On a recent Saturday morning at the 18th Street Coffee House in Santa Monica, California, I shared a table with author Reza Aslan. A strikingly handsome thirty-four-year-old dressed in a T-shirt emblazoned with Chinese characters, jeans, and sandals and sporting a couple of days’ stubble, he did not fit the stereotype of an Islamic scholar. But then, he’d contemplated the Koran at Harvard University, where he’d earned a master’s degree in theological studies. We spoke two days shy of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, which Aslan believes were carried out “to goad the United States into an exaggerated retaliation against the Islamic world so as to mobilize Muslims to, in the words of George W. Bush, ‘choose sides.’ ”

Aslan’s first book, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (Random House), proposes that Islam is nearing the end of a century-long period of reformation. An argument is taking place within the Muslim world, he says, over who has the authority to define the faith: the institution or the individual. In this conflict, he writes, “the West is merely a bystander — an unwary yet complicit casualty.”

Aslan grew up in Iran, and he and his family were among the many middle-class Iranians who escaped to the West before Ayatollah Khomeini installed an Islamic government in 1980. Seven years old at the time, Aslan watched as the bullying customs officials at the Tehran airport confiscated his father’s watch and his mother’s jewelry. After a brief stay in London, the family settled in Enid, Oklahoma. Aslan’s father had done a semester abroad at Oklahoma State University. (“I think he thought that Oklahoma was America,” Aslan says, “and he was probably right.”) They spent the next six months holed up in a motel room, where Aslan and his four-year-old sister watched television and learned about American culture from Bugs Bunny, The Flintstones, and CHiPS, a police drama about the California Highway Patrol. (“For a long while I was scared to death of driving on American highways because I assumed that cars just exploded and flipped over all the time.”) Eventually the family drove west to California.

Because of his father’s hatred for anything Islamic, Aslan was denied much awareness of his Muslim heritage, but the boy had a thirst for knowledge about religion and God. In high school he attended a Christian camp with some friends, and afterward he converted to Evangelical Christianity. Aslan sought to learn everything he could about his new faith, and ended up learning too much for the liking of his church mentors: when he pointed out that the Bible says nothing about premarital sex being a sin, they laid their hands on him and prayed for his salvation.

Disillusioned, Aslan pursued his interest in writing fiction at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school that requires students to take religion classes. The Jesuits’ willingness to debate Scripture renewed Aslan’s curiosity about Christianity, and he threw himself into Catholicism, getting his undergraduate degree in religion. He was about to embark on a doctoral program in biblical studies at Harvard when his advisor encouraged him to study Islam instead, saying, “No one’s going to give a damn about the 112th person this year who graduates with a PhD in biblical studies.” Aslan considers the advice the best he’s ever been given. He spent the next two years constructing his own course of study, as there was no Islamic program at Harvard’s divinity school at the time. All the fervor he’d had for Christian traditions came out again, only now it wasn’t a conversion experience; it was, he says, a “reconversion experience.” Aslan applied Christian methods of biblical analysis to Koranic studies, and he now believes this has helped him explain Islam to non-Muslims. “I talk about Islam and the Koran the way most Americans think about Christianity and the Bible.”

Aslan never abandoned his interest in fiction, and in 1999 he attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and also served as visiting professor of Islamic studies at the University of Iowa. After September 11, 2001, enrollment in the class he taught went from 37 to 289. As Iowa’s leading expert on Islam, he began touring the state and caught the attention of the national media. He was inspired to work on a book to help Westerners understand Islam. No god but God became a bestseller and led to appearances on NPR’s All Things Considered, NBC’s Meet the Press, and ABC’s Nightline.

Aslan has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Nation. Samples of his writing can be found at www.rezaaslan.com. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of California, but has set aside his studies to focus on his next two books: a historical novel that follows a caravan from the Arabian Peninsula to India, and another nonfiction book outlining his theories about the Islamic reformation.

Fueling Aslan’s success, no doubt, is his ability to speak extemporaneously about the complexities of Islamic faith — all with charm and a sense of humor. As Islam struggles to define itself in the twenty-first century, who better to chronicle the outcome?

 

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© Sara Barrett

Cooper: You say we’re witnessing an Islamic reformation. What are the signs of this?

