A new interview series from the American Iranian Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to improving relations between the US and Iran. This interview series covers all topics related to Iran, its culture and its people.
Iran Chat: Interview with Jim Lobe about the Likelihood of War with Iran
After a long break, Iran Chat is back and we felt this year’s series should begin with a deep dive into the current state of US-Iran relations, focusing on the very real and growing possibility of war with Iran.
To help sort through all the recent news and issues concerning US-Iran relations, we spoke with journalist Jim Lobe. He served as chief of the Washington DC bureau of Inter Press Service from 1980 to 1985 and again from 1989 to 2016. Currently he is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs LobeLog, an award-winning web blog focused on foreign policy, featuring posts by expert contributors on a variety of global issues, with an emphasis on US policy towards the Middle East.
Recently, he co-wrote an article for Lobelog entitled War Against Iran Becoming Ever More Likely. We discuss his rationale for this assessment during our conversation.
Regarding the Anti-Iran Advisors Around Trump
There are a fairly significant number of people around the President who seem to not like Iran at all, and while they may not want war with Iran -- they would prefer for the regime to collapse or for there to be a popular insurrection that would displace the regime -- they are of the view that regime change is essential and at the very least the US needs to inflict as much damage as possible on military and paramilitary capabilities of Iran before they leave office.
The prime example is John Bolton who is the National Security Advisor. He seems to have a lot against Iran, seemingly dating from the hostage crisis, which he considers to have humiliated the US… He’s closely associated with the MEK and has spoken before them many times; the last time predicting the imminent end of the Islamic Republic, just before he become National Security Advisor.
Then there’s Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, who may not be quite as hawkish as Bolton, but clearly really hates Iran. When he was a Congressman, he was involved in various stunts designed to embarrass Iran. He was constantly denouncing Iran and vehemently opposed the JCPOA … He is definitely a Christian Zionist, making reference to the rapture in public, and he is very devoted to the idea of a greater Israel of the kind that Likud has historically espoused. There is very little doubt in my mind that he thinks devotion to Israel should be a fundamental principle of US foreign policy.
Then there’s someone like Sheldon Adelson who is the Republican Party’s biggest donor. And who, back about seven years ago, suggested that the US drop a nuclear bomb somewhere in the - as he put it - Iranian desert, coupled with the ultimatum that Iran must give up its entire nuclear infrastructure if it wanted to survive; and, if Iran failed to comply his idea was to drop a nuclear bomb in the middle of Tehran.
President Trump's Attitude Towards War with Iran
Personally, I think that if you presented the idea of war to President Trump, he wouldn’t like it because he takes pride in the fact that there hasn’t been a war despite various pressures. I think he does genuinely want to disentangle the US military from the Middle East. I think that is a genuine, albeit not necessarily consistent, kind of leitmotif of his. And it’s something he could take to the 2020 election. Dennis Ross from the Washington Institute called Trump’s policy “belligerent isolationism,” which I think is a pretty good tag. He doesn’t really like to be involved with foreign affairs politically and he thinks it’s a loser because everyone is trying to take advantage of the US, or of him.
But, the question is: if there is a moment of crisis where Trump feels besieged and like he could be impeached and he could actually be repudiated by the Republican Party and hence his chances of winning reelec
Iran Chat: Interview with Dr. James Miller about Health Diplomacy
Our latest Iran Chat is with Dr. James Miller, Managing Director of the Oxford International Development Group, a health research and project management consulting company in Oxford, Mississippi.
Dr. Miller began working in the area of health diplomacy in 2004 while seeking ways to improve health outcomes and access to medical care for people in the impoverished rural Mississippi Delta region. For this, he turned to Iran’s primary health care model, which is known for its system of health houses staffed by citizen health workers who provide health education and preventative health services to their local communities. Recognized by the World Health Organization for its success in improving medical outcomes for rural communities in Iran, Dr. James Miller began working with the architects of this system to develop and adapt the Iranian model in ways that could address the health disparity challenges in the impoverished Delta regions.
Our conversation with Dr. Miller involves an examination of this interesting project to bring Iran's health care model to the rural Mississippi Delta region; it also covers a range of related topical issues– including the ways that humanitarian programs can improve dialogue and understanding between the US and Iran, and a broader discussion of health care, which continues to be a hot button issue in the US.
