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September 23rd, 2004
Red Lines and Deadlines
Interview with Director, Middle East Forum, Council on Foreign Relations, Judith Kipper

Judith Kipper, Director, Middle East Forum, Council on Foreign Relations, discusses politics and the press in Iran with anchor Bill Moyers.

BILL MOYERS: Judith Kipper is Director of the Middle East Forum at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. She’s one of the country’s leading students, scholars, and authorities on that part of the world. And, she’s here now to talk with me about Iran. Thank you for being with us on WIDE ANGLE.

JUDITH KIPPER: Thank you. My pleasure.

BILL MOYERS: We see so little of Iran on American television today. Here’s a film about one small slice of a newspaper that’s trying to function there. What does that film tell you about what’s going in Iran?

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, when I was in Iran — it’s a few years already. But, I went to a newspaper just like that. And, the young people are enthusiastic, determined to succeed, and have this voracious appetite for openness in journalism and investigative journalism. And for democratic process. They try to operate within the lines that are set for them. Sometimes they cross it. They close down. But, they reopen. And now they’re blogging like mad. There’s hundreds of thousands of bloggers in Iran. They’re using the internet. And, they are also managing to keep a few of the reformist papers alive as well as several magazines. So, people are getting a wide spectrum of news in Iran.

BILL MOYERS: When I saw that film I, of course, compared the courage and bravery of those young people to our too often timid journalism in this country. They pay a price for what they do there, don’t they?

JUDITH KIPPER: They do pay a price. And, it’s not an accident that in the reformist, open papers that want to really do what we understand as journalism, that they are also young. Because by the time they’re in their 30s, they’re getting married. They have children. And they can’t take the risk. And they can’t live on the very meager salaries that they get as journalists because these newspapers clearly don’t make money and they’re struggling to stay alive.

BILL MOYERS: The editor of that film — the filmmaker who produced that film — told us that most of those young journalists we saw on that paper have a second job.


BILL MOYERS: Just to make ends meet. And then they don’t really make ends meet.

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, most people in Iran have a second job. Professional people, even people who work in the private sector — not only those who work for the government, which is of course the biggest employer. And, that’s what this last presidential election was about. It was unlike the ’97 election where people wanted political change. In this election it is clear that the vast majority of people came out to vote want economic change because they are struggling.

BILL MOYERS: But, they elected a hard-line, conservative guy as president. A guy who is believed to have been one of the students who seized the American Embassy back in 1979 and held the Americans hostage for 444 days. What does that say about their choice?

JUDITH KIPPER: First, the vast majority of voters in Iran don’t remember the revolution or the hostage taking because they’re very young. Seventy percent of Iranians are under the age of 25.

BILL MOYERS: Seventy percent?

JUDITH KIPPER: About that. Yeah, something like that. And they don’t care that he’s conservative and hard line. They do care that he campaigned as a populist. “I’m going to help the poor, the downtrodden. We’re going to use the oil money, 40 billion of which they get now every year to help the poor people. The people who are struggling in our economy.” So, he’s calling for really a command economy, more bureaucracy. And more of the same. It’s not going to work. But, he certainly appealed to a great number of voters that he would improve their economic condition.

BILL MOYERS: And it’s interesting, the interpretation in this country was that he won because he was responsive to mullahs, responsive to the clerics, responsive to the Islamic power in Iran. But, you’re saying it was more economics?

JUDITH KIPPER: Yes. And that’s our problem is that we interpreted it that way because that’s our interest. Culture, culture, culture. When we went into Iraq we didn’t know anything about Iraqi culture. And, unfortunately, we’re not really able to understand the dynamic in Iran, particularly with this election. Look, even the people on the right, the Iranians that I see, say that though he is a populist, he is conservative, he’s a hard-liner, he’s put the head of the Basij, which are the really bad guys —

BILL MOYERS: The militia–

JUDITH KIPPER: over there.

BILL MOYERS: And, that’s the home guard.

