you can’t get on the debates, that means you’re not a viable candidate. So who’s decided all this? First, you have the Democratic National Committee, then you have the Republican National Committee. Then there’s the media and corporate donors.
I’m not saying that Iran is as democratic as the United States. Certainly not. And there are arbitrary rejections of candidates which shouldn’t happen and the Guardian Council, in my view, shouldn’t be a body that vets candidates. I think there should be a rule of law, there should be very specific requirements for the presidency, as there are in every country in the world, for any leadership role. And as long as you qualify, you should be approved. There shouldn’t be a political consideration. So yes, I would agree with that.
But to paint this picture that Iranian government is automatically undemocratic because not everybody can run, well that’s true in most countries, not everybody can run.
MUFTAH: Do you think the approved candidates for the Iranian presidency offer the Iranian people an actual choice, a real choice of candidates with differing policies and a range of platforms for dealing with internal, as well as international, issues. If so, who among them might be able to offer substantive change?
HM: I don’t think that there’s any doubt that there’s a real choice, despite the disqualifications of [Ahmadinejad aide Esfandiar Rahim] Mashaei and [former president Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani. Hassan Rouhani, for example, is a substantially different person than Saeed Jalili who is also substantially different from Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Ali Velayati. Right now, with the eight candidates, it appears that there is a choice.
Sure, it’s heavily weighted on the conservative side, but there is one genuine reformist, Mohammad Reza Aref, who is unlikely to gain much support only because he is kind of like [Khatami advisor and reformist presidential candidate Mohammad] Moeen [was in 2005], kind of unknown and doesn’t have charisma. Unless [former president Mohammad] Khatami and the other reformists throw their support behind him, it’s unlikely that he will gain any traction with the voting public. So it’s really a question of whether Rouhani will get that from the Rafsanjani camp and from the Khatami camp. [UPDATE: Early on Tuesday June 11, four days before the election, Khatami’s Advisory Council announced its endorsement of Rouhani as the reformist candidate.]
A Rouhani presidency is a substantially different presidency than a Jalili presidency. I’m not predicting anything, but I think certainly an Iranian voter could say, “I think that’s going to make a difference in my life. If Saeed Jalili is president or if Hassan Rouhani is president.” It’s going to make a difference in foreign policy, I’m convinced of that. It’s probably going to make a difference in the economy to a large degree. And then you bring Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor, into it; he managed this impossible-to-manage city quite well for the last eight years and has hired technocrats, good people, not ideologically based appointments.
Then I look at Jalili and I think, “The guy’s an ideologue.” He’s a technocrat, sure, but he’s an ideologue, especially when you look at his history in the foreign ministry. His dissertation was on the foreign policy of the prophet. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way – people make fun of it and I don’t think it’s fair to make fun of it, because unlike Jesus, Mohammad did have a foreign policy – so if he had a foreign policy, why not do a dissertation on it? But it shows his ideology.
MUFTAH: And both Rouhani and Jalili are nuclear negotiators, so they each have a history of negotiating with the West.
HM: Yes, and I would argue that Rouhani was much more successful in his negotiations.
MUFTAH: So would he.
HM: Yes, so would he. Now, Rouhani is not a particularly charismatic person either. But he’s very close to Hashemi [Rafsanjani] and he runs the Center for Strategic Studies, which is a Hashemi think tank. I don’t know how close he is to the Supreme Leader. The question that a lot of people who follow Iran is whether the elections will be engineered. I don’t mean in terms of fraud, I mean in terms of being engineered to get the favorite candidates to be in a position to win.
In 2005, and I was in Iran at the time, it was pretty obvious that the engineering in the first round was for Ghalibaf until ten days before the election and then it switched to Ahmadinejad. And Ahmadinejad received the support of the institutions, the establishment, which just made him shoot over the others in terms of coming in second to Rafsanjani. And then he legitimately beat him in the second round. And he didn’t need the establishment to win in the second round, he would have won anyway.
MUFTAH: What does help from the establishment actually mean?
HM: Outside of Tehran, people go to Friday prayers, they go to the mosque, there are some subtle indications, chatter in the courtyard, “Who are you going to vote for? Who’s going to be our guy?” I don’t think it’s coercion. It’s PR.