Some highlights from our conversation:
The Background of Iran’s Preventative Health Care System:
“In 1978 all WHO members unanimously agreed in the Alma-Ata Declaration – a seminal document in public and global health initiatives that access to basic health services was a fundamental human right. The declaration also highlighted the importance of primary care and many countries, including Iran, revised their health care system around the primary health care focus… After Alma-Ata, key health care experts in Iran including the late Dr. Shadpour, who was one of the original architects of the primary health care model in Iran, determined the most effective way forward for Iran was through the implementation of a comprehensive and integrated primary health care system with the health house serving as the main service entry point, and the results speak for themselves…. The infant mortality rate in Iran fell over 70%, with similar results in maternal mortality. Health care access in rural areas compared to those in urban areas all but eliminated health disparities, and infectious diseases were all but eliminated in rural areas."
Why Mississippi Looked to Iran for Help:
"The rural counties in the Delta are some of the most impoverished in the US and the living conditions in those counties have health indicators and economic conditions similar to those in developing countries. It’s shocking. Overall Mississippi is the poorest state in the US and today it has 22% of its population living below the poverty line. Subsets of that [are faring even worse]: the African American poverty rate is over 34%, Native Americans over 28% and Latinos at 27.5%. Mississippi is also the unhealthiest state, and it ranks last in national surveys by respected foundations and institutions… [Furthermore] there has been no change, no discernible improvement with time. Health problems twenty years ago are still the same as we have now. Of special concern… and this is what got us so interested in the Iranian model: infant mortality rates in a number of Delta counties are similar to that of Algeria, Libya, and Vietnam…"
"[Therefore we looked to see if] there were some places around the world that might be similar in lack of resources, using a cost effective and adaptable model that we could deploy in those counties throughout the Delta region, and deal especially with the issue that there are few doctors available to serve this particular segment of the populatio
Iran Chat: Interview with Celebrity Chef Ariana Bundy
Our latest Iran Chat is with Iranian-American celebrity chef Ariana Bundy. Ariana is the award-winning author of two cookbooks, Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes and Sweet Alternative: More than 100 recipes without gluten, dairy and soy. She is also the writer, director and star of the 8-part television series Ariana's Persian Kitchen, which airs on NatGeo People. Ariana's work has been featured in a variety of magazines like Food & Travel, Harper's Bazaar and Food & Wine Magazine; she has also appeared on television programs like BBC's Good Food Live, Euronews and Top Billing. For more information about Ariana Bundy or to get some delicious recipe ideas, you can visit her website arianabundy.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Some excerpts from our conversation are below:
Why She Chose to Focus on Persian Cuisine
"As I was working hotels and coming across different cuisines, I met a lot of people who said ‘Oh my God, my food, Turkish cuisine, is so amazing... and Thai people would say 'my food, Thai food, is so amazing.' And everyone would know about Thai food and Turkish food, but nobody knew anything about Persian food and it kind of ticked me off! I thought, wait a minute, we have an incredible cuisine with a really rich history. Why is it that, because of our political situation, people aren’t trying out our cuisine? And I realized also that I was a professional chef who didn’t really know how to cook proper Persian food. I knew what it was supposed to taste like and smell like, but I didn’t know how to go about doing it. So that’s when I decided I needed to share it... with my coworkers, other chefs, other people I came across, myself (I wanted to learn more about it); and ultimately I wanted people of my generation who were kind of detached from their cuisine to know about it."
About Persian Cuisine
"People are surprised because they imagine it to be spicy; more like Indian food… maybe Turkish food or like Arabic food. I would always say that it’s delicately spiced. It’s well-balanced. It uses ingredients you can commonly find anywhere. It’s the way the ingredients are put together that makes it super special. Common things like oranges and chicken come together beautifully with carrots to create something spectacular like Shirin Polo. Pomegranates and walnuts come together to create something magical."
What She's Learned From Her Audience
"What I've learned is that it’s all about emotions and memories. And not necessarily about the food. It’s about something they can tap into and either take them back in their own memory or be proud of when showing to their foreign friends. Or talk amongst themselves about a trip they had to Iran and how they would like to go back again. It’s all about feelings and emotions and how that food and that culture makes them feel."
Misconceptions about Iran
"People just don’t get to see the real Iran; there are very few shows out there on Iran. I think most foreigners when they visit are surprised at how lovely and normal everything is. People go to school, people cook, people party, people love playing cards, people go to the park, people have picnics; and they are just super hospitable.. You can ski, and you can go hiking and you can go to a fancy restaurant... all these things you get in any European city you can pretty much get in Iran, and more!"
