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Babak Yektafar says at this stage most of Iran is taking a wait and see approach

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Obama and Iran

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network and our coverage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama and the first days of his presidency. One of the great challenges facing Barack Obama, a gift from President Bush and, I suppose, President Reagan and Clinton, is his relationship with Iran, which is not particularly a good one. To help us unravel what is that relationship and just what Barack Obama should do is Babak Yektafar, editor-in-chief of Washington Prism Magazine, which focuses on US-Iranian relations. And Babak used to be a producer at C-SPAN. Thanks, Babak.


JAY: So, in Barack Obama’s speech there’s an interesting quote, which I guess was partly addressed to Arab regimes but certainly was listened to in Tehran. And let’s listen to that quote.


BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: For those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.


JAY: So that section of the speech was addressed to various regimes, but certainly he must have had Tehran in Iran in mind. How would that have been listened to there?

YEKTAFAR: To be really honest, I think the way this was taken, particularly if you go back to the kind of speeches that President Bush used to have in regards to Iran, it rather sounds more conciliatory than confrontational.

JAY: Even though he’s accusing them of deceit and—?

YEKTAFAR: Even though he is. But what he’s saying is that we are willing to extend a hand if you unclench your fists. So, essentially, what he’s saying is that “We are willing to talk, we are willing to be able to have relations,” or at least the way that it’s being taken, “if there is this kind of a mutual—not only just a respect, but this desire to put away the adversarial relationship and start, maybe, negotiating.” And the reactions that I have read, essentially, in the newspapers, in Iranian news agencies, pretty much indicate the same thing from Foreign Minister Mottaki to various other officials in Iran,—

JAY: What exactly are they saying?

YEKTAFAR: —essentially saying that they’re waiting and they’re hoping that President Obama will change the course that was taken by his predecessor, President Bush, and they would start judging this presidency based on what they see will be put forth by this administration.

JAY: Now, how was it taken in Iran, the appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state? When the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment was being passed declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard terrorist and some people were saying this was the beginning of giving Bush authorization for a war with Iran, almost all the leading Democrats opposed the resolution, but Clinton signed along with Bush. So was that taken—was her appointment given some special weight or not?

YEKTAFAR: Well, it was to a certain extent. I think they’re obviously—I mean, this is something that’s a natural reaction by some of the dailies in particular who are affiliated with the government, that they have to have some sort of a comment vis-à-vis Mrs. Clinton’s role around this administration. But I think what has happened in the past few years in particular is that Iranians have become a little bit more aware of the political process in the United States, and they realize that even though it may be that some of these people, whether during the primaries or during their past life, if you will, they have taken some action or have said some words that have made them extremely confrontational, given the context right now and where she fits and that it would be ultimately President Obama’s decision as to how they’re going to navigate their relations with the United States, that maybe they can forget and forgive what she said, but it would be Obama’s policy that they would be dealing with. So, as I said, there was some criticism earlier on, but it wasn’t as harsh as I thought or expected that it would be.

JAY: So they’re in wait-and-see mode.

YEKTAFAR: Pretty much, pretty much.

JAY: So, generally, the way things are talked about: Israel, ally; Iran, enemy.


JAY: Why? What’s the enemy here? I mean, if you strip away the rhetoric about Israel—and you can’t just strip it away without talking about it, but we can park this over here for a second—the Iranian elite wants to make money; they want to maximize what they’re getting from their fuel, their oil revenues; they have their own economic crisis. Is there anti-Americanism of the Iranian elite more than rhetoric for domestic consumption? I mean, what’s [inaudible]?

YEKTAFAR: I think more than anything it is that. But you have to understand something, and particularly what we talk about are the future of US-Irani relations. We assume that if we do certain things, the United States does certain things, then Iran would be willing, and so on and so forth. You have to understand that there are as many people in Iran, in Tehran, who are against normalizing relations with the US, as there are, probably, in the United States, for a number of different reasons. And some of it has to do with, you know, having certain hands in certain pies and so on and so forth. But the one thing that’s very important to understand here (I think most American people don’t really realize it) is that the revolution that took place (and now they’re marking the 30th anniversary) was not just to overthrow the Shah of Iran. But they have framed it as this rebellion against an imperialism which at the time, and even still now, the United States was that image. And for them to talk about normalizing relations and having the US as a friend, as an ally, and so on, is going back against what still is that tenet of this revolution that a lot of people from that generation [who] are still holding these high positions are trying to maintain, and they feel that if they lose that, then that may be a crack in what they’re trying to guard, the origins of the revolution, and so on, so forth. That’s very important. And so, when Iran says that “Unless we’re treated with mutual respect—and the only way we will talk is at the same level, as opposed to US saying, ‘Well, if you do this and that, maybe we’ll talk with you,’” you have to understand that for them that’s a no-no. For them, that essentially is the survival of the regime, because so much of it has been built on this anti-imperialism, anti-US rhetoric that we’ve seen.

JAY: The coming elections in Iran, to what extent is there a position, a candidate that’s at all viable that’s actually really open to a more normalized relationship with the West? And, of course, the nut of the whole thing is the nuclear program. And this is another thing about Obama’s position on Iran. He uses the same rhetoric, which is assuming there is a nuclear weapons program in Iran, which, as far as I know, there’s still no evidence of. So tie together the Iranian policy towards their nuclear energy program, the issue of inspections, you know, is there a weapons program or not, where it goes, and this coming Iranian election, how it’s all going to—.

YEKTAFAR: As far as the program itself, obviously, from some of the things that we’ve seen, there was, has been at some point, some thought given to the idea of possibly going that route. Again, the one thing that we really should understand is that (A) if we do believe that the Islamic regime is representative of Iranian people, whether we like them or not—.

JAY: But they have as fair, relatively speaking, an election process as most other countries do.

YEKTAFAR: Exactly. Just going back to that, I was always fascinated that about 2003 and so, where the United States was still in this kind of a power mode—you know, they had just overthrown Taliban in Afghanistan, they were going into Iraq—all the authoritarian Arab regimes were getting scared over what was going to happen, the promotion of democracy, and so on and so forth. Saudi Arabia mentioned that maybe they will consider allowing women to drive. And Secretary Rice essentially went and said, “This is a great step. That’s fantastic. This is what we’re trying to say and convey.” Meanwhile, Iran, ever since the Islamic Revolution, they have had women representative in their Majlis. Now, again, Iranian elections are not the most democratic, probably, by our standard here and so on, but the fact that we constantly—or at least the US administration has constantly downplayed such a thing and concentrated on depicting this evil nation that doesn’t want to do anything but destroy things is kind of interesting and ironic. But in regards to the election itself and the policy that we have, you know, as I said, Iran at some point probably had this intention, and mainly because they felt that was their only guarantee against US or Israeli attack.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s discuss: Is there possibility of a shift in the Iranian position on the enrichment of uranium and the possible weaponization of that, as [is] being suggested? And has Obama given any indication of a shift in the US position of even being willing to talk? So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Babak Yektafar.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Babak Yektafar, Editor-in-Chief of Washington Prism is a graduate of Farleigh Dickinson University with a B.A. in Communications. From 1999 to 2005, Babak was a producer with C-SPAN network’s national live morning program, Washington Journal.