Iranian Expats: Iranian State 'Not A Monolith'

The United States, along with five other world powers, has signed an agreement with Iran over its controversial nuclear program. What do Iranian expatriates in America think of the deal, which would temporarily ease western sanctions? Host Michel Martin speaks to human rights activist Sussan Tahmasebi and writer Roya Hakakian.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the winter holidays are upon us. And it is a rare occurrence, but Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlap this year. We'll hear some tips on how to fuse those traditional menus for families who are celebrating both, or who just want to try something new. So that's ahead.

But first, we want to dig into something that the Obama administration, and many who follow events in Iran, are now celebrating, and that's what's being called an historic deal on Iran's nuclear program. Here is a clip of President Obama announcing the agreement. Now, this was Sunday morning after a round of intense negotiations between Iran and six major powers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure, a future in which we can verify that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon. While today's announcement is just a first step, it achieves a great deal. For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back.

MARTIN: Now the U.S. and other countries will temporarily ease some economic sanctions in exchange for that freeze on Iran's nuclear program. And this is meant as the first step to even more comprehensive talks in the next few months. Now to this point, we've been hearing from a lot of players in the U.S. government, but we found ourselves wondering what Iranian-Americans or Iranian expatriates, particularly those with deep and continuing ties to Iran, are thinking about the agreement. So we have called upon writer Roya Hakakian, and human rights activist Sussan Tahmasebi, to see what they think. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ROYA HAKAKIAN: Thank you.

SUSSAN TAHMASEBI: Thank you.

MARTIN: Sussan, we last spoke with you in February of 2012. And at the time, you were expressing your concern about how crippling these sanctions have been. On the one hand, you've been very critical of the human rights violations being perpetuated by the regime. And so part of the trade-off here is if you ease the pressure, will there still be the incentive to change? On the other hand, you've been very worried about the way that people are suffering. So how do you see things now?

TAHMASEBI: I'm actually happy about this agreement. I am glad that Iran is now joining the international world community and is being seen as a real player. And I think that this actually sets up the stage to expect Iran to have a better human rights record as well.

MARTIN: Really, how come?

TAHMASEBI: First of all, I want to point to the sanctions because you mentioned this, and I think it's really important. I think that, you know, all the people that I'm in touch with in Iran, both my friends and family, but a lot of activists, we're very critical of the sanctions and the increased isolation of Iran, that they didn't feel - that they thought that these sanctions actually put a lot of pressure on ordinary citizens and especially vulnerable groups like women or refugees or people who were ill and sick.

And, you know, so they were extremely critical of this. But they also thought the sanctions and Iran's isolation put undue pressure on Iran's civil society that coupled with repressive policies of the state, that these two measures together had worked to really destabilize civil society and make civil society inactive, especially in the last four years.

MARTIN: So, Roya, what about you? What do you think of the agreement?

HAKAKIAN: In general, I think the fact that there is movement is hugely positive, that engagement is always better than isolation. But in and of itself, I think the fact that there's going to be a halt for six months or so is meaningless because we always have to, in my view, keep broader perspective and long-term perspective of what the problems were to begin with and why we ended up here when it comes to Iran because oftentimes, our history of engagement with Iran seems to be reset according to the last crisis. And that's, I think, where we consistently go wrong. It's important to remember what happened in 1979, what happened in 1997 when President Kahtami came to power, what happened in 2009 when the elections were stolen from the people and why we come to these huge moments and why we had the sanctions in the first place.

MARTIN: Well, so what do you think would make...

HAKAKIAN: So...

MARTIN: I mean, I take it you think that this really doesn't change the dynamics within the country, right? Is that what you're telling me?

HAKAKIAN: I am saying let's basically keep the perspective on the flaws that led us to this point to begin with. There are, as far as the human rights community is concerned, the reasons that drove the people to the streets of Tehran or throughout the country to various cities at various points throughout the past 34 years are still in place.

We have a repressive regime that clamps down on free speech, that has taken away the rights that Iranian women used to have 34 years ago, that has basically created several groups of underclass within the Iranian society - gender-wise, religious minority-wise, ethnic-wise. And all of these problems existed before these sanctions came into the room. And all of these problems are still in place. So the question is, is it great that people will have a little less pressure upon them in the next six months? Yes. But is this an ultimate fix - should be overjoyed that freedom, liberty - that the problem of Iran is going to go away? Of course not.

MARTIN: I don't think anybody's saying that.

HAKAKIAN: But we are making more of a big deal out of this than it really is. In the clip that you just played, President Obama is merely articulating his hopes, not the reality.

