Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is a political commentator and lecturer in the comparative and international politics of western Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He was born in the Taksim area of Istanbul to Iranian parents and raised in Hamburg, Germany. He studied at the University of Hamburg, American University and Cambridge. He is the author of The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy, Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic, and A metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations.
He is an Honorary Fellow of the University of Cambridge’s European Trust Society and he was the first Jarvis Doctorow Fellow at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford.
His latest book, A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them Beyond Orientalism was published in 2011 by Hurst & Co. and Columbia University Press.
As described by Amazon.com:
Adib-Moghaddam’s investigation explains the conceptual genesis of the clash of civilizations and the influence of western and Islamic representations of the other. He highlights the discontinuities between Islamism and the canon of Islamic philosophy, which distinguishes between Avicennian and Qutbian discourses of Islam, and he reveals how violence became inscribed in western ideas, especially during the Enlightenment. Expanding critical theory to include Islamic philosophy and poetry, this metahistory refuses to treat Muslims and Europeans, Americans and Arabs, and the Orient and the Occident as separate entities.
He joined me in an in-depth interview and answered my questions regarding the continued controversy over Iran’s nuclear program, the Western media’s black propaganda against Iran, the future of Iran-West relations and the prospect of Iran’s Green Movement.
Kourosh Ziabari: Over the past years, the United States and its European allies imposed several rounds of UN-authorized and non-authorized sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. The general policy of the West towards Iran brings to mind several questions. First of all, I would like to ask you, as a political scientist, why is Iran singled out over its nuclear program? Who has put forward reliable evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, or has the intention to do so? Does the West’s hostility toward Iran simply emanate from Iran’s nuclear program? If so, then why did the former U.S. President George W. Bush label Iran as part of an Axis of Evil under President Khatami who was a reformist and an open-minded politician?
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam: You are right, and one has to stress that on every occasion, lest the lies that led to the invasion of Iraq will be repeated: There is no evidence that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. No IAEA report, not even national intelligence agencies hostile to the Iranian state such as the CIA and the Mossad in Israel have provided any evidence to that end. So the nuclear weapons allegation is a political mirage, a tactical manoeuvre to outflank Iran on other matters.
I think Chomsky is right when he says that it is Iran’s insistence on an independent foreign policy that is being punished. The allegation that Iran is developing nuclear weapons is a Trojan horse to legitimise the comprehensive sanctions regime and to contain Iran’s regional power. Having said that, I don’t believe that Iran is facing a coherent ‘western’ block. Even in the United States, where the image of Iran is professionally manufactured by anti-Iranian lobbying groups, there are differences of opinion on how to engage the country. There is a difference between Barak Obama and George W. Bush. In Europe too, we have been engaged in fostering a different kind of approach to Iran, one that is not reliant on myths, but the reality on the ground.
The fact remains that Iran is a regional superpower with influence in all the hotspots of the region. The sanctions policy, the policy of containment, has largely failed. It has not changed Iranian behaviour on strategic matters. If anything, the politics of aggression has emboldened the rather more hawkish elements in the Iranian state, because it is them who thrive on the rhetoric of confrontation. You mention the axis-of-evil speech of George W. Bush. It came after the reformist President Mohammad Khatami made major concessions, offering support for the war against the Taliban in the aftermath of the terror attacks on 9/11. President Khatami went out of his way to offer medical support to US pilots who would be downed on Iranian territory, a major confidence building step. It was reciprocated with the axis of evil speech, one of the most disastrous and murderous foreign policy speeches in the history of the United States.
It should also be noted that Khatami suspended the enrichment of uranium in response to a deal with the European Union. But the EU, under the sway of Tony Blair and others, did not adhere to their side of the bargain. This was a major diplomatic blunder. Khatami was left with nothing. The right-wing in Iran was quick to capitalise on the situation. It was then when the Ahmadinejad faction accused the reformers of selling out the national interest of the country. With nothing to present, Khatami was robbed of a counter-case. Here he was talking about a dialogue amongst civilisation, condemning calls for the death of America in Iran, suspending the enrichment of uranium, supporting the campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, reaching out to the American people on CNN, only to be demonised and placed along Saddam Hussein and Kim-Jong Il in the axis of evil.
But there is no time to reminisce or to be apathetic. The apostles of war are preaching again and they are taking their orders from Netanyahu. It is an ongoing battle. They are inventing myth in order to advocate military aggression. We are working on the truth. They wield sword and sceptre above our heads. We stick to the pen and the lectern. Theirs is a case of hate and destruction. Ours is geared to peace and reconciliation. Their conscious is pragmatic, ours is principled. We resist, they exercise power.
