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Iran Chat:  An Interview Series from the American Iranian Council

Iran Chat: An Interview Series from the American Iranian Council

A new interview series from the American Iranian Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to improving relations between the US and Iran. This interview series covers all topics related to Iran, its culture and its people.

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Iran Chat: Interview with Jim Lobe about the Likelihood of War with Iran

After a long break, Iran Chat is back and we felt this year?s series should begin with a deep dive into the current state of US-Iran relations, focusing on the very real and growing possibility of war with Iran. 
 
To help sort through all the recent news and issues concerning US-Iran relations, we spoke with journalist Jim Lobe.  He served as chief of the Washington DC bureau of Inter Press Service from 1980 to 1985 and again from 1989 to 2016.  Currently he is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs LobeLog, an award-winning web blog focused on foreign policy, featuring posts by expert contributors on a variety of global issues, with an emphasis on US policy towards the Middle East. 
 
Recently, he co-wrote an article for Lobelog entitled War Against Iran Becoming Ever More Likely.  We discuss his rationale for this assessment during our conversation.  

Some excerpts:

 

Regarding the Anti-Iran Advisors Around Trump

There are a fairly significant number of people around the President who seem to not like Iran at all, and while they may not want war with Iran -- they would prefer for the regime to collapse or for there to be a popular insurrection that would displace the regime -- they are of the view that regime change is essential and at the very least the US needs to inflict as much damage as possible on military and paramilitary capabilities of Iran before they leave office. 

The prime example is John Bolton who is the National Security Advisor.  He seems to have a lot against Iran, seemingly dating from the hostage crisis, which he considers to have humiliated the US? He?s closely associated with the MEK and has spoken before them many times; the last time predicting the imminent end of the Islamic Republic, just before he become National Security Advisor. 

Then there?s Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, who may not be quite as hawkish as Bolton, but clearly really hates Iran.  When he was a Congressman, he was involved in various stunts designed to embarrass Iran.  He was constantly denouncing Iran and vehemently opposed the JCPOA ? He is definitely a Christian Zionist, making reference to the rapture in public, and he is very devoted to the idea of a greater Israel of the kind that Likud has historically espoused. There is very little doubt in my mind that he thinks devotion to Israel should be a fundamental principle of US foreign policy.

Then there?s someone like Sheldon Adelson who is the Republican Party?s biggest donor.  And who, back about seven years ago, suggested that the US drop a nuclear bomb somewhere in the - as he put it - Iranian desert, coupled with the ultimatum that Iran must give up its entire nuclear infrastructure if it wanted to survive; and, if Iran failed to comply his idea was to drop a nuclear bomb in the middle of Tehran.



President Trump's Attitude Towards War with Iran

Personally, I think that if you presented the idea of war to President Trump, he wouldn?t like it because he takes pride in the fact that there hasn?t been a war despite various pressures.  I think he does genuinely want to disentangle the US military from the Middle East.  I think that is a genuine, albeit not necessarily consistent, kind of leitmotif of his. And it?s something he could take to the 2020 election.  Dennis Ross from the Washington Institute called Trump?s policy ?belligerent isolationism,? which I think is a pretty good tag. He doesn?t really like to be involved with foreign affairs politically and he thinks it?s a loser because everyone is trying to take advantage of the US, or of him. 

But, the question is: if there is a moment of crisis where Trump feels besieged and like he could be impeached and he could actually be repudiated by the Republican Party and hence his chances of winning reelection are looking like virtually nothing, what would he do?  Who would he consult with?  And who are the people around him, and what would they say?  John Bolton -- it?s pretty clear what he would say.

Trump is belligerent and he?s also impulsive, and I think if he thinks he is in deep trouble politically, the attraction of war might become very strong.

The Current State of the Neoconservative Movement

Neoconservatives have become very split, and it?s hard to speak of a coherent movement now.  It is true I think that all neocons consider the security and interests of Israel to be central to their worldview, but there are major differences that have emerged so that you have a few neocons defending the JCPOA and opposing the gratuitous deterioration of relations between the US and Iran, in major part because it created tensions with the European allies.  But at the same time, you have a lot of neocons who are Islamophobic and definitely Iranophobic, and I would even say that although the intellectual leadership of neoconservatism tends to be somewhat more moderate, the body of neoconservative opinion has become quite Islamophobic and Iranophobic.

