The Two Faces of Modern Iran

Massoumeh Ebtekar and Hossein Sheikholeslam both were radical Islamist students who took part in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Over three decades later, they’re political rivals battling to define the future of the Islamic Republic.


When I sat down for an interview this summer with Iranian Vice President Massoumeh Ebtekar in Tehran, I expected the rhetoric of a Hezbollah apparatchik. It turned out to be one of the more substantive and candid interviews I’ve had with a Middle Eastern political leader.

Our conversation was also a window into the fierce battle for the future of Iran that is shaping up in the wake of the nuclear agreement reached in July. President Hassan Rouhani may be a centrist, but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, still has the final say in all matters of state. The outcome of two crucial upcoming elections will determine whether reformists will be able to make some headway in their push for change and set the tone for the country’s politics — or whether hard-liners will succeed in reversing their gains.

I was in Tehran on assignment for a week, which, as I mentioned in my last column, is the longest time a BBC correspondent has been allowed to report in the country since 2009. While there, I was hoping to understand how the nuclear deal was going to impact Iran’s domestic politics — if it would help the hard-liners, who had stood fast for 36 years, or the reformers, who had engaged the West. Which faction will take this issue to the polls in February’s parliamentary elections and get ahead?

Ebtekar, wearing the customary Iranian black chador over her turquoise blue pantsuit and matching scarf, smiled and gave me a long answer, walking the fine line of Iranian politics before making her point. She did that with almost every response to my prodding during our half-hour interview.

Everybody will benefit from the agreement, she insisted at first, before adding that on the one hand, the hard-liners “have stood steadfast in the face of all the sanctions, of all the pressures; they have actually enabled the nation to resist all these difficult times.”

“On the other hand, I think that the moderates, the reformists, the government of Rouhani have a very clear, prominent position in terms of being able to forward these negotiations successfully — and to strike a deal. I think that this is very important,” she continued. Her clincher was that “this gives them also a lot of leverage among the Iranian political groups.”

Ebtekar made news in Iran with that statement. Vatan-e Emrooz, a hard-line newspaper sympathetic to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, published a front-page headline asking whether she thought she was in a bazaar profiting from the negotiations.

This is but a small sample of what the reformer will face ahead of the vote early next year, in which Iranians will elect the 310 members of the majlis, Iran’s parliament, which has been dominated by conservatives since 2004. The parliamentary election will also coincide with the vote to elect the 86 members of the Assembly of Experts, the only constitutional body which can dismiss a supreme leader or appoint a new one in the event of his death. Khamenei is 76, and rumors abound about his ill-health. So during its eight-year term, the next Assembly of Experts could very well play a decisive role in shaping the trajectory of this theocracy. Both of these elections will set the stage for the presidential election in 2017, when President Rouhani is hoping to get reelected.

Ebtekar’s own political journey represents one path that Iran’s original revolutionaries have taken since 1979. She has been in the reformist camp for two decades, serving once before as a vice president in the administration of the popular President Mohammad Khatami in the 1990s. But she first came to prominence as a revolutionary firebrand, the face and voice of the radical Islamist students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

As a young child, she had lived in Upper Darby, Philadelphia, where her father was a doctoral student. During the hostage crisis in Tehran, as the students’ spokeswoman, Ebtekar made regular appearances on the evening news, speaking in English about the alleged crimes the Americans in the embassy had committed.

Ebtekar told me, as many in the group have said before, that the students believed they were foiling an American plot to sabotage the Islamic revolution. Iranians didn’t trust the West and had long accused the United States and Britain of engineering the coup d’état in 1953 that brought down the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

The Islamic revolution had shaken relations with the West — but the hostage crisis shattered them and set Iran on the path of isolation. I asked Ebtekar whether she had expected at the time that this event would so drastically alter the course of history of her country and its relationship with the outside world.

She told me the students didn’t think the crisis would last more than a few days and that the new Iranian government’s foreign policy was out of their hands. “In the relationship with the West and with the United States, the students were not directly involved [in that] any longer,” she said. “Ultimately, they probably criticized some of the policies that ensued in the later years.”

It’s those kinds of statements that hard-liners use to criticize Ebtekar for straying from the cause. Some of her colleagues from those heady revolutionary days still consider the rallying cry of “Death to America” as relevant to Iranian politics today as it was in 1979. One of those true believers is Hossein Sheikholeslam, Iran’s deputy parliament speaker and advisor on foreign relations to the conservative speaker Ali Larijani. Sheikholeslam had studied at Berkeley before the revolution — during the hostage crisis, he was in charge of interrogating the higher-level embassy staffers and going through the documents that American diplomats shredded as the embassy was being taken over.

During my recent trip, I visited Sheikholeslam in his offices at the Committee for Support for the Palestinian Intifada, of which he is the secretary-general. Posters of the map of historic British Mandate Palestine hung on the wall, and a picture of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah sat on one of the shelves behind his desk.

In his former positions as deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs and ambassador to Damascus, Sheikholeslam played a key role in liaising with the Assad government in Syria, stretching back to the days of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, and supporting the Lebanese military group Hezbollah, the Iranian revolution’s first and most successful export.

