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An American in Iran

Imam Khomeini International in Tehran looks much like any big new airport, except that its long corridors bear posters declaring this the Year of National Unity and Islamic Solidarity, rather than ads for lipstick and perfume. Still, it does not take long for an American passport-holder to meet with deeper differences.

The immigration officers are polite, a little embarrassed, even, as they recall that you will have to be fingerprinted. An exchange of shrugs quickly establishes a degree of complicity. We will all, a few tired US passengers and bored Iranian officials, have to act out a tiresome ritual dictated by diplomatic tit-for-tat. But Americans are pretty rare here. A dozen flights arrive and depart before the correct forms can be found, along with a stapler to attach them together, a pen to fill them in, the key to a room where there might be an ink pad, and so on. When the sticky job is done, an officer helpfully flourishes a Kleenex to wipe away the deep purple stains.

Outside, a first flush of daylight silhouettes distant mountains. We follow signs for Tehran rather than Qom and faraway Isfahan, and merge into the six-lane Persian Gulf Expressway. The taxi driver pops in a cassette. His favorite, he says, humming along. Dire Straits is the band, and as their emphatic, twangy chords bring back memories of other wide-open highways, it dawns that this song, “Sultans of Swing,” dates to 1978, when the Islamic Revolution was nearing its climax. Past a toll station and off to the east, via an exit ramp, rise four soaring floodlit spires. Minarets! This is the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, under whose rule pop music was banned.

That weekend I cross Tehran again to visit the tomb, thinking to see it on a traffic-free day, because the rest of the week, traffic is hellish in this hyper-urban mass of perhaps sixteen million people. But on the day I make my attempt the government has decided to celebrate the martyrdom of sixty soldiers from the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq war whose bodies have recently been recovered. (This is a macabre benefit of America’s invasion of neighboring Iraq: gangs around Basra, where there was bitter fighting back then, have built a lucrative trade supplying supposed remains of Iranian soldiers.) The downtown ceremony, attended by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself and busloads of black-shirted Basijis, or paramilitary volunteers, creates a massive traffic jam.

At last we reach Khomeini’s shrine. Its reinforced concrete dome and minarets stand beyond a big parking lot at the edge of the vast Beshesht-e-Zahra cemetery, where some 300,000 martyrs from what is officially titled the Iraq-Instigated War lie. A giant billboard at the cemetery’s entrance shows the beatific face of a bearded young hero, haloed by purple tulips, with touches of blood on his forehead and sleeping-prince lips.

But the mood here is more festive than somber, with families spreading picnics on the lawns, and clusters of friends chatting as they pass through the gender-separate entrances to Khomeini’s tomb. Nearly two decades after the revolutionary leader’s death, the shrine is unfinished, and appears likely to remain so. Construction fencing walls off most of the complex, allowing access only to a single large, neon-lit chamber, where girders support a hangar-like roof. An aluminum grille surrounds the imam’s resting place. The floor within is littered with small-denomination bills; these are traditional pledges, I am told, for the fulfillment of personal vows. It does not look like the money, destined for charity, is collected very often. And it is hard not to speculate that perhaps the incompleteness of what was clearly intended as a great monument to the revolution is deliberate. This relaxed crowd would look awfully thin, spread throughout the many acres the complex was originally supposed to cover.

There is not much to see, really, but as I turn to leave, a young man approaches with a smile, and introduces himself as an engineer working for a European company in Iran. The only reason he is here, the engineer quickly explains, is to please his mother-in-law, who is visiting from the provinces. He himself was born in the year of the revolution, and his father died in the war with Iraq. But he finds all this “martyrdom stuff” overdone. He reckons that the current government won’t last long, because people like him who cynically disdained to vote in 2005 will be sure to do so next time around, in parliamentary elections next March, and presidential ones in 2009; at least, so long as George W. Bush does not attack Iran and provoke a backlash. President Ahmadinejad’s comments about the Holocaust and Israel were “stupid,” says the engineer. He has no doubt that the country will change, no matter how hard such usulgaran, or fundamentalists, try to stop it. But it will do so gradually and peacefully: “We’ve tried revolution, and nobody wants that again.”