A complicating factor that has deepened the splits within the neocon movement was Trump himself because most of the intellectual leaders of neoconservatism are real ?Never Trumpers;? they consider Trump to be outrageous and potentially antisemitic? and they feel very strongly that Trump is a disaster for Jews and some of them think ultimately for Israel despite Netanyahu?s embrace of Trump.  But, most neocons really like Netanyahu and since Netanyahu likes Trump so much they are willing to forgive Trump's kind of crudity, his white supremacism and racism.

The latter group has definitely penetrated the Trump administration, even though he says he doesn?t like neocons and holds them responsible in major part for the Iraq War or "stupid war."  But they are infiltrating his administration through Bolton, through Pompeo, though neither of them is a classic neoconservative... I think it?s important to distinguish between the aggressive nationalists who are belligerent isolationists in the administration and the neocons, but they are gradually working together. I think neoconservatives are making a bit of a comeback.

2019-02-15
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Iran Chat: Interview with Dr. James Miller about Health Diplomacy

Our latest Iran Chat is with Dr. James Miller, Managing Director of the Oxford International Development Group, a health research and project management consulting company in Oxford, Mississippi.  

Dr. Miller began working in the area of health diplomacy in 2004 while seeking ways to improve health outcomes and access to medical care for people in the impoverished rural Mississippi Delta region.  For this, he turned to Iran?s primary health care model, which is known for its system of health houses staffed by citizen health workers who provide health education and preventative health services to their local communities.  Recognized by the World Health Organization for its success in improving medical outcomes for rural communities in Iran,  Dr. James Miller began working with the architects of this system to develop and adapt the Iranian model in ways that could address the health disparity challenges in the impoverished Delta regions.   

Our conversation with Dr. Miller involves an examination of this interesting project to bring Iran's health care model to the rural Mississippi Delta region; it also covers a range of related topical issues? including the ways that humanitarian programs can improve dialogue and understanding between the US and Iran, and a broader discussion of health care, which continues to be a hot button issue in the US.  

Some highlights from our conversation:


The Background of Iran?s Preventative Health Care System: 

?In 1978 all WHO members unanimously agreed in the Alma-Ata Declaration ? a seminal document in public and global health initiatives that access to basic health services was a fundamental human right. The declaration also highlighted the importance of primary care and many countries, including Iran, revised their health care system around the primary health care focus? After Alma-Ata, key health care experts in Iran including the late Dr. Shadpour, who was one of the original architects of the primary health care model in Iran, determined the most effective way forward for Iran was through the implementation of a comprehensive and integrated primary health care system with the health house serving as the main service entry point, and the results speak for themselves?. The infant mortality rate in Iran fell over 70%, with similar results in maternal mortality. Health care access in rural areas compared to those in urban areas all but eliminated health disparities, and infectious diseases were all but eliminated in rural areas."

Why Mississippi Looked to Iran for Help:

"The rural counties in the Delta are some of the most impoverished in the US and the living conditions in those counties have health indicators and economic conditions similar to those in developing countries. It?s shocking.  Overall Mississippi is the poorest state in the US and today it has 22% of its population living below the poverty line. Subsets of that [are faring even worse]: the African American poverty rate is over 34%, Native Americans over 28% and Latinos at 27.5%.  Mississippi is also the unhealthiest state, and it ranks last in national surveys by respected foundations and institutions? [Furthermore] there has been no change, no discernible improvement with time. Health problems twenty years ago are still the same as we have now.  Of special concern? and this is what got us so interested in the Iranian model: infant mortality rates in a number of Delta counties are similar to that of Algeria, Libya, and Vietnam?"

"[Therefore we looked to see if] there were some places around the world that might be similar in lack of resources, using a cost effective and adaptable model that we could deploy in those counties throughout the Delta region, and deal especially with the issue that there are few doctors available to serve this particular segment of the population.  The World Bank and World Health Organization, and in researching and reviewing the results, all pointed to the Iranian system as being most effective."

Health Diplomacy: Meetings Between American and Iranian Doctors

"Doctors see things [from a perspective of] science and empirical analysis.  They want to hear new things about treatments.  From what I observed, when Iranian and American doctors got together, it was like friends getting together for a great time, talking about their work and their families and personal issues.  You couldn?t tell them apart!   My observation was they can get along famously.  There is no problem between physicians and scientists:  science is nonpolitical no one country owns science or medicine? it belongs to us all and that is something in the upper most in physicians? and scientists? minds; it?s universal."

