Is the average Iranian a Holocaust-denier?
They don’t think about the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not an issue. It’s the same thing if you are an Israeli: you don’t think about what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia.
Is the Holocaust taught in schools in Iran?
They don’t teach the Holocaust in schools, and they don’t teach Holocaust denial. The Holocaust was not discussed in Iran until Ahmadinejad denied it in 2005. I met the guy who gave him the idea to deny the Holocaust. His name is Mohammad-Ali Ramin, the deputy minister for press in Iran until recently. He studied in Germany and he organized the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust in 2006. I was in a private meeting with him when he said that Hitler made a mistake by invading Russia before killing all the Jews in Germany and the rest of Europe! I was shocked and disgusted by what I heard. I said, “Could you repeat that?” He smiled and repeated what he said, but when he realized I was working for Newsweek, he asked me to leave the room. Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial even shocked many conservatives in Iran who asked him to stop talking about it and have admitted that his Holocaust denial has been costly for the country.
Are Iranians afraid of an Israeli attack?
Yes. Many people are afraid of that. As many Israelis, including Meir Dagan, the former chief of Mossad, have said, the extremist rhetoric coming out of Israel only helps the extremists in Iran. I think Netanyahu’s fear-mongering is not really in the interest of the Israeli people.
What is holding Iranians back from overthrowing the Khamenei regime?
One of the main reasons is that Iranians experienced revolution three decades ago and don’t want to experience a sudden change like that again. The memory of that revolution is still fresh, and people are still suffering because of it. Another reason is that Khamenei has been very careful in cultivating his image as a clean leader in a sea of corruption. He has created a cult that is willing to die for him and kill for him. Other dictators in the region, e.g., Mubarak in Egypt and Bin Ali in Tunisia, did not have that kind of following and devotion. He has a stronger religious following than the average Middle Eastern dictator.
Should the hijacking of the 1979 Iranian Revolution by Islamic fundamentalists be a warning to Arab Spring demonstrators?
I don’t think what is happening in the Middle East today has anything to do with the Iranian Revolution. I’ve been to Tunisia and Egypt and I witnessed that the movements in those countries are secular, not religious. I don’t call what happened in Tunisia or Egypt revolutions. They were evolutions, reformist movements for a more accountable government. I don’t think religious forces can hijack the changes in Tunisia or Egypt as they did in Iran in 1979. Also, we are living in a different world, in an age of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the free flow of information. In 1979, the revolution in Iran was top-down, Ayatollah Khomeini had his following and his authority could not be challenged. Right now because of the free flow of information you can no longer have this kind of top-down leadership.
What impact has the Arab Spring had on Iran?
The government feels threatened by the downfall of leaders such as Bin Ali and Mubarak. The immediate impact was a mass demonstration in Iran in February and that really scared the government. As a result, they created a claustrophobic atmosphere in the country and imprisoned many leaders. Even though the Iranian government gives lip service to Arab revolutions, I think it is a signal that they are really scared.
What makes you confident that change will come?
The situation is untenable. There is high unemployment, high inflation, very little foreign investment. People have no venue for expressing their anger. On top of it all, there is infighting between the people around Ahmadinejad and those who are dedicated to Khamenei. All the ingredients that existed in Egypt and Tunisia exist in Iran.
What should the West do to help?
The West should try to curb Iran’s nuclear program. I don’t think that Iran will bomb Israel. The government knows this would end its rule as well, and they are pragmatic; what this regime is thinking about is its own survival. Iran would use its nuclear capability to bully the international community, as well as its own people. The United States should lift bad sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians and impose tougher sanctions on human rights abusers and the nuclear program. Also, they should forget about negotiating with Ahmadinejad and address Khamenei directly. In the past the West has reached certain agreements with Ahmadinejad’s government, but Khamenei overruled all of them.
What misconceptions do we in the West hold about Iran?
The main mistake is that many Americans think that Ahmadinejad is the most powerful person in Iran, but any president in Iran is like the prime minister in absolute monarchies. He is just the executor of the monarch’s will. Of course, he seems straight out of central casting. He denies the Holocaust, wants to wipe Israel off the map, he’s ugly and he wears white socks with black shoes. He has those negative attributes, but he’s not the most powerful.
Have you sent a copy of your book to Rosewater?
No I haven’t. I didn’t think he would understand it, but I am sure they’ve translated it, because I know that they had translated many other books—for personal use, of course. Not for public consumption!
In your book, you write that you frequently thought about Leonard Cohen in prison. Why the fascination with Cohen?
I loved his music when I was growing up. The music is beautiful, but then when I learned English I started to love his poems, the romantic cynical hopefulness of his lyrics. I lived in Montreal for four or five years, just a few blocks from him. You can listen to Leonard Cohen when you feel depressed, lonely and nostalgic, but also when you’re happy or in love. The memory of Cohen’s words and music saved me in prison. It is fascinating that this older Jewish guy from Montreal saved me in the Islamic Republic.