Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, has an unusual background: His father had been a diplomat for the Shah of Iran, and his family fled the country to escape the Islamic revolution. His grandfather, however, was a noted Ayatollah, and taught some of Iran's leading clerics. Majd, who became a U.S. citizen a decade-and-a-half ago, has been a frequent visitor to Tehran in recent years; he knows and has written widely about the country and its leadership. (He recently served as a translator for a U.N. address by President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad.) He spoke with TIME's Adam Zagorin:
TIME: You've titled your book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ. Does that refer to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?
Hooman Majd: It's true that the Supreme Leader holds ultimate authority in Iran. But the reality is more complex, and there are many views and multiple centers of power in Tehran. In my book, I describe how the Supreme Leader operates at the top of the system to balance opposing views, trying to avoid extremes.
But many Americans find President Ahmadinejad extreme, for example when he calls for the destruction of Israel. Is that view widely shared in Iran, or by the Supreme Leader himself?
President Ahmadinejad may be extreme in some of his views, and I think it is safe to say most Iranians do not share them. The Supreme Leader has made it clear on a number of occasions, rarely reported in the Western media, that he disagrees. On Israel, for example, soon after Ahmadinejad first suggested, in 2005, that Israel would be "wiped off the map", the Supreme Leader made a speech saying that Iran has not and would not be the first to start any war, and would not attack any country. That statement was intended to show that Iran wanted to play no part in Israel's disappearance, regardless of the inflammatory rhetoric of the president.
The book contains a lot of descriptions of Iranian manners and behavior, and you tell stories that give readers a sense of what it's like to be immersed in Iranian society. What do you think is a fundamental misconception that Americans have about Iran and Iranians?
As Americans, we have a tendency to believe that Iranians are a bunch of fundamentalists, even crazy. Sure, there are plenty of fundamentalists or arch-conservatives in Iran, including those in power, but the society is far more diverse than that stereotype would suggest. There are all kinds of civic groups, political activists, even secularists, along with 30 or 40 daily newspapers that offer a wide range of opinion. Even among the clergy, there are liberals and conservatives.