Changing Iran: Q&A with Ervand Abrahamian

by Jasmin Ramsey

Republican rejection of the Iranian nuclear deal dominated news headlines long before Congress received the 159-page document. Former presidential candidate John McCain—who derided President Obama’s willingness to engage Iran directly without preconditions during the 2008 election—was among the first to vocalize his disapproval.

“Ultimately,” McCain wrote in his dissenting opinion, “the problem with this agreement is that it is built far too much on hope—on the belief that somehow the Iranian government will fundamentally change in the next several years…”

McCain’s insistence that Iran must change before any deal can be concluded goes to the heart of the opposition’s argument. Whether it’s Benjamin Netanyahu, defiant Republicans, or hesitant Democrats, critics of the accord essentially argue that the US shouldn’t change its policies on Iran until the Iranian government changes.

This has been standard American policy toward the Islamic Republic for more than three decades. The Obama administration has altered it, but that doesn’t mean the White House wouldn’t like to see a pliant leader back in Tehran. Yet gone are the days, at least for now, when US officials worked hard to convince allies to adopt “crippling sanctions” on Iran to “tighten the noose.” In fact, instead of rallying congressional support to impose more sanctions, the administration is now urging Congress to lift them.

Regime change in Iran has long been an American dream, but it was never part of any negotiations to which Iran was a party. The resulting nuclear deal “was designed to address the nuclear issue alone, not to reform Iran’s regime,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs during a grueling July 28 hearing. Support for the sanctions regime among the United States and its allies “certainly wasn’t based on a desire for regime change,” said President Obama during an Aug. 5 speech on the deal.

Although key Obama administration officials appear to have come to terms with the fact that Iran will only change on its own terms, the rest of the government still appears to believe that Iran can be forced to change. So, can it?

I unpacked that question with Professor Ervand Abrahamian, a leading historian on modern Iran based at City University in New York.


Professor Ervand Abrahamian. Credit: Emma Nolan-Abrahamian.

Jasmin Ramsey: I’d like to look at the nuclear deal in the context of Iran’s history, particularly its history with the US and the West, and in the context of its 1979 revolution. Thirty-six years later, has the revolution achieved its goals? If so, is it now modifying those goals?

Ervand Abrahamian: Like most revolutions, after a generation, things are less revolutionary. That doesn’t mean necessarily a betrayal of the revolution. It’s simply because a lot of the goals of the revolution have succeeded.

The main goal of the Iranian revolution was to achieve independence from Western powers. Even though Iran was not a typical colonial state, it was a semi-colonial one in that traditionally it had been under British and then US influence. All of this changed in 1979. The revolution was seen in Iran as basically throwing off the yolk of American power. Another success it has achieved, which is often overlooked, is a massive transformation of social change in the country including an expansion of social services, education, electricity, and the bringing of social benefits to the countryside.

So you could say that once the revolution achieved its two main goals—national independence and social reform—it’s sort of catching its breath and trying to normalize its relations with the outside world. Of course, there were some unnecessary extremists activities that made Iran’s relations with foreign countries more complicated, such as the hostage crisis, and the Iran-Iraq war—which wasn’t due to Iran, but to Iraq with Western support of Saddam Hussein—that didn’t help Iran’s relations with the West. But that issue is gone and I think the hostage crisis has become sort of a distant memory.

The present leaders are much less revolutionary and much more pragmatic. They’re thinking more in terms of how the state should behave in the region. This sort of political pragmatism isn’t recent. It’s now more related to relations with the United States, but in terms of regional politics, Iranian foreign policy has been quite pragmatic in the last 25 years.

Ramsey: When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president, American officials avoided being caught in the same room with him. But a US-Iran presidential phone call—the highest-level direct contact in three decades—occurred one month after Hassan Rouhani became Iran’s president in 2013. Can we expect to see more substantial changes in US-Iran relations in the near future?

Abrahamian: Before I answer the question, I want to give you some brief background. This sort of reaching out and trying to normalize relations didn’t begin with Rouhani. Even when [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani was president he tried to attract American investments and improve relations. And then [former president Mohammad] Khatami reached out to the United States with the “Grand Bargain” in 2003 and the US wasn’t interested—what Iran got in return was a slap in the face by being called part of the “Axis of Evil” by the Bush administration.

So, in Iran, long before Rouhani, there was the desire for normalization of relations with the US, and now that it has received positive feedback from the American side, I think there’s a little overreach about how this improvement is going to play out. We will see normalization, but not friendly relations. I don’t see an embassy opening up or a close open alliance in Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East.

