Soldiers of the Hidden Imam

Carved high in the towering rock of Naqsh-e Rostam, gazing out across the desert, are the tombs of the great Persian emperors from two and a half millennia ago: Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes. Lower down the cliff face of this imperial Mount Rushmore you see a dramatic stone relief, shimmering in the heat. It shows a later Shah of all the Shahs, Shapur I, accepting the surrender of the Roman emperor Valerian, in the year 260 AD according to the Christian calendar. The conqueror, on horseback and gloriously accoutred, towers over the unmounted, swordless, vanquished Caesar.

What happened to Valerian?” I asked my Iranian companion.

Oh, he was killed, of course.”


Early this autumn, as today’s Iranian rulers defied the new Rome by pressing ahead with their nuclear program, I traveled for two weeks through what is now the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the year of their Lord 1384, I talked to mullahs armed with laptops, regime supporters in the religious hotbed of Qom, and Islamic philosophers highly critical of the regime. I met intellectuals of all stripes, artists, farmers, politicians, and businesspeople. Most memorably, I had long, intense conversations with some of the young Iranians who make up the majority of the country’s population. I see their earnest faces before me as I write, especially those of the women, framed in the compulsory Islamic head scarf, the hijab, which they somehow manage to convert into an accessory of grace and quiet allure.

At a rooftop restaurant in the wondrous city of Esfahan, I witnessed the continuity of Persian culture, with a singer chanting verses from the fourteenth-century poet Hafez while local diners peered up at the blue, cream, and turquoise dome of the Sheikh Lotfallah mosque, illuminated against the night sky. (You do not often hear verses from Chaucer being sung in an English pub.) More typically, I was plunging through the heat, dust, eye-stinging pollution, and kamikaze traffic of Tehran, that anarchic city of 12 million people, whose drivers treat every traffic circle as an invitation to play the American game of chicken, only swerving to avoid one another’s fenders with millimeters to spare. Or sometimes not swerving.

I also got a taste of life behind the high garden walls of the houses of the middle and upper class, where the hijab immediately comes off and opinions are scathingly contemptuous of the aging revolutionary Islamic zeal of the country’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Within minutes of my arrival at one such house, bikini-clad women were teasingly inviting me to come naked into the swimming pool, while the men offered me a drink from a bottle marked “Ethanol 98% proof.”

These encounters illustrated a trait, apparently of long pedigree, to which my Iranian interlocutors constantly drew my attention: the contrast between what Iranians say outside and what they say inside those high walls. Double-talk as a way of life. I have never been in a country where so many people told me I should not believe what people said. (Taken strictly, a self-defeating proposition.) Again and again they pointed to the Shiite custom of taghiye, by which believers are entitled to lie in defense of their faith. Today’s nonbelievers have their own taghiye.

Iranians also warned me that theirs is a country rich in superstition—sometimes conveyed by very modern means. In the middle of a Tehran traffic jam, my driver received a text message on his cell phone. It asked him urgently to pray for the return of the hidden imam, the Shiites’ twelfth imam or mahdi, who supposedly went into hiding some 1127 years ago. A secular intellectual wondered aloud whether a society so rife with mendacity and superstition is at all susceptible to understanding through reason.

Amid this wild medley of ancient and modern, I sought answers to one crucial question: How might Iran’s post-revolutionary Islamic regime be transformed, whether gradually or suddenly, by social and political forces inside that country? And I added a second: How might the policies of Europe and the United States, which fortunately do not at the moment include an Iraq-style attempt to impose “regime change” by military occupation, affect those domestic forces?


The political system of the Islamic Republic of Iran is at once fiendishly complex and extremely simple. Most of the Iranians I met preferred to stress the complexity. The country has at least two governments at any one time: a semi-democratic formal state structure, now headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a religious-ideological command structure headed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There are numerous shifting formal and informal power centers, including political parties in parliament, ministries, rich religious foundations, the Revolutionary Guards, and the multimillion-man Basij militia, whose mobilization helped Ahmadinejad to get elected. There are also backroom ethnic or regional mafias, and numerous competing intelligence, security, and police agencies—eighteen of them according to one recent count. No wonder Iranian political scientists reach for terms like “polyarchy,” “elective oligarchy,” “semi-democracy,” or “neopatrimonialism.”

