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Inside Iran: Q & A with Hossein Shariatmadari | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- Hossein Shariatmadari is the adviser to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as a journalist and powerful politician. Yet reformists disagree with what he writes in the daily ‘Kayhan’ newspaper that he heads. However they read the writings of similar conservatives who contribute to the newspaper and the opening editorial of Shariatmadari .

Nahid Tawasoli, editor-in-chief of cultural and active reformist ‘Nafia’ magazine, described the editorials of Shariatmadari as the “melting pot” that represents the prevalent ideas in the corridors of Iranian government, issues that are of great concern to decision makers and decisions that they take regarding various issues.

Shariatmadari did not deny such statement. He explained to Asharq Al-Awsat that the reason for this is not due to his relationship with the Supreme Leader of Iran but rather to the objective interpretation of the developments in Iran and the presence of “important friends” of ‘Kayhan’ in several important positions and institutions.

Asharq Al Awsat met Shariatmadari in the ‘Kayhan’ newspaper offices in downtown Tehran. The interview proceeded as follows:

Q) Over the past two years, many reformist newspapers have been shut down and have faced great difficulties that hamper their work such as ‘Sharq’ newspaper, whilst conservative newspapers still function normally. Why is that?

A) Firstly, categorizing Iranian newspapers into conservative, reformists and moderate newspapers is incorrect. There are some newspapers that are considered conservative yet they criticize government policies or officials in the same manner as “reformist” newspapers. The status of Iranian newspapers now compared to several years ago has not changed as some might imagine. All political currents in Iran now have their own newspapers. Of course, some political currents increase the number of their newspapers. In general, the number of newspapers belonging to the reformist trend is shrinking; some reformist newspapers were banned and were shutdown. But the circumstances and conditions of newspapers have not changed in comparison to their previous statuses.

Q) Is it true that newspapers affiliated to the government enjoy greater benefits in comparison to reformist newspapers?

A) It is very easy to make such an accusation but those who make such claims should give a logical justification to support them. For example, the reformist ‘Sharq’ newspaper was shut down because it ignored the rules that govern the newspapers in Iran. It was suspended after being warned twice or three times. At the same time, ‘Siaset Rose’ newspaper which is a conservative newspaper was shutdown, however, it did not receive any warning before it was closed; they were both shutdown according to Iranian law. As for rumors that conservative newspapers purchase paper easier or cheaper, this is an allegation that I would define not only as groundless but rather absurd. Every newspaper in Iran must buy its paper on its own and there are two sources of paper for newspapers in Iran. One of these sources is the Iranian Company for Paper, and the quality of its papers is not outstanding. The other way is to obtain paper from the free market or import paper. With regards to Kayhan newspaper, which is one of the most important newspapers in Iran, because the financial status of Kayhan is not very good, the quality of paper between the first and last pages is not very high. Newspapers that belong to reformists and which complain of discrimination against them have an excellent quality of paper.

Q) Does Kayhan newspaper get any kind of financial support from Iranian authorities?

A) I would like to underline that we are the only newspaper that is funded by its own private resources. We never receive any financial aid from any party. Government newspapers such as the ‘Iran’ newspaper are funded by the authorities. Also there is ‘Hamshahri’ newspaper that belongs to the local council of Tehran, which is therefore financed by the municipality of Tehran. Furthermore, there is ‘Jam-e-Jam’ newspaper which belongs to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and the budget for which is part of the budget of national television and radio. Other newspapers belong to political parties in Iran, and thus the parties assume its budget. Kayhan is neither this nor that, it is independent from all other parties; a quick glimpse at the articles that we publish will show this.

Q) There are many claims that Iranian law regarding publications is to broad and ambiguous. The conservatives now are using the law for the sake of shutting down reformist newspapers, whilst during the period after the former Iranian President Mohamed Khatami they used the same law to allow the largest part of reformist press. What do you think of this issue?

A) The authority that applies the law of publications in Iran is the judicial institution, and it is separate from the government. Governments change but the judicial institution does not. Therefore, judges must have enough evidence for their decisions regarding newspapers and when they do so they usually give their reasons for their decisions.

