Postcard from Tehran
Western journalists don't get too many opportunities to visit Iran these days. On my recent trip, I found economic discontent, growing political apathy, and plenty of Persian swagger.
TEHRAN—Memo to Secretary Clinton: Iran is neither a military dictatorship nor or a police state. Yet. There is no visible military presence at the international airport, where despite a European ban on flights to and from its capitals in mid-April when I arrived, jumbo jets discharged and loaded thousands of passengers a day arriving and leaving for points east and west. Tehran’s sleek and bustling Imam Khomeini international airport reminded one that an Icelandic volcano had temporarily managed to do to Europe what no American administration has succeeded in doing to Iran: isolating it — though not for lack of effort.
There is also no visible military presence in the sprawling city of some 12 million souls and at times it seems an equal number of cars — save for the occasional hapless-looking, newly shorn, and unarmed young army conscript in fatigues, begging a ride on the back of a motorcycle or in a shared taxi, a presence that has always been visible in any city in Iran, even in days of the monarchy. The mind-numbing traffic congestion, complete gridlock, on the newly transformed one-way Valiasr Avenue, the broad boulevard that runs from the south of the city all the way to the foothills in the north, the Sunset Boulevard of Tehran and the scene of many past marches and demonstrations in support of the Green Movement that sprang up after last year’s disputed election, is as it always was. Drivers — men, and often mal-veiled and heavily made-up women — listen to loud pop music of the sort frowned upon by religious authorities, just as they always did, ignoring traffic laws and even the entreaties of the occasional traffic cop. The restaurants and cafes are bustling; weekly, and sometimes nightly, salons at the homes and offices of the elite continue unabated in a city where public entertainment is limited, the conversations usually fearlessly political in nature. Taxi drivers, reliable barometers for the average Iranian as they include everyone from professional working class drivers to the highly educated unemployed, and moonlighting office workers, continue to offer wisdom on everything from the political situation to social ills and the state of the economy.
My driver at the airport, an eager man in his forties who jumped out of his car with a smile, rather than the more normal scowl, to stow my suitcase, was likely from the professional class of cabbies — for the airport trade is strictly controlled — and it didn’t take him long to explain his latest theory. "Business is bad, huh?" I first asked him, as he took off at an unsafe speed, barely missing a family struggling to load their private car with a mountain of luggage, presumably containing Western consumer goods from Dubai. "Yeah," he said, "there are no flights from Europe." I mentioned something about the travel ban potentially contributing to Iran’s economic stagnation. "I hear Europe could be cut off for days, even weeks!" he excitedly replied. "But you know, Allah always finds a way to punish the wicked, doesn’t He? England is the worst country in the world and what happens? Their airports are shut down by God."
I laughed. "England is evil," he continued. "What if their airports don’t reopen for a month, or forever! What if Allah decides the volcano will continue to erupt forever? England will finally go down the drain, and we’ll be standing!" My driver’s dislike of the U.K., and his suspicion that Britain is behind all of Iran’s (and the world’s) woes, is actually shared by many Iranians, even middle and upper-middle class Iranians, although perhaps not to his extent. But Britain, particularly since the Iranian presidential election of 2009 and in the age of a likeable Barack Obama, has to some degree replaced the U.S. as the Great Satan (it was always labeled the "Little Satan," along with Israel) for Iranian supporters of the Islamic system. As if reading my thoughts, though, the driver then said, "Of course, I’m not saying we don’t have problems here in Iran; not at all."
Indeed, all is not well in the Islamic Republic, not by long shot. Iran continues to suffer the same economic woes it has for some time, and there is a palpable, simmering discontent in the capital over the state of affairs. Inflation, unemployment, the lack of investment, anemic business opportunities, and looming sanctions all contribute to a malaise among the population that the government will have a difficult time curing.