Yet the longer I was there, the more strongly I felt that the essence of this regime remains quite simple. At its core, the Islamic Republic is still an ideological dictatorship. Its central organizing principle can be summarized in four sentences: (1) There is only one God and Muhammad is his Prophet. (2) God knows best what is good for men and women. (3) The Islamic clergy, and especially the most learned among them, the jurists qualified to interpret Islamic law, know best what God wants. (4) In case of dispute among learned jurists, the Supreme Leader decides.

This is the system which its inventor, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, justified by radically reinterpreting the Islamic concept of velayat-e faqih, usually translated as the Guardianship of the Jurist. This system is not Islam; it is Khomeinism. It would not exist without that one old man, whose grim portrait still stares out at you everywhere in Iran, though now usually flanked by the bespectacled figure of his successor and epigone, the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. If you ever doubted the importance of the individual in history, consider the story of Khomeini.

I visited his childhood home in the provincial market town of Khomein—ayatollahs generally take an honorific name from their home town, so Khomeini means “of Khomein.” It’s a substantial, rather handsome, yellow-brick house, with the traditional outer and inner courtyards, and an inscription celebrating the “birthplace of the Sun of Khomein.” His father was murdered when he was four months old, his mother died when he was fifteen, and he was given over to the theological schools that trained him to be a cleric. If even one of his parents had lived, might this have been a different story? Outside, a billboard describes him, justly enough, as “the revivor of religious government in [the] contemporary world.”

Khomeini was both the Lenin and the Stalin of Iran’s Islamic revolution. The system he created has some similarities with a communist party-state. In Khomeinism, the Guardianship of the Jurist is an all-embracing political principle that is the functional equivalent of communism’s Leading Role of the Party. Here, too, you have parallel hierarchies of ideological and state power, with the former always ultimately trumping the latter. The Islamic Republic’s ideological half is almost entirely undemocratic: the Supreme Leader is assisted by a Guardian Council, an Islamic judiciary, and an Assembly of Experts. All of them are dominated by conservative clerics.The state institutions are more democratic, with a genuine if limited competition for power. However, the Guardian Council arbitrarily disqualifies thousands of would-be candidates for parliament, the regime controls the all-important state television channels, and security forces like the Basij militia can both mobilize and intimidate voters, so one cannot seriously talk of free and fair elections.

As in communist party-states, there is intense factional struggle, which Western observers sometimes mistake for pluralism. Unlike in communist party-states, factions actually appeal to voters to strengthen their position. Thus Ahmadinejad successfully presented himself to voters as a kind of plain man’s puritan outsider to the system, yet he is now wholly of it, working closely with Khamenei and the Guardian Council. His rival in the second-round presidential runoff, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, was discredited as being too much part of the resented group of mullahs in control: “A stick would have won against Rafsanjani,” an Iranian politician told me. Rafsanjani now tactically criticizes Ahmedinejad’s Islamic revolutionary– style speech to the United Nations as being undiplomatic. Yet he himself remains head of the powerful Expediency Council, which mediates between the undemocratic ideological hierarchy and the semi-democratic parliament. It was Rafsanjani who this summer declared that “the system [nazam] has decided” on the resumption of uranium reprocessing. When leaders use that specific term nazam, “the system,” everyone knows they mean the ideological command hierarchy right up to the Supreme Leader—God’s representative on earth.

In a communist party-state, the party line was to be found in the pages of Pravda or Neues Deutschland. In the Islamic mullah-state, the “imam line” is handed down through Friday prayers, two sessions of which I attended, first at the gorgeous Pattern-of-the-World mosque in Esfahan and, the next week, in a closely policed compound at Tehran University. In both places a high-ranking Islamic clergyman—the chair of the Guardian Council, at my Tehran session—delivered a fulminating political homily, denouncing in particular America and Britain. The political message was sandwiched between conventional Muslim prayers, like a kebab wrapped in nan bread. In Tehran, the final prayers ended with an orchestrated crowd chant: “Down with America! Down with Israel! Down with the enemies of the Guardianship of the Jurist!”


How can such a regime be transformed, or, as many still prefer to say, reformed? I heard the word “reform” innumerable times as I traveled around Iran. I soon realized that it meant several different things. First, there’s an ideological debate among Islamic intellectuals, turning on what in the communist world used to be called “revisionism”—that is, attempts to revise the ideology on which the state is built. As the views of revisionists in, say, 1950s Poland were also part of a wider debate about international communism, so the views of these Iranian revisionists have significant implications for international Islam.

