This is the sixth in a series of interviews with Iranian journalists and writers who have dedicated their careers to communicating Iran's complexities and contradictions to those outside of the country. Read the full series here.
I started this series of interviews in March 2015, around the time the Iranian nuclear deal was receiving considerable attention in the international media. While the world discussed negotiations and relations between Iran and the rest of the world over its nuclear program, the alternative was often considered to be aggression, if not war, between Iran and western nations such as the United States. In the midst of these geopolitical considerations, I sat down with an assortment of writers and journalists. Some worked for US-funded media outlets such as RFE/RL; others were with independent English-language media such as The Guardian. What these writers all had in common was the fact that — amidst much misrepresentation — they had dedicated their careers to capturing and explaining Iranian culture, politics and society to the rest of the world.
We are now at a turning point in US foreign policy. Weeks away from the end of the Obama presidency, there is a strong possibility that the US is moving away from the defining project of rapprochement with its long-time foe, the Islamic Republic of Iran. At the dawn of the Donald Trump presidency, which is slated to be a peculiar shade of hardline and hawkish Republicanism, I thought it a timely moment to sit down with journalist and author Hooman Majd.
While some critics have come to view Majd as an apologist for the Iranian government's more inhumane aspects, his perspectives on Iran came to the fore during the Bush era, when hawkish rhetoric against the Iranian government became a hallmark of the early 2000s’ foreign policy and media depictions of Iran. Iran was amongst one of the members of Bush's post-9/11 ‘axis of evil‘, despite the country having no ties to the tragic events.
During an appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2008, Majd would tell Stewart that Americans “don't have [a] clear perception of what Iran and the Iranian people are”. In keeping with the mood of the era, Stewart would jokingly respond, “But we would like to bomb them…how much do we need to get to know a people before we bomb them?”
While often critical of certain Iranian absurdities, such as President Ahmadinejad's denials of the Holocaust, Majd cemented a unique role during that period by humanizing the people and culture of Iran. This occurred in an environment prone to ‘regime-change’ paeans that saw Iran as the next battleground in the American ‘war on terror.’
— Reza Marashi (@rezamarashi) June 29, 2015
Our series of interviews thus resumes here, with Majd, an Iranian-American darling of mainstream media, in the post-Trump era. He is one of the few Iranian commentators and analysts with bylines in Vanity Fair, and features in GQ magazine. A relative of the former reformist president Mahmoud Khatami, he became renowned as the ‘English-speaking voice‘ of Iranian officials. He was translator and advisor to both President Khatami and Ahmadinejad on their visits to the United Nations in New York — anglophone audiences heard Majd's American accent when both presidents spoke at the UN General Assembly. Majd would later arrange and produce with NBC some of the US media's first interviews with the current moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, after his 2013 election.
The last time I was in Iran was 2013, when I worked with NBC and Ann Curry, and arranged for their interview. Ann and I worked together in 2009 right before the election, for a documentary for Dateline. Rouhani ended up doing two interviews with Ann, [the] second interview in 2014 was when I couldn’t personally go to Iran, so I worked on it from Dubai.
Majd has made a name for himself predominantly as an Iranian. However, he identifies as one of the handful of pre-revolution members of the Iranian diaspora.
I am unique in the Iranian diaspora. I'm almost 60 years old. Most Iranians my age emigrated after the revolution with an intimate attachment to the culture of Iran. I grew up in the west prior to the Islamic Revolution. There are only a handful like me –Baha'i who lived abroad as missionaries, some students, and small number of doctors, and that was it. The revolution changed that. My parents were both Iranian, so I had a close taste of Iranian culture, but much of it's alien to me…which makes it difficult for me to live there permanently. I went for my last book, and it was the first time as an adult that I experienced Iran as a place to live day to day. I would like to go back, but not to live.
Majd's position as a ‘bridge’ figure to Iran likely rests on this unique identity that is simultaneously connected to Iran, yet decidedly American in upbringing and experience. Iranian analysts and commentators come from a variety of backgrounds and political persuasions, but none of them have occupied the pop culture space the way Majd has.
My writing career happened after my career in the entertainment and music business. I'm not an academic…the popular culture aspect of my writing is because of my background and also what I tend to be interested in.
When I was in the music business…I was at Island records until 1998. The founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell, started a film, audio and visual company, and wasn't able to get financing, so I decided from college onwards to do what I liked to do best, which is write. I was publishing short stories, but I abandoned writing while in the industry. Because of my contacts in the entertainment side of journalism I was able to get published…the Iran thing started when the editors of GQ asked me to write about Iran…and ever since then I was pigeonholed with writing about Iran.
Given his presence in positions typically held by academics or policy wonks, I asked if his entertainment background ever affected the way he was perceived by Iranians.
That doesn’t really come up. Particularly in the Iranian-American community, if it comes up, it's because they are curious about it. Inside of Iran, the government had this weird assumption, and even among ordinary Iranians in the country, that I’m an academic and I have a PhD, and I have to correct them. People assume that because I’m an analyst and a author. Most Iranians inside Iran haven't read my books, except for the security services, of course. The things anyone in Iran has noticed are op-eds in the New York Times, or articles in Foreign Policy — you know, the drier stuff I wrote on the nuclear negotiations which could have easily been written by an academic.
