Future of Relations Between Iran and the West

Michelle Balon

On October 17th, 2012, the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies (CUNY BA) brought together a range of unique voices to discuss the political, social, and economic future of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

CUNY BA Panel on the Political Future of Iran. Photo by Piotr Hreska.

The debate was moderated by Leili Kashani from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the speakers included: The New Yorker’s Laura Secor; Baruch College Distinguish Professor Ervand Abrahamian; the Director of the Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at NYU, Professor Arang Keshavarzian; Barry Rosen, who was the State Department Press Attaché in Tehran in 1979 and hostage during the 1979-80 crisis; and finally, Iranian journalist and political dissident, Roozbeh MirEbrahimi.

The main themes of the night were Iran’s nuclear program, sanctions, and the role of civil society in the Islamic Republic. Commenting on international sanctions imposed on Tehran, Laura Secor described them as quite frightening. Referring to sources in the US foreign policy establishment, she emphasized that the sanction regime was not designed to be lived with, but “to be brutal, intense, and short.” According to Ms. Secor, it would be very difficult to lift them without Iran’s significant concessions in its nuclear program.

Professor Keshavarzian called the effect of sanctions on the livelihoods of Iranian people devastating. He explained that it is not the ruling elite or President Ahmadinejad who are suffering but it is the middle and working class. While insisting that analysts refrain from framing Iranian politics as a relationship between “the state,” “the leader,” or “the people,” but instead using detailed, human categories such as “pensioners” and “working class,” he explained that inflation rates were increasing, and large numbers of industrial workers and farmers are going without pay or work. Those who were working full-time are only being hired as part-time or contractual laborers. In addition, sanctions have dramatically hurt those on a fixed wages, including state employees and state pensioners. Considering how paralyzing the sanctions are, Professor Keshavarzian wondered if they can be stopped.

To answer this question, according to Professor Abrahamian, the goal of sanctions must be understood. If it is to force Iran to the negotiating table and give up all nuclear technology, realistically, continued Abrahamian, there is nothing suggesting that Iran is not already at the table. According to United Nations agreements and treaties on nuclear power, the UN must be told six months in advance before any introduction of uranium enrichment, which Iran had not yet began when the United States found their “secret” facilities. This means that Iran was completely in line with international standards, concluded the Professor.

Professor Keshavarzian. Photo by Piotr Hreska

According to Barry Rosen, it is not a matter of coming to the table, but one of transparency. Since 2001, the United States has rebuked Iran for not being open enough. Mr. Rosen claimed that the real problem is the lack of trust. He said that if Iran has nothing to hide, Tehran should initiate a public relations campaign explaining its actions. Roozbeh MirEbrahimi agreed with Mr. Rosen about the lack of trust, and stated: “How can the West trust Iran, if even Iranians cannot trust their own government?”

Professor Abrahamian reminded the audience that in the 1950s, the US and Great Britain claimed to accept the idea of nationalization; however, when the parties came to negotiations, the two Western states asserted that, “Iran should not have control over their own oil resources.” They were pro-nationalization in theory but not in practice. A similar phenomenon is seen today in Iran’s nuclear crisis, but Professor Abrahamian remains hopeful. He claimed that, of the two American presidential candidates, “one is able to live with some Uranium enrichment, and one is not.” If the United States is able to live with some Iranian capability of enrichment, there is room for negotiation and a peaceful solution to the crisis.

Most panelists agreed that an eventual agreement is more likely than war. Mr. Rosen claimed that Prime Minister Netanyahu was simply “throwing up a cloud of dust,” and Israel had no reason at all to attack Iran, and Ms. Secor was “optimistic that military confrontation will be avoided.” Looking at the cost and benefits of war between Iran and the US or Israel, the nuclear plan may be set back by four years, but it would also dramatically increase Iran’s drive to create a nuclear weapon. Ms. Secor asserted that, “war is not in anyone’s interest.”

Q&A Session. Photo by Piotr Hreska

When it came to the topic of Iran’s future, Roozbeh MirEbrahimi gave the audience a unique, first-hand look into Iran’s social movements. He spoke of the 2005 reformist movement’s greatest mistake— the failure of organizers to mobilize citizens after bringing them to the polls for voting. The Green Movement learned from this experience and began using the streets. In Mr. MirEbrahimi’s words, “Each time, Iranian reform movements are improving. This is the only way I see Iran changing for the better.”

It is important to be optimistic, but one must also remain practical. Professor Abrahamian’s optimism rests in the fact that “Iran is eager for some form of pluralistic democracy.” This is visible in popular elections where 80 percent of those who voted supported reformers. However, this eagerness is not enough, since “these attitudes and desires are not directly transferred to political change. You need to build up civil society, and transfer attitudes to the political arena.” There is hope that the active Iranian people, with their “commitment to changing what is wrong,” will make a difference in their country’s future. After all, it is the ordinary people in all affected countries, not politicians, who have the most at stake and the greatest power to change the future, concluded Professor Abrahamian.

The Conference on the Political Future of Iran was a part of CUNY BA Academic Conference Series organized by the program’s Academic Advisor, Rafal Szczurowski.

For more information on the speakers, please visit:

Also written about the conference:



Michelle Balon is a CUNY Baccalaureate student pursuing dual Areas of Concentration in “Arab Studies” and “Human Rights.” She is currently an intern at the Human Rights Watch. Photography by CUNY Baccalaureate student, Piotr Hreska, who is working on an Area of Concentration in “Photography and Writing.” Both Michelle and Piotr are CUNY BA Spring 2013 Thomas W. Smith Fellows. The conference poster was prepared by yet another Smith Fellow and CUNY BA student, Raju Maharjan, who studies “Dynamic Web Design.”