Prominent American political scientist Stephen Eric Bronner was part of an academic delegation that traveled to Iran earlier in January to hold public lectures for the Iranian journalists, students, researchers and take part in talks with the officials of Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
The trip was jointly sponsored by U.S. Academics for Peace and the Institute for Political and International Studies in Tehran and brought 10 American university professors and theologians to Iran to visit the country after it reached an interim agreement with the bloc of six world powers, including the United States, on November 24, 2013 over its nuclear program.
According to Prof. Bronner, “civic diplomacy or what has been termed ‘soft diplomacy’ usually has only indirect effects, but that does not invalidate its importance. The need for better understanding is more than a cliché.”
“Our visits to different Islamic nations taught us how little we know about Arab public opinion and political attitudes toward the United States and, by the same token, how little mid-Eastern states know about the inner workings of American politics and the conflicting attitudes of our citizenry. This is a matter of some importance. The impact of such ignorance became evident in the miscalculations of especially right-wing American policymakers about the cultural climate in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria,” said Prof. Stephen Eric Bronner in an exclusive interview with Tehran Times after he returned to the United States from Iran.
Stephen Eric Bronner is a noted political philosopher and Professor of Political Science, Comparative Literature, and German Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He has published over 25 books and 200 journal articles. One of his recent books entitled “Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, Utopia” was published in 2012 by the Columbia University Press.
Tehran Times conducted an interview with Prof. Bronner regarding the American delegation’s goodwill trip to Iran, his assessment of the interim nuclear accord between Iran and P5+1 and the prospects of Iran-West relations following the election of President Hassan Rouhani. What follows is the text of interview.
Q: You were part of a delegation of American academics who traveled to Iran to confer with the Iranian university professors, students and officials with the aim of mending the marred and blemished relations between Iran and the United States. Please tell us more about the objectives of this trip and your plans and programs in Iran.
A: I visited Iran with a delegation organized by U.S. Academics for Peace. Under the stewardship of Dr. James Jennings, U.S. Academics has previously gone to Iraq before the American invasion, Iran, Syria, and Sudan/Darfur. Its aim is always to improve cultural relations between what currently appear as estranged nations. We had the opportunity of meeting with representatives of various ministries and deputy foreign ministers. The trip itself had the backing of Foreign Minister (Mohammad) Javad Zarif and we had the privilege of spending a few hours in meetings with one of the chief Iranian negotiators on nuclear issues. Our trips attempt to improve communication, better understanding, offer a different political perspective back home through our media contacts, and also lay the basis for further cultural exchanges and common research projects.
Q: What’s your evaluation of the public sphere of Iran, the state of daily life in the streets of Tehran, the Iranian lifestyle and the people’s interaction with each other? How has Iran changed since the last time you visited the country?
A: My sense was that the new administration of President Rouhani has provided, at least those people I met, with new hope for improving ties with the West and the United States, thereby lessening sanctions and improving economic life, but also with respect to expanding civil liberties and cultural freedom. Foreign and domestic policies are often inter-related. Generally speaking, we seemed to experience a new optimism and glimpsed a new window of opportunity for bettering relations between our countries.
Q: Why is it important for the academicians, journalists and other professionals both in Iran and the United States to interact and have cultural exchanges with each other? Do you believe that these exchanges can lead to the removal of misunderstandings and pave the way for the improvement of Iran-U.S. relations in the diplomatic level?
A: Civic diplomacy or what has been termed “soft diplomacy” usually has only indirect effects. But that does not invalidate its importance. The need for better understanding is more than a cliché: Our visits to different Islamic nations taught us how little we know about Arab public opinion and political attitudes toward the United States and, by the same token, how little mid-Eastern states know about the inner workings of American politics and the conflicting attitudes of our citizenry. This is a matter of some importance. The impact of such ignorance became evident in the miscalculations of especially right-wing American policymakers about the cultural climate in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria: but woeful lack of knowledge about the complexities of American politics, such as the splits within the Democratic Party and even within the Jewish community, is evident not only among Islamists but also among the Iranian mainstream.
Q: How do you assess the recent interim nuclear accord between Iran and the six world powers, including the United States? It was for the first time in more than 3 decades that the presidents of Iran and the United States talked to each other on phone and the foreign ministers of the two nations sat with each other and conferred a number of times. What’s your assessment of the importance of the agreement which was struck in Geneva and the upcoming talks in Vienna for reaching a comprehensive solution?
