Inside Iran, a seminar course being taught this semester by Monica Ringer, associate professor of history and Asian languages and civilizations, explores contemporary Iran from a historical and interdisciplinary perspective. “The aim of the course,” its description says, “is both to provide an overall understanding of the history of Iran, as well as those key elements of religion, literature, legend, and politics that together shape Iran's understanding of itself.”

Professor Ringer recently discussed the course and recent Iran developments with Peter Rooney, Amherst’s Director of Public Affairs.

Monica Ringer

Q: Although your course is listed as a history course, to what extent does it address recent developments in Iran?

A: With Iran being in the news so much recently, we do begin the day by talking about recent developments there.  I encourage students to follow the news, and I use the fact that they’re taking this course as an opportunity to really invest in understanding what’s going on in Iran.

The course is designed to give students insight into contemporary Iran, but also to give them enough historical background so that they can see things in real context. In particular, I’m interested in them understanding Iran’s view of itself, and Iran’s view of its own past and how Iran’s leaders have used and deployed the past in many different periods of history, even the pre-Islamic period, to legitimize policy and to emphasize continuity.

Q: Could you tell me a little about your background in studying Iran?

A: I’ve been to Iran a couple times under president Khatami, whose last term ended in 2005, and my first and second books involved work on Iran. I’m now working on another project concerning intellectual history in the 19th century, which includes Iran, but is more located in some of the dialogues going on between Muslim intellectuals in Iran, central Asia, Russia and the Ottoman Empire with European religious studies scholars.

Q: As someone with a deep understanding of Iran, can you provide some historical  perspective on what appears to be an improving relationship between Iran, the U.S. and other Western nations?

A: If you look at the long term trajectory of Iran, particularly since the Revolution of 1979, you see that, at least for the past 16 years, there has been a turn and increasing momentum toward pragmatism, national interest and a gradual reduction of the commitment  to revolutionary ideology. That happened rather slowly at first, and then gained momentum under President (Mohammad)Khatami, and in the 1997-2005 period.

I really think we need to see the new initiative by President (Hassan) Rouhani in that context. We see him in light of making a radical break from the former President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad. But Ahmadinejad was not the beginning of the story. He was a sort of swan call of revolutionary rhetoric and a return to some of the populist ideals of the Revolution, but he came away having failed on his economic promises, and the shallowness of this revolutionary rhetoric became apparent. It didn’t translate into any economic or social improvements, and I think the population is really exhausted. Also, we can't forget that Ahmadinejad's second term was based on the largely fraudulent elections of 2009, which were enormously unpopular in Iran, and occasioned protests of millions of Iranian citizens.

Q: Is Rouhani’s election a legacy of that Green Movement?

A: I think that sentiment never really went away, in the sense that the Green Movement never crystalized into a political party or a political movement. It was an interest in making the government accountable, it was equated with the government overstepping its bounds in not holding fair elections, and it led to loss of legitimacy of not just government policy but the government system. It showed the Supreme Leader (Ali Khamenei) that he had to take public opinion into account. He might be able to suppress people on the street, but you can’t change the population at large, and public opinion mattered.

Q: When President Rouhani returned to Iran after his visit to the U.N. in New York he  was greeted by supporters as well as by protesters who pelted him with eggs and shoes. What does that signify to you?

A: The split was unequal – he had more supporters than opponents. Just as in policy in any country, whether it's foreign policy or domestic policy, there always are opponents and supporters. The challenge here for both Rouhani and Obama is to move forward with enough tangible progress that they can take back to their supporters, but also show their opponents that this is really worth pursuing. I think time is of the essence in that. They both realize this can't just be talk. If they don’t take home some tangible benefits for both sides, this could be another opportunity lost.

If you look at Rouhani, what’s interesting about him is that he’s not someone everyone recognized in Iranian political circles, yet he’s been around since the Revolution. He’s just had a lower profile. He’s very much a political insider, and it would be a mistake to see him as some sort of reformist maverick who’s coming in hoping to change things through wishful thinking but without real substantive support.

That said, if he doesn’t deliver, one can imagine the Supreme Leader distancing himself. Rouhani’s come to be president because there's real momentum toward changing Iranian foreign policy, and he’s seen as someone who’s qualified to do it without moving so radically as to alienate the more reactionary elements in the establishment.

