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James Bill: "Iran and the United States are on a collision course"

2/21/04 By Sahar Nowrouzzadeh, National Iranian American Council

Washington DC, February 21, 2004 - Renowned Iran scholar and author of the seminal work The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American Iranian Relations, James Bill, made a rare public appearance at the Middle East Institute to present his observations on U.S.-Iranian relations over the past forty-years. Mr. Bill gave an in depth analysis of this profound relationship while stressing his apprehension regarding its current status and what he classified as the "clash of hegemonies."

"Iran and the United States are on a Collision course. While Iran stands as the regional hegemon in the oil rich Persian Gulf, the United States is the global hegemon. The U.S. seeks to prevent the rise of independent-minded regional hegemons. The more independent their behavior the more pressure the U.S. exerts on them. The greater the difference of world views, the greater the tension between the regional and global hegemons."

Mr. Bill went on to stress the power of internal politics and the importance of personal and informal relations ever-present within Iranian culture by describing what he referred to as the Iranian "Websystem."

"This system is multi-layered a honey coated with complex networks of informal groups or 'dorehs.' In Iran such groups include secret societies, religious brotherhoods, political cliques, coffee and tea house meetings, royal 'khalvats' (private places), ritualistic, religious 'bastehs', meetings of extended families and government and bureaucratic factions."

Emphasizing the importance of face-to-face relationships, the scholar maintained that even new electronic inventions and institutions could not deter the strength of the Iranian "Websystem" of internal politics deeply embedded within Iranian culture and that it was much stronger than any external force. He also defined Iranian families as the most important informal group within the Iranian "Websystem." Labeling them "political aggregations", Mr. Bill pointed out the importance of understanding the political dynamics of the Iranian family in order to understand the world of Iranian politics as a whole. A world that Mr. Bill described as "filled with secrecy, obliqueness and unpredictability."

Despite the finding of many surveys of the Middle East, which indicate that Iran is further along the road to democratization than other countries in the region, Mr. Bill sees Iran at a crossroads in terms of its political pathway to the future, maintaining that the future of democracy in Iran relies on the power and place of the predominant religion of the country: Shiite Islam. Making reference to today's elections in Iran, Mr. Bill pointed out the clash between the Faqih (jurisconsult) and the President of Iran. He speculated that the reformists are now planning to organize and build a huge coalition of opposition, which will take action after legitimate elections are held. He also predicted that President Mohammad Khatami would resign at that time.

Insisting that the lack of communication between the countries is not only damaging to the interests of both parties but also has a negative impact on the general global system, Mr. Bill expressed his support for thawing out the current frozen state of U.S.-Iran relations. In order for this to take place, he considers it is absolutely necessary for the United States to develop a key understanding of Iranian society and politics while at the same time maintaining that Iran must do the same.

"Religiously American decision leaders must study Shiism. Socially they must understand the Websystem. And politically they must support Iran's drive to democratization... At the same time Iran must take an in depth course of its own about American society and politics."

Hoping for the future restoration of a strong diplomatic relationship, Mr. Bill holds that within the next forty years the United States and Iran will once again engage with one another seriously.

Mr. Bill has traveled to and lived in Iran, spending a great deal of time studying there throughout the 1960's up and until the revolution of 1979. His last trip to Iran was in 1993.

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