The status of the National Library of Iran (NLI) as a determinant of power play and of relations between the establishment and the public is gradually improving. It was almost two decades ago that Seyyed Mohammad Khatami resigned his post in the Cabinet of then President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to take charge of the NLI. That decision provided him a nice respite from the pressures of an executive position as well as from political wrangling so that he could focus on theoretical foundations of the Islamic revolution as well as on religious and historical issues, the common ground of civilizations, philosophy and rules of governance. He went on to put forth the idea of “Dialogue among Civilizations and Cultures” as the least expensive means to secure détente in international relations.
Mohammad Khatami’s stint at NLI has undoubtedly played a role in the idea of “Civil Society” he presented to the nation, in his victory in the 1997 presidential elections, and in the reform discourse he championed. Two decades on, will the directorship of NLI result in new theories and discourses? What will come next from the hills overlooking the capital’s Abbasabad Neighborhood, home to the NLI?
Seyyed Reza Salehi Amiri, the current director of the NLI has both similarities and differences with his predecessor: Mohammad Khatami. Salehi Amiri was only a small number of votes away from assuming a post in President Rouhani’s Cabinet. Of course, Khatami was successful in getting a vote of confidence from parliament, but gave in to pressures he could not tolerate and resigned as the minister of culture and Islamic guidance of the sixth government. One thing the two have in common is that both of them have focused on discourse – one on the discourse of reforms and the other on the discourse of moderation.
The present article features the answers the director of NLI or as a 221st issue of Mosalas Weekly would like to call “a close associate of Hassan Rouhani” has provided to questions asked by the editor of this principlist publication. The interview covers a wide range of questions including Amiri’s credentials, theoretical aspects of moderation and the coalition between reformists and moderates in elections.
The initial questions revolve around Amiri’s background and his association with Rouhani. “There are two distinct periods during which Mr. Rouhani and I worked together. In the first period that started in 2003 and ran through 2005, we were colleagues at the Supreme National Security Council, and in the second I was a member of the Center for Strategic Studies.”
In response to a question about his association with Mr. Rouhani, Salehi Amiri says: “Basically, I specialize in socio-cultural issues. At the Secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council and at the Center for Strategic Studies too, I focused on cultural and socio-cultural questions. At the university, I am in charge of the Cultural Management Department. Over the past decade, the Center for Strategic Studies has released a total of 400 research papers. The studies we conducted at the center fell into two categories. We would build on the results of the first-category research to prop up the academic atmosphere of the country, and the second category would eventually be used in policy-making as far as family, mass media and education were concerned at the State Expediency Council.”
On his academic and cultural background, he says, “The measures taken at the Center for Strategic Studies are of great importance. For example, if a government closely examined its own performance, it would be able to use the result of such assessment to develop a new discourse, either for itself or for its allies to be used in future races.”
He also talks about the theoretical aspects of moderation and their role in governance. The Q and A in question is presented in the form of an article here. The abridgment of the answers he has provided does not mean the content has been altered. In the interview which was conducted to mark the one-year anniversary of President Rouhani’s victory in election, Salehi Amiri also talks about the vote count:
“There were three of us: Hassan Rouhani, [Hesameddin] Ashna and me. Before midnight he [Mr. Rouhani] went to take some rest. We were worried, but he said he was not stressed at all because the tally would go ahead in keeping with procedure. Before he went to bed we told him about good results coming in from the provinces. He confidently told us, ‘His Excellency [the Supreme Leader] won’t let anyone rig the vote.’ Based on his familiarity with His Excellency and the latter’s sensitivity about the votes of the people, he was confident there would be no fraud. ‘There is no reason to be worried, results will be released the way they are.’’’
What the interview with Salehi Amiri reveals is that he is not tasked with developing a discourse for others – rather, he and other allies of Hassan Rouhani are trying to theorize moderation and win over some middle-of-the-road reformists and principlists in order to fare well in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. The success of such efforts hinges on a number of factors, including the conclusiveness of nuclear talks and restoration of interactions with the rest of the world. Will world powers – namely P5+1 – once again ignore the moderation of Iranian statesmen which could lead to sustainable win-win interaction? If that turned out to be true, one can conclude that Salehi Amiri’s moderation discourse can only be useful in classrooms, and not in governance. The following is what he has said:
Moderation is rooted in history and dates back to the time when Imam Ali [Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law] was the caliph of the Muslim community. His five-year caliphate is an invaluable experience as far as religion, history and governance are concerned. […] The way he would treat those who were opposed to him, his tolerance of dissent and his just treatment of non-Muslims indicate that moderation was a hallmark of Ali-style governance.
