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Sadegh Zibakalam: I Will Not Trample on the American Flag
by Shima Shahrabi
It has been more than a week since Donald Trump won the US presidential election, and many observers in the US and around the world are still in shock. Iran is no exception. Some believe Trump’s presidency bodes well for Iran, while others are worried. There is a great deal of anxious speculation about the fate of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the 2015 nuclear agreement is officially known.
To get a better sense of how Trump’s election is being discussed in Iran, IranWire spoke to Sadegh Zibakalam, an author, political analyst, and professor of political science at the University of Tehran.
It has been about a week since Donald Trump won the election. Do you think his presidency will benefit Iran?
I have said before that the time will come when we will pick up a flashlight and search for people like Barack Obama and John Kerry in the White House. Of course, this “we” does not include the anti-American movement. The more hardline people are in the White House, the happier the anti-American movement in Iran is because they want there to be no hope for easing tensions between Tehran and Washington.
The moment American hardliners start taking hard positions against the Islamic Republic, Iranian hardliners take heart and attack the government, the intellectuals, and the reformists by saying: “Didn’t we tell you that the Americans cannot be trusted? Didn’t we tell you that the Americans are against our system? It was wishful thinking when you wanted to get closer to them and ease tensions.”
They welcome the radical and extremist positions by Mr. Trump and his senior officials because those positions boost the anti-American movement. This movement enthusiastically welcomed George W. Bush’s famous remark about Iran being part of the “Axis of Evil.” They used it as a bludgeon to bash President Khatami on the head, telling him, “You talk about the ‘dialogue of civilizations.’ You are holding an olive branch and you say, ‘Stop shouting ‘Death to America.’ This is how they pay you back.”
Of course, enmity with America has done nothing but sabotage the foundations of our national interests. The moderation of President Rouhani, which was reciprocated by Obama, rendered the biggest service to our national interests. Just the fact that we are not in the same situation as we were in under President Ahmadinejad is the biggest achievement of the JCPOA. Even if it achieved nothing else, this in itself is a step forward.
During his campaign, Trump talked about the JCPOA repeatedly. He even said that that he would tear it up. Now one of his advisors has said that the JCPOA will be reconsidered. What do you think will happen to the JCPOA?
Mr. Trump and the American extremists have the same positions as our own hardliners and anti-Americans.
Let us start with our won hardliners, who say that the JCPOA has benefited the US, that the Islamic Republic has given every concession while the US has given none, and that the Americans have lied and have not lived up to their commitments. Mr. Trump, his advisors, and the American hardliners say the same thing. But they reverse the roles. They say that the JCPOA has benefited the Islamic Republic, that they have made all the concessions while Iran has given none, and that Iran is not is not living up to its commitments.
Well, what is the truth? The truth is that both the anti-American party in Iran and the anti-Iranian party in America are lying about the JCPOA. Whatever they say is for political reasons. The reality is simple. We gave concessions and the western side gave concessions as well. This is what an agreement is. If only Iran or the US was supposed to give concessions, and only one party was supposed to retreat, then why did we negotiate for 21 months?
I believe that Mr. Trump might voice slogans against the JCPOA, but that the nuclear agreement will not be repealed. He knows that China and Russia are standing by the agreement and, more importantly, that America’s allies in the West – the UK, France, and Germany – will never agree with a unilateral repeal of the JCPOA.
Two weeks ago, France’s largest oil company, Total, visited Iran. This shows that the JCPOA is being taken seriously. Last week, British Petroleum also visited Iran, although they did it quietly because they thought the hardliners might once again make trouble by gathering around the British Embassy, burning the British flag, and chanting “Death to England!”
Germany, Japan, South Korea and Canada are also approaching Iran in different ways.
Mr. Trump knows that repealing JCPOA would be a difficult and complicated task because the consensus [the international community] reached against the Islamic Republic at the time of Mr. Ahmadinejad — when even China and Russia voted for UN Security Council resolutions against Iran — no longer exists.
The current behavior of the Islamic Republic, meaning Mr. Rouhani and his foreign ministry, cannot be compared with the behavior of Mr. Ahmadinejad and his foreign ministry. It is impossible for that consensus to be reached again. So Mr. Trump, his senior advisors, his secretary of state and the American hardliners may voice slogans, but in practice, they will not be able to terminate the JCPOA.
Some of Trump’s potential candidates for secretary of state and other important roles are known anti-Iranian hardliners, such as John Bolton or Rudolph Giuliani.
Let me say this. Part of what is fanning the flames of American hardliners is our own anti-American hardliners, such as people who burn the American flag, shout, “Death to America,” write “Israel must be annihilated” in Hebrew on missiles, and try to provoke American warships in the Persian Gulf. If they did not do such things, the American hardliners would be in a difficult position.
During his eight years as president, Ahmadinejad provided the American hardliners with the best excuses [to act against Iran]. But since the present Iranian administration does not behave in the same way, it has put the American hardliners in a difficult position.
Of course, other Iranian authorities continue to beat the anti-American drum and to exploit it politically. But since Mr. Rouhani has not yielded to them, and continues his moderation, John Bolton and others like him will be forced to move towards moderation and turn down the flames of animosity against Iran.
You just talked about flag-burners. Recently a video was published that shows you refusing to trample on American and Israeli flags. How did people react to this video?
You won’t believe how ordinary people, students, and young people, religious or non-religious, praised this action. To put it bluntly, I had never received so much praise from Iranians. The volume of praise and approval was unbelievable.
But what is more interesting is that many of those who welcomed my action were born in the 80s and the 90s, the same people who have been constantly brainwashed that America is our enemy, is the enemy of humanity, is the enemy of Islam. In school, they had to shout “Death to America” before starting classes. On various occasions, they had to walk over the American flag or had to burn the flag. They never heard anything good about America from the radio or TV, or in Friday prayers. But despite the propaganda war against the United States for the past 38 years, the younger generation does not view America as the enemy, and does not want to shout “Death to America.”
Why do you think the younger generation did not accept the extensive anti-American propaganda from the government?
Especially after the events of 2009, [when opposition candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi accused President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of vote-rigging] it dawned on the new generation that they have no affinity for many of the things that the anti-American movement values. Access to more information through media and social networks led the people, and especially the younger generation, to discard the anti-American beliefs of 20 or 30 years ago.
Why did you decide not walk over the flags of countries like the US or Israel when you were at Mashhad University?
Like everybody else living in Iran, I evolve, too. I recognize the fact that Israel is a different case from the US, but I believe that if I must trample on the Israeli flag because of the Palestinians that they have killed, or because of the injustices that they have committed against the Palestinians, then let us see how many Palestinians have been killed by the Syrian regime since the war in Syria started. When the civil war started, Palestinian and Hamas leaders in Syria — and they were not a small number — refused to support Mr. Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian army surrounded Yarmouk, the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in the country, and did things to them that you don’t want to think about. If you collect statistics about how many Palestinians have perished in Syria in the past few years, it would be horrifying. I don’t think that the Israelis have killed as many Palestinians in the past 60 years.
If we are to trample on flags because of killings and injustices, the flags of many countries have to be trampled on, from Britain and America to Russia and even Iran. Didn’t the Japanese kill enough people in China and Korea during World War II? Didn’t we kill enough people in India? When Nader Shah conquered India, he committed a massacre. This happened in the 18th century, not a thousand years ago. If we are to kick flags because of various countries’ crimes, then the flags of many countries should be trampled upon.
Shima Shahrabi is a freelance journalist. Reprinted, with permission, from IranWire. Photo: Sadegh Zibakalam.