Over and again, traveling this Mexico-sized and intensely proud country, one is impressed by a similar weariness with politics, mixed with resentment at state efforts to stir the embers of revolutionary fervor. The eye-rolling is not caused by some overpowering attraction to Western culture. Iranians cherish being different. They clearly prefer their own food and music and poetry, not to mention religion. Nor is the sullen mood necessarily due to anger at repression of women, or dissidents, or minorities. While it is true that the regime’s habit of banning books and throwing activists in jail has grown sharply nastier under Ahmadinejad, still, the level of fear remains far lower than in the 1980s. Apart from the tiresome dress code and some lingering discriminatory laws, women in Iran are freer than in neighboring countries. Headscarved women work, drive, jog in public parks, and run for public office. Minorities are mostly better off, too, enjoying freedom of worship, language rights, and quotas in parliament. (With the notable exception of the Bahais, a modern branch of Shiism regarded by mainstream mullahs as heretical.) Unlike their restive brothers across the border in Turkey, Iranian Kurds have rarely felt much need to revolt. Political dissent of other kinds still risks punishment but is less dangerous here than in, say, Saudi Arabia or Syria. At least Iranians can vote, and know that their vote makes a difference.

The weariness cannot be ascribed solely to a shaky economy either. It is true that prices, and especially rents, are rising painfully fast for people on fixed incomes. Corruption is rife, the gap between rich and poor is as great as under the Shah, and businessmen complain bitterly of the incompetence and erratic policies of the Ahmadinejad administration. But living standards and public services have steadily, if slowly, improved in recent years. The effects of sanctions are not widely felt, so far. Life is hard for many, but appears decent by regional standards.

Yet there does appear to be one factor that unifies a very large portion of the Iranian public in a sort of generalized melancholy. This is the desire to escape from a mental ghetto in which they are encouraged to see enemies everywhere, to sustain evidently hypocritical notions of purity, and to put up with the finger-wagging of preachers and police and chador-encased proctors. It is a repressed demand not so much for political change as for personal freedom.

Still, Ahmadinejad continues to enrapture a core constituency, consisting of such people as the youthful enforcers who prowl parks hunting insufficiently bashful lovers; provincial mothers-in-law who like his folksy ways; turbaned clerics who dream of a society as flawlessly geometric as the interlaced patterns on a mosque wall; and apparatchiks of the Islamic Revolution who share the President’s loathing for cosmopolitans and their decadent arts. Stripped of its theological flourishes, Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric boils down to fairly standard tropes, such as bashing the urban elite—“those whiners sitting in luxury apartments in North Tehran”—praising honest peasants and workers, and promising to cut them a bigger slice. Familiar from other third-world populists, too, is his lashing out at foreign imperialists, whom he accuses of trying to keep countries like Iran weak and technically backward.

To a much greater degree than it has for fellow demagogues, such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the behavior of those foreign enemies has added to the power of such talk. Iranians have long endured rhetoric about the Great Satan, and heard small crowds of government-sponsored hotheads chanting “Death to America.” But aside from the bad things they learned in school about American support for the Shah, and for Saddam Hussein during the “Iraq-Imposed War,” what most Iranians had actually experienced of America, before its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, was the racy Persian pop videos beamed from expat satellite stations in Los Angeles. Iranians had heard bad things about Israel, too, but by most accounts tended to think of the little Jewish state as far away and somebody else’s problem.

America’s “global war on terror” brought the alarming stomp of infidel boots suddenly much nearer. American officials boasted that “real men go to Tehran,” while President Bush conjured an Axis of Evil, with Iran at its center, and rebuffed a 2003 Iranian initiative to open a strategic dialogue. US officials soon spoke openly of bombing the country, of funding covert efforts to overthrow its leaders, and of the need to corral the world into imposing sanctions. Suddenly, America seemed to be acting out its part as International Arrogance in a script written long ago by Khomeini. The menace of Israel loomed larger, too, after its warplanes leveled neighborhoods in the Lebanese heartland of Iran’s Shia coreligionists in the summer of 2006, and its leaders began debating a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

In Iran, even bitter critics of the government bristle at suggestions that a country with such huge hydrocarbon resources might not need atomic energy. Ordinary citizens parrot the official line that acquiring nuclear technology is a national right, that the program is legal under international law, and that it is entirely peaceful anyway. Even if Iran does make a bomb, many add, why shouldn’t it? Is Iran less stable, or more dangerous, than next-door Pakistan? Has it warred with its neighbors more than nuclear-armed Israel?

