Roya Hakakian is an Iranian dissident, poet, and writer. She has long been a fierce critic of the regime. But in her latest book, A Beginner’s Guide to America, she sets her sights on her new country, setting out to explain why the citizens of liberal democracies should value their political systems despite their flaws.
In this week’s conversation, Roya Hakakian and Yascha Mounk discuss Iran’s democratic prospects, the state of democracy around the world, and why the benefits of freedom are often lost on those who have always enjoyed them.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: Why should we continue to believe in the promise of America?
Roya Hakakian: Well, what else is there? I know that that is not a very compelling argument, but we have yet to come up with a better promise or alternative. But I don’t like to approach this in a pessimistic way. What I tried to do in the book [A Beginner's Guide to America] was to actually disguise, in the form of advice to immigrants, my arguments to the native-born Americans—to make native-born Americans aware of all the gifts that American democracy has bestowed on them, not in the form of elections, but [through] the beauties of daily living in a country where there is no dictatorship and censorship.
If you have always known this as the only way that your nation has been governed, then you are likely to be blind to the other darker possibilities. Those are the things I thought it was time for people to be reminded of, in order not to just celebrate this democracy, but also to be able to safeguard it from various threats that we have witnessed in the past four or five years. Looking at various movements around the world, various activists who are fighting in their own lands for equal rights or [a] democratic future, it’s important to see that nearly all of them look to America for support [and] hope, no matter how gloomy we might feel about it.
Mounk: How do you press home the point about the things that many American citizens take for granted? How do we combine an appreciation of and determination to preserve what we have with hope to build a better society and redress the injustices and inequalities that are real?
Hakakian: First and foremost, I think we have to be able to see them, [to] look at the minutiae of the freedoms that we have that don’t exist in other countries. We’re able to return a garment that we have purchased from a store after two weeks of keeping it, and no one will question us as long as we show a receipt. The reason we can do that is because consumers have rights in America, because individuals have rights in America.
Another perfect example is [that] we know what a green light means. Traffic laws are traffic laws wherever you go in the world. But if you go to Syria, if you go to Iran, if you go to any part of the Middle East, the green light doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. They simply don’t work. And the reason they don’t work in those countries is because there is no national agreement. There is no participation or belief in fundamental laws of the society. Even if we have these universal systems that we believe should work everywhere, they simply don’t, because people haven’t come together in [a] national covenant. The reason they work here is because, for better or worse, whatever inequalities continue to exist, we have a sense that we basically believe in these laws and want to improve them, and therefore they work. And these important things need to be first and foremost recognized in order to be bolstered, strengthened or, if they need to be, corrected.
When you live in a dictatorship, you don’t believe that the system is just. You don’t believe that the system is there to serve you in any way. Therefore, you’re confronting the system at every point possible. In certain places, you cannot get at the system at your place of work, [because] if you challenge them, you lose your job, and you can’t afford to lose your job. But if you’re driving, and you can go through a red light to get back at the system, you do. So wherever there is no consequence, if you can somehow undermine the system, you can voice your objection. Skipping or going through a red light can mean just that.
Mounk: I’m always interested in the fact that many dictatorships start with some amount of real buy-in from the population. Then there’s a moment [when] any sheen of legitimacy has gone. And then suddenly you have a moment when there may be apparatchiks who continue to perpetuate their rule, and there may be a few true believers in the population, but the fervency has gone. Has Iran reached that point yet?
Hakakian: I love that question, because I’ve watched Iran for the last 42 years, and there have been times when I’ve said, “This is it.” And then there was a next moment when I felt like, “If the last one wasn’t it, this one surely is.”
I think the evolution [of disillusionment] was from 1979, when the revolution did take place, until about 10 years after, when the founder of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, was still alive. The sense of ideology, the sense of grand belief that Islam had been somehow resurrected and there was this pan-Islamist dream that he was perpetuating, had gotten hold of the country. It was also a time when we had no Osama bin Laden yet. We didn’t have al-Qaida, we didn’t have all these other movements that came afterward to show us what a horrendously awful, violent, and bleak future they would bring about. At the time, he appeared—at least to many Iranian intellectuals—as some kind of an Islamicized Mahatma Gandhi. He appeared authentic and genuine and he seemed, in some ways, self-sacrificing, that he was willing to give whatever he had for the cause of a better future. All that became very clearly untrue within the first two [or] three years after the revolution when so many awful things happened, including the cutting of ties with the United States [and] the start of the war between Iran and Iraq, one of the longest, most devastating wars of the 20th century; but also the rounding up of all of the leftist secular groups in Iran and the cultural revolution, which [was] nothing less than Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the way that it completely overhauled all universities, [the] educational system in Iran, and so much else. Mandatory veiling was reinstituted in Iran, which prior to the revolution was a choice.