Making the Case to Politicians for Engagement:

"Back in December I started a letter writing campaign to my congressmen and senators to say, 'Here?s [my experience from my work engaging with Iran] and please take this into consideration when you?re viewing the Iranians and formulating Iranian policy.  If you cut this positive channel of communication off, then we (Americans) are the losers in this, and it?s going to just lead to more tension.'  In fact, this kind of public diplomacy is the kind of communication we need to be emphasizing? The State Department isn?t involved so much anymore in trying to build Iranian relations, so we the people have to do it, and we need to communicate it with our elected representatives."

"Our representatives have to consider what we know, what we have seen, what we hope.  That?s the nature of a democracy and I?m trying to do my part, and I hope others who may listen to this podcast may be willing to do their part in helping us avoid conflict."

2017-11-19
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Iran Chat: Interview with Celebrity Chef Ariana Bundy

Our latest Iran Chat is with Iranian-American celebrity chef Ariana Bundy.  Ariana is the award-winning author of two cookbooks, Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes and Sweet Alternative: More than 100 recipes without gluten, dairy and soy.  She is also the writer, director and star of the 8-part television series Ariana's Persian Kitchen, which airs on NatGeo People. Ariana's work has been featured in a variety of magazines like Food & Travel, Harper's Bazaar and Food & Wine Magazine; she has also appeared on television programs like BBC's Good Food Live, Euronews and Top Billing.  For more information about Ariana Bundy or to get some delicious recipe ideas, you can visit her website arianabundy.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.  
 

Some excerpts from our conversation are below:


Why She Chose to Focus on Persian Cuisine

"As I was working hotels and coming across different cuisines, I met a lot of people who said ?Oh my God, my food, Turkish cuisine, is so amazing... and Thai people would say 'my food, Thai food, is so amazing.'  And everyone would know about Thai food and Turkish food, but nobody knew anything about Persian food and it kind of ticked me off!  I thought, wait a minute, we have an incredible cuisine with a really rich history.  Why is it that, because of our political situation, people aren?t trying out our cuisine?  And I realized also that I was a professional chef who didn?t really know how to cook proper Persian food. I knew what it was supposed to taste like and smell like, but I didn?t know how to go about doing it.  So that?s when I decided I needed to share it... with my coworkers, other chefs, other people I came across, myself (I wanted to learn more about it); and ultimately I wanted people of my generation who were kind of detached from their cuisine to know about it."

About Persian Cuisine

"People are surprised because they imagine it to be spicy; more like Indian food?  maybe Turkish food or like Arabic food.  I would always say that it?s delicately spiced. It?s well-balanced.  It uses ingredients you can commonly find anywhere.  It?s the way the ingredients are put together that makes it super special. Common things like oranges and chicken come together beautifully with carrots to create something spectacular like Shirin Polo.  Pomegranates and walnuts come together to create something magical."

What She's Learned From Her Audience

"What I've learned is that it?s all about emotions and memories.  And not necessarily about the food.  It?s about something they can tap into and either take them back in their own memory or be proud of when showing to their foreign friends.  Or talk amongst themselves about a trip they had to Iran and how they would like to go back again. It?s all about feelings and emotions and how that food and that culture makes them feel."

Misconceptions about Iran

"People just don?t get to see the real Iran; there are very few shows out there on Iran.  I think most foreigners when they visit are surprised at how lovely and normal everything is. People go to school, people cook, people party, people love playing cards, people go to the park, people have picnics; and they are just super hospitable..  You can ski, and you can go hiking and you can go to a fancy restaurant... all these things you get in any European city you can pretty much get in Iran, and more!"


Persian Cooking Tips

"For blooming your saffron don?t use hot water, just pound the saffron in your pestle and mortar and add an ice cube to it and let it melt. I learned that in Mashhad while filming my show on saffron and the guy taught me that that way you keep the color really bright and you keep the fragrance. You should also add saffron at the end of your cooking time so if you?re cooking a stew and you have an hour, you add it at the last 10 minutes so you keep the flavor and aroma in there.   Another tip:  Add a little yogurt with butter and oil at the bottom of your pan when making tadiq so that you get a really crunchy lovely tadiq at the end of it."

2017-09-23
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Iran Chat: Interview with Ultra-Runner Kristina Paltén of "Alone Through Iran - 1144 Miles of Trust"

Our latest Iran Chat is with Swedish ultra-runner, coach and motivator, Kristina Paltén, who holds the World Record in 48 hour treadmill running, covering a distance of 322.93 kilometers. She is also the first woman to have run across Iran, and the star of a film that covers that journey called Alone Through Iran - 1144 Miles of Trust.

We spoke with Paltén about her experience running across Iran, from Turkey to Turkmenistan, and how that experience, and now her film, are helping to challenge prejudices and misconceptions about the country and its people. 

