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Understanding Iran

Conference today aims to change U.S. perceptions


A 2009 Iranian prodemocracy rally was covered by Nazila Fathi (left) of the New York Times, a participant in the BU conference Covering Iran: Journalism and Truth Under Siege. Photo courtesy of Nazila Fathi

Iran “might be the most pro-American country in the whole world.” That observation, from former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer, may jar Americans accustomed to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-American, anti-Semitic spewing. But Kinzer (CAS’73), a College of Arts & Sciences visiting professor of international relations, says the regime led by Ahmadinejad is detested by young Iranians.

Dispelling our misperceptions of Iran is the goal of a daylong College of Communication conference today. Kinzer will moderate two of the conference’s panel discussions. The author of Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future (Times Books, 2010), he recently visited Iran, where, he says, numerous Iranians told him of their admiration for the United States.

The conference will screen two films shot during last year’s Iranian elections, which Ahmadinejad won amid charges of cheating and forcibly subdued protests. The first, The Election That Shook Iran, begins at 9:30 a.m., followed by a morning panel featuring four reporters who covered the protests. The afternoon group ponders how to portray Iran more accurately to Americans; the conference closes with the film For Neda, at 4:30 p.m.

With Iran denying Western charges that it is surreptitiously seeking nuclear weapons, the goal of the conference is “reshaping U.S. perceptions of Iran in the hope of avoiding war.” But are we heading to war, and what are the misperceptions? BU Today spoke with Kinzer about the topic.

BU Today: What’s distorted about our view of Iran?
If there is a distortion on the part of Americans about Iran, it would be that they take the image of the Holocaust-denying, Israel-hating, demonstrator-beating president and extrapolate from that that we have a hostile nation on our hands. In fact, Iran has more in common with the United States than most countries in the Middle East, including most of our so-called allies. Iran is an intriguing potential partner for the United States.

Iran is a young country; more than half the population is under 21. They don’t remember the Islamic revolution. Many young people resent not just the policies of the Islamic republic, but its attempt to force its way into their private lives and tell them what kinds of clothes to wear, what kinds of haircuts to have. The Iranian economy’s also not able to produce jobs.

Isn’t it alarmist to suggest we’re heading to war? As we try to wind down two wars, Americans don’t have the stomach for a third.
One would like to think that being involved in two wars in Muslim countries would be enough to deter us from a third. Nonetheless, we hear repeatedly from our political leaders that “all options are on the table” when it comes to Iran. I can’t think of any other country with which we are now using that phrase.

Your former Times colleague Roger Cohen writes, “Obama won’t attack Iran, and nor will Israel, not by next July or ever. Iran is a paper tiger.”
Roger Cohen is a rare voice of reason. He was replying to an article on the cover of The Atlantic, which said that war has been decided, and Israel is going to do it. I hope Roger is right. Pro-American sentiment in Iran is a strategic asset to us. Bombing them and killing people’s children is a good way to end their friendship.

Given the number of Iranians using social media to describe what’s happening on the ground there, why do we continue to have so many misconceptions?
The internet culture is huge in Iran. The number of blogs is astronomical. The regime, however, is watching this closely. They are censoring.

If Americans knew more about Iran, do you think U.S. policy would be different?
It’s unclear whether any kind of arrangement is possible with this present Iranian regime. Nonetheless, we have insisted that Iran negotiate with us exclusively on its nuclear program. They’re being asked to negotiate on the highest card in their hand. A more appealing option might be broader negotiations on what will it take to submit their nuclear program to full transparency. I think they would want security guarantees, acceptance into a new Middle East security architecture. There is no American security goal in the Middle East that is reachable without Iran.

Covering Iran: Journalism and Truth Under Siege starts at 9:30 a.m. today, Tuesday, October 26, at the BU Photonics Center, 8 St. Mary’s St. Events are free and open to the public. A schedule and list of participants are available here.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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