By SIAMAK NOORAEI (source: Fair Observer)
"I used to be the odd one out, calling for a less ideologically biased approach to Iran."
The recent developments in Iran have come as a shock to many political observers. The election of pragmatist Hassan Rouhani and the departure of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have raised hopes for resolving the present political crisis surrounding Iran.
From Rouhani's historic speech at the United Nations General Assembly, to the unprecedented telephone conversation between the Iranian president and Barack Obama, and to the recent multilateral deal over Iran's nuclear row, there is growing optimism in regards to answering the "Question of the Islamic Republic."
Siamak Nooraei speaks to Dr. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a renowned Iran expert from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Adib-Moghaddam is the chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the London Middle East Institute. His book, Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic, critically examines the multitude of factors impacting the attitudes and behaviors of Iranian policy makers in international politics.
Nooraei and Adib-Moghaddam speak about Iranian civil society, Rouhani, critical theory, and a normative approach to understand Iranian politics.
Siamak Nooraei: In "Iran in World Politics," you advocate a normative approach to studying Iranian politics. What would this approach look like?
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam: My basic premise is that studying Iranian politics, indeed understanding the social and political world in general, requires a deep grounding in critical methods and theory. Iran is a complex subject matter over-laden with myths, propagandistic fabrications, and ideological distortions.
As students of Iranian politics, we are obliged to distance ourselves as much as possible from the hype surrounding the country in the media and policy world. Iran in World Politics attempted to show how such a disposition can be achieved. At the same time, I never really write any of my books from a stringently methodological perspective. I always consider them works in progress that try to speak to the reader beyond the subject matter.
Nooraei: What is the best way to analyze the recent developments in Iran regarding the relative easing of social restrictions and a general shift towards diplomacy?
Adib-Moghaddam: I have argued in the book that politics in Iran is affected by a pluralistic momentum; a politics driven from Iranian civil society that continuously extracts concessions from the state. Rouhani is the latest example for the demands of Iranian society for more social and political freedom and better relations with the West in the name of a reconstituted national interest.
Rouhani is the surface effect of the demands of the majority of Iranians for reform on the one side, and political stability on the other.
Nooraei: Critical theory obviously plays an important role in your analysis of Iranian politics. Which critical theorists have influenced your theoretical approach?
Adib-Moghaddam: I have a very broad understanding of critical theory. I don't associate critical political thought merely with the Frankfurt School or the late Edward Said and Michel Foucault, with whom some of my books have been compared.
If one looks at the ways Ibn Sina, Farabi and Ibn Rushd approached political studies, for instance, one finds a lot of critical, even radical merit in their thought. They wrote hundreds of years ago, and yet I found some of their insights indispensable for critical ideas and practice today.
The history of political thought, including critical theory, has to be rewritten from a truly global perspective that appreciates the contributions of the non-Western world to the canon that has been sold to us as exclusively "Western."
Nooraei: How would you place your work in the general field of political science?
Adib-Moghaddam: As much as possible beyond disciplinary boundaries. I have always found it helpful to look at Political Science, International Relations (IR), and the other social sciences from the outside in order to minimize being subsumed by any debilitating disciplinary currents.
Intellectuals have to live and think, as much as possible, beyond confines in order to challenge and provoke new thinking. So I leave it to others to place my work. In my research, I try to be agile enough to speak to different disciplines and subject matters.
Even Iran in World Politics is not exclusively a book about Iran. The study attempts to speak to IR, critical theory, post-colonial studies, even to neuro-physiological research into politics. As such, I hope it is as trans-disciplinary as my other books.
Nooraei: Are there compelling reasons to believe that the Iranian regime will become more receptive to modernity?
Adib-Moghaddam: I have never adhered to the traditional/modern distinction that mainstream political science puts forward. As I have argued in the new book - On the Arab Revolts and the Iranian Revolution: Power and Resistance Today - the Iranian revolution had typically modern elements to it. It was permeated by the totalizing ideologies of modernity such as Islamism, Communism and Maoism, calling for the great ideal of a better tomorrow and a new subjectivity.
In Khomeini there was a charismatic figurehead, quite comparable to the role that Lenin, Mao and Castro played in the other revolutions of modernity in Russia, China and Cuba, respectively. And there was the distinct emphasis on total change in the name of a utopian future - again much in the same way as in Russia, China and Cuba.
Recent progressive research evades the outdated modern/traditional divide. The studies by the Cambridge Social Anthropologist Jack Goody are a good example. Goody speaks of multiple modernities and the theft of history by Western writers during the enlightenment period. Studies like his are a good start to unravel strict temporalities along the modern-pre-modern axis. I have addressed this research in A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations.
Nooraei: How did you develop you arguments for this book?
Adib-Moghaddam: The book was based on extensive field research in Iran, several interviews with policy makers in the country, intellectuals, think-tank officials, civil society activists, and others. This was the empirical base upon which the book rests.
In terms of argumentation, I am rather anarchic. I don't adhere to a strict, pre-conceived plan. My ideas develop as I write. In that sense, I am not very academic and I try to keep it that way. I have been trained and educated and culturally affected by too many global currents to be able to restrain myself to one particular school of thought or method. Neither do I think it is necessary to be overtly mechanical in scholarly research.
After all, we are speaking about matters of life and death, war and peace, which do not always lend themselves to stringent/deterministic theorization or argumentation.
Nooraei: How has your book affected the way scholars, statesmen, and students approach Iranian politics?
Adib-Moghaddam: This is very difficult to measure, but one thing I am very glad about is that the book and my writings in general have an audience in Iran. Because of my institutional position in the heart of London, I will always have exposure in Britain, Europe and North America.
But access further afield is rather more difficult - namely in political and civil society circles in Iran. So I am glad some of the ideas expressed in Iran in World Politics have traveled. Let me add that a decade ago, when I started my academic endeavors, I used to be the odd one out, calling for a less ideologically biased approach to Iran and a break from the ideas of previous generations.
Today, it is encouraging to see that there is an armada of critical scholars and activists out there who are communicating a truer version about the realities in Iran to a wider constituency that I could ever reach. I am certainly not suggesting that this is down to Iran in World Politics, but the irreversible trend towards critical Iranian studies is much in the spirit of the message that the book has tried to convey.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.
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