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As Iran’s president prepares to attend the United Nations General Assembly, the U.S. and its European allies are urging the U.N. to move quickly on a sanctions panel. Diane and guests explore the political and social landscape in Iran today as it faces international pressure.
- Hooman Madj author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" and "The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge," advised and interpreted for two Iranian presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on their trips to the United States.
- Scott Peterson Istanbul Bureau Chief for The Christian Science Monitor. Author of "Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran - A Journey Behind the Headlines" and "Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, which opens today. He's under pressure internationally over Iran's nuclear plans and the two American hikers still being held in his country, among other issues. Domestically, he's facing criticism, not only from the opposition, but from Tehran's hardliners. Joining us in the studio to discuss these issues, Scott Peterson, he's author of "Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran - A Journey Behind the Headlines," and from NPR's New York bureau, Hooman Majd. He's author of "The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge." And, of course, you are always part of the program. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Scott.
MR. SCOTT PETERSONThank you. Good morning.
REHMAnd good morning to you, Hooman.
MR. HOOMAN MAJDGood morning.
REHMHooman, if I could start with you, what was your interpretation of President Ahmadinejad's statement when he said the future belongs to Iran?
MAJDWell, I think it's his bombastic style. I mean, he's very much a nationalist, an Iranian nationalist. And I think he has this notion that Iran is a world power -- or about to be a world power -- and that Iran has more influence in the world than anybody can imagine. I think he really believes that, and -- or at least believes that it should have more influence in the world. So I think that's his style, and I think it's also his belief.
REHMAnd, of course, Scott Peterson, he had -- that is, President Ahmadinejad had several interviews over the weekend. He talked about Iran in terms that were really rather grandiose.
PETERSONWell, you know, he's had a history of, in fact, making those kinds of statements. I mean, I was at a big national rally on their revolutionary anniversary about three years ago, and he made -- and also two years ago -- and he's made similar comments in which he described Iran as being a superpower, real and true. He made similar statements, even the first time that Iran had actually produced its enriched uranium -- had just the first, first few grams of that material -- and said that now Iran is a member of the nuclear club. And so he's kind of casting Iran as a -- not just a regional power, but really a global one. And I think that that is the context in which we see this commentary that Iran will be the victor in the end, and that superpowers, as we know them -- United States especially -- will simply fade.
REHMBut, Scott, doesn't he continue to insist that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon?
PETERSONHe definitely insists on that. That's absolutely right. He says that's against Islam. He says that that is that -- and he makes clear that Iran has repeatedly stated that it wants a nuclear-free region, meaning that Israel's weapons also should be removed or should no longer exist. And this has been a very consistent line on the part coming from the Islamic regime for years and years. And I think that their calculation -- the way they're putting it is, is that they are projecting Iran as an Islamic system that is meant to be a model, a fabulous model -- and this is, in Ahmadinejad's view, a fabulous model of what can be achieved. And I think, exactly as Hooman said, it's really -- it's kind of a delusion because, of course, in the time that we've seen Ahmadinejad in power over these last five years, we've seen Iran's own influence first rise quite substantially in the region, and then also drop off, especially since the election in June a year ago.
REHMWhat is he saying about the possibility of U.N. sanctions, Hooman?
MAJDWell, the -- you mean, in terms of whether they've been effective or not? I mean, he dismisses them outright.
REHMHe just dismisses them.
MAJDYes. And I think that it's interesting that he does so at a time when, obviously, other leaders of the Islamic republic, such as Rafsanjani, who's still very powerful and the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, just last week said that they shouldn't be taken as a joke -- really, a direct jab at Ahmadinejad, who has basically called them a joke. But I think he does believe that the sanctions don't -- will not affect Iran in the way that the United States hopes that they will affect Iran. And I think that's really the message that he's trying to get across more than anything else in his typical, you know, way of exaggerating things.
MAJDThe way he says that is by saying they don't affect us at all. And, you know, and yesterday on ABC News, when he was pressed on that, he admitted that they're -- they do take them seriously. But he really wanted to get across the point that they're not going to change Iran's behavior, which, I think, is what the ultimate goal is for the sanctions, is to change Iran's behavior. And, actually, in that, he may be right.
REHMBut, Scott, how are the sanctions that are already in place affecting the people of Iran?
