Good morning Professor and thank you for having accepted our invitation. It’s a privilege and honor to have you here with us. If you don’t mind, let’s get into the debate; we know full well that your time is valuable. Professor Amirahmadi, you are known, among other things, as a presidential candidate for the 2013 elections in Iran. The Guardian Council rejected your nomination, is this true and why?
Yes, I was prevented from standing for the popular vote. The reason, I was told, was that the political situation of Iran at the time was “too sensitive.” They told me that certain people or groups are going to use my entry into the election to create political chaos. They also told me that I was popular with the people and my entry will initiate activities that could not be controlled. In reality, they were afraid that the Iranian people will demand that I be given a chance to stand for their vote. This is what the regime did not want. I was not just their type of candidate!
Do you understand the reason for this rejection?
They never officially tell you why you have been rejected. They certainly do not see me fitting the model of the theocracy that the Islamic Republic is. I am a secular nationalist social democrat.
You wrote an open letter to the Council in 2005, eight years before your candidacy. What did you tell them?
It is a 13-page letter. In a nutshell, I told the Guardian Council’s president, Mr. Ahmad Jannati, that the rejection of my candidacy is illegal and against Iran’s national interest.
Do you still dream of becoming president?
Yes, why not. Every Iranian has the right to try and the Iranian people have the right to freely choose their president. They also must be given an alternative besides the current “bad” and “worst” alternatives. They need a better alternative for building a better Iran.
What future holds for people (Iranian-Americans) like you in Iran?
Iranian-Americans are very different. Some will never return and others will dream of returning till they die. In the middle, there are many who do go back and forth, with some freely and others with certain political difficulties. A few even get arrested. Generally speaking, expatriates are not welcome by the Islamic regime, and the theocracy wishes them to stay abroad rather than returning home.
How Iranian-Americans are perceived in Iran?
Most are suspected of being anti-regime or even spies! The regime does not trust most of them and also think that most expatriates have become culturally decadent and unfitting of the theocracy.
Is it dangerous for you to go there?
No, it is not but there is always uncertainty and difficulty. The Islamic Republic is not a monolith and various forces there may have a different plan or view of people who travel there. I am a professor and a critic of the regime, as well as a political activist, but I am not a regime changer. I also observe the so-called regime’s redlines, particularly regarding the theocracy’s value system and sanctities.
What do you think you can do for your home country?
A lot, if I may claim! I am a professor of international development as well as an economic development planner. I can certainly put together a development plan for the nation and execute it to the best interest of the people. I have already drawn such a plan. On my website, I have posted my 2013 Campaign Plan, in Persian and English, and I am very proud of its vision, ideas and programs for Iran (http://amirahmadi.com/en/vision-plan/campaign-plan/). I have also spent our 27 years in US-Iran relations and have written extensively about what can be done with this cancerous relations. I believe I have a plan for a better US-Iran relations as well. My Whitepaper, posted on the site of the American Iranian Council (http://www.us-iran.org/white-paper) is a witness to this claim.
Why not to run in American elections (why Iran and not America)?
My simplest answer is this: Iran needs me more than the US.
You are considered as one of the most recognized expert on Iranian affairs. Do you think that you could have a role to play in the Trump administration?
Not officially but as an expert, certainly! I am already trying to make my mark on the emerging system and as before I plan to work with the new administration to promote better US-Iran understanding and dialogue. I will also be submitting a White Policy Paper to the Trump Administration, just like the Whitepaper I wrote for the Obama Administration.
As a specialist of the relationship between Iran and the United States, what can we expect in the coming months? To borrow the title of one of your books “Is Confrontation Necessary”?
No, still no confrontation is necessary between the two states. The Trump Administrations is still in the making, and from its make up so far in foreign and national security sides, we can see that it will be quite anti-Iran. It is very possible that the relations will suffer as more sanctions are expected to follow. I can say one thing with certainty, that there will be no war between the two nations, save for accidental encounters in the Persian Gulf. It must also be noted that Trump is a businessman and we can expect pragmatism as well, particularly because he need to make the US economy grow fast to create jobs, and the Iranian large market for trade and investment offers him a great opportunity.
You know the Clintons well. Are Bill and Hillary the same?
More or less yes, but there are differences as well. They are both democrats, well-educated, quite opinionated, and highly dynamic. But Bill is more domestically focused than Hillary who is more attracted to the international community. This makes Bill more of an economic person and Hillary more of a political and international operator. Bill had limited interest in foreign adventures, including regime change, while Hillary is more of an interventionist and do not mind to change regimes that she does not like.
Before the American elections, we heard from the Iranian administration that President Trump is the best candidate for Iran. Do you agree with that?
No I do not. None of the two candidates, Trump and Clinton, were really good for Iran. Hillary might have been a bit even worse because of her interventionist approach but Trump will also be tough on Iran unless Tehran gives him a deal he cannot resist. This deal must include both political retreat from certain Middle Eastern theatres, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and huge economic concessions – so huge that it will make Trump lift certain US sanctions on Iran, including oil and gas.
How influential is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in US policy-making towards Iran?
I would say quite a bit but its power is due to the animosity between the US and Iran rather than to IAPAC’s own absolute power. Generally speaking, any lobby group that works in the direction of US policy can be powerful and influential. In contrast, any lobby group that works in the opposite direction of US policy, will not make it. IAPAC is influential when it comes to Iran because Iran and the US are hostile towards each other, and IAPAC presents itself as a guarantor of American interest (not directly Israeli’s). In one case, the nuclear deal, when IAPAC worked against the US policy, it failed to influence the result. It must also be noted that IAPAC’s influence goes through the Congress while its influence on the White House has always been limited.
