Just three years after receiving his Ph.D in Political Science from Georgetown University, Swarthmore College Professor Shervin Malekzadeh is a burgeoning public intellectual, with publications in the New York TimesThe Atlantic, and Time Magazine. An Iranian-American whose dissertation research took him to Tehran on the eve of the 2009 Green Movement, Professor Malekzadeh’s academic contributions follow his life-long interest in the political divide between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States. He chatted with me about growing up Iranian-American in 1980s Texas, witnessing the popular unrest in Tehran in 2009, and what Back to the Future tells us about our perception of the Middle East.

SS: You were in Tehran conducting dissertation research in June 2009 when the Green Movement unexpectedly broke out, following the presidential election. Can you describe what the first days of the Green Movement looked like from the street?

SM: It was surreal, of course. At first I was just walking the streets, filming with my MacBook— literally just walking with my MacBook open in front of my chest, video recording. Reckless, probably. I was always at the back of the crowd, until the tear gas started flying, and everyone else ran, and I was clueless, and suddenly I was in the front of the crowd, because everyone else was gone.

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But I have never been more obsessed with something, with just watching something unfold. In his book on the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Charles Kurtzman talks about the moment when routines break down, when you don’t know what is coming next, and when anything feels possible. That was Tehran in 2009. It evokes such a powerful feeling, even looking back on it now. There was this tremendous sense of camaraderie; if you were on the streets, you were suddenly friends with everyone else on the streets.

But that energy can only last so long. Alongside the sense of infinite possibility was a desire to return to normality. Ordinary life takes over, eventually. Real life is out there, after all. I remember that on the thirtieth day, Michael Jackson died, and of course it meant nothing to anyone else on the street but me, and yet it captured so perfectly the convenient, perhaps secretly desired, break I wanted. Social movements, being out of the ordinary, are more thoroughly exhausted than participants might like to admit.

SS: The mainstream view is that only with Rouhani’s election in 2013 did U.S.-Iranian relations significantly change. But you’ve talked about 2009 as the turning point. Why is that?

SM: Well, politically, 2009 made 2013 possible. But first, look at the cultural shift that 2009 created, in terms of how Iranians are perceived in the United States. The Green Movement showed broad support for popular democracy—it was essentially a movement of citizens who were angry that their vote hadn’t been counted. That made it much harder to sustain the popular view in the United States that Iranians are so different. When Iranians are marching for their votes to be counted, when Facebook is lighting up with Green Movement symbols as profile pictures, it suddenly becomes harder to talk so casually about bombing Tehran. Suddenly Iranians are people with recognizable values.

Iran 03So that’s the cultural dimension. Within Iran itself, 2009 made 2013 possible. In the negotiation between state and society, 2009 was the preliminary rounds of talks that made the concessions of 2013 possible. With Rouhani’s election, the Iranian public was double-dog daring the regime to defy reformist tendencies a second time.

Organizationally, as well, Rouhani’s election came out of the structures created by 2009. When I showed up in Iran in the early summer of 2013, Rouhani had 3% support in the polls. But there was a clear consensus among the reformist candidates that the debates would determine who would win the right to unify the movement that came out of 2009. The technocratic Mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, was expected to win. But his appeals didn’t resonate: he legitimated himself by talking about his sacrifices in combat in the Iran–Iraq War, and his religious faith. Rouhani didn’t talk about wars—he spoke to a new politics, demanded by a public that was shaping elite discourse with its demands to be heard. There was an organizational structure behind Rouhani’s rhetoric, and it was littering Tehran with supportive flyers. Rhetorically and organizationally, Rouhani’s victory was all about the political currents that came out of 2009.

I do think that’s a good deal of what politics is about. It can’t be ignored, both because it impacts people’s lives, but also because observing those cultural portrayals tells us something about our political assumptions, about our worldview.

SS: You talk about cultural perception, which most realists would say isn’t relevant at the elite policy level. Can you talk about where you differ from standard approaches?

SM: My response to that has to be personal as well as academic. For me, cultural perceptions matter in terms of both political trends, and individuals’ lives. I remember being a kid in Texas, in the early 1980s, in the first years after the Iranian Revolution. I was conscious that there had been a rapid shift in how Iranians were perceived in America. Before the Revolution, Iranians were admired as a historic culture, perhaps “other”-ized, sure, but in an admiring way—but that overnight, with the hostage crisis, Iranians were suddenly portrayed as the worst type of human beings. I remember my kindergarten teacher telling me, ‘No, you’re not Iranian, you’re German.’ I’m German? What?

Iran 04So as a kid, I was teed into how people from other cultures were portrayed in the public imagination. And I do think that’s a good deal of what politics is about. It can’t be ignored, both because it impacts people’s lives, but also because observing those cultural portrayals tells us something about our political assumptions, about our worldview. I remember in the late 1980s, a Chinese man was beaten to death in Detroit, because his attackers thought he was Japanese. What better barometer of American anxiety about Japanese manufacturing competition could you ask for?

Do you remember Doctor Brown being shot by Libyan terrorists in Back to the Future? There we go, the security anxieties of the 1980s, when Reagan bombed Libya and called Gaddafi the ‘Mad Dog of the Middle East.’ That scene wouldn’t have resonated a decade later. From a young age I looked to film, music, television, because there’s where these shifts in cultural perception play out.