A: The nuclear controversy was tainted by ideology and stereotyping from its inception. According to international law, Iran clearly has the right to develop nuclear energy for domestic uses. In America, however, this right has been ignored and my country’s policy has been deeply influenced by some fears of Iranian ambitions to create nuclear weapons. Intelligence officials have stated that these fears are unwarranted but this is meaningless to the ideologues. Old stereotypes have been blended with Israeli talk about Iran posing an “existential threat” to its existence. Our hosts made clear what should actually be obvious, namely, that there is no target for an Iranian weapon: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Pakistan are in disarray.
What the recent accord represents, in my opinion, is the first step in bracketing stereotypes and prejudices. Iran and the United States engaged as equal states in the negotiating process and the phone calls between our presidents validated that. I am no scientist and I cannot speak to the details of the accord but I can say that, while a comprehensive solution will prove difficult, the new policy of these states toward one another is indeed new and we should recognize it for what it is.
Q: The delegation that traveled to Tehran last month consisted of a number of academics on different fields, including theology and religion. Do you think that the elimination of mistrust and hostilities between Iran and the United States can also pave the way for a more comprehensive interfaith dialog between the Muslims and Christians? Is the improvement of Iran-U.S. bilateral ties going to contribute to the abolition of Islamophobic sentiments that rule the American society by presenting a more fair and balanced image of Islam to the American society?
A: I am tempted to put it the other way around. Given the role of religion in the Middle East, reconciliation between differing faiths is perhaps the precondition for eliminating other forms of mistrust between Iran and the United States. We hope that a new interfaith dialogue will take place and U.S. Academics would be delighted to participate. It seems to me that furthering religious tolerance is part of any genuine lessening of tensions and any attempts to deal with other political conflicts not merely between Christians and Muslims but also between Sunni and Shia. Here destructive stereotypes play a particularly important role and combating them is another reason for greater cultural awareness and interchange. Progressive politics in the region cannot ignore the religious variable. That is also true from the standpoint of Iran. Islamophobia does not rule the United States. It has actually receded somewhat, especially in the cities. Nevertheless, this prejudice like any other form of bigotry remains in reserve – ready for political manipulation.
Q: What was the reaction and perception of the American academics who visited Iran for the first time? What did they think of Iran? What were they saying while returning to the States? Had their preconceptions changed after coming to Iran?
A: Most of my colleagues who visited Iran for the first time were delighted by the kind treatment that they experienced in Tehran. Their counterparts were sophisticated, reasonable, and curious about the United States. Our delegation saw a bustling city with its bazaar, museums and restaurants. But we also saw that the sanctions have had an economic impact. Our hosts noted that the present moment offered a “window of opportunity” that could close quickly. Our delegation took these warnings very seriously. Already, since our return to the United States, members of the delegation have given interviews, written letters to newspapers, planned public lectures, opened journals to Iranian academics, and began to talk about future delegations and conferences. All of us, as I said, wish to do what we can to better relations between our countries.
Q: Does the improvement of bilateral ties between Iran and the United States in all fields lead to greater security and peace in the Middle East? Will the other nations in this turbulent region benefit from a thaw in Iran-U.S. relations?
A: The change that has taken place in Iranian foreign policy is mirrored by the change in my own country. I understand that American use of drones has cost too many lives, that Guantanamo is still open – congressional votes are necessary to close it, and that American policy in the region is still entangled with that of various reactionary regimes. But it is also the case that President Obama has rejected the “pre-emptive strike” doctrine of the Bush Administration, that he has withdrawn the great bulk of forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, that he has followed a prudent course in Syria, that he has been critical of Israel where the political right holds him in contempt, and – of course – that he has withstood immense pressure by AIPAC and s mix of right-wing Republicans and conservative Democrats to bomb Iran in favor of initiating a new dialogue. The American citizenry is sick of war and sick of interventions without plan or purpose. More and more are coming to the conclusion that security does not simply emanate from the barrel of a gun and I think it is becoming ever more evident that a meaningful peace not only in Syria but in the region as a whole is impossible without Iran. Furthering peace requires a cosmopolitan dialogue – and I hope that U.S. Academics can contribute to it.