I was impressed by the liveliness of this debate. While many Iranians are clearly fed up with Islam being stuffed down their throats as a state religion, I found no sense that Islamic ideology is a dead issue, as, for example, communist ideology had become a dead issue in Central Europe by the 1980s. Far from it. In Khomeini’s theological capital of Qom, now home to some two hundred Islamic think tanks and institutions of higher education, I met with a research group on Islamic political philosophy. Why should Islam not be compatible with a secular, liberal democratic state, I asked, as is increasingly the case in Turkey? “Turkey is not Qom,” said Mohsen Rezvani, a young philosopher wearing the robes and turban of a mullah, to laughter around the table. Islam, Rezvani said, is “anthropologically, theologically, and epistemologically” incompatible with liberal democracy. Anthropologically, because liberal democracy is based on liberal individualism; theologically, because it excludes God from the public sphere; and epistemologically, because it is based on reason not faith. Then they handed me an issue of the Political Science Quarterly—not the American journal but their own Qom-made version. Here I read an English-language abstract of an admiring article by Rezvani about Leo Strauss.

So you’re a neoconservative!” I teased him.

Oh no, he replied, the American neoconservatives don’t properly understand Leo Strauss.

I could see at once, even before I had the full article translated for me, what a conservative Iranian mullah would find to admire in Strauss: the insistence that there is a single truth in a classic text, and that the intentions of the author (e.g., God, in the case of the Koran) are best interpreted by a neo-Platonic intellectual vanguard (for the Koran, the Islamic jurists whose ranks Rezvani aspires to join). Yet this Wolfowitz of Qom was immediately contradicted by others at the table, citing Islamic modernists such as Abdolkarim Soroush who maintain that Islam is compatible with a secular state.

Back in Tehran, I met a most impressive Islamic revisionist, Professor Mohsen Kadivar, a smiling, learned, and courageous mullah. One reason the Iranian Islamic debate is so lively is that the Shiite tradition not only permits but encourages spirited disagreement between the followers of rival grand ayatollahs of the highest category, those who have earned the title marja-i taqlid, or “source of imitation.” Professor Kadivar is a disciple of the Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who was to have been Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader until the father of the revolution disinherited him and put him under house arrest in Qom.

A few years ago, Kadivar took the bold step of arguing that the Guardianship of the Jurist has no sound basis in the Koran or mainstream Islamic thought, and is incompatible with the essence of a true republic. He also questioned the Islamic rectitude of condemning people (e.g., Salman Rushdie) to death in their absence, and suggested in a newspaper interview that today’s Iran reproduces characteristics of the Shah’s monarchic rule: “People made the revolution so that they could make decisions, not so that decisions would be made for them.” He paid for his intellectual honesty with eighteen months in prison.

So that’s what the regime’s cheerleaders mean when they chant at Friday prayers, “Down with the enemies of the Guardianship of the Jurist!” Direct criticism of the Guardianship of the Jurist, and of the “sultanic” rule of the Supreme Leader, is also the unforgivable offense of the country’s most prominent political prisoner, the journalist Akbar Ganji—once, like Kadivar, an enthusiastic supporter of the Islamic revolution.*

I quoted to Kadivar the observation of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kol/akowski, himself a former communist revisionist, that the idea of democratic communism is like fried snowballs. “Exactly!” cried Kadivar. Democratic Khomeinism is like fried snowballs.

That is emphatically denied by another group, also known as “Islamic reformists,” who used to be Kadivar’s comrades in the revolution. What we might call “in-system” reformers have been in government for the last eight years, under the state president Mohammad Khatami. Their hope was precisely that they could reform and partially democratize the Islamic Republic, while leaving unchallenged the central pillars of Khomeinism. They failed. Many people who supported President Khatami and his fellow reformists in the late 1990s told me they are bitterly disappointed.

I talked to one of the in-system reformers’ most influential strategists, Saeed Hajjarian, a former head of counterintelligence who in 2000 was shot through the neck, probably by an assassin from a competing secret service connected to the Revolutionary Guards. We met in his spartan, neon-lit office-cum-sickroom in a dreary, stale-smelling, unmarked building, which turned out to belong to the intelligence service of the state presidency. On his bare office wall was an image of Ayatollah Khomeini—Imam Khomeini, as he is officially called in the Islamic Republic—hovering miraculously above his own tomb. On the desk below was a large pile of photocopied articles from Western academic journals, analyzing transitions to democracy.

