Iran’s Identity Crisis
Both Washington and Tehran have insisted the nuclear deal won’t affect Iran’s political direction or the broader rivalry for power in the Middle East. They’re both wrong: The struggle over Iran’s place in the world community has just begun.
On the flight from Istanbul to Imam Khomeini International Airport, I was struck by how few of the women were veiled. There were barely a handful of scarves amidst the stylish young women in tight jeans and high heels or sneakers and the older women wearing an array of everyday city clothes.
By the time the plane landed, all the women, myself included, had donned the veil and the manteau, the long-sleeved, knee-length jacket that has been part of the mandatory attire for women in Iran since the revolution. This may seem like a superficial observation based on a scan of people’s appearances, but it’s a reflection of the gulf between the image Iran projects abroad and its diverse identity, the gap between the lives Iranians must lead inside their country and the life many of them would like to have.
And it’s this tension that Iran will be navigating in the months and years to come after signing a nuclear deal with six world powers to curb its nuclear program in exchange for lifting crippling sanctions. For millions of Iranians, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reconnect with the world, and their eagerness to forge a different path forward may collide with the reluctance of their most conservative leaders.
Since the agreement was reached in July, both Tehran and Washington have been at pains to clamor that the document does nothing more than what it outlines. They’re both wrong, in the short term and long term, when it comes to the regional impact, the internal evolution of Iran, and the relationship between the two countries.
For now, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been incessantly repeating that Iran will continue to counter U.S. influence in the region at every turn. No surprise there. But more interestingly last week he tweeted that the “[enemy’s] infiltration today is a great threat to Iran. Economic, security infiltration is less vital than mental, cultural & political ones” and that “[enemies] promise that #Iran will be totally different in 10 years; we must not allow such evil prospects and thoughts [to take] shape in enemy’s mind.”
That’s the real concern: how to let the outside world in without undermining a system underpinned by the strictures of an Islamic theocracy.
In August, I traveled to Iran for the first time, on a weeklong assignment for the BBC, the longest the organization has been allowed to report from inside the country since 2009. Access to Iran for Western media is tightly controlled by the authorities, and visas are doled out carefully. There are only a couple of Western reporters based in Tehran full time; most media organizations rely on Iranians or dual Iranian citizens. One of them, the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, has spent the last 14 months in jail facing charges of spying.
I have spent most of my career reporting on the Arab world, and, of course, Iran’s influence in countries like Lebanon or Iraq is part of the beat. I know Iran’s politics and post-revolutionary Islamic culture through my encounters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, Iran’s first revolutionary export, which keeps a tight lid on the Shiite community and exercises outsize control over Lebanon’s fate.
And I know it through my Iranian friends in the United States and the U.K., through authors and journalists, doctors, poets, and patisserie chefs — exiles of the revolution who feel they still represent today’s Iran: secular, liberal, and modern. But after three decades of life in a theocracy, how much had Iranians living inside the country internalized its values? And between the chador-clad women in the southern suburbs of Beirut or the hyper-modern Iranians in exile, which were the most representative of what Iran stood for today?
Those two disparate worlds come together on the streets of Tehran, coexisting awkwardly, often clashing. One evening, I attended a pop concert by beloved Iranian singer Mehdi Ahmadvand. The crowd at the Milad Hall was mixed — young and old, men and women, but everyone went wild when the band, all male, showed up on stage, with the singer, Ahmadvand, wearing an all-red suit. Hanging on the wall was a picture of the Ayatollah Khamenei looking down on the crowd. There was no dancing.
When I traveled to Saudi Arabia in April, I was chased down the walkway of a shopping mall by the mutawe’en, the religious police, for not properly covering my hair. I had never encountered them on my half a dozen trips to the kingdom before, but since King Salman’s accession to power in January, he has encouraged their resurgence.
Eager not to attract undue attention on my first visit to Tehran, I was careful to follow the rules down to the last inch of clothing — sleeves to the wrist, dress down to the knees worn over trousers, tightly wrapped veil, closed shoes, and no nail polish. I often ended up feeling like a conservative peasant amidst the women in fashionable manteaus left open and veils so far back on the head that they looked more like a 1960s fashion accessory.
Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the religious police were out in force, even fining women for each painted fingernail. Men with long hair or sporting bracelets were also targets. But after he was elected in 2013, President Hassan Rouhani promised to rein in the morality police, and their presence has become much less noticeable, though they are still there in the shadows. But now they can also be the butt of jokes.
At the Parsi movie theater, I sat in on Nahang-e Anbar, a comedy about life and love through the years since the revolution. A turbaned cleric showed up on the screen to the theme song of Mission: Impossible, walking down the street in slow motion with his bodyguards pushing people out of the way, sending the pomegranates of a fruit vendor rolling over the sidewalk. Irreverence toward the clergy is unlikely in most other Muslim countries.
In another scene, the morality police detain young Iranians for inappropriate dress. One officer pushes them into a van, but another officer lets them out through the other door, with a pat on the back and advice to shorten their hair for the men or find some nail polish remover for the women. The audience laughed heartily.
For a country that has been under layers of sanctions since 1979, Iran, or at least Tehran, feels less isolated, more modern than Iraq under Saddam Hussein. On my visits there before the 2003 fall of Baghdad, the decay under the embargo and the burden of life under the most ruthless dictatorship in the region were blatantly obvious. You couldn’t even fly to Iraq, so traveling there involved a mind-numbing 12-hour drive through the desert from Jordan; it was a trip back to the 1970s, a drab city with poor infrastructure, open sewers in some parts, and a people often too afraid to even speak out the names of Saddam’s two ruthless sons, Uday and Qusay.
I know Iranians have been crushed by sanctions, their spending power slashed and their thirst for innovation blunted, but their capital reminded me of Istanbul: mostly low-rise buildings, bustling and very pedestrian, but built on the side of a mountain, at more than 3,000 feet in altitude. Surprisingly green, dotted with gardens and parks, and trees lining the streets, its notorious traffic jams were even worse than I expected. The ski slopes are only 20 minutes away, and, in the summer, young Iranians take to the hills for paragliding, hiking, or motorbike obstacle racing.
Our tight schedule didn’t allow time for a visit to the more conservative working-class areas in the southern part of the city where long manteaus, tight veils, and full-on Iranian black chador are widespread. But for the only theocracy in the region, Iran seems much less overtly concerned with religion than its Sunni neighbors and the only country in the Middle East where people are more secular than their government.
Five days into my stay, I suddenly realized something was missing: the call to prayer. It echoes through all Arab cities from Rabat to Riyadh, at varying decibels, punctuating life five times a day. In Saudi Arabia, shops shut down for every daytime prayer. If Iranians are devout, it’s very much a private affair. In Tehran, you hear the call to prayer once a week, on Friday at noon, and prayers are held at one central location: Tehran University. What happens in the other mosques across the city, I asked the translator? “Nothing.”
Tehran University is where the revolution is kept alive, where A-list fiery clerics give their sermons, and where the supreme leader himself will make appearances and speak to the faithful. Across the country, in every town and city, prayers are held in one designated mosque, where the official message is delivered.
With politics so inherently tied to the duty of prayer, showing up at the mosque is seen as an endorsement of the regime — another possible explanation for why mosque attendance is so low in Iran. In Tehran, a city of 12 million, there are only roughly 10,000 loyalists who show up on Friday. Everyone else seems to be out at lunch judging from the waiting lines at the restaurant I went to that day a short drive away from the university.
But it’s at Tehran University that you find the voices supporting Iran’s role in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
“Syria’s President Assad was our ally and supported Iran during the war with Iraq,” a retired government employee told me. “And Hezbollah, who is [fighting] against Israel, is also our friend. Our policy for the time being is to protect and support these two allies, especially Syria.”
But Iran needs the money being spent to support Syria, I pressed. “Yes, of course, our country needs it even more, but they also need us,” he said. “This is not just foreign policy, but it is also our religious duty to protect the oppressed wherever they might be.”
And, yes, it’s here that the faithful chant “Marg Bar Amrika” — “Death to America” — a somewhat tired ritual. Instead, today it seems that Iranians, certainly those who are conservative and who follow politics, are a lot more preoccupied with enmity toward one neighbor.