I spent an evening with a friend, someone who spent 150 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison in 2009, charged with sedition. He was arrested in his apartment soon after the election and during the first series of protest marches and disturbances. Fingered as a neighborhood leader by a local shopkeeper, himself arrested and presumably bartering names for clemency, my friend, a music teacher and guitarist, spent much of his time in solitary confinement and was among the first group of four detainees whose court appearances were televised live in the summer. He was not physically abused and suffered no torture beyond that of incarceration in what is Iran’s Alcatraz, but was subjected to frequent, lengthy interrogations — sessions he actually began to look forward to as relief from the monotony of life in his cell.
The people, he told his interrogator, don’t care who is president; what they care about is how their government will solve their problems. How will their government deal with the fact that 17-year-old girls are willing to sell their bodies to put food on the table for their families, or even just to buy a $30 handbag? He would tell the interrogator, a man from the intelligence division of the Revolutionary Guards — anonymous and unwilling to let prisoners see his face — that the people were fed up and thought they had voted for change, but were not agitating for revolt. He still believes, though, that if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government is able to make significant progress in relieving economic pressures, and to some extent social pressures, it will not be an unpopular one. My friend, an artist who was never politically active, surprisingly doesn’t hold a grudge against either the system or his jailers; he also told me the warden of his unit, section 2A, less infamous than section 209 but for prisoners of the Guards, phoned him after he was released (and charges against him dropped) and said he hoped he did not take his arrest and detention "personally." Surprisingly, he doesn’t. Both for the jailers and the jailed, the politics inside Evin evidently mirror the streets of Tehran and other cities.
Iranians, both the 4000 or so arrested since last June, according to some estimates, and everyone else, recognize that the government has been spectacularly successful in curbing overt political unrest, but some say it is too early to tell if Iran’s Green Wave of 2009 was more akin to the Prague uprising or the Paris riots of 1968. Either way, Iran is changed — there is no question that civil rights have become an issue that the government and the opposition will do battle over for some time — but not necessarily in ways the Obama administration would like.
Iran is not in a revolutionary, not even pre-revolutionary state and the emperor is, unlike the shah of old (whose nakedness was revealed for all when he proclaimed in November 1978, on live national television, that he had "heard the people’s revolution,"), still very much clothed. "We can only pray for the health and life of the rahbar," I heard many times in Tehran; people from all walks of life (including staunch reformists) agreeing that without the supreme leader firmly in control, the stability of the country was seriously at risk, or that a small and extremist group of politicians might accomplish what Clinton warned of, a military dictatorship, back in February. A working-class acquaintance from South Tehran, one who told me last spring that Ahmadinejad would win the election even though he has boycotted every election in the Islamic Republic, was particularly dismissive of any talk of revolution or toppling the government. "Those on the other side of the water," he said, referring to Iranians in the United States, "exhort us to spill onto the streets and confront the system. For what? They want me to revolt on behalf of those who drive $300,000 Benzes on the streets of Tehran? Never."
The nuclear issue looms large here in Tehran — there has never been as much talk and even anxiety over the possibility of a military assault on Iran, not even during George W. Bush’s days — but the issue seems to have become a distraction that impedes progress on all fronts, and not the weak point for the regime. My airport cab driver reminded me, as we were going around a traffic circle at an early-morning breakneck pace that he would be unable to repeat later in the day, that despite the ills of society and the political differences in Iran he recognized weren’t disappearing as fast as the anti-government street demonstrations, Iranians had one thing in common. "We Iranians have namoos," he said, "and if anyone even thinks of ravishing her, our gheirat will take over. Iran is our namoos." Namoos is a man’s wife, his woman; her chastity his responsibility to protect, and gheirat is pride and dignity — concepts both Persian and Islamic and one reason women, "sisters" in the Islamic Republic, wear the hijab and many did even under the secular shah. What the driver meant was that if Iran were attacked, Iranians, and he presumably thought me as well, would defend her with their lives.