Perhaps only in Iran could you sit inside a secret service building with a mystical image of the Ayatollah Khomeini gazing down on a pile of Western articles about transitions to democracy. But how on earth would these elements combine? As a result of the assassination attempt, Hajjarian, a frail, yellow-faced figure in a fawn-colored tracksuit, can barely move his body and his speech is slurred. Yet his pithy answers conveyed a sharp political intelligence. He spoke, until he grew tired, of how the reformists could recover, rebuilding popular support through more professional organization and better use of the press and television. They should, he suggested, raise more funds from business and appeal to ordinary people’s everyday material concerns, as Ahmadinejad successfully had in his campaign. But I came away from this encounter feeling that the prospects of a full recovery for the in-system Islamic reformists are little better than Hajjarian’s own.


That skepticism is shared by the outspoken journalist Emadeddin Baghi, a former Islamic reformist who was jailed for more than two years because of his critical writing. Sitting in the neat, modern office of the nongovernmental organization that he has founded for the defense of prisoners’ rights, Baghi, a dark-bearded, courteous man in early middle age, told me that what is needed now is not reform from above, within the mullah-state—as Hajjarian still advocates—but organization from below, in civil society. I was reminded of Central European dissidents after the failure of the Prague Spring and Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face.” Like them, Baghi believes that the way forward is not ideological revisionism or in-system reform—former President Khatami’s failed Khomeinism with a human face—but people organizing themselves in society independently of the state.

Although I found his general argument convincing, it struck me that Baghi, who still has a one-year suspended prison sentence hanging over his head, was talking about very modest attempts at social organization. He said plainly that such efforts should be confined to what the mullah-state would not find politically threatening. He knows very well that even prominent activists like himself and, more recently, close colleagues of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi can be locked up at any moment. And he knows that critical journals and newspapers are often simply shut down, as his own newspaper was.

Almost everyone I have mentioned thus far—from top officials of the current regime like President Ahmadinejad, through critics such as Hajjarian, Kadivar, and Baghi, to political prisoners like Akbar Ganji—was once an active participant in the Islamic revolution. They are the children of the revolution. However, there are also many secular leftists and liberals who opposed the Shah but never participated in the Islamic revolution, and now work in NGOs, in publishing, in the universities, or in cultural life, including the country’s often electrifying moviemakers. One secular liberal especially well known in the West is Dr. Ramin Jahanbegloo, the author of a book of conversations with Isaiah Berlin, who has brought thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, and Antonio Negri to lecture to passionately interested audiences of up to two thousand people in Tehran.

Yet whether secular or Islamic, the room for maneuver of those working in what they like to call “civil society” is quite limited. All NGOs, for example, have to be officially registered, and their permits renewed each year. Galley proofs of books have to be submitted for censorship by the Ministry for Culture and Islamic Guidance, and the censored pages must then be typeset again so that readers cannot tell where something has been excised. Universities are tightly controlled. Theoretical discussion of the merits of democracy is possible; practical criticism of the Guardianship of the Jurist is definitely not.

The very fact that the system has several centers of power adds an extra element of uncertainty. For example, I talked to one dissident student who was released by the official state security service only to be rearrested a few months later by the Revolutionary Guards. No one knows exactly where the limits are. As a result, there is both a remarkable freedom of intellectual debate and a permanent undercurrent of fear.

For someone who has studied the ways post-totalitarian or authoritarian dictatorships, whether in Europe, Latin America, or South Africa, have gradually become less oppressive states, and eventually democracies, the main question about Iran is therefore this: What forces inside its society might help to increase peaceful social pressure for gradual regime change?

Industrial workers in Iran have so far shown no signs of organizing themselves, as Poland’s did in the Solidarity movement twenty-five years ago. Among farmers there is much rural unemployment and some discontent. In a sun-baked mountain village, I talked to shepherds who told me that half their fellow villagers were unemployed. Many came out to the fields at night to take drugs. Yet the main response to rural misery is to migrate to the towns. There they swell the numbers of the urban poor who, rather than contributing to a political opposition, are more likely to be recruited as thugs or mobilized in the streets by the regime’s Basij militia.

What of the rich, Westernized business leaders? The ones I talked to are witheringly critical of the regime in private, but dependent on it for their businesses. Some have formed commercial partnerships with leading mullahs. They would probably be willing to support an opposition movement at the moment of decisive change, like the oligarchs in Serbia and Ukraine, but not before. Anyway, they themselves point out that most of the Iranian economy is still in the hands of the traditional merchants of the country’s teeming bazaars, the bazaaris, who range from tiny stallholders to big-time export-import operators. In Iran, the bazaaris have traditionally been allies of the Islamic clergy, the ulama, and so far there are few signs of their changing sides.

