Hooshang Amirahmadi, Ph.D., professor at Rutgers University, spoke with Brown Political Review's Michael Chernin. Dr. Amirahmadi is the founder and president of the American–Iranian Council (AIC), a non-profit think tank dedicated to building U.S.–Iranian relations. He was a candidate in the 2005 Iranian presidential election and is running again in the 2013 election.
Brown Political Review: Could you start briefly with a bit about your background and your work with the American–Iranian Council?
Hooshang Amirahmadi: I am a professor at the Blousin School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, at the New Brunswick campus. I am the founder and director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers, and I have been its director for over fifteen years. As part of my "political hobby" or "public policy hobby," back in 1991 I began focusing on U.S.–Iran relations, and since then I have spent thousands of hours on this troubled relationship, and we established an organization which is now called the American–Iranian Council. The council became a very prominent organization; it has served many people on its board, many American former ambassadors, secretaries, and so on. The purpose of the council has been and continues to be to provide a platform for dialogue and understanding between the people in government in Iran and the United States, and we have provided tremendous opportunities through our major conferences, publications and private events. I've been involved in research and analysis [and] because of my work for U.S.–Iran relations, I've maintained incredibly close relationships with American officials and Iranian officials. By experience, I am a peacemaker in a way. My job: I am an economic development person. I know how economics works in a global context.
BPR: You've spoken about sanctions and how you feel that they're a dead-end tactic. You mentioned that in Iraq, after 12 years of [economic] sanctions we still had to go in and depose the Saddam Hussein regime. So my question to you is: Do you feel like there are ever any circumstances on the world stage in which sanctions could be an effective political method? Or do you think they mainly just marginalize states and burden the people?
Amirahmadi: The only example of sanctions being effective that people usually refer to is Africa. But even in the most recent months, [my team and I] have spoken very effectively against that myth — arguing that sanctions were not the cause of giving in to that pressure. [In South Africa] they decided that this Mr. Mandela is a nice guy, he's an opportunity that they should not miss. And therefore it was not the sanctions; it was Mandela. It was this person's personal rapport and his character that made the establishment in South Africa, the apartheid establishment "give up." I think that's a very telling story.
Sanctions can hurt, but they cannot change behavior. [While] they hurt even governments, they hurt mostly, whether targeted or otherwise, the people—the average people. Governments have the power and the means of transferring any negative impact of sanctions to the public, to the people, moving it away from themselves. Saddam Hussein did it, Libya did it, Iran is doing it. Basically, when we sanction [countries], they're in decline — [but] that doesn't mean that the government is going to take a decline in its operations. The government will give less to the people in terms of subsidies, including development expenditures.
Yes, UN sanctions have hurt the Islamic Republic — some government, mostly the people. But sanctions will not bring the Islamic Republic to its knees for the purpose that America is after, which is to give in and to give up its nuclear enrichment program. Every nation, weak or strong, good or bad has a red line. And I think the Iranian government has its red line, and this religious government certainly is much more steadfast and resolute than many other governments may have been. After all, they are the product of the Revolution—a very popular revolution, an Islamic Revolution. These guys are revolution leaders. Iran is still a revolutionary country to some extent, and that revolution was anti-American; it was for independence of Iran. Therefore, to assume that this kind of government, coming from that revolution, will bend under pressure any time is certainly not rational.
Dictators and governments that have not been friendly to the U.S. in particular have not only not surrendered to sanctions and pressure — they have survived even longer under American pressure. They use [sanctions imposed against their country] for justification and other things. There is example after example of dictators of countries that have been anti-American who have been overthrown, and have gone and become part of history…particular countries that had diplomatic ties and trade ties to the U.S. For example, over the last 30 years, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had the best relations with the U.S., economic and international ties, and during that same time period he had no relationship or ties to Iran. We imposed all kinds of sanctions. Dictators who have relations with the U.S. are overthrown or disappear faster than those that don't. Anyway, I think there's a better way to achieve a better result between the U.S. and Iran.
