New York-based journalist Hooman Majd is a prominent observer of Iranian affairs in American media. Born in Tehran in 1957, he grew up abroad as his father, Nasser, a Pahlavi-era diplomat, served in London, San Francisco, New Delhi, Tunis, Washington, and—while Majd studied in the United States—Tokyo. His maternal grandfather, Mohammad Kazem Assar, was an ayatollah. His cousin Maryam is married to Ali Khatami, the brother and former chief of staff of Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami. He has served as an “unpaid adviser” to the Islamic Republic, a role that has afforded him access to Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and their staffs.
Majd borrowed the words of the poet Sanai to describe his first book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (2008), as a portrait of Iranian paradoxes “beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing.” His second book, The Ayatollah’s Democracy (2010) was a critique of Iran’s handling of the 2009 elections that emphasized the potential of reformists. This month sees the release of The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, Majd’s memoir of his time in Tehran with his American wife Karri, and their young son Khashayar, during the “annus horribilis” of 2011, when he felt keenly the existence of a “security state.”
You begin your new book with two epigraphs. The first is attributed to Reza Shah, who says, “The inhabitants of Tehran are invited to keep quiet.” The second is from Mohammad Mossadeq, who says, “If I sit in silence, I have sinned.” Why did you build the book around the theme of silence?
There’s this history in Iran of authoritarianism, and a history of pushing back against that, over 100 years. Society is still trying to do that. You’ve got two opposing forces, the forces of—I won’t call it quite fascism, but the forces of dictatorship who have a lot of supporters, people who will say, “Oh we need a strongman, we need another Reza Shah,” and [believe that] you have to keep quiet to have better lives and to have order in society; then you have this other element, which is very pro-democracy, like “let us speak out, let us have free speech, let us have a democratic process here in Iran,” and I think those two things define Iranian social and political life over the last 100 years. I’m just dropping in for one year in this 100-year span to see what it’s like to be an Iranian, to see some of that play itself out.
You refer to Iran as a “security state.” How do you define a security state, and how has Iran’s approach to security—and specifically to journalists—changed over the years?
Well, it goes up and down. It’s a security state in the sense—I mean Glenn Greenwald would say that America is now a security state and so is England, but I wouldn’t go that far—I think a security state is a place where the security forces, who are often secret, seem to have control over the state, and certain freedoms are restricted, civil rights are restricted. During the last four years of Ahmadinejad’s rule, it was particularly bad, and it seemed to get really bad in 2011 and even in 2012, but in other years it’s been softer. The year I was there, [there were] 70,000 cops just patrolling for morality, and it gives you a sense of “Oh, we’re in a security state, it’s not just your clothing, it’s also everything else.”
Now it seems that there’s been a little bit of a loosening. Suddenly you have, last week, Rouhani saying, “We’re going to take away the morality police from the national police force” It’s not clear who’s going to be in charge of the morality police. [The authorities have] released some people from jail, [but] they’ve taken some people back to jail. It’s up and down, so I wouldn’t say there’s been a huge improvement.
This nuclear issue is all-consuming for this government, and they have to do something with it, and then perhaps they’ll have the clout to then push back against the hardliners who want to maintain a security state. [Hardliners] claim there’s a security state is because, “We’re under threat. You have to be aware of plots. We have scientists being assassinated. We have spies here. We have people claiming they’re going to attack us, and that’s why we have to have a security state.”
That’s why so many civil rights activists in Iran support détente with the US. They feel that the only way they can get any traction in Iran is if there isn’t this sense of siege that the government, at least, claims to feel.
You believed powerful figures were working to secure a more democratic future in Iran. Who were those powerful figures, and how much faith do you place in them now?
Sometimes you’re pessimistic, sometimes you’re optimistic.
I think Rafsanjani has changed a lot ideologically in the last ten years. I think he does believe—and certainly, people talk about the corruption in his family and so on—but I think that he and his extended family see a future where it has to be more democratic, or else they’ll lose the revolution, and then Rafsanjani, everything he ever fought for in his life, is gone. He is still quite powerful. I don’t think he’s very touchable.
Khatami is obviously the other one, but I think he has less influence today. He has influence with young people, with people in Iran who still have a great amount of affection for him. Not everybody. There are people who think he didn’t have the courage to go up against the hardliners. The regime is well aware of his influence among the people. I think that he could potentially have influence in the future.