Aslan: When we hear the word reformation in this country, we tend to think of the Christian Reformation, which led to the creation of the Protestant denominations in the sixteenth century. But all the great religions have undergone reformations at some point in their history. Ultimately any reformation is about who has the authority to define the faith: the institution or the individual. When this debate reaches a boiling point, the institutions begin to break down into different sects.

This is taking place right now within the Muslim world, and has been for about a century. It began with the geopolitical fragmentation of the Muslim world due to colonialism. In the United States we think of colonialism as ancient history, but we’re talking about an era that came to an end a little more than fifty years ago and that at one point engulfed 90 percent of the world’s Muslims. It continues to have a profound effect on the Muslim psyche.

One of the results of colonialism was that Muslims were forced to regard themselves less as members of a worldwide community of faith and more as individual citizens of nation-states whose borders had often been drawn up by outside forces. The false sense of nationality this created caused an identity crisis for many Muslims. Individualism began to take over what had once been the quintessential communal faith, with both good and bad results. Toward the end of the twentieth century came the rise of globalization and a corresponding rise in literacy and education in the Muslim world. The Internet brought widespread access to new theories, ideas, and sources of knowledge. (During the Christian Reformation, the printing press had played the same role.)

Now we’re at a point where the traditional institutions of Islam have become marginalized — and I say “institutions,” plural, because Islam has never had a single, Vatican-like authority. For fourteen centuries these traditional institutions and schools of law maintained a total monopoly over the meaning and message of Islam. No one could interpret Islamic law or make any authoritative judgments on the Koran except them. Now people are reading the Koran in their own languages; women are reading and interpreting the Koran for the first time. Twenty years ago if you wanted a fatwa — a legal opinion on a particular Islamic law — you had no choice but to ask your local imam, whose word was final. Now you can go to fatwaonline.com, islamonline.net, or sistani.org and access an archive of rulings on every imaginable subject, with half a dozen different opinions on each. Because Islam does not have a single, centralized institution that says which fatwa is right and which is wrong, it’s up to you. This has created a real crisis, because the old way of doing things ensured stability. Now it’s all up for grabs, and the extremists want as much authority as they can get.

We have this idea in the U.S. that we’re the primary target of the jihadists, but we’re not. They call us the “far enemy.” The primary target is the older Islamic institutions. If you want proof, all you have to do is read Osama bin Laden’s writings, which have been translated into English in a wonderful book by Bruce Lawrence called Messages to the World.

We’ve made it easier for jihadist propagandists to convince the Muslim world that this is a war against Islamic values. . . . You want to know why we’re losing the war on terror? Because they have the better marketing campaign.

Cooper: Why do you think U.S. media reports portray us as the jihadists’ main enemy?

Aslan: First off, we have to remember that the primary purpose of the media in this country is to sell products, and what sells is sex and violence and fear. It’s not that the media are purposely ignoring the moderate majority of Muslims; it’s that, given a choice between reporting on a conference of Islamic scholars who are fashioning a fatwa against the use of violence in the name of Islam, and reporting on the public beheading of an innocent American — well, tell me which one you’d cover.

I think there is a more conscious coverup, however, on the part of our political leadership. The new buzzword is Islamofascism, which comes from bin Laden’s stated goal to create a “worldwide caliphate,” an Islamic empire that will sweep away the existing governments of the Muslim world and then come after the West. Now, it’s true that this is his goal. But world peace is my goal; that doesn’t mean I have a chance of achieving it. By bin Laden’s own admission, al-Qaeda will never reestablish the caliphate. A few years ago the majority of Muslims in the world didn’t even know what the caliphate was, let alone want it to come back. But when the president of the United States of America, the most powerful man on earth, announced that he was afraid bin Laden could re-create the caliphate, it gave an air of legitimacy to this absurd idea. It emboldened these jihadists and put them in a position of leadership in the Muslim world that they would never have had otherwise. For Bush, talking about the caliphate may have been a good strategy for getting reelected, but it is a terrible strategy for winning this “war on terror” that we’re supposed to be fighting.

Cooper: You started writing your book after September 11, and now we’re just two days away from the fifth anniversary.

