Talking and Listening to Iran

There’s nothing like being surrounded by a crowd chanting “Death to America” on the day of the most historic U.S. presidential Inauguration in memory to make an American foreign correspondent feel homesick. The first day of my trip to Iran coincided with a new President’s taking office in Washington and a demonstration at Tehran University in support of the Gaza Palestinians. Several thousand students gathered on campus and acted out a page from the standard Islamic Resistance playbook. “The blood in our veins is a gift to our leader,” they chanted. “Israel will be destroyed, and Gaza is victorious.” Later, part of the crowd reconvened at the former U.S. embassy–now known as the Den of Spies–and burned posters of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Doubtless much of the sound and fury was routine. As soon as it became known that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had canceled a scheduled appearance, about half the crowd left. And in fact, many Iranians favor better relations with the U.S.–I met countless Iranians eager for more than just talk. “The walls should be torn down–from both sides!” a rank-and-file government supporter blurted out to me after the rally.

That message may be getting through. With the election of Obama, détente between Iran and the U.S. may be closer than at any time since the two countries severed diplomatic ties with the birth of the Islamic republic in 1979. Obama’s foreign policy team views Tehran as both the source of and a possible solution to most of America’s problems in the Middle East–from militants in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza to what Washington believes is Tehran’s secret nuclear-weapons program. At his first presidential press conference, Obama said that over many years, Iran’s actions had been “unhelpful when it comes to promoting peace and prosperity.” His national security team, however, was “looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage” with Iran.

But the rhetoric of demonstrations in Tehran is worth listening to. Seven years after Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, power is consolidated in the hands of hard-line anti-American conservatives, led by Ahmadinejad and supported by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. Together they have used the Bush Administration’s opposition as an opportunity to crack down on reformists. Ahmadinejad initially greeted Obama’s victory with a rare congratulatory letter, though his ardor then seemed to cool as he called on the U.S. to “halt your support to the uncultivated and rootless, forged, phony, killers-of-women-and-children Zionists, and allow the Palestinian nation to determine its own destiny.” But after Obama’s press conference, Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready for “talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere.”

The future of American-Iranian relations isn’t up to Ahmadinejad alone, of course. Power in Iran is exercised by the elected presidency and parliament but overseen by less transparent clerical authorities headed by Khamenei. And with oil prices tumbling and the economy in poor shape, Ahmadinejad may face stiff competition in presidential elections this year. Yet even if more moderate politicians like former President Mohammed Khatami come to power, anti-Americanism is so much a part of public life in Iran that the question remains: Is détente with the U.S. compatible with the legacy of the Islamic revolution?

One recent Saturday, 30 years to the day when Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile in France, the Iranian government held a celebration in the massive shrine to Khomeini that is still under construction near the Tehran airport. The ceremony was a feel-good affair, with a marching band and schoolgirls in white chadors with pink butterfly wings. Speakers ranging from Khomeini’s grandson to former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani celebrated the endurance of the world’s only Islamic system of clerical and democratic rule. And each person who rose to the flower-strewn podium also used the occasion to take a swipe at the U.S., proclaim support for the Palestinian cause, or both.

Anti-Americanism is a potent political trope here because it is rooted in grievances. Just down the road from the Khomeini shrine is the Behesht-e Zahra martyrs’ cemetery–one of many such scattered plots that contain the remains of more than 200,000 Iranian soldiers who died in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The widows and mothers who come here on Thursdays–the beginning of the weekend in Iran–to wash graves and pass out sweets and fruit to strangers remember that the rockets, jets and chemical weapons used to kill their sons and husbands were provided to Saddam Hussein by the U.S. and Europe. “Every strike against our country has come from the United States,” says Azam Omrani, 63, whose son Amir died in the war. From the CIA-led coup in 1953 that reinstalled the Shah to the millions of dollars Washington spends on covert operations and propaganda against their government today, Iranians believe the U.S. has interfered in Iran’s internal affairs. The effect has been to create a siege mentality even among those Iranians who don’t support the government. “You go outside in the morning, and the first thing you read is that you may be bombarded,” says a woman from an élite family, referring to rumors about U.S. or Israeli plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear-development program, which the government insists is for civilian purposes. “What other country lives with this threat on a daily basis? [Our nuclear program has] nothing to do with the U.S.”