Some highlights from our conversation:

About Ultra-Running

"Running ultra marathons means running distances that are longer than a normal marathon. An ultra marathon could be 43 km to 1000 km [or beyond]....  I love to run for a long time; not fast, but longer and longer distances.  I did my first ultra when I was 36 years old, and it?s just become longer and longer. I would say it is a travel inside yourself... you learn about your own demons and fears, and you need to handle them."

"Running across a country has so many dimensions.  It's a marvelous way to discover a country, to discover its people and also to discover myself.... When I?m running in a street, being vulnerable, people meet me; I?m not coming up in a car.  They can just say hello to me and stop me.. It is a very nice way of meeting people to become close to them."

Why Run Across Iran?

"The idea came [as a result of] me and my friend Karina running from Turkey to Finland.  We passed through Romania and we realized we had prejudices against Romania, and it turned out that none of them were true.  And that?s when I started questioning what is my view of the world and what if I?m just thinking things that aren?t true?

In Sweden and Europe there are xenophobic parties growing and I saw a lot of fear of strangers, and I thought... 'I don't want the world to be ruled by fear.  I want it to be ruled by more positive things like trust.'  The purpose [of my run] was to contribute to a better world."

What Concerns Did You Have?

"When I arrived, I wrote down all my fears and it was 22; I also graded them from 0 to 100. At the beginning the worst ones were at 80 and then every week I followed up my fears to see how they changed and it was really interesting because the fears I had at the beginning... as soon as I came to Iran they dropped to almost zero.  Already the first day there were so many people being kind to me, so that fear changed quickly.  But then another fear rose, and that was the fear of being hit by a car!  And there was another fear that was increasing, and that was a fear of being never left alone. And I kind of liked that fear because everyone was so friendly all the time, and that?s a very nice situation.  But in Sweden we tell jokes that people from the north of Sweden (and I'm from the north of Sweden) need a lot of space on their own. So sometimes I could have used more space!"

How Can Misconceptions about Iran be Remedied?

"Since I came home, I read a lot of Social Psychology and [learned] that you tend to believe a person from your own group, but not people from another group.  So I?m a bit skeptical..  I think I could spread this message in the Western world because I?m a Westerner and you listen to someone who is similar to yourself.  I think it's more difficult for someone else to spread the message.   

But I think what's most powerful is to make people meet.. I mean, when people meet each other we realize that the other person is just another "me."  Everyone has his own fears or sorrows or dreams.. and I mean, psychologically, biologically, physiologically...  we are the same.  There is no difference.  So... make people meet!"

Photo Courtesy of Soroush Morshedian

2017-06-07
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Iran Chat: Interview with David Collier, Author of "Democracy and the Nature of American Influence in Iran, 1941-1979"

Our latest Iran Chat is with Dr. David Collier, author of the new book, Democracy and the Nature of American Influence in Iran: 1941-1979.  Dr. Collier is also a research consultant in Washington DC and teaches democracy and democratization in Boston University's Washington DC program.

The first half of our conversation focuses on Dr. Collier's usage of linkage and leverage to analyze and better understand the history of the period; the second half addresses how his analysis of the history applies to current issues in US-Iran relations and US foreign policy more generally.  Dr. Collier's book is being published this month; you can purchase a copy on Amazon or Syracuse University Press.

 

Some excerpts from our conversation are below:

 

Using Linkage and Leverage to Understand American Influence in Iran

"Linkage and leverage [first introduced in a book by Levitsky and Way] have often been used to try to understand external pressure in the processes of democratization... I think it's an interesting model to try to examine how the US can influence other countries in an effective way." 

"Linkage looks more at the soft power aspect of how the US can influence other countries based on linkages to the administration or a society in general.  These links can include economic links, social links, political links ? the whole spectrum of relationships between one country and another.   Leverage looks more at the hard power aspect of what the US can do in a more active way to promote change in a different country. For example, whether it can offer rewards (e.g., acceptance into international organizations) or punishment (e.g., sanctions, international condemnation) for the behavior of an administration."

Whether Increased US Linkage or Leverage Could Have Prevented the Revolution

"I think the beginning of the decline of US leverage in Iran, which began after the enactment of the Shah's White Revolution [and which accelerated under Nixon]... I think if the US had maintained its position that without political reform the Shah would eventually succumb to eventual revolution - and if they had been able to work to push the Shah towards political reform rather than economic and social reform (which was the Shah's focus) - that could have led to a more peaceful evolution of the Iranian system.  Maybe it would look more like the British system today where you have a monarch that reins but doesn?t rule.  If the US had been able to apply constant pressure in the 60?s and 70?s, something like that could have occurred.?