Meanwhile, the regime has major assets for preserving its power. With oil at more than $60 a barrel as I write, its oil revenues have within six months covered the entire state budget for the current accounting year. The government can generously subsidize basic foodstuffs—bread, tea, sugar, rice—and keep the price of fuel extremely low for the country’s manic drivers. When I was there, gasoline cost an astonishing thirty-five cents a gallon. A quarter of the workforce are state employees, dependent on the authorities for their jobs. The numerous security services are well provided for. Less than thirty years after an initially peaceful revolution that turned violent and oppressive, most people old enough to remember have little appetite for another revolution. And if the United States and Britain, the Great Satan and Perfidious Albion, try to increase the pressure from outside, Iran can make life more difficult for the foreign occupiers in the Shiite parts of Iraq, where the influence of the Islamic Republic continues to grow.

What, then, has this regime to fear? Only one thing, I conclude, but that a very big one: its own young people, the grandchildren of the revolution.


Iran is a remarkably old country, with some 2,500 years of continuous history. It is also a remarkably young country. Two thirds of its 70 million people are under thirty years of age. This is at least partly the result of deliberate policy: in the 1980s, the first decade after the revolution, the mullahs encouraged a baby boom, denouncing the decadent Western practice of birth control and calling for mass procreation to replace the country’s million martyrs in the Iran–Iraq war. Patriotic couples who produced five or more infants were given a free building plot. The regime’s propaganda called these children “soldiers of the hidden imam.”

To turn these young people into good Islamic citizens, the mullahs opened a nationwide network of new universities, called the Islamic Free University, complementing the existing ones. According to the Iranian statistical yearbook for 1382 (i.e., 2003– 2004), there are some two million students currently enrolled in higher education across Iran, roughly half of them women. And one should add to the brew more millions of recent graduates.

So now you see them everywhere, these “soldiers of the hidden imam,” talking on their cell phones or flirting in the parks, the girls’ hijabs a diaphanous pink or green, pushed well back to reveal some alluring curls of hair, while their rolled-up jeans deliberately show bare ankles above smart, pointed leather shoes. In the cities, the supposedly figure-concealing long black jackets that were previously required have often been replaced by skimpy, figure-hugging white or pink versions. In a teahouse under the arches of a seventeenth-century brick bridge in Esfahan, I met a beautiful young woman, heavily made up and wearing perfume, who was flaunting a good four inches of bare calf above ankles decorated with costume pearl bracelets. Yes, she giggled, there’s a rumor that under the new government they’ll be introducing a fine of 25,000 tomans (about $27) for each centimeter of exposed flesh—but she didn’t care. Even in the provincial birthplace of the Sun of Khomein, young women were wearing Western-style jeans and shoes under their close-fitting jackets.

The clothes worn by men have a less familiar symbolic language. A law student came to see me dressed in a dark suit and tie. At first, I thought he must be a young fogey; but I could not have been more wrong. Because the regime’s regulation dress for men is strictly tie-less (as was President Ahmadinejad when he addressed the UN), to wear a suit and tie is a mark of brave nonconformity. Another student, who had been imprisoned several times for dissident activity, told me, “The tie is a sign of protest!”

Often, their protest takes unpolitical forms. Many want to emigrate and join the millions of Iranians already living abroad. I was repeatedly told of this generation’s hedonism; of wild parties behind the high walls of apartment buildings in prosperous north Tehran, with Western pop music, alcohol, drugs, and sexual play. One T-shirt I spotted in the Tehran bazaar said, “Wanted: Meaningless Overnight Relationship.” If they can afford it, they slip over to Dubai for a few days, where the young women can tear off the hijab and jive as they please.

Yet for long and memorable hours I met with many serious-minded, impressive young people, most of them well informed about their own country and keen to improve it. They can learn a lot from the local press, if they read carefully. They listen to Western radio stations (the BBC’s Persian service or the US-backed Radio Farda), and they watch satellite television, which, though officially prohibited, is accessible to an estimated one in four Iranians. They use the Internet very inventively. Some politically or morally suspect Web sites are blocked on Iranian servers—that of the dissenting Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri (, for example, or, rather curiously, that of the University of Virginia. (The experienced Iranian Web-surfer who alerted me to this suggests that the Islamic censors’ automatic search engines must have detected the word “virgin” in Virginia.) But they have ways of getting around the blocks.

