Gary Sick, Executive Director, Gulf 2000
Farhad Kazemi, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies,
New York University
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground. In recent weeks the Clinton
administration has begun easing up its rhetoric toward Iran.
SECRETARY OF STATE MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: As the wall of mistrust comes down we can develop
with the Islamic Republic, when it is ready, a road map leading to normal relations.
DAVIDSON: In a historic speech last month Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the
first cautious response to Tehran’s new moderate president, Mohammed Khatemi. During this half
hour of Common Ground we talk with policy analysts about the changes in Iran that have led
to this moment.
GARY SICK: We referred to Iran as a rogue state or an outlaw state, which was the exact,
you know, mirror image of Iran’s calling us the Great Satan. Well, they’ve pretty much stopped
the Great Satan business.
DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs on the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
SPORTS ANNOUNCER: [with loud cheering crowd in the background] And the Red Shirts of Iran
come forward and they’re onside; it’s Panturi and he’s set to shoot. Into the penalty area, it’s
Panturi all the way and he scores! It’s a great goal! Madavik?? went into penalty area and the
man who’s captured the eye throughout the match has scored a goal which will reverberate around
the world. And here we have the Iranians in joyous celebration, and in Tehran everybody is off
their seat punching the air. No doubt about that because Iran has won this game to keep alive
their prospects in this World Cup competition…
DAVIDSON: The soccer game between the United States and Iran during the World Cup last
month was watched as much for the politics between these two countries as for the sport. There
was no hint of the past 20 years of hostile relations between the American and Iranian players,
who posed together for photos and exchanged gifts in what was practically a lovefest. President
Clinton used the occasion to call for better relations with Iran.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: The World Cup is beloved across our planet because it offers a chance
for people from around the world to be judged not by the place they grew up, the color of their
skin, or the way they choose to worship, but by their spirit, skill and strength. As we cheer
today’s game between American and Iranian athletes I hope it can be another step toward ending
the estrangement between our nations. I am pleased that over the last year President Khatemi and
I have both worked to encourage more people-to-people exchanges and to help our citizens develop
a better understanding of each other’s rich civilizations.
DAVIDSON: It’s difficult for Americans of a certain age to forget the images of crowds in
Iran shouting “Death to America,” and of our diplomats held hostage nearly 20 years ago. Iranians
for their part have trouble forgetting US support for the brutal regime of Iran’s last Shah, and
then 10 years ago this month, when a US missile cruiser accidentally shot down an Iranian
passenger plane, killing 290 civilians. But times may be changing. Last year a huge majority of
Iranians elected a more moderate president, Mohammed Khatemi, who has begun to break with Iran’s
isolationist path and has called for a “dialogue among civilizations.” With me today to discuss
how the situation in Iran has changed since Khatemi’s election are two Americans with long-time
experience with Iran. Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents
Ford, Carter and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the 1979
Revolution and then the hostage crisis. He’s now at Columbia University directing a project
called Gulf 2000. Farhad Kazemi is an Iranian-American who teaches politics and Middle Eastern
studies at New York University. Since the hostage crisis, Americans have been warned not to
travel to Iran, but Farhad Kazemi says more Americans are bridging the divide.
KAZEMI: There are three tourist agencies that send American tourists there. Not huge
numbers. I think two, three thousand a year?
SICK: Something like that. But actually Robin Wright had a piece in the L.A. Times
KAZEMI: Ah hah…
SICK: …about tourism. She had interviewed a bunch of American tourists and their
reaction to being in Iran and so forth. It’s a new subject. And it’s one of these places where if
you’re a really experienced traveler Iran is still one of the places where you can get a rise out
of people if you say you were recently there. Because….
SICK: …they think that’s pretty nifty. And pretty unusual, whereas it’s hard to find
anyplace like that anymore [laughing].
KAZEMI: [laughing] Not even Tibet.
SICK: Tibet is overrun! [laughing]
DAVIDSON: Well, I did hear, wasn’t it during the winter, that a US wrestling team…
DAVIDSON: …went, and it sounded like they were well received.
