Iranians Would Unite Against War, Says Writer

International pressure is building on Iran. On Wednesday, Iranian leaders claimed they made strides in their nuclear program and threatened to stop supplying oil to six European countries. Host Michel Martin hears what people inside the country think about the tensions. She speaks with writer Hooman Majd and human rights activist Sussan Tahmasebi.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, as part of Black History Month, we have been exploring new memoirs by African-Americans. Today, we'll hear from journalist Mark Whitaker. He's now a top executive at CNN, but you might not know that he also has a remarkable family story. His parents were interracially married at a time when that was not common in the U.S. They were both brilliant scholars, but each was marked in his or her own way by personal demons and the weight of history. He will tell you more in just a few minutes.

But first, we turn to Iran, where much international attention has been focused in recent weeks. This week in particular, concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions has been rising. That nation's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed significant advances in enriching uranium, which the U.S. and its allies believe is part of an effort to develop nuclear weapons. Israel is reportedly considering military strikes. Also yesterday, Iran threatened to cut off oil shipments to Europe because several of those nations have backed sanctions advocated by the Obama administration.

And now many Americans say sanctions may not be enough. A new survey by the Pew Research Center found that a majority, 58 percent of Americans, say it's important to stop Iran's nuclear program, even if it means military action. We decided we wanted to get a glimpse of what people inside Iran think about the growing tensions and other issues affecting their country.

So today, we bring you two perspectives. Joining us now is Hooman Majd. He is the author of "The Ayatollah's Democracy." That's a book about Iran's 2009 presidential elections, and he recently returned from a nine-month trip to Iran. Our other guest is a prominent human rights activist, Sussan Tahmasebi. She was arrested a few years ago for organizing a women's rights protest. Human Rights Watch has also recognized her for her commitment to promoting civil society and women's rights, and she now lives in the Washington, DC area, and she was kind enough to join us in our studios here. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

HOOMAN MAJD: Thank you.

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Hooman, I'll start with you, just because you recently returned from Iran, where - you were there for most of last year. And I wanted to ask you what people in the country were saying to you about kind of the current state of Iran's relations with the international community. Is that something that's very much on people's minds?

MAJD: Yes, it is. I mean, people are generally unhappy with the state of relations between Iran and the West, mainly because it affects them economically, but also because it just raises the tensions and the potential for military conflict, particularly. So, no, Iranians by and large are not happy with the state of affairs, and I think that the government probably recognizes that and, you know, certainly elements in the government recognize that. But there is a, you know, a very tense atmosphere now in Iran, and I'd say in the last few weeks that I haven't been there, it's gotten even more tense and even more troubling for people.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about how people are being affected by sanctions, if indeed they are? I just wanted to know if you could sort of give some concrete examples that we might see...

MAJD: Well, people are...

MARTIN: ...if we were to travel there?

MAJD: Well, I mean, unemployment, let's say, and inflation. Unemployment is affected, because a lot of companies simply cannot do business the way they used to in the past. And so they lay off workers, and people have a hard time finding jobs. You know, a family that is being supported by one caregiver is affected greatly when he or she is laid off work. There was already gross mismanagement and incompetence in the administration of President Ahmadinejad. There was always a mismanagement of the economy.

This has exacerbated the problem for many people, and they're directly affected. Inflation affects them directly because, as Iran cannot do trade with the rest of the world, the currency has been devalued significantly, and therefore people's purchasing power has become weakened.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

MAJD: So people are affected on a - everybody is affected on a daily basis, and they're certainly blaming the sanctions, to a large degree, for that.

MARTIN: Sussan, let's hear from you on those questions here, just your sense of the mood there. I know you're not living there at present, but you are in touch with many people there.

TAHMASEBI: Well, I think that, like Hooman said, that there's a great dissatisfaction and uncertainty about what's going on and what's going to happen. I think that there's a great sense of uncertainty about what's going to happen in Iran with respect to the political developments, especially the political developments following the 2009 elections. But the prospect of war and the sanctions have exasperated those uncertainties and those fears and...

MARTIN: But what's your sense of how people feel about sanctions? You know, for example - and obviously, it's a different story, but in South Africa, you know, the country was heavily affected by sanctions, but many of the activists there wanted them because they thought that was the only way to bring pressure on the regime. And I just wanted to ask: What is your sense of how people there - particularly on the human rights side - view this?

TAHMASEBI: I think that you'll definitely find people who agree with sanctions or who even agree with war, but I would like to say that I think that they're a very small minority. And the majority of people inside Iran - and certainly the activists that I'm in touch with - don't agree with sanctions. They think that the weight of the sanctions falls heavily on the people, that it's the people that have to burden - to suffer the burdens of sanctions.

