Reza Aslan and NPR's Mike Shuster Discuss Iran's Nuclear Program, Its Government, and Its People

On Thursday night the Foreign Policy Roundtable (FPR) held one of it's salon style events in Los Angeles to bring together international scholars, journalists, and some of Hollywood's elite to discuss one of the most important foreign affairs issues: Iran's disputed nuclear program. FPR invited Reza Aslan, a highly regarded scholar and writer who has become an expert on foreign affairs issues, most notably Iran. Also present to moderate the dialogue was NPR's diplomatic and roving foreign affairs correspondent, Mike Shuster.

The FPR event was hosted by Hollywood producer, manager, and Oceana board chair Keith Addis and his wife, producer Keri Selig.

The evening offered a very informative perspective on Iran. Here are some takeaways -- tidbits and misconceptions -- that I'd like to share with you.

Tidbit #1: What is Iran's current nuclear capability? According to Aslan, no one really knows. But he believes the consensus opinion is that "Iran is one to two years away from having the capability of weaponizing its program, and probably two to three years away from that point of being able to deliver a nuclear weapon."

Tidbit #2: Prior to last June, Iran's elections have been the fairest and freest relative to any other country in the Middle East with the exception of Israel. As Aslan said "the autocratic dictatorial tendencies of this regime masks the reality which is that they are absolutely and desperately reliant on the will of the people, and that they are scared to death of the Iranian people." It was only three decades ago that the Iranian public stood up and overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi -- a memory that remains fresh in the minds of today's rulers.

Tidbit #3: Like most middle easterners, Iranians love the American people but they don't love America's foreign policy. The Iranian people are a well-educated group and as we all saw this past June, also technologically savvy. "It's an incredibly intelligent, sophisticated population. The literacy rate for women, just women, is 90%," Aslan said. According to UNESCO statistics from 2006, 96.6% of Iranian youth are literate. We also witnessed during the civil uprising how plugged in Iranians were in using their cameras and mobile phones to document the country's unrest and share it with the world through social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Tidbit #4:
"While everyone else outside of Iran can think of nothing more than Iran's nuclear program, in Iran it's not a topic of conversation... Nobody talks about it, there's no debate," Aslan said. Probably one of the biggest concerns among Iranians is their crumbling economy. "Official" unemployment numbers from Iran say unemployment is around 11% but Virginia Tech economics professor, Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, said "young people accounted for a worrying 70 percent of the jobless total."

Tidbit #5: "At the risk of sounding rude, anyone who tells you that Iran wants a nuclear weapon in order to use it is a moron," Aslan said. "Iran wants a nuclear weapon for the same reason everyone wants a nuclear weapon, as a deterrence."

Reza Aslan and Mike Shuster

Misconception #1: Iran is a closed society with no access to the rest of the world. Iran is actually a very open and public society. Mike Shuster went to Iran about fourteen times, going two to three times a year. He says it's "very easy to go there and talk to people and feel at home. It is not isolated the way many people in the United States feel it is isolated. It is unusually open or at least it was until last June." Aslan later added "everything that you see and everything that you know about the world, Iranians know and see. They love Jersey Shore as much as we do."

Misconception #2: Sanctions have prevented and will prevent a nuclear Iran.
There is no argument that sanctions have destroyed the Iranian economy. Aslan pointed out Iran has been under international sanctions for three decades but "it's also quite responsible for the Iran we see today and it certainly hasn't done anything that it was supposed to do, which was regime change." With regards to the latest push for more sanctions against Iran, Glenn Kessler wrote in the Washington Post: "administration officials acknowledge that even what they call 'crippling' sanctions could prove ineffective in keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Misconception #3: Iran's green movement is over. "Nothing can be more further from the truth," Aslan said. "This movement is still very much alive and planning its next steps probably linked to the one year anniversary coming up in June of the elections."

Misconception #4: A nuclear Iran will start an arms race in the Middle East.
" I don't buy that for a minute. If Israeli weapons didn't convince Egyptians to build their own nuclear weapon, I don't think an Iranian one does," Aslan said.

The audience was most interested in learning more about the overall political response to Iran's nuclear pursuit. Aslan's belief is that "If Iran wants a nuclear weapon, there is nothing anyone on this earth can do to stop it." But Aslan said the real question needs to be "how do we get Iran to not want to become a nuclear weapon state?" Writer and Professor Avner Cohen wrote in the Israeli paper Ha'aretz that "the result is that when we (Israelis) look at Iran we see ourselves: how we would behave in a similar situation." As Aslan explained, Iran is surrounded by the US military in its neighboring countries and Israel which Iran considers both to be a threat to its national security, hence Iran's nuclear pursuit.

FPR Director Donna Bojarsky said "the idea (of this event) is to challenge you and to introduce you to some things you didn't know before." While many in Thursday night's discussion focused on Iran's nuclear program, the important thing to keep in mind is that there are many other layers to this culturally rich nation. So what do you think?