BPR: Regarding religion and politics, you have said on Reddit, "I am not running to eliminate this thirty year old practice…[but] the time may have come for the religious authorities to subject the association between religion and the state to a vigorous re-evaluation with the aim of better regulating their relations." How can the Iranian government revamp its theocratic structure but still maintain the constitution's integrity and Islam's integrity? And would you be in favor of any constitutional changes?
Amirahmadi: First, constitutions are not written as holy books. They are written to be changed. The Islamic Republic's constitution itself in Chapter 178 explicitly states, "I can be changed, and this is how you change me." And it gives you a detailed account of how that constitution can be changed. They can be amended, changed, completely scrapped and written into a new document. In fact the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini once said, "Every generation has the right to write its own constitution." What that means is that new generations have new needs, new demands, the society changes, the world changes, and therefore the current [constitution] may or not fit the overall picture. Again, constitutions are written as universal declarations, but even universal declarations change here and there. I think many in the Islamic Republic now see that what was written thirty-some years ago may not be sufficient for a better Iran of tomorrow. I must also say as president, I don't have the authority to change the constitution. But I have the right and the authority to do two things: first, to implement the constitution in its totality without any ignorance of any particular part. Second, I have the authority to ask others to ask for a change or a revision of the constitution.
BPR: You have [certain] goals you've stated in your campaign platform. You want to garner support for elimination of discrimination based on any ideological or political orientation, ethnicity, religion. How do you reconcile those desires with a system in which laws have to be approved based on the Supreme Leader's rule of law?
Amirahmadi: The constitution is very explicit about the rejection of all kinds of discrimination. Actually, the Islamic Republic's constitution is a very progressive constitution if you look at it carefully. It gives every right to the people of Iran, and rejects every kind of discrimination. Unfortunately, it is the practice [of the constitution] that is problematic. Under the Shah of Iran, under that regime Iran had one of the best and most progressive constitutions in the world. Then again, the Shah did not follow a word of the constitution. The constitution is something, and the practice is something different.
Now how, in practice, will I solve this problem? First, as president I have constitutional authority to implement the constitution. So I would insist in the implementation of the constitution in its totality. Second, I think I would also make sure that the lines of authority are not blurred — that is to say, the Supreme Leader according to the constitution has certain authorities. It is unfair and wrong to think that the Supreme Leader is the "God on the Earth" in Iran. He is to set directions for policy, he is there to see that Iranian society is an Islamic society and things of that sort. But also, obviously, the constitution gives him authority over the military, the media and so many other [things].
I think the problem is not just with the constitution, because the constitution has many divisions of labor. Iran has problems that go deep into the daily life of the people. Iran's problems are multidimensional: political, economic, social, cultural, international and so on. If you had asked the Iranian people tomorrow, "Okay, what is your goal: solve the economic problems or change the constitution?" with absolutely no doubt they will say, "I want my income improved, I want inflation to go down, I want unemployment solved, I want to have my daily life promoted."
Iran is a society of three social groups, or classes: the working class, the villagers, small shopkeepers and so on. I call them the "basic class." This is 60 percent of the population. Their top priority is economic, and by economic I mean social justice in terms of the "bread and butter," in terms of housing, employment, recreation of their kids, education, health care. And then you have the other 20 to 30 percent of population, who we call the middle class. The professionals, the educated, the university people, the lawyers, doctors, engineers and so on. They have their basic needs covered — most of the time, they are for the political [rights]. They want to speak openly, they want a democracy, human rights to be protected, and so on. And they also have every right to demand that. Then you have the remaining group, about 5 to 10 percent of the population, which are well-to-do Iranians: the capitalist class. They are for economic growth, opportunities to invest, to have a stable economic policy environment, to do international trade and so on. We have a class society with three different needs. And I think that's the way all developed democracies have been made. Europe, [the United States], elsewhere — none of them just overnight became democratic. None of them overnight became developed. We have to be patient, gradual, but we do have to have a direction. We need a strategic plan with a set direction in favor of all these social groups and toward their needs.
