NEW YORK — Like many things made in Iran, Hooman Majd is a complex fabric, a multiplicity of talents and roles. He is an author, journalist, thinker, and critic, a show biz mover and shaker, the grandson of an ayatollah, the son of diplomats who served the Shah. He was raised in England. He has served as adviser to former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami.
And when Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came to New York for the UN’s annual General Assembly, it was Majd who, in years past, would serve as his part-time translator and liaison extraordinaire.
Ultimately, however, Majd found the man distasteful to work for.
According to Majd, Ahmadinejad is a man who comes from “a very peculiar mental place.” The president of Iran, he says, is not sophisticated or even well-versed in history, and Majd can see why many in the West find him less than delightful. But Majd insists that Iran’s notorious leader can be a very charming individual — from time to time, when he chooses to be.
Majd first picked up some of his intimate knowledge of the West at St. Paul’s boarding school in London. He enjoyed a long career in the entertainment business, working at Island Records, Polygram, and Palm Pictures, before going on to write for everyone from GQ to Salon and The New Yorker. Majd’s first book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, was published in 2008, followed by The Ayatollahs’ Democracy, released in 2010.
But on top of show biz and journalism, Majd also managed to establish himself as a translator and adviser to Khatami, a longtime confidant and his cousin by marriage.
When Khatami’s successor Ahmadinejad first made plans to come to the UN for the General Assembly, it was Khatami who suggested that Majd be his translator, advise him on how to act in the States, and help him with interviews to the American media.
Majd just recently returned to New York from Iran, where he had been living this past year, researching the general mood in his native country for an upcoming book.
I contacted him about doing an interview for The Times of Israel, and he agreed that the insight into the Iranian perspective that Israelis might gain from his observations was important enough to warrant an interview like this. But there was also, I suspect, a relishing of the chance to “fraternize with the enemy,” as the tensions and talk of war between Israel and Iran gain momentum in the headlines.
And yet, Hooman Majd insists that the Iranian people are hardly the enemy. Quite the contrary, he says.
“There is virtually no antagonistic feeling toward Israelis themselves inside Iran,” Majd claims, “but there is definitely a strong dislike of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. No one should underestimate the antipathy Iranians have for the Israeli government… but yes, Iranians and Israelis are, in many ways, natural allies, and can, in fact, be so in the future, in my opinion, once there is a settlement of the Palestinian issue.”
Majd has observations on Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust thinking, on what Iran has and hasn’t done to harm Israel, and what it potentially could do to hurt the Jewish state, that surely do not accord with most Israelis’ assessments. Unsurprisingly so.
Unsurprisingly, too, he also points out that Iranians aren’t exactly pleased with Israel over the Mossad’s alleged employment of MEK (Mujahadin-e-khelq) and Jundallah terrorists to assassinate their scientists — an allegation which he says every Iranian knows to be an undeniable fact. Nevertheless, Majd contends that we’re only a Peace Treaty away from having a very warm and friendly future together — because, he says, despite their rhetoric, the mullahs know that Israel is a permanent fixture on the map.
The debate regarding Iran that most Israelis are having is over whether or not the nuclear program is a means by which an apocalyptic and anti-Semitic regime, which supports Hamas and Hezbollah on its borders, will finally be able to do away with the Jewish state… or whether an Iranian bomb is not really an existential threat, and is only a means by which an embattled government might try to ensure its long-term survival while elevating its status to that of an equal power in the region. Is a version of this argument playing out at the dinner tables in Iran?
Not really. No one in Iran believes that the Iranian regime is apocalyptic — they’re far too cynical for that — although a certain anti-Semitism, particularly on the part of President Ahmadinejad and his associates and actually most visible in state-run TV, is certainly something people are aware of. But again, no one believes that Iran is about to build a bomb to drop on Tel Aviv.
The nuclear issue is viewed mostly in nationalistic terms. Not as a potential “ayatollahs’ bomb” or Shi’ite bomb, but as a sign of Iranian progress. Many people, even those most opposed to the regime, support Iran’s nuclear program and it’s surprising to hear the number of people who go beyond what the regime claims and actually hope for an Iranian bomb.
Few people believe the nuclear program, or even a bomb, can protect the regime or ensure its survival. It might immunize Iran from outside attack, but it cannot protect a regime against a people who demand change.