Even when the two do work together, such as in Iraq on parallel lines, they’re not going to openly admit it. There’s going to be independent, parallel activities that help each other, but neither side is going to say they’re actually cooperating. Not because Iran doesn’t want it, but because of the inhibitions on the American side. The US has alliances and friendship with Israel, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates and that complicates the freedom of the United States in pursuing any friendship with Iran. So I think what you’ll get is less polemics, and obviously less danger of confrontation, but not anything like a close alliance between the two.


Secretary of State John Kerry meets Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Jun. 30 in Vienna.

Ramsey: Shortly before the deal was announced, Rafsanjani told the Guardian newspaper that he wasn’t against the US embassy reopening in Tehran. “If the US behaves in a humane way,” he said, quoting the leader of the Iranian revolution, “we will have no problem with it.” Do you think this deal would have received Ayatollah Khomeini’s endorsement?

Abrahamian: Well, Khomeini was also very pragmatic, or you could say opportunist. He also backed the Iran-Contra deal, so I don’t see this as a question of principle. If he felt that it was in the interest of the Islamic Republic, yes, he would have endorsed the deal very much so.

Ramsey: In his article, “The beginning of the end of Death to America,” Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran university professor who has been a vocal critic of Iranian foreign policy, sees the deal as a “turning point” that will be followed by Iranian reconciliation with the Western world. Americans remain, however, baffled by the fact that Iranians still regularly chant this slogan, even if that number is dwindling. That fact is regularly cited as a reason why the US should never reconcile with Iran. Can we expect to see a modification of this slogan in the near future?

Abrahamian: As a political slogan chanted by people marching in the streets, the government could once draw hundreds of thousands of people calling for “death to America,” but those days are past. Yet the notion that most Iranians are in love with the United States and would embrace it—I would be very suspicious of that. There is a very engrained national suspicion of the United States and the West and this goes back over 100 years, so it’s not going to be eliminated by the nuclear deal.

Iranians might like US culture, clothing, or even McDonalds, but that doesn’t mean they trust American governments or Western governments. Anti-imperialism is very much a part of Iranian public thinking. And public opinion polls taken in Iran show that although the majority of people support the negotiations and want better relations, the majority of the people still distrust the US government. So you have to separate that out.

Ramsey: Let’s talk a little about the present. How do you think the centrists and reformists will perform in February’s parliamentary elections now that we have a deal?

Abrahamian: This is going to be a great boon for the reformers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they get a good majority. It will be again like the Khatami period, they will dominate the Majles [Iranian parliament] and then the problems will be between the majority reformists in the Majles and the conservatives in the judiciary and the Guardian Council [powerful 12-member council whose duties include interpreting the constitution and vetting election candidates].

Ramsey: Assuming that’s the outcome, can ordinary Iranians expect to see civil reforms, such as increased freedom of the press and less of the Islamic Republic’s hand in their personal lives?

Abrahamian: Yes, I think we can expect that. There already has been some relaxation since Rouhani took the presidency. In the universities the public atmosphere is somewhat better than under Ahmadinejad. I think that will continue, but it won’t be a grand opening, because on certain issues where the judiciary is involved there will basically be a backlash. But in terms of having more critical newspapers and more open elections, I think in those areas reformers will succeed.

Opening in Iran doesn’t mean multi-party, free elections. It means permitting reformists within the Islamic Republic to have more of a chance of running candidates. In some past elections the Guardian Council, which can vet candidates, eliminated almost any well-known reformist from running. I think in the next election there will be more pressure to allow reformers to compete. So the composition of the Majles would change. These will not be people who want to overthrow the Islamic Republic; they are people who feel the Islamic Republic could become more secure if it’s more open.

I also wouldn’t be surprised if Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi [reformist presidential candidates from the contested 2009 election who have been under house arrest since 2011] get informally released.

Ramsey: After the deal was announced, the already high popularity of Iran’s chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, soared. During street celebrations in Tehran people were comparing him to the well-known Iranian leaders Mohammad Mossadegh and Amir Kabir. Does he deserve these historical comparisons?

Abrahamian: It’s too early to tell, but in terms of his actions, he has put Iran back on the world stage in a favorable light in contrast to Ahmadinejad. That helps his image a great deal. But he’s still just a foreign minister and is very dependent on Rouhani.

Ramsey: He seems more popular than Rouhani.

