Former Tehran-based New York Times correspondent Nazila Fathi, Iranian musician Arash Sobhani, and Iranian author Maziar Bahari examined the interaction between culture and the democratic movement in Iran. Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour moderated the discussion.  

Women as Political Leaders

The panelists discussed whether Iran was ready for female political leadership.

  • In Transition: Fathi said that Iran is a society in transition and while the country may not be ready for female political leadership yet, Iranian women have remained very active over the past thirty years.
  • Ready: Iran is ready, Sobhani argued, pointing to Iranians’ desire to see Shirin Ebadi take a more prominent role in politics following her acceptance of a Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Conservative Women: Although Ayatollah Khomeini’s political movement began when he asked the shah to take the right to vote away from women, one of the revolution’s unintended consequences was to facilitate an increased presence of conservative women in public space. The women, in turn, became more educated and more active in society, Bahari stated, and the government has sought to appropriate the issue of women’s role in society for its own purposes.

Islam and Iranian Society

  • More Private: Bahari said that people in Iran remain religious, but, at the same time, religion is becoming a more personal matter. He added that a post-Islamic Republic Iran would have religion but in the private sphere.
  • Cultural Tool: Sobhani argued that the regime uses Islam as a cultural tool.
  • Glorification of Religion: Fathi said that while religion is a key component of life in Iran, the glorification of religion, as it is presented in discussions of Iran’s piety, is neither an honest portrayal nor exclusive to Iran.

Arab Spring in Iran?

  • Different Context: The demographic situations in Iran and the Arab countries are very different, since Iran’s oil resources ameliorate some of the socio-economic challenges in the country, Fathi said. She added that there are also cultural and security-related factors that are different as well, such as Iranians’ fear of instability and the Iranian government’s security forces, which are trained to break up street protests.
  • Oil Money: The Ahmadinejad government has used oil money to silence poorer citizens, but if those policies come to an end, there will be greater pressure for change, Sobhani added.
  • Cultural and Security-related Factors: Bahari stated that there are several cultural and security-related factors that distinguish the Iranian regime from vulnerable Arab regimes, such as Iranians’ trepidation for sudden change and Ayatollah Khamenei’s reputation for a lack of corruption, which gives him more legitimacy than some Arab leaders and produces a subset of the population deeply loyal to him.

Authoritarianism: Cultural or Political?

Sadjadpour pointed out that many Iranians speak admiringly about the leadership of modernizing autocrat Reza Shah. The panelists identified explanations for this idealized view of the Shah.

  • Deliverables: Sobhani pointed to the infrastructure projects undertaken by the Shah, as well as the social freedoms he granted.
  • Security: The legacy of Reza Shah is positive because of the sense of stability and security associated with his rule, Bahari added.
  • Social Freedoms: Fathi agreed that there is nostalgia in Iran for Reza Shah because of the social freedoms associated with the Pahlavi era, but argued that Iranians do recognize that Reza Shah was a dictator who built no foundations for democracy in the country.

Role of the United States

The panelists agreed that one of the primary ways that the United States can support democratic change in Iran is to invest in communication.

  • Invest and Reform: Bahari called on the United States to invest in the free flow of information, such as satellite internet technology, and to reform both the management and content of the Voice of America Persian channel.
  • Lifting Sanctions: Lifting some of the U.S. sanctions on Iran would support communication in the country, Fathi argued, because some of them impede Iranians’ ability to buy Skype credit or access satellites.