It came as no small surprise yesterday afternoon, when another American journalist – my friend Andrew Tabler, the editor of Syria Today magazine — and I received last minute permission to attend a banquet at the Iranian embassy in Damascus in celebration of the 28th anniversary of that country’s Islamic Revolution, which falls on February 11th.
Iran’s embassy in Damascus — it’s façade covered in blue tiles arranged like a Persian carpet — is the largest Iranian diplomatic post in the Middle East, and a source of no small amount of intrigue and fascination. It often plays host to a colorful cast of characters ranging from Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. And according to American and Israeli intelligence, it’s also where Iran organizes its arms shipments into Lebanon and the rest of the Levant.
Katyusha rockets and Kalishnikov rifles, however, weren’t on the menu. The Oriental equivalent of the rubber chicken dinner consists of about a dozen Arab courses of grilled meats, hummus, and stuffed vegetables served in a florescent and flood-lit hall with and a male-female ratio approaching 20 to 1.
Before we could eat, the Iranian Ambassador, Mohammed Hassan Akhtire, widely seen to be one of Iran’s most capable diplomats and a confidante of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a sentimental speech about the significance of the Iranian Revolution in 1978. In particular, the turbaned mullah/diplomat remembered that Syria was the only country to support the fledgling Islamic Republic, and said that relations were getting even stronger. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is due to visit Teheran in the near future, he announced.
I assumed that the presence of Andrew and myself, to our knowledge the only Americans who’d ever attended the yearly event, was to relay this message back home to the States: that the so-called Rejectionist Crescent, the arc of state and non-state actors from Iran and Syria to the radical Shi’ite militias of Iraq to Hizballah and Hamas, was as united in opposition to the American and Israeli agenda for a “New” Middle East as ever.
The Syrian Minister of Information confirmed that impression when he took the floor. Mushin Bilal, a handsome man with an long mane of white hair, looks like a Sixties-era French movie star with the politics to match. “I can’t think of one good thing about America,” was one of the more polite things he said about the U.S. Of a possible confrontation between East and West, he said: “Victory is coming. We will win because of our values.” He then left without taking questions.
But Ambassador Akhtire, after showing his guest of honor to the door, lingered long enough to say goodbye, particularly to us. “If America wants trust in the Middle East, it has to have a balanced policy based on respect, and which deals with the root causes of problems,” he said to me.
Outside the banquet hall, we had a backslapping session with the embassy’s senior staff. An aide kept repeating, “I’m SO glad you came.” Not to be outdone, another senior aide asked us if we’d like to visit his country. Andrew and I, aware that an Iranian journalist visa is the Holy Grail of American Middle East correspondents, un-holstered our passports faster than six-shooters. “If American leaders want to talk to Iranian leaders, there will be no problem,” he said, when we asked about re-establishing diplomatic relation between the two countries. “Our leaders are logical. They just want to be treated with dignity and fairness.”
One shouldn’t rush to conclusions after a single heady dinner party, but since our host was an abstemious Muslim cleric, wine wasn’t the reason Andrew and I were stunned when we left the Iranian embassy. This was not the reception we had expected from representatives of a country with whom ours is on a collision course, possibly towards war. Iran suspects the U.S. of planning to attack it, while the U.S. suspects Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, and of arming radicals in Iraq who kill American soldiers. But the lesson of the night as I saw it going home on the Mezzeh superhighway, was that the road to Damascus starts in Teheran. And it’s open.