Dr. Yazdi, a pharmacologist, university professor and political activist, served as deputy prime minister and foreign minister under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, resigning in protest during the hostage crisis of November 1979. He served in the Majlis (parliament) 1980-84 and is now secretary general in the opposition political party, the Liberation Movement of Iran. He shared his views with the Middle East Policy Council as a private citizen. His interlocutor was Geoffrey Kemp of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
DR. YAZDI: It is indeed my pleasure and honor to be here and share some of my views concerning Islamic resurgence, or Islamic revivalism and the challenges and crises confronting the Islamic movements today. Being an activist-an Islamist, in a sense-I have always been concerned with interaction between the West and Islam, particularly being in America and active in Islamic activities. Here in America I appreciated the necessity of healthy interaction between the world of Islam and the West. So this kind of dialogue is very important to us, and I am glad to be here.
All of a sudden, the relationship between the West and Islam has come to the surface. The West must interact with the Muslim world, and the Muslims do not have any other choice but to interact with the West. I have been traveling in Muslim countries and talking with scholars, and I know that to many of us, the future of human civilization depends on healthy, normal relations between the West and Islam.
There was a time when Western civilization was isolated-in art, language, medicine-atrophying, encapsulated and almost dying. With the impact of Islam, all of a sudden Western civilization started to flourish. Likewise, Islamic civilization also started to flourish at the time when they started to communicate and interact with other cultures, non-Islamic cultures--such as the Hellenic, Iranian and Indian cultures. No culture can survive in isolation; those cultures that have remained isolated have died or remained at a primitive level. During the Cold War, the interaction between the West and Islam was overshadowed by the Cold War. To some extent, the West tried to use Islam to combat the spread of communism. It was merely an expedient. But now that has changed. My hope is that by developing a better understanding we can pave the way for healthy and flourishing relations. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, clashes of civilization are not always disastrous; in most cases they are opportunities. I think there is a great opportunity for both of our cultures to benefit from this interaction, provided that we understand each other better.
From the time Napoleon entered into Egypt almost 200 years ago, when this trauma came to the Muslim countries, there started a new Islamic awakening. Then other events took place that had a great impact on Islamic revivalism-the downfall of the caliphate and the Ottoman Empire and the constitutional revolution in Iran at the start of this century. Both of these took place in the Middle East. Then the discovery of oil in the Gulf also had some pronounced effects on the Islamic movement, both negative and positive. In recent years, two other events have also greatly influenced the evolutionary path of the Islamic movements: Soviet disintegration and the Iranian Revolution.
I have first to mention that Islamic movements are viable. Like any living organisms, they are in continuous interaction with their environment. The state of any given movement ten years ago is not what it is today. The overall identity is the same, like an organism, a plant, an animal or a human being, which goes through evolutionary changes but keeps its original identity. This is true for the Islamic movements. There are certain criteria to define the identity of movements, but as living beings they are in continuous interaction with the outside world as well as with the inside.
These two recent events-Soviet disintegration and the Iranian Revolution-have had a great impact on Muslim countries and movements. For example, in the past, many intellectuals in Muslim countries were looking outside to introduce changes in society. They were following the Western example for development, and many of the stronger ones were advocating the socialist path. All of a sudden, that disappeared. Of course, there are many prominent Muslims who believe the defeat of communism does not mean the victory of capitalism. Nonetheless, that particular event has influenced the intellectuals even non-religious intellectuals-to look inward toward their indigenous cultures to bring about social change to combat local corruption, backwardness and injustice. No longer are the foreign sources active and reliable or available, so they have to look within. As a result, you see in many Muslim countries that the political movements are tilting more and more toward indigenous culture, Islamic culture. And that itself brings a lot of changes and introduces a lot of challenges.
On the other hand, we have the Islamic revolution of Iran. Regardless of the pace of development later on, the revolution by itself has had a great impact on the Muslim world and reintroduced Islam as a dynamic force in social change. As a result, many Muslim movements throughout the world have become quite politicized. The politicization of Islamic movements and the Islamicization of political movements have all of a sudden expanded political and social movements in these countries. This has changed the balance of power among various trends in the Muslim movements.