SICK: They were very well received. Much better than the Iranian wrestling team was when
they came this way, where they were fingerprinted and held in the Chicago airport for several
hours while they treated them like criminals. It was, it’s, we’ve got ourselves into this
situation where the United States has got all of these rules about Iranians where basically the
system is now set up to treat anybody coming from Iran as if they are a terrorist and a criminal,
and to treat them accordingly. And basically the, this all was instituted just before things
began to change in a positive direction. And it’s interesting to watch what happens, you know,
and the United States was quite embarrassed by this and said, “We’d like to undo some of the
damage and we’re going to look at our visa situation.” But as far as I know nothing has actually
happened. I think it’s all talk.
DAVIDSON: And the change you’re talking about was that the election of Mohammed Khatemi?
SICK: Khatemi, right. And the…
DAVIDSON: As President last August?
SICK: No, May.
SICK: He was elected in May; he took office in August. So it was from May to August before
he actually took office and put his cabinet in place. And then in January he made an address to
the American people on CNN, which was the big real turning point.
DAVIDSON: And the United States had changed immigration policies just prior to that?
SICK: Well, it was in the year prior to that, that they really tightened the visas….
KAZEMI: Yeah, there was a bill that passed the US Congress, it was called the
“Anti-Terrorism Bill.” So it became a law obviously, and was signed reluctantly by President
Clinton. That lists several countries in that law as terrorist, state-sponsoring terrorist
countries. Iran is one of them. And according to the law they are obligated to be very, very
careful about giving visas to them. And fingerprinting and taking pictures and all that are quite
common. It is a stupid law to say the least and very damaging and people who have been going back
and forth for years, all of a sudden are subjected to these most dramatic restrictions.
DAVIDSON: While the anti-terrorism laws are still most definitely in force, the Clinton
administration is keeping a close watch on the situation in Iran. Assistant Secretary of State
Martin Indyk believes the majority of Iranians are ready for change, as manifested last May with
the election of President Khatemi, who won with 70% of the vote.
MARTIN INDYK: Iranians voted for him and in doing so voted against the regime candidate
and in favor of change for a more civil society, for a society based on rule of law, for greater
economic opportunity, for greater democracy and freedom of speech. And for a less isolated Iran
in the international arena. And that mandate for change is still there. The demand for change is
very much manifesting itself in the streets of Iran. Students there are mobilized. We don’t get a
lot of reporting on this, but there’s a good deal of turmoil going on there at the moment. And
it’s also resulting in a rather strong backlash from the reactionary elements, particularly in
the Revolutionary Guards who are also taking to the streets and beating the students and so on.
Iran now has a very lively press, although not a free press. It’s extraordinary what is being
written there. And the regime itself feels under great pressure to try to respond to this change.
President Khatemi himself has espoused the rule of law as his guiding principle, advocated a
dialogue of civilizations, and through his CNN interview, which you may have seen in January,
tried to reach out to the United States, in what is quite a dramatic turn in Iranian policy since
the Revolution. The Secretary of State will be speaking tonight at the Asia Society in New York
and she will be talking about Iran in what I believe will be a ground breaking speech.
DAVIDSON: In that June 17 speech Secretary of State Albright made the most encouraging
statements about President Khatemi, proclaiming US respect for him and the need to consider how
the two countries can build confidence in each other.
SECRETARY OF STATE MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: If such a process can be initiated and sustained in
a way that addresses the concerns of both sides, then we in the United States can see the
prospect of a very different relationship. As the wall of mistrust comes down we can develop with
the Islamic Republic, when it is ready, a road map leading to normal relations.
DAVIDSON: Secretary Albright continued, however, to be cautious and noted that Iran still
poses many problems for the United States. While Iran’s President Khatemi received an
overwhelming majority in his election, he still faces strong opposition from within the country.
Gary Sick says Khatemi’s policies are challenged at every turn.
