Exploring Iran at a Millennial Moment

This Thursday, April 14, at Swarthmore College, “The Revolution Will be Telegrammed: Iran After the Elections and the End of Sanctions,” offers a unique look behind the scenes of the social, cultural, and political forces shaping Iran today.

The session, to be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Chang Hou Hall in Science Center 101, convenes five panelists whose expertise encompasses anthropology, political science, foreign policy, and journalism. These writers and analysts, all with firsthand knowledge of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), are Narges Bajoghli and Amir Moosavi from New York University, Reza Marashi from the National Iranian American Council, Swarthmore visiting professor of political science Shervin Malekzadeh, and Laura Secor of The New Yorker.

Sherwin Malekzadeh

The talk is free and open to the public. In advance of the session, the Swarthmorean asked five questions of event organizer Maledzadeh:

What steps must be taken in the near term to improve relations between the U.S. and Iran?
I think that what we’re seeing is clearly an iterative process, one produced by distinct personalities… At the same time, we’re likely to see a movement away from leadership and towards routinization of engagement as benchmarks are met and the process becomes institutionalized (i.e., not about who is leading or who is in office — even Ted Cruz can’t exactly “tear up this agreement” on day one). So the step that must be taken is a clear dose of patience and understanding, of not freaking out, as various folks in the U.S. and in Iran continue to speak in strident tones. We should instead let the agreement play out beneath the surface, and treat the trash-talking for what it is: noise, ultimately insignificant.

In what areas can the U.S. and Iran work productively together now?
In Syria, to a certain extent, especially in regards to ISIS, and as has long been the case, Iraq and Afghanistan, where both Iran and the US have an interest in stability… Iranian leaders regularly reference Iran’s long and tragic history of having to deal with terrorists, no doubt as counter-programming to that country being labeled “the top sponsor of terror in the world.” Nonetheless, there is a basis for antiterrorist cooperation between the Iranians and the Americans. The key is to understand that the IRI, at the end of the day, wants one thing, and one thing only: the preservation of Iran and the revolution (seen as the same thing by the regime).

Does Iran have a unique role in countering international terrorism?
Not for the reasons usually assumed — “Iran exports terror, etc.,” a categorization that is as much political as it is analytical (because of Iran’s overt support for Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent, Hamas) — but because Iran is very much a target for outfits like ISIS.

Do external groups like ISIS threaten stability in Iran, through threat of subversive activity or terror within Iran, or through potential for interruption of trade internationally?
If anything, ISIS gives the IRGC (the Revolutionary Guards) an opportunity for redemption. By leading the fighting against ISIS, the Guard Corps have managed to restore much of the lustre that’s been lost since the end of the Iran-Iraq War… I don’t think that ISIS poses an existential threat to a country like Iran — ISIS thrives in the absence of a state, and is, in any case, comprised in the main by former Iraqi officers and soldiers from the Sadaam era… Certainly Iran continues to face threats from other places as well, mainly on its southeastern flank with Pakistan and Afghanistan, particularly in Baluchistan. Not too long ago the Israelis successfully mounted a program of killing nuclear scientists in the heart of Tehran, a series of assassinations that the IRI has made great hay of. There is too the memory of terror in the early 1980s, in which the MEK (a favorite of neocons, especially in D.C.) successfully wiped out a large part of the early leadership of the Islamic Republic. So the notion that Iran faces the threat of terror is definitely part of the official line in Iran, and an excuse to remain vigilant.

What are Iran’s economic prospects following lifting of sanctions?
Much better! I’m not much of an expert on political economy, but all signs point to a dramatic improvement in the long-term prospects of Iran’s economy. Ordinary Iranians… will continue, rightfully, to complain about how “nothing has changed” in their daily lives, but the everlasting mystery of Iran will continue to be a country whose economy underperforms but nonetheless fails to exhibit overt signs of poverty and suffering seen in the region or in South and Southeast Asia. Moreover, Iranians continue to seek the brass ring of higher education, despite the general lack of opportunity — this matters, because as the economy expands in sectors like tourism and manufacturing, Iran will prove to have a sturdy foundation for this growth to continue. The major challenge right now is less ideological than it is the mundane matter of mismanagement and incompetence.

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