From the very beginning, one can recognize two major trends in Islamic movements. One, we call the traditionalist. (The term "fundamentalism" does not reflect the true facts. All of us are fundamentalists according to the definition in Western culture, that whoever believes the Bible is the word of God is a fundamentalist.) There are the tradition-oriented Muslim intelligentsia, the so-called ulama. Then there are the reformist or modernist Muslim intellectuals. Their outlook and priorities are completely different. The first group is more or less looking backward, wanting change, but according to the traditional ways, which may or may not be Islamic. Through the interaction of Islamic and local cultures, a lot of tradition has developed. The traditions in Iran are different from those in Egypt. Most of them are Islamic, but they are different. So those tradition-oriented Muslims have their own priorities. For example, they believe that they are the only authentic authorities to comment on Islam. Outside of their domain, nobody is entitled to say anything about Islam. They are the true representatives of God and interpreters of the word of God. But the new reform oriented Muslim intelligentsia are completely different. I myself belong to that trend, and we believe that there are values in Islam that can be implemented in a new embodiment, not necessarily in traditional embodiments.
Each of these two major trends has its own character. The old-timers, the ulama, have a very strong grip on the masses. They can mobilize the masses because they rely only on the traditional religious sentiments. People don't easily change those traditional patterns. This is one of the reasons that, in the past 100 years, not only in Iran but in other Muslim countries, if nationalists wanted to combat local despotism, totalitarianism and corruption and to fight against foreign domination, they have always had to lure the traditional ulama to the political struggles so that through them they could have access to the masses. This paradox has manifested itself in many countries.
Today in Muslim countries, masses are in the street for the political struggle, demanding to run their own affairs. But who has access to them? This, in itself, has given the upper hand to the traditionalists. But this is not going to be a continuous trend. People in the area, for the first time in their history, are very close to establishing national or Islamic governments in their countries. In the past, this was very remote. We were talking hypothetically: What is a national government? What is an Islamic government? But now it is not too far away. In some countries, like Algeria, it was only one step away.
All of a sudden, Muslims are confronted with the reality of their circumstances. They have found that they are out of isolation and in the mainstream. They have the task, for example, of improving and developing the economy. They are all of a sudden faced with having relations with the world. They cannot isolate themselves and say "We made the revolution. We don't have to have anything to do with the outside world." And each one of them confronts a political challenge: All of a sudden the Muslims are in the forefront to establish the government. What should be the role of women? The challenge is from inside. Are we going to send our women back home as we did 100 or 200 years ago? It is impossible. In the past-at the time of the shah whether or not the intention to modernize was truly genuine, modernization was the great debate. Assuming that it was genuine, it was being imposed from the top, and there was a lot of resistance and resentment. If you believe that God has created man free, we have to choose our own fate through our own world view. No one, whether literate or illiterate, likes to have something imposed upon him by anyone. So there was resentment.
Therefore, when there was talk about the feminist group in Iran, or the liberation of women, regardless of what it meant, there was resentment because it was coming from the top. But now it is coming very normally from within. You may be surprised that even today in Iran in the newspapers, in the magazines-Zaman magazine, for example, which is a woman's journal by Muslim women and men who are very dedicated to the revolution and the Islamic movement-the question of the status of women in the country has been raised. The position of the traditional ulama has been that a woman cannot be a judge. It is forbidden. Now Muslims, including dedicated Muslims, are asking why it is prohibited, from where did that prohibition come, is there anything in the Quran to say that a Muslim woman cannot be appointed a judge in the courts? No, there is nothing in the Quran. Can we find anything in the tradition of the prophet? No. Then what was it? The whole logic is under scrutiny.
There are many other issues coming from within, such as the question of democracy. People were used to certain patterns of political structure. Now, all of a sudden, they find themselves in the middle of this controversy: Is there anything like human rights in Islam? In the past, it was hypothetical. Articles and books were written in defense of Islam, "The Universal Charter of Human Rights and Islam" and so on. But now it is a tangible question. Am I free to express my opinion or not? Let's assume that such and such a person is the highest authority in the country representing religious as well as political authority. Can I question him? All of a sudden, we found that we have to do it, that no one is infallible. People found that they must give advice and oppose and interact.
The question of minorities comes up. This is an Islamic government, so what can we do with them? The traditional beliefs and dogmas are outdated, including even those ideas that are very deep-rooted in Islam, like the concept of shura (consultation). How do we want to assemble a shura? If you follow the pattern of ideological development from the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, the caliphate and the Iranian constitutional revolution, this has been debated by many Muslim scholars such as Rashid Reza, Maulana Maududi, Ali Shariati, Ayatollah Naini, Mehdi Bazargan, Ayatollah Taligani and Ayatollah Mutahhari. It was very normal that at the beginning the point of reference was past experience. But then in a pattern of critical evaluation and reevaluation of past experiences everybody came to the conclusion that it is not possible to implement the concept of shura in the traditional format. And many have come to the conclusion that general elections and a parliament properly serve that concept of consultation. The question of political pluralism, therefore, comes up.