Khatami told you his time has come and gone. Was he reflecting only on his age, or also on his ideas?
I don’t think it’s his ideas. Obviously that was before the election in 2013, where it was clear that he had a big influence on Rouhani’s win in terms of supporting him at the last minute. It was partly his age and partly also a reflection of someone who had been in office eight years, wasn’t able to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish, and looked around the country in 2011 and saw that everything that he thought Iran should be, it wasn’t, and everything that he thought Iran shouldn’t be, it was. He’s still somewhat marginalized, but less so than before.
All of your books address the theme of Iranian “national character,” and you’ve even speculated about a “flaw” in the national character. British Foreign Office documents from the days of Mossadeq are full of unpleasant, infantilizing cultural diatribes about Persians, and historians like Michael Axworthy have identified a similar paternalistic outlook among some of the ulema. Is the very idea of national character an obstacle to greater freedoms in Iran?
I hope not, but it might be. I think if you ask some people in Iran now, they would say yes. Certainly people who oppose the regime would. And not even people who completely oppose the regime, but even [those who] want reform rather than complete change of regime would say that it has been. I speculate that it might be. Yes.
You liken Ali Khamenei to a monarch. Would you describe his reign as absolute (in which case it could still be legitimate), or as a tyranny, or as something else entirely?
I think something else entirely. I don’t think it’s absolute in the way that Middle Eastern monarchs, anyway, have ruled with absolute authority. I think he has that absolute authority if he wants to use it, but I think he also is aware that if he does use it, Iran has way too many factions, way too many people who are powerful, that he could lose it very quickly. Certainly he rules like a monarch, in that he can veto things, he can set any kind of policy he wants, he’s tended in the past to stay away from economic policy, he’s tended to stay away from domestic politics on a day-to-day basis. Clearly he did not in 2009, and since 2009, he has not.
I don’t think he can afford to rule in the way that the Shah did, for example, at least in the last years of his reign. [His rule] is clearly like the shah’s, or other Middle Eastern rulers’—you can’t criticize him, or “insult” him as they say. He doesn’t have the hereditary aspect of monarchy—some people argue that he wants that—but I’m not sure that even some of his supporters would support that. There’s not that much longer left of his lifetime, it doesn’t give him enough time to…I mean, Khomeini tried to get his grandson to be supreme leader. It would be very strange if this supreme leader tried really hard or publically tried to get his son into position.
Would comparing him to a king be considered insulting?
Yes, but people do, privately. The whole basis of the revolution was to get rid of monarchy, and, even though to a lot of Iranians he does have the appearance of a monarch, and he exercises his powers like a monarch might, it’s not clear that, if he tried to use that authority, he would not find himself suddenly in a coup d’état situation. There’s that awareness, that there are some very powerful forces that he has to placate on all sides of the political spectrum.
You write that you often “checked” yourself when you were tempted to make judgments about how Iranians should confront the regime, or what they should prioritize, because Iranians have to come to their own conclusions about what they want. But on the other hand, you are a citizen of Iran, you feel a “sense of home” there, and you supported to the Green Movement. Isn’t there a contradiction there?
Of course there is. All our lives are contradictions. I’ve never claimed to be not contradictory. I have lived almost my entire life in the West, mostly in the United States, and I am a child of western culture, that’s how I’ve grown up. I think that I have an understanding of Iranian culture, but I find it a little bit difficult to tell people living in Iran, “Well, you should do this, or you should do that.” If I went there and said, “Okay, I’m going to live here from now on, I’m coming back to my country, the country I was born in,” then I feel I would have more of a right. It’s not that I can’t have opinions. I feel like I have every right to support the Green Movement. Even if I wasn’t a citizen, I’d have every right to do that. I have every right to support a democracy movement in China, or in Burma. Naturally, I prefer American liberal democracy to any other kind of democracy right now.
You identify pretty strongly as an American writer, your implied reader would seem to be American because you use American political and pop cultural references. Which American writers influenced you?
Writers, if you’re thinking stylistically, or loving their works…sometimes American, sometimes British…Graham Greene was a big influence on me I think, I hope, at least I was a big admirer of his. Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, a lot of British writers. And then you know, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Hemingway’s journalism, very much so.
What about popular culture?
