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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.

Two chapters in de Bellaigue’s book make especially painful reading for Americans. One is called “Gas.” It recounts the terrible suffering that many veterans of the Iran–Iraq War, fought between 1980 and 1988 at the cost of more than one million lives, still face as a result of poison gas attacks that Saddam Hussein launched against Iran. Those attacks began in 1982. The next year, President Reagan sent a special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, to Baghdad. His mission was not to reprimand the Iraqi dictator, but to encourage him. Soon afterward, de Bellaigue writes, “the Reagan administration allowed increased sales of US equipment to Iraq, including sixty helicopters for ‘agricultural use.’”

In 1984 a United Nations report made it unmistakably clear that Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against Iran. Four years later, he did the same against Kurdish rebels in the Iraqi town of Halabja. There was no serious protest from Washington. Fifteen years later, as the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq, Hussein’s use of these weapons in the 1980s suddenly became an issue. President Bush repeatedly cited it as proof of what a monster Hussein was. His show of indignation would have been more persuasive if the United States had protested the gassing when it took place.

It did not do so because at the time of the Iran–Iraq War, the United States was Saddam Hussein’s friend. He was a friend mainly because the United States saw his enemy, Iran, as its own enemy. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis that followed, Americans were eager to hurt Iran any way they could. The long and fervent American embrace of Saddam Hussein was motivated largely by American hostility to Iran. It was another example, not the first or last, of how enmity between Washington and Tehran has had terrible consequences for both countries during the last quarter-century.

In another chapter, de Bellaigue writes of “Parastu.” His subject, Parastu Forouhar, is the daughter of two Iranians who devoted their lives to the cause of democracy. In their youth they supported the most formidable Iranian leader of that era, Mohammad Mossadegh, who served as prime minister from 1951 until 1953, when he was overthrown in a coup organized by the CIA. During the long years that followed, they resisted the repressive rule of Mohammad Reza Shah. Darioush Forouhar, Parastu’s father, spent sixteen years in jail for opposing the Shah’s regime. Like most Iranians, he and his wife welcomed the Islamic Revolution, but later turned against it. Then, on the horrific night of November 22, 1998, agents of that revolution murdered them in their house. A portrait of Mossadegh looked down on them as they were slashed to death:

They killed Darioush Forouhar because he made no secret of his belief that religion should be separate from government…. On 4 January 1999, under pressure from the president, the Intelligence Ministry announced “the involvement in this affair of a handful of irresponsible, evil-thinking, deviant and obstinate figures within the ministry.” …Then, in the spring, Niyazi, the military prosecutor who had been put in charge of the case, made this announcement: “In spite of the surveillance under which he was placed, Saeed Emami, one of the pivotal masterminds of the murders, committed suicide during bathing period on Saturday in the detention center, by swallowing hair remover.”

These days, Parastu Forouhar makes pilgrimages not to Shiite holy cities like Qom or Mashad but to the village of Ahmadabad, where Mossadegh lived after his overthrow and where he died in 1967 and is buried. Other Iranian democrats do the same. Many more would do so if they did not fear retribution from the Islamic regime, which hates the idea of secular democracy that Mossadegh still represents. The coup against Mossadegh in 1953 was the first the CIA ever carried out. It began a long series of American attempts to bring about “regime change” in countries around the world, many of which had terrible long-term results. This one helped to create today’s angry and repressive Iran.

Mossadegh was, in de Bellaigue’s words, “an eccentric but brilliant nationalist.” He was leading Iran toward democracy, but in the climate of the cold war, powerful Americans took his nationalism as a threat. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made a tragically short-sighted decision to overthrow him and place the Shah back on the Peacock Throne.

Americans who now wish to intervene in Iran would do well to ponder the results of this last intervention. It imposed a repressive regime against which Iranians finally rebelled. That brought the mullahs to power and propelled Iran and the United States to their present bitter standoff.

3.

This standoff is not an immutable fact of international life. European nations have engaged Iran in a dialogue that has already led it to accept limited inspections of its nuclear facilities. The United States has stood apart from this dialogue. Instead it has sought to isolate Iran, even refusing to endorse Iran’s application for entry into the World Trade Organization, while endorsing the applications of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Caught up in its contempt for the idea of negotiated compromise, the Bush administration seems unable to concede that Iran, like every other country, has legitimate concerns about threats to its economic and political security. Its most potent enemy in the world, the United States, and its most potent enemy in the Middle East, Israel, have large nuclear arsenals. It hears periodic threats from powerful Americans, including President Bush and Vice President Cheney, and is the object of harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States.

Under the current system of sanctions, the Bush administration recently declared that eight Chinese companies could no longer trade with the United States or buy controlled technology from American firms because they have helped Iran develop its ballistic missile program. This decision showed a laudable interest in controlling Iran’s military buildup. In a world full of covert arms dealers and profit-hungry proliferators, however, sanctions are unlikely to prevent Iran or any other country from obtaining whatever weapons it wants.

