Q & A with Nathan Gonzalez, author of Engaging Iran

June 22nd, 2009 · 6 Comments

Nathan Gonzalez is an expert on Iran, and last week, I read his insightful and timely blog post that was featured on the front page of the Huffington Post about the most recent events unfolding in that country. Sometimes we are focused in our Latino politics realm that we don’t fully contemplate the events happening in other parts of the world, but one reason why I invited Nathan to participate on this blog is to bring some additional enlightenment, as Seneca has been able to do periodically chiming in about foreign policy matters.

Some people have suggested that Latinos are only interested in comprehensive immigration reform or domestic policy matters, but as Seneca has pointed out, we are sorely underrepresented in US foreign policy and aren’t readily perceived as players in that game. Hopefully, with the participation of scholars like Nathan Gonzalez in Middle East foreign policy, we can change that perception and learn more in the process. Check out some of the questions I was able to ask him, and feel free to add your own thoughts:

1. Why should Latinos here in the US be concerned with what is happening in Iran? Some in our community have argued that we should stay focused on the domestic issues at hand and foreign policy as it relates to the Americas.

Luckily, I have not heard anyone wonder aloud why we should care about what is happening in Iran. That would make as much sense as someone saying, “Why should I learn Spanish, I live in America!” However, something I have been asked is why I, as a Latino, spend so much time studying and commenting on Iran. But the beauty of your site, and the various efforts underway to increase Latino participation in politics and civil society, is that they provide avenues for Latinos to take part in the larger social fabric. You have Latino doctors, Latino lawyers, and now we’ll have a Latina Supreme Court justice. Why not have Latinos who study the Middle East?

2. You have been a proponent of engaging with Iran. Some have argued that engaging with the current regime would be like legitimizing the leadership, which is kind of like the arguments that have been tossed around for not engaging with Cuba or Venezuela. Do you think that the Obama administration should be more proactive in its approach with Iran?
I would be lying if I said that the current crackdown on protesters doesn’t complicate things politically for President Obama here at home. However, the Bush administration aligned our interests very closely to those of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran is the country with the second greatest influence over Iraq, after the United States. This means that for our troops to come home safely, we need to coordinate closely with the Islamic Republic. The same goes for another one of Iran’s neighbor, Afghanistan. We have no choice but to work with whoever is in power in Iran, and that is one of the unfortunate and seldom-told legacies of the Bush presidency.

3. One of the things that comes to mind in watching the demonstrations is that the US has had problems in claiming the legitimacy of its own elections in recent years (2000 & 2004). Do we appear hypocritical if we start to attack Iran’s electoral process?

I don’t agree with those comparisons, which I’ve been hearing a lot. What we saw in Iran was the Interior Ministry proclaim a winner without even taking the time to count votes. It would be like George Bush convening the Electoral College to vote for him before the states even announced their vote tallies. We only mock the disenfranchisement that took place in Florida and Ohio when we make such a moral equivalence.

4. If the protests continue despite warnings from the Supreme Leader Khamenei, what does this say about his authority or power?

The minute the supreme leader took President Ahmadinejad’s side was the moment he lost his above-the-fray status. As the arrests of key political figures continue, such as those targeting the family members of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and one of the country’s wealthiest individuals, it becomes more likely that a coup will be attempted through the Assembly of Experts. This is the body headed by Rafsanjani which has the constitutional authority to remove the supreme leader.

5. For me, watching the situation unfold in Iran has been a good reinforcement of why we have a separation of church and state here in the US. In light of recent events in the US that have been tinged with religious thought such as the killing of Dr. George Tiller and the gay marriage debate, do you think it is fair to draw parallels or comparisons of what could happen here if we inched toward more converging of religion with public policy?
I think it is a fair comparison. For example, there is nothing in Shia Islam, as traditionally practiced, that allows a mere cleric to take executive authority over the state. But this is exactly what Ayatollah Khomeini did following the Iranian Revolution (1978-79). In other words, just because we think we understand how the Bible or the Qur’an works, it doesn’t mean that popular religious figures can’t hijack those Holy texts to advance their narrow political ambitions, and in the process make life miserable for the rest of us. We can avoid this problem by keeping a sturdy wall separating church and state.

