Middle East

'Iranians Love the West': An Interview With Omid Memarian

Omid Memarian. (Photo courtesy of Am Johal)

Omid Memarian is the World Peace Fellow at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been honored by Human Rights Watch for his work, which "embodies the new breed of human rights defenders who are pushing the boundaries of freedom of expression in Iran by working on the Internet."

Memarian worked as a journalist for reformist newspapers until the Iranian government cracked down on the press and shuttered most of the independent papers. Refusing to admit defeat, Memarian shifted to the Internet, pioneering a new medium of human rights reporting. His Web log is dedicated to social, cultural, and civil society issues in Iran.

As a result of his public defense of human rights, Memarian was arrested with more than 20 other bloggers in October 2004. He was detained in solitary confinement, tortured repeatedly, and forced to make false confessions. Following protests from the international community, including Human Rights Watch, Memarian was released in December 2004. Just a few days after his release, he publicly spoke about what happened for him and the others in detention. This shocked society and forced the judiciary to establish a committee to find the truth.

Memarian has worked with Human Rights Watch to expose arbitrary detentions, torture, and mistreatment of prisoners in Iran at great personal risk. Since 2005, when he moved to the United States, he has written extensively about Iranian issues in the American media. He has had op-ed pieces published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. Currently, he is an Inter Press Service news agency correspondent at the United Nations, and he blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. He spoke with Am Johal at the United Nations in New York.


Can you talk the context in which you won the Golden Pen Award and the events that led you being detained in Iran?

I belong to the young generation of journalists in Iran who strongly believe that they can change the society by their efforts through the media, civil society organizations, and also political activities. Since I started working, I've taken my job very seriously in a way it became a part of me, far more than a profession, a part of my identity and dreams. After a few years of working, I received Iran's National Press Festival's Golden Pen for my analysis in political issues. I think it was basically because of the connection to the ordinary people and a believable nature of my writings.

Many young journalists in Iran are so successful and active in the public sphere, in the political sphere. They follow up the issues to the end. At the same time, being a writer and intellectual is a kind of threat. The government label them with different kinds of charges on a regular basis, which makes life hard for many of them. The government perceives these areas of society—civil society, N.G.O.'S, free media—as foreign interests trying to influence the society. They are always fearful of these people and skeptical of their function. They think that these bodies in society are being manipulated by the West.

Many journalists have been imprisoned or put in to a month of solitary confinement. They are interrogated for months and years, even if it's clear there is no basis to the government accusations. But the fact is that they just [want] a better society and many of them have never traveled outside. I think the government use this excuse to suppress them and shut them up, forcing them not to talk about their demands. That's why many of us believe that the foreign pressure on the Iranian government is a gift for hard-liners in Tehran.

What was the context in which you were detained?

I was active in civil society organization and editor-in-chief of a magazine focusing on civil society and democracy related issues. At the same time, I was active in civil society as part of a resource center I was a board member of. Concepts like democracy, civil society, free journalism, the Iranian regime perceived these concepts as a threat. They think the U.S. is trying to collapse the Islamic regime by supporting networks of intellectuals, writers, and bloggers, doing whatever they can do to defeat the Islamic Republic.

There is a belief in Iran among hard-liners and conservatives that the U.S. had chosen the way of velvet revolution style in places like Ukraine, Georgia, and Lebanon—Iran believed that the U.S. and foreign countries were trying to bring scholars and activists to change Islamic culture, push the government back. In this regard, I should confess that the United States has a very dark record of interference and supporting dictators and brutal rulers, and their support of democracy to a large extent is not reliable. Not only among Iranian government, but also many democrats and civil society activists are skeptical about the nature of U.S. supports.

They perceive these acts like this. They don't think civil society actors, or that free journalism, brings a transparent society, or that they play a legitimate role in making the problems more functional. They bring out the cynicism in the country. This fear and simplistic presentation of the issues by both Iran and the U.S. work against each other in international affairs. It also gives a black and white picture of the Islamic regime.

It's an excuse to put more pressure on people that they should not push too hard. I had no idea at the time that I would end up in jail. I am a moderate and have never criticized the foundations of the Islamic Republic. I do not believe in revolution and/or any sort of collapse. It's impossible and unnecessary. But the Iranian people need to have a better life. In many of my pieces I've criticized the way officials make decisions and govern the society. About social issues and democracy related issues. The government cannot take these issues. Simply because they think "democracy" is an American product to deceive and exploit the other country. So taking about democracy and civil society becomes a matter of security related issues and people who are active in promoting those issues an easy target.

Prominent Iranian journalists and thinkers think that the West misperceives Iran as an authoritarian dictatorship. They argue that it is more like Max Weber's idea of "sultanism"there are aspects of authoritarianism and some areas that are more the features of some democracy. What is an accurate picture of the regime and how it functions?

Iran has a bit of everything—some democracy, some sultanism, some authoritarianism. For instance, a part of the judiciary did many illegal things with me and my friends, but other parts in the same judiciary were trying to find the truth when I was imprisoned, and was helpful. So there is not a white and black image. Is it confusing? Yes, it is. It is even confusing for people like [me] who have been living there for a long time.