JUDITH KIPPER: That’s right. And, he puts him as head of the police. We’ll see in a few days — sometime in the summer– who the cabinet will be. But, even on the right, the thousand families who are important in Iran, and the conservatives but who are not religious, but very, very conservative want to maintain the status quo. They don’t necessarily support him. So, even the right has its divisions.

BILL MOYERS: The crackdown on journalism in Iran came under the last administration, which was said to be reformed-minded. Who is putting this pressure on journalists in both administrations? The old administration and now the new administration. Is it the government? Or, is it that the Ayatollah and the clerics who are the government behind the scenes?

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, the President of Iran and Khatami was considered a reformist president. A man who wanted the rule of law and move more towards democratization and openness. He has some power, but not a whole lot of power. Iran is not like Iraq where it was a one-man show. Iran is a country of institutions. We don’t like their institutions. But, they have the Guardian Council–

BILL MOYERS: What’s that?

JUDITH KIPPER: It is a group of appointed people who are the primal arbiters of big issues.

BILL MOYERS: Above Parliament?

JUDITH KIPPER: Above Parliament. Oh yes. And, of course, the Supreme Leader and his advisors and the institutions that belong to the Supreme Leader are the ultimate arbiters of the big issues.

BILL MOYERS: The Supreme Leader being the Ayatollah?

JUDITH KIPPER: Ali Khamenei in this case. Right. And his religious credentials are not particularly good. But he is the Supreme Leader. And he has his hands on power. And ultimately that’s where power lies in Iran. But, there’s several power centers in Iran. The clerics, the conservatives, the vested interests. If they start reading things in the liberal press or the reformist press that annoy them, that might undermine their economic advantages or corruption in Iran. Then they start voicing their opinion, and there’s a crackdown. This is a system that has elements of democratization. But it can’t be said to be a really democratic system.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, we think of democracy as being a society in which the elected leaders make the policies. But you’re describing a situation where policy’s made by a complex labyrinth of forces including the preachers.

JUDITH KIPPER: That’s exactly right. Don’t forget this is ancient Persia. And, this is, you know, there’s Iranian Nationalism and politics, or the discourse in the nation is Islamic. But in the end this is Persian culture. And it is a labyrinth. And it is very complex. It is very personal. It is very tribal. The families, where you come from, who knows whom. Although Iran is, compared to other countries, very modern. They have about the same literacy rate as we do. They have 1.5 million applicants for university every year. And they can only accommodate 200,000.

BILL MOYERS: They are Muslim, but not Arab.

JUDITH KIPPER: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: And what difference does that make?

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, they are Shia, primarily Shia. There are other minority religions — Christians, Jews, Zoroastrian in Iran. But, Iran is primarily a Shia country, which is a different branch of Islam than most Arabs. Although the Arabs are starting to face the reality, the three countries in the Arab world have a plurality of Shia — Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon. So, this is an adjustment. And, the competition that has existed all of these centuries between Shias and Sunnis is very much alive and well.

Judith Kipper, Director, Middle East Forum, Council on Foreign Relations

BILL MOYERS: It’s common for Americans to describe Iran as a theocracy. Is that fair? Is that accurate?

JUDITH KIPPER: Yeah, I think that’s fair. But, it’s also a —

BILL MOYERS: Ruled in the name of God.

JUDITH KIPPER: Right. And an authoritarian regime. And the reference point is ruling in the name of God.

BILL MOYERS: Can democracy coexist with theocracy?

JUDITH KIPPER: I think it can because the young people in Iran crave democracy. And obviously, nobody gives up power willingly. They’ve already had a revolution. I don’t believe there will be another one. But I think if there’s a change of generations, that they can be the Islamic Republic of Iran, with the Supreme Leader that provides the inspiration, but that the presidency of Iran will have more power and they will be ruled by technocrats within the context of being an Islamic Republic. They can be a democracy.

