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The Iranian Optimist

Imprisoned by the shah, exiled by revolutionary excesses, Abbas Milani has spent 25 years pushing for democratic change in his home country. What makes him think it can happen now?

Toni Gauthier

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By Romesh Ratnesar

A few days after Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election, a prominent Iranian poet fired off a desperate email to Stanford professor Abbas Milani. Iran's ruling mullahs had declared incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the victor, despite overwhelming evidence that opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi won more votes. Millions of Iranians poured onto the streets of Tehran to protest, the biggest show of discontent since Ayatollah Khomeini seized power three decades ago.

In response, the regime cracked down hard. They expelled Western journalists, arrested dissidents, and in at least one case, opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. And yet President Barack Obama remained studiously neutral. "The world is watching" the regime's behavior, Obama said, before suggesting that it wouldn't make a difference to American interests which side ultimately prevailed.

Obama's passivity enraged Milani's poet friend, who had returned home after another hot, frantic day of inhaling tear gas and trying to outrun riot police. "Is oil the price of our blood?" she wrote to Milani. She asked that he share her "plight and plea" with the world. "We need help."

As the first head of Stanford's Iranian studies program and the co-founder of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, Milani, an Iranian exile since 1986, has spent the past decade extolling the promise of democratic change in Iran. His expertise and consistently optimistic message—that a "viable, indigenous" Iranian democratic movement exists and has the potential to transform Iran and its relationship with the West—had brought Milani extraordinary access to members of America's foreign-policy establishment. During the administration of George W. Bush, Milani frequently discussed Iran policy with senior officials and the former president. He also was one of 300 foreign-policy experts who advised Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. And yet at the critical hour for Iran's democrats, the American president was on the sidelines. "I can't tell you how many emails I received in those days, people sending me desperate, angry notes, saying, 'Why has Obama betrayed us?'" Milani says.

Milani went to work. He called Stanford professor of political science Michael McFaul, who is now Obama's top Russia adviser, and shared what he was hearing from activists, many of whom wrote to him using pseudonymous email accounts. Writing later in the New Republic, Milani reported that signs carried by opposition leaders on Iran's streets had read, "Obama: With Us or With Them?" Two days after the article appeared, Milani met with McFaul, '86, MA'86, and three other U.S. officials. After his initial reticence, Obama did eventually take a harder line against the regime's brutality.

When I met Milani in his small, cluttered office on the first floor of Encina Hall in early March, he remained hopeful about the strength of the Iranian opposition, now known as the Green Movement. But he still wonders about what might have been. "What I think is true is that the [Iranian] regime was clearly off balance during that period," he says. "But there were those inside the [Obama] administration who argued that speaking out more forcefully would be counterproductive. The hardest thing for American policy makers to accept is that the Iranian democratic movement is here to stay—and that it is, in fact, an ally of the West in this game."

Few Americans have more riding on the game's outcome than Abbas Milani. His books, articles, television appearances and contacts inside Iran have made him a household name there—and thrust him squarely into the struggle for the country's political future. Last summer, when the Ahmadinejad government arrested and put on trial 100 opposition figures for their involvement in the postelection protests, Milani was named in the indictment as "one of the most important leaders of the opposition" and an agent of the CIA. (The indictment also cites "an institution called Hoofer [sic], at Stanford" for its alleged support of the Iranian opposition.) Earlier this year, the regime banned the reprinting of Milani's eight books inside Iran—a hollow gesture, given that tens of thousands of copies are already in circulation.

Friends of Milani see the targeting of the 62-year-old academic as evidence of the regime's insecurity, but also of the growing influence of Milani's ideas among the Iranian elite. "He is without question one of the most influential intellectuals in Iran today," says Hoover senior fellow and political science professor Larry Diamond, who helped bring Milani to Stanford in 2002. "That's because he has never wavered from a liberal vision for Iran—that it should be a free and democratic society, but that it's up to the Iranian people to decide what its constitutional structure is going to be."

However inspiring, Milani's vision for Iran remains a distant one. Inside Iran, the uprisings of 2009 have given way to a protracted stalemate, during which the regime has consolidated its authority through harassment and intimidation of its opponents. Iran's leaders have rebuffed the Obama administration's offers to negotiate over the nuclear program. There are growing calls both inside and outside the administration to increase military pressure on Tehran. Though Milani believes that democracy is "inevitable" in Iran, he contends that a conflict between Tehran and Washington could extinguish the dream, since the regime would use war as a pretext to cast all of Iran's democrats as agents of the West.

Not everyone agrees with him. Some experts, like former CIA analyst Flynt Leverett, believe Milani's fixation with the Green Movement is a distraction from America's central strategic challenge: convincing Iran's current leaders to abandon their nuclear ambitions. "The United States needs to deal with the Islamic Republic as it is today, not as some might want it to be," Leverett said in a recent debate with Milani that aired on Al-Jazeera. Even Milani's friends acknowledge that it can be difficult to tell where his professional assessment of Iran's future ends and his personal interest in it begins; after all, only when a new Iran emerges will Milani be able to set foot in the homeland he left a quarter-century ago. "Abbas is not simply a dispassionate political scientist," says Diamond, '73, MA '78, PhD '80. "He cares about his country of origin, and it's very painful to see it in the grip of such a despotic and despicable regime."

