Rethinking Iran: Perceptions On U.S.-Iran Relations
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Today, we pioneer a new segment we call On the Couch. Now, the idea is to put guests of different backgrounds together to talk to each other - discovering, reacting, maybe sparking some unexpected ideas. Today, we have a group of guests from different backgrounds who share an overwhelming experience, though, and that's the Iranian revolution of 30 years ago that brought Muslim clerics to power in Iran.
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Former President JIMMY CARTER (United States of America): It's vital to the United States, and to every other nation, that the lives of diplomatic personnel and other citizens abroad be protected, and that we refuse to permit the use of terrorism, and the seizure and the holding of hostages, to impose political demands.
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Former President RONALD REAGAN (United States of America): Some 30 minutes ago, the planes bearing our prisoners left Iranian air space, and they are now free of Iran.
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President BARAK OBAMA (United States of America): As I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fists, they will find an extended hand from us.
SIMON: I think these are all very identifiable voices. The Obama administration may now engage in direct diplomacy with Iran, a country that ushered in the world's first modern theocracy 30 years ago, a country that has a controversial nuclear program. Iran is also a country with a 2,500-year-old history and much political ferment. Young Iranians are exercising more liberties and getting impatient for change. Iran's influence seems to be growing in sections of Afghanistan and Iraq, even as the ruling mullahs contend with rising expectations at home. Neighboring states in the region are impressed but uneasy. What has this society become? What's it going to mean for America? So, let's have you meet the four guests who are joining us today.
Kevin Hermening was a Marine guard at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. He was the youngest of the 52 Americans who were held hostage there 30 years ago. He is a certified financial planner now in central Wisconsin, and also acts in summer theater. He joins us now from the studios of WHRM in Wausau, Wisconsin. Mr. Hermening, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. KEVIN HERMENING (Former Marine Guard at the U.S. Eembassy in Tehran): Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: And Rudi Bakhtiar, member of a well-known Iranian family, was a young teen at the time of the revolution before coming to the United States. She became a broadcaster, very well-known CNN anchor, and is now director of public relations for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a lobbying group. Thank you so much for being with us.
Ms. RUDI BAKHTIAR (Director, Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author or editor of a number of books and articles, including "The Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Military Action Against Iran." Thank you for being with us.
Mr. PATRICK CLAWSON (Deputy Director, Research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy): Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund. That's a nonprofit foundation that supports nuclear disarmament. He teaches at the Georgetown University Graduate School of Foreign Service, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you very much.
Mr. JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (President, Ploughshares Fund): My pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: Let me begin, if I could, with you, Kevin Hermening. Thirty years ago, as a young reporter, I was in the living room of Barbara Timm, a great lady in suburban Milwaukee who is your mother. And you were just released from the U.S. Embassy.
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Ms. BARBARA TIMM (Mother of Kevin Hermening): A call came in at 1:24. We hung up at 3:10. There's very little I'm going to tell you about our phone call because it was very private and very beautiful. The first thing he'd like to say to everybody in Milwaukee is, hello, Milwaukee.
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SIMON: But Kevin, if I can call you Kevin...
Mr. HERMENING: Indeed.
SIMON: Before you were ever taken a hostage, you got to know Iran at least a little bit. What are your feelings for that place today?
Mr. HERMENING: Actually, they're pretty similar to the three months prior to the day that we were captured. I arrived in Tehran in August of 1979. It was, of course, post-revolution. We did spend some time outside the embassy compound, traveled throughout the community, to the bazaars, thoroughly enjoyed my time there getting to know the culture, a little bit of the personality and the people, grasped a little bit of the history, gradually and over time. And frankly, during the time we were in captivity, I recognized then as I do now that it was a very small but vocal and activist part of the population - I've always estimated somewhere between 3 and 8 percent - maybe some of the other guests might have a different angle on that, but only about 3 to 8 percent of the population really supported and endorsed the action of the most militant group of people, largely college students who were engaged in the actual taking of the embassy and the day-to-day holding of hostages.
SIMON: Rudi Bakhtiar, you were a kid at the time of the revolution. Help us understand what that revolution - what did overthrowing the Shah of Iran mean to people of all different beliefs in Iran?
Ms. BAKHTIAR: Being a child there and especially, watching them take over the embassy, it was just horrific, and my own family was very involved in the government. My father's uncle was the last prime minister right before the revolution. Several family members were jailed, some were killed, execution-style, in jail. But it was trying times, and to see a country like Iran, and what it symbolized in the middle of the Middle East at that time, fall into the hands of mullahs and all of a sudden, take this extremist role that it had never, ever in its thousands of years of history - you know, Iran was home of Cyrus the great. It's known that he wrote the first declaration of the human rights. You know, home of the great poet Rumi.
Mr. CLAWSON: Can I ask you a question of Rudi and Kevin?
SIMON: Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mr. CLAWSON: I'm interested in your interactions with ordinary Americans. How much do you think the memories of the embassy takeover continue to wrankle people? Sometimes, those of us in the strategic circles or - we hear statements about how America's policy towards Iran is still shaped by this searing event. And here in Washington, we get over things faster than that. Indeed, we can remember that in near five years after the embassy hostage affair, the United States was selling arms to Iran and the Iran-Contra Affair.
SIMON: Yeah, sending birthday cakes to the Ayatollah Khomeini in the plane.