PETERSONWell, these later sets of sanctions, which really have only been in place for the past few months, have really begun to have an impact in a way that no other previous sets of sanctions have on Iran. It's not just economic although there is some impact on that. But what we're dealing with now are -- and what the Iranians are dealing with, really -- are a series of measures that are being put in place that limit the amount of possibilities that Iranians have for banking, for Iranian businesses. You've got a lot of other companies and countries that formally were doing business on Iran and being able to kind of skirt around some of the measures of these sanctions.
PETERSONYou know, they've really had to back away from that or, literally, their nations. I mean, South Korea, for example, or others have simply stated that now we are no longer going to be enabling these kind of business transactions. And so, you know, even though Ahmadinejad states repeatedly that really -- that there's no impact. It's simply not true because the bite is being felt. And also you can attribute some of the kind of many layers of growing pressure upon the regime over a number of issues. And sanctions have definitely appeared to have added to that. I mean, we've seen the government kind of move around and wriggle a little bit under sanctions in terms of the stoning case of Mrs. Ashtiani. We've seen it in terms of the case of Sarah Shourd and the hikers. These are all elements of pressure that are currently upon the regime, and sanctions are a part of that.
REHMI want to hear about why it is that Ahmadinejad is thought to be too liberal among factions within the Iranian government, Hooman.
MAJDWell, he's done a number of things. I mean, first of all, it's not that they think he is necessarily personally the most liberal president Iran's had, but he has advisors. For example, Mashai, who's his chief of staff, is considered far too liberal. Ahmadinejad himself has said some things in the past that have annoyed -- all the way back into his first administration -- said things that have annoyed the conservatives, such as saying that women should be allowed into soccer stadiums after the reelection of 2009, in what was probably an attempt to reach out to some of the young people who were out there protesting for more freedom. He even said that it's not up to the government to stop a man and a woman on the street to find out if -- what their relation is, which is a big bone of contention for the youth in Iran who get hassled by authorities when they're dating, for example. Things like that are very, very -- they're anathema to conservatives. And they consider, on a social level, he's far too liberal.
MAJDAnd he also is disdainful of the clerics. He interferes, as far as they're concerned -- some of the clerics, or at least most of the clerics, even some of his own supporters -- interferes in areas of Islam, Islamic law and Islamic behavior that he shouldn't be interfering in. And as, you know, former President Khatami once said, you know, if he had said any of the things that Ahmadinejad had said, he would have been crucified, which is true. So he does have a little bit of leeway because he's also, you know, a hardline conservative in many other ways. But in terms of social matters, he's definitely far more -- he is at least proclaimed to be far more liberal than almost any other leader in the Islamic republic's history.
REHMScott, Hooman mentioned Mashai, the close friend and confidant of President Ahmadinejad. What got him into trouble? And how was that dealt with?
PETERSONWell, he's a character who's a remarkable voice close to the president. And really there are a number of different advisors of kind of sketchy and questionable ideological bend and of cultural views and have really -- that have really limited knowledge of kind of the outside world. And Mashai is a special one because some time back, he declared that, really, Iranians had no issues with Israelis. And the way he said it was done in a way that specifically climbed right up the nose of a lot of the hardliners in Iran. He described, you know, these beautiful people -- they're beautiful people like us. He used the specific term in Farsi. And, you know, finally this -- and it became such an issue that finally the Supreme Leader himself had to just -- at the end of one of his long speeches just had to finally say, "Well, look, we know all this talk is not right, so stop it now," which really was a slap down.
PETERSONAnd, you know, it kind of gets at the heart of how, you know, power has been exercised by the Ahmadinejad presidency and by those people around him because there's always – there is a constant tension. This tension is -- of course predates Ahmadinejad. It goes back to the Khatami era especially and, of course, even before then, but especially under Ahmadinejad because he has taken the post of the presidency and strengthened it in a lot of ways. I remember one conservative editor telling me that, you know, when Ahmadinejad came to power first in 2005, you know, really there were low expectations. No one had any sense that this man understood power, but what he really understood -- this conservative editor told me -- was that power's like water. If you don't hold on to it...
PETERSON...it simply pours out of your hands. So Ahmadinejad has worked very hard to increase the power of that post.
REHMScott Peterson, he is Istanbul Bureau Chief for The Christian Science Monitor, author of "Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran - A Journey Behind the Headlines," and Hooman Madj, he is author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ." He has interpreted for two Iranian presidents.
