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Iran: Know Thine Enemy

There's been a blizzard of western media coverage of this avowed Islamic theocracy. But now a slew of new books by Persian-speaking journalists reveal how well we really know Iran.
 
 
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On a reporting trip to Iran in the spring of 2004, I visited the northeastern city of Mashhad. It's an important pilgrimage destination for Shiite Muslims, a sprawling, low-slung metropolis that fans out from a central plaza built around the gold-domed shrine of the Imam Reza. Imam Reza is believed to have hailed from the family of the prophet Mohammad. He was designated the eighth of the twelve sacred imams of the Shi'a faith, and is the only one buried in Iran. Hundreds of thousands of devout Shiites from across south Asia and the Arab world make pilgrimages to Mashhad each year to worship inside this splendid compound of aqua-tiled spires and arches, luminous chandeliers, and gushing fountains under two glittering domes.

My own experience of Mashhad was memorable for a different reason: it raised fresh doubts about the significance of religious orthodoxy in the Islamic Republic.

My driver in Mashhad was an amiable, bearded man named Ali, whose enviable ability to shirk traffic rules and park in no-parking zones was soon explained by his membership in the Basij militia, the hard-line paramilitary force that serves as one of the main coercive arms of the ruling mullahs. Like many Basiji, Ali, who is from a poor and devout family in the hinterland far from Tehran, had joined the Basij as a sixteen-year-old and gone off to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. The Basiji achieved notoriety in the war for their massive human-wave attacks and suicidal mine-sweeping operations, in which tens of thousands perished. Ali himself was wounded by shrapnel.

After eight years of brutal fighting and incessant clerical exhortations about the inevitable triumph of the armies of God, Iran's war with Iraq ended without achieving any of its declared objectives. For many veterans like Ali, there was a ready explanation for this disastrous turn of events. It was not the inadequacy of Iran's military planning or the miscalculations of its commanders. Rather, Ali told me, it was the West's cynical machinations that had turned the tide of battle. Ali reminded me that the Reagan administration, eager to block revolutionary Iran from defeating Iraq and spreading its influence across the Persian Gulf, helped arm Saddam Hussein and provided him with satellite reconnaissance of Iranian troop positions. Ali and many of his comrades would remain forever suspicious of America, and steadfast supporters of the ruling mullahs.

For all that, Ali, like so many Iranians I'd met, was eager to invite an American into his home. And so one evening Ali's wife and daughter served me a scrumptious traditional lamb stew known as abgusht. After a dessert of peeled cucumbers and tangerines, we shared a water pipe, known as a hookah, and talked into the night. When it was time to leave, Layli, Ali's lovely thirteen-year-old daughter, eagerly pressed upon me a delicate silver necklace -- a gift for my own daughter back in New York.

On the strength of this warm experience of cross-cultural bonding, over lunch the following day I put a sensitive question to Ali that I'd wanted to ask all along. "Ali," I said, "do you think these ruling mullahs are genuinely religious people?" Or did he think, as many Iranians I'd spoken to had told me, that they are just using religion as an instrument of power?

Ali listened carefully as the question was translated. A small smile crossed his lips. But he said nothing. He simply let the question pass.

After lunch, we repaired to a teashop across the street. I put the question to him a second time. "Ali," I said, "You didn't answer my question. Do you think these mullahs are genuinely motivated by religious piety?"

Again Ali listened carefully as the question was translated. Again a smile crossed his lips. And again he said nothing.

I've reported enough from abroad to know not to generalize too much from a single interview with an opinionated driver -- a classic error of foreign correspondence. But it struck me as significant that this avowed supporter of the regime, deeply suspicious of America, was unwilling to defend the religious bona fides of the ruling clerics -- the core of the regime's ideology and a central pillar of its legitimacy -- in response to a question from an American journalist.

I had grown accustomed to middle-class elites back in north Tehran vehemently mocking the religious pretensions of the ruling mullahs. But a Basiji in conservative Mashhad? Surely he would vouch for the clerics. Ali's disinclination to do so seemed to suggest just how cynical even the regime's most trusted allies had long since become -- and how illusory its mask of religious orthodoxy really was. It fit into an impression I had that was reinforced in scores of subsequent interviews with Iranians across a broad spectrum, left and right, high and low.

My encounter with Ali was typical of Iran: surprising, paradoxical, counterintuitive, and both gratifying and humbling for an American reporter whose memory of cold-war intrigue was short and whose assumptions about the so-called Islamic Republic turned out to be inadequate. Those assumptions would be all the more confounded a year later, when Ali and his Basiji confederates played a key role in electing one of their own, the fiery Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president -- apparently in protest against their sponsors among the mullahs as much as in support of them.