There are some issues regarding human rights in Islam that are at odds with Western human rights. Many people have reservations in particular areas. But even in the West you don't have one kind of democracy. Democracy must take its shape not only based on your world view but also on the historical experience of any given country. Therefore, democracy in England is different than in Germany or in France or in America. You cannot say that "Now that communism is defeated we are the champion of the world so you must come and copy our kind of democracy." Many people would resent this and say, "No, we will have our own democracy, which will be the byproduct of the interaction of our Islamic world view with our historical experience.'' What will come out in Iran will be different from that in Egypt, and Egypt will be different from Pakistan. Therefore, not just one kind of democracy will eventually develop and be established in Muslim countries. You may have differences, as with liberal democracies in the West.
In relation with the West, there is a debate going on within the Muslim ranks about what to do. Here we have two major problems. One is internal, the other is external. There is the legacy of the colonial era, with its bitter memories. Many of us are still living with that legacy. If you talk to any Iranian about the Americans or the British, immediately there will come up the military coup of 1953. "We Iranians tried to establish democracy, and you came and killed it right in the embryonic stage. You didn't even give us a chance to see if we could succeed or not. You decided that Iranians are not capable of doing it for your own interests." Not only in Iran but all over the Middle East, this is one of the obstacles in our relations. It is one of the obstacles in any peace plan. Of course, there are many Muslim activists inside Iran and outside, who think that we cannot forget the past, but we can forgive. If we want to develop a new era, we must not only look back, we must look forward.
But there are some external problems. Many former colonial powers act toward Muslim countries as a big brother. This inspires a lot of resentment. And despite the necessity of interaction with Islam, there are still many Western policy makers who are very much involved with Muslim countries but do not understand Islam.
I must say after 30 years a new generation of Orientalists is emerging. But not many of them are in a position of policy making. There is a double standard. In one country human rights is very important; in other countries no one pays attention. I have been involved in the human-rights movement since 1960, when I came to the United States. But it is not only in Muslim countries that human rights are violated. What about countries that are closely associated with the United States? No one hears about human-rights violations in those countries. The Muslim-oriented intellectuals, not only the traditionalists, are very suspicious when, in their interactions with the West, the issue of human rights is brought up.
In summary, the Islamic movement is not a static entity. It is dynamic, continuously trying to adapt itself to the environment, addressing pressing internal and external issues. As far as the two major groups I mentioned, the traditionalist and the reformist Muslim intelligentsia, all the evidence shows that this is a trend that is gaining strength all over the Muslim world. On the one hand, the politicization of Islamic movements and the Islamization of political movements are bringing the masses into the mainstream of the struggle and giving the upper hand to traditionalists, and the traditionalists are confronted with pressing issues they are not capable of handling. People through their own experience will find this out and it will shift the power to the reformers, to those who search for new answers to these pressing questions.
DR. GEOFFREY KEMP has served in the U.S. government in several capacities, including as an official of the National Security Council. He is now a senior officer with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and bas recently written a book about U.S.-Iranian relations.
DR. KEMP: Dr. Yazdi, I found very little to disagree with in what you said and thought that you covered your topic remarkably well. I think there's no one in this room who would fault you for arguing that Islamic movements are dynamic, that they're different and that we cannot put them all into one category, that there is indeed a bitter legacy from the past, and that there is, most of all, a need for dialogue and better understanding. You made the further point that in dealing with Islamic governments it is important to address the realities of power as well as the theoretical issues. It's that point that I want to focus on because I think most people in this room, and certainly myself, are particularly interested in Iran and the Islamic regime and its relations with the United States. The question I think a lot of us have posed over the last few years is, under what circumstances will it be possible for the United States and the Islamic Republic to do essentially what you have called for: engage in a dialogue in order to achieve, ultimately, a better understanding of each other? This is the crux of what I see as the issue today: You have now an administration in Washington that-with all the faults that I will go through in a moment concerning Iran policy-calls very openly and explicitly for an official dialogue with the leaders in Tehran that would cover a wide agenda of issues. At the same time, the policy of the Iranian regime is to reject out of hand any official dialogue whatsoever with the United States. Herein, it seems to me, lies a true bottleneck that we have to try to overcome. Before I get back to this, let me say a few words about what I think are the key issues between the United States and Tehran and why perhaps it's so difficult to get to dialogue. From the American point of view you could really cluster the issues into two very simple categories: first, the political issues, and second, the military questions. I would put first in the political category, as of extreme importance to this country, irrespective of which administration we're talking about, Iran's continued and very open rejection of the Arab-Israeli peace process, which a lot of Americans regard as a great bipartisan success. It is one of the few areas where the Clinton administration simply has carried on the policy of the previous administration with, I would think, some rather remarkable progress.