BILL MOYERS: In a theocracy that has some symbol of democratic institutions, and a variety of other competing institutions, what does reform mean to them? When we hear these young people talk about “we want reform,” “liberalization,” what are the Iranians talking about when they talk about reform?

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, there are two kinds of reform. The new president will talk about reform as providing better job services and economic opportunities for the poor and the down and out as a populace. But, he’s going to want to command economy. He’ll increase their hideous bureaucracy and that’s not really reform. The young people are talking about being a normal country. They make choices. If they want to be very religious, they can. If they prefer to be more secular, they can. To have decent jobs that will pay them a living wage. To have the opportunity to attend university. Two hundred thousand places in university, 1.5 million applicants every year. And that’s one of the promises of the new president. That he’s going to increase the number of universities so that more than 200,000, who also go because their parents are so-and-so, and they said a word to this one or that one, it’s a lot of patronage to get sent to university. And you are left with 1.3 million who have no jobs and no university.

BILL MOYERS: So they’re talking about more personal opportunity.

JUDITH KIPPER: That’s right. Or economic opportunities. More personal opportunities. And more openness.

BILL MOYERS: But this recent election that brought this hard-liner into the presidency as a populace. All but eight of the candidates were disqualified by the Guardian Council. They weren’t allowed to run. No women were allowed to run. That doesn’t strike me as democratic reform.

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, there is not democratic reform now. There was some years ago when Khatami came into power after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. But, the conservatives managed to consolidate power both in the Parliament and now in the presidency, in the cabinet, and the Justice Ministry. Absolutely every place. But, that hasn’t stopped the very youthful population, and others, the intellectuals, many of the elite, from demanding and wanting more openness and democratization — to have more choice. But, I believe Iran will develop as a serious democracy. But, it’s not going to be Western style democracy.

BILL MOYERS: You’re talking about a country that President Bush has described as the number one state sponsored terrorism in the world. You’re talking about a country the State Department continually condemns. You’re saying this country’s going to be a democracy?

JUDITH KIPPER: I believe it will. The Secretary of State recently said about Iran that it was now a post of tyranny. It is true that Iran supports groups that do terrorism. And the ones we worry about are Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories. But that’s not the whole picture. Right now, the Iranians themselves, since President Khatami came to office, there was a change in Iran. They’re not doing state terrorism as they used to. We’ve had many moments before the Iraq War, Afghanistan, where there’s been intelligence and military understanding, cooperation, discussions with the Iranians. Anti-Iranian rhetoric doesn’t cost the American politicians anything. The American people we know from the polls are ready to reconcile with Iran, if there’s reciprocity. And for all these years since the revolution, the Iranians are not yet ready to talk to us.

BILL MOYERS: Is it possible that Iran is going to develop the way China has developed with the government allowing increasing personal freedoms, but cracking down on political dissent and protest? So, that they have consumer goods. They have opportunities economically. They can live their personal lives more or less as they might want to, just as long as they don’t criticize, attack, oppose the government?

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, I don’t think you can compare Iran and China because the cultures are so different. The Chinese can stay quiet. The Iranians can’t. I do think that that is exactly what’s going to happen. They will not allow any political dissent. They will crackdown on political dissent. But not on the social issues.

BILL MOYERS: You have to excuse me if I scratch my head and say how can we even claim that that is moving towards democracy?

JUDITH KIPPER:Well, I don’t think we can. They’re not moving right now towards democracy. But the potential in the future as the older generation dies off and is replaced, as it’s been proven over and over and over again that the command economy is not going to work, their population is growing. There are 65, 70 million people today. While their birth rate has dropped, they’re still a very young and growing population.

BILL MOYERS: What do we have to fear from a country like that? What do we have to fear from Iran?

JUDITH KIPPER: think that the fear of Iran is highly exaggerated. When we look at Iran, it is a stable country of institutions. We don’t like their rhetoric. We don’t like their government. We don’t like their institutions. But I don’t really believe that Iran poses a threat to American interests. Certainly, our inability to engage with Iran is very detrimental to American interests because we have a common set of interests, which we have always had during the Shah, during the Ayatollah Khomeini.