KZ: Israel is the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Several international organizations, including the Federation of American Scientists, have confirmed this fact. Why doesn’t the international community, especially the United States and its European friends, take action to legalize Israel’s nuclear program and investigate its atomic arsenal? Why doesn’t Israel comply with the UNSC resolution 487 which called on Tel Aviv to put its nuclear facilities under the IAEA safeguards?
AA: From a legal perspective, there is a nuance, of course. Israel, like Pakistan and India, never signed the Non Proliferation Treaty. But let’s leave that aside for a moment, for it doesn’t really answer why the Israeli state is treated different than the Iranian government. It is ironic that Israel has done everything Iran is accused of: Iran is accused of terrorism; Israel openly admits that it pursues a policy of assassination all over the world. Iran is accused of meddling in the affairs of Arab countries; Israel has launched two invasions against them in the past five years killing thousands of civilians in Gaza and Lebanon. Iran has been accused and sanctioned for developing nuclear weapons without any evidence; Israel has nuclear weapons and boasts of close trade ties with the United States and the European Union. Moreover, Israel is the only country in the world that colonises territory in clear violation of international law and under the auspices of the ‘international community.’ This is called the ‘settlement policy’ in the official jargon of the Netanyahu administration. Not even the condemnation of President Obama, important in its own right, changed the situation. So Israel is what Iran is punished for. It should be said that there are many dissidents in Israel itself that disagree with the policies of Netanyahu and the strategy of colonisation of Palestinian territory.
So far Israel has been shielded from international law by successive US administrations. It is the veto of the US that prevents any serious UNSC resolution against Israel. When it comes to Israel, and consequently western Asia and North Africa, the United States continues to be hostage to the pro-Israeli lobby in the country. However, the tide is turning. There are signs of a progressive counter-discourse gaining ground. Obama and Netanyahu are at odds, let there be no doubt about this. And there is resistance to the influence of the Israeli right-wing on US domestic politics and foreign affairs. But for the moment the political elites in the US are not sufficiently independent to think in terms of their national interest in western Asia and North Africa.
I have argued in A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations that justice in world politics is the surface effect of a series of constellations that can be manipulated towards particular ends. So justice is a product of politics and diplomacy rather than an objective value that is universally applicable. At the same time I reject the notion that world politics has to be anarchic, that the Hobbesian idea of a war of all against all is inevitable. It was Europe and then the United States that constructed and supervised this unjust order. It is not due to some kind of natural law. So it can be changed. The Israeli nuclear programme must be seen within this larger context of an unjust world order that continues to produce hypocrisies on major issues facing human kind. I mean, it is not as if we could detach from all of this. Politics affects everything we do, from birth to death, cereal to nightgown. The reform of the international institutions must do away with the hierarchy inscribed in them. One way of dealing with this would be to turn the UNSC into a rather more representative body that would reflect the emerging non-western world order.
KZ: The sanctions of the United States and European Union against Iran have targeted Iran’s medical sector, oil and gas industry, energy sector and even automobile and food industries. Ordinary Iranians are deprived of having access to the most rudimentary necessities of their daily life as a result of these crippling sanctions. Tens of patients suffering from chronic disorders die each year because the foreign firms don’t allow their products to be exported to Iran. Even the reformist leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mirhossein Mousavi have condemned the crippling sanctions of the West against Iran. What’s your idea? Aren’t these sanctions some kind of violation of human rights?
AA: There are two assumptions in the question that I would like to challenge. First, I think the Iranian economy is doing well if we take into consideration that the country has been under international sanctions for three decades now and that it is absorbing the ‘baby boom’ generation after the revolution. There are many problems, of course, unemployment, inflation, economic mismanagement, etc, but the macroeconomic indicators of Iran – economic growth, foreign direct investment – are sound. Recent reports by the World Bank, UNCTAD and the IMF indicate these positive economic trends quite clearly.
After all, Iran continues to be an affluent country. From my own experience in Iran there is no shortage of medical provision and the country continues to have an intricate and wide ranging social welfare system with several foundations and institutions that are dedicated to the plight of the poor. They continue to function against all odds. To my mind the sanctions policy has largely failed. A country like Iran with the second largest gas reserves in the world and the second highest production of crude oil cannot be effectively isolated. But I take your point that economic sanctions hurt civilians rather than the state. Especially in the aviation industry the sanctions policy is killing Iranians. In that sense, it is true that they violate human dignity.