In the course of history there were individuals such as Farabi, Naser Khosro and Avicenna who are hailed as intellectuals and wise thinkers. In the contemporary history and in the post-revolution Iran, Imam [Khomeini] manifested moderation. Unlike in other revolutions, Imam put forth a new idea and talked about popular uprising rather than armed struggle. He was bitterly opposed to the use of force in overhauling the foundations of a system. Although Imam followed a revolutionary approach, such behavior was moderate and came despite the fact that armed struggle would definitely have produced a swifter outcome. He was adamant that revelation of the crimes the Pahlavi regime committed would help society feel the impact of the performance of their rulers on their lives. That was what happened. When Imam said blood prevails against the sword, he revived the memory of the uprising the grandson of the Prophet led against injustice and incorporated that uprising with the Iranian revolution.
Such a prudent approach led to the emergence of a huge social movement. When Imam returned home, Iranian society had already embraced his revolution which was partly cultural in nature. The revolutionaries did not commit acts of violence. Imam neither supported nor attached importance to the militias who were bent on carrying out armed struggle.
It should be noted that all discourses that emerged in the wake of the revolution were partly based on Imam’s line of thinking. One of these discourses which came under the spotlight during the course of the war centered on values, a discourse which was championed by Imam and embraced by the government. It was the only period in which the official discourse was the same as the unofficial discourse, one which was integrated into society and its culture.
Afterwards, development and reconstruction, which were a necessity of the post-war era, took center stage. That discourse which could be described as a historical necessity proved effective in easing the country’s problems such as poverty and poor infrastructure and put it on course to growth and development.
The third discourse revolved around reforms of which public contribution [to day-to-day administration of affairs], political development and expansion of civil institutions were an integral part. The discourse in question came in response to a second set of social demands for public contribution to state decision-making. Then came the justice discourse. I believe the problem associated with this discourse is that its various aspects remained unexplained and justice was simply used as a slogan. Besides, the discourse of justice belongs to the Supreme Leader; in fact, it is a super-discourse that covers all other discourses of society.
After the justice discourse came moderation, one which was put forth as a necessity to secure national unity. A society weary of conflict, violence, political wrangling, illogical behavior and isolation was unwilling to be dragged into more disputes. In this tense atmosphere which was fraught with vengefulness, slander, and accusations society needed respite. That was when the discourse of moderation emerged.
The moderation discourse is an evolved form of previous discourses. It is not an imitation of previous discourses; nor does it run counter to the discourses that preceded it. This discourse believes in values, attaches importance to development and reconstruction, and views reforms as a vital necessity to sustain the political life of society. It regards justice as a source of all discourses. Still it believes that a new discourse is needed in order to secure national unity and political wisdom, and that a new language should be used in dealing with the rest of the world.
The most important reason behind the need for a new discourse is the inefficiency of the country’s foreign policy over the eight years [that led to the presidency of Hassan Rouhani]. This new discourse of moderation should not be viewed as conciliatory, inactive or unable to stand up for national interests and expediency. As we all know the macro-policies of the establishment are devised at a high level and different governments use different methods to implement those macro-policies. […]
Macro-policies of the establishment are those which eventually secure the go-ahead of the Supreme Leader and governments are required to implement them, through different methods, though. The methods the previous government used did not work, but I am certain the methods the current government is using will. The impact of those methods is already evident in the country’s foreign policy because the attitudes have changed. […]
The moderation discourse has a religious and ideological foundation which has manifested itself in the governance of the Commander of the Faithful: Imam Ali (PBUH). Moderation is part of our religious principles and can be easily traced in the conduct of religious greats. Historically, wisdom has been at loggerheads with ossification. Wisdom is one of the pillars of moderation. In fact, wisdom lies at the center of every decision we make. Why do wisdom and our national interests require us to opt for moderation in our foreign policy today? Why should we choose interaction on the domestic front? The answer is that wisdom necessitates measures to steer a politics-weary society toward calm. I believe moderation is built on a theoretically strong foundation. […]
The philosophical, religious, diplomatic, economic, cultural and social foundations of moderation are all there. What we are doing now is tapping into a historical experience, the approach of the Prophet and Imam Ali, and the mentality of Imam which continued well into the post-revolution era, in order to define, not invent, the discourse of moderation. Moderation is a discourse which is already part of the country’s political system.
Some prominent individuals including sources of emulation, elites and clergymen who have no political leanings manifest moderation. In other words, moderation which respects other discourses such as principlism and reformism has made it onto the country’s political scene with a new language. In this new language, political boundaries are not demarcated. The current government is a moderate one. You cannot call it a reformist government or one which is exclusively committed to reconstruction. This government brings together all components necessary to secure national unity and development, that is why individuals with different affiliations are brought on board based on merits. […] Political approaches usually entail red lines, and the president has called extremism as the red line of his government.
Only those who do not walk down the path of wisdom, those who constantly seek to incite violence and disrupt the political atmosphere, those who are out there only to secure individual and group interests, and those whose management becomes meaningful only in a tense atmosphere cannot be part of this government. I believe the extremist line of thinking is very limited in Iran, but its limited followers are loud enough to be heard. At the same time the potential for moderation is great. In light of the fact that those who are moderate believe in wisdom and follow a strategy of unity, they are less likely to make the political atmosphere tense.
