Dr. Izadi is a faculty member at the Department of American Studies, Faculty of World Studies, University of Tehran, where he teaches MA and PhD courses in American studies. He received his PhD from Louisiana State University. He earned a BS in Economics and MA in Mass Communication from the University of Houston.
Q-1: How is the Islamic Republic coping with the pandemic that has affected a large number of people?
Coronavirus has impacted Iran heavily and the economic impact has also been extensive. What made the pandemic even more difficult is that Iran is under severe sanctions, so the government doesn’t have all the resources it needs to fight the pandemic.
Having said that, since the victory of the Islamic revolution, Iran’s medical infrastructure has improved immensely. The post-revolution work to improve the medical system in Iran has helped the country to cope with the crisis relatively well. Compared to the so-called “super-power”—the United States—Iran has dealt with the crisis much better.
This happened primarily because for many decades after the Islamic Revolution we have prioritized to improve our medical system. The United Nations publishes Human Development Index (HDI) statistics. They show that for the past 40 years Iran has been one of the top countries in terms of progress on the HDI. In 1965, the average age in Iran was about 55-58 years, now it’s about 75 years. So, we have improved our medical system to a level where we added 20 years to the life of our citizens. After the Islamic Revolution, facilities have greatly improved in the medical field and access to medicine. This has been achieved despite the severe sanctions. Iran’s scientific output rose 18-fold between 1996 and 2008.
People my age remember that before the Islamic Revolution when we went to see the doctor, we would often find doctors from the subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), because Iran did not produce enough doctors. Now the situation has changed; Iran has surplus of doctors and we are exporting them to other parts of the world. The pandemic does not believe propaganda, it follows hard facts which show that we have passed this test better than the countries which are sanctioning us.
Q-2: What impact has the pandemic had on the country’s economy given the illegal sanctions imposed by the US?
The entire world has suffered economically and of course, so has Iran, especially in the tourism sector. Many visitors to Iran come for religious purposes and this had to be restricted.
The illegal sanctions do not allow the government to help businesses which have suffered economically. Western regime’s which sanction Iran have disrupted our economic linkages to global trade. Companies and organizations that want to do business with Iran are also targeted and sanctioned. Even though officially humanitarian goods are exempt, in reality, humanitarian transactions are also sanctioned. Iran is denied proper access to the global banking system to purchase humanitarian goods. This has been the case since day one of the Islamic Revolution. This forced us to produce many medicines domestically, so there is a success story in that aspect, as we managed to produce medicine internally and developed our domestic pharmaceutical industry. However, this does not absolve Western regimes that have sanctioned Iran of criminal conduct.
In recent weeks, the US Treasury Department announced ban on shipping companies to ship goods to Iran even if that comprises food and medicine. Such policies have been imposed for the past 40 years and it is obvious that the policy of ‘maximum pressure’ has not worked. The concessions the US wanted from Iran have not been given.
The maximum pressure policy is not new, and it has failed to topple the Islamic government. Also, since Trump’s presidential term nears its end, they are attempting all sorts of desperate measures in order to inflict harm on Iran and our society, hoping that this will turn people against the elected government in the Islamic Republic. However, to their great credit, the private sector, religious NGOs and other NGOs managed to step up and help the affected segments of society. A lot of charity work is going on in Iran. Any other country would probably fare a lot worse taking into account the conditions that Iran is facing. We can find objective data on this; maximum pressure policy is aimed at every segment of the Iranian society.
Q-3: In recent weeks, there have been reports about Iran-China strategic partnership agreement. Chinese investments of some $400 billion has been mentioned together with Iran guaranteeing oil supplies to China for the next 25 years. What is known about the proposed agreement?
There were some documents leaked through social media which outline the general parameters of the agreement between Iran and China. While neither government has confirmed it, the authenticity of the document is implied.
A few weeks ago, we had a webinar with our Chinese colleagues, and they informed us that there is a consensus in China that it needs to work with Iran. The Rouhani administration supports development of ties with Beijing. They tried for seven years to improve relations with Western countries, but they have realised that they are not interested in improving relations with Iran. Therefore, now they are more focussed on improving relations with other countries. The Rouhani administration is determined to get some sort of positive results regarding an economic pact with China in order to compensate for its inability to improve relations with Western regimes.
However, there are many people in Iran, especially among the intelligensia, who are Eurocentric; they are stuck in the 1960s. It is difficult for them to readjust their perceptions and thinking, and understand that the West’s influence is eroding and other countries are becoming much more important.