Aslan: Five years later, and we’re still asking, “Why did they attack us?” That question has been answered a hundred times over by the jihadists. In their own words they have said that the purpose of the attacks of September 11 was to goad the United States into an exaggerated retaliation against the Muslim world. Then they could frame the U.S. military response as a “war against Islam.” The irony is that it didn’t work at first. The war in Afghanistan had almost unanimous support in the Arab and Muslim worlds, even from some of the U.S.’s staunchest enemies. In one Muslim country, immediately after September 11, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets, lit candles, and prayed in an exuberant display of compassion for the U.S. That country was Iran. So even our enemies were supporting us. Bin Laden’s plan hadn’t worked. Then, as we all know, we turned around and attacked Iraq, and what bin Laden had hoped the war in Afghanistan would become, the war in Iraq became.

So in many ways we walked right into his trap. With our foreign-policy positions and the way we’ve conducted ourselves in Iraq and the rhetoric that has come out of this White House, we’ve made it easier for jihadist propagandists to convince the Muslim world that this is a war against Islamic values, traditions, and ideals, and to rally them to the cause of al-Qaeda and jihadism, because they’re the only ones standing up for Muslims. Their plan is working brilliantly. You want to know why we’re losing the war on terror? Because they have the better marketing campaign.

Two days ago the president lumped Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and al-Qaeda together. These four entities have almost nothing in common. Hezbollah has issued death warrants against bin Laden. Hamas has issued fatwas condemning him and the attacks of September 11. Both these groups want absolutely nothing to do with the global jihadist movement. The only thing they all have in common, besides the use of terror as a tactic, is their Islamic identity, which the president has used to lump them together so that the American people can perceive them as one enemy.

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Louisiana National Guard unit preparing to provide security at the polls in Iraq on election day 2005.

Cooper: In your book you object to the phrase “clash of civilizations,” which is often used to describe the conflicts between the West and Islam. You suggest that “clash of monotheisms” would be more accurate.

Aslan: I coined the phrase “clash of monotheisms” because a clash between Islam and the West would be a conflict between a religion and a geographical location, and that’s ridiculous. Also the fact that we have millions of Muslims in the U.S. who are well integrated into society indicates that this is a mistaken way of thinking.

The rhetoric that is pouring out of the White House and certain sectors of the military — and, of course, from our wonderful political pundits and preachers — about “Islamic civilization” has nothing to do with civilization. This is a religious argument stating that somehow Islam is backward and uncivilized, whereas Christianity is the religion of enlightened and civilized people. The evangelist Franklin Graham [son of evangelist Billy Graham] has called Islam an “evil and violent” religion. This is the man who gave the opening prayer at the president’s 2001 inauguration. On another occasion the past president of the Southern Baptist Convention stood up before the convention and said the Prophet Mohammed was a “demon-possessed pedophile” — a phrase, by the way, lifted straight from the papal propaganda of the Crusades. We could say the speaker is a kook or a fanatic, but the president of the United States spoke right after him. This kind of message becomes front-page news in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

We’re fighting enemies who know they cannot win this war in conventional terms, and so they have created a cosmic war in which their goals can somehow be achieved in the next life. They’re not fighting for territory, or identity, or any political purpose. For them, they’re fighting a war between the forces of good and evil, between the angels of light and the angels of darkness. When we use the same language — except in reverse, with us as the good guys — we essentially legitimize their concept. We have stepped right into this cosmic war, and there is no way we will ever win it. We are not going to out-fanaticize them. What we need to do is step back from it.

So this clash of monotheisms between the forces of Christianity — or the forces of Judaism, in Israel — and the forces of Islam has got to go away. And it’s not going to disappear by itself if left to factions in the Middle East. We’re the only ones who can defuse this notion. If we play along too, then we’re lost.

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Mourners on the sixteenth anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death.

Cooper: What can we do to defuse it?

Aslan: First of all we can change our rhetoric. We can’t have congressmen like Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado standing on the floor of the House and saying that the next time a Western target gets bombed by al-Qaeda, we should respond by bombing Mecca. You and I know that Tom Tancredo is a lunatic who shouldn’t be listened to on any topic, but when the Arab world hears an American congressman threatening to bomb Mecca, the idea that the U.S. is at war with Islam makes more and more sense. We need to change this simplistic, reductive rhetoric and recognize that this is a very complex global conflict. It’s not a war against Islam, or “Islamofascism,” or whatever they want to call it.