US Foreign Policy's Focus on Short-Term Goals

"I think the nature of the American political system is that it gives itself to short term thinking and not much to self reflection.  Administrations in the US are always working towards the next election; are always focused on the short term, "what can we do in the next 4 or 8 years," and there isn?t much of an ability to create a long term plan to look at things in more of a historical perspective.  So you do get lots of repetition.   If you wanted to change the system you would have to maybe think about term limits for presidents allowing them to focus on longer terms or [install an advisory body] with a view to history and the goal of focusing the minds of the administration to not repeating the mistakes of the past."


"America First": Is it More Honest Foreign Policy?

"I think it is.  One of the main problems that faced American-Iranian relations was the lack of interest in the Iranian society in general, the Iranian opposition, and what the Iranian people wanted. So it wouldn?t be helpful to go back to a situation where the US was able to control Iran. I think it would be better if the US had less of a proactive role in trying to control states and did focus more on America first and gave more respect to countries to develop independently.  The current regime in Iran uses American intervention as a reason for their continued presence... they always argue about being wary of American intervention. Maybe if the US withdrew a bit from certain policy areas that could allow Iran in particular to have more of an internal debate over its future rather than always focusing on threats from the external environment.  I think that could be beneficial in a certain way.  I think going back in time to an overly controlling American foreign policy is not the way to go forward."

 

To support this and other AIC programming, please make a tax-deductible contribution at http://www.us-iran.org/support.

2017-04-24
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Iran Chat: Interview about President Trump's Immigration Ban with Harvard Law Lecturer, Ian Samuel

Less than one week after President Donald Trump?s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, our latest Iran Chat is with Ian Samuel, Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School.  Ian previously served in the United States Department of Justice in the Office of the Solicitor General and on the appellate staff of the Civil Division.  Following his government service, Ian joined the appellate litigation practice at the law firm Jones Day. 

Our conversation covers the legal issues surrounding President Trump's executive order as well as Ian?s offer to personally provide legal services to any government employee who refuses to help implement this ban. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @isamuel, and subscribe to his podcast about the Supreme Court at firstmondays.fm/subscribe.

Some highlights from our conversation:

On Why this Ban Is Illegal

"Since 1965, US immigration law has prohibited discrimination on the basis of national origin in the issuance of visas.  It is quite explicit in the law - you cannot discriminate in the issuance of visas by national origin.  

Secondly, this ban is a lightly disguised attempt to discriminate on the basis of religion against Muslims. This is made unusually clear by the fact that both the President himself and his closest advisers have more or less said as much.  US law understandably does not permit that kind of discrimination on the basis of religion. That is a constitutional requirement, quite apart from any statute, and sits above the President?s ability to do whatever he wants.  

These are not slam dunks? but in my opinion at least they are both strong arguments."  

On Why the Ban is Unjust

"The thing that resonates with me is a matter of simple moral justice.  The people who are being affected by this are human beings who are our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our friends; they?re us.  And I am deeply ashamed of the stain that this is putting on our national character.  The US government has not always been virtuous and has not always been wicked. There are moments of profound moral good and profound moral evil in our history. And I feel like I?m living through one of those moments that people are going to look back on with deep shame in 30 or 50 years."

On His Offer to Provide Legal Assistance to Government Employees Who Refuse to Implement the Ban

No government program is self-executing.  The White House can order something, but that order, to be effective, requires thousands upon thousands of people across the government - nearly all of whom are career civil servants who are not political appointees - to go along with it... And the order is also illegal, so that places it in a special status because civil servants generally don?t have any obligation to go along with illegal orders.  

What I?m advocating is not just legal but is actually in support of the law. The purpose of this is not to encourage anybody to engage in law-breaking, but actually to tell people that what this order asks people to do is break the law."

On US Citizens Being Affected by the Ban

"The border is a tricky place because it is a place where there?s a lot of discretion that's traditionally been allowed to the government.  Citizens are in an advantaged position because they cannot be denied entry to the US, but that doesn?t meant that they aren?t going to be potentially subject to detention, criminal charges, or harassment.. so this is something that is going to affect potentially anybody, and I don?t blame anybody for feeling nervous about it because these are things that really happen to people. Just because someone is a citizen doesn?t mean they don?t have skin in the game."