MARTIN: OK.

HAKAKIAN: When he says that we have made a major breakthrough with Iran over this, it has yet to be exactly a breakthrough, no? We are witnessing something that has the potential or we hope to become a breakthrough, but yet isn't. And I think what's also important is to remember that we have been at crossroads similar to this with Iran. It has slipped away consistently at least a couple of times in the past 32 years.

MARTIN: OK. Sussan, what do you think?

TAHMASEBI: I think it's a turning point, and I think it's a turning point depending on what we do with it. When I say we, I mean as Iranian people more so than the international community. It's important to think about the Iranian state not as a monolith. There are different groups vying for power. They're fighting for power, and they have been. And what we saw in the 2009 elections, and what we saw beforehand with Khatami was playing out of this struggle for power.

And so it's an important deal as far as Iran is concerned because not only is it a negotiation on its nuclear issues, but it's also entering into a relationship or trying to establish a relationship for the first time in 35 years with the U.S. government. This has also been a contentious point in Iran, people sort of disagreeing with this policy, but also fighting over who would get to do this. So I think that it puts this government, which is a moderate government, it puts it in a position of power.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with two Iranian-Americans who maintain ties to Iran and follow events there closely. We're talking about the recently announced deal to ease economic sanctions in exchange for Iran suspending its nuclear program. One is a writer. One is a human rights activist. You know, this leads me to kind of to ask each of you - Roya, maybe you'll start here - what is it at this point that defines your relationship with Iran?

HAKAKIAN: It's the breaking down of the gender apartheid. I think this is the failure of us in the West - and I bundle us all up - expatriates or just watchers of the issues of the Middle East - not to see the ongoing struggle in the Middle East, Iran included, as a struggle of women for freedom. You know, we keep getting bogged down with the nuclear debate and with the Islamic democracy debate and with the issue of what is my identity and are you respecting me as the West in the way that I need to be respected as the Middle East and etc. etc. I think these are all to derail the main issue here, which is at the heart of this sentiment for a push forward, is a face-off between women in the Middle East with those who hold power, and that happens to be men.

MARTIN: Interesting.

HAKAKIAN: So this is the latest frontier, as far as I'm concerned, in the history of feminism in the world. And...

MARTIN: Interesting. Let me hear Sussan answer, too, 'cause we're almost out of time. And then I want to give each of you time for a final thought. So, Sussan, what about you?

TAHMASEBI: When you have a civil society inside, that's where the real change happens. And so this deal will give civil society a space to start thinking more long-term and to start planning and to start pushing for the changes. And those changes may be negotiating with the government, or they may be talking to people, educating the people. It's not just pressuring the government from outside. So it's a critical component.

MARTIN: So final thought from each of you. What is the next step? Can you identify some kind of marker or touchstone that we can be looking at to kind of evaluate whether this is really the beginning of a new era or not? Roya, can you help us?

HAKAKIAN: The important thing would be to look at whether or not the lifting of the economic pressure really does improve the lives of the Iranian people in ways that make a difference beyond the short-term. The important thing is to remember the human rights issues, gender issues, women's rights issues, religious minorities and Iran's misbehavior within the region. All the ways in which Iran was creating problems before the sanctions are important to keep in mind.

MARTIN: OK.

HAKAKIAN: And it's important to also use this moment to truly bring Iran to the fold of creating better conduct and becoming a better partner if such a thing is possible.

MARTIN: Sussan?

TAHMASEBI: You know, I look at this as just the beginning of where our work starts. So I think it's important looking at it - the results of this agreement would, you know - I would assess it in terms of how it impacts the Iranian population, if it eases their economic pressure, if it eases their isolation. This is really key, but then, what steps Rouhani's government is actually going to take. What concrete steps he's going to take to improve human rights and women's rights.

He's made commitments, at least minimally, to promote women's participation and to lift pressures off of civil society, to end the security perspective of the state towards its population. So those are things that I'm going to look at because everybody's waiting, you know, for this deal to be solved, and then they can start negotiating their space and pushing for their demands inside of Iran. So that, for me, is a determining factor if things actually improve in a very concrete way.

MARTIN: Sussan Tahmasebi is a human rights activist. She was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Roya Hakakian is the author of "Assassins of the Turquoise Palace." She joined us from Connecticut Public Radio in New Haven, Connecticut. Thank you both so much for speaking with us. And happy holidays to you both.

TAHMASEBI: Thank you.

HAKAKIAN: Thank you.

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