Q) There is domestic pressure on Iran because of the economic situation. Also there are external pressures on Iran because of the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the escalation between Washington and Tehran regarding the nuclear file. Which of these two factors do you think constitutes a greater threat for Iran’s security, the internal or the external factors?

A) We have problems within the Iranian economy, but there are no internal differences on this issue. We try to solve economic problems and one of the important steps that we have taken to resolve the economic problems is the orientation towards diverting parts of the companies and major Iranian industries that are controlled by the state to the private sector. Fortunately, the rising price of oil has helped us a lot. We have many infrastructure projects that are now under construction. This is why there are no worries about the economic issue.

Regarding external risks, God has helped us a lot because our enemy [George W] Bush is stupid. His stupidity has helped us a great deal. By attacking Iraq, Bush ended the rule of Saddam Hussein and this worked in our favor. The exceptional capacities of Iraqi people, which were hidden under the strict rule of Saddam Hussein, were launched and this is another point in our favor because Iraq and any other Muslim nation that is liberated from dictatorial oppression is a friend to us. Now people who were in exile in Iran for decades are in power in Iraq. This is an important advantage and is the third point in our favor. Through his attack on Iraq, Bush struck a blow to all liberal democracies around the world. I think this caused embarrassment to Francis Fukayama. Those who support the United States and the groups that were trained by the United States do not dare to voice their support for the United States now. There have been many advantages to Bush’s actions; therefore we are not afraid of external factors. Americans threaten that they will target Iran militarily. We know that this is a mere psychological threat; Americans are amidst a major crisis in Iraq. Even in Afghanistan, there are roughly six provinces in the south that are now controlled by the Taliban and other Afghan groups. An attack on Iran would be very costly to the United States and this is not the first time that we have been subjected to threats. In 1979, after the Iranian revolution when we attempted to begin building the Republic, we were forced into eight years of war with Iraq. In 1991, after Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait, the United States, Europe and other countries admitted that they had supported Saddam Hussein during his war against Iran. Thus, it is not the first time that these forces unite against Iran. However, comparing these years of war with Iraq to our current status, I must say that we have introduced many modifications. We are militarily ready and prepared for anything. I believe that if anything happened, Americans and Israelis would regret it. Hezbollah is just a sample of what could happen; we can compare it with what we can do.

Q) Many have warned that due to Ahmadinejad’s controversial speeches, Iran’s friends may turn against it. They even warn that friendly nations to Iran such as Russia, China, France and Germany may turn against Iran because of Ahmadinejad’s statements. Do you think that the Iranian president’s manner will isolate Iran from the rest of the world?

A) The issue of wiping Israel off the world map is the same as what the founder of the Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini once said. Since the onset of the Republic, the foreign policy of Iran was built on this strategy. We believe that the geography of the region has no place for a state called Israel. As for the Holocaust, senior historians such as the French historian Roger Garaudy and others have said that the Holocaust is a myth and a groundless story. What I mean to say is that if the Holocaust is not real, why did this entity occupy Palestine? Even if the Holocaust is true (and we do not believe so) and there have been claims that incinerators were built in Europe, why then should Palestinians have to pay for what the Europeans did? The West hated Iran because they heard this rejection from us, but I must say that Westerners have hated Iran since the beginning. Imam Khomeini had said from the start that the United States and Europe had done every possible thing to weaken Iran and if there was anything they did not do it is because they were not able to. In light of this viewpoint, we have not lost anything because they have not changed.

There is another side to the story, which is that the Islamic world and the Islamic Ummah [nation] will be united. The General Assembly of the United Nations voted on a resolution that criminalizes the denial of the Holocaust. This is a sign of success for us and it is the last nail driven into the coffin of the United Nations. On one hand, it says that every person has the freedom of speech, belief and criticism, yet on the other hand it says that no one has the right to investigate whether the Holocaust actually occurred or not.