On How Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Might Have Ruled

"I wouldn?t presume to say how he would come out on the result, but I know what his method was; his method was textualism.  This was not a person who was shy about reaching politically unpopular results if he thought it was what the text of the relevant law required.  And as I read the immigration statutes they are phrased very plainly. When they say no discrimination on the basis of national origin is permitted, to me that is a pretty easy case.  And although that may have politically unpalatable consequences depending on your politics, he was never really afraid of doing something like that. It?s always a risky business to speculate on someone who has now passed about how they would have come out on a particular case, but I know his methodology and his methodology to me indicates at least that this is actually not that hard of a case."

2017-01-31
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Iran Chat: Interview with comedian Maz Jobrani

Our latest Iran Chat is with comedian and actor, Maz Jobrani.  A founding member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, his comedy covers a wide-range of issues, but often focuses on race and the ways that Middle Easterners are misunderstood in the U.S.  He performs stand-up live around the world and recently published a book about his experiences,  I'm Not a Terrorist But I've Played One On TV.  He also co-wrote, produced and starred as the title character in the award-winning indie comedy film, Jimmy Vestvood - Amerikan Hero.  Maz Jobrani regularly guest stars on popular television shows and appears as a panelist on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.  You can find more about Maz, including upcoming tour dates, on his website mazjobrani.com, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @Mazjobrani.

Some highlights of our conversation:

On Actors taking Terrorist Roles

"It?s a tough position to be in.  When you?re of Middle Eastern descent, that?s the kind of part you?re going to see a lot of.  I wanted to work, and wanted to build my resume, so I accepted those parts? but I quickly realized I didn?t like playing [them] so I told my agent, ?No more terrorist parts.?...  That was 15, 16 years ago and I?ve been able to continue to act without them. There are other parts where I?ve had to wear a turban or play the owner of a falafel store or a cab driver, but I?m not as upset about those, because when I?m in NYC I see a lot of Middle Eastern cab drivers, and when I'm in LA the falafel shop owner is a Lebanese guy.  So I don't mind playing those parts.  Terrorist parts are what was really upsetting me because I feel it is a minority of the people from that part of the world that are terrorists, and yet if you look at the percentage of parts that are available that are terrorists, it would be a majority."

On the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

"We got the title [for the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour] from George Bush?s speech where he put Iran, Iraq and North Korea into an ?Axis of Evil? and we decided to lampoon that title by putting the comedy tour name behind it?  Eventually we were able to sell that show as a comedy special on Comedy Central.  We got a lot of press; a lot of attention...  It was the first time you had all these Middle Easterners on a TV show where we didn?t all get killed.

We toured from 2005 until the end of 2007 and then I started touring solo.  When you start performing solo you start doing an hour, so I had to come up with more material.. and that?s where my act [grew].  I tell people nowadays I talk about political issues, social issues and my kids.?

On using stereotypes in comedy

"On stage you talk about your experiences.  A lot of my material comes from real life so if I?m talking about something that may seem stereotypical it is probably something that I experienced.  For example, here is an innocuous stereotype: ?Iranians love Mercedes Benz.?  A lot of Iranians I know have had Mercedes Benz?s, including my mom now, and my dad when I was younger.  So, I don?t think that?s a bad thing; it?s coming from your reality. So I think it?s okay to talk about that."

"When I talk to audience members I try to do material where we?re laughing together, I?m laughing with you;  I?m never laughing at you... I think there are certain stereotypes you can tap into and have fun with, but I try never to make it a demeaning thing.  I try never to be someone who says I am better than you.

That?s another stereotype. I see a lot of Iranians who feel they are better than their Arab neighbors for whatever reason. And I won?t say all Iranians. But there are some Iranians that are like this, and that bothers me...  I feel it?s okay to call people out on that. You can?t just take a whole group of people and say we?re better than that group of people.  Because you?re not."  

On going to Iran

"I?ve basically performed in the Middle East in seven countries, but never in Iran. There are two reasons. Number one, I?ve done jokes that make fun of the leadership, so I don?t want to go there and have someone put me in Evin prison because they call me a spy, which seems the modus operandi these days of part of the regime.  So I wouldn?t want to risk that.

And then the second reason I think that I haven?t been able to perform in Iran is because when I perform, I do shows in English. And you need to find an audience that speaks English well enough to get the jokes? In Iran I know there are a lot of people who speak English well, but the question is, are there enough to do a show in front of 1000 people who are going to come and get your jokes.  And I think nowadays there probably are enough. But you still need to find a promoter to get those people together.  And then the question becomes in Iran, are you allowed to do a public show like that or are you going to have to be underground?  So yeah it does sadden me.

