Kambiz is an Iranian journalist living in exile. I first met him on a train in Hamburg, Germany in 2005. I was traveling to Berlin on a backpacking trip and he was living there for a brief while contemplating moving his family to Europe. We struck up a conversation about politics that lasted from station to station.
You Say You Want a Revolution...
Kambiz worked for Hamshahri and Sharq, two of Iran's daily newspapers, and has interviewed diplomatic heavyweights like Senator John McCain; John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador the United Nations; Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense, and former Iranian Presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to name a few.
After the election of Mahmoud Ajmadinejad in 2005, Kambiz's life began to change dramatically. He was identified as a 'reformist' journalist and was not in good standing with the new, conservative regime. His editors at Hamshahri were under pressure to fire him. Kambiz has a wife and two children and was concerned about raising them in Iran under those conditions. After nine years as a journalist and a lifetime in Iran, he decided it was time to leave.
Kambiz applied for, and accepted, a job at Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, a pro-American news organization funded by the U.S. Congress. The station is located in Central Europe, where Kambiz lives today. He is classified as a CIA operative by the Iranian regime and is no longer welcome back in his home country.
I made contact with Kambiz last week and asked for his thoughts on the revolutions sweeping across the Islamic World; specifically, why these revolutions are happening now and what they mean for the West.
The following is a transcript of portions of the interview. I tried to keep it as close to the original text as possible, though some parts are reorganized to fit the format. I also corrected our grammar.
JB: What is your take on the revolutions and protests sweeping across the Islamic World? Why is this happening now?
Kambiz: What is happening in the Middle East and North Africa was inevitable. When a country's economy is in bad shape and a small group of people control the majority a nation's wealth the situation is unsustainable. It is like a ticking time bomb. The difference now is that the world is no longer the closed place it was 30 years ago. The internet, Facebook, Twitter and mobile communications have changed everything. Citizens are so much more aware of the world around them as well as what is happening in other countries. That's part of why these revolutions have gained momentum across the region.
I believe that this would have happened sooner had the U.S. not invaded Iraq in 2003, under the banner of spreading democracy throughout the region. In my opinion, that slowed the Islamic World's enthusiasm for democracy because bringing democracy to Iraq was not the result of an authentic, homegrown movement but rather a military endeavor from a foreign power.
JB: What lies in store for Egypt - democracy or dictatorship?
Kambiz: In some ways, the people of Egypt are in very good hands. The army is professional and friendly with the United States and Israel. This is a good thing. I do not see the potential for the Egyptian army to turn into a version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. I am hopeful for the future of Egypt. If they are able to establish a genuine democracy with a system of checks and balances than the West need not worry about the Islamists [like the Muslim Brotherhood]. Let them participate in the system and see what it takes to govern.
My only advice for the West is to realize that democracy is a process. Even within the most successful democratic governments, there are elements that will try to hijack the system. This may be the case with Egypt but let's realize that whatever happens will take awhile to play out.
JB: What other countries are ripe for revolution?
Kambiz: I think all countries with authoritarian regimes are ripe for revolution. This will not only be the case for these [Islamic] countries, but also other parts of the world like South America and Eastern Europe.
JB: What do these revolutions mean for Iran? Will there be more protests like the Green Movement in 2009?
Kambiz: The problem with Iran is the lack of any coherent political establishment. That makes it very difficult to determine what will happen next.
From an outsider's perspective, Iran has a parliament, a President and a system of mandated responsibility. In reality, there is a Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] and a shadow government - the Revolutionary Guards - that interferes with the workings of the state.
The Revolutionary Guards are not subject to oversight, nor bound by the policies of the executive branch. They have control over their own budget, commercial endeavors and political agenda. Politicians loyal to the Revolutionary Guards control the biggest block in the Majlis [parliament]. Within this web, you also have the Defense Ministry, which also might be as powerful as the Guards, and the military. Add to that the Assembly of Experts and Expediency Council, which have no executive power but still exert incredible influence within the country.
All of this makes it very hard to determine where power is concentrated in the country, and therefore hard to determine how to overthrow the established order.
The Iranian model of dealing with dissent is the same model the Chinese used in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The Iranian regime looks admiringly towards other governments that have used brute force to crush opposition. They believe the government is always right and that God has given them a mandate to rule. They believe that if bloodshed is used to crush a demonstration then the people who die are meant to be dead in order to make the Islamic Republic healthier in the long run.
The problem is that Bahrain and Libya have demonstrated the weakness of the Tiananmen Square model and the Iranian regime is scared to death. Unlike their counterparts in Tunisia, the Mullahs are not going to just pack up and go. They will hold onto power as long as it takes and do whatever it takes. Even if Iran reaches civil war and disintegrates, they will still try to hold on. However, the Islamic Republic as we have known it is finished. It is just a matter of when and how the system will collapse that has yet to be determined.
JB: Should the U.S. actively support the pro-democracy protests of hang back? What role should we play at this moment in history?
Kambiz: I think it was a bad miscalculation for the West to invest in authoritarian regimes without putting some pressure on these governments to stay within certain norms with respect to how they treat their people. The U.S. was always on good terms with these regimes and tolerated their brutality as long as they were stable business partners with Washington. The Middle East is not necessarily pro-America given this history in addition to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the Iraq War.
Now the best solution for the West is to be on the side of the people in the region and to help them achieve their goals. This should be done behind closed doors rather than through public statements. I think the U.S. should set a reform deadline for allies in the region like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. U.S. businesses should demand this as well. If these countries put more effort into establishing free and fair civil societies then that would take care of problems like Al Qaeda.
Given its history with these authoritarian regimes, the U.S. needs to avoid a war of words and concentrate on helping deliver tangible improvements to improve the lives of average people in the region. If the U.S. can help push these things through it will establish trust with the citizens throughout these countries, whatever happens in the future.
JB: Will the U.S. be better off with a democratic Middle East, even if the new democracies are not necessarily "pro-American?"
Kambiz: The U.S. is definitely better off with democracy in the region. It will only help the U.S. and will also help resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict - which would also be a great thing. Freedom and democracy open the doors for dialogue and reasoning. With democracy in the region, Israel will have to play by the rules and could not portray the rest of its neighbors as 'bad guys.' Israel has always been treated differently by the West because it is a democracy, and a very good one, but it would be expected to behave more reasonably with its neighbors if they were democracies as well.
Democracy in the Middle East would signify the emergence of a new world with new rules - a world with far less prejudice in which people will be able to solve their problems through dialogue rather than violence. This will benefit the entire world - including the United States.