And beyond the social classes we have women and young and old, we have ethnic minorities, religious minorities, kids of all colors and shapes that are the beauty of the country — and we also need to make sure they are not discriminated and they are equal citizens. The good news is that all of these special social groups, from women to ethnic groups, are divided among the basic class, middle class and upper class. They share these needs and aspirations of their respective classes. I think what we need to do is to plan for the country realistically, pragmatically, avoid being just dreamers. Dreams are very good, up to a point.
BPR: All of this is predicated on the assumption of accountable government and free and fair elections. When asked about the elections, Prince Reza Pahlavi, the last crown prince of the former Imperial State of Iran, said, "What elections? It would be insulting to call this mockery of a process an election in the sense that you talk about elections in any democratic country." What is your take on this?
Amirahmadi: That statement is an insult to the Iranian people. Do you know why? Over the last 33 years, almost every election in Iran, free or otherwise, has brought millions of Iranians to the election polls, from 55 to 80 percent — probably one of the highest participation rates in the world. Does Mr. Reza Pahlavi think that all those people, 80 percent or 60 percent of Iranians, are lunatics? That they don't understand what election is? To be fair [to Mr. Pahlavi], I also don't think that the Islamic Republic's elections are fair, or free or democratic when compared to the U.S., or even to Turkey or Israel. But remember, Iran is in a region where there are very, very few countries that even hold elections. The Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Caucasus, some of them don't even have constitutions! So I think we need to be realistic. We need to be pragmatic. Mr. Pahlavi is a dreamer. He thinks that Iranian elections should compare to the American, French or British elections. Certainly not. Unfortunately, Iran is at least 100 years behind. After all, Mr. Pahlavi's grandfather and grandfather never held any good elections, except for the time they had no power. I'm surprised that the man says this. He's not realistic. I don't want to be misunderstood — elections [in Iran] are not fair and democratic when compared to democratic countries. But when you compare [Iran] to the countries around it, it is not all that bad. Instead of just dismissing elections, we must work hard to make them democratic. To force the government to hold a transparent, responsible and accountable election. That's what I am for. [Mr. Pahlavi's] option is regime change or war. Unfortunately, Iran has done regime change in the past, a few times, and it hasn't worked.
BPR: You've largely campaigned outside of Iran in the hopes of reaching the Iranian diaspora, but international support doesn't necessarily translate into support in Tehran. What is the logic behind your tactics?
Amirahmadi: First, let me start by saying I started my campaign in Iran last August. I gathered my family and friends and declared myself a candidate. And then I came out of the country and…we started building the campaign management team and the staff, and then we started speaking in various places. That's just procedure-wise. We'll be back in Iran at the end of the first week of April. Then we will be coming back here, then back to Iran.
Second, Iran has been a global issue. It has been a global matter — a global problem, unfortunately. Today you pick up a newspaper [and] you don't miss Iran. And therefore Iran is global and so its election has to be a global election. In fact, the election is very innovative in this sense. For the first time ever in Iran's history the Iranian presidential election [is being] discussed with the international community beyond the Iranian diaspora…with American colleagues, British colleagues, all kinds of people. We have learned by experience there's tremendous enthusiasm about this election, about what I have to say. People listen and support — it's amazing how much they wanted to know. We wanted to use this election globally to educate people, to tell them the problems with Iran, and U.S.–Iran relations—and bring a better understanding of that country and obstacles to democracy, development.
And third, there are almost 7 million Iranian expatriates, almost 10 percent, who have as much right as the people inside Iran to listen and to hear you. So campaigning outside [the country] doesn't mean you are not reaching Iranians. This is a global community, an Internet and satellite community, so any time I am speaking anywhere in the world, Iranians all hear. They are on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Twitter, you name it. And on satellite TV —I have been interviewed by Voice of America, BBC and Persian TV stations, and they are listened to by millions of Iranians. So again, campaigning here doesn't mean we are cut off from Iran, and that there is nothing happening there… We are building strength and support here, and we will take that strength and support back to Iran.
BPR: It's definitely true that walls are torn down with social media, but is there any part of you that feels the importance of physically residing in a country and building a psychological connection with the electorate, like Mohammad Ghalibaf, mayor of Tehran, has done?