Second there is very strong evidence that the regime in Tehran still supports groups that engage in terrorism, both in the Middle East and outside.
Third is the outright refusal of the regime to accept Israel's right to exist, irrespective of the peace process. Those three issues are fundamental stumbling blocks, at least from the American point of view.
In the other category of military issues, you have a range of topics: the CIA's belief that Iran is seeking weapons of mass destruction, although this is quite controversial, I would admit; second, that Iran is engaged in a rearmament of its conventional forces, a factor that I personally find less troubling than some of my colleagues; and third-again, another controversial issue-that Iran harbors hegemonic aspirations for control of the Persian Gulf.
My own view is that on these military issues there is much more debate within the U.S. government and within the community that looks at these issues than there is on the former set of questions, which primarily have to do with politics and the peace process. The problem with the administration's policy as it is articulated is that it quite frankly tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, you have the secretary of state calling for a much more strident opposition to relations with Iran at the economic level, while at the same time calling for dialogue. Yet very few people in the administration want to acknowledge that, in fact, our economic relations with Iran were growing very significantly until last year, round about September and October, when, for reasons that have nothing to do with a change in U.S. policy but more to do with the chaotic state of the Iranian economy, the figures began to change. But last year, for instance, the United States sold well over half a billion dollars’ worth of goods and services directly to the regime. That's quite aside from oil that our companies purchased from Iran and paid for in hard currency and then sold on the open market, and quite apart from the secondary transfer of American goods to Iran from Gulf states, which some people believe amounts to well over a billion dollars a year.
It's also interesting to look at the types of things we are selling the regime in Tehran now-quite a lot of oil and gas equipment that contributes directly, I would add, to the ability of Iran to export oil and gain hard currency. We also sell an extraordinary list of other items, and it's well worth calling up the Commerce Department and getting their printouts, which they will send you by fax at a moment's notice. I see that last year, for instance, we sold the Iranians $12 million worth of chicken parts and edible offal, excluding the livers for some reason. We sold them $6.5 million worth of cigarettes containing tobacco, which I thought was a rather interesting way of putting it. I see that women's briefs went from zero in 1992 to $1.4 million in 1993. What you can see from these figures is a rather diversified and active export market. In fact, I may have this figure wrong, but I believe the United States is probably the third largest exporter of goods to Iran at this point. How that links with our call for more strident economic pressures against the regime would be explained by the administration in the sense that what we are trying to do internationally is deny Iran access to certain technologies that could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction or to reequip the conventional forces, and to deny Iran access to favorable loans in the financial markets.
But it seems to me, having looked at this subject in some detail, particularly from the military point of view, the really key issue as far as the United States is concerned is not whether Iran can purchase certain widgets from Germany but whether Iran has hard currency to go into the foreign market to buy whatever it likes. So long as the United States is contributing to Iran's capacity to generate hard currency, it seems to me there's going to be a wide-open problem in our own policy, for which I have not seen a satisfactory explanation from the administration.
Regarding the dialogue, right now the administration is in the rather extraordinary position of calling for dialogue with Tehran by rejecting any dialogue at all with the Mujahedin. In fact, the latest report that the State Department has issued on the Mujahedin is a very useful and thorough review of why the United States has such a poor opinion of the People's Mujahedin and why that view is probably correct. My own personal opinion is that we were silly not to have talked to them, if only to confirm the contents of the study. Having not talked to them, we've made a big issue of it and we look rather weak. As a result, we have put ourselves in the position now that we simply cannot talk to them. To some extent, this has helped the regime in Tehran, which is finding it difficult to accept a lot of the criticism that is mounting on issues such as terrorism.
Where does this leave us? If there are some fundamental differences of opinion about everything from human rights to the definition of terrorism, and if it is true that until there is dialogue, we're probably not going to understand each other any better, then why is there such reluctance in Tehran to talk officially to the United States about this list of questions? One gets different answers from different Iranian officials. One argument I've heard several times is that there cannot be any official dialogue until the United States, a priori, takes certain actions-most notably, returns all Iranian assets that were appropriated at the time of the revolution and compensates Iran for damage to Iranian property, including the Airbus, that was sustained during the Iran Iraq War. That, quite honestly, is simply not going to happen because there are already formal ways of resolving the assets question at the joint Iranian-U.S. forum in the Hague. Furthermore, it raises another set of questions about compensation to the United States for all sorts of things that were done to American hostages during the crisis fifteen years ago. So I don't see any progress on that particular front. Having talked to quite a lot of Iranians about this, my sense is that the problem is that there is no consensus in Tehran; that those who reject dialogue with the United States essentially understand that if this dialogue were to begin, it would be very threatening; and that the most threatening issue to the regime at the moment is the very prospect of opening up to the West, and in particular the United States, and all that involves by way of cultural imperialism, and so on.