Second, we need to understand that this isn’t primarily a war between us and them; it’s a war between them and them, and we have allowed ourselves to be dragged into it, which has made it far worse. We are not going to win this war, because there’s nothing for us to win. What we need to do is make sure the right voices in the Muslim world get heard: those moderate voices that so outnumber the voices of extremism and militancy. Right now the entire world is hanging on every word that comes out of bin Laden’s mouth. There could be a thousand Reza Aslans talking twenty-four hours a day, and we’re not going to get the attention that a single beheading does.

This administration has to improve its marketing campaign. It already has at its disposal the best tool it could ever hope for: millions of Muslim Americans who are just as threatened, if not more so, by al-Qaeda and who are more than willing to be on the front lines of this “war on terror.” Instead they have been treated as if they were part of the problem.

Cooper: Wafa Sultan, the Syrian psychologist, said on the Arabic news network Al Jazeera, “The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or a clash of civilizations. It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the twenty-first century.” What do you make of her interpretation?

Aslan: That two-minute interview has made Wafa Sultan the darling of the West. Time magazine named her one of the most influential people in the world, which is absurd. Not that I have anything against Wafa Sultan. I’m sure she’s a magnificent woman, and what she said is a legitimate criticism of the culture of some Arab countries. But she has extrapolated that criticism to an entire religion, and that kind of generalization cannot be celebrated. Wafa Sultan is not doing anything to further either her own cause of women’s rights, or Muslim rights, or minority rights in the Arab world, nor is she helping to build bridges between the West and the Muslim world.

To outsiders it seems that the only Muslims we celebrate in the U.S. are those who publicly reject Islam or Arab culture, when in reality there are millions of Muslim Americans who have fully reconciled their Islamic and American identities and who are solidly middle-class and integrated into every level of American society. They’re our doctors, our lawyers. Sixty percent of them own their own homes. They’re the most educated ethnic minority in this country. And they’re living proof that this idea that there is some fundamental clash between Islam and the West is absurd. Here is Islam in the West, and it’s doing just fine. These people are working diligently to provide a counterweight to these ideologies of fanaticism and puritanism and violence and extremism, but they’re being ignored.

Cooper: But there is some legitimacy to Sultan’s criticisms of Islam regarding human rights?

Aslan: If we’re going to talk about human rights, it’s worth noting that human rights have a long history within Islam. The Prophet Mohammed may have been the world’s first civil-rights leader. His message was one of egalitarianism, in which there was no longer any connection between class and race or ethnicity, and everyone was joined together by their communal devotion to God. He gave rights and privileges to women in his community that Christian women would not have for another thousand years. He also wrote the world’s first constitution: the Covenant of Medina.

But that was fourteen hundred years ago. The question is: What’s going on now? And the fact is that large parts of the Arab and Muslim world are, like most of the Third World, mired in political and economic corruption. Men and women are not treated equally, and minorities — whether ethnic or religious — do not have the same rights as the majority. But these problems are not endemic to Islam. The main reason that women do not have the same rights as men in the Arab world has to do with the culture in that region. And we’re still talking primarily about the Arab world. Americans are so focused on the Middle East that we forget the region is home to only around 10 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims. There are more Muslims in the deserts of sub-Saharan Africa than there are Arabs on this planet. The country with the largest Muslim population is Indonesia. And Iran has the most robust political system in the entire Middle East, outside of Israel. It also has the most vibrant women’s-rights movement, I’d say, in the whole Muslim world, despite its many infringements on women’s rights.

So if we’re going to talk about human rights, we have to discuss them on a country-by-country basis. Nobody in their right mind would say that the Muslim world is free of human-rights violations, but to say that human rights and Islam are incompatible is ludicrous.

Certain people within the Bush administration, and within the Iranian administration, want to have an escalation of tensions. The American and Iranian people are captives of these two administrations that both benefit from the fear of violence.

Cooper: You grew up in Iran. What can you tell me about your family and your religion?

