Interview with Saba Farzan: Losing the secular generation in Iran


Originally publish on July 24 in The Jerusalem Post Magazine

“We are used to just a few weeks of sunshine,” Saba Farzan, an Iranian journalist, remarks about the unusually hot weather in Berlin. While Germans have been enjoying the parks and lakes, Farzan, who is executive director of the strategy think tank Foreign Policy Circle, has been consumed with the nuclear deal signed between the Islamic Republic and six world powers led by the United States. The deal, signed on July 14, has yet to be fully ratified in the US Congress, where it will face opposition, or in Tehran, but it is widely expected to be finalized.

Saba Farzan (Courtesy)

Saba Farzan (Courtesy)

“The deal means this regime will stay in power and that anti-Semitism will stay in power, and it is bad news for Iranian civil society,” Farzan says in a phone interview with the Magazine.

IN MANY countries threatened by the Iranian regime’s influence, there is consternation over the deal, no more so than in Israel. But for many like Farzan, the deal strikes a personal note. She was born in 1980; her family fled the country a few years later because of the extremism of the ayatollahs who came to power after the fall of the shah in 1979. “I have lived in Germany since I was six years old. We fled Iran as political refugees and were accepted in Germany right away. We were granted asylum and started a new life.”

In those years Iran went through a series of upheavals. The initial enthusiasm of the fall of the shah and hope for a pluralistic democracy were dashed. Then came the Iran-Iraq war, the crackdowns on civil society, the imposition of religious laws. “It was like in Lebanon in the 1980s, a dark place,” recalls Farzan. “My dad was a sociologist. [He and my mother] were from Shi’a families.” Her parents were secular and “ardent supporters of enlightenment in the Islamic religion” who endorsed “separation of religion and state.” They found a home in Germany and integrated quickly. “From the beginning we felt safe and secure and happy in Germany. It granted freedom and opportunity to us. This is something I am grateful for, every single day. It is why I became a journalist and was interested in foreign and security policy.”

For Iran observers like Farzan, the last decades in Iran have been a repetitive cycle. Over the 36 years since the fall of the shah, the country has meandered from more extreme conservatives like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was president from 2005 to 2013, to more “moderates” like Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani. But Iranian civil society has changed. This generation, Farzan says, is the most nonideological, secular- oriented and educated since the revolution. However, this window of opportunity, as this generation comes of age, is being lost.

The Iran deal is a setback, she argues, and “the architecture behind the global Iran policy is an incredible willingness to appease the dictators and to just get over this conflict. It is essentially, as a friend of mine described the deal that was cut last week in Vienna, in fact a business deal.” The concept is that the deal will allow billions of dollars to flow into the coffers of the Iranian leadership. That is supposed to give them less of an incentive to build a nuclear weapon. It is basically a bribe.

“That didn’t work in North Korea or elsewhere. Second, you cannot build a whole policy based on the hope that with enough money bad people will not do bad things. That is naïve and stupid. You can’t construct policy based on that hope. Nothing changed in the last 20 years [in Iran]. Except that, of course, the toughest sanctions regime this world ever saw was built up against Iran. We could have gotten different results if we had kept going with those sanctions.”

JOURNALISM WASN’T Farzan’s first calling. Initially, she sought to study literature and sociology in Bayreuth, Germany. While researching German-Jewish opera composer Kurt Weill, Farzan started to draw parallels between the artist who fled the Nazi regime and her own history. When the Green Revolution protests swept Iran in 2009, Farzan began to focus on Germany’s foreign policy with the Islamic Republic. She started writing op-eds and participating in conferences, criticizing Germany’s emphasis on trade relations with Iran. “As we speak today the German economy minister [Sigmar Gabriel] is in Iran. He is the first Western official after the deal who traveled to Iran.”

Protests in 2009 in Tehran

Protests in 2009 in Tehran

He is the first senior-level German government official to visit Tehran in 13 years. Some estimates claim that, due to the deal, Iran will be able to unlock more than $100 billion in trade after the sanctions are lifted. The Germans want to get on the financial bandwagon. “You cannot structure foreign policy based on trade relations. That is not a strategic view to build the security of your country,” argues Farzan. Even when sanctions began to be imposed on Iran in 2006, the UN resolutions were never strictly enforced, Farzan says. “We indirectly allowed it to continue its work on nuclear weapons.” Also, the sanctions did not have their desired effect, because Iran is not a rational actor.  “It doesn’t care about its own population. It cares about its proxy groups [such as Hezbollah]. It cares about the influence they have in Latin America. They [the Iranian leadership] care that the Obama administration surrenders to their demands. They are irrational from our point of view. It is a revolutionary ideology we are dealing with.” She contrasts the Iranian mullahs with the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who renounced his nuclear weapons program in 2003. He understood the West’s threat, whereas the Iranian regime acts irrationally, in her view.

BUT THE question remains whether Iran’s nuclear weapons program is in fact a distraction for a larger regional policy of extending the influence and power of Iran in places like Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. “Iran has used this [weapons program] in its own interest and advantage. I have no doubt that this is really a nuclear weapons program. If you look at the components and the ballistic missiles and enrichment, and the infrastructure, it only makes sense if you want to have a nuclear weapon,” says Farzan. However, the mullahs play a double game, she says; they may lack the means to complete a nuclear weapon. “They play with the idea of letting the region think they are much more advanced and ready to build up a nuclear weapon…. Maybe it is sort of enough for them to cause destabilization.”