It is worth noting the fact that the debate in the Majlis about satellite television reflects this concern. It is not just the right wing in this country that objects to Beavis and Butthead; it is also many of your colleagues in Tehran. And the question, really, is to what extent can you-in looking at the realities of power today-keep out Western culture when the technology for spreading it is becoming so cheap and readily available? It's a problem that not only bedevils Tehran but virtually every country in Asia that's having to face up to the new impact of satellite television.
Let me conclude by saying I personally would welcome a dialogue with the regime, provided that it is official and covers all the topics of misunderstanding between us. I'm personally not sure it would lead anywhere, but certainly it could not hurt. I am a great believer that talk, even if it leads to deadlock, is better than no talk at all, because that, more than anything else, contributes to the misunderstandings that you quite correctly identified.
Q: Would you identify for us the leading voices in Tehran on the reformist side? Where does one read them, where are they visible, and what are they specifically saying? Secondly, in light of the fact there doesn't seem to be any significant opposition from the Mujahedin or anyone else capable of ousting or challenging this regime, what are the prospects of the reformist movement down the road forming itself so that you see a political spectrum in Iran in which this other group could provide a viable alternative?
DR. YAZDI: What are the viable voices among the reformers? If you are talking at the ideological level, there are many prominent voices, including people in the Liberation Movement of Iran: Mr. Bazargan [who died January 20, 1995], for example, and myself. There is a great debate going on about relations between the state and the clergy, the state and religion: There's a very serious debate going on. For example, Dr. Abdel Karim Soroush is critically debating and analyzing new ideas departing from the old stance on various issues. There is a very prominent woman lawyer who wrote a series of articles in Ettelaat, a daily semi-official governmental newspaper, questioning the Islamicity of some of the stands of the ulama on the status of women. As I mentioned, she is the one who raised the question of why a woman cannot be appointed a judge, disputing the old stand.
Concerning the second question, it is true that at the moment, politically, there is no alternative. However, there are more and more groups inside coming to the conclusion that the only alternative is through a gradual political change or modification within the system, not from the outside and not through subversively overthrowing the present regime. This is gaining solid ground in Iran, not only among people in the opposition outside of the government, but among people inside the government. There are serious voices demanding implementation of the articles of the third and fifth chapters of the constitution concerning human rights and the rights of the nation, demanding the freedom of political parties and activities and an end to censorship and bugging telephone conversations. What many of us inside Iran are trying to do is to exert pressure until gradually the political system opens up to these forces.
Q: Could you answer some of the questions Dr. Kemp was asking?
DR. YAZDI: I'm not in a position to say what the United States government should do or what Iran's government should do. I'm not representing the Iranian government. I do not agree with what they may do, but I can put the question another way. Many activists in the Muslim world have certain reservations about what Geoff says. Take the example of the Palestinian-Israeli peace accord. Many people think that a lasting peace will come when it is really just. There is a lot of talk about implementation of the peace accord, but Jewish settlement in the occupied area is continuous. This creates a lot of problems, even if there is going to be an independent Palestinian state, and even if it is not a totally sovereign state. The clash may not necessarily come between the Israeli government and a Palestinian government, but among the people, because the people see that these settlements are continuing. To many people, this creates serious questions about the intention of the peace accord. This is one of the reasons that Arafat is losing his credentials in the minds of many Palestinians. But when it comes to the recognition of Israel, many Muslims have decided to accept it as a reality and live with it.
DR. KEMP: And within Iran?
DR. YAZDI: I don't know what is in the back of the minds of the Iranian authorities. I'm talking about the Muslims all over the world that I have been in contact with and, yes, they do accept Israel. But they raise questions about very serious issues: the continuation of the Jewish settlements in the occupied area; the fate of Jerusalem, the holy city; the question of the Israelis' atomic bomb. There are many Muslim countries that are very concerned about why the Israelis can have the atomic bomb and the Muslims cannot. It's not only the attitude of the Arabs in the area of Israel; many Muslims raise the question, why doesn't anyone make a fuss about India having an atomic bomb, when they do about Pakistan. Of course, this doesn't mean that many Muslim intellectuals, including myself, believe that Pakistan must also have the atomic bomb. I am not even in agreement with India's having it. When you are experiencing a lot of economic problems, it doesn't pay to spend that much money for developing the atomic bomb, whether you are capable of using it or not, which is a different story.