Yet I don’t think that the sanctions have in any way ‘crippled’ Iran as Hillary Clinton and others put it. The term “crippling” is very discriminatory and distasteful by the way, given that many US soldiers come back disabled from the many wars that the US is engaged in. It is even more disrespectful than the so called ‘carrot and stick’ policy applied to Iran, a phrase that is used for donkeys. Terms and phrases like that indicate the discursive violence enveloping Iranian-American relations. It is equally prevalent in Iran, of course, for instance the calls of death to America. To my mind, progressive independence, independence that is not only material, but psychological too, begets that Iran does away with slogans demonising or praising any country.
As for the second part of the question: In fact, the Iranian opposition is by far more hawkish on the issue of nuclear negotiations, for they do not hold the responsibility of power. As you know I have never accepted the discourse of human rights as a part of the foreign policy of the state. Human rights are the prerogative of civil society. The state is merely there to execute our demands in that regard. I don’t think any of us need Nicolas Sarkozy to enlighten us about human rights. But it should be said in the same breath that the human rights situation in Iran is problematic.
Again, why would we look at the representations by the ‘west’ in order to assess how we treat each other? Isn’t this a form of dependency? And does it not invite the other side into Iranian affairs? What we need is a transparent, legally grounded policy of human rights that defines the dignity of Iranians and their rights within the context of the social, religious, cultural and ethnic realities of contemporary Iran. An autonomous human rights shura, if you want, not in order to present Iran as a particularly tolerant country to the outside that would be an automatic side effect, but in order to assess why there are so many complaints about the human rights situation in Iran by Iranians living in the country itself.
The weakness of the system in this regard has serious national and international repercussions. The national security of a country starts with the nation— the citizenry which is the most precious commodity for the security of a country. The revolution was quite clear on this aspect, the centrality of the “tudeh”, “mardom”, the “ummah”. Surely, we are not saying that other countries are responsible for the dignity of the Iranian people?
There is a splendid excursus by Ali Shariati on this matter, on the differences between “bashariyat” and “insaniyat” between being human in biological terms and humaneness. “Insaniyat” or humaneness requires caring for the plight of the ‘other’, the hamsay-e or neighbour with whom we literally share our shadow, “ham – saye”. I have used this differentiation of Shariati to criticise the inhumane treatment of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq by the US army. I don’t mean to sound too dramatic but I believe that we need the discourse of insaniyat in Iran today, probably more than ever.
KZ: Your articles and commentaries have appeared on several mainstream media outlets and you have been in close contact with a number of them. Don’t you believe that all of these media outlets have an anti-Iranian approach which prevents them from maintaining impartiality and objectivity? Don’t you trace the footsteps of a concerted anti-Iranian propaganda in these media? Why don’t they ever write anything of Iran’s rich and sophisticated culture? Why don’t they ever write anything about Iran’s scientific progresses? Why don’t they ever write about Iranian artists, scholars and scientists and the richness of Persian culture and literature? What we read of Iran in these media is simply confined to Iran’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism, nuclear program and violation of human rights. Why is it so?
AA: No, I don’t think so. I certainly don’t see a concert of anti-Iranian propaganda. It is more of a cacophony. By that I mean that there is no government or agency that could control every aspect of the international media, otherwise the demand for some of my writings would not penetrate the mainstream as you put it. So I don’t think there is some kind of a conductor when it comes to the media concert on Iran. There is no monolithic coherence or a consensus that is all-encompassing. There is a real difference between Fox News and CNN, and there is a difference between The Sun and The Guardian of London. But it is true to say that there are many people shouting, and that the megaphones are readily available. It is surely easier to get published with a story that is anti-Iranian, rather than one that aspires to objectivity.
But the reason for that is not an all-encompassing conspiracy, but the composition of the mainstream media in the ‘west’ itself. At the margins there is room for dissent, but the bulk of the news stories have become a part of what Theodor Adorno aptly called a ‘culture industry’ decades ago. This culture industry reacts to market forces by far more than it reacts to the truth. As a current example: Here, in the UK the government of Prime Minister Cameron is currently grappling with a major corruption case involving several newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s company News Corporation. There have been arrests; Murdoch and his son had to appear in front of a parliamentary commission and so on. The allegations range from bribery of police officers who leaked information to journalists to the illegal hacking of phones and computers. It is a right mess. Murdoch co-owns Fox News together with the Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. Murdoch also owns The Sunday Times, The Times, and several tabloid papers. So there is a concentration of power here that creates its own political economy of truth. This is unhealthy for a democracy and it is unhelpful to understand complex countries such as Iran.
