Thirty years after the Iranian revolution, celebrated Feb. 10, the Middle Eastern nation frequently is in the news. Headlines raise concerns about its nuclear and missile developments, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, and the nation's apparent support of groups the U.S. has labeled as terrorist. U.S. President Barack Obama, however, recently made overtures and Ahmadinejad expressed a willingness to talk. Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi is an Iranian native, a professor of history and of sociology at the University of Illinois, and the author of the recent book "Islam and Dissent in Postrevolutionary Iran." He was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Many people perceive Iran as an extreme example of Islamic rule, an autocratic theocracy, but you say this is far from reality. How so?
Iran is an Islamic republic, a distinct system of government instituted after the Iranian revolution of 1979. While we can identify theocratic tendencies, there are also strong democratic elements. Both in its constitution and in political practice, the state seeks to legitimize itself with references to the divine, on the one hand, and with public participation and electoral politics, on the other. In a crude sense, one might call the Iranian system a democratic theocracy. This might appear as a contradiction in terms, but there lies the novelty and unfamiliarity of this regime that continues to puzzle many observers in the West.
How has dissent, in both politics and religion, shaped the country since the revolution?
One remarkable, albeit unintended, consequence of the revolution was the unprecedented transformation of Islamic theology and law from within. When the framers of the constitution wrote that the laws of the land must comply with Islamic injunctions, they never envisioned that what counts as Islamic injunctions and who has the right to interpret Islamic laws would become a matter of public debate. Rather than a religious dogma, Islam became a contested form of knowledge. To justify their demands, activists, lawyers, professors, and other intellectuals and lay theologians offered their own interpretations of Islam and questioned the authority of the clergy as the sole interpreter of the divine text. This has made it possible in Iran to directly link matters of religious interpretation to the concerns of political dissent.
There has been a great deal of fear expressed about Iran's development of nuclear weapons, reinforced by the country's recent missile launch of a satellite. Do you think those fears are justified?
Iran is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and, according to the United Nations' watchdog, is not in violations of its terms. All Iranian nuclear sites are declared and under constant surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.S. and other European nations should not understand Iran's nuclear development as an inherently hostile move. The Iranian government has a legitimate concern about its energy needs. Its oil alone cannot provide sustainable energy for the country's fast-growing urban centers. The only way to make sure that the Iranian regime will not put its nuclear enrichment capability into military use is to change its perception of threat. The more it perceives itself surrounded by hostile forces, the higher the likelihood of the militarization of its nuclear technology. I don't see any reason for the Iranian government to bear the heavy economic burden of producing nuclear weapons if there is, for example, a non-aggression treaty between the U.S. and Iran. The Obama administration must abandon the Bush administration's worn out language of threats and regime change and begin a new chapter in Iran-U.S. relations.
Ahmadinejad said recently that Iran is open to talks with the U.S. under conditions of "mutual respect." What do you think that means and what do you think is likely to happen?
There is nothing new in what Ahmadinejad says. When the Iranian leaders talk about "mutual respect," they have in mind very specific issues. The U.S. has a long history of interfering with Iranian domestic affairs. "Regime change" is the official U.S. policy toward Iran, and the Congress has set aside a $75 million budget toward the realization of that goal. "Mutual respect," therefore, for Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders, means the U.S. acknowledging the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic. I think the resolution of all grievances of the two sides must come as a result of negotiations rather than as a precondition. I think President Obama's original statement during his campaign that he will be willing to meet the Iranian leaders without preconditions is the best approach.
What concerns shape Iranian foreign policy?
Iran is more concerned with security and stability at home than dominion abroad. The regime in Tehran acts more pragmatically than ideologically. They have no ambitions of creating pan-Islamic alliances or wish to endanger their own survival by acting recklessly on the international scene. But now they see themselves surrounded by hostile forces. There are 120,000 American troops in Iraq, tens of thousands in Afghanistan, U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf and up until recently in Central Asia. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are armed with the most sophisticated American military hardware and intelligence, and Israel is the most-dominant military power in the region, with nuclear weapons. This is the picture from Tehran. We need to understand and try to influence their hostile rhetoric in that context.
Iran has elections coming in June and the previous president, Mohammad Khatami, known as a reformer, is running again. What factors do you think will shape the election?
The best results have always materialized when the turnout was high. When the reformist Khatami was elected to his first term in 1997, 88 percent of eligible voters participated in the election. I think the outcome of the upcoming June election also depends on the same criterion. The higher level of participation will generate a more democratic result.