Q: You mentioned a group of reformists inside the Islamic world and that you're in dialogue with many of these people. Do you see emerging an organization that would actually allow some type of unified effort in defining some of the issues you mentioned?
DR. YAZDI: Every one of these Islamic movements is mainly concerned about national issues. I don't see any possibility at the moment or in the near future that there will be a union among all these movements. However, to exchange their ideas and their experiences, yes. For example, through translation, many of the books of Ali Shariati, one of the leading Islamist scholars in Iran, have been translated into Turkish. Many Turkish books in Iran have been translated into Farsi and then into Arabic. So through this kind of natural interaction, everybody has become conscious of needing to know what other Muslims think and what their experiences are.
Q: Dr. Yazdi, there is a lot of evidence of a vigorous debate, but what evidence is there of the system gradually reforming itself, changing in the direction that you hope?
DR. YAZDI: There is not any tangible evidence at the moment. But it is unavoidable; that is the only alternative. Subversive groups don't have any place in Iran. It is the psychology of people in any revolution: If the revolution has deviated from its original path, the same generation-and probably the second generation-will never do the same thing again. One may be justified in one's reason for wanting to overthrow the government, but one will not. Many people in Iran debate-seriously debate-the usefulness or the benefit of subversive activities in Iran. But everybody comes to accept gradual change through non-violent political activity.
As I said, this is unavoidable, but when the new burst will come, I cannot say. For many people within the government and outside of it, this is the trend and the conclusion-that we must do something. That is the only alternative solution.
Q: The charge that Dr. Kemp referred to-that Iran is sponsoring terrorist organizations-is one of the real impediments to any kind of progress. What is, in fact, the Iranian relationship to Hamas? How do they support it? Are they advising it? Are they giving it funds? If so, are those funds designated for particular things?
DR. YAZDI: I am afraid that you are addressing your question to the wrong person. I am not at all involved or informed about what they are doing. It may be that some of the organizations affiliated or nonaffiliated with the government are involved. But the burden of proof is upon those who claim that Iran is involved. Personally, I don't know. I hope they are not.
Q: If the government does not make some of the changes that you recommend, then the pressure is going to become stronger. What do you think will happen?
DR. YAZDI: One of the probabilities is a future parliamentary election. If we succeed inside Iran in bringing such a free election into reality, then a civil society might emerge in Iran as a necessary prelude to democracy. That will be a turning point in Iranian history.
Q: Why won't the government of Iran accept the invitation from the United States to have a dialogue?
DR. YAZDI: I am among those who have always believed in a direct approach and dialogue. From the very beginning after the revolution we took that risk, actually. We knew it was risky to sit and talk with Mr. Brzezinski, but we did it. If we want to solve our problems with Americans, we have to sit and talk with them. Okay, you say why are the Iranians not ready for dialogue? Number one, they are afraid that they may lose their political power, because talking with Americans is not very popular in Iran, particularly, as I said, because there is a legacy there that continues to haunt the Iranian mind. Iranian officials have announced that they will accept a dialogue with the United States, provided that the Americans release all the Iranian assets frozen in America. Why it's not possible, I don't know. But that has generated suspicions toward the United States.
I will give you my own account. After the revolution, we were engaged in negotiations with Americans. We said, "Could you give us a financial report on the situation of our account at the Department of Defense?" They never gave one to us. From 1968 to 1979 more than 900 contracts were signed between Iran and the Department of Defense. We continuously asked them to give us a report. When I talked with [Secretary of State] Cyrus Vance in 1979 he said he was not aware of it. He gave the instruction to [State Department desk officer for Iran] Henry Precht to talk with the people in the Defense Department. They came the next day to the office of the Iranian representative at the United Nations, and we engaged in this negotiation. I brought up the same question to them. I said, "According to the conditions you have committed yourself to, you gave a projected price first, and then the Iranian government had to deposit money in the account, and when the purchase was finalized and delivered, you were supposed to have given the Iranian government a final invoice. You never did." "Gentlemen," the Defense Department said, "We cannot give a final invoice to you. If you want one, go to Salt Lake City. All the military computers are there. You can retrieve everything." I said, "In your office you have a computer and you have a telephone; it is your obligation to get it for us." They never did. This didn't induce trust.