Ahmadinejad's election surprised nearly everyone, not least the American journalists who covered it. In the fifteen months since then -- a time of escalating tensions over Iran's nuclear program, of ever more belligerent rhetoric from Washington, Tehran, and Jerusalem, of growing Iranian influence in American-occupied Iraq, and of fighting in Lebanon and Gaza between Israel and Iran's allies, Hezbollah and Hamas -- there has been a blizzard of U.S. media coverage of this avowed Islamic theocracy. But how well do we really know Iran? And how well are the American media helping us to understand it?

A proliferation of new books in English by Persian-speaking journalists and scholars suggest that we don't know it as well as we ought to. The books shed valuable light on a country that has long been prone to journalistic caricature. At a time when Iran is routinely conflated in our public discourse with al Qaeda and even Nazism bent on genocide -- "the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism," the "axis of evil" -- a deeper and more nuanced impression of this seemingly intractable foe is long overdue. Together the new books convey a more complex and evolving picture, one notably lacking in the moral clarity that Americans too often project onto Iran when we view it through the prism of Islam or the Holocaust.

The challenge of getting it right on Iran has vexed American journalists for more than a quarter century, beginning with the revolution that swept the mullahs to power in 1979 -- an event that also surprised and confounded nearly everyone -- and especially with the hostage crisis that ensued in November of that year. The seizure of the American embassy in Tehran by Iranian student militants and the holding of fifty-two American hostages for more than a year was a seminal event. It helped bring down Jimmy Carter's presidency, spurred a new ideology on the American right that would come to be called "neoconservativism," and seared into America's consciousness a phenomenon that came to be called "militant Islam." Then, as now, the challenge of reporting on an immense national trauma at the hands of seemingly alien and irrational Muslims was fraught with problems.

Among the most vociferous critics of the America media then was Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor and intellectual pugilist, whose 1981 book Covering Islam -- How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World dwelled mostly on coverage of Iran. It was an early broadside against what Said called "highly exaggerated stereotyping and belligerent hostility" in much media coverage of the Muslim world. Said decried typical news accounts of "Islam" -- what he called "a poorly defined and badly misunderstood abstraction" -- as a steady diet of myths and generalizations purporting to show that Islam was "one unchanging thing that could be grasped over and above the remarkably varied history, geography, social structure, and culture of the forty Islamic nations" on four continents. In the place of what he called "references to the Islamic mentality or Shi'a predilections for martyrdom or any of the other nonsense parading as relevant 'information,'" Said advocated reporting that "understands politics . . . understands and makes no attempt to lie about what moves men and women to act in this (Iran) as well as other societies."

As he was wont to do throughout a long and controversial career, Said sometimes overstated his case and cherry-picked the evidence to support it. Then, as now, there was good as well as bad reporting on Iran, and even some great and memorable journalism, most notably Ted Koppel's nightly broadcasts on ABC, which began as a late-night special called "America Held Hostage" and evolved into Nightline, the show that Koppel would host for the next quarter century.

Similarly, there has been some excellent reporting from Iran today. Some of the best has come from a growing legion of young Persian-speaking reporters, mostly of Iranian background, who have penetrated Iranian society in a way that reporters who lack the language rarely can. A number of these young reporters have produced valuable books. Christopher de Bellaigue's In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs and Azedah Moaveni's Lipstick Jihad, both published last year, are of uneven quality, yet they achieve an enviable intimacy with Iranian society that belies the crude stereotypes that Americans have grown accustomed to. The best of this genre, to my mind, is Afshin Molavi's Persian Pilgrimages, a skillfully reported and marvelously told political travelogue first published in 2002 and reissued last year in paperback under a new title, The Soul of Iran. Molavi, who reported from Iran for the Washington Post, weaves his own travels into an engaging and highly informative tour of Iranian history, politics, and culture. The result is a multilayered portrait that leaves us no less wary of the ruling mullahs but vastly more sympathetic toward the Iranian people.

Still, some of Said's concerns a quarter century ago were valid, and they remain so in the current coverage of Iran. One classic error of foreign correspondence that was much in evidence then helps explain how so few American reporters anticipated the election (however flawed) last year of Ahmadinejad as president. It's the mistake of reporting excessively among the elite who speak English, and too little among the poor and (seemingly) marginal folks, like Ali in Mashhad.