It is partly due to pride — the “If Israel and Pakistan can have bombs, then why can’t we?” argument. And it’s partly due to a sense of what it will take to elevate Iran’s standing in the world. Few people believe the nuclear program, or even a bomb, can protect the regime or ensure its survival. It might immunize Iran from outside attack, but it cannot protect a regime against a people who demand change, as in the Soviet Union. So (the Iranian) people — who by and large do not want outside help to bring about change, or even a complete dismantling of the Islamic system — still do not view a potential nuclear capability in terms of regime stability.
Prime Minister Netanyahu likes to equate pre-empting Iran today to the lead up to the Second World War. He warns that it’s 1938, Iran is Germany, and they are trying to build nuclear weapons. A few days ago, the Supreme Leader (Ali Khamenei) said that Israel was a cancer that had to be removed. Is he validating Netanyahu’s claim?
Ever since the Islamic revolution, Iran has said words to that effect. It’s been 33 years now, and Iran, other than its support of the Palestinians and of Hezbollah, hasn’t lifted a finger to bring about Israel’s demise and is not delusional about the ability of the Palestinians to do so, even with the support of Iran.
Using nuclear weapons on Israel would kill as many, if not more, Palestinians than Israelis — where would the logic be in that?
The Supreme Leader has also pointedly said that Iran would never attack any other country first, and I tend to think that is probably true. Iran is not suicidal and knows well that Israel has a second strike capability — something that, even if Iran had a bomb, it wouldn’t have for quite some time.
Besides, using nuclear weapons on Israel would kill as many, if not more, Palestinians than Israelis — where would the logic be in that? In terms of 1938, well, I think Germany was in a very different position than where Iran is today. Iran is a minuscule military power that couldn’t even defeat Saddam Hussein in eight years of war, and certainly doesn’t share the pathological hatred of Jews that Hitler and his gang did. If Iran wanted to just kill or eliminate Jews, it would surely start right in Tehran, home to 13 active synagogues and over 20,000 Jews. There may be anti-Semitism in Tehran, but there isn’t a race-based ideology.
One of the big issues Israelis have with President Ahmadinejad is his questioning of the Holocaust. You’ve written that he did that to force the Europeans to stand up and say that they had, unequivocally, committed these horrendous acts against their own Jewish population. You’ve met him, spoken with him. What sense do you get of him as an individual?
What I wrote in my first book was actually how a Jewish Iranian friend interpreted his rhetoric, and I think it’s partially true. I think Ahmadinejad did want to point out the hypocrisy of some Europeans, but he also wanted to gain favor with Palestinians and the so-called Arab “street” — which he did.
Ahmadinejad’s continual questioning and even denial of the Holocaust has been odious to many Iranians.
Since my first book, however, his continual questioning and even denial of the Holocaust has been odious to many Iranians. Ahmadinejad is very bright and can be a smart politician as well as charming in person. However, he is not sophisticated and certainly doesn’t know his history. In private, and even in interviews, he will always deny being anti-Semitic, but he comes from a peculiar mental place that simply doesn’t understand why questioning the Holocaust can land someone in jail in some countries of Europe. As a conspiracy-minded Persian, he equates that not with the pain it can cause and danger it portends in a continent that easily exterminated millions of Jews in recent memory, but with a plot to allow for the creation of a Jewish state on Arab, and therefore Muslim, land.
But I think that Israelis, Jews, and particularly Holocaust survivors and their descendants should remember that however loathsome and hurtful his comments have been, he is not someone who can ever perpetuate another Holocaust. He simply doesn’t have the power, even if he wanted to.
You just spent the last year in Iran. While you were there another nuclear scientist was assassinated, and a military base was blown up. What is the reaction Iranians are having to the speculation that the Mossad is behind this, that they recruited the likes of Jundallah, a group that has killed many Iranians, to do their bidding?
In Iran, it is not speculation; it is considered a fact that Mossad is behind the sabotage, assassinations, and explosions. Most Iranians believe that Mossad has strongest links to the MEK — a despised exile group that fought on Iraq’s side in the Iran-Iraq war. And through MEK they have been able to conduct operations on Iranian soil. The Mossad-MEK connection was just reported on NBC this week — and the sources were top US government officials. Israel is certainly not gaining any friends in Iran because of these incidents, not even among Iranians who hate the current regime.
It is widely thought that scientists, and even Revolutionary Guards (many of the rank and file are conscripts) are innocent victims, their parents left childless and their children left fatherless. It almost doesn’t matter what an Iranian thinks of his regime — he or she will still think of a scientist working on the nuclear program as a scientist putting his skills to work for the nation. I think the same is true everywhere in the world.