BILL MOYERS: Which are?

JUDITH KIPPER: Security in the Gulf, the free flow of oil at reasonable prices, stability between Iraq and Iran, which were the two competing powers. Right now they have very good relations. But as that Arab-Persian rivalry doesn’t get out of hand as it did in an eight-year war. Central Asia, which is very problematic, a lot of issues in Central Asia. And, when you look at a country like Pakistan, which has about 20 percent literacy as compared to 90-something percent in Iran, it has the problem of the madrassas. 13,000 madrassas in Pakistan. And they are very important as educational institutions for poor people. But also as schools for people who grow up and are ready to do violence. And Pakistan is a nuclear power. Nevertheless, Pakistan has been, except for a very brief period since 1959, the closest ally of the United States. And I think that many people call Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world because of their youthful population. Because they are not sure of who is doing what. As a base of terrorism and because they are a nuclear power. Iran is a different story. We need to find ways to engage Iran. They’re not ready. Maybe in four years they’ll be ready. After all, this Persia — this is an ancient culture.

BILL MOYERS: If you can’t engage with a culture that doesn’t want to engage with you —

JUDITH KIPPER: That’s right. We have to wait. It’s only been 25 years since the revolution. We want to do it tomorrow morning at breakfast.

BILL MOYERS: Would you recommend that we establish diplomatic relations with Iran?

JUDITH KIPPER: If they would do it, absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: But they won’t.

JUDITH KIPPER: It won’t be, you know, ambassador level. But if we possibly can engage with Iran to talk a whole set of issues.

BILL MOYERS: It’s curious to me that one of Iran’s neighbors in Central Asia —

JUDITH KIPPER: Uzbekistan.

BILL MOYERS: And we have ties with —

JUDITH KIPPER: Very close ties.

BILL MOYERS: But, if I understand it, one of the last, if not the last, Stalinist state?

JUDITH KIPPER: That’s exactly right.

BILL MOYERS: But, we have ties with this —

JUDITH KIPPER: That’s right. We have a base there.

BILL MOYERS: So, what’s the difference between relations with Uzbekistan and Iran? Why do we treat them differently? Because of terrorism?

JUDITH KIPPER: No, I don’t think it’s terrorism. I think it is, you know, our wounded feelings when we lost our best friend the Shah. And you know, the black robes of Ayatollahs came and they cursed us and they said bad things about us. And both sides are heartbroken. It’s a really broken love affair between the United States and Iran. But, if you look at interests, I mean, I really question the United States dealing with a leader — the leader of Uzbekistan who is a Stalinist. I’ve been there. There is no doubt about it. Putting a base there. And cursing Iran in the same breath practically. We need to find a way to encourage the Iranians to engage. It may not be during this administration. But it might be in ten years.

BILL MOYERS: Doesn’t it go deeper though, with all due respect, than just a broken heart? I know you’re using that as a metaphor. I mean, the Department of Homeland Security said that of the six states that are on the list as identified as terrorist sponsoring states — Syria


BILL MOYERS:Libya, Sudan, North Korea, that of the six states that are said to be sponsoring terrorism, all the others are of diminishing concern except Iran. What do you think about that?

JUDITH KIPPER:Well, that’s probably true for the five. And Iran — it’s because of their financial support for Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. But let’s get realistic. 9/11, you didn’t find a single Iranian. In London, there was not a single Iranian.

BILL MOYERS: As a terrorist.

JUDITH KIPPER: In Egypt, there wasn’t a single Iranian. Or Palestinian territories, I would tell you in any of those places.

BILL MOYERS: Most are Saudi Arabian.