There is some truth to such arguments, but they also reflect the success of President Ahmadinejad in framing the nuclear issue within the narrative of an epic struggle to overcome wicked forces and regain Iran’s rightful stature among nations. There is, as a result, virtually no debate in Iran over the cost-effectiveness of the program, or the utility of developing an elaborate, industrial-scale capacity to enrich nuclear fuel, even though there are no operating nuclear plants capable of using it.

What is debated, heatedly, in the corridors of power, I was told, is how best to deal with international opposition to Iran’s nuclear project. Opinions divide fairly neatly between the country’s three main political camps. The reformists, who held sway during the 1997– 2005 tenure of President Mohammad Khatami, believe Iran has little to lose from bowing to the UN Security Council’s demand to suspend nuclear enrichment, at least temporarily. Conservative pragmatists, such as those grouped around another former president, Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, call for mixing toughness and flexibility, negotiating with other nations to secure Iran’s goals while minimizing potential damage from trade and other sanctions. Ahmadinejad’s usulgaran, for their part, appear to believe that Iran should brave out the storm without bending, raising the stakes to increase their leverage on other issues, such as pushing for an American withdrawal from Iraq. International pressure, as they see it, only helps mobilize domestic opinion behind the President. And besides, the hostile West would only greet any concession with demands for more.

The release in Washington in early December of a radically revised intelligence estimate regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions has upended this debate. Predictably, Ahmadinejad’s camp has declared a victory, asserting that America’s change of tune reflects a recognition that Iran is too strong to be pushed around. But the fact is that it was the revelation of an alleged decision, taken in 2003 under the previous, reformist Iranian administration, to scrap earlier plans for producing nuclear weapons that has brought Iran a reprieve from threats of American punishment. Moreover, assuming the accuracy of the new intelligence estimate, it would seem that by covering up the cessation of a weapons program, the Ahmadinejad administration led Iran into very dangerous waters. Leaving aside the possibility of a “preemptive” attack, international sanctions have already cost Iran dearly, scaring away badly needed foreign investment, and sharply raising transaction costs for Iranian businesses.

Of course, Iranian officials say that there never was any weapons program. But it is hard to square the shape of the wide-ranging nuclear project, given its emphasis on fuel enrichment, with any other purpose. Charging several of Iran’s former nuclear negotiators with espionage and treason, as President Ahmadinejad recently did, also suggests that there must have been some big secret to give away. There is also logic. If you look at Iran’s strategic position when it started the program during the 1980s, in the middle of the grisly war with Iraq when its soldiers were being gassed by Saddam Hussein, having an atom bomb certainly made as much sense as for America after Iwo Jima.

Whatever the case, the fact remains that the revised National Intelligence Estimate provides an excellent opportunity to turn a new page in Iranian-American relations. As Iran’s actions in support of the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan showed, and as its influence among Iraqi Shias suggests, there is much for both countries to gain from greater cooperation. A quarter-century of hostility between the US and Iran has produced nothing but trouble for both.

President Ahmadinejad appears to be aware of this. Describing the NIE as positive in recent comments, he added, “If they take one or two other steps forward, the situation [between Iran and America] would be significantly different.” In mid-December, Russia announced that it had made an initial shipment of nuclear fuel to a reactor in Iran that will be under IAEA observation, and this was subsequently approved by Bush. Sadly, it is not clear, so far, that the Bush administration is ready to pursue direct negotiations with Tehran. Speaking recently before a skeptical audience in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, warned that Iran remains a mortal threat. “Everywhere you turn,” he said, “it is the policy of Iran to foment instability and chaos, no matter the strategic value or cost in the blood of innocents.” There are plenty of reasons to dislike Iran’s regime, particularly under its current administration, but such inflammatory rhetoric seems more calculated to close a possible opening than to take advantage of it.

—December 20, 2007

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