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In Iran, Trying to Make Sense of a Very Different Democracy

By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,

Journalist Hooman Majd's latest book tries to help Americans make sense of Iran's politics and the disputed presidential election of June 2009.
Washington - Hooman Majd is trying to explain Iran to the United States, and he wishes someone would explain the United States to Iran.

Majd, a Western-raised son of a pre-revolution Iranian diplomat, has spent years doing the journalistic equivalent of shuttle diplomacy, traveling between the two countries and writing about their troubled, complicated ties, as well as writing about an Iranian political, social and religious landscape that outsiders find baffling.

"It is almost a necessity to be Iranian to understand, and to be Iranian in order to be comfortable with Iranian life and all of its paradoxes," he writes in his latest book, The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge.

The new book is his second attempt between hard covers to demystify Iran. The first, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, sold well and described a society that tolerated and expected dissent, even within a fundamentalist, theocratic state, and that was coping with shifts in social classes. He didn't imagine that the book would be the last word on Iran, nor did he imagine that the next would have to explain what many in Iran considered a stolen presidential election.

In The Ayatollahs' Democracy, Majd interviews Iranian figures of all stripes - conservative clerics, government ministers, reformist politicians and Jewish activists as well as taxi drivers and chance acquaintances - to explain a pivotal and dramatic moment in modern Iranian history. Until the vote of June 2009 and the declaration that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won re-election by a landslide, he writes, Iranians had trusted their unique system of government, their Islamic republic, to function more or less democratically; and they concluded that for the first time their votes had been stolen.

He does not expect the book to be available in bookstores in Tehran, in any language.

"You can buy Hillary Clinton's autobiography in Tehran bookstores, in English and in Farsi - both - and that's OK, but books by an Iranian about Iran, there's just too much that would have to be censored, that would be uncomfortable for the Ministry of Culture" and Islamic Guidance, which must approve books published for sale in Iran, Majd said in a telephone interview from his hometown of New York City.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ "doesn't really have anything that is that anti-regime, let's say, but there are hints, and there are certainly criticisms, criticisms that would not be considered kosher," he added. "I certainly don't anticipate that this book, which is far more political than the first book, would ever see the light of day in the Persian language."

Yet Majd's books stress and document the Iranian people's support for their form of government, no matter their opinion of Ahmadinejad and the legitimacy of his re-election. By and large, Majd said, reformist candidates and their supporters were not looking for substantial changes in the system that gives a leading Shiite cleric veto power over the directly elected president and parliament as well as command over the military. And even after that supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, endorsed the election results and supported the violent crackdown on dissent that followed, he and the office he occupies remained popular.

Those are things that most Americans, including Iranian Americans, do not understand, Majd said. It has been hard for Americans to get past the image of Iran as the country where U.S. diplomats and officials were held hostage for nearly 15 months at the start of the Iranian Revolution. But Majd said Iran has changed: For one thing, he said that almost all of the people involved in taking the hostages in 1979 supported reform candidates in the election 30 years later.

Iranian attitudes toward the United States also have changed, he said: "There's a lot of people even on the conservative side who don't believe that American relations with Iran should be frozen the way they are or that the two countries should be in conflict the way they are." He argues the "fundamental" issue for the United States is that it must treat Iran - "which is clearly inferior militarily, economically, in so many ways to America from a practical standpoint," Majd says - as an equal in order to move forward in resolving the differences.

He added that Iranians don't understand the United States, either: For one thing, conspiracy theories get in the way.

Majd's books discuss Iranians' enthusiasm for conspiracy theories generally, in their own society as well as America's. In the eyes of Iranians, and of many other people in the world, he said, Americans have the "appearance of democracy" and "a lot of social freedoms and political freedom, but at the end of the day, [the conspiracy theory is] the U.S. government is either controlled by corporate interests or controlled by lobby groups, or controlled by Zionists, or whatever they want to call it. ... Those are difficult illusions to shatter."

"The people in Iran just didn't believe, in the run-up to our elections in 2008, that a black man with the middle name of Hussein would be allowed to be elected president, that there would be a way that ... 'those interests that control the United States' wouldn't allow that to happen," Majd said. "They would allow democracy to exist, they would allow people to vote, but that there was no way they - the so-called they - would allow a black man to be president."

Now, with President Obama in office, the conspiracy theorists, rather than believing in the power of the American voter, say he was allowed to become president because he agreed to follow the orders of the so-called "they."

"I think that if Iranians, for example, or people in the Muslim world were able to hear the voices of the average American, the American people who do participate in elections, who do believe in their democracy, they might be pleasantly surprised because those are voices they don't normally hear," Majd said. "They hear the voices of politicians, and they hear the voices of celebrities."

Yet Majd offered some hope that Iran and the United States could resolve their differences, including those concerning the Iranian nuclear program, so long as the Iranian government does not have to lose credibility with its people. "In my opinion, there is a win-win, and we haven't looked hard enough for that formula where it's a win-win: where the Iranians can save face - not just save face but say: 'Look, we protected Iran's independence. We protected its rights. There are areas which ... the Western world has concerns with, and these are areas that we are willing to address without having given up one iota of your rights as the Iranian people.' But there are those areas where Iran can concede, and there have to be areas where the United States has to be able to concede, too. ...

"If somebody asked me what I do know with certainty, what I can say with certainty, it's that not enough effort has been made on either side, on the Iranian side or the American side, to resolve the differences that we have."

Majd said he hopes his books raise interested Americans' understanding of Iran so that differences between the two nations can be resolved. "I'm not a professor or an academic or a foreign-policy expert who says, 'I'm right; this is what it is,'" he said. "I just want people to consider different viewpoints and, certainly when it comes to Iran, to consider where Iranians are coming from, where even this leadership is coming from, why they behave the way they do, why they say the things they do. Because sometimes when you understand the why, it's easier to then deal with that adversary."

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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