The Islamic Republic’s atomic policies are increasingly becoming a topic of discussion amongst the Iranian public, and initiatives such as the National Dialogue on Nuclear Energy, a campaign led by Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, are aimed at nurturing this discussion. In the same vein, the sixth round of Zamaneh Debate, dedicated to the topic of Nuclear Energy and the People, brings together Dr. Shirin Ebadi, Dr. Mehran Mostafavi, an expert on the effects of nuclear energy, and sociologist Sohrab Razzaghi to lead a panel discussion on the topic.

The following is an excerpt of the interview with Sohrab Razzaghi on the issue of nuclear energy and Iranian civil society.

Zamaneh: Has Iranian civil society responded adequately to the issue of nuclear energy and its effects on Iranian politics and the economy?

Sohrab Razzaghi: The nuclear issue in Iran and the discussion of nuclear energy as “a right” is a discourse of power and domination in Iranian politics. Unfortunately, in the sphere of Iranian civil society, a healthy resistance has not been formed to challenge this discourse.
Iranian civil society has not had much of a chance to express itself on the sociopolitical scene and, hence, is historically weak. The lack of organic connection between the groups and social forces is another characteristic of civil society in Iran. Civil society cannot respond effectively to the needs of social groups and local societies. Civil society has only been growing in the past decade in Iran and its extent is not proportionate to the country’s 70-million-population. Furthermore, civil society does not have a well-defined role in Iran and, thus, remains unable to create its own discourse and literature.
Therefore, civil society has not been dynamic in Iran and continues to stutter against the discourse of power and oppression. It has failed to brush away the discourse of nuclear energy as a right and replace it with other rights such as human rights and democracy. A weak civil society cannot manage the projects of democracy, human rights and peace.

Zamaneh: How do you think social beliefs and public mentality have affected the establishment’s success in presenting nuclear energy as a right in such a way that even some government critics outside Iran support their stance on the nuclear issue?

SR: I have to explain that civil society has two faces in Iran; one acts as a tool of dominance and reproduces the dominant power relations of the establishment. The other is the one that struggles for freedom. The latter aspect of the civil society in Iran has a very minimal role in the developments and changes within society. In view of the recent relative opening up of the sociopolitical scene, there is a need to support and strengthen the beliefs and ideas of this aspect of Iranian civil society. Unfortunately, the ideological beliefs dominant in Iranian civil society are non-democratic and traditional, and the discussion of democracy, human rights and peace even amongst Iranian intellectuals and political groups has been heavily marginalized.

Zamaneh: You said one aspect of civil society works as a tool of the dominant power. Can you explain how this aspect of civil society informs the government’s nuclear discourse and what influence it has on society?

SR: By separating the two faces of civil society, I wanted to show that it is not a homogenous and coherent phenomenon and, in fact, like all social phenomena, it is multifaceted. Unfortunately, Iranian intellectuals tend to present civil society as a coherent whole comprised of all progressive and positive forces. Whereas some manifestations of civil society could in fact prevent progress and change in society. Therefore, we need to chart the map of civil society with great care and identify its capacities, limitations, strengths and weaknesses.
One aspect of civil society in Iran is highly traditional and it tends to promote the value system of the dominant power in Iran. It is in the service of the state’s ideological institutions and struggles against pluralism, democracy, the Western enlightenment tradition, and so on.
The most significant characteristic of the traditionalist civil society is its religiousness. They consist of Bazaar business owners, religious organizations and cultural associations. These groups have been seriously strengthened in recent years.
Another characteristic of this aspect of civil society is its technical and instrumental nature. It carries out service-oriented functions through charity, healthcare and organizations for women and youth. These organizations have occupied a significant social sphere and become heavily funded in the past eight years.
The third characteristic of the traditional civil society is its specific discourse, which is an extension of the discourse of the dominant power in all the sociopolitical arenas of the society, and it has served the system very well both inside Iran as well as internationally through Iran’s presence on international bodies such as the Human Rights Council, Rio 20 Summit. Its discourse is based on defining itself as the opposite of the West, which has allowed it to create a colourful coalition.

Zamaneh: In terms of the specific issue of nuclear energy, how do you think it would be possible to break the hegemonic dominance of the nuclear discourse and replace it with thinking about hardships and political isolation as well as the environment and the need for rational reasoning regarding the nuclear issue?

SR: I do not agree with such an approach; one of the key problems of Iranian society is that activists and sociopolitical forces have a short-term view and approach on issues, and they hardly even consider long-term solutions. I believe this is one of the chief causes of the underdevelopment and backwardness of Iranian society. Such a discourse cannot take shape in a matter of days. Just because a discourse presents itself as whole and complete, it will not necessarily become accepted. Its acceptance will depend on how far the people are willing to embrace it. Therefore, the building of civil society and the empowerment of citizens remains the most important project in order to free Iranian society from the dominant discourse and highlight issues that have been neglected by our intellectual and sociopolitical forces.
However, I agree that while civil society forces must have long-term goals in order to form a discourse of resistance, they can plan short-term projects to reach these long-term goals.
Two projects I would say take precedence in this midst: first, intervention in the nuclear talks currently in progress to make the negotiations transparent to the people and reveal the truth behind all the deals, and to hold the government accountable for all the costs of the nuclear dispute that have been borne by Iranian society. The second project would involve advocacy for social and political change in favour of the disadvantaged, the marginalized and the unrepresented groups of society.


[translated from the Persian original]