An Iranian view

In an interview with 'The Post,' Iranian-American Roya Hakakian discusses societal trends in Iran and Israel.

Roya Hakakian 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Roya Hakakian 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-American public intellectual who recently visited Israel, was born and raised in Iran and has a great deal to say about her birthplace.
Hakakian – a Persian Jew who frequently writes about the Islamic Republic in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post – says she was in Israel out of “a desire to renew my bonds with the place, family and friends.”
According to her personal website, she “immigrated unwillingly with her family to the United States in May 1985 on political asylum.”
Her 2004 memoir about her teenage years in post-shah Iran, Journey from the Land of No, has garnered widespread media and literary accolades, and she received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. Her book Assassins of the Turquoise Palace was released in 2011 and is an account of the Iranian regime’s assassination of Kurdish-Iranian dissidents in Berlin’s Mykonos restaurant (Mykonos).
In early December, she spoke at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies conference in Washington on “the evolution of the Iranian threat,” where she advocated a human rights and civil society democracy strategy to confront Iran’s clerical regime. She was also a co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
What sparked your interest in the Mykonos killings?
The fact that such a consequential event was so unknown was a major incentive. I am, by nature, drawn to the obscure and the neglected. It appealed to my every sensibility: As a writer, I found the tale to be as captivating as any great piece of fiction. As an Iranian exile, I was fascinated by the refreshing exception that this story was in the landscape of Iran’s 32-year rule. As a Jew, I was moved by the fact that the trial and the investigation that ensued as a result of these killings which occurred in Berlin in 1992 were all influenced by the awareness and apprehension that the German justice officials had of the Nazi atrocities.
The EU issued new sanctions targeting Iran’s bank and oil sectors at their January 23 meeting in Brussels. What should the EU be doing to help Iran’s pro-democracy activists and stop the country’s rulers from obtaining nuclear weapons?
The EU should start with a serious soul-searching.
If the regime in Tehran has lasted as long as it has, it’s in part due to the EU’s inconsistent policies toward Iran and its blatant disregard for the lives and the safety of the pro-democracy activists it now purports to wish to protect. For years, the EU knew that Iran was hounding and assassinating Iranian exiles and opposition leaders on its soil, but turned a blind eye to those crimes until terrorism turned the oblivious EU into a target. One can’t help wondering how different the political landscape would have been had dozens of Iranian exiled elite not been assassinated, especially between 1980 and 1997.
But the soul-searching should not end there. The fact that the US and the EU are so solely focused on the nuclear issue is profoundly damaging to the democratic movement in Iran. Not only does it divert the world’s attention from their plight inside the country, but it also creates a very uncertain ground for the movement to stand on. They can’t possibly rely on the support of the EU or US if that support can suddenly be withdrawn by those allies in the unlikely case that Iran contends with the Western nuclear demands. The West needs to declare its support and its presence beside the Iranian democratic movement regardless of the nukes. [US] President [Barack] Obama’s first Iranian New Year message to Iran in March 2009 [in which he called for a “new beginning” in diplomatic relations and stressed respect and political engagement] was an outrage, and it was not until days after millions of protesters had taken to the streets that June that the White House finally condemned the crackdown on the protesters.
Can Iran’s pro-democracy movement topple the regime? What more can the US and other like-minded democracies do to help Iran’s struggling democrats?
The movement needs to do its own soulsearching and rebooting as well. I believe that the movement needs to make a clear break from certain principles that have infiltrated the Iranian socio-political awareness since the 1979 revolution.
These are the demons the movement needs to exorcise in order to succeed.
What is your assessment of Iran’s Jewish community?
To my great dismay, the Jewish community is on the verge of extinction, though there’s still a purported population of nearly 20,000 there. Even if the number is accurate, the mere presence and the persistence of the population – mostly those who for personal, physical or financial reasons have chosen not to leave – ought not to be thought of as the mark of a vibrant community. Iran’s Jews have, since the golden decades of the ’60s and the ’70s, once again retreated into the shadows.
Iran was hardly a melting pot under the Pahlavi regime; nonetheless there was far greater interaction between Jews and Muslims back then. The community and its institutions were far more visible than they are today.
What more can the Iranian diaspora do to change the situation in Iran?
“More,” as you put it, implies that the diaspora has done something significant.
But it – we – alas, have not. There are those who are focusing on the mechanics of what they perceive to be an imminent toppling of Tehran. But what I consider the real work has yet to begin. We have yet to exercise together the democratic interchange we envision for Iran. We’re deeply disarrayed.
Have the US and the EU abandoned Israel regarding the existential threat Iran’s regime poses to the Jewish state’s security?
Abandoned, no. But thrown up their hands in diplomatic helplessness, probably yes. Israel is increasingly casting itself in the image of its own mortal enemies.
Its leadership lacks vision and does not stand on the great principles that the previous generation of Israeli leaders, i.e., Rabin and the like, stood. Jewish extremists are employing the very tactics that anti-Semites have employed to drive out the Jews. As a child growing up in Iran, my father suffered the blows of ignorant or fanatical bystanders who thought he, an “unclean” Jew, ought not to attend public school. Today, a Jewish eight-year-old girl is spat on in Beit Shemesh.
I lived in Iran when the buses were segregated and women were stripped of their various rights. Iran’s decline began with the decline of the society’s egalitarian values. Israel is following its No. 1 enemy’s example today. Israel is becoming its enemy, which makes the perceptive observer doubt the validity of its cries of Iranian foul play.
Isn’t it unfair to compare Iran’s authoritarian society with Israel’s democracy?
No tyranny identifies itself as a dictatorship. Even North Korea’s official title is Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Iran’s regime is not an exception. It is important to remember that tyrannies are not born overnight. The transition to such rule is often gradual and insidious.
When in Paris in 1978 and prior to taking over power, Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini sounded like an egalitarian leader who believed in civil liberties, freedom of expression and gender equality.
It was only after rising to power that he implemented laws that over time eroded and undermined the rights of women or press or academia. No democracy is absolute. But Israel’s relative democracy is being eroded and undermined by... extreme religious forces [similar to those] that undermined Iran’s great hope of a democracy in 1979.
Should military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities be a real option from the West and Israel?
For Israel, the long-term consequences of such an attack will be gravely costly.
With so many wars in the past two decades, Israel cannot afford to also begin preemptive ones. For the West, really the US, the attack is something that is only metaphorically on the proverbial table. But war is not something that Americans can afford nowadays – a fact that many experts and politicians have made clear. Therefore, as a threat, it echoes as an empty one.
The writer is The Jerusalem Post’s European correspondent and a fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.