It's economic sanctions. It's unemployment. It's the pressures that ordinary families feel. And they feel that if this is - the sanctions are intended to impact the behavior of decision-makers, that they're going to be the least affected by sanctions. And I asked some of my friends how they're feeling about sanctions and how that's impacting them, and they say that the impact of sanctions has really, first and foremost, has impacted the sick. Medicine can't be found. And even when I was in Iran in 2010, I could see that this was taking effect, and that medicines couldn't be found. But cancer patients, for example, who don't have a good prognosis, are deciding not to go through with medical care because it's too expensive and difficult to find.

And also, people are hording a lot of products because they're afraid that tomorrow, it's going to be more expensive because the price of products are being determined by the price of the dollar, which has increased. It's doubled in the last couple months.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about how people living inside Iran view the current difficulties in state of play. With us are human rights activist Sussan Tahmasebi. She is here with us in Washington, DC. Also with us, Iranian author Hooman Majd, who came just back from spending most of the year in Iran. Hooman, you interviewed a number of leaders in Iran recently, and in a recent foreign affairs article, you wrote about one of the discussions with the former President Khatami, who I believe is your cousin.

MAJD: Yeah, not related by blood, but by marriage.

MARTIN: But by marriage. He told you that - a couple of things. Despite ideological conflicts, that Iranians would unite behind the government if there were an attack, and that you also said that revolution isn't coming to Iran, in part because there's no leadership to unify Iranians around an opposition movement. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

MAJD: Well, yes, I think it's pretty clear that, certainly, the opposition leaders - some of whom are in jail and some of whom are under house arrest - would unify if there was a military attack. On the other hand, there's - you've got this opposition who is now very embattled, whatever opposition is left in Iran, and is under siege, almost, and - at a time when there's this heavy, heavy burden of economic sanctions on people.

It's very difficult to get people to focus on anything else but their livelihoods. It's very difficult to get people to rise up or to protest or to have a Persian Spring, if you want to call it that. People are far too concerned with everything that things that Sussan just mentioned - for example, medicine. I have a friend who was a cancer patient herself, and her chemo treatments tripled in price in less than a month. So - you have these factors right now, and people are very concerned about those factors and are less concerned about the nature of the government, about human rights, about civil rights and so on and so forth.

MARTIN: And Sussan, we just wanted to ask just your sense of how the human rights community is functioning these days.

TAHMASEBI: Well, I think that Iran - the human rights community and civil society in general is facing great, great repression, more so than being focused on doing its work. It's focused on responding to attacks. It's focused on responding to and defending its members who are in prison. And so it's not functioning in an ideal sense, by any means.

I want to point to one point, and I think this is, you know, this is being echoed by the Iranian human rights community, whether inside Iran, outside of Iran, is that when it comes to the issue of war and sanctions, that the majority of the human rights community are opposed to both sanctions and to war because it's a catastrophe. It would entail a catastrophe for Iran and also, I think, for the U.S. and anybody else who engages in war with Iran.

But they are offering an alternative take on this. I think, traditionally, what we've seen is people who advocate sanctions or war, they use the human rights abuses and Iran's human rights record as an excuse for attacking Iran or for overthrowing the regime, whereas human rights activists are saying that – no, this should not be used as an excuse for attacking Iran or for imposing sanctions because they impact the population more significantly.

But that people who oppose war tend to ignore the human rights abuses that are going on inside Iran. And human rights activists are saying that there is an alternative perspective, is that while we can say that we're opposed to sanctions, we're opposed to war, we can also hold the Iranian government accountable for its human rights abuses and violations of human rights, that recognizing that there are violations of human rights does not justify greater sanctions or war.

MARTIN: Hooman, before we let you go, I did want to ask about parliamentary elections, which are coming up. And I just wanted to ask - what do you foresee here? Do you foresee a lot of participation? What do you foresee? Can you just tell us before we let you go?

MAJD: I think the government - the regime is pretty good at getting the vote out, either through coercion or through its own supporters and its network and government employees who feel they have to go and show up to vote and have their ID cards stamped and so on and so forth.

So I think it'll be - it's unlikely that the turnout will be very low. I think the turnout will be probably lower than it normally is. I think there's no question that reformists and people who want change are not going to participate because the choices they're given in these elections aren't necessarily choices they're happy with.

It's conservatives against conservatives with a handful, a smattering of reformists thrown in. So I think it's going to be - it's an election that people aren't paying that much attention to inside Iran, actually. We're making a big deal out of it because it's the first election since 2009, but I think that the - you know, it's not - at the end of the day, parliamentary elections are like midterm elections here for us that, you know – yes, there's a lot of attention paid in the media, but people actually don't care that much and the turnout tends to be much, much lower than for a presidential election.

MARTIN: Hooman Majd is the author of "The Ayatollah's Democracy." He recently returned from a lengthy trip to Iran and he joined us from our NPR studios in New York.

Sussan Tahmasebi is a human rights activist. She was arrested and charged for organizing women's rights protests and she now lives in the Washington, D.C. area and was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MAJD: Thank you for having us.

TAHMASEBI: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Of course, the current situation in Iran is a complicated one. NPR has been covering the story at length with multiple perspectives. For more of our coverage, please go to NPR.org.

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