Q) There are claims, however, that such statements do not serve in the interest of Iran but rather cause the abstaining of any dialogue between Americans and Iranians on the nuclear issue.

A) What I am about to say is the viewpoint of a journalist and not an official or diplomatic point of view; it is my opinion as a journalist. Firstly, there can be no negotiations with the Americans. Negotiations, which Larijani, Mottaki and sometimes Ahmadinejad talk about, are negotiations on Iran’s nuclear policy and returning to the negotiation table of 5 plus 1 [permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany]. In these negotiations, Americans tell us that we must stop uranium enrichment, and then they will start negotiating with us. What is the aim of negotiations? Any negotiations between one state and another means that these two countries meet on common ground and negotiate on building joint projects. Americans want us to stop uranium enrichment. If we stopped enrichment before negotiations, what is there to negotiate on? Stopping enrichment should be a result of negotiations and not a precondition. This is why these negotiations will not reach any result. There is another group of Americans who talk about other negotiations on Iraq. I believe that these negotiations also will not lead to any result because it is taking place on conflicting ground. We say that the lack of security in Iraq is caused by the presence of the occupation. Occupiers tell us to come here and negotiate on insecurity and our opinion is that the occupiers should leave Iraq so that security could be established there. Imam Khomeini once cited an example about the Americans that is in line with their behavior nowadays, saying that a very ugly person was rocking a baby’s cradle from side to side but the baby wouldn’t stop crying. The ugly person tried patting the baby to calm him. Then someone came and said to the ugly man, ‘The child is afraid of you; this is why he is crying. Leave the child alone so that he can calm down.’ From my personal opinion, Americans do not want to establish dialogue with us to resolve any issue; they only want negotiations for the sake of negotiations.

Q) Why would they want negotiations for the sake of negotiations?

A) For 28 years, we have stood against America. We got over the economic sanctions, blockades and attacks. We had developed our capacities in spite of 8 years of war and the bombing of our cities. Our resistance was an “example” for the entire world. This model conforms to the statement of Imam Khomeini as he said that America is like an old, toothless lion that only roars loudly. Our steadfastness led to the creation of the Palestinian Intifada, the Islamic movement in Algeria, Turkey and many other Muslim countries. Americans want dialogue with us to tell the world and the Islamic movements in Palestine, Lebanon and all Islamic nations to look at Iran, which was your role model and was your symbol of resistance, it has now sat at the table to negotiate with us. This is what they did with North Korea weeks ago. About a year ago they did the same thing with Libya concerning its nuclear program. Americans tell us: you are like Libya, so let us get rid of your nuclear facilities. But the difference between us and the Libyans is that the Libyans owned reactors that they had purchased from several countries. This is different to us. In Iran, we had established everything here. Taking all this into account, I would say that Americans want us to sit down with them at the negotiation table for the sake of negotiations.

Q) You are the editor-in-chief of Kayhan newspaper, which is considered a conservative newspaper and as the most influential Iranian newspaper. Furthermore, your opening editorial is regarded as an indication of what is going through the minds of the decision makers. Do the articles published in your newspaper affect the position of the Iranian government regarding various issues?

A) There are many dimensions to this issue. Last year, the British newspaper the ‘Financial Times’, presented a list of the most influential opening editorials in every country around the world. I represented Iran then, and the reasons mentioned for the choices were the sound predictions that the opinion editorials of Kayhan enjoys. At Kayhan, we seek to state all the facts as they are, side by side, and come up with conclusions from the facts that we have. Most of the predictions came true. For example, despite the government viewpoint and other official institutions, at Kayhan, we believed that Iran should withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Two years ago, during the troika negotiations (France, Germany and Britain) in Iran, we said that despite these talks, the Iranian nuclear file would be referred to the UN Security Council. During the Paris meeting, we predicted that the London meeting, which was to be held three months after the Paris meeting, would demand that Iran stops all its nuclear activities; all these predictions came true. This was no palm reading, but rather it was what we expected. When the Lebanese-Israeli [summer] war started, we predicted that it would last approximately two months and that Israelis would incur huge losses. Part of the talk about our influence is attributed to these examples. However, there is another aspect, which is that Kayhan newspaper has a lot of important friends in several important institutions and the most recent information reaches us. Perhaps all these elements are what create this image.