Well, I worked at Island Records for a lot of years, so Bob Marley influenced me, that’s for sure. Carlos Santana influenced me. I worked with him, and had some long discussions where it was hard to understand what he was getting at, but he influenced me. In and around the music business, I was influenced by people, and by the politics of people.
How did you get involved in the music industry, and what made you shift to journalism? Did Iranian musicians ever seek your help?
I was in the music industry at a fortuitous time for music sales—the birth of the CD and the explosion of that format, which meant people were buying records they already had bought in the new format, as well as there being big profit margins, and of course the mainstreaming of a new genre, hip hop—that afforded a company like Island the opportunity to invest in developing artists. I loved music, and the sensibility of the label (and my best friends, from high school even, were in the industry) so I suppose it was a sort of perfect storm—working with people I liked, artists I liked, music that I loved, and the ability to actually bring that music to a wide audience.
Although Island was known for its big acts, we also had a world music label, but in that time there were far fewer Iranians or Iranian-Americans of an age who might be attracted to music as a career, so I didn’t really ever hear from Iranian musicians. Today, with Iranian-Americans who’ve grown up in the States or Europe (and they were babies then), there are of course many more musicians who might be attracted to an Island Records—and that’s probably true of Iranian artists inside Iran, too. In Iran at the time, there were far fewer youth looking to play Western music, although of course they listened to it. In terms of the classical Iranian musicians, it was much more of a niche market than say, African music, or even Rai—Algerian pop that found an audience in Europe and even the US—and they never sought me ought (or vice versa).
I shifted careers because, after Island was sold to a multinational (Polygram), and Chris Blackwell (the founder of Island) and I worked in the system for about ten years, we decided to leave and start another indie label that would be an audio-visual company—we called it Palm Pictures—and this was the when DVDs were exploding in popularity. We made films, straight-to-DVD films, and acquired a small label, Rykodisc, but were unable to secure proper financing, and speaking of fortuitous timing, we encountered the opposite—the birth of the mp3 and the implosion of the music industry.
When I left Palm, I decided that I would write—when I was out of college I had wanted to write, and had written fiction, but now I was attracted to journalism (although I took up fiction, too), and with the interest in Iran growing around the time of Khatami, I found myself being asked to write about Iran—the rest is history (or my history).
You write at one point of your fear that your son, Khashayar, might not get another chance to visit Iran. Why did you think that might that be the case?
When you grow up in America as a half Iranian, or as an American-Iranian—and I’ve seen that so much with Iranian-Americans or with people who are half Iranian in America, it just doesn’t happen. You get so caught up in your life and your culture here that, particularly if Iran stays the way it is, then there’s less of a desire to go there. If Iran stays the way it is—I mean there are people who for 34 years have said it’s going to change in a year, and it hasn’t changed—will he really want to get on a plane and go to Iran? And maybe I won’t be allowed to go back.
Why would that be?
Well, I’ve been unpopular with people who are anti-regime and with people who are pro-regime. [In the latter case] we’re talking about people inside Iran who are responsible for making it easy or difficult for you to visit. I have a big file, and it just gets bigger. Bigger and bigger and bigger. And when I’m in Iran, I have to self-censor. When I’m outside of Iran I don’t self-censor, but they read everything I do.
The human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson argues that “The decency with which [Iran] exercises power over its own people is a reasonably good indication of whether it could, at some time in the future, engage in mass nuclear murder.” Should western attitudes to Iran’s nuclear potential be guided by Iran’s human rights record?
I don’t think so, and Iranians I have spoken to from pro-regime to anti-regime have never suggested that. I don’t think nuclear power in Iran, or the ability to build a bomb in Iran, is going to do anything to either make human rights worse or better. I don’t think the Iranian regime is suicidal, and I don’t think it would use, if it ever built a nuclear weapon because it felt it had to, or if it had the support of the people to, that it would use that power it had, or that nuclear weapon, on its own people.
I don’t think it’s a connection, to say that, “Well, they have a nuclear weapon, therefore, there’s nothing we can do about the human rights.” I don’t think the western world will ever do anything about human rights anywhere. And no Iranian believes that. Nobody thinks that America is concerned about human rights in Iran. They’re not concerned about human rights in Bahrain, why should they be concerned about human rights in Iran? I also don’t think that when a country is abusive of its citizens, it necessarily means it’s also going to be warlike or try to use its nuclear arsenal, if it has one, against other countries.