REHMAnd welcome back. We are talking about Iran. On this first day of the U.N. General Assembly, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York for the opening. He's certainly under pressure internationally and from within. We have two guests with us today. Hooman Madj, he's the author of "The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge." He has advised and interpreted for two Iranian presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on their trips to the U.S. Here in the studio with me is Scott Peterson. He's Istanbul Bureau Chief for The Christian Science Monitor and author of "Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran - A Journey Behind the Headlines."
REHMHere's our first e-mail from Finland. Our e-mailer says, "In Finland, the second highest ranking diplomat at the Iranian embassy recently resigned and asked for political asylum. Some months earlier, a colleague in Oslo did the same, and most recently an Iranian diplomat in Brussels also quit. They're all throwing their support to the opposition, and the Iran regime seems to be worried. How much of a challenge do you feel that the so-called green diplomats pose to the Tehran government?" Hooman.
MAJDI don't think that they pose a tremendous challenge to the government, the diplomats abroad or any Iranians abroad, really. There's not really much of a challenge to the government from abroad. The Green Movement in Iran is still active. It's still vibrant. It's not the same as it was a year ago. It's not with, you know -- it doesn't have the ability or even the inclination to put 3 million or 4 million people on the streets to protest to the government. They've been shut out of that business, basically, by the government, by the brutality of the government's forces.
MAJDBut the diplomats abroad -- I mean, what's interesting about the diplomats is ever since Ahmadinejad was elected five years ago the first time, many diplomats quietly resigned. Of course, back then there was no question that he was a legitimate or a legitimate president. They just didn't want to work with his administration or quietly took retirement. The same is true this time around. A number of Iranian diplomats and government officials have quietly taken retirement or resigned.
MAJDIn the case of these particular diplomats who decided to make it a public -- a very public stand against the government -- I think it bothers the Iranians somewhat. I mean, they've had to, you know, deny that they were -- the Iranian government denied that they were, you know, resigning for any reasons other than the fact that they were just, you know, corrupt people who decided they want to live in Europe, and this is the way for them to get political asylum. And that's not true. So there is a -- there's a little bit of worry because, you know, any negative publicity for the Iranian government overseas is viewed with some concern by the Iranians. But I don't think it has any great effect on the Green Movement or has any great effect on the government in terms of how it's going to react or how it's going to do its business.
REHMWould you agree, Scott?
PETERSONWell, I think, yes. It's true that, really, we're dealing with several diplomats at the moment who have made this decision. But I think also that -- as Hooman said -- that it's a worry for the regime, in the sense that it's evidence of much deeper concern, much deeper unhappiness. And this is coming into context. It hasn't just been a question of certain officials who have quietly resigned although, of course, that definitely did happen, both in 2005 and then more recently after this most recent election in Iran.
PETERSONBut there has also been a very, very widespread purge that has been going on in a number of ministries in Tehran, especially after the election last year. And to give you an idea of the severity of that purge, take for example the Intelligence Ministry -- which, I understand from sources in Tehran, and this is now going back several months ago -- but as they were purging some of these people that they felt were not sufficiently loyal to the government of Ahmadinejad and to hardliners in general, the actual standard that was being applied against those people that they wanted to squeeze out, and did squeeze out, was what their views were of the release of Haleh Esfandiari. And you remember that she was the Wilson Center, you know, Middle East and Iran expert who was...
PETERSON...held in Iran for months and months and months. And, of course, some people within the Intelligence Ministry had argued at the time that really, you know, it was now becoming counterproductive to continue holding her in Evin Prison, and she should be released. So the people who argued for her release, argued that she really wasn't a huge threat or a huge danger. That argument was being held against them in the course of the past year when they were being basically tried in the Intelligence Ministry. And those are the kind of people who are being forced out. So you can see that the bar is much higher, and this has happened in a number of different ministries.
REHMNow, what about the release of Sarah Shourd, Hooman? What do we know about how and why that came about and the maneuvering that took place after it was announced she was going to be released?
MAJDWell, I think the -- President Ahmadinejad, I mean -- obviously this is speculation because he won't say exactly what he believed prior to the release of Sarah Shourd. But I think coming to the U.N., I think, he recognized that it would be very beneficial to him, his position, his dealings with the media here and his dealing with the media extensively this entire week, in terms of giving interviews, having breakfast tomorrow morning and all that, all sorts of things that he's doing here while he's in America. I think he thought it was very beneficial to -- I think he preferred to get all three released before he arrived in America. And I think some sort of backroom deal was probably made between himself and the judiciary to have Sarah released in time for him to be able to make a grand announcement and then come to New York.