Thomas W. Lippman, a Washington Post correspondent who covered the revolution in 1979, had this to say about Western press coverage of Iran, then and now:

"Journalists from all over the world with little direct knowledge of Iran spent far too much time among the people who live at the top of Tehran's hills -- the ones who wore well-tailored suits and spoke English or French -- and not enough time at the bottom of the hills or in the bazaars, which is where the real revolution was coming from. I was as guilty of this as my colleagues. We spent hours conversing with secular liberals among the Iranian bourgeoisie and with the westernized political pretenders who expected to be important after the Shah was gone. . . . In my recollection, only the late, great Don Schanche of the Los Angeles Times had any feel for the Khomeini phenomenon that was building among the no-necktie masses. The result was that we were surprised by the outcome, when we shouldn't have been."

Lippman was responding to a comment, in the wake of Iran's presidential election, on Columbia University's invaluable Gulf/2000 Web site, posted by Cyrus Safdari, an independent Iranian-born analyst. Safdari had this to say about the Western media's failure to anticipate Ahmadinejad's victory:

"The past several years we have witnessed an almost obsessive coverage of Iran's . . . "gilded youth" of Northern Tehran (some of it by U.S.-based Iranian reporters who come from the same background themselves) and their alcoholic shenanigans, hipster bloggers with one foot in the West, and not to mention the almost lurid obsession over women who have nose jobs and wear Victoria's Secret underwear, etc. They've only entered a neighborhood mosque as a tourist, never attended a local guild meeting, they have no idea of the complex religion-based substratum of Iranian society, have only occasionally ventured to southern Tehran, and once there have tended to ridicule and express disgust at the vast portion of Iranians -- the so-called "pious poor" -- who have apparently voted for Ahmadinejad."

Safdari has a point -- although one of the most interesting of the past year's books on Iran is indeed about Iranian bloggers. We Are Iran -- The Persian Blogs, by Nasrin Alavi, a London-based Iranian journalist, is a fascinating account of the explosive growth of the Iranian blogosphere.

And yet for all the fawning coverage over the past decade of Iranian reformists, whose brief and hopeful heyday under former President Mohammad Khatami came crashing down with Ahmadinejad's election, the overwhelming impression Americans have of Iran remains that of the bearded and black-veiled revolutionaries of a generation ago, during the hostage crisis, chanting "Death to the Great Satan!" -- a seemingly alien, inscrutable, implacably hostile land of raving fanatics. President Ahmadinejad has certainly reinforced this impression with his bellicose speeches doubting the Holocaust and declaring that Israel should be wiped off the map.

But here it seems to me we have too often been swayed by two more classic errors of foreign correspondence. One is the danger of dwelling on exotica. It's not just the ubiquitous images of black chadors which, in geopolitics no less than in physiology, obscure more than they reveal. It's Islam itself, as vaguely defined an abstraction today as it was in 1979. The very use of the label "Islamic" to characterize Iran's regime falls prey to a propaganda ploy that even many of the Iranian regime's most loyal supporters -- people like Ali in Mashhad -- no longer take seriously. In four trips to Iran in the last two years, I formed an impression that "Islamic" is scarcely more informative as a descriptive adjective for the Islamic Republic than "Democratic" was informative about East Germany when it billed itself the German Democratic Republic.

Many Iranians will tell you that the key to understanding Iranian politics is to be found not in religious teachings but in the universal exigencies of power: the book to read is not the Koran but Machiavelli. The thing to remember is, as an Iranian diplomat wryly put it to me, citing Tip O'Neill: "All politics is local." And another thing: "Follow the money." President Ahmadinejad may well be genuinely motivated by religious ideology, but if he is, most Iranians will tell you, he is just about the only Iranian leader who is. And he is not the most powerful leader in Iran, least of all on foreign policy. The most powerful is the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who likewise talks tough -- in July he said the Israeli strikes against Lebanon proved that "the presence of Zionists in the region is a Satanic and cancerous presence" -- but is widely viewed as a cunning pragmatist who governs by consensus among an array of competing interests and political rivals.

Iranian politicians, like politicians everywhere, are mostly motivated by power, not religious ideology. Religion in Iran, as elsewhere throughout history, has political uses -- and abuses -- that suffuse the struggle for power. In the Islamic Republic, Islam is a mask of power.