Tehran’s nuclear summit in mid-April, dubbed "Nuclear Energy for All; Nuclear Weapons for None" and timed to contrast with Obama’s own summit in Washington (to which Iran was not invited), was, despite a paucity of media coverage in the West, successful in laying out Iran’s stated nuclear agenda — non-proliferation as well as complete disarmament — for a domestic audience and sympathetic listeners in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the developing world. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s opening address to the conference, read by his top foreign-policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, in which he emphatically proclaimed weapons of mass destruction haram, strictly forbidden in Islam, went a long way in convincing at least the pious that Iran is not developing nuclear arms (although it begged the question of whether nuclear and Muslim Pakistan, present at the conference, is a sinner state, a question the Japanese representative put to Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency and a moderator at one panel I observed).
But Iranians seem to also know that no summit, fatwa, or public proclamation by their officials will convince the United States that Iran is not hell-bent on building a nuclear bomb and then either deploying it against Israel, handing it over to terrorists, or using it to threaten the world at large (none of those scenarios appearing to be particularly plausible to the average citizen or even to citizens of the region). There are no scientific polls that can accurately gauge public support for Iran’s nuclear posture, but here in the capital it is hard to find an Iranian who doesn’t agree with at least the concept that Iran deserves to enjoy the same rights as other states when it comes to nuclear energy, even as many may find Ahmadinejad’s diplomatic tactics distasteful. In that sense, the military parade in Tehran on the second day of the nuclear summit and the Revolutionary Guards’ maneuvers in the Persian Gulf a week later were simply expressions of the national gheirat, particularly in light of escalating threats emanating from Washington and Tel Aviv.
Two days before the start of the Tehran nuclear summit, former President Mohammad Khatami, the founder of the reform movement and a leader of today’s reformists, Green and otherwise, was barred from leaving the country to attend yet another nuclear conference in Hiroshima, Japan, where he was due to speak out, like his one-time colleagues in Tehran, against the evil of nuclear weapons (but not of the Ahmadinejad government, for the opposition leaders’ nuclear policy is entirely in sync with the supreme leader). Although there was much chatter in Iran about the unprecedented act of denying a former president the right to free movement, guaranteed every free citizen under the constitution, genuine outrage was muted and the government subsequently denied that Khatami had been forbidden from traveling abroad.
Why? Perhaps it’s because the population is weary of opposing a state apparatus that has shown itself capable of suppressing any outright dissent (or sedition, as it claims), or because the population is turning apathetic toward opposition leaders who seems to have been rendered impotent at a time when there are other pressing domestic issues, or perhaps because the state can act to hinder the opposition with relative impunity whenever the nuclear crisis threatens to boil over. Perhaps, despite the unrest of the past year, it’s because the polarized society that Iran has become has not yet come together to decide exactly what it is that it wants, nor even exactly what it is that it doesn’t. Talk to 20 people in Tehran on any given day and one might hear 20 different ideas of what, exactly, Iran is and what it should be. The ranks of the apathetic have grown since protests have died down. "These people [the ayatollahs] can give lessons to the Devil himself," one low-income person told me. "They will be in power another 50 years, at least. And if they can guarantee me one million toman [$1,000] a month, I’ll support them 100 percent."
Khatami himself was unperturbed by the dishonor of being mamnoon-e khorooj, forbidden from travel, struggling as he is to continue his work while fending off accusations that he is subverting national security or is opposing not just the lack of civil liberties (and a free vote) but the very foundations of the state. He told me, though, that he didn’t expect to be banned from travel in the future, or to be restricted from activities beyond what he is now, and he’s probably right. Khatami is still enormously popular and despite the current period of relative quiet, his messages do not go unnoticed, either by the government or by the population at large.