MAJDHe jumped the gun, or his administration jumped the gun, I believe, and made the announcement before, probably -- and this is, again, speculation -- probably before the judiciary had finally approved it. Or the judiciary wanted to make the announcement and not Ahmadinejad, so he wouldn't get the credit. Who knows what the reality was? But whenever -- whatever it was, the administration of Ahmadinejad made the announcement, and the judiciary fought back by saying no.
MAJDSo Ahmadinejad had to back down.
REHMHow likely is it that the other two will be released anytime soon?
MAJDI think it's very unlikely that they will be released anytime soon.
MAJDI think it's the power play between the judiciary and Ahmadinejad. The judiciary is run by Sadeq Larijani, who is the brother of Ali Larijani. They're both brothers. They're very -- the entire family is very close to the Supreme Leader. There's a lot of rivalry between them, the Ahmadinejad faction and the Larijani faction. And I don't think they wanted to give Ahmadinejad that kind of victory coming to America. I think once the U.N. is over, he goes back. As long as the Ahmadinejad administration doesn't try to take credit for their release, I'm hoping that they'll be released before the end of the year. But I don't think...
MAJDWhen we're talking about soon, if you're talking about the next couple of weeks or the next month, I doubt it very much.
REHMAnd Mr. Ahmadinejad is now saying the U.S. should release Iranians here.
REHMWhat do we know about the Iranians being held here, Scott?
PETERSONWell, I think that -- well, they've -- the figure that is now being used is that there are eight Iranians. And many months ago it was 11 Iranians that were held. And I think that the fact that Ahmadinejad makes this point when he speaks about the great compassionate move to release Sarah Shourd, which is how he couches it -- never referring, in fact, to the, you know, to the fact that the regime has held her and her two friends for 13-and-a-half months of -- with -- you know, putting no charges, actually speaking very much about them being spies, and that they have evidence against them and all this which, of course, they haven't shown.
PETERSONBut, I think, the fact that many times over the past several months he has spoken -- when he has spoken about the hikers, he has also spoken about some kind of an exchange for Iranians who are held. And these Iranians are held for a variety of reasons. I mean, some of them are for sanctions, busting activities. Others are for various things. They're -- I mean they're -- and they're, you know -- and some of them -- of course, one of them was a very high-ranking, former defense official who disappeared in Istanbul, no less three years ago.
PETERSONSo, you know -- and of course the United States has never even recognized that he's, you know, he's here or anything about him. So the bottom line though is I think that the way that the regime sees this -- or least the presidential faction and others -- is that -- is as an exchange. This really is a way -- you know, in that sense, people are hostages, these three hikers. To try and leverage something out, and I think that is another reason why it's going -- the internal politics aside -- why it's going to take some time for the other two to be released because the price will probably be fairly high. And who calculates it, and who kind of, you know, does the negotiating with the Americans or -- and again, this is -- it's pure speculation, and it's also something that will never probably be able to be quantified -- but it's the kind of mentality that we're seeing in Tehran in terms of how to deal with these two other people. These are two cards that Tehran has, and they want to play them to a beneficial way for themselves.
REHMAnd, of course, it was reported that somebody put up a half billion dollars to pay for Sarah Shourd's release.
MAJDHalf a million.
PETERSONHalf a million.
REHMHalf a million, forgive me.
PETERSONMm hmm. And this is the...
PETERSONThe sultanate of Oman was an instrumental player in there. And, of course, questions were immediately raised about that money and whether or not that broke sanctions or not, or anything else. I mean, this is really, you know, a kind of a questionable act. And the State Department danced around it by saying, well, we're not -- we didn't pay it, and we're not aware. And so that was kind of the fill-up that was used.
REHMAnd, of course, over the weekend, Secretary of State Clinton spoke about what she called the rise of military power in Iran. How concerned is the United States about military power in Iran? And how concerned should we be, Hooman?
MAJDWell, I think in the context that Mrs. Clinton was talk -- I mean talking, I don't think America is particularly concerned. If the military in Iran were to turn around and take over Iran and did -- halt the Iranian enrichment and make friends, make nice with the United States, I don't think we would care. That's the truth. We don't care about military power in other countries or military coups as long as they become our allies rather than our enemies. I think in the context of supporting the Iranian people's, you know, civil rights, I think that in that contents -- context we should be concerned. But America doesn't have a great history of supporting other nations' civil rights movements or -- you know, you look at Zimbabwe. You look at, you know, many, many other countries where we don't really show particular concern about the people of that country as long as the country isn't a threat to the United States or a threat to the interest of the United States.