While Majd has spent the majority of life in the US, he has cultivated his connections to influential people and networks within Iran's elite. It was through these channels that he was warned not to go back to Iran after 2013, for reasons he prefers not to discuss.
His connections are the strongest with Iran's reformists, a political faction that formed during former President Mohamad Khatami's administration. These are the people who believe in the 1979 Revolution and the system of the Islamic Republic, but favour progressive ideals of freedom and democracy within the Islamic system. When asked if, despite his secular American background, he considers himself a reformist, Majd had this to say:
A wide swath of conservatives are opposed to the ‘reform movement’ because they don’t want to move the revolution forward with civil rights and human rights…. Now Rouhani is not part of the reform movement — he's a moderate — but he's adopted those policies, and taken them on his government. And it's natural for someone who doesn’t live in Iran to look to the values of the reformists. Their politics, which I support, tend to be close to what I believe in western democracies, with the understanding that there are many differences in cultural democracy, and western democracy is not possible given Iran's demographics, with adjustments for people who don’t want to be like the west. For me the reformists are people who don’t like the status quo on women’s rights, freedoms, political reforms, and want to make Iran a more transparent political system.
It's often hard to navigate the different political factions within Iran, and placing the current moderate President Rouhani within this matrix can be a difficult task. Majd considers Rouhani as a significant improvement on his predecessor Ahmadinejad, but believes that:
…there’s a long way to go, and I think apart from his words, he's chosen to not battle hardliners, and you can seen how they undermine his presidency through arrests, blocking freedoms in the arts. And he’s chosen not to go head to head on this. He’s up for re-election next spring. If he's successful, which most likely will happen, he will have more room to try to move some of these things ahead, including getting prisoners released.
Regarding the outcome of the May 2017 presidential elections, Majd says it's too early to make predictions:
…if you look at the history of presidential elections, you have to get really close to know anything. During the last elections, nine months before the date Rouhani wasn’t even a factor. What we do know is that Rouhani will run, and Ahmadinejad won’t. I don’t know at the moment, but it depends on so many factors between now and after Nowruz [the Persian New Year, celebrated on March 21]. If there are brand new Boeing 777's sitting in Imam Khomeini [Tehran's international airport], this will be a huge psychological benefit for how Iranians view Rouhani. New cars, new buses, while they will not affect everyday lives, it will benefit Rouhani's image. It's unlikely there will a candidate on the left or right as popular as this president.
I pressed him on his celebratory tone towards the Rouhani administration, and in particular the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who became a hero of Iran's reformists after concluding the nuclear negotiations.
— Hooman Majd (@hmajd) October 5, 2016
I do think if there were a peace prize for the nuclear negotiations they would both [Zarif and US Sec. of State John Kerry] be contenders. They both put a lot on the line, their careers, particularly Zarif who has people who want to kill him for being buddy-buddy with Kerry. They were rather tough but friendly with each other, and the deal wouldn’t have happened without them coming together at that time. I would agree with some of the premises of [the] website [Iran Diplomacy], that if there were no deal, eventually it would have come to military action. I don’t think it’s a far-fetched notion. What is the alternative? The alternative was war, the alternative was more sanctions. Iran has suffered through the harshest of sanctions over the last five years. On that basis, sanctions were going to make the country crumble. If you base the peace prize on the promotion of peace over conflict…they should be considered.
While Majd tends to view the policies and intentions of the current administration in a generally favourable light, when pressed on its poor performance on human rights and support of the brutal Assad government, he has to concede there is still much to be desired:
It is a bit of cop out, potentially a calculation, since [Rouhani is] an absolute insider in the system, and knows people on the right and left. You could almost say it's a Machiavellian calculation — maybe he can go after [human rights] after the election. He probably has an influence on human rights and Syria — potentially. He and Zarif are unified on Syria, there isn’t much of a difference of opinion — in general the Iranian regime, for better or worse, is united on that matter, which is distressing to hear. But there is a logic they apply geopolitically. In terms of human rights, that’s an issue that affects Iranians directly, and I think Zarif has virtually no ability to affect that, not with the brief he has. Domestic human rights he has virtually no control over. Rouhani could probably do more, but the chances of his being successful will be more likely after he's elected for a second term, but that's just speculation.
Asked whether he's been accused of peddling certain ideologies, Majd says that he receives criticism from both ends of the Iranian spectrum:
Very pro-Islamic Republic supporters don’t like my stuff and say I give fodder to anti-Iranians…. Liberals and critics say my writing and opinions are prolonging the Islamic Republic and putting a prettier face on the reality. My opinion is, ‘Sorry if I've offended you…a lot of my writing is observational.’ It's the way I see things, as someone without an agenda…I’m not an activist and I don’t believe it’s my job to be an activist while I'm contributing to NBC news or working as a freelancer. I don’t have a dog in the fight. In the end, I am fond of Iran and it's my heritage. If there are outsiders who can bring change, good for them, but I'm not one of them.
On whether misconceptions on Iran have lessened in recent years, Majd sounds hopeful:
Ahmadinejad was the first to make himself available to the media, which is the source of a lot of the negativity. But Iranian-Americans and Iranian-Europeans have written a lot about the culture in the recent years, and there's a lot more travel between Iran and the US, among both Iranian-Americans and Iranians themselves. They are understanding it a little bit better and there have been a number of books. Iran is not uniquely paradoxical: what's unique is that most people don’t know about Iran.