It also has to be remembered that many Iranians have only ever lived in Iran, and the Islamic Republic is now 33 years old — so even if they dislike their government they will view working for it differently than those outside might. Again, the same is probably true everywhere — someone may hate the Likud party, but they won’t necessarily equate working for the government with working for Bibi.
Many Israelis view Iranian citizens as natural allies. They are both sophisticated, cultured, non- Arab peoples living in an Arab neighborhood, and both peoples boast deeply rich, and at points intertwined, histories. Do Iranians see Israelis in the same light, as potential friends, with commonality in spite of the views of their government?
I think it’s largely true. There is virtually no antagonistic feeling toward Israelis themselves inside Iran, but there is definitely a strong dislike of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Iranians famously do not like the Arabs, and the feelings seem to be mutual, so it might be a little odd that Shia Iran would be so supportive of Sunni Arab Palestinians.
The issue isn’t so much sectarian, though, and isn’t a Jewish-Muslim one for Iranians either. It is more a David and Goliath one — Iranian sympathy for a downtrodden and oppressed people, in their view, as opposed to a vastly militarily and technologically superior nation, Israel. No one should underestimate the antipathy Iranians have for the Israeli government, but yes, Iranians and Israelis are in many ways natural allies, and can in fact be in the future, in my opinion, once there is a settlement of the Palestinian issue. I think Egypt has shown that there isn’t much of a long-term advantage to being allied with a government but not a people. In Iran the opposite is probably true, so the short term prospects are bad, but long term they are much more promising.
Your cousin is former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, who goes to great lengths to promote dialogue among cultures. Is there any chance we may host him in Jerusalem for a chat with President Shimon Peres, for example?
No, certainly not! No. By the way, Khatami is related to me by marriage, not by blood. No Iranian politician or even citizen with a public profile could ever visit Israel — not unless peace breaks out between the Palestinians and Israel. Khatami was accused in the conservative Iranian media, when he was in office, of saying hello to Moshe Katsav at the Pope’s funeral — and that caused quite a fuss, even though he denied it.
So not only would he not be able to travel to Jerusalem, he wouldn’t share a stage with any Israeli official anywhere. Now, it should be pointed out that all Iranian officials, from the presidents up to the Supreme Leader, have publicly said that whatever the Palestinians agree to with Israel, they would abide by also. Which means, presumably, that if there is a treaty that results in a Palestinian state and there is peace between Israel and Palestine, then Iran might well find a way to have relations with both entities. Wouldn’t that be something?
One man who is positioning himself to challenge Prime Minister Netanyahu in the next election is former chief of staff and defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who was born in Iran, and whose parents were from Isfahan. Could he be someone Iranians might want to get to know?
There’s always been some curiosity on the part of Iranians about Israelis with an Iranian background who have become famous or powerful. I’m sure Iranians will be interested, but unless Mr. Mofaz tones down the anti-Iranian rhetoric, basically the threat of war, his being Iranian won’t help much in the Iranian view of Israel.
Finally, many Jews leave Iran and come settle in Israel. I hear the Jewish community in Iran saying quite reassuringly that life in Iran is good. But those emigrants say they come to find greener pastures, and live without fear of an oppressive regime. How would you characterize Jewish life in Iran?
Some Jews in Iran feel much like some of their Muslim and Christian compatriots do — that the regime is oppressive and perhaps they can have a better life abroad. For Jews, having Israel to go to is an alternative, to be sure, whereas Muslims and Christians have to find a country that will host them.
But that said, there are many Jews who choose to continue to live in their homeland, Iran, where they are most comfortable despite the shortcomings of the regime — again, much like their Muslim compatriots. Since there isn’t widespread anti-Semitism, at least not of the threatening sort, and since the government is at pains to show its tolerance of all the Abrahamic faiths, I’d say that Jewish life in Iran is challenging, yes, but not as harsh as many might imagine.
It’s telling that many Iranian Jews who live inside Iran travel abroad often enough that they certainly could take advantage of emigrating, and yet they return to Iran. As a non-Jew, I’m not the best person to judge what life is like for an Iranian Jew — I can only describe what I see and hear — but the Jews I’ve met in Iran haven’t seemed as concerned with living under an Islamic regime as one might think they would be.
Perhaps it’s the millennia old roots that Jews have in Iran. Perhaps it’s the fact that Jews have always seemed to have been able to prosper in Iran, own property, businesses, practice their faith, and generally be a part of society, unlike in some Arab countries. But there is a strong Iranian identity that I’ve sensed among Iranian Jews that makes them as nationalistic and prideful as any other Iranian.