American/Iranian Hooman Majd is a busy traveler between East and West, apparently highly treasured in both realms. He is a prolific and, admittedly, most talented author/journalist/writer (probably sort of ‘journalism’ being only one of his many talents) who has been writing, as his home page tells us, for instance for Newsweek, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Huffington Post and, really, GC. The latter indicating his downright stylishness and, well, vainness.
The topic of his new book (The Ayatollahs’ Democracy – An Iranian Challenge. W. W. Norton & Company, New York 2010) doesn’t come as a surprise. Majd, a sort of advisor (and relative, as he likes to mention every now and then) of former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami on his visit to the United States in 2006 and, at the same time since then, a desperate and perspiring interpreter of current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s impolitic speeches at the UN, had claimed for more than a year now that he had voted for Green Movement leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi in last year’s disputed presidential election. But it seems so that he had never had a problem with Ahmadinejad’s ‘victory’, which most observers believe was stolen (although one has to admit that there is still no hard evidence of such a claim). When Majd now wants to tell us that there is such a thing like the ‘Ayatollahs’ Democracy’, basically implying that the Shi’a concept of velayat-e faqih with its rahbar, or Supreme Leader (others would say, dictator) is in fact compatible with a universal concept of democracy, eyebrows are going to be raised. When he explains Iran’s different governmental bodies: the Assembly of Experts (86 ‘elected’ Islamic scholars monitoring ‘the performance’ of the Supreme Leader); the Guardian Council (twelve appointed jurists, six by the Supreme Leader and six by parliament, or majles), which supervises any election in Iran and qualifies any candidate; the Expediency Council (28 members appointed by the Supreme Leader and charged with arbitration of any dispute between the majles and the Guardian Council), one would not change his or her strong opinion about a highly complicated, opaque, prone to corruption, well, undemocratic system: neither East nor West. Let him (the Ayatollah) ‘beg to differ’ (as conceded in Majd’s previous book published in the fall of 2008; see my review here), but why should we accept the claim (for democracy)?
As I have pointed out previously, Hooman’s frivolous nonchalance results in highly readable treatises. But when it comes to the brutal crackdown of the protests and opposition movement in Iran, that attitude is going to be dangerous. It puts him at the same despicable level as notorious apologists such as the Leveretts, western mouthpieces of the rogue regime in Tehran. It might cost him his reputation as independent observer and valuable discussion partner of both enemy parties.
The book starts with a real doozy, an Oliver Stone movie-like screenplay of back and forth diary entries just before, during and after last year’s June election. Majd describes hopes and fears for the mounting of a Green Wave, or mowj. The mowj in fact came, but Ahmadinejad ‘won’ anyway. The mowj even grew stronger in the election’s aftermath but has been silenced by the regime. It is no longer about who won and who lost. It is about human rights and – Democracy.
It is somewhat disturbing that Majd in most parts of the book hardly mentions the escalation of the situation, especially on December 27, 2009, Ashura; prisoners, their rape, torture and murdering, incarceration of journalists. Show trials, unsubstantiated longtime imprisonment sentences.
I would have liked reading the subtitle of Majd’s book – An Iranian Challenge – not as it was probably meant, a challenge to the (western) world and its biased, Eurocentric, American conceptions of what democracy is, but as an emerging high risk for Iran for eventually losing its currently largely insufficient democratic structures after (admittedly what has to be proven yet) its fraudulent election last year in favor of another military dictatorship in the region. In particular after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had openly endorsed his favorite candidate and granted his ‘re-election’ last year there is indeed little hope left for coming elections, parliamentary or presidential. A re-emerging Green or human rights movement seems currently unthinkable.
A typical example of Majd’s quite dubious style may be his description of the situation of the Jewish minority in the Shi’a Islamic republic. The obviously desired overall impression, I suppose, was that the 20,000 to 25,000 Jews left in Iran, have a better, if not overall standing, but living conditions after the Islamic revolution than ever. However, already the title of the chapter “The Good, the Bad, the Unclean”  hints at deeply-rooted anti-Semitism in unenlightened Shi’a societies and the clergy. I can’t help but I find it cynical and, well, anti-Semitic. When Majd visited, for instance, a hospital in Tehran , he described a scene where Mrs. Hasidim, a former midwife and one of the hospital administrators, showed him around (p. 231f). Few Jews are there, either patients or employees, except the board of directors, with the new Jewish Member of Parliament, Dr. Siamak Moreh-Sedegh, being a member of the board.
