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Clouds Over Iran

1.

Consumed by the conflict in Iraq, the Bush administration has been unable to find either the political or military resources to deal with Iran, which poses both greater dangers and greater opportunities. That is fortunate. During the surge of messianic zeal that drove the Bush administration in its early days, there was heady talk about the prospect of “liberating” Iran as soon as the United States Army was able to break away from the waves of gratitude that were expected to engulf it in Baghdad. That fantasy collapsed when the Iraqi insurgency broke out.

If the Iraq invasion had gone as its planners expected, with the occupied nation embracing its conqueror and quickly transforming itself into a Jeffersonian paradise, American troops might well have been sent across the border into Iran. There they would have had to fight a huge army filled with people who detest the theocracy that tyrannizes them, but who also have a profound sense of patriotism, an ancient tradition of resistance, and a religiously driven thirst for martyrdom. Iraqis who rose up against the American occupation may have done the world, and especially the United States, a good turn by making an invasion of Iran all but impossible.

Now, however, the idea of using force against Iran is reemerging. Senior officials in Washington are returning to the saber-rattling rhetoric of a few years ago. President Bush asserted in his inaugural address that Iran is “the world’s primary state sponsor of terror.” Vice President Dick Cheney said that when he reviews world trouble spots, Iran “is at the top of the list.” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Iran a “totalitarian state” and said its human rights record was “something to be loathed.” All say they hope diplomacy will find a solution to problems between the two countries, but in fact they seem to consider it a dead end. According to a recent report by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, they “believe that it will soon become clear that the Europeans’ negotiated approach cannot succeed, and that at that time the Administration will act.”

That echoes much of the rhetoric about Iran that has come out of Washington in recent years. Much of it borders on the apocalyptic. Administration officials and members of Congress have warned that Iran may soon become a nuclear-armed rogue state and one-stop supermarket for international terrorists. That is an unlikely prospect, more likely for Pakistan than for Iran.

Nonetheless, what is happening in Iran cannot fail to disturb those who hope for stability and peace in the Middle East. Iran is governed by a notoriously repressive regime, some of whose leaders seem to hate not only the West but the very principles of social and intellectual progress. It is also engaged in a nuclear program whose ultimate aim is almost certainly the production of atomic weapons.

What makes Iran so fascinating, though, is that along with the clear threat its government poses to world order, it has tantalizing possibilities. The regime is deeply unpopular. A huge population of young people—two thirds of Iranians are under thirty-five—is literate, educated, and immersed in the often subversive culture of the Internet. And unlike most of their neighbors, Iranians share a collective experience of more than a century of struggle for democracy, as well as a fervent wish for true freedom.

Iran’s desire for stability in the Middle East is at least as great as America’s. Although it now finds itself wedged between two countries in which the United States maintains large concentrations of troops—Iraq and Afghanistan—it has not sought to foment trouble in either one. President Mohammad Khatami has publicly proclaimed that if Palestinians reach a settlement with Israel, Iran will support it. Iran also has vast reserves of oil, the commodity Americans consume more voraciously than anyone else on earth.

During the last decade, groups of Americans and Iranians have made repeated efforts to improve relations between their two countries. Their failure is one of the most glaring facts of Middle Eastern life. It is now clearer than ever, though, that Iran and the United States have many strategic interests in common, most obviously assuring the free flow of oil from the Middle East and ending conflicts in the region. They are not fated to continue threatening each other until one destroys the other, as some in Tehran and Washington evidently believe. So far, neither has managed to put aside old fears or overcome old hatreds. As a result, these two potential partners, pulled apart but also bound together by so much history, remain enemies.

2.

Over the last couple of years, a number of books about Iran have attracted wide public attention. Some are mainly concerned with US policy, like The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America by Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and National Security Council analyst who famously endorsed the idea of invading Iraq, and whose book, published last November, was reviewed in these pages by Christopher de Bellaigue.1 Now chastened, Pollack concludes that “unless Iran commits some truly egregious act of aggression against the United States on the order of a 9/11-type attack, an invasion of Iran has nothing to recommend it.”

The more remarkable and popular of these books deal with the daily experience of Iranian life. One of them, Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, also reviewed here by de Bellaigue,2 has become hugely popular, probably reaching a wider audience than any book about Iran ever published in the United States. The graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi, and its sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return,3 have also been widely read. The success of such books suggests a desire by Americans to learn more about this perplexing country.

Because Christopher de Bellaigue is the Tehran correspondent of The Economist, readers might expect that his book, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, would be full of insights into Iranian politics and government, and address some of the many questions that outsiders are asking about Iran. Are its leaders securely in power? Do they detest the outside world as intensely as they seem to, or are they only posturing? Can the West honestly hope for détente with them or their successors? How strong is the opposition? What are the real chances that Iran will become a nuclear power?