In a car with a friend driving in the mountains north of Tehran one day, we stopped to give a ride to three hitchhikers — young women who, unlike upper-class North Tehran youth, were properly and fully enveloped in black hijab and said they were on their way to pray at a Imamzadeh, the tomb of a relative of one of Shiite Islam’s 12 saints. They were eager to engage in conversation, one of them asking what we thought of Ahmadinejad. "He’s not good, is he?" she said, to my surprise. "I mean, things were better under the shah." I replied that she couldn’t be old enough to remember the days of the shah, over 30 years ago. "Well, we’ve heard," she said with a shrug. "What about the days of Khatami?" I asked. She and her friends all smiled. "Khatami gol bood!’ they said in unison. "Khatami was a flower!" It is one of the paradoxes of Iran that many of its youth, however religious, romanticize an era they know nothing of while still idolizing a cleric that helped usher in a radically different one.
April, normally a month when the weather turns hot, was not just mild but rainy, making Tehran almost free from its usual choking pollution. The almost unprecedented weather in the arid foothills of the Alborz mountain range to the north of the city wasn’t attributed to global warming, as it undoubtedly would be in the West, but to forces unknown. Perhaps for that reason, devastating earthquakes, another force of nature often visited on Iranians, were also the talk of the town during my stay. President Ahmadinejad had declared just before my arrival that he had had a premonition of a large earthquake striking Tehran in the near future, and floated the idea that five million residents might consider leaving the city permanently to avoid the kind of calamity that would ensue. Hojjatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, the hard-line interim Friday Prayer Leader of Tehran, subsequently said in a sermon that the earthquakes were the inevitable result of the sin, vice, and corruption prevalent in Iran, particularly the vice of loose women dressed inappropriately, and steps should be taken to correct the problem.
Iranians by and large mocked the idea, and even cab drivers were aware of the "boobquake" campaign on Facebook, but not a few Iranians told me the earthquake fears were suddenly real among government officials because a large earthquake in Tehran, which might do to the city what Haiti’s did to Port-au-Prince, would almost certainly bring down Ahmadinejad’s government, if not the entire regime. Tehran, sitting on major fault lines, is remarkably unprepared for a quake larger than say, seven points in magnitude. That the hope of some Iranians — even some who’ve participated in marches and demonstrations against the government — for real change rests with an act of God or nature might be disturbing to those promoting regime-change from abroad, but it also speaks to the hopeful attitude some have that a government they view as incompetent might be readily discredited, and lose all the support it has among the religious and the working classes, by a mere spark, or a rumble.
From Tehran, despite the ambiguity of what the future holds, of what the Green Movement might be or become, or how the government will deal with the fundamental problems it faces, it is evident that neither debilitating sanctions nor military action (nor continued threats) will accomplish the Obama administration’s stated and unstated Iran policy goals — to induce Iran to alter its nuclear course, or to lend support to an opposition that even if successful in bringing about change in the leadership, might not do so.
Most Iranians believe their country is powerful, and unlikely to bend to any Western threats. "The rahbar basically told Obama to go fuck himself, didn’t he?" said my South Tehran friend, a little admiringly. "And what happened? Nothing. No one can touch these guys." Iran’s nuclear program is entrenched as important, legal, and valid in the minds of most Iranians, and many of them with whom I’ve spoken find it hard to believe that there is no solution to the crisis short of armed conflict, fewer still believing that the U.S. military would even win a war.
Many Iranians can forgive Obama for his hesitancy to enter into serious negotiations with Iran in the aftermath of the elections of 2009, but given what they know now — that barring a major natural calamity the government is here to stay — it seems the U.S. president’s only real option is to negotiate with Iran in good faith and reach an agreement that satisfies Western concerns about its nuclear program while also satisfying Iran that its rights as a sovereign nation have not been eroded. Perhaps only then might Iranians turn to seriously addressing domestic concerns; economic concerns about the gaping inequalities between the privileged and working classes, as well as political concerns about civil rights and the nature of the regime, which Iranians are perfectly capable of doing without outside interference. And only then will we be able to better judge whether Iran is turning into a reflexively anti-American military dictatorship, or is on the path to fulfilling the needs and wants, economic and otherwise, of its people.
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