SICK: Well, the changes in Iran, you would have to say are, at least are more superficial
thus far. More rhetorical than real in the sense that he has changed the vocabulary of political
life in Iran so that now people speak openly of civil society, rule of law, a whole series of
issues that he has raised because of his campaign. And has made them centerpieces of his
activities. But every single one of his positions is in dispute. And there are people who
although they lost the election have not given up hope of putting their own agenda into effect.
And so I would say right that it’s a situation of struggle. That you have Khatemi and his people
really pushing for a much more open society, much, you know, opening up in the press, opening up
in public things, and exchanges and the like, having dialogues with other people. But inside
Iran, as I say, he’s got, it’s a tough row to hoe. And it’s not, he hasn’t succeeded yet, he’s
simply trying very hard.
KAZEMI: I do agree fully with that statement. I think the struggle that is going on in
Iran is a struggle for the soul of that nation right now. And is very fundamental, very basic,
very existential. And I think Khatemi has the support of a large groups of people who elected him
there. And this includes women, youth, and the middle classes. So the struggle goes on but I am
optimistic that the more progressive side will eventually win. But I’d like to add that the real
change in Iran that began before Khatemi’s election, that is visible and quantifiable, there’s
evidence for it, is in Iranian foreign policy. And it’s very, very obvious in regard to the
Persian Gulf, relations with the Arab states, approaches toward Egypt, even beyond the Gulf
toward Jordan and so forth. And of course with the Europeans and others. So one can see a
definite change for better relations between Iran and its neighbors in the larger world.
SICK: Actually this is a, this is quite an interesting aspect too, because Khatemi came in
talking about these, you know, civil society, rule of law, and so forth, and everybody said,
“Well, he’s going to be a domestic president.” That that’s his agenda, that’s what he’s there for
and that’s why people voted for him. But in reality his accomplishments have all been in foreign
policy. And he has transformed Iranian foreign policy. And much to everybody’s surprise,
including all of the experts.
DAVIDSON: And most recently didn’t Saudi Arabia and Iran sign a cooperative agreement. And
they had not had good relations for a couple of decades.
SICK: It’s been up and down. But certainly since the Revolution the relations, without
going through the whole history of it, were very, very bad. And they had this long-standing fight
about Iran’s participation in the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, which was a very
strong sore point with Iran being a Shia country and Saudi Arabia imposing certain limitations,
quite reasonable limitations, on what they could do while they were there. And the Iranians
wanted to be more revolutionary and got, and there were real problems, including a major riot
when people got, some 400 Iranians got killed. And at one point relations were completely broken
off. And during the Iran-Iraq War, Saudi Arabia clearly sided with Iraq, as did the other Arab
states. And the relations were really terrible. This really began to change dramatically last
year when former President Rafsanjani, he was still President at the time, met with Abdullah, the
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan. And they began to have an interesting conversation and
that led to Saudi Arabia coming to the Islamic Conference that was held in Tehran in December.
And that sort of cemented a new relationship. And then with Khatemi’s strong support, they have
been pushing for more practical relations of all kinds. And the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia
recently did go to Tehran, the first visit of anybody at that level for many, many years. And
they signed a Memo of Understanding on largely functional things: trade and the like. But it was
clearly a marker that things have changed dramatically.
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. And when we return we’ll continue our
conversation with guests Gary Sick and Farhad Kazemi about the changes in Iran.
You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit,
nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and
encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes are available of
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you can order.
DAVIDSON: Just before our break Farhad Kazemi of New York University was talking about the
struggle going on for the soul of Iran. I asked if he could define the main elements of that
KAZEMI: Well, I think the major elements really have been defined and expressed in
Khatemi’s election. And that the discourse in Iran now is again the discourse of civil society,
of the rule of law, of prevention of vigilante behavior against citizens who are behaving within
the limits of law, change of certain laws that had been passed that are antagonistic to basic
interests of certain groups. Certain laws for example are in gender, things of that nature. These
are being discussed extensively, thoroughly, from different sides in the Iranian press. Within
the limitations of Iran the press is remarkably open. And they are available, and all different
point of views are expressed there. Then there are tensions within the clerics themselves. Some
of the clerics, they may not always say it openly, although sometimes they do, are quite
concerned that whatever failure this regime may have had, or will have in the future, will
reflect poorly on the religion of Islam. So they would like to….