JUDITH KIPPER: There were all kinds of people. All kinds of people. But there were no Iranians. I believe that state terror as an instrument of the state of the Islamic Republic of Iran — that their days of engaging in terrorism cells is probably over because it’s not in their interest. Their support for Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, they see it in supporting the liberation of territory, Lebanon, Shebba farms now, and Islamic Jihads liberating the West Bank in Gaza from the Israelis. As part of a discussion, in engagement about a whole range of issues in a very respectful way of their culture and their legitimacy, I think that those things are negotiable at some point.

BILL MOYERS:Have you in your studies, and in your own reporting and investigations, come across any credible evidence that Iran is providing sanctuary to Al Qaeda terrorists?

JUDITH KIPPER:I don’t have a clue. I mean, people believe that there are Al Qaeda there, but every instinct tells me that it’s not a sanctuary. Al Qaeda are as much the enemy of Iran as they are of the West or anybody else.


JUDITH KIPPER:They are Sunni Arabs. They have a different philosophy. Their base was in Afghanistan. They gave a tremendous problem when they were based in Afghanistan to the Iranians. The Shia of Afghanistan who were tacitly supported by the Iranians suffered during that time. So any idea that Iran and Al Qaeda could somehow be partners or an alliance does not seem within the realm of possibility to me.

BILL MOYERS:And you think that this pressure from their young people for a better life is part of the reason that they turned away from an aggressive support of terrorism?


BILL MOYERS: They have to deal with this, don’t they? With the young people.

JUDITH KIPPER:Yes, they do. But, I think what they do in their foreign policy is not so much related to that. Look, Iran had no time for a counter-revolution because Saddam Hussein invaded. And they fought a bloody war for eight years. And the United States was on the side of Iraq. And we helped Iraq in that war. They lost, you know, as Iraq did, brutal numbers of people. Young people getting slaughtered. And they ended the war because it became intolerable. The Ayatollah Khomeini, as he said, took the bitter poison to end the war with Iraq because the Iranian people simply could not tolerate the Iraqi bombing of their cities anymore. So they ended the war. And since then, they’ve been recovering and figuring out what to do. And they have this presidential election when President Khatami was elected. And that brought some enlightenment. A new foreign policy dramatically improved relations with the Arab neighbors in the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. The end of state terrorism and a more sane policy to be part of the world. And there was during the Clinton Administration, you know, they were doing a minuet, almost starting to talk. But, it never quite worked. And now, of course, I’m not sure that this administration, even if the Iranians were willing´┐Ż But this administration would be ready to engage, particularly so soon before the mid-term elections, because there’s nothing political to gain.

BILL MOYERS:The two concerns most consistently pressed in Washington — one that Iran’s attitude toward Israel goes beyond just violent anti-Israeli rhetoric. That if they had the nuclear weapon, they would be a real threat to Israel. And, that is, if they get this nuclear weapon, they will destabilize the region.

JUDITH KIPPER:If they get the nuclear weapon, those issues have to be on the table because with nuclear weapons, it is such a lethal weapon that you can’t eliminate any of the contingencies. Many people believe they want it because Pakistan has it.

BILL MOYERS: Well, four of their neighbors have it. Pakistan —


BILL MOYERS: India, Israel, and Russia.

JUDITH KIPPER: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: And, from the Iranian’s point of view, isn’t it logical that you would want an equalizer?

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, I think that’s true. I happened to be in Iran when Pakistan tested its weapons. And from official meetings and think-tanks, to taxi drivers and cafes, everybody said, “Can we possibly be less than Pakistan?” So, there is prestige. There’s national pride. There’s the deterrent. But, there is also the possibility that it would pose a threat to neighbors, including Israel. And clearly the world has to cooperate. This is one of the most important issues in globalization — to deal with proliferation of nuclear.

BILL MOYERS:Looking at it from the Iranian side, is there any incentive that the United States could offer that would tame their appetite for the nuclear weapon?