In the first 10 years of the revolution, [Khomeini’s] presence was a pillar for people. As long as he was around, there was a sense of hope that we would get there, even if we were slightly delayed. And once he died in 1989, and the war between Iran and Iraq also ended and the country was in ruins, so much of the hope that had been tied to him and to the revolution simply dissipated.
If I were to choose a point at which the generation that had been born in 1979—[who] knew nothing of the revolution and had come of age in its aftermath—also lost hope, that would be the 2009 elections, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed to have won his second term of presidency, and votes were stolen. It was what we at the [time] thought of as the Green Movement, [where] millions of Iranians took to the streets with green flags and banners. I would argue that that was the start of the Arab Spring. Iran torched the region with that magnificent image of all the greenery on the streets of all big cities throughout the country. [After 2009], there has been no faith in elections and no faith in the regime or its possibility to change.
Mounk: Tell us about how the nature of elections has changed leading up to this last election [in 2021].
Hakakian: Well, the procedures haven’t changed. There was a belief on the part of the people that if they participated and chose the candidate that they wished, then they could succeed. And 2009 was a turning point, because they did participate. They did really [and] truly invest in the candidate that should have won office in 2009—but he was placed under house arrest for years after that election.
I think that the only thing that changed was that people realized that no matter how much they participate, it’s really up to the supreme leader to first choose the initial candidates. And then, at the end of the day, no matter how many people have participated and how many votes they’ve cast for whoever it is that they want, even those whom he allows to run [cannot] be elected unless it is precisely the candidate that he has in mind. And I think this election proved this beyond the shadow of a doubt.
We’ve had two reformist presidents in office for a span of 16 years, and neither one was able to accomplish anything. Not even the simplest promises like opening up the sports stadiums to both men and women—something that is happening in Saudi Arabia, for God’s sake. The reformist presidents couldn’t even deliver on these very basic things. They will do as little as the hardliners, and this duality, this Manichaeism that the regime has created, is not a duality at all; it is just the theater of the regime. I think […] the nation [is] giving up on the dream of change through reform.
Ironically, it’s something that the West hasn’t given up on. They continue to say, “Oh, the reformer is this [candidate] or the hardliner that one.” That’s a finished narrative inside Iran, but it continues to be the dominant narrative within the Western policy and media circles.
Mounk: Is it that these reformist candidates make a couple of noises about reform but actually are not interested in it, or is it because of the constitutional structure in which what the president does is so constrained by the supreme leader?
Hakakian: It’s both. Mohammad Khatami, who came to power in 1997, was the first reformist president. In fact, his presidency was the start of the reform movement in Iran. In 1999, university students took to the streets in support of him and in support of reform. And they were certain that he was their president, that he owed his presidency to them and to their activism, [and that] he would come out in their support. He didn’t. Many students were rounded up, arrested, and sent to prison. So when push came to shove, they all, whether it was [former president Hassan] Rouhani or Khatami, stood by the supreme leader. And they declared—whether by force or by choice, we don’t know—their full support for the fundamental values of the system and for the supreme leader. At times, there were changes that they might have wished to make. Simple things—again, I go back to the example of soccer stadiums. That had been a very important issue for women and had brought many, many women to the streets, [and] would have been a very easy gift. But neither president gave those things that could have been because the supreme leader simply didn’t want to compromise when it came to women.
Mounk: How is power split between these different figures within the Iranian system?
Hakakian: There is an Expediency Council that needs to approve all the legal changes that pass through the legislative body, which is the Majlis. And the Expediency Council has the supreme leader at its head. You can pass whatever laws you want, [but] once it gets to the Expediency Council, they can be vetoed, and that has happened over and over again. Even the candidates who want to run for presidential elections have to be approved by the supreme leader in order to have the permission to run. The system has all sorts of levers beyond the constitution, beyond the Majlis, in the form of various smaller councils that sit atop all these other legal bodies, and those are the smaller elite units that basically veto and undermine every change.
Mounk: Does that mean that hope has to lie in some form of more confrontational activism?
Hakakian: Well, there have been several predictions. One has been that the more people become disillusioned with the electoral process, which they clearly have become now, the more the Revolutionary Guards, which is the most powerful body operating inside Iran at the moment, will brazenly and openly take over and act. And so it will become less of a semi-democratic theater and more of an active military performance on the political stage, not [just] behind the scenes. So that’s one possibility.