But, again, from a critical perspective, and in this case it means self-criticism, one has to ask why it is so easy to write nonsense about Iran and why it is that Iran’s image is so far removed from the reality? I don’t think that the power of the mainstream media is analytically possible without the absence of a functioning counter-discourse. Why is the international media not flooded with experts from Iran itself? How many of Iran’s cultural attaches in the embassies do their job properly? How many conferences do they organise on the media representation of Iran? How much outreach is there? And what about the media landscape in Iran in terms of its international appeal? An image can only be manipulated if the resistance to that manipulation is not sophisticated enough. To put it in simple terms: Iranians in Iran are the best authors of their narrative, highly educated, internet-savvy, most of them truly brilliant, it is just a matter of disseminating their message, so that there is a second opinion on the country.
KZ: The critics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believe that he isolated Iran in the international community with his harsh policies and uncompromising stance, especially with regards to the nuclear issue. They say that Iran has other important priorities than its nuclear program and should not sacrifice its position and prestige in the international level by insisting on enriching uranium which is a sensitive issue for the Westerners. What’s your take on that?
AA: Success in international diplomacy is not merely dependent on the demand, in this case enriching uranium on Iranian soil, but on the way that demand is packaged. It is not what is in the package that is determining the reaction, but the way it is enveloped.
President Ahmadinejad stands accused of using the wrong wrapping paper. His rhetoric, his demeanour, his overall discourse has been largely anti-diplomatic and confrontational. The Supreme Leader was quite aware of this at an early stage of the Presidency which is why he nominated a foreign policy council to oversee his performance. In that sense President Ahmadinejad is quite comparable to George W. Bush who was equally inept to articulate the national interest of the United States, which is why he plunged the country into a political and economic mess.
Having said that, Iran is not isolated, per se. Iran continues to be supported by those countries who are preparing for a new world order that will be distinctively multi-polar and non-western. The initiative of Turkey and Brazil is indicative of the future, the emergence of China as a global player is probably the most important factor, and the Arab revolts are very consequential too.
The puppets are falling and the puppet-master is running out of characters. The shah, Ben-Ali, Mubarak, their primary sin was that they were considered to be subservient to external demands. It was their colonial mindset, the notion that they simply can’t do it on their own that sealed their fate. The Iranian revolution has to be seen as a step in the direction of a multi-polar world order because it offered an alternative to superpower politics. In fact, the Cold War in Iran ended with the revolution.
KZ: The United States and Israel have long advocated a regime change in Iran and used every opportunity to sabotage Iran’s security by supporting terrorist groups such as PJAK and MKO or assassinating Iranian scientists and high-profile politicians. Don’t you believe that those Iranians living in Diaspora who support these American-Israeli efforts are betraying the cause of their compatriots living in Iran?
AA: To my mind, those fanatical opposition activists who cheer everything that is going wrong in Iran are delusional. They deserve compassion, not vitriol. Exile has a strange effect on the mind. It creates a dangerous duality. In terms of their mental habitat, many exiles continue to live in Iran. Yet because they are not there, everything that happens there appears in slow motion to them. They can’t keep up. You can take the individual from Iran, but you can’t take Iran out of the individual. Iran is like a magnetic nodal point that draws you in. It is really difficult to escape the lure of the country. Now if the duality of the exiled mind is not tempered with a good dose of reason, it creates a split personality, cultural schizophrenia in Dariush Shayegan’s words.
The idea that “they” have taken away “my” country from “me” turns into the idea that I have the right to take it back now. Iran is traded as a commodity that can be owned, rather than a bond that we all have to invest in, in order to yield results that are non-discriminatory. I don’t think, however, that any Iranian condones the murder of innocent scientists in their homeland.
There aren’t many of those delusional opposition activists left really, apart from the handful who have set up their satellite TV stations in their basement and who don’t really have serious influence on anything that is being said and written about Iran. But, ideally, even they would be included in an extended parenthesis behind the meaning of contemporary Iran which would safeguard the right to contribute to the future of the country. Such a vast parenthesis would encompass all of those who identify themselves as Iranian, irrespective of political orientation, ethnic background, religious loyalties, etc.