Every conversation I had that touched on Iran’s regional role immediately brought fierce, derogatory comments about Saudi Arabia. Outside Friday prayers, I spoke to conservative cleric Sheikh Mohsen Mahmoudi. When I asked him how Tehran and Riyadh could overcome current tensions between them, he just said, “Saudi Arabia is not a democratic state because it has no elections,” as though it meant Iran didn’t have to stoop so low as to think about how to deal with Riyadh.
“I think that Americans have also reached the conclusion that this government has got to go. They do not enjoy any type of elections, have no parliament, [and] women cannot drive or have any rights of participation.”
Iran, on the other hand, had a “greatness that lies in our 7000-year civilization, cultural discourse, and cultural impact,” he said.
Hossein Sheikholeslam, Iran’s deputy speaker and former ambassador to Damascus, also told me in an interview on the same trip that Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence was diminishing and the Saudis were worried their system would collapse, in part because of its “lack of democracy.’’
Everything is relative of course: From dissidents jailed and harassed to a staggering wave of executions without due process, Iran’s own record is far from pristine — but it does have elections and women do serve in high office. To its credit, Iran is also the only country in the region where the leadership seems to have understood a lesson that Arab leaders have ignored with devastating consequences.
When Iran’s uprising warning came in 2009, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad’s contested reelection, the demonstrations were violently repressed; prominent leaders of the Green Movement, including Ahmadinejad’s opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, still remain under house arrest. But the events shook the leadership and awoke everyone to the dangers of having the whole system brought down by unrest. When ordinary Iranians look to Syria, or Libya further away, they see the outcome of a civil protest movement against leaders that refuse to leave power and have nowhere else to go. When Iran’s leaders look at those countries, they are reminded of the dangers of refusing even a modicum of change and openness.
Saeed Leylaz, an economist who spent a year in jail in 2009 for criticizing the contested election of Ahmadinejad, told me that this lesson was imparted to Iranians not only as a result of the Arab uprisings but from their own revolution three decades ago.
“We learnt if we want to change, it should be as slow as possible but as deep as possible. Hard changes are not good for the country. Because of changes in Iraq, for example, there is no middle class in Iraq, no teachers in university — they killed everybody,” said Leylaz.
“We should go ahead as slow as possible, as deep as possible, and we should convince each other that the change is compulsory,” he added, saying he hoped everyone would move to the middle of the political spectrum.
So this is the gamble that Iran’s leadership took when it decided to go ahead with the nuclear negotiations: to offer hope and the prospect of economic prosperity so it can keep Iran’s restless youth on board, in a country where more than 60 percent of the population is under 30 years old. More crucially, it coincided with the interests of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most powerful branch of Iran’s military, which also presides over lucrative businesses and was feeling the bite of sanctions.
If Iran has learned the hard way that violent change can take the country into volatile directions, this is also a country that has a surprising ability to reflect on the past and preserve it.
On one of my last days in Tehran, I visited the Niavaran palace complex, a 97,000-square-foot estate with gardens, tennis courts, and several palaces, including Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s last residence until he was forced out of power and left Iran with his wife, Farah Diba, in January 1979.
Much was burned down in Tehran in those turbulent months, including banks, cinemas, and private residences. But the palace, which should have attracted the ire of the protestors and been ransacked, was somehow preserved. The queen’s delicate silk embroidered dresses are on display in the Blue Hall; the dining room is set for 24 guests; a portrait of the shah and his family is on the wall. In the private quarters, the beds are made, the shah’s military jacket is on display, and in the children’s bathroom a sticker of Tweety Bird has survived the decades.
Today, the museum is meant to be a reminder of the shah’s excesses and disregard for his people, but it stands as an odd testament to a lost era and ode to Iran’s rich heritage. Time has stood still for Iran in many ways since the day the shah made his exit and the country entered into isolation. Despite the new cars, the sprinkling of Western shops, Tehran feels in a bit of a time warp, reminiscent of Turkey in the early 1990s, its bottled-up entrepreneurial spirit ready to emerge.
But the battle to set the tone for the future of Iran is now getting under way. A tussle for influence between hard-liners and reformers, ahead of key elections next year, highlights an internal dynamic that the United States and the outside world must be attuned to and which I will write about in my next column.
Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images