Aslan: It’s funny, but we were not all that religious when we lived in Iran. Many Iranians aren’t. Despite being a theocracy, Iran is still not a particularly religious country. When I lived there in the 1970s, it was a modern, secularized, progressive nation with an exaggerated sense of national identity — unlike, say, Iraq, whose people are broken down into sects and ethnic groups. Iran’s population is 96 percent Shia Muslim and 94 percent Persian ethnicity. The country has a clear sense of its place in the world and its role in history. This is partly why the U.S. and Iran are at this impasse right now, because Iran has become a regional superpower in a way it hasn’t been in decades, and Iranians feel this is their birthright. The U.S., on the other hand, still thinks of Iran as a pariah state.

Even among Iranians, my father was famously irreligious. He had a whole host of Prophet Mohammed jokes with which he would scandalize guests at dinner parties. He was naturally suspicious of the mullahs [interpreters of Muslim law] and distrusted them from the very beginning. Then the revolution happened.

Remember, the 1979 revolution was not an Islamic revolution; the revolutionaries came from every sector of Iranian society. Only after it was complete did the radical clerics take over. Ayatollah Khomeini transformed what had started as an experiment in democracy into an Islamic republic. But before the revolution Khomeini and the other mullahs had promised that once the shah, a monarch, was gone, they’d go back to their religious duties. Most people believed them, but not my father. He predicted that the revolution was not going to turn out the way people thought it would. One day, without any notice, he woke us all up and put us on a plane, and we left.

The president of Iran makes not a single foreign-policy decision: not one. Televangelist Pat Robertson has more control over the U.S. government than the president of Iran has over the Iranian government.

Cooper: What did cause the revolution, if it wasn’t Islamism?

Aslan: The chain of events started back at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the Constitutional Revolution of 1905 and 1906. This was the first time Iranians rose up against the shah and demanded a constitutional government. After about five years and the loss of countless lives, they got one. But the British and the Russians, who were afraid of losing control over Iran’s natural resources, almost immediately put a stop to that revolution. The Russian Cossack forces literally riddled the new House of Parliament with bullets until the elected officials came out with their hands up. And that was the end of the first democracy experiment in Iran.

Nearly fifty years later, in 1953, the prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, decided that the 1906 constitution should be reinstated and the shah should give up his power. Sensing popular support for the idea, the shah fled the country. Mossadegh then attempted to nationalize Iran’s oil operations, so that the profits would belong to the country, but the British still owned the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company [which would change its name to British Petroleum a year later], and they were not going to let this happen, so they enlisted the aid of the CIA, and it sent agent Kermit Roosevelt — grandson of former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt — to Iran. He showed up with a million dollars to bring down Mossadegh and put the shah back on his throne. In the end it cost him only a hundred thousand dollars to do it; he was proud of the fact that he’d spent just 10 percent of his budget. What he did was gather uneducated peasants, farmworkers, and unemployed people, then literally hand-paint signs for them and march them to the capital. Mossadegh was already in a precarious situation trying to balance the demands of religious groups, secular intellectuals, and the merchant class, all of whom had supported him and now wanted something from him. The staged “popular” uprising was enough to collapse the government.

From then on Iranians understood that the Americans were never to be trusted. So in 1979, when the religious groups, the intellectuals, and the merchants came together again to oust the shah, there was immediate paranoia that the Americans would not let this stand. Of course, President Jimmy Carter had no intention of putting the shah back on his throne, but when the shah was allowed into the United States to be treated for cancer — and remember, no one in Iran knew that he had cancer; it was a state secret — it was too much for the paranoid Iranians. Fearing a repeat of 1953, they took American hostages. The 444 days of crisis that followed turned the new Iranian government into a clerical oligarchy. Iran would still elect presidents, but the ayatollah would be “supreme leader” and run the country.

That memory of 1953 has yet to fade. That’s why the Iranians do not take President Bush at his word. Of course, this administration has become so toxic at this point that even our allies won’t take our word for anything anymore.

Cooper: What about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and all his fiery talk, especially about Israel? It doesn’t seem he could ever be friendly toward the U.S.

Aslan: I’m fascinated by Ahmadinejad. Here’s a man who had never run for office before in his life. He’s a blacksmith’s son and talks the way Iranian peasants talk. There are two Persian dialects: colloquial Persian, and a flowery, rhetorical Persian that politicians are expected to speak. Ahmadinejad speaks the simple Persian that everyone understands.

Cooper: Kind of like George W. Bush.