"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," Milani says, quoting 19th-century historian Lord Acton, to two dozen undergraduates crammed into a classroom on the second floor of Cubberley Hall. A wry smile crosses his face. "That's why power corrupts."

Milani's seminar, The Politics of Modern Iran, is one of the most popular offered by the political science department, and it's easy to see why. His lectures are sprinkled with asides and anecdotes, allusions to secret intelligence documents, and thumbnail sketches of Iranian political figures, past and present. A constant theme is the idea that Khomeini's 1979 Islamic revolution, which overthrew the monarchy of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, merely replaced one form of tyranny with another. "The last 30 years have seen true revolutionary terror, comparable to the terrors seen anywhere else in the world, including the French Revolution," Milani tells the students.

He picks up on this after class, as we stroll across campus toward his office. Milani says he wasn't surprised when the shah was deposed, but he didn't initially expect the fundamentalists to take over. "A lot of people like me thought their ideas were too far out there to be really implemented," he says. "I knew that if they won, it would be a bad day. But I didn't think they would create clerical rule. I thought Iranian society had put that behind them."

Milani's disaffection with Iran's current leaders has deeply personal roots. He was born in Tehran in 1948, the son of an affluent Iranian merchant. In the late '60s, Milani, like many privileged Iranian children of that time, left Iran to finish his studies in the West; his parents sent him to the Bay Area, where his older brother was working toward an engineering degree. Milani graduated high school at 17 and went on to study politics and economics at UC-Berkeley, where he met his wife-to-be, an Iranian exchange student named Fereshteh Davaran.

After receiving a PhD from the University of Hawaii, he returned to Iran in 1975 and was hired as an assistant professor of political science at National University in Tehran. There, Milani became friendly with dissidents agitating against the shah's autocratic rule. In 1977, the regime arrested Milani and his wife on suspicion of involvement with the opposition. Fereshteh was released after 45 days, but Milani and 10 other intellectuals were sentenced to a year in confinement. (See Side Bar.) Milani was eventually taken to Evin prison, a notorious symbol of the Pahlavi regime's repression.

Milani's fellow inmates in cell block No. 1 included a group of bearded clerics in long tunics who virulently opposed the shah's secular, Western-backed government. Among them were Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani, who would become Iran's president in 1989, and Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who was considered Khomeini's likely successor until Khomeini ousted him in the mid-'80s. Milani, who had spent much of the previous decade in the West, was startled by the clerics' forbidding brand of Islam. They kept to themselves and refused to watch televisions in their cells, because they considered it sacrilege to look at a woman's uncovered face, even on TV. In his 1996 memoir, Tales of Two Cities, Milani recounts how his fundamentalist cell mates avoided drinking tea from a kettle Milani had touched, out of fear that it was najes, or unclean. "I remember my feelings—a combination of condescension, slight sense of insult, self-congratulatory righteousness and finally pity," Milani wrote. "When in a couple years, those same marginalized cell mates seized power . . . my sense of insult gave way to one of fear, estrangement and deep doubts about my understanding of at least some aspects of Iranian society."

Life in Khomeini's Islamic Republic was unbearable for Milani. He resumed teaching at Tehran University but soon felt suffocated by the climate of paranoia that suffused the campus. "Innocent but desperate people reported on their peers. Laughter was declared frivolous."

Iran was at war with Iraq; with bombs falling on Tehran, Milani barely slept. His marriage and health were failing. In 1986, during a visit to California, he asked a cardiologist friend in Los Angeles to examine him. "There's nothing wrong with your heart," the doctor said. "What you have is Khomeini syndrome. Life in Iran is getting to you." Milani immigrated to the United States later that year, saying goodbye to his aging parents before leaving for the airport. He never saw them again.

After arriving in the Bay Area, Milani taught at Notre Dame de Namur in Belmont, a small liberal-arts college about 20 miles north of Stanford. For extra money, he worked behind the bar at a restaurant in Berkeley. Once, a local television crew interviewed him after a U.S. warship shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf. "Here I am pouring drinks and the TV is on," Milani recalls. "This guy is at the bar and he's looking at me and he can't make the connection. Finally he says, 'Am I imagining things or is that you up there?' I said, 'It's me up there. I need to make money. I need to survive.' "

Meanwhile, he was embracing a new identity as an Iranian-American. "Unless you have been in exile, you never know what a burden it is, what a sacrifice it is," he tells me. "You become a custodian of dead treasures. You have to start again."

Milani's wife and son joined him in the United States a year after he arrived; he and Fereshteh separated in 1988. His professional breakthrough came in 2000, with the publication of The Persian Sphinx, a widely praised biography of Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the prime minister and consigliere to the shah. Around that time, an Iranian émigré businessman named Hamid Moghadam approached Larry Diamond about creating an Iranian studies program at Stanford. When the two men launched a search for a director, Diamond recalls "it didn't take long" before they settled on Milani. "Abbas was one of the few Iranian-American scholars who never had any illusions," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a friend of Milani's. "Many others put the onus of blame on Washington for the tension between the two countries. But Abbas was always brutally honest about the character of this regime."