Friday prayers is a big thing. The [volunteer paramilitary] Basij is a big thing. Let’s not forget that there are almost a million of them and they get privileges in society – sometimes cash from time to time. I don’t think they’re necessarily told who to vote for, but I think they feel like they have to follow the conservative mainstream. Then again, because the ballot is actually confidential, even if you were like, “Uh yeah, I’ll vote for so-and-so,” no one’s going to know who you actually vote for.
So, I don’t think there’s overt coercion, but I think there are subtle hints. And you sense it. You can tell who the establishment candidate is. And it doesn’t always work. In the case of [conservative Iranian politician] Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri against Khatami [in the 1997 presidential election], it wasn’t even subtle. The establishment wanted Nateq-Nouri. And he lost.
MUFTAH: What do you think the legacy of the Green Movement has been, if anything? Was it a blip, irrelevant? Could it be reappear?
HM: I think we put too much emphasis on the semantics of it, “The Green Movement.” The Green Movement is gone. There is no Green Movement. Occasionally, you’ll still run into somebody who wears green for political reasons. My barista in a coffee shop down in [the affluent North Tehran neighborhood] Tajrish wore green shoelaces and a green wristband everyday and it was fine. Nobody gave her any trouble for it.
So there are people who have that sympathy and want to show that sympathy for that civil rights movement, no question about it. But there is no Green Movement. A blip is unfair because I think it was genuine, but I don’t know if you can even call it a movement because it came out of nowhere in the aftermath of the election.
It was the Green Wave [supporters of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi] during the election and then it became the Green Movement for civil rights afterwards. And it went away. It went away partly because of the crackdown, but also because there was no real leadership. And there’s no real movement. It’s too disparate. There are people who want the regime to be overthrown, people who disagree and don’t want the regime to be overthrown, and they’re all within that same “movement,” within that same group of people.
I would say the people who actually want to go after [Iranian leader Ali] Khamenei and the whole system are in the minority. There’s a much bigger group of people who want change and want civil rights and political prisoners freed and all that; those people exist. But they are, again, disparate, not unified and often contradictory and fleeting in their beliefs.
There isn’t even an idea that anyone has agreed upon or coalesced around – which itself is very Persian. “What is it exactly that you want?” And no one knows.
Even Khatami, who was the nominal, I guess, leader of the reform movement hasn’t been able to – partly because of the pressure from the state – create another civil rights movement.
In terms of the legacy, it’s shown maybe that the regime feels like it can handle any future similar movement, but I think it certainly was a wake-up call for at least a lot of them, if not the absolute top of the leadership, that there’s going to have to be some reckoning. There’s going to have to be some sort of reform and change in Iran. I wouldn’t say there’s going to be a revolution or even a collapse. It could go on forever for all I know, just the way it is. Look at all the predictions about Cuba’s collapse. People said, “After the Soviet Union fell, well, now they’re definitely going to fall!” And they were wrong.
So it’s impossible to make those predictions. Regimes have a way of surviving, but I think Iranians and even Iranians at the top of the leadership are aware and wary of societal rot and not letting Iran go the way of a failed state or an absolute dictatorship, which is a horrific place to live. I think that there are too many good people in Iran to let that happen.
I think the Green Movement had an effect on people. Yes, the young people in Iran are unhappy. Well, that’s a generalization because not all the young people in Iran are unhappy, but there is an educated class who want certain things from their government and for their country, but who are still very loyal to their country and are very nationalistic and patriotic and want to see a peaceful change in the way things are run.
I think the Green Movement showed people in the leadership that the disillusionment and hopelessness felt by younger generations in Iran must be responded to somehow. I think it’s affected people like Rafsanjani and his kids. It certainly affected, I’m confident that it affected Rouhani, even if he hasn’t been very public about it. In the past, however, he has talked about political prisoners and things like that. He’s been quite daring in challenging the system. So I think it has affected people.
And let’s remember, all of these people have kids, every one of them. And I know some of those kids. I know Rouhani’s nieces and nephews very well. And I can’t imagine that they haven’t had an effect on him and that his brother, who I know very well, haven’t had an effect on him.
Look, I can’t be completely unbiased and I make it very clear that I’m related [by marriage] to former president Khatami. Naturally I have sympathy for him, his beliefs, and the reform movement.