JUDITH KIPPER:I think on the question of enrichment there is no way for them to say, “No, we’re not going to enrich.” I think that they might let it be known that that temporary suspension will continue. But, in fact, it will be permanent. But, they’re not going to give it up publicly and permanently. The incentives for Iran are, obviously, economic. Getting rid of the unilateral American sanctions because that hurts them with other countries as well. It mainly hurts the United States not to be in Iran, especially, their oil and gas business. But, when the U.S. sanctions a country, others are reluctant to do business with them. Secondly, security issues. It would be very important some day for a senior American official, maybe at the UN, simply to say, “We disagree with Iran. The government of Iran, we’re suspicious of them.” But Iran too has legitimate securities concerns. Because right now Iran is surrounded by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, and of course the Gulf states — the American presence is tremendous. And the other incentive for them would be economic security. And the third would be respect. Their legitimacy, that they’re a respectable country. That we accept — though we disagree — that we treat them with respect. This cultural question of, you know, American belligerency, and we can say anything, and we consult each other all the time. They really take it seriously.

BILL MOYERS:In this climate of opinion, isn’t it realistic that any culture that is a theocracy, as you said earlier, run in the name of God by people who claim to speak for God, that is aggressively anti-Israeli, that is said to be sponsoring terrorism or harboring terrorism, in this climate of opinion, it’s not likely that we can have a civil conversation with Iran. Can we?

JUDITH KIPPER:Well, Iran doesn’t want it. I mean, this new president is simply indifferent to the European Union and the United States. He doesn’t need it. They’re developing very important ties with China because China needs energy, and China’s going global with its energy issues, preparing for the future and increasing demands in China. And that gives them a little leverage that Asia’s becoming more important to them economically. So they’re just indifferent to the U.S. and the EU now. We all think that they’re just dying to have relations with us. They’re not. The young people are. I went to Vietnam and Cuba and Iran all in the space of a year or two, several years ago. And it was amazing. The countries that we beat up on the most, the young people and the population likes us the best.

BILL MOYERS: How did you get so interested Iran?

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, once a upon a time, early in my career, before I got into the Middle East I lived in Paris. And I’m a child of immigrants. I wanted to understand better the emerging countries of Asia. So, I drove from Paris to India. I was not a hippie and it was really a life-shaping experience.

BILL MOYERS: You drove?


BILL MOYERS: Marco Polo.

JUDITH KIPPER: Drove half-way around the world.

BILL MOYERS: Marco Polo. Alexander the Great. Judith Kipper.

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, it was very interesting because, you know, the Soviets and the Americans built the roads, all the roads because all of them were on one side or the other of the Cold War. And they were very nice to have hooked them up to each other. That the Soviet roads hooked up with the American roads. And, there’s one road, it’s pretty good, goes straight from Turkey all the way to India.

BILL MOYERS: But Iran today is not the Iran of your youth.

JUDITH KIPPER:No. It’s not. It is not. It is a tough country. It is a country that’s out of touch with the rest of the world. It’s a country whose leaders believe that they can remain isolated and outside the whole globalization process. And although the technology in Iran, the literacy, the science, for a developing country is quite high, but it is a country detached from the many trends in the world. And, sooner or later, that’s going to catch up with them.

BILL MOYERS:But is it detached from the powerful current of the Middle East? Particularly among the Muslim states where this militant fundamentalist fervor is growing that led, as we were discussing, to 9/11 and London and Madrid? I mean, there’s no question that there is at the core of a part of the Muslim theology, Sunni Muslim ideology there is this deep, deep anger against the West.

JUDITH KIPPER:I think the excesses of the revolution in the early 80s and during the Ayatollah Khomeini’s period, that they’re on the other side of that fervor now. And these economic personal opportunity issues, even though, is the voice of Islam. No doubt about it. But, I think they are on the other side of that fervor, that fanaticism. I think that it’s all about politics now. It’s about money and politics.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s certainly Western.