My hope, as I’m sure so many of us around the world always hope, is for the democratic forces in Iran, which are active—women in the last month or so, labor groups [who] have been taking to the streets—I want them to succeed, as we all do. However, I don’t see these groups being able to succeed without international pressure, without some form of cooperation from the world beyond, to help weaken the regime on the inside. In 2019, in November and December, when fuel prices in Iran [rose], people did take to the streets and hundreds were killed randomly, some as young as 13, within the span of a week, and thousands were rounded up and arrested and many displaced.
So what we have seen—and I don’t think this is unique to Iran; we have also seen it in Hong Kong, Belarus, other parts of the world—[is] that it’s nearly impossible for these activists to succeed without the support of the international community. If we want to see them get the upper hand, how is it that we can contribute to the cause? I think that’s the major question for the rest of us.
Mounk: One of the things that I sometimes see on my social media feeds is these quite amazing videos of women on the subway in Tehran who are not veiled. And then somebody, often an older woman, berates them for betraying the values of the revolution. Some discussion ensues, where often other passengers come to their defense. Tell us a little bit about the role of that kind of activism and these kinds of acts of bravery within Iran, but also about who gives support for these groups within the United States. I noticed on Twitter that people who retweet those things, and who liked those things, always seem to be from a conservative side of the political spectrum, more than from the progressive side. It seems to me that there’s a kind of progressive sensibility where they think, “Well, because some women are being discriminated against for wearing the veil here, we can’t celebrate women making the choice to take it off, at great personal risk, despite laws commanding them to wear it in Iran.”
Hakakian: Precisely. I don’t know when it was that feminism ceased to be a global sisterhood. I don’t know why other women, no matter where they come from, don’t get profoundly excited and inspired when they see a 19-year-old take off her hijab on the Iranian subway and say, “I will dress as I wish, and you dress as you wish to, and leave me alone.” I don’t know when that happened, that the rest of us thought “That’s their cultural issue. It is not for us to intervene in.” How did we come to this?
In 1979, three weeks after the success of the Iranian Revolution, it was Kate Millett, America's foremost leftist-feminist, who was marching with Iranian women on the streets of Tehran, demanding that Ayatollah Khomeini retract his order to restore the hijab to women in Iran. It was her, it was a group of French feminists, who showed up to the streets and walked with these women. But all of that has disappeared. And these causes have become, somehow, the rightist causes. I don’t care whether the left embraces them or the right [does]. I just find it incredibly absurd that those people who claim to be feminists, who claim to want to see democratic forces succeed, can watch an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old in Iran so bravely face these violent actors on the streets and not root for them and take up their cause, and make buttons and pin them to their chests.
It may not make a whole lot of sense to other people, but it makes sense to me that as long as we don’t identify with that girl on the street in Tehran, the chances of Donald Trump succeeding in this country go higher. We have to recognize that democracy is a universal force, that supporting it in one place would bolster it in another, that we are all somehow interrelated. And as long as we don’t recognize that and support that, we’re bound to fail, no matter where we are.
Mounk: Why is it that a principled defense of rights of those 19- or 20-year-old women who don’t wear the hijab in Tehran is connected to the ability of somebody like Donald Trump to succeed here?
Hakakian: To me, there is no accident that Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran in 1979, and then you had the rise of right-wing fundamentalist movements elsewhere throughout the world. There is a way in which this success of democratic forces in one part of the world can and does actually support and help the success of other democratic forces in the world in the same way that I, as a 10-year-old in Tehran prior to the revolution, was singing to the music of Inti-Illimani from Latin America. We do lift each other and we also cause each other’s failures. I think that, in some ways, it’s not very different from the way that COVID-19 operated in the last year. Why do we think that it’s just the biological disease that affects us all? Why do we not think that social diseases spread just as vehemently and rampantly and that they need to be fought in the same united way in a world that’s so much more interrelated than ever before?
I think that we have passed that stage where we can say that the problem of one dictatorship is limited to the borders of that dictatorship alone.
Mounk: How much hope do you have for the cause of freedom around the world when you look forward 25 or 50 years from now? How hopeful are you that Iran will be free? And how hopeful are you that we’re able to contain dangerous anti-democratic forces within Western countries that are now democratic?
Hakakian: I am hopeful not because there are signs of hope, but because there are signs of extreme distress, both in America and elsewhere around the world. I can only hope that this great distress [and] pressure that has been exerted on the American democracy will cause others to wake up and begin to rethink and remobilize our forces. If there was anything wrong with the Cold War of the late ‘70s, there was one thing that was right about it: a sense of universalism, [of] our interconnected destinies. Whatever we decide that we want to discard from that era, the one thing that I hope we can salvage is the notion that we need to see our destinies as one and that we need to come together to help each other succeed in our local and universal struggles.
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