If American sanctions were intended to cut Iran off from world trade, they have failed. European and Japanese companies are deeply invested in Iranian energy projects. Russia and Pakistan are supplying Iran with weapons and nuclear technology. China has begun buying large amounts of its oil. American companies find ways to circumvent the sanctions. Among them is a Halliburton subsidiary, Halliburton Products & Services Ltd., which is registered in the Cayman Islands and has its headquarters in Dubai. It is bidding for a lucrative contract to develop an Iranian gas field called South Pars, said to be the biggest in the world.

There are still some in the United States who hope that Iranians will rise up and overthrow the mullahs. They even imagine that American intervention, in the form of either a full-scale invasion or air strikes against nuclear facilities, might set off such an uprising. That is an illusion. Iranians learned a bitter lesson after they overthrew the Shah: that no matter how bad life may be, a revolution can always make it worse. They will not start another one.

That leaves the options of military intervention or diplomatic engagement. The modern history of nations as different as South Korea, Russia, and South Africa suggests that when the United States engages countries politically and economically, they move toward democracy. Countries that the United States treats as pariahs, like Cuba, do not. By subjecting Iran to constant denunciation and unilateral sanctions, American leaders are making the transition to democracy there more difficult.

One of my Iranian friends, a graduate student in his twenties, recently wrote this to me:

The US government is helping Iran’s government with its continuing hostility…. Every time the State Department or White House speaks about human rights conditions in Iran, our government uses this against reformers. It says that reformers are supported by the United States. Many reformers are in jail because of these accusations. Many newspapers have been closed. The United States should be concerned about Iran’s problems, but this policy is hurting the reform movement. Non-intervention is the best help the United States can give to Iran’s people.

This is no longer a radical or marginal view. Last year a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and chaired by two prominent members of the American foreign policy establishment, former CIA director Robert Gates and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, recommended “a revised strategic approach to Iran.” In their report they concluded:

It is in the interests of the United States to engage selectively with Iran to promote regional stability, dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, preserve reliable energy supplies, reduce the threat of terror, and address the “democracy deficit” that pervades the Middle East…. A basic statement of principles, along the lines of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué signed by the United States and China, could be developed to outline the parameters for US– Iranian engagement, establish the overarching objectives for dialogue, and reassure relevant domestic political constituencies on both sides.4

There is every possibility that in time, Iran will return to the democratic course from which the United States so violently forced it in 1953. If Americans allow events there to proceed at their own pace, they will finally see the result for which they hope. It is also the result most Iranians want: an Iran that respects the will of its people and helps to stabilize a dangerously unstable region. By lending their support and power to the European negotiating effort, Americans might reach a “grand bargain” with Iran that would address not only the nuclear issue but also concerns about human rights, terrorism, and Middle East security. Without active American participation, these negotiations are unlikely to achieve anything important.

On June 17, Iranians will elect a new president. Various politicians and factions are maneuvering for position in advance of the election. Since the reactionary Council of Guardians will use its power to veto candidates, there will be few if any who will arouse enthusiasm among voters. In fact, the election is likely to deepen the regime’s crisis of legitimacy. This crisis may continue for years, but that does not mean it cannot be resolved.

The thirteenth-century poet Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the most brilliant figures in the rich history of Persian literature, had boundless confidence in people’s capacity for change. In one of his poems, he wrote:

It’s good to leave each day behind,
Like flowing water, free of sadness.
Yesterday is gone and its tale told.
Today new seeds are growing.

Zealots who hold power in Washington and Tehran are not known for their interest in poetry, but they might ponder that verse. For the United States to continue treating Iran as a pariah will produce no positive result. Seeking to destabilize it will intensify its leaders’ sense of isolation. Attacking it will turn its remarkably pro-American population into America-haters once again. Military interven-tion could set off a wave of patriotic indignation that will solidify the mullahs’ regime rather than weaken it, and would probably set the cause of democracy back a generation. “Regime change” would probably not even turn Iran off its nuclear course, since most Iranians of all persuasions agree that their country has at least as much right to nuclear power as Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. Treating Iran as a member of the world community with its own set of reasonable hopes and fears, however, might lead it toward responsibility, peace with its neighbors, and perhaps even democracy.

Such an outcome would hardly be a foregone conclusion. Issues that divide the two countries are serious, and ideologues on both sides have invested great amounts of psychic and political energy in the idea of continuing confrontation between Washington and Tehran. But, as de Bellaigue has written, there is no more promising option than serious dialogue.

It is in the urgent interest of the United States to turn Iran away from a course that will endanger many nations, including Iran itself. To do so, it must recognize that Iran has genuine concerns of its own, and address them. This could remove other obstacles that have prevented Iran from joining the world community. If the US acts wisely, it might even turn Iran into the kind of partner it so desperately needs in the Middle East.

—February 23, 2005

  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.

  4. 4

    See the report, “Iran: Time for a New Approach” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2004), pp. 2 and 5.

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