Resistance can happen without barricades. Ideology does not need to be pernicious

SS: And you see political progress as not merely a matter of policies, but also perceptions?

SM: Yes. Our notions of who is good and bad, of who deserves our scorn and who does not, even of who is or who is not an American, requires significant cultural work to develop. Gramsci writes about culture and class, culture and power, as mutually constituting realities, as processes. His notion is that our existences carry marks of power, of cultural domination. So a woman wearing a veil is carrying a literal mark of patriarchy, which signifies not only her submission, but also her social function: to raise children. And it’s on the terrain of these assigned roles, these accepted normative cultural frameworks, that you see resistance, and progress. So in Iran, the movement for women’s education comes out of women’s appeal to their designated roles in patriarchy: they start saying, ‘You know what, it’s so important that as mothers we can educate the future male leaders, that perhaps we need a little education ourselves.’

Let me bring this back to contemporary Iran. When I was in Tehran in 2009, what the Green Movement was doing was using the accepted language of Islam to question the regime. Protesters were holding signs that read, ‘Honesty = Islam.’ And the questions were very clear: How can Ahmadinejad say there is no inflation when everyone knows inflation is 20%? How can an honest Muslim claim to have won an election we know he did not win?

So resistance can happen without barricades. Ideology does not need to be pernicious. It can be used for, appealed to, for meaningful progress. This process of negotiation, of appeals to authority within even severely repressive system, is what is missed by simplistic leftism, certain brands of Marxism which reduce everything to mere class domination. That misses human agency, even denies it.

SS: As a scholar, how do you begin to systematically study something as vast and as nebulous as ‘culture’?

SM: My dissertation research examined Iranian school textbooks, before and after 1979. A revolution provides an appealing case study, because we can follow both the continuities and ruptures implicit in what emerges. So over thirty years, you can observe in these textbooks the negotiation of Iranian culture. How is piety portrayed? How is modernity portrayed?

Iran 05In the 2009 and 2013 election cycles, I watched closely for the way in which certain issues were discussed. Take the Iran–Iraq War, which is always standard for candidates to appeal to. Rouhani went totally off script. He didn’t focus on the war. He didn’t focus on the martyrs. He talked about the needs of his audience. That’s how democracy works, and it’s how ‘culture’ can begin to be studied. In Rouhani, you have an elite leader whose rhetoric is shaped by the lived experience of the Iranian public. On what day did Rouhani wake up and decide he cared about factories closing in Tehran, instead of the martyrs of the Iran–Iraq war? That’s a transition that came out of the lived experience of the Iranian public.

SS: Rouhani’s election surprised most western experts. What did the scholars get wrong?

SM: That there is politics in Iran. The ‘expert’ consensus was that because behind-the-scenes elites didn’t want a reformist candidate, there was no chance that one could win. Iranian politics is not that deterministic. In 2013, there were 1,000 candidates for the Tehran City Council, which has 31 positions. Why have so many candidates if Iranian politics is all about elites simply pulling strings? If you were tracking Iranian public sentiment, there was good reason to believe that another 2009 was not going to be tolerated by the public. Which meant that the leading reform candidate—who turned out to be Rouhani—would have a chance.

We have to get beyond this idea that there is no politics in Iran. It’s the same on the nuclear question. The issue is covered as, ‘Will Rouhani reject Ahmadinejad’s extremism?’ That framing ignores that Rouhani has a constituency, and his constituency wants nuclear development. Even the Green Movement has always been in favor of nuclear development. It’s sloppy to attribute Rouhani’s reluctance to give up nuclear development entirely to some inborn personality trait.

SS: Let me finish by asking you about the role of the public intellectual. What sort of receptivity do you encounter for that interest within the academy?

SM: Public commentary certainly counts far, far less for tenure review and general evaluations than many of us who care about public commentary would like. It may not even count at all, or it may count against you. Of course there is something unique and valuable in publishing academic scholarship, so I’m not taking away from how much that matters. But if we believe that public discourse matters, that scholars should negotiate culture and care about outcomes in the subjects they study, then we have to be frank about things like how many more people will read an online op-ed as compared to an academic journal article. As scholars, we have to do a better job of striking a balance between research and public discourse. Circling back to the idea that culture is about negotiating the possible, that discourse is where change happens, we have to acknowledge that scholars are not exempt from that. If they care about their ideas, they should use available opportunities to promote them in public conversation.

SS: Thank you for joining us.

SM: My pleasure.

Shervin MalekzadehProf. Shervin Malekzadeh is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College. He received his Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University where his dissertation focused on the efforts of the Islamic Republic of Iran to produce the New Islamic Citizen through schooling. He is currently working on a study for the United States Institute of Peace on the changing role of student movement groups in Iran since the 2009 Green Movement, as well as the ways in which the university admissions process has become part of the state’s strategy for securing the quiescence of Iranian youth. He has lived and worked in Chile and Brazil, as well as in Qatar where he taught comparative politics at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. An accidental reporter and participant in the Iranian Green Movement, he has written for The Atlantic, NYT, Time, Al Jazeera, and others.

All Iran images courtesy of Prof. Malekzadeh.

About The Author

Sam Sussman
International Relations, University of Oxford

Sam’s research and political commentary has appeared in the Tufts Journal of International Affairs, The Diplomat, Asian Times, International Policy Digest, and the Oxford Left Review. This fall he will begin an M.Phil in International Relations at the University of Oxford.