She ascribes this partly to the very Persian identity of the Iranian nuclear program. “They want to build it themselves; they don’t want to buy it from the North Koreans or Pakistanis.” This is an important point because Pakistan’s nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan was confirmed in 2004 to have aided the development of nuclear programs in Libya and North Korea and offered his services to Iran. The first Pakistani nuclear weapons test took place in 1998 and was a complete surprise to the world.

The serious Iranian nuclear program should be seen in that light, because it stretches back to the 1990s when, it should be recalled, the international community was focused on Iraq’s nuclear program. Since the middle of the first decade of this century, Israeli and American intelligence estimates have repeatedly claimed Iran would have the bomb by now. Farzan argues that the Iranians are more paranoid about their own internal problems than Western pressure to end the nuclear program. “They studied us [the West] very closely. Look at the people in charge; many of them have been educated in the West – from Europe and the US – and they have studied us much better than we have studied them. We didn’t study them at all. That is why sometimes we believe what they say and are so slow in our responses.

The Iranians think strategically ahead and see where a vacuum exists that they can fill with their own ideology and proxies. They saw it coming that in Iraq things would fall apart.” The picture of Iran is that, while it may have irrational elements, its strategic thinking is very cautious and pragmatic. For instance, it waited for the US to fail in Iraq in order to insert itself and wrap its tentacles around the Iraq government of Nouri al-Maliki over the last decade. The resulting sectarian chaos is very much in Iran’s interest.

But inside Iran, not all is well for the regime. “The young generation and well educated are ready to connect to the outside. Their talents were not included into the economic way that Iran is going, or into political participation,” says Farzan. The money that the Iranian regime stands to earn from the deal will not trickle down to the educated classes. “They have overstretched their capacities in the region. Yes, they control four Arab capitals [Baghdad, Sana’a, Beirut and Damascus]. They have opened up so many battlefields for them that it is a question of logistics and the political price they pay in the region….

At the same time, it is questionable how long they can sustain this interference – not just in two, three or four places, but the next battlefields are around the corner, like in Jordan, Bahrain or other countries.” In some ways the regime may be a paper tiger, exaggerating its prowess but in actuality quite weak. Farzan points to the fact that Iran’s military is undeveloped compared to Saudi Arabia, which has the latest American equipment. “[Iran] is a paper tiger we are now feeding with cash and political acceptance.”

THE IRANIAN exile community, which numbers several million spread out through Europe, the United States and Canada, is very diverse in its approaches to what to do about the regime. For instance, Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was born in Tehran, argued last week that “no agreement is perfect, but at times the scale of the imperfection is so great that the judicious course is to reject the deal and renegotiate a more stringent one.”

Farzan says the approaches of those in the community are complex. “Whether in the diaspora or in Iran, if you can gather five Iranians you [will] have seven opinions…. It is a diverse community. That is one thing that is hopeful for a democratic future in Iran. The negative aspect of it is that only very few Iranians can agree on something that they would want. Some say reform. Some say a revolution. One says an evolution. Some think it will take longer but with better results.”

She ascribes this to the long history of revolutions in Iran, stretching back to the early 20th century and the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1906. One problem for Iranians who oppose the regime is that “they feel left alone by the Western world…. They are suffering under the dictatorship.” When Barack Obama was elected he brought hope to Iranians that reform would come, not only because he was a Democrat who they thought would support progressive change but also because of his personal story.

“They really rose up in 2009 when Obama was president. They thought and expected that Barack Obama, as the first black American president, would support them, in memory of the civil rights movement, that he could relate to the suffering that they were going through. But it was the exact opposite. He was willing to throw them under the bus and consistently try and reach a deal with this dictatorship, fully knowing that the deal would cement the power that this regime has.”

But hope is not lost. Farzan believes there will be more protests and activism. “As much as I hope and pray that Iran is on the verge of a revolution, a lot of the things that will happen in the immediate future depends on who will be the US president.” That means that many are pegging their hope for the future on a future US administration scuttling the deal. Farzan hopes that when Iran changes and the ayatollahs are removed, the country can rekindle its natural commonalities with Israel. “This regime is standing in the way of these two countries becoming equal and true partners…. Jews and Persians have [many things] in common… not just because they are both ancient civilizations.” From a strategic point of view, she argues that Iran is a much more logical partner for Israel than the Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. For the time being, she concludes, we must look at whatever silver linings we can find in light of the deal and continue to support Iranian civil society.

2 responses to “Interview with Saba Farzan: Losing the secular generation in Iran

  1. Pingback: Obama channels Bush’s WMD in dash for Iran deal | Seth J. Frantzman·

  2. Journalism stands for being unbiased and neutral. The kind of articles Ms. Farzan writes are very biased and pro-Israel in nature. Israel has gone against UN policies umpteenth times, but their is no cry over that. The Jewish state has carried many covert operations just in the name of self defense and proudly boasted it (Latest is the confession by Israel defense minister against the target killings of Iran Nuclear scientists)but she never mentions it. There are decades full of injustice and cruelty done to the people of Palestine and Lebanon but still there is no mention of such incidents by Ms. Farzan.
    All she can think and write is to malign IRAN in every possible ways of her reach. Iran, a country which has never invaded/ carried covert operations in any part of the world. Even after the continuous aggression by Pro-Israel proxies whether financially, politically, strategically or militarily. After all such happenings, IRAN doesn’t qualify to strengthen itself at least for the sake of SELF DEFENCE ??

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