The Tab Meets: Azadeh Moaveni

CLAUDIA LEONG discusses Iranian clerics, culture and kitchens with Azadeh Moaveni.

Ahmadinejad Azadeh Moaveni Cambridge Union claudia leong debate interviews iran joel fenster nuclear weapons

Fresh from her speech at the Union’s first debate of Easter (on the controversial motion “This House Believes it is Western Hypocrisy to Condemn Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations,”) I had the opportunity to speak to Iranian-American author, former Time Magazine correspondent and Guardian journalist Azadeh Moaveni about international politics and the future of Iran.

Having outlined what seemed to be a political impasse between Iran and the West earlier that evening, I wanted to know what Moaveni thought could best be done to defuse the international tension.

“Brave and honest dialogue is needed between the two sides. There’s a powerful domestic American lobby, which makes dialogue with Iran difficult, and a grand bargain where all the issues are laid out on the table: Pakistan, Israel the nuclear topic, seems to be the best way forward.”

I challenge Moaveni on that point. How would this bargaining take place, if the ‘West’ is made up a number of countries and doesn’t necessarily represent a unified view?

“Before the year 2005 or so, it was really only Europe that was bargaining and negotiating with Iran. But America has all the cards, and to this day, Europe does not have a position independent from America. So now, when it does come to Iran, the West is quite monolithic, as America has come in. In some ways, America is constrained domestically: to win a congressional state election, all you need to do is be hawkish on Iran.

“America is also re-evaluating the militarisation of the Middle East, with Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the like. Iran feels encircled, and inviting Iran to participate in regional security rather than making them feel threatened would be more productive.”

The Iran that Moaveni describes in her second book, Honeymoon in Tehran, differs noticeably from the country that she depicts in her 2005 memoir, Lipstick Jihad. How has Iran changed further since 2009, when her last book was published?

“Iran has become a much sadder, poorer place. The West’s sanctions on the country have really affected people—family members of mine have conditions that they no longer have access to medicine for. Young people can’t afford university in the way they could have ten years ago. It’s not a hopeful place and I’ve never heard people sound so bitter in Iran. People are squeezed in the middle between the regime and the sanctions.”

Moaveni mentioned in her speech that ironically, the sanctions were radicalising Iran against the West. But at the same time, the younger generation are becoming more aware of institutions such as democracy, and using social media more than before. Is she pessimistic about Iran’s future?

“I think that those things are making a difference, they’re very important at the cultural level. Iranians have that understanding, there’s just no meaningful opportunity to express it because the government is so oppressive. Iranians need to find space to debate, express themselves, to create a virtual public space that they don’t have on the streets. Iran is unpredictable. And so although I feel pessimistic, I think that Iran often defies our expectations, and it’s hard to know what change will occur.”

2009 protests in Tehran against alleged election fixing

Will it possible for Iran to preserve its culture and experience modernisation at the same time?

“I think that we perceive as ‘western’ is often conflated with ‘modern’. Iran is certainly becoming more urban, which means less space, and it changes how families live, traditional moves about women’s space in the home. For example, the open kitchen is something that the traditional Iranian home didn’t have, because you had the private inner sanctum of the home, and then the outer space. Women would stay physically separated from men.

“But with urbanisation you have small apartments, rather than big courtyard houses and there’s just no space. You have an open kitchen, so when male visitors come to the man of the house, they see women cooking.

“We think of it as Western secularisation but it’s really modernisation and urbanisation and I think that Iranians will and are adapting to that, and they’re adapting really well. Iranians have access to global culture, and you don’t see that kind of sophistication going on anywhere else. Iran is prepared, but the government is trapped in that time warp, that ideological bind.”

Obviously religion is a big part of the Iranian government’s ideology, and Iran is one of the few theocracies left in the world. Does Moaveni think the way religion is perceived and the way religious authority is carried out is shifting?

“I think that the Supreme Leader is concentrating his authority and that’s different to the balancing role he played over the previous twenty years. He’s moving towards consolidation, becoming more authoritarian and the country is more like a military klepto-state where the Revolutionary Guard plays a vast role. I think Iran is more of a security state with a cleric at the top, who’s actually not behaving very religiously. It’s more of a pretense at this point.

“The Iranian constitution and regime is sort of paradoxical in its composition. It’s a republic with democratic mechanisms and elections and an executive and a judiciary but there’s also a powerful clergy and a religious leader. So there are structural aspects of the constitution and the framework of the country that could move towards change. There’s not necessarily a need for wholesale revolution, and I see a gradual evolution happening in the medium to long term. Depending on how optimistic one is, the Supreme Leader might become more of a symbolic figure, like the monarch of this country, and a more democratic participatory government might emerge. I think that’s what people want.”

With Iran undergoing such a period of intense change, I wonder if Moaveni is considering writing another book about that topic.

“I’m actually writing a fiction book now.  I’m at the stage where I feel like I’ve done what I can to represent the Iranian reality that interests me, and I’m moving towards a different way of exploring this.”

Would she ever write a book that’s targeted towards Iranian people, rather than an English speaking audience?

“I’d like that, I think it’s ideally what my novel would be. I think I’m less interested in explaining Iran to the West than I am about doing the opposite. You exhaust one and then you want to try things from a different perspective.”

In any case, it is apparent to me that Moaveni already has much experience in analysing her country’s politics from a thoughtful and multifarious point of view.