I would love to visit Iran. I would love to see Iran; I would like to take my kids to Iran to experience it.  I know Iran has a lot of beauty, and it?s a shame I can?t go right now because of the current political state of affairs."

On Iran?s Image

"For the longest time Iran has been touted as Public Enemy No. 1 or 2.  It?s always been up there, no matter what administration.... But if people open their eyes, they will see Iran has a lot else that it offers.  Iranian cinema is amazing, Iranian artists.  Athletes.  So I think it is kind of like what we had with the Soviet Union; sports and arts can bring us together."

"Anthony Bourdain had a good Parts Unknown in Iran, which I think showed a good side of Iran; his show revolves around food.  But the question is, does the greater American population see that or no?  I feel like a lot of people probably see this, but then you get a candidate like Trump running for president and all of his followers coming out and yelling anti-Iranian and anti-Muslim stuff and you go, ?Wow - there are a lot of people who aren?t opening their eyes and seeing these programs or don?t have friends from Iran or the Middle East.? ? So I think we could use as much help as we can get. Media, yes.  Educators, yes.  Social media outreach.  Even Iranian restaurants.  If you?re able to get people to come to your Iranian restaurant in the middle of Memphis, Tennessee, you?re doing a great job of closing the gap and bringing peace to the world."

On Trump

"The thing with Trump is that I thought we lived in a country where there was more tolerance, and once Trump came out it feels like he made it okay for every racist to come out and spew their ideas and express their racism.  It is scary in a way that these people exist.  And I really feel that if there was a magic wand or a way to implement a program where you took all these people and got them on planes and flew them to Iran or flew them to one of the Arab countries? just to go visit.. a lot of them would come back and go ?wow that was not at all what I expected,? and it?s unfortunate that isn?t going to happen.  So many are caught up in their patriotism it?s blinded them.  I think we?re at a new level of Anti-Muslim sentiment; Anti-Iranian sentiment... The Trump candidacy has definitely added fuel to the flame."

2016-10-20
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Iran Chat: Interview with Navid Khonsari about the video game, "1979 Revolution: Black Friday"

Our latest Iran Chat is with Navid Khonsari, video game creator and the founder of Ink Stories, the independent film and gaming studio responsible for the development of the fascinating video game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, which puts players into the world of the revolution in Iran in 1979.  While our conversation focused on this game about the Iranian revolution, Mr. Khonsari is also well known for his work developing the cinematic look and feel for video games like Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne, The Warriors and others.  For more information about 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, or to purchase it, you can visit inkstories.com.
 

Some highlights of our conversation are below:
 

How to describe 1979 Revolution: Black Friday:  

In 1979 Revolution: Black Friday you play a protagonist, Reza, who is 18 years old and who just returned to Iran from Germany, arriving in the midst of turmoil on the streets of Tehran.   With this character, ?you have the ability to not just physically navigate the streets, but also morally navigate how you want to be involved with the revolution.?   Mr. Khonsari describes it as ?a movie that you get to play where you control the destiny of the character,? and says, ?quite simply the easiest thing to refer to is the adventure books that used to exist; you have the ability to make choices, and the choices end up changing the narrative of your experience."

He adds that the game is accessible to anyone, including those who would not typically be considered ?gamers.?  It can be played on a touch screen and doesn?t focus on eye-hand coordination.  

On portraying a complicated subject:

?The thing we always say here at InkStories is that it?s not a matter of black and it?s not a matter of white. It?s all about the shades of gray. If we can convey that, then we are actually conveying what?s really taking place [including] the morality, and the choices that people have to deal with in these chaotic moments.?  He says that he wanted the player to be in the shoes of a young person, an 18 year old protagonist, because the player and the protagonist are both, themselves, trying to figure things out.  Indeed, presenting the revolution in all of its shades of gray provides the player with an ?emotional journey, rather than trying to tell them the pros and cons of a political group.? 

?In the end we try to tell a passionate, emotional story about people and about relationships and about family. And that is something everybody can relate to.?

On the power of the medium:

?We were taking a look at games and the impact and power that they have compared to other mediums that we?ve been involved with.?  In reflecting on the power of video games to surpass other mediums in their ability to tell a story, he explains that ?because of the interactive nature of it, games allow you to be in the shoes of the character, and that?s [powerful.]?  He adds that the technology has further advantages because, ?we can now provide this experience with so few barriers through digital distribution.  Embracing the ability to get the word out, the message out, truly democratizes the process.?