Syria doesn’t come up much in your book, but you were in Tehran at a time when many westerners saw Syria in an “Arab Spring” context. What were Iranian interests and foreign policy in Syria in 2011?
In 2011, the discussion was [about] the early Syrian uprising and then, subsequently, civil war. People inside Iran were questioning—including one or two journalists and op-ed writers in some of the more liberal press—Iran’s support of Assad. That was before chemical weapons had been used in Syria. It is an active political discussion in Iran, and people do question, or have questioned Iran’s out and out support of Assad. But we know a lot more about what’s been going on in Syria now than we did two years ago, certainly in terms of the kind of support Iran has been giving the Assad regime.
Now, I think so many people are concerned about the economy, so many people are concerned about their jobs, about the devaluation of the Rial, about the inflation, how expensive life has become in Tehran, and just struggling, working two or three jobs. People are more concerned with domestic issues than they are with what support Iran is giving to Syria, or whatever involvement it has in Iraq or Afghanistan or other countries. Occasionally you’ll get a remark from some politician saying, ‘Well, we shouldn’t [put] all our eggs in one basket, or you’ll hear from various politicians that they are talking to some elements of the Syrian opposition. There are people who are opposed to it on the basis of the economy, saying “Why are we putting money into Syria and into Lebanon when we can’t afford meat?” You do hear that, but it’s less political than it is economic.
You quote Mohammad Khatami and Sadegh Kharrazi speaking in admiration of Qassem Suleimani, head of the Qods Force, whose profile in the west s growing thanks to a recent feature in The New Yorker. What’s your opinion of Suleimani?
I’ve never met him. My opinion is based on what I have heard from other people, and from people I trust not on the right wing of Iranian politics, but on the left wing of Iranian politics, reformists, who have even suffered since 2009 for being reformists. I trust their opinion. I said this in the New Yorker podcast which I did with Dexter [Filkins] last week, when Dexter said Suleimani represents the hardest of the hardliners, and I disagreed. I said, “Well, actually, he doesn’t, and certainly that’s not the way he’s looked at in Iran.”
He’s looked at as a loyal soldier, absolutely loyal to the supreme leader, and it seems that he’ll always be that way. His rise came about under Rafsanjani, and continued under Khatami, and he was very important to Iran in Afghanistan and subsequently in Iraq. I think he’s viewed by and large by Iranians as not some crazy ideological figure. [He’s] ideological in the sense that he supports the revolution and whatever the supreme leader says. And he reports directly to the supreme leader, so other than that, it’s not clear that he has had an ideology.
He’s never really spoken about politics. Some of the others have, [Mohammad Ali] Jafari, who is the head of the Revolutionary Guards today, has given political speeches. Soleimani never has. He’s always talked about nationalism, whether it’s cynical because he knows that always gets to the Iranian people, you know, the strength of Iran, the great glory of Iran…but I have not come across anyone in Iran who says, ‘Oh gosh, I wish we didn’t have someone like him because he’s dangerous.’ And he hasn’t been involved in domestic repression or jailing of dissidents or anything, it’s just not his area, he’s in the foreign force, protecting, as he thinks, and a lot of Iranians think, the national security interests of Iran.
What role do you see him playing in the future?
I’m not sure I see him playing [one]. According to people who know him, he doesn’t like the limelight, he doesn’t like being a very public figure, I’m sure he’s horrified that everyone’s speaking about him in the West the way that they are. I think he thinks he can operate better if he’s not in the limelight. Maybe, because he seems to be liked by both sides, the hardliners and the reformists, maybe he can have an important role as an army chief of staff or a head of the revolutionary guards in the future, but I think he’s happy where he is.
There’s a scene toward the end of the book where you’re driving around Tehran with a friend, and he waves his hand at the sun-drenched normalcy all around you and says, “Don’t be fooled by this, it’s really quite dark, and we’re very much in a security state.” How dark is it now?
The people I speak to regularly in Tehran say that it is less dark. It depends who you talk to. The last time I was there, in September, was just for a few days, but I took the opportunity to ask a couple of taxi drivers and a few people buying cigarettes at a deli, “Is it better now?” and they all said, “Inshallah, inshallah, it’s a little bit better,” so there’s a sense of hope that the darkness will be lifted. Whether it will happen or not, or if the majority of Iranian people will feel that it has happened, I can’t tell you. It’s still early days.