JUDITH KIPPER: It’s about money and politics. They will crack down on political dissent, but the social issues–I don’t think they’re going to tell the women put your scarves back. Don’t show any hair. Take off your nail polish and your make-up. And the boys and girls who now will walk together. That’s a little more openness. So it’s been a little bit of positive change in that direction. I don’t think they’re going to crack down on that. But politics and economics —

BILL MOYERS:But, these urges, these appetites, these yearnings on the part of these young people you just described so eloquently, I think, conflict with the reigning ideology of the disciplinary mullahs who run this country in the name of God.


BILL MOYERS: Their attitudes towards women. Their attitudes toward rituals. Their attitudes toward the West.

JUDITH KIPPER:Well, but this is an ancient culture. They have history on their side and they’re sure of their identity. And you’d be surprised how well the youngsters, the youth, the people in their 20s manage to get around the rules and the regulations, and to live as well as they can considering the circumstances. I mean, the clerics are not popular. A very minor cleric or a clerical student wearing clerical robes, and this story’s told all the time, can wait hours for a taxi to stop to pick him up. And that’s a political statement. So, it’s about politics and money. And nobody gives up political power or financial power willingly. You’ve got to find other ways and means, non-violent, to ease them away from vested interests.

BILL MOYERS:Do you see any similarities between these mullahs and the Ayatollahs of Iran and the preachers in this country? The Robertsons, the Falwells, the Dobsons, who are trying to press their religious convictions onto public policy?

JUDITH KIPPER:I think very much so. And, you know, for a lot of our Christian right preachers — it’s also politics and money. But we’re a democracy, so we have the whole rest of the country with another point of view. We can tolerate it because they are a minority. When they start imposing it here and there, taking over states and coming through school boards and changing what’s in libraries and school books, I think that the American people will react because that’s not who we are. Those are not our American values.

BILL MOYERS: You have a deep appreciation for the ancient Iranian culture, don’t you?

JUDITH KIPPER: Yes, I do for all the ancient cultures. Chinese, Egyptian, Turkish.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the one thing you think the Americans ought to understand about Iran?

JUDITH KIPPER:How much has come from Iran. Rumi — an Iranian poet is the best selling poet in America today. They have a fantastic history of art, of culture, music. As with all these ancients, they’re down and out right now — all of these countries. But maybe we have as much to learn from them as they have learned from us. Sooner or later their science will be as good as ours. Maybe they’ll cure cancer. Invent a bigger and better computer. And, you know, some kind of airplane. But, all of those ancient, cultural questions, be it China or Iran or India, Turkey, Egypt. I learned on that trip from Paris to India something that’s really very important in my life about culture. Not better, not worse, simply different. Let’s appreciate our differences. And let’s not get scared. America is a country of foreigners. But we don’t like foreigners. We get scared of other cultures. They’re noisy, the language, the food, it’s different. And, we just have a terrible problem with that.

BILL MOYERS: That’s true. But, we particularly don’t like foreigners who drive airplanes into the World Trade Center.

JUDITH KIPPER: That’s right. But those were Sunni Arabs. They weren’t Iranians.

BILL MOYERS:Let’s assume that you’re right when you say that the real threat to stability in the Middle East and Iran in particular comes not from supposed nuclear weapons, but from the reality of these throngs of young people growing up without enough education, without enough jobs. I heard you once, and I’ve read you talk and write about dealing with that through “soft power.” What do you mean by “soft power”?

