Author and scholar Reza Aslan, who just signed on to host a new series for CNN, says that average Iranians see the prospect of an agreement between the U.S. and Iran over that country’s nuclear program as an important step toward lifting sanctions and opening up their society.
“For most Iranians it is not just about getting past this standoff, it’s about opening up the country,” Aslan tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. “It’s about giving them an opportunity to take part in the global marketplace of ideas. This is a population that all it really needs is for the door to be creaked open just a little bit and it can kick the door down. But it can’t do it on its own.”
In fact, Aslan notes that the Iranian population actually craves American pop culture, accessing it via the Internet or via rooftop satellite dishes. He says that viewing Hollywood movies, music and TV shows is like an act of defiance against the government, akin to a private political statement.
Last year, a group of Iranian youth made a dancing video to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” and then posted it online. They were later arrested when it became a viral hit, with the government calling it “vulgar.” They received suspended sentences of imprisonment and lashes.
The government, Aslan says, “are not worried about spies. They are not worried about journalists. … But what really keeps them up at night, what they know can lead to the teardown of the entire infrastructure, is the Internet, is pop culture, movies and music and those kinds of things. That’s why these kids who made this ‘Happy’ video were rounded up, and they were almost immediately released. But the message was very clear: This is what scares the Iranian government more than anything else.”
Nevertheless, the government realizes that to unleash a widespread crackdown would be a “losing fight.” Satellite dishes are illegal, but “you can stand on any street corner in Tehran and look up and see thousands” of them.
Aslan says that “part of the way that this government has maintained control over the past three and a half decades is by coming to a kind of unspoken accommodation with the Iranian people, particularly young people. That accommodation basically says you can pretty much do what you want to do in the confines of your own home. So you can seek out a measure of freedom in your private lives, and in exchange, you keep it off the streets.”
Aslan says that there is support among Iranians for some kind of deal on the nuclear program that would mean an end to sanctions.
Aslan doesn’t believe that Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory this week will have much impact on the U.S.-Iranian negotiations. If anything, it may help those negotiations succeed “because of the fact they have fractured the opposition to those negotiations.” He also talks about the Iranian reaction to “Argo,” calling it a “zombie film” for the way it portrayed the Iranian people.
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“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety‘s Ted Johnson, airs at 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124. It also is available on demand.