Laura Secor, one of my favorite journalists (read this!) and in recent years one of the most important American journalists covering Iran (read this!), just published a dispatch from a recent trip to the Islamic Republic during its parliamentary elections this past winter. Carefully controlled, she nonetheless uncovered evidence of discontent, perhaps widespread, and of the allure of reformist currents under a stifling, oppressive, and deeply conservative regime. She was also briefly detained and accused of being a spy. (If you’re not a subscriber, track down a copy of this week’s New Yorker.) Currently, she is working on an intellectual history of reformist thinking in Iran. I spoke with her yesterday about Iranians’ thoughts about their government’s nuclear program and negotiations with the West, the future of the reformist movement, and more. The interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Are you still rattled?
It certainly had me rattled for a few days. I think they were just trying to scare me. It’s an unpleasant and frustrating place to work. You’re always aware that you’re being controlled, and the people who are supposedly there to help you are there to report you. It’s always been like that. But I’d always assumed it wasn’t a dangerous place to work as a foreigner. I don’t want to take the Iranian regime lightly, because the way they treat their own citizens is appalling, particularly journalists and dual citizens. But someone like me, with an American passport and press visa and no Iranian parentage, is probably safe.
In 2007, before the Green Movement and fraudulent 2009 presidential election, you argued that, as “unsatisfying” as this might be, the United States should limit its material and rhetorical support for Iranian pro-democracy movements, because such support is almost sure to backfire—the reformers themselves say so. Have subsequent events and visits led you to change your mind?
We’re in a really dicey situation regarding the Iranian opposition. Particularly now, as detailed in this piece, the Iranian regime has tarred its entire opposition—even the reformists, who believe they can work within the system and who advocate incremental changes (out-and-out opposition has long been illegal). The Iranian reformists have now been dubbed “seditionists” and explicitly accused of cooperating with outside powers.
[President] Obama really had to thread a needle at the time of the 2009 unrest, and I think there were a lot of people in Iran who were upset that he didn’t come out and make a specific political statement, but other people disagreed. He probably could’ve come out sooner and more forcefully on the issue of human rights. I think we have to make a distinction between human rights abuse and a political statement about forces on the scene. I don’t think we should be shy about making clear that human rights abuses are not tolerable. But in terms of saying, ‘We support this movement for democracy,’ I don’t see what the gain would be from that.
The counterargument, which I hear and respect, is they’re going to say the reformists are getting outside help no matter what. I don’t think we need to make it easier for them. And I think we should be following the lead of the opposition in Iran.
Though there isn’t much of this in your piece, one man says Israel should be wiped away. How representative was he?
That scene was an unusual scene. On this choreographed bus tour, I’m not purely convinced that anything around me wasn’t contrived. The other possibility is that the people who were ginned up to vote were accepting the government line that they were voting in order to show their support for the system and to show the U.S. that the Iranian people support their government. If you were voting in that election, you’re representative of that political tendency. [In the article, Secor reports that many reformists simply abstained.] I don’t take that guy as standing for lots of people. I can’t generalize. I can say that in five visits there, I haven’t found Iranians frothing at the mouth. They’re much more concerned about their own problems. A lot of people are angry at the government for putting so much emphasis on Israel and the conflict and not looking close at hand; spending money on Hezbollah instead of Iranian problems.
You also mentioned that you visited a synagogue, as well as other houses of worship of minority faiths. Any juicy details?
Honestly? I didn’t want to talk to anyone at the synagogue. The last thing I wanted was a photo-op of the American reporter getting cozy with the local Jewish community. I stayed in the background. The situation of religious minorities in Iran is not a comfortable one.
What was your sense of the Iranian economy compared to last time?
The economy’s in bad shape. The big question is why, because it’s been in bad shape before. The last time I was there was in 2008 and that was also a bad moment, with inflation close to 30 percent—I think that’s where it is now. There was a period in between when things stabilized.
Vegetables are up 146 percent over last year. Rice is also up.
There is some confusion because some subsidies were removed. An economist explained to me that when they removed the subsidies, some of the prices were just set at a higher price. In 2008 when I was there, it was one of the worst inflationary economies in the world, and I think they’re getting back toward that now.
The question that I came in with that wasn’t adequately answered for me is, to what extent does this have to do with the sanctions? The new sanctions regime is quite harsh and, as the White House explained to me, it’s not the kind of thing that was applied to Iraq, where Iraq could live with it for five years. This was supposed to be quite fast-acting and severe. I think the bulk of it hasn’t been fully enforced. And there’s a delay, because as one person explained to me Iranians have been importing goods for a long time and so there’s a lag. My suspicion is that although the economic situation was difficult and volatile while I was there, that was due to the usual panoply of problems.
They’re bracing to be hit. And I think that they’re really worried, and I think they’re caught in a bind over how to spin the situation. When I was there [in late February and early March], the policy was obfuscation. They hadn’t issued figures on household goods in over a year. About two weeks ago, the Central Bank started to release numbers. They seem to have made a decision. Is that to say, ‘We’re going to do something about it?’ Is it to blame the international community?
You often hear that even those who oppose the regime are in favor of the nuclear program. Is that true?
I feel like that is frequently cited and not well proven. We don’t have reliable opinion polling from Iran, and anyone who claims they do—it’s wishful thinking. I can name all the ways it’s impossible to do opinion polling in Iran. Plus the nuclear program is a red line—you know you’re in trouble if you say the wrong thing on that issue. That doesn’t mean people feel they don’t have a natural right to peaceful nuclear energy or any kind they want, but it doesn’t mean that they do.
Would ordinary Iranians be willing to accept that their government made a deal with the West that compromised enrichment up to 20 percent? My sense is people would feel very happy to to come into the fold in exchange. My guess is the Iranian government has some wiggle room on this issue. A deal would probably be five percent enrichment, and I think there are ways for the Iranian regime to sell that at home (and ways for Washington to sell that here!).
What do the societal divisions you describe mean for the future?
In the long term, I have to be optimistic for Iran, because there is social momentum.
A memory for a real society?
It’s not a memory. It’s still there. It’s an incredibly diverse, sophisticated, refined place. It has a poltical and intellectual culture that has produced some serious thinking about liberalism and religion and democracy.
Mousavi [the 2009 presidential candidate who is a leading reformist] has started essentially a book club, which has potentially subtle messages. The first one was Notes from a Kidnapping, by Gabriel García Márquez, which is about Columbian drug gangs. The latest recommendation is Stefan Zweig’s The Right to Hersey: Castello Against Calvin.* These people are really serious. In the ‘90s, there was a revival of Popper, Hobbes, Habermas. There’s a really interesting intellectual movement in that country. Those people who were the reformists have a lot of really interesting ideas behind them bringing things together.
In terms of people who are actually left in power, there are no moderates. This is the rump of that political spectrum. That’s one of the reasons why this election was so depressing.
What about next year’s presidential elections?
Next year’s, who knows? There’s a movement to end the presidency altogether, but I don’t think that can happen in time. Who knows who will be permitted to run for president in 2013?
I don’t want to be this person, but I am: I don’t think the fate of the reformist democracy movement in Iran lies in American hands, and I think we should disabuse ourselves of that idea. This is a project for Iranians, and a terribly important one, and right now the state of play is frankly tragic.
* I can’t resist pointing out that Zweig was Jewish. -MT
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.