Aslan: Absolutely. There were six major players at the start of the last Iranian presidential election. Ahmadinejad wasn’t one of them. But he ran on a platform of rooting out corruption in the government and fixing the economy, which everyone, regardless of their piety or political affiliation, could agree on. Iran is a country with a 40 percent unemployment rate and a 24 percent annual inflation rate. It’s the world’s second-largest supplier of oil, yet it is forced to import oil.

Ahmadinejad got into a runoff with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the richest, most powerful man in Iran. This is a man who Forbes says is worth a billion dollars — in a country with 40 percent unemployment. In other words, he’s one of the most hated people in Iran. Against him you have a plain-spoken, simply dressed individual who’s running on a platform of “I’m one of you. I’m an outsider.” Rafsanjani promised Iranians he would open up the country, which everyone wanted. But there’s a saying in Iran: “Rafsanjani couldn’t win an election if he were running against a stick.” Iranians hate him so much, they voted for Ahmadinejad and his anticorruption platform instead.

Ahmadinejad was in no way the candidate of the clerics. They had no interest in this simpleton. But when it came down to the simpleton versus Rafsanjani, they put all of their weight behind Ahmadinejad, because Rafsanjani has always been an enemy of the current supreme leader in Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei.

When Ahmadinejad became president, he found that everything he had promised during his campaign was impossible to achieve. You cannot root out corruption in Iran without rooting out the clerics. Unable to fulfill his campaign promise, he has rallied support around the issue of national security: “The Americans are about to attack,” he says. “The bombs are going to fall any minute now.” Everyone in Iran believes this. Ahmadinejad also says the U.S. is trying to weaken Iran by taking away the technology that the Iranian people are divinely chosen to have. Again, this is a popular perception in Iran, which is an educated country. Its literacy rate matches that of the U.S. And yet it’s denied nuclear technology, which would place it in the top tier of governments worldwide.

In short, Ahmadinejad has used the anti-American issue to bolster support. And the more the U.S. turns him into this bogeyman, the more it confirms his image as spokesperson for the Muslim world. Everyone in the American government knows that the president of Iran makes not a single foreign-policy decision: not one. Televangelist Pat Robertson has more control over the U.S. government than the president of Iran has over the Iranian government. All of Ahmadinejad’s blustering speeches are intended for domestic consumption. His comments about wiping Israel off the map, his anti-American remarks, his criticism of Bush — in no way does any of this translate into Iranian foreign policy. Khamenei makes the decisions. He has appointed Ali Larijani, the presidential candidate the clerics backed, to be the chief nuclear negotiator in Iran. Ahmadinejad doesn’t have a single say on the nuclear issue. But certain people within the Bush administration, and within the Iranian administration, want to have an escalation of tensions. The American and Iranian people are captives of these two administrations that both benefit from the fear of violence.

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attending the opening ceremony of a heavy-water plant, which will feed a nuclear research reactor.
© Document Iran/Mohammed Berno/ILNA

Cooper: What do you make of the letter Ahmadinejad sent to Bush last spring?

Aslan: Ahmadinejad is trying to set himself up as the George W. Bush of the Muslim world, to show that he has the authority to send a letter to the most powerful man on earth. He’s also placing himself in a long tradition of Muslim leaders who wrote such letters, going back to the Prophet Mohammed, who sent letters to the emperor of Byzantium and the emperor of Persia essentially saying, “We have no interest in fighting you, but we’re inviting you to Islam.”

Ahmadinejad’s letter was a brilliant marketing tool, and the Bush administration is correct that there was nothing of substance in it. Still, it was the first attempt by an Iranian president to communicate with the United States, and every foreign-policy expert I have talked to has said it was a big mistake to have ignored that letter. We could have made some small gesture. When the former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, was in the U.S., he made statements that obviously meant, Somebody talk to me. Let me engage in a bit of secret dealings here. I’m speaking for a great mass of people within Iran. But no one recognized that Khatami was here because he had permission to be here from the very highest levels of the government in Iran. The clerical rulers are trying to figure out a way around this impasse. We have been given opening after opening, and we’ve refused to recognize them.

Cooper: So how do you see this panning out? Do you think the U.S. is going to invade Iran?