You are an Iranian if you say so. Who am I to deny you the right to be one? Such an understanding of Iran as an open ended idea has a central function: It turns the politics of the country, including the dialectic between the Diaspora and Iranians living in Iran, from an antagonistic mode to an agonistic process of mutual acceptance, from the zero-sum politics of today, to the positive-sum policies of tomorrow, from the vilification of the political enemy to the acceptance of him/her as a legitimate competitor. The Iranian self, the “khodi”, has always been cosmopolitan and politically promiscuous. Unless this reality is accepted, the politics of the country will be decided on a limited ground that does not encompass the transnational vastness of the meaning of Iran. After all, Iran transcends. That much we can all agree upon. Hence, a politics of transcendence, the maximal autonomisation of the meaning of Iran is merited.
KZ: The European Union has recently taken the name of MKO off its list of terrorist organizations. Moreover, MKO was legalized in the United Kingdom on 24 June 2008, six months after winning a court battle over its legality. The U.S. congressmen are also making efforts to persuade the government to remove MKO from its terror list. What’s your estimation of this action? Isn’t it contrary to the claims of the American and European politicians who usually boast of their loyalty to the Iranian people and their support for the freedom and democracy movement in the country?
AA: Of course, it is. The MKO is a terrorist sect with rigid organisational structures that would make any fascist rise in applause. But why is the case against Iran easier to build than the case against other countries; for instance, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia or Nicaragua, states that are allied to Iran? This is the real question that the political elites in Iran need to address. And then there is a second responsibility for what is happening: The primary reason why the MKO can act is the vacuum left behind by Iranian diplomacy in the last years. We can’t start the analysis with the effect. We have to look at the causes. Where are the cultural attaches protesting against the activities of the MKO? Where are their outlines for concerted PR campaigns that would reveal the atrocities that the MKO committed? How many international conferences have been organised on the links between the MKO and Saddam Hussein? Why is this little organisation an issue in the first place?
What is needed in order to safeguard Iran’s national interest is a politics of friendship and reconciliation that stretches as far as possible to the realms of international diplomacy: state to state, state to society, and most importantly civil society to civil society. The dialogue between societies encapsulates the true essence of the term dawat that was so central to the libertarian aspects of the Islamic revolution. Inviting the ‘Other’ to listen is a virtue. Obviously an invitation requires a language that is empathetic rather than confrontational. As a Persian proverb has it: betamarg, beshin and befarma all mean sit down, but the polite befarma will probably yield the best reaction.
KZ: And my final question is about the prospect of the Green Movement in Iran. I strongly believe that the United States and European countries betrayed the Green Movement by explicitly supporting it and giving the hardliners an excuse to associate this reformist movement with the U.S. and Israel. The Western mainstream media also played their own role in this betrayal by portraying Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi as opposition leaders, while they were simply reformist candidates who wanted to implement soft reforms within Iran’s current political establishment, not opposition leaders who wanted to subvert the regime. What’s your idea?
AA: I don’t see the causal link between western policies and/or media representations and events in Iran. The politics of the country has its own dynamics. There is too much focus on what the media in the ‘west’ says, as if a journalist in New York has more power to decide the future of Iran than a university student in Tehran. Here, I disagree with post-colonial theorists and the Radical Left who keep telling us that imperial power is all-encompassing. To believe that, is not only analytically flawed but it creates a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. As for the Green Movement: it is the reincarnation of previous reform outfits such as the Second Khordad movement named after the date Mohammad Khatami was elected President.
It is the surface effect of the demands of Iranian civil society which will continue to be articulated beyond personalities such as Mousavi and Karroubi who, themselves, are merely the effects of those demands for reform. And you are right to say that these are calls for reforms to the Islamic Republic and not for a fundamentally new order. At the height of the demonstrations I wrote that they did not amount to a revolution. Most people disagreed. When it comes to the Iran story the degree of hypocrisy and opportunism is staggering. Sometimes it is depressing. But one shouldn’t feel helpless in the face of the colossal lies that are being printed about Iran. There is room to resist and to fight for the truth. To my mind, this is primarily an intellectual jihad which requires research, patience and a good dose of cross-cultural empathy. It is not enough to speak truth to power from the outside any anymore. It is necessary to perfect resistance strategies that penetrate power from within. And isn’t this what the brave activists from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Syntagma Square in Athens are demanding as we speak?