Ms. Marina Diaz Sanz is a member of London’s Institute for Middle East Studies and a professor of geopolitics and political science at the Complutense University of Madrid. Her vested interest in Iran’s culture and history has led her to conduct her studies on the impact of the post-revolutionary Iran in terms of its politics and geopolitics on the West. She has penned various articles and researches with the aim of analyzing the development trends of Iran after the Islamic Revolution. She further believes that Mr. Rouhani is only part of Iran’s political puzzle, and in that case, he is tasked with being a President for every single Iranian, not just for those who follow Reformism or Conservatism. To learn more of Iran’s geopolitics and politics, Iran-Spain bilateral relations, power balance in the region and between extremist and violent militants in the Middle East we held an interview with Ms. Marina Diaz Sanz which comes below.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Marina Diaz Sanz, Researcher and Professor at the Complutense University of Madrid
When did you first embark on studying Iran’s political developments?
A few years ago some friends of mine gave me a copy of Persepolis –the graphic novel by the French-Iranian author Marjane Satrapi‒ as a birthday present. I had always been keen on the Muslim world, so they guessed rightly that I would find this book interesting. While I was reading the book I realized how ignorant I was about Iranian history, political developments and society; and how, as a matter of fact, Iran remains quite unknown for a broader Spanish audience. From that moment onwards, I started to become more and more familiar with everything that relates to Iran, from politics to handicrafts and, of course, Persian cuisine. My knowledge of Iran has expanded way beyond Persepolis.
Which year did you visit Iran?
I visited Iran in the summer of 2011. For six weeks I studied Farsi at Dekhoda, the International Center for Persian Studies of University of Tehran. It was one of the best experiences of my life, not only because I improved my linguistic skills considerably, but also because the atmosphere at school was lively and cheering. This is also when I realized that there is a whole international community –mostly young folks‒ who is interested in Iran, her culture and her history beyond prejudices and mass-media propaganda. My memories from those days are countless and very dear. I hope to be back very soon.
What social developments did you witness during your stay in Iran?
To be honest, I did not experience a major shock when I landed in Tehran in July 2011. This was probably because thus far I had read tons and tons of books, articles and novels and had watched many Iranian films and documentaries about Iranian politics, history and culture. Putting aside the question of traffic and the massive dimensions of the city, Tehran did not seem to me such a different place to what I had experienced so far. My impression of the country became more nuanced when I visited other parts of Iran –Hamadan, Yazd and Mashhad. Overall, I would say Iran is a very complex combination of traditional and modern elements. The contrast between the urban and the rural, the Western-oriented and the inwards-oriented and the rich-poor gap stand out in quite a remarkable fashion to the foreign eye. That trip also helped me validate that Iran is neither a poor nor a Third World country in the way that we might think in the West.
How much has your trip to Iran affected your analytic approach toward the sociopolitical developments of Iran?
If anything, my trip to Iran helped me re-boost my commitment to undertaking accurate analysis of Western Asia –or the Middle East as it has been traditionally known. It didn’t really change my disposition towards it, since I already counted on an open mind and didn’t want to impose ready-made views but rather let myself being stirred by the experience of being in a place where politics and society work differently. I do not know anyone who has shown interest in studying Iran who has found it easy to fit Iran in taken-for-granted categories of common political language. In that sense, coming close to Iran has assuredly put me in a path were categories such as East and West, Muslim and non-Muslim, First world and Third world have become highly unstable. To the extent that I am able, in my teaching hours I encourage my students to engage in critical analysis on the political, social and cultural relations that bound the West and the Muslim world. At some point we should actually discard these categories altogether.
Did you ever find any chance to master Farsi?
I see languages as the entrance door to other people’s minds and hearts and this, of course, applies to Iranians and Farsi. I signed up for a Persian class straight away after I read Persepolis and I haven’t stopped trying to improve my linguistics skills. Unfortunately, I do not always have the time to study, but I never give up in this project. I think Iranians feel honoured when they hear a foreigner uttering some Persian words –and that has a lot of value to me. On the other hand, you would be amazed at how many words Spanish and Persian share –some of them via Arabic, but some of them not. Still, there is a long way ahead until I am able to understand any of Hafez’s poetry.