MAJDSo in terms of, you know, whether we should be concerned, I mean, it's up to people to decide whether they should care about Iran or not. Obviously, as an Iranian myself, I care tremendously. I can't say that Americans have to care about it. But I think that certainly, in terms of the rise of military power in Iran, isn't so much about a military power that can threaten the United States any more than Iran can threaten the United States today, for example. I don't think anybody at the State Department or the Pentagon really believes that Iran is a military power to be reckoned with.
REHMThen why would the secretary make that statement?
MAJDI think she made that statement in the context of the Iranian people and their struggle for civil rights in the Green Movement. That's something that has been echoed by the Green Movement itself in Iran, that, you know, the take over of the revolutionary guards, the illegal entrance of the guards into the political sphere and in the economic sphere -- something that Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, specifically forbade at the time. So I think that she is talking about it in terms of showing support for Iran. I mean, she came very close yesterday in her interview with ABC's Christiane Amanpour, very close to actually calling for the Iranian people to rise up against their government by saying that she hopes that there will be a more reasonable, more rational government, that the Iranian people will be able to have a more rational government. It's almost calling for a regime change.
MAJDNot quite, but almost. And, of course, the Iranian reaction in Tehran was very severe and is -- and will be very severe in the continuing days with, you know, her remarks on Iran.
REHMHooman Madj. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Scott, tell us about what Ahmadinejad said regarding the Iranian woman who was apparently sentenced to stoning and death by stoning.
PETERSONWell, he -- whenever he is asked about a question regarding human rights -- and, of course, this is one that really has taken on a very, very high profile in the West especially, which I think is probably taking Iranian officials aback a little bit. They've been surprised at the level of interest in the West and in the high level of anger directed at Iran because of it. But he always casts his back in saying, look, I'm the president. I can do nothing but send letters of recommendation. This really is up to the judiciary. We have an independent judiciary in this country, and they are the ones who really do make the decision. So it's really just kind of an easy out for him because, of course, he can have some influence. But really, you know, the influence that he exercises over a case like this -- and even that the judiciary exercises over a case like this -- is part of a much broader, wider give and take that's going on between power centers in Iran.
REHMBut didn't he actually deny and say that somebody in Germany was spreading rumors about this, and that this woman had not been sentenced to death?
PETERSONYet again, another statement that probably bears no relation to reality but is one that will put off the interviewer or prevent a further question from being asked because, of course, the question when -- in the interview that Ahmadinejad, for example, gave with Christiane Amanpour, she asked him repeatedly and pushed him to state a personal view about stoning. Do you think that this type of activity is a correct one for the modern, you know, for the modern era? And, again, he kind of sidestepped that and didn't -- you know, and didn't properly answer it.
REHMWell, what is the truth, Hooman? Has this woman been sentenced to death by stoning or not?
MAJDWell, Ahmadinejad claims that she wasn't, and she was never sentenced to death. Obviously, the news reports that we all read suggested that she had been sentenced to stoning.
REHMAnd this was for commission of adultery, isn't that correct?
MAJDYes. And -- well, commission of adultery as well as murder, accessory to murder. She has been apparently convicted of murder as well, which is one of the big things that the Iranian government pointed out when the sentence of stoning was talked about in the West. It's like, well, she's also a murderer. She's a murderer, so, you know, you guys execute people...
REHMWho did she murder?
MAJDHer husband, her husband. It's claimed that she murdered her husband.
MAJDShe actually confessed to it.
MAJDWell, she confessed to it, too, whether the -- the thing about the stoning case, and I think one of the reasons it's taken aback the Iranian officials so much is 'cause she is actually not a political case in Iran, never has been. She has been in jail for a while. She was accused of murder before the elections of last year. She is not a political prisoner. She is a -- considered, at least by the Iranian government, as a criminal, so it kind of surprised them. I mean, obviously, I don't think they understand how reprehensible we consider stoning in the West, but they consider this an internal criminal matter. I think they would understand it if she was a political prisoner, but they believe that she became a political case because of the opposition to Iranian regime in Europe. And that's what Ahmadinejad's referring to, and that's why he is now saying that it was -- she was never sentenced to stoning, and it has got nothing to do with that. And, you know, that she did the crime...
MAJD...and so on and so forth.
REHMHooman Madj. He is the author of "The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge." Short break, and when we come back, we'll open the phones.
