Abbas Milani

Abbas Milani

Abbas Milani is a research fellow and codirector of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. In addition, Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. His expertise is U.S./Iran relations and Iranian cultural, political, and security issues. Before coming to Hoover, Milani was a professor of history and political science and chair of the department at Notre Dame de Namur University and a research fellow at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, in addition to being an assistant professor in the faculty of law and political science at Tehran University and a member of the board of directors of Tehran University's Center for International Studies from 1979 to 1987. Milani was a research fellow at the Iranian Center for Social Research from 1977 to 1978 and an assistant professor at the National University of Iran from 1975 to 1977.

Getting Iran Right This Time Around


Dear President Obama: Congratulations on winning a second term. Iran, as you have often said, will present a major challenge to your foreign policy in the coming months.

Two follies have long haunted US policy on Iran. Some critics of the Islamic regime have offered “no negotiation with the regime” as policy. The other side is the view that just negotiating with the regime is the panacea for the nuclear issue, and also for an end to all the regime’s shenanigans. And if past attempts at negotiation have not worked, it is only because American policy makers have not tried hard enough.

The second folly has been the view that “solving” the nuclear impasse should be the sole goal of US policy. This view misjudges the nature of the regime by assuming that it will actually abide by any promises it makes. This is a regime that has broken virtually every promise it made to its own people, one whose theology is founded on the notion of Tagiyeh—where an expedient lie to “infidels” is the duty of the Shiite faithful. Focusing only on the nuclear issue has played into the hands of the regime, allowing it to rally nationalist sentiments, and shifting the focus of US policy away from the no less important issues of human rights and democracy in Iran.

For almost two decades, Ayatollah Khamenei has said that America’s “soft power” and its “culture war”–the power of its ideas, its defense of the right of religious freedoms for all Iranians, whether of Bahai faith, or Muslims wishing to convert to other religions, equality for women, and the power of its information technology to breaking what you called a new Iron Curtain of ideas–is the most serious threat to his regime. And for almost as long, the US has surprisingly not fully played in the field the regime is in fact most vulnerable.

Carrying the anti-American and anti-Israeli banner had been the sole tool of the Shiite, non-Arab clerics of Iran to claim the mantle of leadership of the proverbial Arab or Muslim Street. Another obstacle to serious negotiations with the US has been the IRGC’s realization that tensions with America have been instrumental in its success in becoming an economic and political juggernaut, dominating directly or indirectly an estimated sixty to seventy percent of the economy.

But in spite of the regime’s designs and desires, the regime is left with little alternative but to negotiate with the US. For America, the policy foundation of any negotiations should be that only a more democratic, transparent and law-abiding power in Iran can solve the nuclear issue. I know you have long believed that the US can’t, and should not, export democracy to Iran; but it is no less true that America can help create a more favorable context for transition to democracy. Another corollary to this policy is that military action on Iran to retard the regime’s nuclear program will be the best gift to the troubled Islamic regime. Its recent bellicosity in claiming to “hunt down” at least three US drones is sure proof that at least some in the regime are pining for such an attack.

Click to read more.

Syria and Iran: Kindred Souls?

Stakes in Syria are high. Not only the prospects of democracy in the Muslim Middle East, but also the possible emergence of a new brotherhood of authoritarianism—with China and Russia as its Big Brothers, Iran and Syria as its critical Islamic beach-heads, and state capitalism as its economic model– is at stake.

In spite of their apparent differences, the Syrian and Iranian regimes are kindred souls. Syria is a pseudo-totalitarian secular regime, founded on an eclectic Ba’athist ideology—a strange brew of Arab nationalism, and European fascism. The Islamic Republic of Iran is also a pseudo-totalitarian theocratic regime, based on Khomeini’s eclectic form of Shiism–one that places absolute power in one man (Valiye Fagih) who not only claims to represent God on earth but can, upon expedience (Maslehat) override even the fundamental tenets of Islam.

Click to read more.

Is Khamenei the New Putin?

In Shiism, there is a strange concept called “Mohallel.” If a man divorces his wife in earnest—“thrice-divorced” in the parlance of Shiite Sharia—he can’t remarry her unless she has married and divorced another man. Rich men who divorce their wives in a fit of madness and then feel remorse and want them back often have to pay a reliable man a sum to be their Mohallel—“marry” the thrice-divorced wife with due discretion and then divorce her. There is a usually a retinue of “reliable” Mohalells in each pious community.

Russia and Iran are both ruled by men seeking absolute power—Vladimir Putin in Moscow and Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran. And both are now shedding any vestige of a democratic appearance. Putin’s Mohallel, Dmitry Medvedev, will be prime minister and his boss, Putin, will again take the reins of power. In Tehran, Khamenei is making his own powerplay—and all of this is likely to help the clerics achieve their dubious nuclear aims.

In the past four years, if there has been an obvious area of difference between Putin and Medvedev, it has been on Iran’s clerical regime. Medvedev has been more willing to work with the United States and the European Union on pressuring Iran to give up troubling aspects of its nuclear program. He even decided not to sell the clerical regime the S-300 missiles that would have substantially increased Iran’s ability to protect its nuclear sites from air attacks.

Continue reading Abbas Milani…

As the world grants an audience to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, we would be better served to look upon Samiye Tohidlou. Samiye is a child of the Iranian revolution, born in 1979, when the current regime came to power. She comes from a family of educators; her father was a teacher who declared, after the arrest of his daughter, that he had been a staunch supporter of the revolution. Samiye was herself a doctoral student in sociology at Tehran University—the country’s oldest and most venerable institution—and an active member of the Islamic Student Association.