Under Milani's leadership, Stanford has, virtually overnight, become one of the country's leading centers of scholarship on Iran. The Iranian studies program has more than doubled its endowment in six years, to $12 million, nearly all of it from Iranian-American donors. Milani also has raised more than $1.5 million to support Hoover's Iran Democracy Project, which convenes experts and policy makers for frequent discussions of Iranian issues. Milani says one of his goals is to convince the American public that most Iranians do not subscribe to the radical, anti-Western ideology of their leaders. "There is no magic bullet," he says. "You can't change people's perception of Iran created by this crazy regime . . . by simply sending out a balloon and saying, 'We're not these guys.' It takes a long process."

Milani already has made a mark in Washington. After he published an article in The Washington Quarterly in 2005 that argued "a successful U.S. strategy must . . . have the patience for the Tehran regime to collapse under its own inconsistencies," Milani met with former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns, the Bush administration's point man for dealing with Iran. "We had to reach out to people in the American community who know about Iran," Burns told me. "Abbas has a great sense of history and an intimate understanding of the complexities of the situation. He was careful in his judgments and backed them up with facts." Over the next two years, in meetings with Burns and other high-ranking officials, including National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, Milani laid out the case for eschewing military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities in favor of negotiating with the regime—even if, as subsequent events have confirmed, those negotiations produced limited results. "Abbas has been the single most persuasive voice among Iran analysts in the U.S. arguing that military action would entrench the SOBs in power for another decade or two, devastate democratic forces and have all kinds of destabilizing effects in terms of Iranian retaliation," Diamond says.

In 2006, Milani was invited to a dinner with President Bush at the home of former Secretary of State George Shultz, just down the road from Stanford's Hoover House. Hadley had asked Milani to write a memo for Bush to read in advance, in which Milani reiterated his position that democracy was achievable in Iran if the United States and its allies refrained from using force against the regime. When Bush met Milani, the president told him to stay after the other guests left. "I want to talk to you one-on-one," Bush said. Milani and Bush chatted privately for 15 minutes. Bush asked if there were any reliable intermediaries who could negotiate with the mullahs on Washington's behalf. As they were leaving, Milani told Bush, "You know, you've got a lot of popularity in Iran for standing up to these guys." The president wheeled around and stared at Milani. Then he said, "You're not bullshitting me, are you?"

In the years since that meeting, Iran's government has withstood the biggest-ever challenge to its authority. Experts now estimate Tehran may within a year possess enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon. Milani believes that "the only solution to the nuclear issue is a more democratic polity in Iran that is sure of itself and can negotiate with more transparency and can have the world believe in its word." Yet there is little consensus inside the foreign-policy establishment about what the United States should do next.

While Milani supports negotiations with Tehran, he insists that nuclear talks should also include discussion of the regime's human-rights abuses. That puts Milani at odds with prominent analysts like Flynt Leverett, who believes Milani's faith in the Green Movement is, at best, delusional; instead, Leverett argues, Washington's only hope of defusing Iran's nuclear ambitions is to make a grand bargain with the existing leadership.

Nick Burns says that he is sympathetic to Milani's view that only a fundamentally changed regime in Tehran ever will be capable of normalizing relations with the West. But given how destabilizing an Iranian bomb would be, the United States may not have the luxury of waiting that long. "We kind of have to pressure them," Burns says, "and that means a long-term application of sanctions, containment, negotiations and military pressure."

If he harbors any anxieties about what the future holds for Iran, Milani doesn't show it. On a cool March evening, I meet him for coffee near his office. A Shakespeare buff, he is on his way to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to join his wife, Jean, a professor of psychology whom Milani met at Notre Dame du Namur. When he isn't working on his next book, a biography of the shah, Milani spends three hours a day scouring Iranian websites for updates on the political situation, reading the blog posts and Twitter messages of opposition figures and responding to emails from activists in the Green Movement.

Despite the regime's apparent success in quelling public fury, Milani foresees a "soft" revolution, in which moderate establishment figures like Milani's former jail mate Rafsanjani, push through legislative measures that, over time, erode the hardliners' power. "There are many ways I can conceive in which we get to point B, a democratic Iran, without going through a bloody upheaval," he says.

If that happens, would he return home? Milani considers the question for a while. Outside, it has grown dark. "Many of my friends who live there tell me, even if you can come back, don't. The Iran you have in your mind, that you love and miss, is lost. These guys have created a different animal."

Then Milani brightens. "Regimes in my view are like relationships," he says. "If you have a bad relationship, the worst of you comes out. If you are in a good relationship, you do things you never thought you were capable of. You see colors you never knew existed. Democracy is like a good relationship. It really brings out the best in people."

ROMESH RATNESAR, '96, MA '96, is the author of Tear Down this Wall: A City, A President and the Speech that Ended the Cold War.

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