The colonialist mentality still is there. I'm not justifying the behavior or the reasoning of the Iranian government, but I am addressing the very basic issue. As long as the West doesn't change its attitude, it doesn't matter whether it's Iran or Algeria or Saudi Arabia. You know what has happened, for example, in Saudi Arabia concerning the dissent of some of its intellectuals. They are not reactionary or tradition oriented; they are highly educated people from American universities. They got their idea of participatory democracy from you. Now they have gone home to Saudi Arabia, and immediately they said, "Okay, we want change."
Again, the Iranian government is afraid. They are suspicious. I'm not justifying them. Even allowing for suspicion, we have to get involved with the dialogue. However, it is a two-way street. Muslim authorities must change their attitude as much as the Western authorities must change theirs.
Q: I'd like to ask Dr. Kemp with reference to what Dr. Yazdi has said about trying to get an accounting of what the Iranian assets are in the United States. Has your research led you to any conclusion as to what the size of the holdings are?
DR. KEMP: First, there was established, and it was very effective, a tribunal at the Hague where the United States and Iran have been meeting for years. Most of the outstanding issues have actually been resolved. Enormous amounts of assets have been transferred in both directions. There remain some outstanding questions, particularly about the military account. One of the problems is that there is a major difference of opinion between the Iranians and the Americans as to what the number is. It's how you deal with the assets that are sitting in banks and how much interest should be given to them. I don't know the exact details, but part of the problem is that even though there is a willingness to discuss the issue, there are major differences as to what the net sum is and whether the United States would be prepared to return all the assets. There's just simply not going to be enough money at this point because the difference between what Tehran says we owe and what we say we owe is enormous. But it's never going to be resolved unless we talk about it.
Q: In the American policy-making community there's a split on how to deal with Iran-whether we should take the containment approach or a more conciliatory one. Which approach, in your opinion, would encourage the kind of gradual change you seek?
DR. YAZDI: I'm not in a position to tell American policy makers what to do. But let us take the example of, say, terrorism. I'm as much against terrorism and the killing of innocent people in Argentina as in the occupied territories. But the U.S. response is not proportional. Many Muslims have a great resentment of the Western policy concerning what's going on in former Yugoslavia. Nobody's talking about Christian terrorism wiping out men and women just because they're Muslims.
You may wonder what this has to do with Iran. Some Iranians know the mentality of the Muslim masses all over the world. They act as their spokesman. They are investing in this. Unless your attitude is corrected, you may tame one of them, but there will be another one. You may suppress one organization in a given situation, but there will be another, probably more extreme. That is one of the lessons of Algeria. You didn't accept the outcome of their elections, yet you are asking the Muslims to accept other realities. Muslims are asking to run their own affairs. They have to learn through their own trial and error. The West stopped the process of democracy in Algeria, and now they are confronted with more extreme groups, which they may never be able to tame.
Q: Concerning leadership issues, the past 15 years have been divided into the first 10 years of Khomeini's rule and the last five years of Rafsanjani's influence. Rafsanjani is now in his second and final term. Who do you see emerging as a possible successor? ls Ayatollah Khamenei likely to be able to achieve the requisite status to replace Khomeini as a legitimate vali-e faqih (supreme religious leader)?
DR. YAZDI: Regarding the first question, nobody's sure what the outcome might be. Regarding the second question, the answer is no. There is no way to elect a charismatic leader. Charisma comes of its own accord; you cannot order it. Mehdi Bazargan a few years ago wrote a book about the Iranian revolution going in two directions. He elaborated on the question of velayat-e-faqih. He said this is a garment which is fit only for Mr. Khomeini. What you are talking about is the universal problem of any revolution with a charismatic leader. His successors cannot compete.
Q: Could you just offer some names as possible candidates, for the benefit of those of us outside Iran who don't have the benefit of knowing what the debate is?
DR. YAZDI: Many people have let everyone know that they are available, but whether they will get the bid or not, I don't know. For example, the speaker of the parliament, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, thinks he is capable of replacing Rafsanjani, but that is his opinion.
DR. KEMP: One explanation for the problems in Tehran today is the economy. The one reason the economy is doing badly is because oil prices have remained low. In explaining the debate in Tehran, how much weight would you attach to the fact that Rafsanjani has not been able to deliver the goods? If oil prices were to rise in the next three to four years, would this reverse the malaise that people keep talking about in the cities?
