The Global Conversations project is a Popular Discourse initiative to bring together voices from various countries, backgrounds, and areas of expertise to discuss issues that matter. This week, we are fortunate enough to bring you a conversation with Kourosh Ziabari, a correspondent at Fair Observer, Iran Review, Middle East Eye, Your Middle East, and other outlets. Ziabari has won several awards and fellowships for his work, including the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellowship in Cultural Journalism, the East-West Center’s Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship, and the Iranian National Press Festival’s first prize for political journalism. In July 2015, Ziabari was awarded a Chevening Scholarship by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to pursue his master’s study in the UK. The scholarship is granted to gifted students with leadership potential from more than 140 countries around the world. Currently, Kourosh is a MA International Multimedia Journalism student at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent, Medway Campus.
By MEGHAN BODETTE || September 30, 2016
Popular Discourse: The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was signed over a year ago, and the future of the US-Iran relationship is a topic of discussion and disagreement in both countries. How do you envision the future of this relationship? Do you think it is likely to improve?
Kourosh Ziabari: If we look at the troubled history of Iran-U.S. relations and grasp the delicacy of their mutual engagement over the course of the past 40 years, it turns out that what was achieved in July 2015 was an extraordinary step forward. Whereas for a period of four decades, even the lowest-ranking officials and diplomats of the two countries would hysterically evade each other in public, and rush to deny the rumors that they had accidentally run into each other, met each other, shook hands or simply exchanged a few words of greetings – even when those rumors were true – one can dare call it a revolution that the presidents of the two countries had a 15-minute phone conversation back in September 2013, and the two foreign ministers became the most intimate friends that would simply call each other on first name basis. Some reports even went so far as to claim that the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spent more time together in 2014 and 2015 than any other two foreign ministers in the world! So, even though such a development appears to be symbolic and unsubstantial, it carries a lot of weight after four decades of absolutely non-existent mutual relations between the two countries on any political and diplomatic front. You may want to call it a jump!
The nuclear agreement, as the officials of both countries have emphasized, was not meant to solve all the differences keeping Iran and the U.S. apart. That’s true. But I think everybody agrees the two adversaries should have started from a certain point to ease the tensions. It’s really impossible, impractical and unrealistic to expect this huge bulk of misunderstandings, animosity and grievances accumulated between the two nations during such a long period to go away in a jiffy. And moreover, the differences between the two nations have been so entrenched and extensive that they either remain there forever, or are simply settled through dialog and a sustained commitment to realize constructive dialog.
I’m hopeful about the future of Iran-U.S. relations, because history has proven that animosity won’t last forever, even if it’s so deep-rooted. Countries are practicing how to talk to each other even when they don’t agree on everything. Even sometimes, they totally differ in terms of ideology, nature and ideals, but they have come to terms with each other, and it means the limits of international relations are defined in accordance with facts on the ground, neither fantasies, nor vague mottos.
Take, for example, Saudi Arabia. The UK firms have sold around £5.6 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2010. Saudis do not resemble any of the values that the British society characterizes. They’re each literally standing on the two most extreme ends of the spectrum. Even the UK Home Office considers the Saudi Arabian students as “high-risk students” needing to register with the police within 7 days of arriving in the UK to study there. But you can see they’re getting along quite well, enjoying a mutually benefiting relationship, and at times, maintaining their differences and arguing over them. This is how international relations work – which is putting national interests above anything else, and I really hope Tehran and Washington will learn to practice some tolerance and pragmatism and understand that even the closest, most loyal allies have their differences at times, and just try to minimize or conceal them. Again, look at the U.S. and Israel, think of their affectionate, special relationship and consider how much conflict they’ve had in the recent 3-4 years. So, here we go! Iran and the United States should not expect themselves to embrace each other as true lovers after forty year of unremitting enmity. They have to take the steps one by one, and I’m confident they’ll move to the stage of full normalization one day. Maybe that day will happen 100 years later. I don’t know. But could anybody imagine President Obama paying an official trip to Havana and taking those fancy photos with President Raul Castro after half a century?
PD: Iran’s next presidential election will occur in 2017. What issues do you think will be most important in this election?