Q: Would those reactionary forces include the Revolutionary Guard and their supporters?

A: Well certainly the Revolutionary Guard has made noises opposing Rouhani’s initiatives. But keep in mind that with these elements, it's not simply their ideological position. The Revolutionary Guard is also an economic machine, and owns enormous enterprises. So their opposition comes from their concern that should pragmatism and  free-market principles be emphasized, then they would be the losers.

Q: Has Iran has become so constrained economically that there’s a sense of urgency to really try to do something to lift the sanctions?

A: Whereas Iran for decades denied that the sanctions were at all relevant, I think clearly they have been enormously painful and the Supreme Leader and others have recognized that the sanctions have been devastating, particularly in recent years, and that's not just in isolation. It's coupled with Iran's own revolutionary economic polices of wealth distribution and so forth.

That being said, it’s important to note that it’s been 34 years now and Iran has defied all predictions that it would fall, or that there would be another revolution, or that the regime would be unsustainable. I think it's very sustainable, and relatively stable as well.

The U.S. always viewing Iran as sort of our principle enemy and spoiler and radical and extremist comes partly from our own experience of the hostage situation and anxiety over Iran's opposition to US policy in the region. But really they are more pragmatic than maybe some are willing to give them credit for.

Q: How much power does Rouhani have to be a reformer? Can he be reined in by the Supreme Leader at any time?

A: It is certainly true that Rouhani is not the most powerful individual in Iran; the presidency in Iran is not comparable to the presidency of the United States. The Supreme Leader is really much more powerful but he typically works more behind the scenes so the president is able to articulate domestic and foreign policy and is able to choose a number of his cabinet members. But at the same time all of that has to be acceptable to the Supreme Leader on some level.

So he can give him rein, but he can also pull him in. I think we've seen, however, that under the last two presidents the Supreme Leader has been willing to give a certain amount of leeway to the president and see where that goes. And he was certainly criticized for giving too much leeway to Ahmadinejad by confirming him in the elections that many people saw as fraudulent of 2009. But eventually he worked hard at marginalizing him. And of course none of these candidates can even run for president without the Supreme Leader confirming their candidacy.

But again the Supreme Leader has been very supportive of Rouhani. When the Revolutionary Guards began criticizing him and his overtures on nuclear development, the Supreme Leader came out in favor of Rouhani in many ways. And that's what one has to keep watching for.

Q: You've written about the history of women and women's rights in Iran. Is life for Iranian women as stifling and oppressive as media accounts portray it to be?

A: Public life, cultural life, artistic life and political life is extremely restrictive in Iran in some ways, so a lot of socializing and political expression and artistic expression takes place out of the public eye. There's very much a “what one does in public versus what one does in private” dichotomy in Iran. So women, as do artists, political activists and bloggers, have a very vibrant life, but one that is not as publicly visible because of various political constraints.

Women in particular suffer legally under the Islamic Republic. But in recent years there has been an interesting joining of forces between women coming out of a Western tradition of feminism with those women who are committed to religion as a major part of their lives. There has been a coming together to cooperate over agitating for greater women's rights on very practical issues such as raising the legal marriageable age of girls, promoting women's education and so forth.

Q: Why was Rouhani's recent acknowledgement that the Holocaust actually happened so controversial within Iran?

A: This issue had not really come to the fore until Ahmadinejad made a point of denying the Holocaust, which was incredibly counterproductive and I think viewed as largely irrelevant and unnecessary by a lot of people.

Certainly on the list of any demands that the US might make in terms of a rapprochement is that Iran would have to accept the existence of Israel, stop supporting Hamas and retract its position of antagonism towards Israel. In that context, rolling back the former president's denial of the Holocaust, and two other overtures he made specifically about Israel – issuing a Rosh Hashanah greeting, and taking the Jewish member of Parliament in Iran with him to the UN -- was a signal that this was not going to be part of his policy, that he was willing to be more open on the question of Israel.

Really, the U.S. and Israel have been closely allied in their concern about Iran's development of nuclear weapons. So he would have to make overtures to Israel as well as the U.S. in order to move forward at all in any nuclear negotiations.