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NOW on the News
December 1, 2006

NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Lila Azam Zanganeh on Engaging Iran
December 1, 2006

» More about this interview

HINOJOSA: Welcome to Now on the News. I'm Maria Hinojosa. This week we're talking to Lila Azam Zanganeh. A journalist who spends a lot of time thinking about the rather complex relationship between the United States and Iran.

She recently edited a collection of essays on contemporary Iranian culture in politics. She also happens to be Iranian. And lives also in the United States. So U.S./Iranian relations are a part of your life.

ZANGANEH: Yes, of course on a daily basis.

HINOJOSA: Well welcome to Now. So it's—it's been an interesting week of back and forth between Iran and the United States. After a week like this, what are you taking away from it?

ZANGANEH: Well I take away from it that we—we still need to open roads. And that Iranians are—thirsty for—to be taken seriously basically by the—by the Americans. So far every attempt that they've made, every little door they've opened has been rejected, look down upon, berated as irrelevant besides the point hypocritical—and that's really not the way.

And unfortunately what has happened in the last—years really is that Iran has become increasingly relevant because of the Iraq War. And—and—and what this administration has done is just consistently go in the wrong direction with regards to Iran. And we now have a leader, Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has become a leading figure in the Middle East—because of that.

Because he's been expressing—giving voice—almost one say body and flesh to—the anti-American feelings. And you know the very violence—feelings both in North Africa and in the Middle East.

HINOJOSA: So when President Ahmadinejad writes a letter to the American people basically saying we can work this out. I understand your humanity. And we can get into the letter a little bit more.

What—what is that? I mean he's—he's—he's trying to present a kind of olive branch to the American people. But how is that taken in—in the Middle East?

ZANGANEH: First of all, it's—it's—it's a piece of humorous rhetoric as well. You know it's very—twisted and turn and cunning and sly. You know one should never really take what the Iranian government says at completely—at face value. But really the—the key idea, including in the first letter he sent I think in last May or June to Mr. Bush directly—to President Bush was asking them, you know, come—please just let's talk. Let's en—please engage us. Take us as an actor in a—in a—in a wider dialog.

And again that's what he's asking for now. And that is a message that the Iranian people—by and large agree on. That's why it's—it's a brilliant letter in a way.

Because even—even if you're opposed to Mr. Ahmadinejad as—as so many in fact are even within Iran and even though—you know he was elected President for a—for a whole variety of other complex reasons—they—of course they want to be taken seriously. And—and—and in terms of us, I mean us—meaning the United States it's really the only way we have of dealing with Iran is actually opening that in—you know to the door—to dialog. What we need I think badly is a Nixon and China operation. You know why not a Condoleeza and Tehran operation? That would have extraordinary shock value. And one of the problems of the "Axis of Evil" speech, of course—by President Bush is that it had a per formative value.

Per formative meaning when saying something is actually enacting something. And when he said Iran, Axis of Evil, he almost conjured up a reality that was beginning to—to fade away. And the—the anti-American demonstrations, the burning of the flag, it had disappeared for years that—were triggering the revolution at the end of the 70's began again.

And he fueled anti-American sentiment. He fueled enormous antagonism in Iran just by saying that. And in the same way, if you just say, alright, you know what, well—we'll open the window. We'll come to see you. We'll—we'll—we'll take you—you know we—we're really not on the same page. We're—we're gonna be—very—dissident but still we're gonna talk to you. See what you have to say because we have to. And that will be—that is really, I believe, and so many of us believe—the people in my—in my book believe, all of us believe that we need that today. Otherwise it—it—the more—the more you antagonize Iran and certainly if you start—sending bombs on the nuclear side, I mean that is, you know, potentially—disastrous.

HINOJOSA: But you also—one of the first things that you just said was it's—it's hard to really trust and take at first value this kind of approach on the part of the Iranian President. So on the one hand you're saying, talk. We must talk.

On the other hand, you're saying well but we really can't trust them at all. So—

ZANGANEH: Well I'm not saying we shall—you know—think again. Think of Nixon and China. Did they really press the Chinese at the time? I mean that's what diplomacy is about. You know we're not talking about—a bunch of adults in a—in a book club expressing their opinion. This is a political round. It's real politics they're dealing with.

A very cunning, you know, very—potentially very violent state. Of course the talks are going to be extraordinarily complicated requiring great diplomatic skill. Especially because the Iranians—have been known in the past to say things, take them back.