Shariatmadari and Nasrallah

During my stay in Iran, the only place that I saw a picture of the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, was in Shariatmadari’s offices at Kayhan newspaper. The picture hung on the wall next to a picture of the previous editor-in-chief of Kayhan who was killed in an airplane accident at the end of the Iraq-Iran war.

In Persian, ‘kayhan’ means world or universe and the paper was founded during the reign of the Shah. Before the Iranian revolution, Kayhan was one of the leading newspapers in Iran and it had close links with the ruling system. After the Iranian revolution, the newspaper had developed close ties with the government. Currently and because of its relations with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as its positions, Kayhan is considered by many as one of the most conservative newspapers in Iran. Its average distribution is approximately 50, 000 copies a day, part of which is distributed to ministries and official institutions. During the presidential election in 2005, Kayhan called upon conservative candidates to unite behind one candidate, rather than waste votes. A journalist with close ties to reformists told Asharq Al Awsat newspaper that Shariatmadari supports Ahmadinejad because both of them had worked as part of the Revolutionary Guard. The journalist, who spoke to Asharq Al Awsat on condition of anonymity added, “While it is known that Ahmadinejad served in the Revolutionary Guard, Shariatmadari does not mention that he served as part of the Revolutionary Guard forces.” Although Shariatmadari stresses the independence of Kayhan, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper is appointed by the Supreme Leader of Iran and the board members of the newspaper are usually affiliates of the conservative current and perhaps this is the reason behind the dismissal of some reformist journalists within the paper including Shahla Sharket who had been working for ‘Kayhan Zan-e-Rose’ newspaper or ‘Women Today’, one of the publications of the Kayhan foundation. She was dismissed from her job because of some of her views and this led to her establishing her own magazine, ‘Zanan’, the most prominent women’s magazine in Iran today.

Reformists have not taken a liking to Shariatmadari for his criticism of reformist newspapers. In one of his articles, he stated, “There are pens that do not hesitate to draw a bleak picture of the Iranian situation and exaggerate internal problems, especially regarding economic problems. They promote external threats claiming that they are huge enough to topple the regime. However, and in reference to the experience of the Iranian revolution in the past 27 years, a fair observer will see that the system has got through days, months and years that were more difficult than today.”

Kayhan also accused Shirin Ebadi of involvement in a conspiracy to kill journalist Akbar Ganji, in collaboration with foreign intelligence authorities. Kayhan stated that Ebadi encouraged Ganji to continue his hunger strike until death so as to serve the interests of foreign countries and in order to embarrass the Iranian government. The newspaper pointed out that Shirin Ebadi had assured Ganji that his health would not be affected, yet at the same time she agreed with foreign parties to receive a generous reward when he dies. Despite of this, Kayhan newspaper has great influence and enjoys close relationships with a large number of influential Iranian officials.

In the offices of Kayhan, which is located in Ferdowsi Street in central Tehran, there are 130 journalists but the total number of workers amounts to approximately 1000 people according to Shariatmadari who said that Kayhan has headquarters in cities around world in Germany, Japan, Syria and the Sultanate of Oman. Kayhan also has its own printing house and publishes a number of publications including the daily Kayhan newspaper which is distributed in Iran. Also, there is the daily ‘Kayhan International’ which is an English newspaper that is distributed overseas, the daily ‘Arabic Kayhan’ which is also distributed overseas and the daily ‘Sports Kayhan’ which is issued in the Persian language. Kayhan also publishes a women’s magazine that is entitled ‘Kayhan Zan-e-Rose.’ In 2003, Kayhan established another publication entitled ‘Kayhan Caricature,’ however this was stopped by administration. According to Shariatmadari, there are only two or three Arab editors and one Tajik who work for ‘Arabic Kayhan’, whilst the rest are Iranians.