July 21, 2015


The Most Dangerous Man in Iran : Tehran University political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam dares to publicly oppose his regime's foreign policy (Samuel Thrope, 7/21/15, Tablet)

This past March Tehran University political science professor Sadegh Zibakalam said the unspeakable. In a wide-ranging foreign-policy debate with conservative journalist Seyed Yasser Jebraily at Islamic Azad University of Mashhad, videos of which have circulated widely on the Internet, Zibakalam blasted the Iranian government's oft-stated goal of destroying Israel.

Sitting with Jebraily at a small, microphone-studded table, Zibakalam, dressed in an open-collared shirt and dark blue sports coat over his trademark suspenders, first argued that conservatives' anti-American rhetoric was harming Iran's national interest. Then he turned to Israel, saying that cries of "Death to Israel" do the same.

"Who gave the Islamic Republic of Iran the duty of destroying Israel?" he asked sarcastically to the audience's thunderous applause. "Did the Iranian people have a referendum and say they want to destroy Israel? Did the parliament pass a law saying that we should destroy Israel?"

When hard-line hecklers tried to interrupt they were quickly shouted down by the crowd. "Twenty-four hours a day you have the radio, the television, Kayhan newspaper, the parliament, the Friday sermons," Zibakalam boldly replied. "We have two hours here--one for me and one for Jebraily. You are so authoritarian and dictatorial that you disrupt even this." [...]

"I was anti-West, anti-U.S. I was anti-Israel. I was very much what the Islamic regime is at the moment," he said of his revolutionary student days. "But subsequently many of us, even those students who took part in seizing the American embassy in 1979, have changed. We have realized after three decades that being anti-West may be important, but political freedom is much more important."

He argues that while hard-liners claim that the West is opposed to Iran's nuclear activity because they do not want a revolutionary country like Iran to prosper, he says that the real reason for American and European opposition lies elsewhere: in Iranian rhetoric and action against Israel. "The reason that the West is nervous and opposes our nuclear program is because Iran has stated very precisely and officially that Iran is going to destroy the state of Israel. Therefore the Israelis--as well as everyone else--can be worried about this country becoming engaged in uranium enrichment. That's why the United States, Israel, and Europe are against our nuclear program. If we had not stated that we are going to destroy the state of Israel, none of this would happen."

If questioning official rhetoric on Israel is taboo, casting doubt on the country's nuclear program is even more so. In the eyes of many of Iran's political elite, the program is much more than simply a technical or military boon. Iran's ability to pursue advanced nuclear technology is seen as a symbol of the country's self-reliance and freedom from outside influence, which was one of the major goals of the revolution against the shah's American-backed regime.

"You must remember that up until a few years ago the nuclear program was holy; people worshiped the country's nuclear program," Zibakalam explained, referring to the period of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency from 2005 to 2013. "Now all of a sudden, someone is saying: What is the benefit of this?"

Despite this criticism of the program overall, he argues that the nuclear agreement represents a historical turning point for Iran on par with the Islamic Revolution. As he wrote in Politico in March, the agreement means that anti-Americanism will no longer be considered an unquestionable orthodoxy in Iranian politics. This change will pull the rug out from under conservatives who use opposition to the United States to justify their policies internally and internationally and will strengthen reformists and other moderates who seek more engagement with the West.

Posted by at July 21, 2015 5:01 PM

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