Two U.S.-based scholars of Iranian background, Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, put it this way in their concise and informative new history, Democracy in Iran -- History and the Quest for Liberty: "Born of a social revolution, the theocratic edifice of the Islamic Republic has nevertheless produced a pragmatic authoritarian regime. That regime speaks in the language of Islam but rules over society and the economy in ways that are familiar to political observers of developing societies." The Gheissari-Nasr book, while sometimes dense and dry for a general reader, is also a useful reminder that Iran, more than any other Muslim country in the Muslim Middle East apart from Turkey, has a century-long history of struggle for democracy and the rule of law. That struggle has been repeatedly sabotaged not just by the revolutionary mullahs but by the United States, which helped topple the elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq in a CIA-backed coup in 1953.

Professor Nasr has also published a second book this year called The Shia Revival, a valuable primer on Sunni-Shia divisions. In it he highlights how religion is but a small piece of the larger context meant to be described by such sectarian labels. "It is not just a hoary religious dispute," he tells us, "a fossilized set piece from the early years of Islam's unfolding, but a contemporary clash of identities. Theological and historical disagreements fuel it, but so do today's concerns with power, subjugation, freedom, and equality, not to mention regional conflicts and foreign intrigues."

The ritual identifier "Islamic" is problematic for another reason: it perpetuates flawed assumptions about motives and alliances. We assume that "Islamic" Iran is somehow allied with other groups that call themselves "Islamic," not least al Qaeda. The Bush administration has reinforced this impression with its repeated characterization of Iran as "the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism," conflating Iran in our "war against terrorism" with the authors of September 11. The press too often repeats that characterization uncritically. In fact, Shiite Iran was a mortal enemy of both al Qaeda and the Taliban. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Iran helped the United States bring down the Taliban by facilitating ties with Iran's old ally in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance.

It's worth noting, too, that the "world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism" formulation obscures the fact that Iran's support for terrorism over the last decade has been confined almost exclusively to Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which Iran has long backed the rejectionist groups Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Iran has not been linked to an attack on American interests since the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia.

Lamentable as Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah may be, it seems to me that here we have too often been swayed by a third classic error of foreign correspondence: projecting the template from a different part of the world at another time in history -- in this case the Holocaust -- onto contemporary problems in a part of the world, the Middle East, where the circumstances are far from analogous. For all the recent rhetoric about wiping Israel off the map, which is hardly new, the Iranians are not Nazis.For one thing, Iran is not the dominant military power in the region, Israel is. Iran can harass Israel through its proxies, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, but it lacks the military capacity to attack Israel itself. Moreover, Iran lacks a rational motive for doing so, since Israel would surely respond to such an attack with massive force that could jeopardize the Iranian regime's survival in power.

For all its bluster, many Iranians and most experts on Iran will tell you, the Iranian leadership is not irrational. Time and again, at least since the disillusioning end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran's rulers, when given the choice between ideology and national interests, have come down on the side of national interests. At the same time, Israel, looking after its own strategic interests and viewing Iran as a rival in a post-cold war world bereft of the Soviet threat that reliably bound Washington to Jerusalem, has often invoked the moral clarity of the Holocaust to demonize Iran. It was former Prime Minister Shimon Peres who first called Iran "more dangerous than Hitler." More recently, Israel's current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "a psychopath of the worst kind. He speaks like Hitler did of the extermination of the entire Jewish nation."

For a timely and provocative history of the rivalry between Israel and Iran, we will soon have the forthcoming Treacherous Triangle -- the Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States , by Trita Parsi, an Iranian-born scholar. Parsi's research cuts through the existentialist rhetoric of all sides and views this frightening conflict through the cold-eyed calculations of regional rivals ever jockeying not to annihilate each other but merely to gain strategic advantage. The book should be required reading for those inclined to see conflict in the Middle East as a zero sum contest of good against evil.

Likewise, Ali Ansari's Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Crisis in the Middle East is a thoughtful, readable, and well-reasoned history of relations between the United States and Iran that cautions against too much moral clarity on either side. Ansari, an Iranian-born historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, reviews not just the indelible tragedies of the 1953 coup and the 1979 hostage crisis, but also the many opportunities that have been lost as both sides seem forever bent on bringing out the worst in each other. Ansari, no apologist for the mullahs, nevertheless argues that after years of bellicose rhetoric from the Bush administration about "regime change" and "the axis of evil," which to Iranian ears sound every bit as terrifying as "wiped off the face of the map" sounds to Israelis, the Iranian leadership is convinced that Washington's attempt to block Iran from developing nuclear weapons is only a thinly veiled attempt to do to Iran what it did to Iraq. "This fear is at the heart of the political inertia that has constrained political debate and allowed a hard-line reaction to take hold," Ansari writes. "No serious internal challenge will be contemplated while the very idea of Iran is considered under threat. Many in the West are too easily impressed by the Islamic rhetoric that periodically emanates from the Islamic Republic to recognize that at the core what matters is Iran. Islam may be the means for some, but for the vast majority Iran is the end."