“‘Come,’ she (Mrs. Hasidim) said, ‘let’s take a tour and then go and have lunch.’ I followed her out the door and walked with her through the hospital, along its impeccably clean and orderly corridors and through its wards. She pointedly identified the one or two Jewish patients in their beds. She also whispered, as we said hello at a nurses’ station, that ‘that tall one is the only Jewish nurse, or really midwife, left.’ We took the stairs down to the basement and to an empty cafeteria, where a long table had been set up for the board of directors, who wandered in one by one.
‘The kosher kitchen, I presume?’ I asked Mrs. Hasidim.
‘Yes,’ she said with a smile.
‘Perhaps you might tell your Muslim staff today the grandson of an Ayatollah, a descendant of the prophet Mohammad no less, ate a kosher meal in your cafeteria,’ I said.
‘No, I won’t do that,’ she said rather sternly and devoid of humor. Some things, one quickly learns, are just not funny when it comes to religion. Not in Iran. Mrs. Farangiz Hasidim, a Jew who was living and working among devout Muslims, knew that better than me.” (Emphasis added.)
A highly embarrassing situation, and no ta’arouf. At least Majd noticed it, but why did he write about it? 
Maybe the chapter on Jewish life and oppression of Jews in Iran is the most revealing in Majd’s book; at least it is the most interesting. It cannot be tolerated that numerical minorities are living in a constant state of uncertainty devoid of basic civil rights. Majd summarizes his documented dialogues with people he met (p. 249f):
“My experiences with the Jewish community in Iran were not different from other experiences: the paradoxical nature of the government, the people, the culture, and the society at large is as confusing as ever, and peculiarly Persian in character. Synagogues, hospitals, committees, kosher restaurants, and Hebrew schools operate freely in a Muslim theocratic state, but the government celebrates ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’ The president denies the Holocaust as ‘fake’ and a ‘hoax,’ but the Jewish member of the Parliament openly and fearlessly criticizes him …. Jews are completely free, but not free to support Israel. Jews are equal citizens, except when they’re not. Iranian Jews must not travel to Israel, except when they do. Iranian-Israelis are not welcome back in Iran, except when they are. Iranian government censors block the New York Post on the Internet, but not the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. It is almost a necessity to be Iranian to understand, and to be Iranian in order to be comfortable with Iranian life and all of its paradoxes. And Iranian Jews are nothing if not Iranian.”
No, it’s not. Dictatorship, by definition, allows for ‘relative freedom’ and has always produced opportunists frankly taking advantage of the system. Living a ‘content’ life, as well-established Director of the Tehran Jewish Committee Dr. Rahmatollah Raffi concludes (p. 250). Does Majd really wants to tell us that that is typically ‘Persian’? A society ‘paradox’, an Ayatollah’s ‘democracy’? 
Majd mentions faintly the fate of the 250,000 Baha’is who “cannot attend Universities” or “hold government jobs” but rather are severely persecuted in Iran. And who are Iranians as well, their new faith having been founded there only in the 19th century.
Majd ends his account with putting even the role, past and present (future?), of the Revolutionary Guards, or pasdaran, into perspective. No word about their heavy influence in the country’s down-spiraling economy or the nuclear program .
From the very beginning (and, by definition) Shi’ites are always victims. Is that the whiny resume? Is there any hope for the Iranians? Maybe.
“The millions of Iranians, and the leaders who have braved the stern and unforgiving dictates of a regime they helped to create, are looking to finally break free from what has defined their political lives, and when they are successful – and they will be, in an Ayatollah’s democracy or not – there will be, finally, no more victims.”