Developing relations with China is essential for Iran to bypass sanctions, as China is an important buyer of Iranian oil. Beijing also buys quite a lot unofficially.
On the Chinese side, there is consensus that no matter who is elected as US president, anti-China mentality will dominate Washington’s policy in the near future and they will attempt to stop China’s economic progress. Since China buys 60% of its energy products from the Persian Gulf, there is consensus in China that they must have good relations with Iran. China knows that of all countries in the Persian Gulf, only Iran is free from US domination. It is the only country that can have independent economic and political relations with China free from US influence. Therefore, it is of strategic importance for China to develop good relations with Iran. However, we are also aware and are concerned about the situation of Muslims in Western China and know the hardships they are going through. We think that if Iran establishes a strategic relationship with China, we can then influence and guide China in their policies regarding Muslims there. China is trying to water down Islam and create the Chinese version of Islam. It is clearly failing, and this policy is backfiring as it is creating anti-Chinese sentiment in the Muslim world. The Europeans tried something similar with Islam, to create a Euro-Islam, but it backfired. So, China should learn from Europe’s mistakes. We hope that by establishing a strategic relationship with China, we can assist Beijing in addressing its issues with Muslims in a reasonable and just manner.
3:2: How far have these talks advanced?
The document which was widely discussed in the media has been presented to the Chinese side. They got worried that it created a lot of political noise in Iran. They like to work quietly in these matters. However, from what we understand, the general parameters of the document have been agreed upon and both countries are working on the specific aspects and are preparing to sign an official agreement.
3:3: There has been some concern expressed that Iran may have agreed to provide some military bases to China. Is this true?
These claims are not true. Iran would never accept foreign military presence on its soil. This rumour was created by a group outside Iran who are financed by Western regimes in order to discredit and derail the economic pact between China and Iran. If this agreement materializes, it is going to be very hard for NATO regimes to sanction and pressure Iran economically. Therefore, groups based outside Iran try to use media manipulation and propaganda to spread false information.
Q-4: Together with the Iran-China agreement, there are also reports of some kind of a strategic partnership emerging between Iran, China, Russia and Turkey. What is your assessment of such reports; is anything in the offing?
Iran has a strategic partnership agreement with Russia that is due to expire soon, so Iran is seeking to update it and add additional provisions for the same reasons that Iran is seeking to improve relations with China.
Regarding Turkey, we would also like to have good relations with Ankara. Already a lot of trade is taking place through Turkey and we are interested in having a strategic relationship with Turkey.
Turkish officials are also interested in having good relations with Iran. Even at the height of the Syrian war when Iran and Turkey disagreed on many issues on Syria, they still maintained economic cooperation. When it comes to the four countries forming a formal alliance or partnership, I am sure there are people who are thinking about this, but I don’t think it is being discussed at the official level at present.
Q-5: The Saudi economy has also been badly affected by the pandemic. Do you see this as a potential threat to the regime’s survival?
If we look at the economic and political data coming out of Saudi Arabia, we see that they are not doing well economically or politically. There is open infighting among the royals which will damage the regime.
Also, their foreign policy has been a total failure. In fact, one can say that they don’t know how to conduct foreign policy. With all the money they have and Western political backing, they have failed in Yemen, Lebanon and Syria and failed badly.
As to whether the regime will collapse or survive, it depends on when King Salman passes away. If he dies before Mohammed bin Salman manages to eliminate his opponents in order to get to the throne, there is likely to be much internal tension and infighting. If bin Salman manages to eliminate his internal opponents before his father’s death, this would prolong the lifespan of the regime. Overall, my assessment of the Saudi regime is bleak as it faces some serious strategic problems and in assessing their survivability, I would say that their mistakes will catch up with them sooner than later.
Q-6: Do you see the Arab world as a monolith or there are groupings within it? If so, how are they aligned?
There are many different groups in the Arab world, one of the key ones being the Muslim Brotherhood. Each group is striving to increase its influence. The Muslim Brotherhood is under severe pressure from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who are under the American security umbrella. On the other hand, we also have the broader global Islamic movement which believes in solutions to the region based on Islamic principles. One comes across these principles in the ideas presented in the Crescent International.
Overall, the Arab world is suffering from neocolonialism, external interference and poor governance. Differences are there and each side is trying to push its own narrative. The biggest issue is that overall, the current leadership of the Arab world is not concerned about their citizens.