A part of judiciary send journalists and many others without any real charges to the detention and abuse them; on the other hand, there are many others that try to save their lives. But the fact is this government in government system has harmed the whole country. Sometimes you don't understand who is ruling the society. At the time of my detention, my mother sent a letter to President Mohammad Khatami and asked for the place they were keeping her son. He said, "I'm sorry, I don't know where your son is." Even the president didn't know where a detained journalist was being held and it was devastating for my parents. Imagine people who are not famous or don't know anybody to bring their cases to the media, how [they] would have a miserable time.

At the same time, unlike many countries in the Middle East, Iran enjoys a very vibrant civil society, educated people, and an expanded middle class, which makes it a very different country than the most of its neighbors, particularly Arab countries around the Persian Gulf, which suffer from centuries of undevelopment in different levels. You see even the money of oil which has been poured to these continents has not been a reason to develop these countries in terms of political culture and civil society. Simply because, you cannot buy these kind of things by spending money. It's incomparable to the rest of the Middle East. It's unbelievable. Iran is totally different than many countries in the Middle East. For instance, you hear that [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad has said many inflammatory things about Israel and the Jewish people, but the Jewish community does have a member of parliament in Iran and they can criticize the president over his remarks.

Iranians on the other hand, again unlike many countries in the Middle East, love the West and particularly the human products of it like education, philosophy, and social science. When Jürgen Habermas came to Iran, he was received like a rock star—so there is a big appetite to talk about democracy in Iran. So, they are pushing the boundaries in a very constant struggle. They are using Internet as a means to develop their activities and these kind of things should be seen in the West.

The United States is blind when it comes to society's dynamics. That's why they have made unbelievable mistakes in the Middle East. When you talk to them, you see how naïve they think about the Middle East. They should understand that marginalizing Iran just harm the Iranian people and has nothing to do with the government. If they attack Iran, everybody will rally behind the flag. America is better to clean the mess they have done in Iran and respect the other countries' sovereignty. I hope with the end of Bush era, the cowboy diplomacy replace with a more reasonable policy….

What is your view of Ahmadinejad?

He's a charming speaker for poor people, lower middle class laborers. He has no idea of international politics, though. He's a local politician. He has not done much in the last few years for Iran and his policies have harmed the people in the country as a whole, especially on the international front. His perspective about economy is a tragedy. He has been polarizing and aggressive especially related to Israel; at the time many Iranians do not think that these issues are the top ten priorities for the country. Like people in the United States and Canada, that people [Iranians] vote … regarding their financial situation not foreign policy. Still, for many people it is not clear that, how and why Ahmadinejad brought up the issue of Israel and Holocaust. These are not things that Iranians are sensitive about. Iran needs to be a part of the global economy and respect the international [community].

The price of oil has risen to over $130 [a barrel] but the inflation rate is one of the highest in the world. He hasn't been able to keep his economic promises and people feel so tired. They can't take this hyperinflation that is absolutely a matter of mismanagement. His remarks on many international issues do not reflect the dominant domestic discourse. With the current oil revenue, Iran could experience one of its best eras of economic growth, but instead it is suffering from different political and economical issues.

When you were originally trying to go to the United States, you were told you were on a no-fly list and sent back to Iran. What is your assessment of American foreign policy as an Iranian-born journalist?

The truth is that there is no assessment. You cannot imagine how the number of people who work on Iran in the [Bush] administration are few and how their knowledge is poor. The administration is occupied with second hand information by pundits that many of them have never been to Iran or have a childhood background [in Iran] and truly have never lived in Iran under the ruling of ayatollahs. The war on terror is very vague and it means nothing. It is just like a weird word to scare people rather than doing something about security.

When I was told that my name is on the no-fly list at the Frankfurt airport I could not believe that. Because normally people whose names are similar to famous names and also the clothing's that are not very regular make them suspicious. Even the police in Germany could not believe that. They constantly apologized me and said that something might happen wrong. It was wrong. I think in 2004, the homeland security was not equipped with Google search yet. I agree that terrorism in its all forms threaten the world, more than ever. But the way the United States deal with it seems insufficient. I hope they find the way to secure their borders and America without imposing its costs on the other people, because of the correct and error dominance in many circles.

However, I should mention that there are many people who want to help and support in different sections but they don't know exactly what they can do…. I hope that the Iraq and Afghanistan experience make the administrations experienced about dealing with issues that I mentioned.

How is it possible to untangle the polarized and complicated Middle East from the abyss? There is heightened rhetoric coming from all sides with little room to backtrack.

Both the Iranian regime needs reform and the U.S. foreign policy. With such a young population under the age of 30 in Iran, the reform movement will only grow in the coming years. As well, the U.S. foreign policy needs to be more balanced and complicated if they are going to meet their strategic ends. They need to understand the power of civil society and also forget to go after collapse of the Islamic Republic. If any change is going to happen, this is the [Iranian] people who should go after it and they are actually going after it. Israel as well needs to be more balanced in its policies towards Iran.

If the U.S. and Iran come to a sort of compromise, then I think many other issues in the Middle East will be solved or at least will be under [control]. Iran as a constructive party is much more in the U.S. interest than an aggressive Iran. The history should learn Americans that Iranians are not aggressive by nature. But they do not let the foreigner do whatever they want with them. I think a comprehensive negotiation and compromise is in favor of both countries.