MUFTAH: Why do you think Khatami retains such an important role in Iranian politics despite the fact that he is no longer an establishment official?
HM: I think there’s still a lot of nostalgia for that time of his presidency [1997-2005], let’s call it the Persian Spring. It was a form of a Persian Spring, coming out of a darkness that I think had been there since the Iran-Iraq War. Rafsanjani started it, but Khatami really brought it up. There was real hope, I think, and especially among the youth. But even among others.
The fascinating thing about Khatami is that the percentage by which he won – he got 70% of the vote – he got the same percentage from within the Revolutionary Guards. So even among diehard revolutionaries, he was very popular because I think there was this genuine hope that Iran was going to move into this more – not kinder, gentler – but I’d say, post-revolutionary stage. It was going to be a bright future for Iran, economically, in international relations, trade, business, the economy, all that.
There was this real hope, I think, when he was president. He was very charismatic and certainly his ideas were there and certainly there were big setbacks and certain people were very disappointed that he wasn’t able to do what he wanted to do. There were challenges to him and the hardliners definitely stepped in and prevented him from implementing some policies.
But everybody saw it as a process, which was going to take time. It wasn’t going to be overnight; it would be gradual. And most people were okay with that. There wasn’t any kind of revolutionary fervor in Iran, “Oh the system has to go,” I mean, you always have people who hated the system and hoped it would end, but now, when they look back on it – even those people who didn’t like the system or even Khatami – are going, “Well, yeah, times were so much better then.”
MUFTAH: Do you think that has to do with the current, Ahmadinejad administration and his domestic policies, or due perhaps to the seemingly endless and intensifying sanctions regime imposed on Iran since 2006?
HM: Well, I think the sanctions definitely have had an effect. But a lot of people say that under Khatami we wouldn’t have been sanctioned.
Still, the hardliners, and they’re not few in number, who were unhappy with Khatami, were happy with Ahmadinejad. Certainly in his first term, less so in his second. Ahmadinejad still has support, quite a bit, in fact. I don’t know how much. Maybe it’s 25%? But that’s still a substantial number of people. His lingering popularity is namely due to the things he’s done for people in rural areas, poorer people, in smaller towns.
But, overall, I think the sense is that Iran has deteriorated. Economically, internationally, in many ways, deteriorated under his presidency, certainly as compared to under Khatami’s presidency.
MUFTAH: Now that Ahmadinejad’s time is up, especially with Mashaei being disqualified. Without the international bogeyman that he’s been for the past eight years, do you see a potential for a renewed sense of hope, out of either the field of eight candidates or even above and beyond that. Do you see things changing?
HM: Again, it’s possible. It’s one of those things I don’t know. I’m not an expert. It’s hard to say.
First of all, we don’t know who’s going to win the election. I think if someone like Jalili wins, there won’t be that sense of hope. If someone like Ghalibaf wins, even though he’s a conservative, I think there might be some hope among people in Iran. And certainly among people in the West. Hope that there’d be someone they can deal with who’s a little less incendiary than Ahmadinejad and little bit more attuned to Western norms of diplomacy, let’s put it that way. It would make it easier.
I’d say, even Jalili, actually, could have that effect. The thing about him is that he’s just incredibly boring. I don’t know that he can generate any kind of excitement on either side. And he is a hardliner in every sense of the word, socially, politically. Most of the others aren’t hardliners in the way that we think of it socially. Rezaei’s not that way. Ghalibaf’s not that way. Rouhani’s not that way. And certainly Aref isn’t that way. But Jalili is.
It remains to be seen. If Jalili ends up winning, I think, there won’t be a tremendous amount of hope. But any of the other candidates, potentially, yes, people could get excited. Not the way that they did with Khatami. Or that they thought they were, at least that segment of the population that was voting for Mousavi, the way that they got excited and had hope in 2009. That I think is not going to return. Not in that way.
I thought there was a chance, for a moment, when that could have happened with Rafsanjani, even though he had a certain amount of baggage coming into it. I thought there was this hope that had built up over the last few weeks. So that’s gone for now. But it might come back.
*Nima Shirazi is co-editor of Muftah’s Iran, Iraq, & Turkey pages. He tweets @WideAsleepNima