Ms. BAKHTIAR: Well, it's interesting that you ask that because, you know, I was a journalist before I became the PR person for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans. And I got to travel over America, and I noticed that people didn't remember the hostage crisis in, let's say, Mississippi or Detroit or even Los Angeles, unless they knew a friend who had a friend who was Iranian. Much more, though - what really shocked me, and what made me want to work for an organization like this, was the fact that everybody knew who Ahmadinejad was. This president was known by everybody everywhere I went, and they did not like him. And that became to me an issue that our image, our Iranian-American image was being basically shaped by him because we were not doing anything to put forth who we are and our contributions. Ebay was created by an Iranian-American. NASA picked an Iranian-American man, Dr. Firouz Naderi, to sit at the helm of the Mars mission. We architected and they had successful landings, and we saw those beautiful pictures, opportunity and spirit. And you ask Firouz Naderi, and he says, I love this country. I've lived most of my life in this country. And our love for this country and the contributions that we make to this country - we have not been really advertising.
SIMON: We're joined in the studio by a number of special guests to talk about the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution and the future of U.S. and Iranian relations. Kevin Hermening in Wausau, Wisconsin, Joseph Cirincione and Patrick Clawson in our studios, along with Rudi Bakhtiar. Thanks all for being with us. And we would welcome your thoughts. Go to npr.org to share your concern or ideas.
We want to play a piece of tape now from an interview we did with Azar Nafisi. She, of course, was born in Iran and is the best-selling author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and her most recent memoir ,"Things I've Been Silent About."
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Ms. AZAR NAFISI (Author, "Reading Lolita in Tehran"): I think that negotiations between Iran and the United States should be made public. People of both countries have a right to know how their fates are being decided, you know, and what is being given and what is being taken. I have said it before. When we have a president named Barack Hussein Obama, just - he hasn't done anything about that, but the fact is that this is a sign of changing times because millions of Husseins will now think, we don't have to be considered as terrorists. We can be considered even as presidents. But also, he's a Hussein who is Christian, so it shows that the world is changing, that identity politics doesn't work. We can have Husseins and Alis who can be Christians or Jews, and you can have Jeffreys and Hillarys who can be, perhaps, Muslim. And I think we can use this to open relations without compromising our principles.
SIMON: Let me open this up to our group of distinguished guests. Joe Cirincione?
Mr. CIRINCIONE: Well, I think she makes an excellent point there, and I think President Obama understands this and is already starting to implement a good part of what she says. He was the first president to use the word Muslim in his inaugural address, making a point to reach out to the Muslim world, extend the hand of friendship. No criticism for that. He also, then, a few days later, gave his first interview after being sworn in as president to a Middle East station, Al Arabia. Again, no criticism for that. So he is already bridging the gap, and just in case anybody missed his signal, he specifically said that his reference about the hand of friendship was to Iran. I think, in part, he's trying to not just appeal to the Iranian leadership, but to reach over their heads to appeal directly to the Iranian public, to start a little Obama movement inside Iran.
Mr. CLAWSON: Obama's name, as transliterated into Persian, is U-bama(ph), which is the colloquial expression, he's with us. And that play is picked up a lot by the youth in Iran.
Ms. BAKHTIAR: Very much so, very much.
Mr. CLAWSON: And that exacerbates a real problem that the U.S. government has with the Iran supreme leader, who's the guy who really calls the shot in Iran, not the president. The difficulty that we have is the supreme leader worries much more about Hollywood than Washington. He worries about culture invasion, not military invasion. This is a guy who is firmly persuaded that the attractiveness of the West is what could undermine his revolution. And so, he's worried about the kind of people-to-people contact,and the kind of rock star appeal, that an U-bama may have to his people. So we have to figure out how to take advantage of that, and it's frankly going to be really tough for our diplomats because it's precisely the popularity of American cultural and the popularity of our president which is going to be a seen as such a big threat by Iran's supreme leader.
SIMON: Patrick Clawson, by the way, is deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Kevin Hermening in Wisconsin.
Mr. HERMENING: Well, first thing I would say is that I think one of the challenges of the Bush administration was the idea of using military force. Of course, a lot of the conservatives were in support of that, and it would have unified the Iranian people behind their unpopular government because it's one thing that I learned while I was there, and certainly in my study and reading since then and relationships with Iranian-Americans, is that like Americans, they are extremely nationalistic. It's not a criticism, it's just an awareness factor, and you know, you've got the challenge right now of - is it regime change that we want, or is it a behavioral change of the current regime that we would really like to change? And that is the challenge that our government has failed up to this point to articulate - not just to the American people but even to the Iranian people. Forget the leaders of Iran but the Iranian people who really, as all of us, I think - most of us feel is our real audience.
Mr. CIRINCIONE: I'd say to President Obama that Iran is probably the most difficult diplomatic issue we face right now. It has to be handled with care, and it has to be handled urgently, but that doesn't mean we should engage directly with Iran's leaders right now. I would caution the new president, I would encourage him to wait a bit to see how the domestic situation sorts out in the presidential elections in June, but to begin with quiet talks behind the scenes between U.S. diplomats. I believe that the only way we're going to stop Iran's nuclear program is by convincing Iran to stop it. There is no way to pressure Iran into ending that program, and certainly not bombing the program. That would probably accelerate their efforts, not defeat them.
SIMON: Joseph Cirincione, Kevin Hermening, Patrick Clawson and Rudi Bakhtiar, thanks so much for joining us On The Couch. You can see video memos from some of our guests offering this new administration advice and how to deal with Iran at npr.org.
SIMON: You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News.
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