REHMWelcome back. It's time to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First, to Mindy in Rochester, N.Y. You're on the air.
MINDYYes. Thank you for taking my call, Diane.
MINDYI really like your show.
MINDYWhy I'm calling is I think Ahmadinejad is -- has intent. He's an Arab Hitler. And we here are, as a civilized people, we're concerned with humanity, have had our brain, like our frontal lobe dissected out of our minds. We -- it's like Chamberlain (word?) with a paper stepping off the plane, all, we are all right, Hitler's not going to attack us.
REHMAll right. Thanks very much. A comparison to Hitler, Scott.
PETERSONWell, I think this is the kind of thing that we've heard repeatedly, in fact, and especially in Israel, over the last several years. Of course, this has also been part of a comparison or, if you will, a demonization of Iran that has been part of Israeli policy that is easily chartable going back to 1992. So the fact that Ahmadinejad, who speaks in a way that is -- in fact, that some opposition people say is the gift who keeps on giving. I mean, for those who want to bomb Iran, for those who hate the Islamic regime, all they need to do to have ammunition is point to the statements of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and say, this is a crazy regime. This is a country that can't be trusted with nuclear weapons, and that is kind of their primary argument.
PETERSONBut in terms of comparing hot air with actual intentions, I think that's where the disconnect, really, is a great one. And so while -- you know, while listeners are saying that this man is a completely dangerous man, to be perfectly honest, I mean, Iran's military capabilities, and its capabilities of actually acting on intentions, even if its stated intention were to wipe Israel off the map -- and I don't think that that is a top priority at all for this regime -- but -- you know, but it makes for great rhetoric. And remember that a lot of this rhetoric that is coming from Ahmadinejad and also from a lot of the right wing, you know, or hardline officials in Iran, is meant for a domestic audience in many respects and also meant to bolster the kind of the size of Iran in everybody's mind around the world. They want Iran to appear to be that superpower that they so believe exists.
REHMAnd, Hooman, we haven't...
MAJDI think it's...
REHMWe haven't talked about the Jewish minority living in Iran.
REHMOur caller made the reference to Hitler. How comfortable is that Jewish minority?
MAJDWell, they're comfortable enough to live there, to continue to live there. And every Iranian Jew that I speak to in Iran -- some of them are my friends now in Iran, and a member of Parliament's a friend, a former member of Parliament's a friend. I know many Iranian Jews in Iran. They're comfortable enough to live there. And despite the fact that they can -- and in some cases, some of them even have dual citizenship, a European or American's passports, and they could leave if they wanted to. They have apartments in Los Angeles or in New York, and they could leave. But they choose to remain there, so they're comfortable enough. And they certainly -- you know, as Scott pointed out -- they understand what rhetoric means. They understand what their president's rhetoric means, and they're not really concerned about anti-Semitism or, at least, organized anti-Semitism on the part of the government.
MAJDI mean, to compare him to Hitler -- and the caller called him an Arab Hitler. Well, actually, Iranians aren't Arabs, and the Arabs aren't particularly fond of the Persians. So he's not Arab, but he's not a Hitler either. The thing about Hitler in 1938 was, I mean, he was certainly the most powerful man in Germany. Nobody would dare cross him, and he could do whatever he want. And he had a -- built up a military that was potentially one of the most powerful militaries in the world. Ahmadinejad can't even get the hikers released. So if you're talking about someone who's got power and gets power to exercise, you know, as a dictator, he's certainly not that kind of dictator. He doesn't, whether he wants to be or not. So the idea that he is a Hitler is preposterous, even if he believed in, you know, annihilating Israel, which I'm not sure he does. I think he believes in Israel not existing as Israel. But, you know, he is -- as Scott also pointed out -- he is a -- has been a great gift to the hard right of the Israeli politics.
REHMHere is an e-mail from Ryan who says, "There have been lots of leaks about CIA efforts to disrupt Iran's nuclear program and its possible funding of groups like Jundallah, an opposition group against the regime. Exactly what do we know about U.S. government covert activities to disrupt the Iranian regime in the past 10 years? Have any of those activities been successful?" Scott Peterson.
PETERSONWell, we've -- there's been an awful lot of smoke. There hasn't been a lot of evidential fire that's been found. But in terms of smoke, for example, I mean, several years ago, Seymour Hersh, for example, described special operations that were going in -- with American soldiers special ops forces inside Iran, placing things like radioactive sniffer units, things like this. He was quite explicit in terms of describing that kind of activity. Of course, the military would never comment on that sort of thing.