DAVIDSON: If the Revolution fails, that…?
KAZEMI: If the Revolution fails or if people are upset with the behavior of the regime,
because the regime is a clerical regime, and so closely identified with religion, some of that
will rub off towards religion, would create certain sentiments about that. So there is, there’s a
lot of discourse going on within the clerical groups and among the lay intellectuals, that there
has to be some way to separate religion and the state. Some way that the failures of the state
would not be counted as failure of the religion, which most Iranians believe in practice.
SICK: And actually during the Revolution itself these issues arose. There were many people
who fought for the Revolution who thought that they were fighting for greater liberty, more
openness for the society, much greater democracy. And they didn’t really think in the beginning
that they were fighting for a religious state, a clerical rule. And that has remained a central
issue right through the Revolution. And when you say, I think absolutely correctly, that this is
a struggle over the soul of the Revolution, it is a struggle for the soul of the country, but
what did the Revolution really mean? What was this Revolution really all about? And there you get
down to the heart of the issue of clerical rule. And Khatemi himself is a cleric. But he is a
cleric of a very different stripe than most of the others who have come in and ruled.
And there has been a kind of separation and state, very slowly, over time, in which you have sort
of state clerics—people who use their religious education to get good jobs in the government and
become government officials if you like—and then other clerics who perform the much more
traditional roles of in the mosques, studying, thinking about philosophy, and dealing with their
own flock, if you like. And those, the difference between those two has been growing over time.
So that even within the religious ranks themselves there is increasingly a split over what kind
of a role you should have. But many senior clerics from the beginning opposed the idea of a
religious state on the grounds that exactly what Farhad talked about, that this will, in effect,
this will come back and haunt us. Because governing a country is not a religious function. And
that if you set it up as a religious state, the failures and the compromises that you will
inevitably have to make are going to come back and haunt you as evidence that religion itself has
failed. And a friend of mine who worked in Iran before the Revolution as an anthropologist, has
gone back recently and went back to the village that she studied. And found that people are not
going to the mosque. They’re not less devout than they used to be, but they see the mosque, they
see the local cleric, as a state representative. And they don’t trust them on that grounds. Even
though they’re much better off; they’ve had all kinds of benefits that have come to this little
village in terms of they now have television sets and they have roads and they have electricity
and they have running water, but their piety is expressed at home. And they tend to keep it in
the family rather than looking to the state for their religion.
KAZEMI: Can I just add to that?
KAZEMI: I think this a very healthy sign in Iran, that this is developing. Because what
you see more and more is discussion of the national interests, the interests of the nation-state
of Iran, as opposed to a very particularized version of Islam. And I think partially the recent
foreign policy successes of Iran in mending fences with the Arabs and etc., etc., has a lot to do
with this notion. That fundamentally you want to preserve the interests of the nation-state and
those are not always coincidental with the interests of religion.
SICK: Or the clerics.
KAZEMI: Or the clerics, yeah.
DAVIDSON: Well, as far as the foreign policy of Iran goes, is Iran interested in pursuing
better relations with the United States?
KAZEMI: I think that’s as clear as daylight. I think that the interview on CNN with
President Khatemi is a remarkably bold and courageous act. In the context of Iran it’s almost
revolutionary. And you know, to speak to the American people, to talk and really to hold up
American values has been….
KAZEMI: …special, exemplary. It’s a remarkable thing. For years and years the Americans
had not heard anything from the Iranian side—high officials I mean, not the people—other than
negative things about the United States. Now there is the President with 70% of the population
behind him, who is extolling the principles and values of this nation-state as being universal
and to which one aspires. So I think this is a remarkable show, a sign for wanting something
DAVIDSON: Was that broadcast shown in Iran also?