Persian Cooking Tips
"For blooming your saffron don’t use hot water, just pound the saffron in your pestle and mortar and add an ice cube to it and let it melt. I learned that in Mashhad while filming my show on saffron and the guy taught me that that way you keep the color really bright and you keep the fragrance. You should also add saffron at the end of your cooking time so if you’re cooking a stew and you h
Iran Chat: Interview with Ultra-Runner Kristina Paltén of "Alone Through Iran - 1144 Miles of Trust"
Our latest Iran Chat is with Swedish ultra-runner, coach and motivator, Kristina Paltén, who holds the World Record in 48 hour treadmill running, covering a distance of 322.93 kilometers. She is also the first woman to have run across Iran, and the star of a film that covers that journey called Alone Through Iran - 1144 Miles of Trust.
We spoke with Paltén about her experience running across Iran, from Turkey to Turkmenistan, and how that experience, and now her film, are helping to challenge prejudices and misconceptions about the country and its people.
Some highlights from our conversation:
"Running ultra marathons means running distances that are longer than a normal marathon. An ultra marathon could be 43 km to 1000 km [or beyond].... I love to run for a long time; not fast, but longer and longer distances. I did my first ultra when I was 36 years old, and it’s just become longer and longer. I would say it is a travel inside yourself... you learn about your own demons and fears, and you need to handle them."
"Running across a country has so many dimensions. It's a marvelous way to discover a country, to discover its people and also to discover myself.... When I’m running in a street, being vulnerable, people meet me; I’m not coming up in a car. They can just say hello to me and stop me.. It is a very nice way of meeting people to become close to them."
Why Run Across Iran?
"The idea came [as a result of] me and my friend Karina running from Turkey to Finland. We passed through Romania and we realized we had prejudices against Romania, and it turned out that none of them were true. And that’s when I started questioning what is my view of the world and what if I’m just thinking things that aren’t true?
In Sweden and Europe there are xenophobic parties growing and I saw a lot of fear of strangers, and I thought... 'I don't want the world to be ruled by fear. I want it to be ruled by more positive things like trust.' The purpose [of my run] was to contribute to a better world."
What Concerns Did You Have?
"When I arrived, I wrote down all my fears and it was 22; I also graded them from 0 to 100. At the beginning the worst ones were at 80 and then every week I followed up my fears to see how they changed and it was really interesting because the fears I had at the beginning... as soon as I came to Iran they dropped to almost zero. Already the first day there were so many people being kind to me, so that fear changed quickly. But then another fear rose, and that was the fear of being hit by a car! And there was another fear that was increasing, and that was a fear of being never left alone. And I kind of liked that fear because everyone was so friendly all the time, and that’s a very nice situation. But in Sweden we tell jokes that people from the north of Sweden (and I'm from the north of Sweden) need a lot of space on their own. So sometimes I could have used more space!"
How Can Misconceptions about Iran be Remedied?
"Since I came home, I read a lot of Social Psychology and [learned] that you tend to believe a person from your own group, but not people from another group. So I’m a bit skeptical.. I think I could spread this message in the Western world because I’m a Westerner and you listen to someone who is similar to yourself. I think it's more difficult for someone else to spread the message.
But I think what's most powerful is to make people meet.. I mean, when people meet each other we realize that the other person is just another "me." Everyone has his own fears or sorrows or dreams.. and I mean, psychologically, biologically, physiologically... we are the same. There is no difference. So... make people meet!"
Photo Courtesy of Soroush Morshedian
Iran Chat: Interview with David Collier, Author of "Democracy and the Nature of American Influence in Iran, 1941-1979"
Our latest Iran Chat is with Dr. David Collier, author of the new book, Democracy and the Nature of American Influence in Iran: 1941-1979. Dr. Collier is also a research consultant in Washington DC and teaches democracy and democratization in Boston University's Washington DC program.
The first half of our conversation focuses on Dr. Collier's usage of linkage and leverage to analyze and better understand the history of the period; the second half addresses how his analysis of the history applies to current issues in US-Iran relations and US foreign policy more generally. Dr. Collier's book is being published this month; you can purchase a copy on Amazon or Syracuse University Press.
Some excerpts from our conversation are below:
Using Linkage and Leverage to Understand American Influence in Iran
"Linkage and leverage [first introduced in a book by Levitsky and Way] have often been used to try to understand external pressure in the processes of democratization... I think it's an interesting model to try to examine how the US can influence other countries in an effective way."
"Linkage looks more at the soft power aspect of how the US can influence other countries based on linkages to the administration or a society in general. These links can include economic links, social links, political links – the whole spectrum of relationships between one country and another. Leverage looks more at the hard power aspect of what the US can do in a more active way to promote change in a different country. For example, whether it can offer rewards (e.g., acceptance into international organizations) or punishment (e.g., sanctions, international condemnation) for the behavior of an administration."