Amirahmadi: That's a good question. That's a question of whether someone in Iran will have more legitimacy for presidency than someone who has lived outside the country — and someone who has been in the daily lives of the people than someone who has been outside the lives of the people and not involved daily. First, I have to say that I am not your average expatriate. I have — let's put it this way — I have kept a very close physical relationship with the country. I go back and forth a few times a year, I have a life there, I have my family there, I have worked in Iran before I came [to the United States]. And after I decided to live here and teach at Rutgers, I have been back in Iran many times. I have been in Iran during the war between Iraq and Iran, I have even been at the warfront to assess war damages and help with construction. I have been in Iran during every earthquake and been there to help reconstruction and help the people regain life. I have been in Iran for research purposes, I have been in Iran as an expert consultant with Iran's planning and budget organizations. I know Iran in and out; I have worked in tribal areas of the country and I'm very proud of that. So that's one thing.
That physical connection with the country is very important [and] I have kept that connection. But that connection is not everything. For example, many Iranian leaders who have messed up have lived all their life in Iran. Living in Iran doesn't make you a better president, or prime minster or a planner or anything. The people who have lived in Iran over the last 33 years are responsible for the country, right? What is the country [like]? One that has factional conflict, problems with the U.S., economic malaise. The Iranian people are for results, not just where you are residing. I can show results. I show results by showing them that I have lived and worked in the most depressed areas of the country. It is not just that if you lived in Iran or in Tehran, or are the mayor or Tehran, or president of here or there.
Nothing against Mayor Ghalibaf; he's a nice man, he is a military man. He was given a city called Tehran with billions of dollars in it. He has built highways…but Iran is not Tehran. Iran is not just bridges. Iran is a country [that is] very complex. The president has to know international relations, has to be a peacemaker. Mr. Ghalibaf has no peacemaking experience in his background. Second, the president has to be a bridge-builder and bring different factions together, and create national reconciliation. That person has to be an economic developer, a manager…Must know [international] economics. Mr. Ghalibaf has nothing of that sort. He has gathered a bunch of money, and hired experts, engineers and so on to build highways and bridges. That's not enough. For the next president of Iran, you can't just be a person who builds infrastructure. Even the Tehran that he manages is a mess, beyond the physical appearance of the city. For one thing, the city's environment is absolutely degraded. A few times a year…the government announces that the people have to leave Tehran or they cannot come out of their houses because it's totally polluted. [But] I don't want to be unfair to him. I would not have brought that up if you had not brought it up.
BPR: Regarding Iran's relationship with Israel, do you think most of the animosity between Israel and Iran is rooted in the personalistic aspects of Ahmadinejad's presidency, so that presumably when he's out of office, relations will stabilize?
Amirahmadi: First, Ahmadinejad is just one of many Iranian leaders who [holds] the ideas that he espouses vis-à-vis Israel. He is not the first one and he will not be the last one to speak about Israel the way he did. Almost everyone running in the regime today is of the same mindset as Ahmadinejad about Israel. There is not a single person out there that will ever say anything better about Israel. Mr. Ghalibaf — what is his view on Israel? It's exactly the same as Ahmadinejad. Even Khatami, the reformist president, was not more hospitable. That's a systemic issue. That's more than just a "person" issue.
BPR: Given their history, where do you feel the future of Iranian-Israeli relations is going?
Amirahmadi: It's unfortunate that this systemic issue exists, because there is nothing really that should be between Iran and Israel that makes them so inimical. There is no historical or territorial problem between Iran and Israel. There is no religious difference: Islam accepts Judaism, and Judaism accepts Islam. The bottom line is something called the Islamic Revolution. This revolution was anti-American, anti-imperialism and "anti-Zionist." And that revolution in its constitution has a statement saying that the Islamic government is obliged to support the struggle of oppressed people against the oppressor countries or governments. In Iranian–Israeli relations, this translates into Palestinians being the oppressed people, and the Israelis the oppressors;