SICK: Oh, yes.
DAVIDSON: And how was that received there?
SICK: Oh, very well.
KAZEMI: Remarkably well.
SICK: And that’s the other thing we’re seeing now, is what a lot of us had known for a
long time, and that is that even at the worst days of the Iranian Revolution and the hostage
crisis and all of the crises with the United States, that individual Americans were always very
popular in Iran. And now as tourists are going back there and we’re getting American tourists
traveling around the country, their universal reaction is “I’ve never felt so welcome in a
country in all my life. I’ve never experienced such personal hospitality, such personal interest
and care and liking.” It is really remarkable to see. And I wish that I could say that this has
been reciprocated on the US side. Because, you know, we referred to Iran as a rogue state or an
outlaw state, which was the exact, you know, mirror image of Iran’s calling us the Great Satan.
Well, they’ve pretty much stopped the Great Satan business. In fact Khatemi the other day in a
national meeting, people started shouting, you know, “Death to America,” and he said, “You know,
I don’t like this death stuff. I think we ought to be thinking on a more positive way of which
way we go.”
DAVIDSON: I think perhaps part of the reason the United States. is so slow in moving,
there are clearly domestic political costs in changing the relationship. Is it the same in Iran
SICK: Well, he, that was what made it such a courageous act, is that he does face very
serious internal opposition to this point of view. And it was not popular among the old
establishment. They didn’t like it at all. And if you compare that to sort of the American
Congress, in a sense, where the opposition to Iran is visceral and unyielding and absolutely
unwilling to consider any kind of a change, they’re very much the same. Which means that a
certain amount of courage is required to do this. To step into this fray. There are things that
could be done and there are lots of little places too. I mean, the visa issue is really quite
important, that if, you know, if Iranians are humiliated every time they come into the
country—friends of mine who are academics who really are not political figures, who are
interested in making the kind of academic exchanges that we should welcome—if they have to put
up with this fingerprinting, photographing, six weeks wait for a visa while we determine whether
they really are a terrorist or not, even though they’ve been here three times in the last five
years—you know, this kind of thing—we’re never going to break through. And we’re not going to
develop this kind of culture of exchange that actually might begin to open up the system a little
DAVIDSON: Are the two of you fairly confident that Iran is not sponsoring terrorism?
SICK: This is a very tough question. And you know, my bottom line answer to that would be
no, I’m not sure. They, Iran has a, because of the Revolution, a lot of organizations were set
up, revolutionary organizations, after the Revolution, which developed a life of their own. And
in many cases a foreign policy of their own. And there’s no doubt in my mind that President
Khatemi has been trying very hard to bring those under control, to try to get a handle on what
has been going on in the past. But all of these institutions have revolutionary credentials and
it’s, for anybody to attack them head on is really seriously asking for trouble with the
hard-liners and the people who are looking for any excuse to attack the current administration in
Iran. So the fact that there are still people around who, and including in the Intelligence
Department itself, the administrative intelligence, who are still planning things, that things
were underway, that they had programs going on that have not entirely been stopped, is I think
probably unfortunately true. I would argue, and I think empirically you can show that Iran’s
participation in terrorist or subversive-type activities over the past five years has been
declining very dramatically. They’re just not doing the kinds of things that they used to do
DAVIDSON: Professor Kazemi do you agree?
KAZEMI: I basically agree. The infrastructure for terrorism has been there, still is
there. But the acts of terrorism abroad attributed to Iran have actually declined. But to say
that Iran is not involved, I cannot say that.
DAVIDSON: My guests on Common Ground have been Farhad Kazemi, an Iranian-American
who teaches politics and Middle Eastern studies at New York University, and Gary Sick, who served
on the National Security Council and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the 1979
Revolution and the hostage crisis. He now directs the Gulf 2000 project at Columbia University.
For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security