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Untangling the Paradox of Iran

On September 26, 2008 the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program hosted Hooman Majd to discuss his recent book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.

The book is a critical, but affectionate portrayal of Iranian society pointing out similarities and differences between Iranians and Americans. Iranians are like Americans in that they are concerned about their economy, their livelihoods, and their politics. They do not wake up every morning thinking they are living under tyranny. What the Iranians are looking for is respect. Respect for them as a people and for them as an Islamic Republic. When the U.S. claims that they will talk with the Iranians “on our terms at a place and time of our choosing” those statements are disrespectful to Iran as a sovereign nation.

It is important to note that current sanctions against Iran are affecting that nation. Majd said China continually uses Iran as a market for its low-cost substandard goods. The housing market in Iran has typically been the primary economic sector of stability, but that is showing a slight downturn. However, that downturn is not the same as the housing crisis facing the U.S. Majd noted any sanctions against the Iranian central bank would be severely detrimental to the country.

Iranian attitudes toward the recent Russian invasion of Georgia showed Iranians supportive of Russia. Iranian leadership sees this as an opportunity. Iran is viewed as the only state standing in the way from Russia becoming a regional hegemonic power. It is in the U.S. interest to support Iran in order to prevent extension of Russian influence.

In the June 2009 election, there is an opportunity for the reformists to take control of the Iranian government. However, President Ahmadinejad is constantly showing himself as a world leader with trips to the UN, dinners with American scholars, and meetings with Iranian Americans. When Ahmadinejad recently spoke to the UN General Assembly he held a press conference after his speech where he only took questions from Arab and Iranian reporters so it would be easily accessible on news networks in the Middle East.

Finally, Majd discussed the issue of Iranian political activists. He noted that the worst measure the U.S. can take is to support reformists groups. Due to anti-American sentiment among parts of the Iranian population, when the U.S. supports something the Iranian people are less likely to follow.

-Timothy Little, Research Intern for the American Strategy Program

Click here to watch a short video about modern Iran, narrated by Hooman Majd.


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