JUDITH KIPPER:Well, I think that it’s really very important for the United States to show some understanding of others cultures and some appreciation for our differences. We’re the superpower the likes to the world has never seen. But all of our might, all of our military power, is not going to be able to respond to these kinds of threats. So we need to have a different message. And, to the extent that we can, we need to let the Iranian youth know that we’re on their side. That when the time comes, if their government will talk, that we’re ready to engage. That we’d like to do business there again. We’d like to welcome them to our universities as they used to be. And that there is something out there for them. That the United States is not an alien, hateful place. The Iranian youth do not hate the United States. But they want more from the United States. And we don’t have a whole lot of ways to give it to them right now. So the message and how we send the message. For example, there is some talk in Washington about providing some public diplomacy money to Iranians in this country, in the United States, who are profoundly anti-clerical regime. I think that’s a waste of money and it’s a misdirected policy because they’re living now as Americans. They’re here as Americans. And, when the time comes, they’ll go back to visit their villages, fix up their house, and most, they still have relatives there. And they are not the ones living on the other side of the world who are going to stimulate change in Iran, or give the youth hope that in the future they can have better economic opportunities, that there will be jobs for them, that they themselves can have choice in a democratized society. Having anti-regime American-Iranians is not the way to go.

BILL MOYERS:How do we reach out to them with soft power? How do they learn about us if the government and the Ayatollah keep closing down these newspapers?

JUDITH KIPPER: Well, you’d be surprised how much they know about us. And, the United States has a Farsi radio station that is —

BILL MOYERS: That’s the language —

JUDITH KIPPER:Right. That’s their language. Persian. And it is based in Prague. And they’re call-in shows. And they call in. The Iranian youth call in, and they have a very, very lively dialogue. Many of them have satellite dishes. Computers are everywhere. There are bloggers. So we have to use modern technology —

BILL MOYERS: So the threat to these newspapers doesn’t eliminate the reach of internet and other means of communication.

JUDITH KIPPER:That’s right. And, they have suddenly sprouted hundreds of thousands of bloggers. So, they are finding ways and means, not only to talk to each other, but to talk to the world. And we need to talk to them. And we need our government to talk to them in ways that will encourage them to think about real reform, change, more choice, and that we like Iran. It’s a great country. We don’t like the government of Iran. But, we’re not against the Persian culture or the people of Iran. And we would like to, again, have a warm and close and friendly relationship with them.

BILL MOYERS: Those bloggers must drive the Ayatollahs crazy, to be secular about it.

JUDITH KIPPER:Well, I think that that’s part of allowing a little bit of blowing off steam, because we’ve seen demonstrations in Iran and we will see more demonstrations. But the regime — it’s not China, it’s not going to be a Tiananmen Square.

BILL MOYERS: They won’t crush it that way.

JUDITH KIPPER:They will not crush like that. There have been some incidents — people got hurt. We’ve seen the police clashes. There’ve been a few outright murders of people by elements of the regime in the past. But because it’s a country of institutions and because they’re a highly educated country, the clerics cannot imagine an incident that would lead to something that looked like Tiananmen Square.

BILL MOYERS:But I think of Iran, on the basis of what I’ve read, is a state with a dismal human rights record. Summary executions, imprisonments without trials, torture. Is that not happening?

JUDITH KIPPER: Sure it’s happening. It’s happening in all the countries out there.

BILL MOYERS: So they have the capacity to crush their citizens.

JUDITH KIPPER:They do, but you know, they can bring the tanks to the street if there’s demonstrations. But, it’s not likely that they will do so. In the past they have negotiated. They have waited it out. They’ve changed policy. They’ve acquiesced, depending on what issue it was. That there are prisoners who are tortured, there’s no doubt about it that they have some political prisoners. A lot of journalists are their political prisoners.

BILL MOYERS: There’s one on a hunger strike right now.

JUDITH KIPPER:That’s right. There is. This is not a country — it has a dismal record on human rights. But, at the same time, the youth, when they are frustrated enough, do take to the streets. They do protest, which is a good thing. It’s a way to blow off steam. It’s a way to let their leaders know that they’re unhappy. And we need to respond to it in appropriate ways. Not to immediately say, “Oh good. They’re in the street. It means there’s going to be regime change in Iran.” No. But, to say that we’re glad to see that Iranian youth are making their views known. And that they are able to go to the streets and to express themselves. And we applaud their efforts in self-expression.

BILL MOYERS: Well, thank you very much, Judith Kipper, for being with us on WIDE ANGLE.


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