De Bellaigue addresses none of these questions directly. Instead he presents an impressionistic view of today’s Iran, a mosaic of his own experiences with the state, society, and political system. His is the kind of book many foreign correspondents imagine writing: a collection of observations such as few newspapers or magazines would publish, a personal memoir rather than a systematic political analysis.

Much of what he writes will be familiar to people who have visited Iran. The traffic in Tehran is terrible and getting worse, he tells us. Revolutionary guards patrol well-to-do neighborhoods and stop young women, emptying their purses in search of makeup or condoms. Ayatollah Khomeini promised that freedom would follow the Shah’s overthrow, but it did not, and instead, de Bellaigue writes, Iran became a nation shrouded in “dishonesty, vulgarity and bitterness.” Fervent Shiites still flagellate themselves and call out to long-dead martyrs for deliverance. The former American embassy is now called “the nest of spies.”

When he tells us his own feelings about the country where he lives, de Bellaigue confirms the worst of what we have heard. Like many Westerners, he was enthusiastic about the reform movement that seemed to promise a new era of change, especially after President Khatami was elected in 1997:

I’d wanted the reformists to succeed. I’d wanted them to defy the Iranian exiles, sitting in LA, who summoned the people to rebellion through the medium of US-funded television broadcasts. I’d wanted them to disappoint America’s neo-conservatives who, from a position of near-complete ignorance, wrote fluid little Utopias about a Middle East built anew in the image of New England. Later, when I became friends with disappointed revolutionaries, I had hoped that the Islamic Republic would evolve in a way that didn’t humiliate them. I had willed the preservation of Iran’s sole perceptible gain of the past quarter of a century: the liberty to take important decisions without having to consult a superpower.

Most of those hopes have dissipated or evaporated. Hard-liners prevented hundreds of candidates from running in last year’s election, and as a result, the Iranian parliament is now filled with extremists who angrily reject the people’s demands for change. When President Khatami appeared before students at Tehran University in December, they interrupted his speech with angry chants of “Shame on you!” and “Where are your promised freedoms?”

De Bellaigue’s Iran is a dreary and unhappy place, its people worn down in “a million moments spread over ten dull years.” When he meets an Iranian friend, he cannot help wondering “whether he ever threw acid in the face of a girl who had red on her lips, or hair escaping from her headscarf.” He is angry not just about how brutally politicians have turned away from the people, but about the pervasive lassitude and ugly behavior he sees around him:

Why doesn’t anything work? Why does nothing happen on time? Why is everything crappy and falling apart?… The country had never known such moral corruption. Pre-marital sex, divorce, drug addiction and prostitution had reached levels that you’d associate with a degenerate Western country…. Iranians no longer felt that they had a say in the decisions that were being taken in their name; with a sense of powerlessness came a drop in self-esteem and civic pride…. And the hypocrisy! The hypocrisy of denouncing the Americans from the pulpit while trying to do deals with them behind the people’s backs; the hypocrisy of the judges who prevented women from divorcing their abusive husbands; the hypocrisy of sinking billions of dollars into nuclear facilities while the parks of south Tehran teemed with junkies whose welfare no government department was willing to underwrite.

After reflecting on what he has observed, de Bellaigue says, “I cursed the Persians.” Is he too harsh on them, and on what their country has become? I think not. In recent weeks I have heard many of the same criticisms from friends in Iran.

People think about prices, unemployment and the economy these days,” one professional woman wrote me. “More and more activists are quitting politics because the price they are paying for it is not worth it. And the reformists they supported so overwhelmingly have also betrayed them.”

The remarkable success of Iranian immigrants in the United States and Europe makes their country’s tragedy especially poignant. So many have moved to the Los Angeles area that they call it “Tehrangeles.” There and elsewhere, Iranians have become successful entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers, and software designers. Few immigrant groups have achieved such success in such a short time. That is cause for satisfaction, but also for lament. The energy and talent of these immigrants benefit countries that are already rich, instead of the homeland that needs them. Many would return in an instant if Iran became the kind of country in which they could live and work freely. They could help turn it into a nation that is a force for peace in the Middle East, one that is rich instead of poor, that gives aid rather than consuming it.

  1. 1

    Random House, 2004; see The New York Review, February 24, 2005.

  2. 2

    Random House, 2003; see “Stalled in Iran,” The New York Review, June 24, 2004.

  3. 3

    Pantheon, 2003 and 2004.

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