 Majd mentions once that not only Jews but also Christians are considered by fundamentalist Shi’ites unclean. But there are definitely huge differences in the najasat-e ahl-e kitab, the uncleanness of the People of the Book, or dhimmis. Daniel Tsadik, an Iranian Jew, makes it very clear in his dissertation on anti-Semitism in Qajar-ruled Iran in the 19th century, which earned him a PhD from the History Department at Yale University, that it was mainly based on the inhuman excrescence of Shi’a Islam’s despise of the Jewish faith. No pogroms against Christians have been reported in Iran. The current Jewish member of the majles, Dr. Siamak Moreh-Sedegh, who has rather been caricatured by Majd claims, on page 236, that “[T]here is anti-Semitism everywhere. But the issue is really whether it is organized and whether it can penetrate the culture. Throughout Iranian history organized anti-Semitism has not existed.” (Emphasis by the author.) As a Jew, he should know better.
 The Dr. Sapir Hospital had been founded over 50 years ago in South Central Tehran (what had been the Jewish ghetto in Tehran) by a famous Jewish doctor. It started as an outpatient maternity clinic (p. 230). According to Mrs. Hasidim, “It was started really because a pregnant Jewish woman, all those years ago, once bled to death because a Muslim doctor wouldn’t touch her, because of her being najess.” Unclean in Islam.
 One has to remember that the Jewish population in Iran can be traced for incredible 2800 years. So, Jews (and of course Zoroastrians) may be rightfully considered as the original Iranians, not a minority among Iranians who are now mainly (Shi’a) Muslims. When Majd refers to his status as a Sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and his cousin Ali ibn Abi Ṭalib, he also admits that he has Arab ancestors. The Arab conquest of Iran and the collapse of the Sassanid Empire since 633 resulted in a considerable number of Sayyids as every visitor of Iran immediately notices.
 More insights on his view about Jews in present day Iran gives an interview of Majd with Steve Inskeep at NPR, see here. But I would doubt the headline statement: Jewish minority is influential in Iran. One hardly finds, by the way, a respective statement in the interview.
 The book doesn’t present evidence for any statement since Majd unfortunately waives any references for his claims. There are certainly numerous errors, just typos (the IR755 had been shot down over the Persian Gulf by USS Vincennes in 1988, marking more or less the end of the Iraq-Iran war, not 1998, p. 176) or spun reality according to his imagination. For instance, Majd mentions (twice, as far as I remember) an apology of the Clinton administration, through Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for the 1953 CIA coup ousting the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh re-installing Shah Reza Pahlavi. What she actually said in her address in March 2000 was, ”The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons.” And, ”But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.” That’s, of course not an apology. But it shows Majd’s very subjective account, not to say biased opinion, which is obvious all over the book. Another possible misconception is the so-called Guldimann initiative of 2003. The Swiss ambassador to Iran submitted what some believed was a grand bargain attempt by the Khatami administration. Majd writes (on p. 180):
“Sadeq Kharrazi, who was Iran’s ambassador to Paris at the time (in 2003) and a nephew of Kamal Kharrazi, the foreign minister, was the main author of the now-infamous ‘letter to the Bush administration.’ The Swiss ambassador (Tim Guldimann) to Iran delivered the letter to U.S. officials, but the U.S. president ignored it and the White House rejected his conveying of the message as ‘interference’ in the affairs of the United States. Some in the Bush administration even considered the letter a forgery, arguing that lacking a letterhead, the faxed document could not have been issued by the Iranian government, thus implying that the Swiss ambassador, extraordinary and plenipotentiary as his diplomatic title went, was also an extraordinary patsy.” (Emphasis by the author.)
The significance of Guldiman’s initiative has been controversially discussed. Whether it was in fact a missed chance by the Bush Administration which was about to invade Iraq and oust Saddam (or did it already) or one of Iran’s numerous maneuvers over the years (in fear of being invaded next) is not so clear. To be fair, one has to remember that, according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran, the country also halted its military nuclear program.
Last modified October 14, 2010.
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Hooman Majd is a shameless apologist for the Iranian regime. He’s also an idiot whose writing is incredibly boring.
Hass, actually, I agree with the first and second statement but would disagree somewhat with the third. I found it quite readable. But the more I approached the end the more I was wondering why he had chosen that title and who is being challenged here.
Mr. Majd is a clever and deft lobbyist, at his own admission, for the Islamic Republic of Iran. His opinions on Iran, human rights of the oppressed in Iran, and its nuclear program should be viewed in this context.