Sunday, April 06, 2008

Iran-American Relations Conference at Columbia University

On Friday March 28, a conference on Iran-US relations, past, present and future, was held at the Columbia University School of International Affairs. Participating were Ervand Abrahamian, Ali Ansari, Ibrahim Yazdi, John Limbert, Gary Sick, and Wayne White; it was chaired by Richard Bulliet.

I ran into Dr. Yazdi in the hallway during one of the coffee breaks. I could not believe how old he looked. He must be over seventy now, and that reminded me that I’m not that young myself either. I hung around to say hello and ask him about the Iranian elections. I remarked to him (in Persian), “It was a disgrace; why did it happened that way?”

“What way? What are you talking about?”

His red face betrayed him, and he uttered both sentences without even thinking. Surely he knew what I was talking about. Still, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and said, “I mean the elections. It was an embarrassment, wasn’t it?”

“Not really, they should be embarrassed.”

“You cannot dissociate yourself so easily…” I was still talking when three people arrived simultaneously as Ajal-e-Mo`allaqs. My husband wanted me to meet one of his old Iranian leftist friends he knew from before the revolution. Another fellow wanted to know if the weather outside was cold enough and if I knew where the bathroom was. A third came and dragged me aside to tell me, “Show me twenty Iranian intellectuals who could unite,” and proceeded to bombard me with comments about Iranian culture this and Iranian culture that.

“Please don’t put down our Iranian culture like that, there is nothing wrong with it. If twenty Iranian intellectuals cannot agree with each other (and I disagree with this premise) perhaps it is because they did not grow together intellectually. Each of them had grown intellectually independent from the others in separate domains and in separate fields in different part of the world since there are so few of them, and as a result, they do not speak the same language. Unfortunately, our modern educational systems, both before and after the revolution, neglected the cultivation of intellectualism; that is why you don’t see them around a unified pole.”

“True,” he said. “But Yazdi is an old man; he is over seventy years old. I wanted to talk to him about the elections also, but then I thought what I would say to an old man like him.”

Well sir, you do not need to tell him anything, and you did not. I was the one talking to him; I do not think old age a good excuse for mistakes or misleading the people, particularly if you are a political person with Dr. Yazdi’s record and his claims. I do not mind respecting my elders enough to treat them as responsible beings and expect them to respect us as well and not to manipulate us.”

We all walked back to the lecture hall where the speakers were delivering their concluding remarks about how they saw the future of Iran-US relations. I found interesting Ali Ansari’s comments that the international community has to live with Iran as it is, including with its nuclear energy, and should accept it with the hope that it will not willingly endanger their security and that of others.

Dr. Yazdi’s remarks were interesting in that he showed a total detachment from the present ruling clerics in Iran as if they did not have anything to do with him and never had. I should agree that Dr. Yazdi is now more pleasant than he was thirty years ago, without that artificial shabbiness, not playing the mullah with half an inch of stubble and a bottomed-up shirt; he was no longer dressed like the hajji aqa he pretended to be when he would sit crossed leg next to the Imam. He looked very Iranian. In his suit and tie, well-shaven, sporting a well-trimmed and very becoming goatee, he did not strike me as particularly Islamic. He even laughed, and when he spoke, he looked into the faces of men and women alike and was quite at ease with people. Anyway, it seems that his honeymoon with the Islamic Republic has long been over.

Wayne White said something interesting about regime change. Along with John Limbert and Ali Ansari, he said that Iran and the US should talk about all their problems and not one by one and that the negotiation teams should be compatible and consist of people of good will who would be willing to solve problems even if they included a desire for regime change.

Although Richard Bulliet had clearly urged the audience to not make speeches, but ask simple question, our friend, Dr. Houshang Amirahmadi raised his hand and scolded the panel of discussants for talking about or even using the phrase “regime change” since it is very dangerous. In the United States, he declared, we mean by regime change that a president goes and another one comes. In Iran, regime means Khamenehi… Fortunately, Bulliet stepped in and stopped him from rattling on.

This was my third experience with an angels of deliverance. Two years ago, I was talking to Ali Larijani who had said that Ayatollah Abol-Qasem Kashani did a lot for the nationalization of oil along with Dr. Mosaddeq. I asked him where he got that bit of information and if I could quote him. He said his sources were some history books whose names he did not recall and he promised to send them to me. While I was giving him my address and exchanging emails with him, another one of those angels of deliverance arrived, a fellow from Canada, and took me away from him and said that Ali Larijani was right and Ayatollah Kashani did a lot. “Like what?” I asked. “Well, he was the only cleric who agreed with Dr. Mosaddeq on oil nationalization, none of the other clerics even did that much.”

“Credit to him for that, but that does not mean he had any role in the process, never mind that he betrayed Dr. Mosaddeq later on,” I said.

The fellow talked a little more about Larijani’s two other brothers in two different high posts of the Islamic Republic and how brilliant they are and so on and so forth and continued until Larijani who was heading to the airport, got into the limousine waiting for him and left. He asked my name and said good-bye.

(Larijani never sent me a book or anything and I don’t think he has ever read about this subject in any history book, but was just following the Islamic Republic’s party line.)

I guess that those two were self-appointed angels of deliverance. I bet they are around everyone who is not supposed to get involved in conversation casually with big-mouths like me. But why did Dr. Amirahmadi lecture six scholars, surely no less than himself, to keep quiet and not speak their mind. Suppose that Ali Ansari and Gary Sick want to even risk their lives to talk about regime change in Iran, so what? Why shouldn’t they? To whom was it dangerous? Oddly enough, Dr. Amirahmadi is the head of the Middle East Studies Research Foundation in Rutgers University. What sort of scholarly work is possible if one decides beforehand to censor his/her ideas? I wonder where this phobia is coming from. What is wrong with expecting Larijani to have credible sources for his claims and what damage is there in telling Dr. Yazdi that he is more exposed than he wishes he was?

Still, I’m puzzled by all these angels of deliverance that drop in on us just at a sensitive time to save “us” from danger. It seems they don’t know of that super archangel above them all who flies from this part of the world to the other in a second, with all his might, and carries the news in all its forms without their help. On You Tube, someone will make a joke of them in a few minutes and millions will laugh at them. Really, life is not like before and people like Dr. Yazdi cannot hide any more under the veil of intimidation, or even worse, denial. And with all due respect, we are not as shy as we use to be some thirty years ago. Also, some of us with a reasonably good memory remember that Dr. Yazdi was one of the cornerstones of the Islamic regime and the one who was present next to the Imam’s elbow (or, better, the Imam’s knees) from Day One. He was part of every piece of the Islamic Republic and no matter how many cravats he might tie around his neck, he has no right to call them “they.” The only pronoun for him is “we,” and he’d better accept it and find a graceful way out of it; retirement may not be a bad idea.

As for Dr. Amirahmadi, younger as he is, I’m afraid he had better think of a good location for retirement, too.

1 comment:

Tameshk said...

Dear Mina
Just wanted to say that it was an interesting conference and also I wanted to wish you a delayed Happy Norooz! By the way I liked your Pomegranate piece ;D