Is Iran looking for normalization of relation with Israel?
Not at the moment but the Islamic regime’s anti-Israeli sentiment is mitigating by day. It is very possible that the two nations will be able to work out there ideological differences in the near future. Note that Iran and Israeli have no territorial, religious, historical or cultural problems between them. There problem is an ideological one, emanating from the Islamic revolution – which is slowly crumbling.
How do you see Iranian-Saudi Relations?
Very dangerous. Unfortunately, the relations is highly miss-managed on both sides, and the third parties in the region and beyond also interfere to create more animosity. It is imperative that the two nations resolve their political-ideological differences as geography has condemned them to live together and co-exist in peace.
In your opinion, what are the mistakes that have been committed by Iran?
Let me single out a few as the list is just too long. The first big mistake was that the revolutionaries did not want to live with each other and from the beginning they tried to eliminate each other. Specifically, the religious groups eliminated the secular forces and created a destructive divide among the people. The second mistake was taking American hostage, which led to Iraq’s war against Iran, lasting for 8 bloody years. The third mistake was to try to export the Islamic revolution to the neighboring states, a problem that continues to make Iran stay engaged in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The Forth mistake was to take on Israel and make it into an enemy, a problem that has also complicated Iran’s relations with the US. Finally, Iranian regime should have focused on domestic side and deliver on the promises of the revolution, including democracy, social justice, economic development and national independence in economic and political arenas. Instead, the Islamic Republic became increasingly involved in foreign adventures.
What is your opinion of President Rouhani?
He is a good man but not a good President or manager. He keeps making baseless promises, raising expectations that he cannot deliver. In a world of growing nationalism and populism, he preaches an outdated neoliberalism. His economic policy has driven the country to the brink of economic collapse, and his lack of interest in social justice has widened the already huge wealth and income gaps in the nation. Social justice, employment and economic “development” are not his favorite terms. He keeps talking about economic “growth” without knowing what it really entails and how it might be achieved beyond selling more oil in the international markets and importing junks and luxury items for the super-rich few! His foreign policy achievement is also nil to none. The JCPOA (the nuclear deal) has already proven a disappointment. His view of the political world is also outdated as he thinks that the world has become a theater of equal negotiating countries. He and his foreign policy team is oblivious to the fact that the world has increasingly moved in the direction of nationalism, protectionism and tougher competitions, and that only powerful nations can survive in such a global environment.
What are today’s problems of the Iranian Society?
The problems are too many to enumerate! Unemployment for the youth is critically high, in high double-digit figure. Inflation for necessities is equally high for a people who has actually seen its purchasing power decline in the last 4 yours. Economic growth is sluggish and oil dependent while economic development is not even on the agenda. Real economic sectors, including industries, are not growing; most are indeed underutilized or had to shut down in the last few years. Political reform is stalled and elections are increasingly “engineered.” Political factionalism is more intense than ever before and it is largely focused on grabbing power rather than offering a better alternative. It is now openly said that the Iranian people are caught between “bad” and “worst” options when they decide on whom to vote for, in presidential or parliamentary elections. Social problems are equally many and serious. Gender inequality is unacceptably high, and women suffer from significant legal, social and political discriminations. Youth addiction parallels their unemployment and is unacceptably high. Marriage age has increased to well beyond 30 years, diverse rate is very high, some say over 50 percent, and prostitution has become widespread. Then there are the problems in international relations. Relations with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia are dangerously hostile and on the rise. Relations with even countries that are not seen as enemies are not often stable, including Europe. The Islamic Republic’s support for Hezbollah and the Palestine, and its interventions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen (less so) are highly contested by regional states and the West. Finally, Iran today suffers from a lack of “identity.” The Islamic Republic, which used to be Islamic and revolutionary is increasingly none. In the meantime, the regime has failed to catch up with the growing Iranian nationalism – which it sees as contrary to its theocracy. Thus, the Republic is becoming without a clearly defined identity, a situation that will sure create a tough crisis for the regime to manage.
Do you still believe that Iran will never initiate any preemptive strike against its neighbours?
Yes, I do but as I have said it before, only a “strong” Iran is peaceful not a “weak” Iran. Unfortunately, revolution, economic sanctions and conflicts over the last 37 years have weakened Iran significantly, forcing the Islamic Republic to intervene in its neighborhood to create a “strategic depth” to protect its theocracy. The problem is that whenever Iran is weak, not only it feels less secure and thus becomes aggressive, but its neighbors also take advantage of its weakness to initiate hostility leading to regional troubles and instability. The 1979 revolution weakened Iran and encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran. After 8 years of war, Hussein then had to invade Kuwait to plunder it to pay for his debts. That initiated the US war against Iraq, and then the domino began and we see the result now in the form of many regional conflicts and tremendous instability.
Do you believe that Iran is a peaceful international actor?
A strong Iran is, but a weak Iran can be an aggressor or invite aggression against itself.
Thank you Professor for your time, it was a pleasure having you here with us. We wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Do you have a last word for our French readers?
Let me thank you for this opportunity and say Happy Holidays to you and to the noble people of France, including your readers. Let me also take this opportunity to say that a better Iran is a social-democratic Iran, and plea that the peace-loving French people support the campaign for such an Iran.
Elie Khoury, La Gerap+