As evidence of the unique way that this medium can speak to players that others cannot, Mr. Khonsari notes that the game is being used as an educational resource: ?1979 Revolution: Black Friday is being used in a UNESCO paper as an example for conflict resolution, so it?s now being brought into schools across North America, Scandinavia, Australia? with a curriculum to start teaching people about what took place, rather than just watching a film or reading a book." 

2016-10-02
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Iran Chat: Interview with Sufi musician Amir Vahab

The American Iranian Council (AIC) is pleased to announce that we are bringing our interview series, Iran Chat, to audio format with a new podcast.

Our first interview is with Sufi musician, Amir Vahab ? one of New York?s most celebrated and distinguished composers and vocalists of Sufi and folk music.  The interview includes a discussion of Mr. Vahab?s background, how he got interested in music, some advice for aspiring musicians, a description of Persian music, as well as a special demonstration of some traditional Persian instruments, which begins about halfway through our conversation.

In addition to speaking with us for this series, Mr. Vahab was also kind enough to provide the music for the podcast, which you will hear at the beginning and end of each episode.  To learn more about Mr. Vahab and his music, or about the Persian instruments featured in this interview, please visit Mr. Vahab?s website www.tanbour.org.

Some highlights of our conversation are below:

On how Mr. Vahab became interested in music:

?Rumi, the 13th century mystical poet, believed in successive lives?  and so I believe in my past life or lives I have been a musician.  Music is something that I was automatically drawn to.?   Mr. Vahab explains that while music was ingrained in him from an early age, it was not always easy to be a young person growing up in Iran with an interest in traditional music.  ?Everybody mocked me to play an Iranian instrument because we were so westernized.  It was only cool to play the piano, guitar?  If you played the setar they would look at you!  But, I had a very strong soul, so you know these things did not affect me in the least. ? He adds, however, that all music and all instruments come from a common place: ?Even though my specialty is Middle Eastern music, particularly Persian music... all instruments and all music is related just like a large family.  Good music nourishes the soul.?

On Persian music & its connection to poetry and Iranian culture:

Mr. Vahab expresses his fascination with a linguistic curiosity of Persian?that the Persian language, as it was spoken over a thousand years ago, can be understood by people today.  Meanwhile, ?if I speak the English from 1150 years ago you wouldn?t be able to understand a single, simple sentence; same goes for French. Because languages are living beings and they are not stagnant; they are constantly moving and evolving.?  However, Persian from long ago can be understood by people today ?because of our ties to poetry.  There is not a day that goes by in Iran that people don?t recite poetry.?

He also expresses his belief that people can learn about Iranian culture by listening to Persian music.  ?I think it?s Rumi that says ?not everything that is in one?s chest can be transferred like a lesson.?  It?s very deep? When you listen to the music of a culture, you can tell a lot.  Sometimes not at the intellect level or [level of the] brain, but definitely at an internal level of feelings, psyche and even further deep in your soul.?

On music and politics: 

Mr. Vahab laments the ongoing decline in funding for music and the arts, and expresses his enthusiasm for the system of the ancient Greeks: ?Over 2000 years ago the Greeks had music chambers that would function under the cost of government.  They would have several times a day music provided free to the public for the citizens to just go there and expose themselves, just like you take a sunbath.?

Compare this to the rules about music immediately following the revolution in Iran.  ?At first [the Iranian government after the revolution] said ?No music!? Then they realized it?s ridiculous? it?s like saying no breathing or no drinking water.. you can?t stop everyone from doing that.  Then they couldn?t control it then they said ok, but play only spiritual music.  The next move was to play only Persian instruments.   But now, as you know, every instrument is allowed, every corner instrument shop they sell guitars violins, cellos, silver flute.. there is no restriction at this point.?

On learning Persian music:

Mr. Vahab firmly believes that everyone can learn music.  ?Rather than focusing on the students, I focus on the teacher; it is the job of teachers to teach; not everybody is cut out to be a teacher. You have to have a lot of patience, and you have to put yourself in their shoes to be a good teacher.  It?s the job of the teachers to make sure that what they teach is absorbable and could be assimilated by the students.?

On composing music:

?Before we get [melodies], I believe they are in the spiritual world up there.  I don?t want to take credit... My humble belief is these melodies are out there, in that vast world of existence.   I believe it?s there, and when you are ready, you can absorb and capture these melodies.  That?s why I refrain from saying I created these melodies, but.. I had the honor of receiving them.?

2016-09-07
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