Q-7: Do you see the end of US hegemony in the region in the near future?
The US hegemony is declining and it’s definitely less than it used to be. A big sign of their hegemonic decline is that they have spent billions of dollars in this region to maintain their position but have not been able to derive the political benefits of their involvement.
American presence in the region will continue in the near future, but it will not be a smooth presence, nor effective. Yes, they might preserve some of their military bases here for a little longer, but they will not have any effective influence on the situation. They lost their ability to take the situation towards the destination they desire. US influence was eliminated in Iran 40 years ago, they pretty much lost Iraq, Syria and Yemen and in other areas of the region, Washington’s political goals are not being met. This is good for the local population of this part of the world. We must take our destiny into our own hands.
Q-8: Who in your assessment is likely to win the US presidential election and whether it would make much difference to US policy vis-à-vis other countries, especially the Islamic Republic?
If elections were held today Joe Biden would win, but they are still several weeks away. Overall, the trend is that if more people show up to vote, it will benefit the Democrats. This is one reason the Republicans do not want to assist in the mail-in voting process.
It is not clear what will happen to the mail-in voting procedure and how bad the economy will get by election day on November 3.
The policy of maximum pressure against Iran has failed. We know that if Biden becomes president, they are planning to get back to the JCPOA agreement and will aim to get more concessions from Iran, which they could not get through the JCPOA.
We should also keep in mind that when the new US administration comes to power, we will have the Rouhani administration for another six months in Iran. Rouhani’s administration is interested in maintaining good relations with the West by building on the JCPOA. For their own legacy, President Rouhani is interested in rehabilitating the JCPOA agreement.
If Trump wins the elections, since the maximum pressure policy has failed, depending on the people he will have in his second administration, they might also reduce the pressure. For example, in his first administration Trump had people like General Mattis and Rex Tillerson. They were interested in maintaining the JCPOA agreement. John Bolton’s recent book has highlighted that many people opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.
So, if the realist wing of the Republican Party gets in the White House, we might have the same result regarding Iran as the Democrats coming to power. We must also keep in mind that generally people who serve in the first presidential administration in the US change during the second term. For example, Bolton is gone, so is Brian Hook and many others. Pompeo is still around, but that might change as well. People who are proponents of the maximum pressure policy know they only have a few months left, so they are trying their utmost to see if the maximum pressure policy will work.
Overall, there is general consensus in Iran that the country must learn to live with a very hostile US, based on Iran's experience in dealing with Washington over the last 40 years and the nuclear agreement. This line of thinking is becoming mainstream in Iranian politics. We have to figure out how we go about conducting policy without being fixated on smoothing and ironing out things with the US. Washington has shown that it is not interested in dialogue.
Q-9: Will all US forces including intelligence operatives leave Afghanistan soon or in the near future? How do you see Afghanistan’s future trajectory with the potential of the Taliban coming to power?
My simple answer is, probably not. Many people in the US military and intelligence services want to maintain a presence in Afghanistan in order to monitor and pressure Iran. We saw a similar policy in Syria, where the US president wanted to withdraw but those in his inner circle convinced him to maintain some military presence there.
Regarding the Taliban coming back to power and control the entire country, it is something we must wait and see. Over the years Iran has worked with some elements of the Taliban movement. Overall, even when the Taliban were in power back in the 1990s, Iran tried to work with them because Iran is keen to maintain its borders with Afghanistan peaceful. It was the Taliban that killed Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif and triggered the crisis in relationship with Iran.
The future of Afghanistan, however, must be decided by the Afghans themselves and no matter what we think of the Taliban, they have a significant following in Afghanistan. At the geopolitical level Iran, is very interested in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan because it is in Iran’s interest, as it creates stability in the region and eliminates any pretext for foreign interference.
(Dr. Izadi’s research and teaching interests are inter-disciplinary and focus on United States-Iran relations and US public diplomacy. His recent book, United States Public Diplomacy Towards Iran, discusses the United States communication efforts in Iran during George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He has published numerous studies in national and international academic journals and major handbooks. He has also appeared as political commentator on most major media outlets including CNN, RT (Russia Today), CCTV, Sky News, Press TV, ITV News, Al Jazeera, Euronews, IRIB, France 24, TRT World, NPR, and other international media outlets. He has been quoted in many publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, China Daily, The Tehran Times, The Toronto Star, El Mundo, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The New Yorker, and Newsweek.)