But that doesn't mean that the fundamental act of engaging them isn't something that will have a—a meaning, a symbolic impact on the Iranian masses. And generally on the psychology of—of the Iranian—leadership at this point.

HINOJOSA: Alright well let's—let's talk about that skill with the kind of geo-political military dynamic that has been set up in the Middle East right now. Does anyone on the U.S. side have the kind of skill, really the diplomatic skill that you're talking about, to actually engage with Iranian leaders?

ZANGANEH: Well I—I could think—of couple of people. Certainly the State Department. I mean Condoleeza and Tehran is—almost a joke obviously.

But—and especially since—I read yesterday that Nicholas Burns, the Under Secretary of State for political affairs—basically declared that the letter was transparently hypocritical and cynical and reflected a profound lack of understanding of the United States. I thought the letter was far more crafty than Mr. Burns would have it. And a number of people in America could possibly do it.

I'm thinking of James Baker, perhaps. Or even Jimmy Carter. You know we have to remember that Jimmy Carter has—a very odd standing with Iran. He was the President after all who was in power when—the Shah was ousted and when Khomeini—came into power. Therefore he—he's registered—in terms of the exiled Iranians as an evil President. That—he was—the reason why many Iranians out—outside of Iran actually became republican.

But within Iran I probably have a sense that he—he's—he's—he's probably registered differently as the American who well—who pushed the Shah out of—out of the United States. Who was very dissident. Who wasn't sure whether he was going to let him in order to have cancer treatment and so on.

So he's a democrat. And even as the letter points out, Ahmadinejad said well obviously you voted for a democrat because—you were trying to send a signal of discontent. And someone like Jimmy Carter who—who has known the Middle East for such a long time, who has some degree of standing in Iranian—imagination as—as—American President who didn't do everything wrong, could have a real voice.

HINOJOSA: I just wonder when you have President Bush essentially saying, if—if there's any speculation on our possible graceful exit out of Iraq, you know we're gonna stay until quote/unquote we get the job done. So on the one hand you know we've got President Bush saying in—in terms of Iraq we're not going anywhere. And on the other hand I think people would—might find it hard to believe that that same President would then open the door to a Jimmy Carter and say, we're gonna say you to Iran to open up talks.

ZANGANEH: I—I—I agree, you're right. I mean it's—in terms of the next couple of years it sounds very unlikely, unfortunately. But one of the most important outcomes—regionally and—deep strategically over the Iraq War, of course that the Mullahs have never—thrived as much as they have in the last two years. Before there was some sense that well you know the hand was somewhat tied. They had to be careful because they didn't know what was going to happen in the region.

Now they know there is no way. I mean perhaps there might be bombings in—in the next few years. But they know that there's not going to be an invasion.

They know that the Iraq War has strengthened their position enormously. They also have become actors—you know they—they finance as you know—some of the militias in Iraq. Now Ahmadinejad, I just have a friend—writer, an Iranian writer who came back from—Egypt recently and who said, it's remarkable. Ahmadinejad has become a hero even in Egypt. Because people look at him as the one defiant figure to the republican government. And clearly to President Bush. And that's the case in most of the Middle East really, in—in Afghanistan, in Iran—people have begun to look up at this very strange man.

And he's a man who apparently has—delusions. He—he said, when he was mayor of Tehran before he was—elected to—to the Presidency, he one day brought out a big map and went to see the—the city planners of Tehran. And said—look here, we need to make these enormous changes in the city of Tehran because the—the 12th Iman, which is the equivalent of the Messiah in Shiite theology is—is arriving in—in a couple of years.

And if he does arrive in a couple of years, then the city is not—planned well enough in order to welcome him. And everyone was looking at him, what are you talking about? And that's the—that's the person that we're dealing with, but—

HINOJOSA: Well exactly so—so when you say, you know when you—when you try to put this into some sort real politic—

ZANGANEH: —real politic, yeah.

HINOJOSA: —context, who in Iran do you believe is crafty enough to—to engage with—with this really complex and as you say kind of strange politic between these, you know, one—the—the character as you say of the President of Iran and—and President Bush on the other hand?

ZANGANEH: Well I think a couple of people could be fantastic. First of all, Ahmadinejad in spite of his delusions is far less of an idiot than people take him to be. And—and then that, he's not dissimilar to Bush who is possibly not as—you know—moronic as people take him to be either. So Ahmadinejad could be—himself—the—the actor for dialog. And I think that's what he desires. And—and I'm also thinking the—the Ambassador to the UN here in New York is—quite a remarkable—guy. His name is Ambassador Zarif.

And he is—very westernized in many ways. I've heard him speak. He speaks—very eloquently. And he's very, very bright.

Now those people—and he keeps on saying that they want dialog. They would love to speak to the Americans—etcetera. The only thing I'm trying to make clear here—here is that we have a situation where we've really blown Iran, the importance of Iran out of proportion. That the media is looking to Ahmadinejad truly as Bush's nemesis. And there's no greater gift that we could have given to Iran. And now, given that we have—a horribly complex military situation in Iraq, really the only alternative we have is no matter who they are and because they are fundamentally insecure, they think that the Americans regard them as nothing. As—as just the most meager kind of, you know, ridiculous little political beast. They—that would their insecurity. The sense that they've been humiliated through time. They're—and even sort of maybe—maybe remove a part of the edge of this violent antagonism.

HINOJOSA: So you're really talking about the fact that we need to have—to begin with, even if it's just a kind of symbolic first step to say—we may be very, very far apart, but these two countries symbolically must open—the beginning of a dialog.


HINOJOSA: Even if it's just symbolic?

ZANGANEH: —even if it's just symbolic. Because that symbolic gesture will have an incredible, a spectacular impact. Just visually, imagine an American diplomat of a high rank going to Tehran for instant. Specifically that sends a message to the Iranian masses and to the Middle East that all of a sudden this—this little chip that for you know for the American was not—not more than a chip in a—in a game of chess or monopoly—is—is all of a sudden taken seriously.

That oh, you have an envoy going to Tehran. That all of a sudden this country has become worthy of being talked to. And then of—of negotiating with.

And there's a—of course the most interesting example is North Korea. Under Clinton, when the negotiations were started with North Korea—and North Korea was given all kinds of incentives—through Madeline Albright—and they—well they—they—they cheated, but certainly they cheated and tried to find other ways—to—to produce nuclear—material. But in—in truth they were not able to. And in—and in fact they did not produce anything. Because everything that was under control was most definitely under control. And the cheating that they tried to do was in effect—was ineffective. Now negotiations stopped, faltered, completely were—you know were halted by the Bush Administration.

And in the last six years—you know without cheating, basically by—by having this attitude that they've had of—of—of—you know—bravado—they have managed to begin developing some actual armament. Now—I mean it's—it's a very interesting case study in terms of what—you know what presidents we have. If you negotiate—

HINOJOSA: Okay, but—but—

ZANGANEH: —you give incentives, you know you might stop somewhat the process.

HINOJOSA: —but I can imagine that on the U.S. side they're thinking if we send anyone over there, if there's such distain for the United States, they go there and suddenly Tehran erupts in protest, anti-American protest, and you know the—the idea of a welcoming Iran suddenly implodes when you've got—very angry Iranians who in fact may not wanna see an American coming there to speak to them.

ZANGANEH: Well that's I guess—part of the bet. But my—if I had to bet, I would bet that that would not be the case. We're not talking about an invasion where some Iraqi leaders were saying, oh sweets and flower, then you know you get bombs on your head.

I think if Iran—the Iranians were bombed, they would react—just like the Iraqi's did. You know they'd be horrified and—and extremely angry. But just one person going as a peaceful leader—taking on the Iranians seriously, I really doubt it. I think the impact of just that image alone—would be great and actually interesting. And ripple through the country. And deep down also, Iran—you know Iran is not an Arab country.

It—it stands on its own sort of in the Middle East. It's a—it's a peculiar Indo-European country with the Shiite regime now. And at core are many Iranians are not fundamental anti-American—anti-Americanism in terms of Iran the last 25 years has been a huge part of the government rhetoric.

But it's very amusing—American things are very fashionable in Iran. Obviously as they are in most of the world now. And I remember seeing a documentary where these Americans were going—to the market—these athletes—were going to Iran for some competition and all these Iranians at the marketplace, the bazaar was so happy to see Americans. And the translators who wanted to act as good diplomats kept on telling them, well tell them you happy, tell them—you're happy to see them. And—and—that might be, you know, it—it might be a part of the truth, but I don't think at the level of the people—sure there's a percentage of people you see in the street demonstrating, but that's a very, very small percentage.

And as long as you don't send bombs on people's heads in Tehran—you will keep that small percentage. And you will keep at the level at the civilian population—that—that amount of interest, curiosity. And even benevolence I think.

HINOJOSA: But you know Lila there—there are questions that are raised. I have the—the letter that was sent by Ahmadinejad, President Ahmadinejad to the American people. And you know in the very first paragraph it says, were we not faced with the activities of the U.S. Administration as part of the world, the negative ramifications of those activities coupled with the many wars and calamities caused by the U.S. Administration, as well as the tragic consequences of U.S. interference in other countries. I mean the very first things that the Iranian President is saying is you guys have reeked havoc on our part of the world.

I mean—realistically, how is it that—that an administration that has played so tough is willing to then say okay, you've insulted us. But we're going to move forward with you anyway.

ZANGANEH: Realistically, I don't know. Maybe there—it's highly possible given the nature of this administration that they will—stay put and—and stay the course as—President Bush loves to say. But if they want to have a chance in the—in the time that is left to them, to make some form of gesture that is—innovative, that is politically smart, then they will do it. Because that's part of the rhetoric. Of course he's going to say, reek havoc. And he's right. I mean let's not be—bashful here. Or—you know—he's right.

Of course they've reeked havoc. The Iraq War is a disaster—for the Middle East in terms of the larger implications—even in the next six years I think almost everyone in this country—agrees with that now. And the fact that this one man stands up and actually says what most of the Middle East now thinks is quite powerful.

Now if the administration is—is—or hopefully the next administration is willing to admit that there is some truth to it, although, of course the rhetoric might be slightly more flamboyant because after all we are dealing with the Iranians. And that sort of rhetoric that has been thriving for the past 15 centuries, well then you know take them with a pinch of salt. But hear them out. That would be—a—a—a smart political gesture, not a military, not an antagonistic, not a dangerous gesture.

HINOJOSA: But at the same time you know—there are many Americans who can't let go of the fact that—Iranian President Ahmadinejad said that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map. In face in the letter to the United States the first thing he speaks about is Israel. And at the same time I found it very interesting that in this letter he talks about how the American people have lost their civil liberties here in the United States.

And I couldn't help but chuckle to myself. I said, here's the Iranian President raising questions about civil liberties, ahem-ahem, look at Iran. There's so much theater here.

ZANGANEH: Of course—of course there's theater. That—and again, that's part of the rhetoric. And regarding Israel—as you know many people in Iran are aware that's un—that's very unfortunate part of his rhetoric. But the truth of Iranian/Israeli relations goes back to 2500 years to Cyrus the Great. When the—Cyrus was the first Emperor ever, the first—ruler to grant—protection to the Jews.

And told them to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. And that's in the Bible. And from then on what no one knows to this day, and really I—I've never heard it talked about at length, is that Iran has the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East outside of Israel.

There are 25,000 Jews living in Iran to this day. And they live relatively well. And they want to stay in Iran. Most of them have no—desire to—to immigrate. So, you know, again that has to be taken with a—with a pinch of salt. He's trying to—as "The New York Times" mentioned yesterday there were three different people—categories of people that he's trying to talk to. He's trying to talk to the American people. He's trying to talk to his base in Iran. And he's also trying to talk to Arab world. Because he wants to position himself as a leader in the Arab world. And I think that's part—of course that's where the empty—Israel rhetoric comes from.

And it is a dangerous rhetoric. That has to be taken seriously. But really—if we antagonist—antagonize them militarily we have no way of defusing even that most noxious—rhetoric for now—for now—the Israeli—the problem between Ahmadinejad and Israel I think is one that needs to be taken very seriously.

And perhaps at the very, very, very, very end, if all else fails, if negotiation fails, then perhaps that will be one of the things—that—that—that might justify some, you know—the more—the more—muscled—intervention regarding the nuclear issue. But that—that is so far removed.

HINOJOSA: "The Wall Street Journal" today, Lila, is raising some questions, some fundamental questions. One of the questions that they asked is what price would Iran demand for quote/unquote lending a hand to calm—the situation in Iraq? When you're talking about now real polity, what do you think Iran is gonna say—is gonna put on the table and say this is what our demands are. And do you think that the United States is gonna be prepared to—to meet them?