Some of your works have focused on Iran’s post-revolution geopolitical position. Which approaches did those works follow the most?
Geopolitics is a very broad field of study, which has been traditionally bound to state practices and military and strategic affairs. However, since the 80s onwards new currents and critical thinkers have engaged in other dimensions of social and political life that have more to do with issues of authority and representation. In this vein, in the last years I have been particularly focused on exploring how “Western” views –especially Spain’s‒ on Iran changed in the wake of the Islamic Revolution and ensuing events, and how these views have evolved through time. My point is that major geopolitical shifts and changes in the balance of power are intrinsically underpinned by re-articulations of identities such as “Western” and “Islamic”. That is why I believe ideas, values and norms need to be fully examined.
Throughout President Khatami’s office, we noticed a boost in Iran-Europe ties, esp. Iran-Spain relations. How optimistic can we possibly be toward the renovation of these ties in President Rouhani’s terms?
Indeed, this new period in Iranian politics is being often equated with Khatami’s era. In this vein, and as far as my knowledge goes, Spanish officials are satisfied with the interim agreement that was reached between P5+1 and Iran last November, and are hopeful that talks will continue to evolve in the slow but positive terms that have been deployed so far. As long as the European Union’s sanctions on Iran are lifted, Spain will be ready to restart relations with the Islamic Republic –which used to be particularly intense in the energy field and other economic sectors. As a matter of fact, some moves already point towards that direction and several delegations of Spanish officials have visited Iran since the end of 2013. Bearing in mind that there are no contentious issues between the two countries, economic interests will prevail and, yes, rapprochement can said to be an almost fait accompli.
Mr. Rouhani won his Presidency with a Reformist-backed advocacy. Do you think he can be responsive enough toward expectations?
The challenges on the domestic and the international fronts are so substantial that nobody should be discouraged if he does not meet the high expectations that are placed on him. Real changes do not come overnight and probably they shouldn’t. I just hope that the improvement in the relations of Iran with the outside world will bring about positive changes to the life conditions of Iranians who are most of the times the ones who, at the end of the day, suffer most from policies such as economic sanctions.
Can President Rouhani’s imaginably overextended intimacy to the Conservatives and inability to fully meet the Reformists’ expectations function as his Achilles’ Hill?
Only time will let us know. We social scientists are not futurologists, but my reading of current affairs is that Mr. Rouhani is just one of the pieces of the Iranian political puzzle, and in this puzzle he should be the president of all Iranians, and not only the President of the reformists or the conservatives. We need to go beyond a zero-sum game and try to accommodate interests coming from different fronts.
What are the most troublesome challenges President Rouhani’s cabinet is engaged in in terms of its relations with Europe?
My view is that, to start with, Mr. Rouhani faces the challenge of building trust with the European Union while, on the other hand, Europe too needs to show disposition towards dialogue and negotiation which basically means finding a middle way approach towards, for instance, Iran’s nuclear programme. Once the deadlock is overcome, there are plenty of areas in which Iran and Europe might need to cooperate with each other –security issues for sure, but also trade and commerce exchanges, as well as crucial energy flows. As far as I am concerned, I would like to see more exchanges between European –certainly Spanish‒ and Iranian universities.
Can hopes remain high for further energy closeness between Europe and Iran considering the ongoing trend of the financial crisis in Europe and the heightened tensions between Russia and the West?
I would assume so. There is no doubt that much of Russian power comes from the fact that it plays the energy card with Europe, especially in relation to the Ukrainian crisis. I am no expert in the field of energy, but I would say that if conditions are met, Iran is candidate for retaking its position as oil supplier for several European countries. As far as Spain is concerned, it is pretty well-known that we were not very happy about cutting off our 14% share of oil coming from Iran due to the EU’s decision to restrict economic operations with Iran at the start of 2012.