If Ebtekar described the nuclear deal as a moment of hope and opportunity for Iran, Sheikholeslam made clear he viewed it through a narrow prism. For him, it is a limited agreement on a single issue — not a moment of change in Iranian domestic politics and certainly not the beginning of an entente with the United States.

“With the United States, we surely can have economic relations, trade, and exchanges,” he said. “But I don’t believe that we can come to a political relation, because in Iran and in the region we have completely different views.”

When I asked him about the joyous celebration on the streets of Tehran after the nuclear deal had been reached, with Iranians honking their car horns and waving their flags, he was dismissive.

“There wasn’t a lot. Let’s be clear. You see, what in Iran means a lot [of people on the street] is when our football team wins, OK? There were some,” he said.

But did a majority of Iranians support the deal? Sheikholeslam demurred. “Parliament will decide on that,” he said. “If the parliament votes in favor of the deal, it means it was the majority.”

It was the supreme leader who ordered a vote on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear agreement is known. Negotiations in Vienna would not have reached a conclusion without his backing — but Iran kept its options open, in case Republicans managed to thwart the deal in Congress.

A special parliamentary committee took its time looking into the agreement, and this weekend finally recommended that the Majlis support the deal with some conditions, such as that no foreign inspections of military sites occur and no limits put in place on Iran’s missile program. A vote is now expected in the coming weeks.

“There will really be a tough discussion [in parliament], I believe,” Sheikholeslam said.  At the time of the interview, Sheikholeslam didn’t say how he would vote himself.

Sheikholeslam was generous with his time and affable, but had little to say about his former revolutionary comrade Ebtekar. Where the two still agree is Iran’s prominent regional role: While Sheikholeslam stuck to the standard rhetoric on Iran’s support for its radical allies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, Ebtekar tried to frame Iran’s influence in a more positive light, speaking about its ability to bring stability to a troubled region. She also told me Iran needed to keep its ability to defend itself because of the dozens of American military bases in the region. And she toed the line on Hezbollah, resistance against Israel, and support for Assad, though she slipped in an intriguing sentence about “not oppressing your people” when discussing the Syrian president.

There has been much speculation about how much additional financial and military support Iran will be able to give its allies in the region when it recovers billions of dollars in frozen assets as part of the nuclear agreement. When I asked economist Saeed Leylaz whether his country could afford to spend that cash on supporting Assad and Hezbollah, he gave me a flat, “No.” The economy was in dire straits, he said, and the quick injection of billions of dollars would not make up for the shortfall of income caused by low oil prices.

But more intriguing was his assertion that Iran had used Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group to fight the United States away from Iran’s borders. Now that Iranians and Americans had negotiated an agreement and that Washington had given up on regime change in Tehran, support for those groups was no longer essential. “The supreme leader needs to make a little quietness in the relationship between Iran and [the] world community,” he said.

It’s a nice thought — and it’s possible, in the long term — but for now, as Tehran doubles down on backing Assad in Syria with Russia’s help, it’s hard to see how anyone in power in Iran would give up those levers of regional influence.

The centrists are now focused on pushing for domestic reforms and bolstering their popular support. On my last day in Iran, I traveled with Ebtekar on a visit to the western Markazi Province, where she toured an environmentally protected area and met with local officials and rangers. The trip to the stunning desert region was a welcome change from the pollution and traffic in Tehran.

When I asked Ebtekar whether reaching out to the young, speaking about freedom of expression, and allowing the mushrooming of environmental NGOs were just ways to stave off potential unrest, she insisted it was more than that — it was, she said, a part of “the democratic process,” preparing the ground for bringing people into the process of governance.

The vice president noted that the government now understood the necessity of this outreach better than ever, because “we’ve seen the consequences” of not opening up the political system as quickly as the youth and the “changing times” demand. Did I detect criticism of the policies of the last three decades?

“In order to understand how to move forward, we need to make an assessment of the past,” she said. “It’s an integral part of the reform process, the moderation process, so yes, we need to look at our shortcomings.”

That’s a novel concept in the region, and a level of introspection that Iran’s Arab neighbors could learn from. Iran has tried the reformist path before with Khatami, who was constantly undermined by hard-liners, who eventually regained control of parliament in 2004 and paved the way for a hard-liner, Ahmadinejad, to win to the presidency. That’s the battle that Rouhani now faces. Even with a reformist victory in parliament, the powerful hard-line military and judiciary will still be able to undermine his efforts.

Of course, Iran’s reformist politicians are far from secular liberals. They may better represent the aspirations of Iranian youth, but they’re not aiming to bring an end to the Islamic Republic — just to make it more inclusive, more equal, and less restrictive. Think of it as Islamic Republic-lite.

A former U.S. official who participated in the nuclear negotiations with Iran gave me the best summary of the quandary in thinking about Iran today: Whenever you sit down with the smiling, gregarious Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, you must imagine the head of the Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, standing behind him.

Or Ebtekar and Sheikholeslam, two revolutionaries who have made different journeys since 1979 and represent the dual face of modern Iran. They each push to advance their vision for the future of Iran as they tussle for power and the country continues its journey from revolution to pragmatic moderation.


Kim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a senior visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of "The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power." Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas