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Mutual Assured Misunderstanding?
Azar Nafisi, an Iranian scholar and advocate for women's rights based at Johns Hopkins University, discusses the prospects for dialogue and mutual understanding between the U.S. and Iran in a web-exclusive email interview.

Tell me a little about your experience teaching English and American literature in Iran, and how you came to the U.S.

I began teaching at the University of Tehran in 1979 and was expelled in 1982, mainly because I refused to go to the university in the mandatory veil. (They had to make it mandatory in the workplace first, because of women's demonstrations and protests against the veil.) After my expulsion, I wrote articles and a book on Vladimir Nabokov. I returned to academia in the late 1980s, after a period liberalization, to a more liberal university. Life in academia was like guerrilla warfare, from not wearing my veil properly to the books I taught and the meetings I organized, to the liberal way I treated students. I resigned in 1995, but my resignation was not accepted until two years later!

I started a workshop with my female students, on the relation between great works of fiction and the reality around us. The question we posed was, when the reality around us becomes so oppressive that we have no control over it, how do we through imagination create free spaces for ourselves, as women and as human beings with certain principles? The material culled from this workshop became the basis of a manual for human rights of women in Muslim countries.

I could not leave Iran until 1990 when I started participating in conferences in Europe and the U.S. I taught on a fellowship at Oxford in 1994, and in 1997 I came to Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, where I currently teach politics and culture and am director of the Road to Democracy in Muslim Societies project. I am also writing a book based on my teaching experiences in Iran, which again is centered on the liberating role of imagination and great works of fiction.

What has become of the prospects for dialogue between the U.S. and Iran? What do Americans most need to understand about Iranian society, politics, and culture in order to engage in a useful dialogue? What are the perceptions and misperceptions that stand in the way?

Azar Nafisi is director of the SAIS Dialogue project at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and is internationally recognized for her advocacy on behalf of Iran's intellectuals, women, and youth. A literary scholar by training, Nafisi was an assistant professor of English at the University of Tehran from 1979 to 1982 and later spent seven years as an associate professor of English at Tabatabai University in Iran. She is the author of Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabokov's Novels (1994) and is completing her next book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, about the subversive role of literature within the political context of the Islamic Republic, to be published by Random House in the winter of 2002-03. This interview was conducted via email by Wen Stephenson, managing editor of FRONTLINE's website, between April 23 and May 2, 2002.

The main problem in dealing with Iran has been U.S. policymakers' difficulty in gaining the right "perspective" on Iran. This lack of perspective has been mainly the result of a lack of access to Iran since 1979, as well as the paradoxical and complicated nature of the Iranian society. What was needed was a framework for understanding Iran that did not change with every turn of events or depend on the often arbitrary statements and proclamations of Iranian politicians. Such a framework would help explain the wayward moves of the Islamic government within the larger setting of Iranian society, its various forces, and their complex web of relationships.

The main tendency in the U.S. academic and policymaking circles has been to reduce various tensions and contradictions in Iranian society to the conflict between the "good guys" led by President Khatami and the "bad guys" guided by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Such theories are not new. When Rafsanjani was elected 8 or 9 years before Khatami, there was much the same reaction toward him as there is now toward Khatami. Much of what is talked about today could just as well have been the subject of similar discussion then.

I'm especially interested in your perspective as an Iranian woman who has lived and worked in the United States now for several years. What do Americans need to understand about the role of women in Iran?

Many in the media and expert community have ironically praised the Iranian regime in areas where it has had the most criticism at home. The eager praise for women's progress under the Islamic regime is a good case in point. Iran, a country with a history of over 150 years of struggle by its women and a country where before the revolution its women were active in all walks of life (from cabinet posts to police) has been compared with some of its neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia, and comes off with flying colors.

As numerous women activists and writers within and outside Iran have pointed out, the only way to correctly judge the Iranian women's present situation is through locating it within the context of Iran's own past. We must remember that at the time of the revolution Iran had two women cabinet ministers, including one for women's affairs, an ambassador, five mayors, 22 women in the Parliament, three in the Senate, and women in all walks of life, including in the police force. The Islamic Republic's first action was to repeal the progressive family protection law that protected women's rights at home and at work. It then lowered the age of marriage for women from 18 to 9, and implemented stoning as punishment for adultery and prostitution.

If the Iranian society today is the most progressive in the region in terms of its women, the credit goes to the society itself and its women who resisted such barbaric laws (one reason Iranians don't get too excited about Mr. Khatami's emphasis on the rule of law) and those former radicals and revolutionaries who had the courage to denounce their own practices when they found them to be wrong.

Can there be mutual understanding between the people of Iran and the people of the U.S., separate from the relations between the two governments?

Khatami's proposal to create "people-to-people" dialogue was correctly seen within U.S. policymaking circles as a means of easing the tension between the two countries, providing more access into Iran, creating more cultural exchanges between the two peoples, and ultimately restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. It was also obvious that any form of people-to-people contact between the two countries would be impossible without the good will and participation of the two governments.

It was hoped by the U.S. policymakers and Iran experts that the people-to-people dialogue with Iran would offer them the insight and access into Iran that they had been denied for over two decades. The initial contacts between the two peoples were enthusiastic and fruitful. The most spectacular of these were in the sports arena, where both Iranians and Americans discovered that as far as the people were concerned there were no hard feelings, no harsh words or conditions.

But all contacts between the two peoples have been marred and beset by problems and obstacles set by the governments. In this case, as usual, the Iranian people got the short end of the deal, and sometimes they paid heavy prices. Unlike President Khatami, President Clinton did not make any significant gestures toward the people of Iran. The American government mainly responded to the Iranian government. Nor did the U.S. lift the humiliating limitations on Iranian citizens traveling to the United States. Apart from having to wait at times up to four weeks to get clearance, Iranian citizens were fingerprinted and humiliated once on U.S. ground. They in fact suffered indignities and anxieties both when leaving and entering their own country, as well as when trying to gain admittance to the U.S. The welcome carpet was mainly spread for the Iranian government and its associates.

On the American side, the contact took place on several levels. As is often the case with Iran, a backward move accompanied every forward one. On the level of ordinary citizens, apart from the sports teams, there were contacts through American tourists and professionals traveling to Iran. These trips have acquainted the American citizens with a different aspect of Iran, one filled with hospitality, culture, and friendliness, belying the Islamic Republic's former claims about the Iranian hatred of the Americans.

As for American or Iranian-American Iran experts and other professionals, carefully selected groups of professionals visited the country. Political analysts participating in government conferences followed them. All of them had to be screened and approved by the Iranian government. Many, especially the analysts, met mainly a select group monitored by the Iranian government. They usually spent a short time in Iran and did not have an opportunity to contact different sources. Most did not come into contact with the most important forces championing change: the students, women, lawyers, academics, intellectuals, and journalists.

There have also been some setbacks. Apart from the attacks on some American and foreign tourists, there have been other restrictions on the American visitors to Iran. The Iranian government has also denied visas to some American or Iranian-American citizens who had either previously visited the country or desired to visit for the first time. As an example, PEN International has finally succeeded in hosting some Iranian writers, but visas have been denied to prominent writers sponsored by PEN to go to Iran.

The prospects for dialogue are hopeful if the U.S. stands firm in its support of Iranian people's democratic aspirations, and uses Radio Liberty and Voice of America and other media to clarify the U.S.'s positions. It should also be firm on its demands and conditions in terms of negotiations with the Iranian government and should add human rights as part of their policy.

How should Americans understand phrases like "Death to America" and "Great Satan"?

In our efforts to differentiate between the people and the government we should also separate the slogans each group uses. The anti-American slogans you mention are not voiced by Iranian people, not even those we call the religious reformists. They are voiced by the forced and much-publicized government-sponsored demonstrations. But remember the numerous other demonstrations staged by Iranians, despite the regime's ban, arrests, tortures, and murders of the participants and their leaders. First of all, Iran was the only country in the region whose people came out in droves (over 40,000) to light candles in support of the U.S. after Sept. 11, and since then they have had many demonstrations in Tehran, Isfahan, and other cities, staged by students, workers, and teachers. The main slogans have consistently been: "Death to Taliban," "Death to Terrorism," "Free all political prisoners," "Khatami, Khatami, Honesty." There have been demands for freedom of expression and freedom of press, and even a demand for a referendum on the constitution and the Islamic rule. This is why it is of utmost importance to differentiate between the people and the government.

If the U.S. truly makes a distinction between the Iranian government and the Iranian people, as President Bush suggested in his State of the Union address in January -- when he said that "an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom" -- how should the Iranian people understand the phrase "axis of evil"? How do you think most Iranians understand it?

For the record, I feel that the question of relations between the U.S. and Iran goes beyond the "axis of evil" statement. Unlike what many say, Mr. Bush's statement did not harm the reformists, did not add to the number of people being harassed or going to jail. In fact there were many outspoken statements after his speech, including a Feb. 4 talk by a leading reformist, Abbas Abdi, who claimed that the threat to Iran did not come from any outside force but that the main threat was the fact that almost all social and political institutions in Iran were crumbling, and that people had lost almost all confidence in the state. I can cite many more examples. I can send you the responses that came directly from Iran even after Mr. Bush's statement, via email and phone calls, as well as call-ins to Voice of America and the Iranian radio in L.A., to show how supportive Iranians were, only because of their disenchantment and frustration with the whole regime, hardliner or reformist.

The regime as a whole, especially the conservatives, despite their vitriolic rhetoric against the U.S., were genuinely scared, and they have been trying to save face and polish their act.

This whole "hardliners in power" mantra has become a political way of preventing real debate around Iran. I remember when we were asking people in the U.S. to support the students who were being killed and jailed during the student uprising in 1999, the same thing was repeated: "If you criticize the government, you weaken Khatami." Meanwhile, students from Iran were calling and begging for support.

If there is anything to be criticized regarding the U.S., it is that the government does not have a firm and formulated foreign policy, one that does not change with every change in the Middle East or Iran. It needs to be flexible but also have a grip and an understanding of the paradoxes of that society.

One thing many Americans find difficult to understand is how someone identified as an Iranian moderate or reformer -- someone committed to democracy and human rights -- can also make statements supporting suicide bombings aimed at civilians and referring to suicide bombers as "martyrs." Can you help us understand this? We know that not all Iranians (nor all Muslims) share this attitude. But how should Americans respond to the so-called "culture of martyrdom"?

I don't believe the majority of Iranians support suicide bombing. It is the Iranian regime that does. Martyrdom is not really a culture. Iranians mourned the martyrdom of their third Imam, but they did not demand that their youth be martyred. Ayatollah Khomeini formulated this theory after the victory of the Islamic revolution, especially during the Iran-Iraq war, when young men were given special keys to wear so that when they were killed they already have the key to heaven, and when the Ayatollah praised a 13-year-old boy who had thrown himself in front of a tank, encouraging young boys to enlist without the consent of their parents. I think Americans should condemn suicide bombings, as a majority of Iranians do. I also think the way the Iranians have tried to change their system, not through violence but through peaceful means, should be a model for other parts of the Middle East.

And when you are surprised by a reformist expressing support for suicide bombings, it is because we should know that words such as "reform," "liberal," "democracy," "free elections," have other connotations in a country like Iran. For example, would you call an election free when out of 260 candidates only four are allowed to participate, after being screened by the Guardian Council and approved by the Supreme Leader? An election in which only Muslims with impeccable revolutionary credentials are allowed to participate? Is this not like saying only Baptists can be elected to the presidency and presenting a choice between three Baptists? When I was in Iran during Mr. Khatami's election, the prevalent view was that between "worse" and "worst," we choose "worse."

How would you say the U.S. media has performed in recent months, in the way it covers the relations between Iran and the U.S.?

I don't believe that there is a conspiracy among U.S. media to portray Iranians or Iranian women in a certain way, but I do believe there is a tendency to take the easy way or to be infatuated with the Iranian clerics who sound democratic in words but not in deeds. They tend to downplay the paradoxical and complicated nature of the Iranian society and the fact that Mr. Khatami is a symptom and not the cause of change in Iran, and they tend to understate the role Iranian people have played and are playing in creating change.

The result is that demonstrations sponsored by government factions -- where people are forced to participate by threat and promise of rewards and the government buses in students and various groups and still does not get the same numbers as the big demonstrations it had staged before -- is given prime time, but the lighting of candles of over 40,000 Iranians and their subsequent demonstrations against terror and for democracy are ignored in the American media. One feels a certain frustration.


"The Veiled Threat,"by Azar Nafisi
"On the one hand, the ruling Islamic regime has succeeded in completely repressing Iranian women. Women are forbidden to go out in public unless they are covered by clothing that conceals everything but their hands and faces. At all government institutions, universities, and airports, there are separate entrances for women, where they are searched for lipstick and other weapons of mass destruction. ... Yet, while these measures are meant to render women invisible and powerless, they are paradoxically making women tremendously visible and powerful." (The New Republic, Feb. 22, 1999)

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