And she was a volunteer for Mir Hussein Mousavi’s presidential campaign in 2009. When the regime announced Ahmadinejad the winner even before the polls closed, in Tehran alone three million people took to the streets to protest what they considered to be an electoral putsch. Samiye had a brilliant and elegantly simple idea. She suggested that protesters create an uninterrupted chain of humanity, from Tehran’s rich, northern neighborhoods to the south’s poorest ghettoes. The only connective thread of this long chain was a green ribbon, symbolizing the movement that had emerged in opposition to the electoral coup.

Continue reading Abbas Milani…

10 Questions for Ahmadinejad

Once again September is upon us and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is about to make his yearly pilgrimage to the mecca of international media for the U.N. General Assembly. He is a narcissist addicted to the glare of the camera, and every time he comes to New York and rehashes his inanities against the Holocaust, about Sept. 11 as an American conspiracy, about Iran having no homosexuals, or, tragicomically, about Iran as a genuine democracy, he gets more than his needed “fix” of camera time. Nearly every major media outlet competes to “interview” him. Those afforded the chance are usually carefully chosen based on a past record of staying clear of hard-probing questions and follow-ups. An American-trained retired professor is among his media advisers.

This time he comes with clipped wings. It is even possible that he will be impeached this week. Now is the time for the media to ask questions with impunity—he may well not be coming back next year. He has little to do with setting nuclear policy—contrary to much hype—and it is the corrupt, closed society he created that must come under scrutiny.

Continue reading Abbas Milani…

Iranian Clerics About to Fall?

Iran’s clerics are afraid.  Very very afraid.  With Syria in shambles, they rightly wonder if their alliance with Bashar al-Assad and his cronies will herald the end of their own despotic reign.

The Syrian regime has been Iran’s most reliable—indeed sole—ally in the Muslim Middle East. Tehran has handed over billions of dollars to keep Syria in its grip. In recent months there have even been allegations that units of the Iranian military—and its special forces, the Qods Brigade—have been sent to Syria and used as Assad’s personal storm troopers.

Yet as Syrian democrats continue to surprise the world with their tenacity, the long-sustained unity between Syria and Iran is beginning to fray. The Iranian regime’s public statements are discordant. And this is both tactical—intended to confuse the world, and existential, reflecting the massive fissures and warring factions in the power centers of Iran. Initially, Iran offered unmitigated support for Assad. Today they are pulling back.  The Iranian clerics want to claim both that the Arab Spring was inspired by their own Islamic model and yet Syria is meant to be the exception—nothing but a conspiracy designed and acted out by Israel and the United States.

Continue reading Abbas Milani…

(photo credit: Pooyan Tabatabaei)

Ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iranian MEK (short for Mujahedeen-e Khalge) has been a thorny spoil of war for the United States. Originally an armed anti-Shah movement, they came to fight the clerical regime they helped impose only to move on to supporting Iraq in its war against the ayatollah and his minions. Having targeted and killed several prominent Americans during their heyday in the 1970s, they are on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Now, about three thousand members of the group—seasoned in fighting the Iranian regime and stationed by Saddam in a place called Camp Ashraf—are American captives in Iraq. In the last few years, their fate has been the subject of constant squabbles in Washington and between Washington and Baghdad. With an apparently endless supply of funds at their disposal, MEK members have repeatedly and unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government to have their names taken off the terrorist list. In a few days, Secretary Clinton will have to decide how to answer their pleas.

And so their remarkably well-oiled machine of PR firms, powerful American politicians (all handsomely paid for services rendered) and other pressure groups is now at it again. These advocates repeat what the MEK and its many front organizations claim: The group has jettisoned its violent past and is now, in its new incarnation, a key component of the democratic movement.

At the same time, another equally well-oiled machine, this one even including lobbyists paid for by the clerical regime in Tehran, is working against delisting MEK, calling the group a dangerous cult with Iranian, Iraqi and American blood on its hands. Many in Iraq (either taking their cues from the current leadership or with an eye toward the days when MEK was an enforcer for the Saddam regime) are opposed to the group’s continued residence in their country.

Continue reading Abbas Milani…

(photo credit: john)

Khamenei’s Assault on Iran

In Tehran these days, the heat is on. It has become something of a customary summer spectacle that with the rise in temperature and the onset of summer regime thugs begin to more rigorously enforce compulsory laws on women’s cover. In the words of one of the regime’s most powerful and reactionary clerics, blood must be shed to force women to wear their Islamic head covers. A shocking hike in the number of violent rapes against women in Iran, with a few cases of gang rape, is slowly turning into an embarrassing national issue. Members of the Majlis have begun an investigation. While some clerics blame the women, claiming that the victims’ “loose” demeanor and “open” dress brought this violence upon them, Iranian women’s groups increasingly try to bring international attention to their plight. When, in the future, the history of the rise and fall of Iran’s clerical regime is written, the women’s fight for their rights will emerge as one of the most critical components of the democratic movement. It will be recognized that women were at the vanguard as the most persistent advocates of individual freedom. Though to a casual outside observer, a woman’s fight for the right to show an inch or two of her hair might seem frivolous, it is a fact of history that sartorial freedom is invariably organically linked to the political liberties of a society.

Continue reading Abbas Milani…


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements on the West, Israel, women, the peace process, human rights and just about everything else used to be headline news. His election gave rise to Iran’s 2009 "green movement" protests –  and their bloody suppression.

What a difference two years make. Now, discord between Iran’s controversial Ahmadinejad and the archconservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have again raised questions about the nation’s political stability.

Abbas Milani, a former political prisoner under the shah in the 1970s and a pro-democracy activist, is today one of the leading international experts on Iran.

Continue reading Cynthia Haven’s interview of Abbas Milani…