PETERSONThere have been lots of other things -- I spent a lot of time also reporting in Iraq, and there's a lot of activity that goes on along the border with Iran and Iraq. There were, of course, in the Iraqi side, there were -- have been for years now, many, many American soldiers. They all have intelligence units. And they're all, you know, busy looking around. And the word is, of course, that various minority factions have been armed or supported or given money. This are, for example, you know, anti-Iran Kurdish factions. These are Iranian Kurds, but who are, you know, a unit in Northern Iraq. PJAK is the -- is their -- the acronym for this organization.
PETERSONAnd then, specifically, as your e-mailer describes Jundallah, there is a remarkable report that, I believe, if I remember correctly, was on ABC a couple of years ago which indicated, you know, that there had been American support for these groups out of Pakistan. And that -- and, you know, and of course, we have the confessions of the Jundallah leader himself who was captured, remarkably, by the Iranians. And of course, confessed to, you know...
PETERSON...the fact that he was meeting certain American generals in various places who were offering money and things, so -- but none of these is verifiable. It all fits a narrative that is very specific and has been very constant coming from the Islamic Republic about American intervention. So...
REHMHooman, you have acted as advisor and interpreter to Ahmadinejad here in the United States. When the cameras are off, when you are simply talking with this human being, what is he like? How does he respond on a very personal level?
MAJDWell, I have to say -- I mean, a lot of people aren't going to like to hear this -- but he is very charming. And he can be very charming. And he can be very reasonable. He listens very carefully. He -- whether he agrees with you or not, he's very polite, and I think that he's, you know -- he's obviously a populist president who understands that, you know, he -- to be popular, he has to appeal to a lot of different people, a lot of different kinds of people that -- some of whom he won't agree with. But he's very good at that. He's very good at turning on the charm, sounding incredibly reasonable. I mean, in private, if you ask him -- and then actually in public too -- if you ask him, you know, what did you mean when you said, you know, Israel should be wiped off the map? He'll give you a very reasonable explanation (unintelligible)
MAJDWell, he said, I never said Israel should we wiped off the map. I said that this regime that occupies Jerusalem will disappear from the pages of time in exactly the same way that the South African apartheid regime disappeared, in the way that the Soviet Union disappeared. It didn't mean a violent act precipitated it, didn't mean that Iran is going to go to war with Israel to bring about that destruction of Israel, so, I -- you know, he sounds reasonable. I mean, you know, and a lot of people...
MAJD...aren't going to like to hear this. And certainly...
MAJD...in private, he sounds even more reasonable than he sometimes can sound, at least to his own domestic audience and to -- as Scott pointed out, to a wider regional audience. One of the reasons Ahmadinejad is still, to this day, quite popular in the Arab world, even after the elections of 2009, is because he speaks to them. He speaks to the street as in, you know -- for that use of that old cliché of the Arab street -- he speaks to them in a reasonable way. His thing about Israel, you know -- or his thing about the Holocaust, which is a reprehensible statement, his denial of the holocaust, obviously.
MAJDBut then he couches it in a certain way. He says, well, look, if this happened, then why did the Palestinians have to pay for it? Didn't the Europeans commit this crime? Why do the Muslims have to pay for it? Well, that resonates in the Arab world, so, you know, it's -- he can come across very differently when he's talking privately...
MAJD...or when he's talking...
REHMLet's take a caller from here in Washington, D.C. Hamid, (sp?) you're on the air.
HAMIDThank you, Diane, and hello to you and your guests. Love your show.
HAMIDMy question is that, why none of the journalists in the U.S. -- even journalists with the Iranian background -- have been able to put President Ahmadinejad on the spot and actually challenge him with the research that they should -- have been done? For example, when Mr. Hooman questioned him about Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, he simply denied that she was asked -- sentenced to stoning although all the Iranian officials have agreed with the sentencing but have said that the sentencing is under review. Or in many other cases, journalists have not done the research, and Ahmadinejad has been able to simply brush off all the questions and look like the champ at the end of the interview.
REHMI'm not sure he looks like a champ at the end of the interview, but I will tell you from an interview's -- interviewer's point of view, you can ask and ask and ask. And you still get the same answer that that interviewee wants to give. And, Scott, I'm sure you've been in the same situation.