Then there is U.S. support for Israel. Anti-Zionism is an ideological pillar of the Islamic revolution. One of the first things Khomeini did after the revolution, according to Salah Zawawi, the Palestinian ambassador to Iran for the past 27 years, was to raise the slogan “Today Iran, tomorrow Palestine!” Zawawi recounts how Khomeini declared Israel an unlawful country and named the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan “Jerusalem Day” so Muslims could remember the occupation of the holy city and pray for its liberation. “He was dealing with the question of Palestine from a religious perspective,” says Zawawi. “In the mind of Imam Khomeini, there is no compromise. You believe, or you don’t believe.” Zawawi says the clerical rulers of Iran today, as the inheritors of Khomeinism, are less likely to compromise on Israel than are members of Palestinian parties like Fatah. “All roads lead to Imam Khomeini,” says Zawawi, a Fatah official who favors peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “If the Americans expect the Iranians to stop their support of the Islamic Resistance [to Israel] in exchange for this or that, then they don’t understand the Iranians.”

Moderates from Iran’s religious establishment say détente is still possible even without an Arab-Israeli settlement. The U.S. and Iran, says Mohammad Atrianfar, a newsmagazine editor and unofficial mouthpiece for the camp led by Rafsanjani, should set up a system of diplomacy much like that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the cold war, to prevent disagreements from turning into open conflict. “The only thing we want from the United States is for them not to mess with our country,” he says. But that would mean the U.S. accepting Iran’s right to have a nonmilitary nuclear program, ending sanctions, apologizing for past misdeeds, shutting down covert operations and accepting Iran’s right to support Hamas and Hizballah just as the U.S. supports Israel–a list unlikely to be welcomed by any administration in Washington. “If we accept that the U.S. interferes in the Middle East, then Iran is entitled to interfere in these issues according to its power,” Atrianfar says. And that’s from a moderate. For their part, some fundamentalist politicians think negotiating with the U.S. is pointless because, in their view, all American politicians are beholden to the Israeli lobby. “The difference between Republicans and Democrats is like the difference between Pepsi and Coke,” says Member of Parliament Bijan Nobaveh, who spent five years in New York City as a reporter for Iranian state television.

Staying Within Red Lines

The key question is whether a religious state with divinely guided leaders can change its core beliefs without alienating the ranks of the faithful–those who fought for the revolution, and the generation raised on its ideology–who keep the Islamic state in power. To be sure, Iran hardly feels like a revolutionary place. Some 70% of its population is under 30 and has grown up in a period of relative peace. Some have indeed grown tired of the constraints of living in the Islamic republic. “The younger generation sees the reality, and the discrepancy between that and what we were promised,” says Masoud, a shoe merchant in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. In contrast to other countries in the Middle East, there are relatively few soldiers and police visible on the streets of Tehran or huge portraits of the country’s leaders. These are perhaps signs of confidence that however young and restless Iranians may be, they aren’t a threat to the power structure. Disaffected Iranians either leave the country or concentrate on preserving their own pockets of freedom rather than struggle against the Islamic system. People know the red lines: women know the dress codes they can tweak; artists and writers self-censor or approach sensitive subjects obliquely. “We don’t want another revolution. We don’t want regime change,” says the owner of a contemporary-art gallery in Tehran. “We are a gentle people.”

That, Iranians may be. But such gentleness should not lead Western visitors to think support for the values of the Islamic revolution has run its course. Every day the Mahestan shopping mall just off Revolution Street fills with students from the nearby universities. The mall is popular with Basijis–the young volunteers who fill the ranks of government-sponsored demonstrations. When they grow up, they join the government and the Revolutionary Guards corps. The Mahestan mall sells mostly religious paraphernalia–Koranic software, recordings of religious chants, speeches from modern Islamic heroes like Khomeini, Ahmadinejad and Lebanese Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah–that constitute a kind of state-sponsored Islamic pop culture. Such a culture sustains the Basij movement, which is itself part of the way the government tries to channel a generation that grew up with no memory of the Shah into continued support for the revolution. “Basij is not an organization only–it’s a spirit,” says Mariam Saemi, 22, a student at Tehran University. “The purpose is to fight against oppression everywhere in the world. The reason we are against Zionism is that the Zionist regime oppresses people in Palestine, innocent kids and defenseless women. We will continue until we completely remove oppression.”

Washington, take note.

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