6. Finally, what are you thoughts about the use of social media in disseminating information about the situation in Iran?

I have personally learned a lot from what is happening in Iran. I only started using Twitter after seeing how powerful a communication tool it has been for Iranian protesters. At the same time, we should not exaggerate the role of social networking sites. The last time Iran had a revolution there was no Twitter, no Facebook, and no cell phones. Only courage and determination.

Tags: Barack Obama · diversity · Foreign Policy · GWB · Iraq War · Presidential Elections · Supreme Court · Technology · Voting Rights

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Seneca // Jun 22, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Let me point out that we increasingly have Latinos in the Foreign Service who have studied Arabic and have served in the Middle East like Alberto Fernandez, who is our charge d’affaires in the Sudan, and Ben Montanez, who is now in Jerusalem after a stint in Saudi. We also have Luis Moreno, the second in charge of our embassy in Tel Aviv. And there are several who have served already in Iraq. These experts show that we can deal with other complicated areas of the world beyond the ‘cucaracha’ circuit as Latin America is fondly referred to in some quarters of the bureaucracy.

  • 2 Michaelr // Jun 22, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    I don’t agree with Nathan Gonzalez’s answer to question number three. It conveys that he believes in the mythology that the U.S. electoral process is without flaws, and cannot be compared to other sovereign nation’s elections, nor can the U.S. electoral process be tampered with politically. His answer just evades the reality that U.S. political corruption continues to fester behind a giant superficial moral façade, even when that corruption abruptly announces itself to the world from time to time. Two good examples of this were the U.S. Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004.

  • 3 Cockroach People // Jun 23, 2009 at 9:34 am

    I think Nathan Gonzalez is absolutely right about Latinos being experts on all sorts of subjects–even the middle east. We actually have Latinos in many fields who are influential just not famous. Lessons can be learned from any revolution or quasi-revolution (perhaps the case in Iran unless Mousavi actually represents a shift in the dominant thinking as opposed to a shuffling of the power brokers). But those studying Iran might also benefit from the history of democracy in the Americas–especially Latin-America. The “form” of democracy has been applied to many nation-states but the promise of Democracy has not necessarily been fulfilled. What do the Americas have to teach us about the current state of Iran as well as its future? What about Iraq for that matter? Having gifted Latino middle east experts that are as good or better than all the rest is a good start (coloring the “social fabric” as it were). What would be even more interesting to me would be research that makes connections and provides deeper insight about both the America’s and the Middle East. We have a lot in common. This applies to other fields, too. E.g., what is uniquely interesting about Sotomayor is not that she would be a SC justice that happens to be of color/Latina (that would make her similar to Clarence Thomas at best). What makes her interesting and controversial is that she brings her Latino, female, Bronx perspective to the table and integrates it into her jurisprudence.

    On a different note, one thing that I think Gonzalez leaves unexplained–I understand this was not a long interview–is the lesson to be learned about separating Church and State. The wall metaphor he uses has never been officially respected though it was given great lip service by the early Supreme Court. First Amendment jurisprudence has been gutted down to accepting any combination between church and state as long as laws are facially neutral. The sturdy wall is a myth. Yet we have no theocracy (just tendencies toward one as evidenced by the passage of proposition 8). So is it the missing wall in Iran that is the answer or is there something more profoundly oppressive at work there–something that would merely replace a secular dictatorship for a religious one?
    Thanks for the great interview. It posed more questions than it did answers, which is the hallmark of good reporting and writing, IMHO.

  • 4 El Cholo // Jun 23, 2009 at 9:39 am

    So do we add Nathan Gonzalez to the club? That makes six of us. No…I think there has to be another briefing. He doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor despite the fact he’s from UCLA.

  • 5 BettyM // Jun 23, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Michaelr – I agree. Our process may be better than most but it is far from perfect.

  • 6 Michaelr // Jun 23, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Thank you BettyM.

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