Whether Increased US Linkage or Leverage Could Have Prevented the Revolution
"I think the beginning of the decline of US leverage in Iran, which began after the enactment of the Shah's White Revolution [and which accelerated under Nixon]... I think if the US had maintained its position that without political reform the Shah would eventually succumb to eventual revolution - and if they had been able to work to push the Shah towards political reform rather than economic and social reform (which was the Shah's focus) - that could have led to a more peaceful evolution of the Iranian system. Maybe it would look more like the British system today where you have a monarch that reins but doesn’t rule. If the US had been able to apply constant pressure in the 60’s and 70’s, something like that could have occurred.“
US Foreign Policy's Focus on Short-Term Goals
"I think the nature of the American political system is that it gives itself to short term thinking and not much to self reflection. Administrations in the US are always working towards the next election; are always focused on the short term, "what can we do in the next 4 or 8 years," and there isn’t much of an ability to create a long term plan to look at things in more of a historical perspective. So you do get lots of repetition. If you wanted to change the system you would have to maybe think about term limits for presidents allowing them to focus on longer terms or [install an advisory body] with a view to history and the goal of focusing the minds of the administration to not repeating the mistakes of the past."
"America First": Is it More Honest Foreign Policy?
"I think it is. One of the main problems that faced American-Iranian relations was the lack of interest in the Iranian society in general, the Iranian opposition, and what the Iranian people wanted. So it wouldn’t be helpful to go back to a situation where the US was able to control Iran. I think it would be better if the US had less of a proactive role in trying to control states and did focus more on America first and gave more respect to countries to develo
Iran Chat: Interview about President Trump's Immigration Ban with Harvard Law Lecturer, Ian Samuel
Less than one week after President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, our latest Iran Chat is with Ian Samuel, Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School. Ian previously served in the United States Department of Justice in the Office of the Solicitor General and on the appellate staff of the Civil Division. Following his government service, Ian joined the appellate litigation practice at the law firm Jones Day.
Our conversation covers the legal issues surrounding President Trump's executive order as well as Ian’s offer to personally provide legal services to any government employee who refuses to help implement this ban. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @isamuel, and subscribe to his podcast about the Supreme Court at firstmondays.fm/subscribe.
Some highlights from our conversation:
On Why this Ban Is Illegal
"Since 1965, US immigration law has prohibited discrimination on the basis of national origin in the issuance of visas. It is quite explicit in the law - you cannot discriminate in the issuance of visas by national origin.
Secondly, this ban is a lightly disguised attempt to discriminate on the basis of religion against Muslims. This is made unusually clear by the fact that both the President himself and his closest advisers have more or less said as much. US law understandably does not permit that kind of discrimination on the basis of religion. That is a constitutional requirement, quite apart from any statute, and sits above the President’s ability to do whatever he wants.
These are not slam dunks… but in my opinion at least they are both strong arguments."
On Why the Ban is Unjust
"The thing that resonates with me is a matter of simple moral justice. The people who are being affected by this are human beings who are our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our friends; they’re us. And I am deeply ashamed of the stain that this is putting on our national character. The US government has not always been virtuous and has not always been wicked. There are moments of profound moral good and profound moral evil in our history. And I feel like I’m living through one of those moments that people are going to look back on with deep shame in 30 or 50 years."
On His Offer to Provide Legal Assistance to Government Employees Who Refuse to Implement the Ban
No government program is self-executing. The White House can order something, but that order, to be effective, requires thousands upon thousands of people across the government - nearly all of whom are career civil servants who are not political appointees - to go along with it... And the order is also illegal, so that places it in a special status because civil servants generally don’t have any obligation to go along with illegal orders.
What I’m advocating is not just legal but is actually in support of the law. The purpose of this is not to encourage anybody to engage in law-breaking, but actually to tell people that what this order asks people to do is break the law."
On US Citizens Being Affected by the Ban
"The border is a tricky place because it is a place where there’s a lot of discretion that's traditionally been allowed to the government. Citizens are in an advantaged position because they cannot be denied entry to the US, but that doesn’t meant that they aren’t going to be potentially subject to detention, criminal charges, or harassment.. so this is something that is going to affect potentially anybody, and I don’t blame anybody for feeling nervous about it because these are things that really happen to people. Just because someone is a citizen doesn’t mean they don’t have skin in the game."
On How Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Might Have Ruled
"I wouldn’t presume to say how he would come out on the result, but I know what his met