Iran also has at least 50,000 bloggers. One student explained that since these blogs are often anonymous, people can speak their minds freely, in a way they generally don’t dare to even in circles of student friends, since among those friends might be a regime spy. Alluding to the regime’s own euphemistic description of its intelligence agents as “unknown soldiers of the hidden imam,” students call them, with heavy irony, “soldiers of the hidden imam.” Which is, of course, what they themselves were supposed to be.

The regime has spent twenty-five years trying to make these young Iranians deeply pro-Islamic, anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-Israeli. As a result, most of them are resentful of Islam (at least in its current, state-imposed form), rather pro-American, and have a friendly curiosity about Israel. One scholar, himself an Islamic reformist, suggested that Iran is now—under the hijab, so to speak—the most secular society in the Islamic world. Many also dream of life in America, sporting baseball caps that say, for example, “Harward [sic] Engineering School.” Quite a few young Iranians even welcomed the invasion of Iraq, hoping it would bring freedom and democracy closer to them. Seeing how the US invasion has benefited the Shiites in southern Iraq, they joke that President George W. Bush is “the thirteenth imam.”

These 45 million young people are the best hope there is of peaceful regime change in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their “soft power” could be more effective than forty-five divisions of the US Marines. One positive legacy of the eight years of Khatami’s reformist presidency is that this generation has grown up with less fear than its predecessors. The students at Tehran University launched a large-scale protest in summer 1999. They will never forgive Khatami for allowing it to be suppressed. Each year since, a small number of them have tried to mark the anniversary with demonstrations, which have been broken up by the police. Repression is fierce: as I write, a well-known student leader has just been condemned to six years in prison. Yet the impression I got from those I talked to is that they intend to struggle on, perhaps with subtler and more inventive forms of protest.

The potential of what I came to think of as Young Persia is huge. These young Iranians are educated, angry, disillusioned, impatient, and when they leave college most of them will not find jobs appropriate to their training. Given time and the right external circumstances, they could take the lead in exerting the kind of organized social pressure that would allow—and require—the advocates of reform, even of transformation, to gain the upper hand inside the dual state.

The United States would, however, be making a huge mistake if it concluded that these young Iranians are automatic allies of the West—and, so to speak, soldiers of the thirteenth imam. Their political attitudes toward the West are complex, often deeply confused, and volatile. Unlike in neighboring Turkey, even the most outspoken would-be democratizers don’t envisage their country becoming part of the West. They seek a specifically Iranian version of modern society. If they see their ancient civilization in a wider regional setting at all, they call it the Middle East or Asia. “We Oriental people,” one student activist prefaced his remarks. Moreover, they are as ill-informed about Western policies and realities as they are well-informed about Iran’s.

What of Iran’s nuclear program? That was not a pressing concern for the young people I met. None of them raised the issue in conversation with me. When I asked them about it, they fell into two groups. The first group felt that Iran, a proud but insecure nation flanked by neighbors already possessing nuclear weapons, has a right not just to civilian nuclear power but also to nuclear weapons. The second felt that a democratic Iran should undoubtedly have such a right, but they would rather this repressive regime did not obtain nuclear weapons. Yet both insisted with equal vehemence that an American or Israeli bombing of nuclear installations, let alone an Iraq-style invasion, would be a wholly unacceptable response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

I love George Bush,” said one thoughtful and well-educated young woman, as we sat in the Tehran Kentucky Chicken restaurant, “but I would hate him if he bombed my country.” She would oppose even a significant tightening of economic sanctions on those grounds. A perceptive local analyst reinforced the point. Who or what, he asked, could give this regime renewed popular support, especially among the young? “Only the United States!”

If, however, Europe and the United States can avoid that trap; if whatever we do to slow down the nuclearization of Iran does not end up merely slowing down the democratization of Iran; and if, at the same time, we can find policies that help the gradual social emancipation and eventual self-liberation of Young Persia, then the long-term prospects are good. The Islamic revolution, like the French and Russian revolutions before it, has been busy devouring its own children. One day, its grandchildren will devour the revolution.

—October 6, 2005

  1. *

    See his “Letter from Evin Prison,” published in The New York Review, September 22, 2005.