Aslan: Three or four weeks ago I would have said absolutely not, even if we were forced to, because of Iran’s ability to strike back through its proxies in Lebanon and Iraq. But I saw Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania on Meet the Press last weekend, and every time he was asked about Iraq, his answer came back around to Iran. When I hear this kind of talk, I begin sweating a bit. I can’t imagine how this administration thinks it could get away with another “preemptive” attack. There are no military options in Iran, and everyone knows it. Every serious presidential candidate on both sides — not just the Democrats, but Republicans Chuck Hagel, John McCain, and even Mike Huckabee — all say we’ve got to talk to Iran. And yet the Bush administration has ruled out the possibility.

Cooper: What about this idea that Iran has been the chief beneficiary of the war on terror?

Aslan: Unquestionably it’s true. The invasion of Iraq has made the price of oil skyrocket, and Iran, whose economy is in a shambles, has benefited from that. If the oil money were not there, the Iranian economy would have collapsed by now. Also Iran’s greatest enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, have been overthrown, and in their place are not just friendly regimes, but regimes that cannot survive without Iran’s help. Iran is doing a marvelous job of keeping Afghanistan going and has had a huge beneficial influence on Iraq. The trade back and forth across the border since Saddam fell has helped reestablish some semblance of economic stability in Iraq. The thousands of Iranian pilgrims and tourists pouring into Iraq have brought money into the region. (As poor as they are, Iranians are practically millionaires compared to Iraqis.) And the simple fact that Iran hasn’t decided to menace its vulnerable neighbor has been reassuring.

The Pentagon says that Iran is training the insurgents in Iraq, but any talk about a connection between Iran and al-Qaeda is just absurd. They are mortal enemies. Thomas Turner, the brigadier general in charge of Baghdad, says he has seen absolutely no evidence that the Iranians are training or funding or supplying the insurgents. Iran wants stability in Iraq. Iranians are far more threatened by a chaotic Iraq than we are in the U.S. If we wanted to, we could just wash our hands of Iraq and walk away. Iran cannot, and the idea that it could have a terrorist refuge occupied by its worst enemy, al-Qaeda, on its borders keeps the Iranian government up at night. So they want stability; they just don’t want the Americans there. Our interests and Iran’s are perfectly in line in this respect. There is no reason why we can’t come together, along with Syria, and figure out a way to put Iraq back on its feet so we can leave. I think both the Iranians and the Syrians would jump at that opportunity.

Cooper: You’ve written about the Iranian government, “Not since . . . the drafting of the American Constitution has a more important political experiment been attempted.”

Aslan: I absolutely believe that. But the political experiment has been hijacked by an authoritarian, even fascist, regime that, like most oligarchies, wants complete control. And the way a tyrant maintains control over his people is by isolating them from the rest of the world. Iran’s real problem isn’t the theocratic government. It isn’t the clerical regime. It isn’t Islamic law. It isn’t human-rights violations. Iran’s real problem is that it has become completely isolated from the rest of the world, especially the West. Iran’s government is making friends with Cuba and Venezuela, Russia and China, and those aren’t the friends we want Iran to have.

We have this idea that Iran is teetering on the verge of a popular revolution, that the Iranians loathe their regime so much that, given the opportunity, they would rise up against it. But that opportunity will not come from bombs falling from American planes. That opportunity will come from giving people the chance to feed their families. There is no middle class left in Iran, and it was the middle class that was primarily responsible for the revolutions in 1905, 1953, and 1979. There is certainly no leisure class that can focus its energies on political change. What we need to do, instead of isolating Iran, is open it up, literally pry that country open to the rest of the world, whether it wants to be or not. Give Iranians the opportunity to put their incredible education and talents to work, and they’ll create a civil society that will foster democratic change.

Really there is no hope for another revolution in Iran. The only hope is for a gradual transition to democracy. It’s promising to note that all the foundations of a democratic state already exist there. The constitution of Iran guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, and the press; it’s just ignored. The civilian structures, like the women’s-rights and minority-rights movements, are already there. Iran has everything you need to construct a democratic society, except a functioning economy. But, as we learned in our dealings with China, if we enact a policy of trade relations and flood them with American technology and dollars, we can create a class of people outside the control of the oligarchy who can define the country’s future, whether the rulers like it or not. Do this in Iran, and you’ll see the clerical regime collapse. There is no other reasonable option. Dropping bombs will only bring more misery.