DR. YAZDI: The problem with the economy is related to other problems. In my opinion, the Iranian crisis can be divided into five categories: the administrative crisis, the ideological crisis, the economic crisis, the political crisis and the crisis of identity. Each of them is deeply related to the other ones. You cannot solve the economic problem unless, first, you solve the political problems. You may generally extend that to any given society. In Iran there is a draft-approved constitution. The constitution is a national covenant. Like any other social contract, if one party violates the letter of the contract unilaterally, then a crisis will develop between the parties involved. This is my definition of the political crisis. Take the easy example of Egypt. As long as Mubarak gets elected by 99 percent, there's a political problem. You cannot solve economic problems, social problems or any other problems unless you first come to solve this problem. It is related to the administrative problem. Even if the price of oil goes up, you need a very strong, efficient administration to use revenue properly. Therefore, there is not a one-dimensional problem-that if the price of oil goes up, we will solve the problem. It may give some respite, but that's it. It's the same as I mentioned with Egypt. You are giving a lot of financial support to Mubarak. But you are not solving the problem. You're avoiding the problem.
Q: Are you able to elaborate for us the reasons why you made the decision to leave the government and are no longer associated with it in any official capacity, yet you still support the ideals of the revolution?
DR. YAZDI: Yes, they are two different phenomena. Revolution is one thing, and the events that take place after are different things. I'm still dedicated to the cause of the revolution. It was an independent, genuine revolution, one of the classical mass revolutions of the century. It is still valid. So I'm committed to it-mainly to human rights, basic political liberty, democracy, the independence of the country from all foreign domination.
I'm very much a nationalist. When some of your congressmen wrote a letter asking the administration to have the Iranian representative to the United Nations be discharged and replaced with the representative of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, we got very annoyed. You were intervening in our internal affairs. Some of us don't approve of Iranian government policy, but we don't want you to intervene in our internal policy. So some of us wrote a letter-many of us signed it-to Boutros Ghali and protested this violation of the charter of the United Nations. It is not up to American congressmen to decide who will represent the Iranian people in the United Nations. To resist foreign intervention in our internal affairs is a part of the Iranian revolution.
For the first time in our recent history, the fate of the Iranian people will not be decided in Moscow, Washington, London or in any other capital. No matter what our fate, it will be decided inside Iran. Whatever foreign power wants to influence us must recognize that. Any organization that seeks otherwise is committing a historical mistake.
Now, why did I leave the government? Because I am committed to the cause of revolution. I want an Islamic republic, not the government of the clergy. They are two different things. As a matter of fact, before the revolution the leadership of the revolution, very openly. stated that we didn't want to create a government of the turban and the sneakers. But later on, the government took another route, so we had to disassociate ourselves.
Q: Could you elucidate the difference between an Islamic republic that is based on laws established by Islam and a republic of the clergy, where the mullahs rule.
DR. YAZDI: The constitution makes clear that the Islamic republic has a popular democratic government. It is Islamic in that no law can be adopted contrary to Islamic tenets. The clergy claim they are the representatives of God and that only they can interpret the word of God. There is no Islamic base for that.
Q: What you envision is a republic actually based on law?
DR. YAZDI: Yes. It is a republic-based on the people. Regarding Islamic law, the sharia, many people in Iran and many Muslim scholars throughout the world share the view that for the sharia laws to be implemented, they must be legislated as civil laws by the parliament. The initiation may come from religion, but it will evolve into a civil law. Isn't that the same thing as in the West? The origin of many of your civil laws goes back to Christianity or Judaism. They are no longer religious laws but civil laws that everybody must obey. Many Muslims believe that's the best way, the democratic way of implementing the sharia.
Q: I'd like you to outline what you mean by the crisis of identity. Doesn't that also bring up core questions of politics regarding religion and state, Islam and the Iranian heritage?
DR. YAZDI: Seventy percent of our population is under 25; 50 percent under 15 years. That's a generation raised after the revolution. As a result of sad experiences after the revolution, many of them are not religious-minded or nationalist-oriented. This is a crisis of identity, and inside Iran many of us are very concerned about it.
It is not only a question of Western ideas coming in by satellite. Nobody can close the sky. Even if the clergy tries, it is not practical. The threat is not coming from there. The interaction of cultures is not something new. It is a very old story in human history; satellites are only a new means of interaction. To me and to many Muslims, the Islamic culture is so rich that we don't have anything to fear. Some of the reaction may be extreme, but overall the response of Muslims toward what some may call a cultural invasion will be for the benefit of Islam. So there is no reason to be frightened of that. However, what is important is what is going on inside the country as far as religion is concerned. This is what has created a negative impact on the new generation. Some of us are very concerned about it and refer to it as a crisis of identity.