KZ: The most important development affecting the next year’s election, which has just been unfolded, is the strong warning by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against the ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a well-known demagogue and hardliner, dissuading him from running for president. Ahmadinejad, who ruled Iran from 2005 until 2013 for two consecutive terms, had ambitiously planned to try his chance for a third time – after losing the chance to do so immediately due to constitutional limits, and had been going on lecture tours across the country apparently for no good reason, and while the campaign season has not officially kicked off yet. The Leader recognized that another term for Ahmadinejad in office would be tantamount to the aggravation and enlargement of national splits and divisions, renewed tensions with the outside world after the breathtaking efforts by President Rouhani and his team to get the nuclear controversy settled, and a new shock to domestic economy now that relative stability has started to rule Iran’s troubled market. Ahmadinejad’s record during his eight years in office was one of mismanagement and cluelessness on domestic and foreign policy.
Ahmadinejad is literally obsessed with power and has been long fancying running for the upcoming presidential election in 2017, launching a controversial campaign, winning the vote even with a narrow margin by every possible means and then starting to entertain the same experiences that exceptionally boosted his confidence to the point that he never apologized to his constituency, even once, for the grave mistakes he committed, including drowning the country in an erosive conflict with the entire world over the nuclear issue and virtually leaving Iran’s economy in ruins. Nothing could have stopped him from running, because it’s not the Iranian people or the future of Iran he cares about. It’s his power greed and publicity lust that keeps him stuck to the nation’s political panorama, even four years after his retirement. Only the Supreme Leader could have prevented him from seeking a comeback. And when he got that stern public caution, he didn’t comply out of affection for the Supreme Leader or obedience to him – what Ahmadinejad’s fans falsely believe, or simply pretend to believe he characterizes perfectly, that is unconditional submission to the Supreme Leader. He wrote a reluctant letter of homage addressed to Ayatollah Khamenei, saying that he doesn’t have plans for the next year’s polls. He didn’t mention anything about the future elections, nor did he make any reference to his possible withdrawal from politics. Perhaps he just felt compelled to oblige, or he would have faced a crisis in his fan base.
However, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being cast out of the race, I don’t think of any major rival challenging Rouhani seriously, even though I cannot guarantee he will be able to secure an unproblematic reelection. Rouhani’s disappointing performance on a number of issues the people wanted him to fix quite quickly after coming to office, and his inability to fix them even while he’s nearing the end of his first term, has proven to be a challenge for the moderate cleric, and a disillusionment for his supporters. However, I’m confident the next year’ election will be a competitive, vibrant and exciting race, regardless of the outcome.
PD: As a journalist, you have had the opportunity to travel the world and cover key figures and events in various countries. What is the most important lesson you have learned from this international perspective?
KZ: Thankfully, since I finished my undergraduate studies, I’ve been able to travel to quite a few places across the globe and gain new experiences. The most important thing these trips have taught me is that a good journalist cannot be confined to his newsroom and expect to become a trained, seasoned and proficient media personality all of a sudden. One has to interact with people of diverse, different backgrounds, grasp the nuances of various cultures that at times appear to be inconsistent and totally dissimilar, learn about what matters to people here and there, and understand the delicacy of global civilizations. I cannot really claim that traveling to a dozen of countries has made me such an erudite and progressive journalist, but I know it’s essential that thriving journos break the barriers that segregate them from the outside world and make them unable to establish long-lasting ties and explore new universes.
Sometimes, journalists are stuck in their preconceptions, and it prevents them from giving a realistic and fair coverage to the current affairs, as well as issues of historical nature that still matter to the public. Again, it’s almost impossible to say journalists do not take sides or are absolutely impartial, because it’s not really the responsibility of the journalists to be totally unbiased – but it’s their responsibility to be honest and adhere to integrity. When they produce stories that are consistent and predicated on honesty, then it’s quite inevitable that the level of impartiality in their coverage will ascend accordingly.
I’ve been contributing to international media organizations since 2008, and I’ve been learning and practicing fresh methods all the time, trying to acquire new knowledge to embellish and uplift my work of journalism. I aspire to become a leading, distinguished media personality respected worldwide – actually it’s my long-term plan, or maybe wishful thinking, and I’m sure these trips have given me a better picture of how the world works, even though with over 200 countries and territories distributed in five continents and some 7.4 billion people living across these regions, it’s almost impossible for any journalist to be able to “completely” discern and understand the subtleties of the entire world. However, we can try and move in the direction of becoming more comprehensive and more understanding media people and narrow down our ignorance. Being able to understand the differences between people and accommodate them is what distinguishes successful and failed journalists, I think.