Abrahamian: There is that, too. His core supporters aren’t necessarily Western-educated but are sort of Western-styled educated and they’re not clerics, they’re intelligentsia who are more progressive than they would let on. They see Zarif as someone from their ranks. I think Zarif is more complicated because his links are with the establishment, but they see him as a western-educated, savvy, patriotic, pragmatist. In that way, he sounds more like Mossadegh. He doesn’t quote the Koran when he is making an argument; he talks more about national interests.

Ramsey: More than half of Iran’s population is under the age of 35. These young people, mostly part of Iran’s growing middle class, weren’t alive before the revolution and didn’t experience the hardships of the Iran-Iraq war the way their elders did. They are, however, constantly reminded through state TV and visual displays on the streets. Do young Iranians value this history as much as their parents do?


A mural from the Iran-Iraq war in Tehran. Credit: babeltravel/Flickr

Abrahamian: The war, the revolution, is part of Iranian history. This applies even to those who were not yet alive. The younger generation might not react the same way their parents do, but these events are still part of popular culture; the revolution and the war have had a deep impact. In England people still talk about World War II. Very few actually lived it, but the war against the Nazis is still part of the popular culture.

Ramsey: But Iranian young people see the world very differently than their elders. They want Iran to open up and desire more freedom in their personal lives. How is the government addressing this?

Abrahamian: The government is in a way savvy about it. You referred to the murals in the streets of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq. Now those murals are being replaced by modern art. So I think the authorities realized that the culture of martyrdom, of death and war, is not really appropriate now. Now they want color, they want some happiness; things to cheer people up. This is not due to a change of generations; it’s due to a change of decades, and the government seems in tune with that.

Now, you still have the diehards that want to keep alive the old martyrdom mood, and this is why the conservatives may get more isolated. They’re going to obviously alienate more and more people. But this isn’t because of a generational divide, the national mood is just different now.

Ramsey: You concluded one of your books, A Modern History of Iran, by noting that Iran’s position in the region would be determined by how the nuclear issue is resolved. That was seven years ago, when the idea of the US and Iranian presidents speaking to each other by phone, or high-level Western officials meeting directly with their Iranian counterparts in their capitals, seemed impossible. Now that the nuclear conflict is on its way to a peaceful conclusion, can we expect to see chapters dedicated to this event in future books or are we simply witnessing business as usual in the world of international politics?

Abrahamian: When I finished the book, Ahmadinejad was still in power and there was still a danger of confrontation with the US, so I didn’t want to make any predictions because with war, anything can happen. But once you take war off the table, I think what you’re seeing in Iran—it sounds like a cliché—is a thermidor in the revolution, where things become more normalized. That doesn’t mean a return to the pre-revolutionary era, but there’s much more stability and routine institutionalized rule. That’s what we’ve seen in other revolutions and that’s what we’re seeing in Iran. I think this is a continuation of what happened under Rafsanjani and Khatami; it’s the same process.

Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greets a rally in commemoration of Iranian revolution’s 35th anniversary in Tehran on Feb. 11, 2014. Credit: ISNA/Hamid Forootan

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. Abrahamian is more intimately connected and concerned (I imagine) with Iran than I am, so I hope his optimism has a firm foundation in reality.

    Me? I wouldn’t trust the USA in this deal.

    I fear for Iran no matter whether US Congress says yes or no to the deal.
    The Republican circus is united in one thing: they want to harm Iran. What Democratic candidate is different? None of them.

    USA is not a free country; it needs a cleansing revolution, a divorce from zionism.
    Then and only then will USA be free to have a respectful, trustworthy relationship with Iran.

  2. Changes in Iran’s relation with the West very much depends on western behaviour towards Iran. Iran is not going to accept a second rate or subservient position in relation with the West. Even when the Iranian Government accepted a second rate partnership with the US, before the Revolution, Iranian people were not happy about it and that was one of the factors preparing the background for the active participation of Iranian people in the Islamic Revolution.
    US relation with Israel and US friendly Arab countries would not affect Iran’s relation with the US so much, as long as Iran’s position in the hierarchy of importance of countries in the area is observed and honoured.
    Western relation with Iran would indirectly but profoundly affect the socio-political atmosphere inside Iran. A relaxed, amiable and reassuring relation with the West would result a more relaxed and amiable treatment of the people by the Islamic Government.
    Thus,the responsibility for Iranian relation with the West and the socio-political atmosphere inside Iran rests heavily on the shoulders of Western countries.

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