Q&A with Sociology Professor Misagh Parsa

by Arianna Khan | 1/22/20 2:10am

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Source: Courtesy of Misagh Parsa

The recent rise in tensions between the United States and Iran has incited a substantial amount of concern about increased conflict between the two countries. As a result, many of us have been closely following the news in hopes of better understanding the situation and its potential consequences.  

I spoke to sociology professor Misagh Parsa, who studies Iranian politics, to learn more about the context of this conflict from the Iranian perspective. Parsa conducts research on Iran’s struggle for democracy, ranging from the early 20th century to the present. He aims to understand the problems within Iran’s democratization movement and how it may succeed in the future.

Is there anything about Iranian politics that you think many Americans don’t know but they should, or any common misconceptions that you run into when talking to people about Iran? 

MP: Two major ones. One has to do with domestic politics in Iran and one about the United States. The first one, domestic. So, when the revolution came, the first parliament was dominated by the clergy. Just over sixty percent of the first parliament in 1980 were clerics. By 2016, when the current Parliament convened, 5.5 percent of them are clerics. So, the Iranians basically rejected the clergy. And in the past few weeks and the past few years, beginning with 1999 student protests, everywhere you hear “the clergy must go, the clergy must go.” First, the students started it and now, all the protests, including a few days ago and in November and 2017, 2018, are against the clergy. One of the new slogans says, “Cannons, tanks, missiles, the clergy has to get lost.” In 1999, the slogan was, “The people are miserable, and the clerics are acting like Gods.” So that’s the first thing that people in this country and the rest of the world should know: The vast majority of the Iranian people do not want the theocracy. 

The other issue has to do with the views of America in Iran. So, Khomeini and his supporters could have been overthrown late 1979 or early 1980s, possibly, but it’s not highly probable. They played a very effective trick, which they have been playing all this time. You had the United States embassy taken — the people who were there taken hostage for 444 days — and that’s a position against America. The country was falling apart, and Khomeini had difficulty fulfilling promises that he had made because he had no intention of fulfilling some of those promises. So, he said, America is the great Satan, and he endorsed the students who had taken over and that rallied everybody around the flag and behind him. Again, the war against Iraq came in 1980, and everybody had to support the government. If you didn’t support the government, you were an American agent, you were repressed. You were put to jail and executed. 

But now, fast forward to 2017. One group of farmers in the city of Isfahan had a fight over water against the Islamic regime, which had diverted some of their water to a drier region. Isfahan and particularly farmers in Iran have been historically very conservative. They did not even join the revolution for the Islamic Republic until very, very late and their participation was not consequential at all. Now we can fast forward to 2017. These farmers came out, to my surprise, and brought one new slogan to Iranian politics: “Our enemy is here. They lie saying that America is our enemy.” And, in the past few weeks, we have seen that in the university they put American flags on the ground in walkways and in public areas, so people were supposed to be walking over them, and the students and the public walk around the flag. They do not walk on the flag. There’s two things that people should know. 

Were you surprised by the recent rise in tensions between the U.S. and Iran involving the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and the attacks on military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq?

MP: I was absolutely shocked that Donald Trump, or any American president, would assassinate perhaps the most important powerful person in Iran, after the Supreme Leader. People in Iran were saying he was a national hero and defended the country against ISIS. Some people were talking about him running for the presidency, even. Doing such a thing would be basically a declaration of war.  

The other shocking thing about what happened was the fact that the Islamic Republic didn’t really respond. So, this is one of the things about the Islamic Republic and the tension between the United States, Iran, Israel and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iran: the Islamic Republic, from the very beginning, wanted to expand and export the revolution to the rest of the Middle East. Much of the Middle East is not Shia, it’s Sunni, but wherever they could, they wanted to organize and overthrow those governments or bring their own people to power. Iran goes to these countries, like Lebanon, and promotes the Hezbollah, the Shiites, arms them, trains them, and gets them ready for a war against Israel or whoever is their enemy. It creates a government within a government.  

Now in Iraq there are all these militia groups, at least two major ones. Iran’s policy is promoting militias. What shocked me is that the militias basically didn’t do a thing. And looking back, what just happened with the shooting down of the Ukrainian airplane is a way to understand the situation in the country, to understand why they didn’t respond against the United States. You have to look inside Iranian society. They have now got the message that the vast majority of the people do not want them. So if you get into a war, maybe for a few days they chant “death to America,” “death to Israel.” But after those few days, as just happened when they admitted that they had shot down the plane, the protesters were out in all major cities, all universities throughout the country, and so they had to arrest and beat up people and all that. It shows that they understand that the vast majority of the people don’t want them, and if they get into a war with the United States, they’re finished.

Do you think that this conflict will have a lasting impact on the relationship between the United States and Iran?

MP: Yes. This conflict will have lasting impact. Definitely. Iranians have noticed that the Islamic regime used them against America in order to repress them, not America. They all want to normalize their relationship with the United States. It was just empty slogans in order to shore up their support base. So yeah, they don’t want conflict with the United States. That’s the moral of the story. That’s the lasting thing that will come out of this. But first, they have to replace the Islamic Republic in order for them to get there, and now that’s the issue. That’s the challenge for them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.