How influential have the political developments of Iran been on the transitions of the Middle East?
If the question is whether I think the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran has been a model for the recent upheavals in countries like Tunisia, Egypt or Libya, I would be extremely cautious in that regard. Firstly, due to the obvious temporal gap between these major events. Second, because each and every of these processes of social and political transformation needs to be analysed in their particular contexts of emergence. Having said this, there is no doubt that the Arab Revolts, and the the Islamic Revolution back in the late 70s, are processes of political contestation where native populations are standing up against governments and regimes which are deemed illegitimate and abusive.
Indubitably, there are certain states which benefit from the exacerbation of Iran-US ties. They also fear that a long-term agreement comes to fruition. Can they make any distinction in the ties therein under the current circumstances?
Indeed. There is no doubt that some states in the Middle East are suspicious about Iran’s being recognized as a major player in the politics of the region and, thus, might be interested in the continuation of hostilities between Iran and the West. However, in a context of extreme insecurity and political instability, Iran stands out as a remarkably stable country in the region and one which, by means of its geostrategic, religious and cultural ascent, might have the capacity to defuse many of the tensions that traverse this particular area of the world. Instead, countries in the region should be extremely careful about putting too much emphasis on a politics based on sectarian lines. Past experiences and current events tell us that such politics might be beneficial for some interested parties, but not for the social majority of the North African and Middle Eastern countries.
How pivotal do you deem the role of Europe in curbing the tensions between Iran and the US?
I think Europe has always had a softer approach towards Iran, especially as it comes to sanctions. However, as I see it, Europe has failed to lead an autonomous policy towards the Islamic Republic and has many times followed the pattern established by the US, even against Europe’s own interests. Yet the general wisdom today in Europe is that it is the time for a constructive engagement with Iran, which requires a determined and continued movement towards confidence-building between the European Union and Iranian partners. If this is done successfully, it won’t be without the US acquiescence, which means then that the US cannot be left out of the equation.
Is there any strong, mutual will from the heads of states of the Persian Gulf countries now that President Rouhani has taken up a détente approach?
As far as my knowledge goes, which is actually not that deep in this particular issue, Gulf states do not share exactly the same views on how to deal with Iran. Historically, or rather in the aftermath of 79, the level of relations between the two sides of the Persian Gulf has been mediated by a combination of economic and security issues. Let’s not forget that the Gulf Cooperation Council was created in the 80s as a response to a sense of high insecurity on the part of Gulf countries due to the war between Iran and Iraq. However, from a contemporary perspective, I think it makes more sense to look at it in terms of bilateral relations between each of these countries and the Islamic Republic.
How do you view the approaches of the Middle Eastern countries toward supporting extremist groups, such as Da’esh?
If the rationale behind supporting this group has to do with ripping the benefits that turmoil is causing and, simultaneously, challenge the power balance in the region, then I would say it is an extremely risky calculus, since one never knows how far the group is set out to go. So far Da’esh has engaged in extreme violent actions and has taken control of part of Iraqi territory in the north-west of the country, from which minority populations such as Christians and Yazidis have been expelled. Honestly, I cannot figure out how this might be beneficial to third parties in the mid or long-term.
Can the ISIL – Da’esh – be a potential threat to Europe?
Da’esh is a threat to the Middle East itself, just to start with. The proof of this is the extreme violence they are using against rival groups and the population movements that are being enforced. The modern nation-state model has been constantly challenged since it was exported to the Middle East and the region was practically remade out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, as well as by force of the colonial occupations, which has definitely left a very problematic legacy in the region. To the extent that instability and radical ideologies are pervasive just on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean of course it is a threat to Europe. However, my hope is that analyses on the current situation will not let themselves go by the spectacularity of the images with which we are bombarded and that we will be able to supersede the clash mentality that groups like ISIS are deliberately trying to foster. It is, to say the least, paradoxical, that a group that claims to have established the Islamic Caliphate in the territory under its control, could not have been virtually possible if it wasn’t for the speed in which information and communication flows work in the 21st century.