A comparative study of how things were yesterday and where they stand today reveals that society is in an ideal condition as far as stability and tranquility are concerned. Some view this calm as running counter to their interests and try their best to provoke the government into reaction and thus disturb the prevailing calm. If that is not the case, what does this great volume of misinformation, slander, character assassination and misjudgment [targeting the government] mean? For example, an Iranian correspondent [who is in Vienna to cover talks between Iran and P5+1] asks the US Under-Secretary of State [Wendy] Sherman when the parties to the negotiations are going to talk about Iranian missiles. That question is asked despite the fact that the correspondent knows well that Iran’s missiles are not on the agenda and that the Islamic Republic has no intention of talking about its missiles. Why is such a question asked from the US diplomat? The answer is that they want to pitch the idea that [Iranian] diplomats do not tell the truth and the correspondent wants to hear the truth from Mrs. Sherman. They seek to disturb the calm that exists on the foreign policy front.
But the government is too smart to be caught in this snare, and believes it has to spend the better part of its energy on the country’s development drive and on answering the needs of the public rather than countering such movements. […]
The moderation discourse seeks to promote the kind of political system that makes optimal use of the experience of the last thirty-something years to secure full-scale political, economic, social and cultural development and serve the interests of the public. In the process it is the national unity, and not political reprisal, that takes center stage. This is the central pillar of the discourse that seeks to create a national government to which everyone contributes. […]
On the religious front, attention to the viewpoints of the sources of emulation and clergymen is instrumental in the success of the government. […] The government also views compliance with the orders of the Supreme Leader as a necessity. Over the past year the government has immediately implemented all the instructions and policies communicated by the leader. This is what real compliance means. Compliance should come in action rather than in words and superficial behavior.
Another approach of the government concerns the elite, pundits, thinkers and other influential individuals that serve as a link between the public and the government. The government is in close contact with these individuals and views dialogue with the elite as a vital necessity.
At present, extremists are bent on making the public draw a line between the establishment and the executive branch, and this does injustice to both. History shows that parallel governance is costly and inefficient, and the government of moderation believes that nothing comes between it and the establishment at large. […] In the Islamic Republic of Iran, all branches of government and all institutions are part of a central framework. The use of force, threats and pressure to push some out and thus set the stage for subjecting them to criticism is unjust.
Three factors have contributed to conclusions by reformists that sticking to power is not their ideal: the eight years they were at the helm and the challenges they faced in the process, the eight years Ahmadinejad was in office, and the [post-election] incidents of 2009 which they found extremely bitter to swallow. The experience of the past years proved to reformists that there are others who can run the country and steer it in the right direction without necessarily landing on a collision course with them.
Mr. Rouhani was an independent who ranona platform of independence. Reformists do not view the rise to power of Mr. Rouhani as contradictory to their goals and views, so they regard cooperation with a government that seeks to serve the interests of the public as part of their mission. […] What Mr. Rouhani says today is in line with what he has in mind. Basically, he does not accept duality in the policies that are announced and those which are implemented. He says what he believes in. […]
His stance on the nuclear issue has remained unchanged since day one. In an interview [before being elected], he said the direction the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad was leading the country in ran counter to our national interests. In the [presidential] debates, he reaffirmed his stance and called for a change in that direction.
On the economic front, he believes in development with an emphasis on social justice so that those who are on the lower rungs of society are given a chance to benefit from the development drive. On the cultural front, he has put modern thinking with an emphasis on principles of Islam and wisdom under the spotlight. He believes what he says is based on religious and ideological principles. For instance, his warning that people should not be forced to go to Heaven [a reference to insistence by some officials that the Islamic dress code should be enforced strictly at all costs] is based on a story involving the Prophet.
He follows a similar approach when it comes to the mass media and has recently elaborated on that approach in a press conference. He has touched on his policy vis-à-vis the elite during a speech at university. His approaches in other areas are more or less similar.
For a person like me who has spent years with him, those things are nothing new. They are in fact expressive of his views. But for those who are unfamiliar with the language he uses, they sound new. You take a look at his speeches on the campaign trail and you come across concepts such as cultural pluralism, national cohesion, national unity, civic rights, privacy, compliance with political ethics, respect for national and religious identity and support for guilds, including the Media Guild and the Cinema House. He believes that the public handed him a mandate to promote these concepts and that his government should be faithful to the things the public has entrusted it with. I believe what he’s doing is in line with the promises he has made to the public. […]
And the important thing here is that Mr. Rouhani believes that political activities should set the stage for development rather than dispute. I believe his strategy is a good one. He is not trying to blow up the country’s political atmosphere – rather, he is bent on tapping into the country’s political potential to secure national unity. Let me repeat it, the 11th government uses politics for loftier purposes, not simply for political purposes. Politics should not be a source of dispute – rather, it should be used as a basis for development. This is a very important approach. In other words, the government never seeks political confrontation; what the government is after is interaction.