PETERSONWell, I think that the dilemma, especially with someone like Ahmadinejad, is not the purview only of the western journalist who's going to be interviewing this week or the last six, you know, during his entire six visits coming to New York so far. This is his sixth one. You know, to give an example that, I think, really will cut close for Iranians themselves is you just have to go back to the presidential debates that took place before that June 2009 election. These were very, very high-profile debates between the candidates. And there was a -- there was such a discrepancy between the statements that President Ahmadinejad made compared to the statements of some of the other candidates when they were talking. And literally, I mean, Ahmadinejad showed little placards and bar graphs and everything with his economic statistics.
PETERSONAnd the fact that they had to be literally corrected the next day by this, you know, by the Bank of Iran or by other official statistics offices, you know, and, of course, he was pressed repeatedly by opposition candidates about, well, that's not true. And Ahmadinejad would simply, like, carry on saying, yes, it is true, no question. And what you began to see during the election campaign rallies would be -- there would be fantastic signs that would literally say, like, two plus two equals five, two times two equals 10. And that was the Iranian way of demonstrating that really, you know, statistics in this case just don't matter. So no matter how much homework you've done as a journalist, I mean, you're just probably not going to squeeze the statistics you think are real out of a president who's determined not to state that.
MAJDYou know, I think Hamid...
REHMScott Peterson is Istanbul Bureau Chief for The Christian Science Monitor. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Hooman, I'd like to ask you about the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their relationship to Ahmadinejad.
MAJDI mean, it's an interesting question because the assumption has been in the West and among many Iranian exiles that the guards are very close to Ahmadinejad, that he has protected them. He has given them more power, and therefore, they are completely loyal to him. I would question that. I think that there are many in the guards, even in the senior command, who aren't very comfortable with many of his policies and programs -- or comfortable with him even.
MAJDI think the Revolutionary Guard is still supremely loyal to the Supreme Leader. And I think that, you know, they will take their instructions from their commander in chief who is the Supreme Leader, and not Ahmadinejad. And, you know, when the Supreme Leader made the judgment that Ahmadinejad won the election, needs to be supported, protests have to be put down. They were following orders, in my opinion. And if the Revolutionary Guards had been told to support someone else, they would have -- I believe they would have supported.
MAJDThere have been many cases of guards coming out and speaking -- former guards at least -- who still have a very strong connection to the current leadership of the guards, who have come out against Ahmadinejad. Rezai is a candidate for the last presidential election who was a former commander of guard himself, who despises Ahmadinejad. Ghalibaf, who is the mayor of Tehran, the former commander of the guards, also despises him. Hadi Larijani and his brothers in the guards -- commanders of the guards -- who have many, many loyal followers within the guard hierarchy, they're against Ahmadinejad.
MAJDI think that when it comes to national interest, and the guards are there to protect the Islamic revolution -- not just the Islamic republic, but the revolution -- if there's a consensus that the revolution is in danger, they will follow whatever orders they are given to keep that revolution alive. And in this case, they will support Ahmadinejad. That's not to say that Ahmadinejad doesn't have supporters in the guards or doesn't have friends in the guards, but I don't -- I think it's sometimes exaggerated, the amount of support he has.
REHMScott Peterson, finally, do you believe that there is a chance of U.S. diplomacy with Iran?
PETERSONWell, I think that -- I mean, there's, of course, a chance for everything. And with Iran, you would never rule anything out. I mean, you know, so many of the most significant events, for example, that have happened in Iran in the last 15 years have been unpredictable events or unpredictable changes. So I wouldn't rule anything out.
PETERSONBut one thing that, I think, points to the unlikelihood of this happening anytime soon are the continued statements by Iran's Supreme Leader, specifically stating how difficult it is for Iran and for the Islamic republic to make peace with the United States specifically because -- and then the list goes on and on and on. And that list includes things, for example, in a very in-depth speech that he gave on Aug. 19, for example. He's talking about, you know, the Americans insist that we change our identity, which is something that we'll never do. I mean, really fundamental things.
PETERSONAnd he's described in the past how this -- in the past year-and-a-half, two years -- he's described how this relationship between the United States and Iran is one between life and death. And it is life for the Islamic republicans, revolution or not. And that's -- if he's couching in that way, it really does illustrate the difficulties of, really, something coming out in terms of U.S.-Iran detente.
REHMScott Peterson, Istanbul Bureau Chief for the Christian Science Monitor. He's author of "Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran - A Journey Behind the Headlines." And Hooman Madj, he is the author of "The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge." He has advised and interpreted for two Iranian presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on their trips to the U.S. Thank you both so much. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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