ZANGANEH: Well I think the demands are probably—what—along the lines of what demands of North Korea were. They want many—numerous amounts of economic incentive. Also what—you need to know is that the—the economy in Iran is in—in dire straights.

It's in horrible situation. There's what we call stagflation which is rising, galloping inflation. And vast unemployment. So they are—experiencing a very difficult situation that might threaten them politically in the end. And they know that. So they want—you know make incentives. They would like, I think possibly, for sanctions to be lifted.

Those are the kinds of things they're probably looking at directly. And at the end of the day, also they want to negotiate for having civilian nuclear energy. Although that's of course where we must—and we, I'm saying as Americans have to be careful, not where—because they might cross the line very easily. And try to cheat the Americans. But—but at—really the first thing probably that they're gonna lay down on the table are—economic incentives.

HINOJOSA: So in this high level diplomatic stakes game, you've also got this kind of drama that exists—between the United States and Iran, you know, the Iranian President sending these letters. Well the United States has done some kind of whacky things too. In the 1980's when the U.S. was selling arms to Iran—and making covert shipments to the Contras in Nicaragua. President Ronald Reagan sends a key shaped cake to Iranian leaders to symbolize the opening of Iran—one of those things, so at this point what—so—so President Bush needs to start baking a cake for Ahmadinejad?

ZANGANEH: Well—I—I wouldn't actually take President Reagan as a—as a moral example of what should be done—with Iran or the rest of the world, but—yes, yes two symbolic gestures. This is a theater of—of politics. And it has been since the Greeks.

Gestures, the tone of your voice, really the—the way your rhetoric develops are things that—that will have some kind of importance. Now you know a cake or—well why not? But as I said the best thing right now if we can, maybe not right now, maybe it'll be in a year or two. Maybe it'll be in 08 if we have a democrat in the White House, then it is actually someone—actually an American, a high-level American going to Tehran to snap that photograph.

HINOJOSA: So finally Lila—because you've been thinking about this your entire life, as an Iranian who now lives in the United States and reports in, what is it that we fundamentally misunderstand about each other? And that, what are the—what would be the smallest step that could be taken that would somehow ease this fundamental misunderstanding between our two countries?

ZANGANEH: e have begun to think as Iran as this very dark, you know, monopolist, these women who look like crows and who are all veiled to—we—we've mis-confused an enormous amount of images. You know the Iranian women being almost like—all wrapped in burkas. Of course, no—no burkas are—are—worn in Iran. And what we need to do is to try and sort of move beyond that and see a more human face of Iran which exists. The reality, the human reality of Iran is incredibly—it's a mosaic of colors—from the countryside to the—to the cities of Tehran. And the—and the suburbs and the—and the women and the creative energy of the women.

And to do that I believe personally that we must—perhaps go to the medium, to art, to novels, to cinemas and just by seeing one of those films, just by reading one book—the novel, a piece of poetry you get a different sense of what that country is about. In a film alone, you see all these people who physically look very different. People who look more Asian.

Who look more brown. Who look very white. You see the nature of the country. The women—they're—they're—they're—the way they express themselves. And that will perhaps defuse some of the fear that we have had of Iran, an—an increasing fear of course after 9/11. And what we need to realize is that Iran is not part of the Arab world. It's—it's very thirsty—for a very special position in the Middle East. The position of a negotiator.

The position of a country that is—contrary to the Arab world—Arab world, that considers itself, ironically quote/unquote white because it's Indo/European—ethnically—Iranians and Indians and like—from the same root as the Europeans. In fact the Europeans come from—originally that part of the world. And that's something that they want to—hail and use as—as—a platform and—and a form of leverage to—to show that they can be the negotiators.

So I think we need to look at that. At their desire, their thirst. Who they are to look in their—into their faces to see that many of them, many, many of them, I would say a great majority of Iranians today really want democracy. They don't want this regime anymore. They're very tired of the leadership. And the only way we can end up talking to that desire, in the Iranian people is by beginning to talk to the leadership.

HINOJOSA: Lila thank you so much for joining us on Now on the News.

ZANGANEH: You're welcome.

HINOJOSA: Lila Azam Zanganeh is a journalist and the editor of the book called, "My Sister Guard Your Veil, My Brother Guard Your Eyes, Uncensored Iranian Voices." This is Now on the News. We'll see you again next week. I'm Maria Hinojosa. Thank you for joining us.

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