For Iranians, the coup of 1953 remains seared in national myth and memory, the fateful betrayal of Iranian democracy that exposed America's ever-lasting perfidy. For Americans, the hostage crisis of 1979-1981 was a kind of mirror image, a permanent scar in our collective psyche that has cast Iran as forever beyond the pale. The hostage crisis is the subject of a huge new book called Guests of the Ayatollah by Mark Bowden, best-selling author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo. Bowden's formidable reporting and narrative skills have produced a vivid and sometimes gripping recreation of the hostages' ordeals and those of the mostly hapless decision-makers in the Carter administration.

But to what end? At a time of renewed crisis with Iran, what insight can we gain from this event with the benefit of hindsight? What can we learn about Iran that would help us confront the challenge we face today? Here Bowden has little to offer. Even as he succeeds in rekindling the old heat, he sheds disappointingly little fresh light on the Iranians, then or since. Because Bowden is a journalist of considerable stature and his book is likely to reach a large audience, his account of the hostage affair is worth considering in some detail. (Full disclosure: I have spent the last three years working on a book of my own about the hostage crisis, focusing on political careers of the surviving Iranian hostage-takers, some of whom have emerged in middle age as prominent figures in Iran's embattled reform movement.)

Bowden has done extensive original reporting on the hostage crisis itself, but very little systematic reporting on subsequent events. He has spoken to scores of Americans, but he's done only limited reporting in Iran itself -- barely more than a dozen interviews, by his own account, in two brief trips to Tehran. He appears to have consulted no Persian-language sources, of which there are many.

The hazards of such limited reporting in Iran are only too evident. The book is entirely impressionistic on the country itself, and wrong in important respects. It draws no distinction, for instance, between the regime's propaganda and popular opinion. Bowden gives the reader no basis for knowing that a great many Iranians, including most of the former hostage-takers, despise the current regime.

Bowden does mention that several of the hostage-takers are now "reformers," but he gives the reader almost no information on what Iran's reform movement is all about, who supports it, or what it has been through -- the arrests (including of several prominent hostage-takers), the press closings, the beatings. Bowden seems to have missed altogether what to me is the most interesting and surprising aspect of the hostage-takers' careers, namely that Iran, of all places, has produced what many still view as the most promising (if currently embattled) democracy movement in the Muslim Middle East, and that the hostage-takers, of all people, have emerged as some of its most prominent early leaders.

Bowden's broader conclusions about the hostage-takers seem wrong to me, and he contradicts some of them with his own evidence. How they feel about their role in the hostage affair does not, as he observes, tend to define where they stand in Iran's political spectrum. Those who defend their role in the embassy seizure include prominent figures who have long since fallen out with the mullahs. Those who are ambivalent about their role include some who, far from staying in the shadows as Bowden says, have been leading journalists and reform strategists, including Abbas Abdi (who was recently released after two years in jail) and Saeed Hajjarian (the so-called "brains of reform," who was shot in the face and paralyzed). Bowden seems not to have reported at all on the obvious question of how those folks fell out with the regime, and why? And he seems never to have asked, What are we to make of it? Their counterintuitive evolution from student militants to leading democrats would certainly seem to call into question how well we understand large abstractions like "militant Islam."

Indeed, one important question he completely ignores is what Iranians, at this late date, have to say about "Islam." Instead, he settles for the familiar broad-brush abstraction, beginning with his subtitle: The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam. Two other post-September 11 books about the hostage crisis strike the same opening chord. David Harris's The Crisis (2004) was subtitled The President, the Prophet, and the Shah: 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam . David Farber's Taken Hostage (2004) was likewise subtitled The Iran Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter With Radical Islam . The apparently irresistible abstraction tells us very little.

Bowden writes of "the nation's undying disdain for its once-favorite ally," but in fact, if you scratch beneath the surface of Iran, you find that many Iranians admire America and love Americans, if not always our government. He writes of "the different ways this event [the hostage crisis] is remembered in Iran and in the United States," and says that "many Iranians" remember it as an "unalloyed triumph" that has become "a keystone of the national mythology." But that is government propaganda that most Iranians seem to deplore."

For a more clear-eyed, authoritative, and compellingly written account of the human rights situation in Iran, we now have Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, by the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Co-authored with Azadeh Moaveni, Ebadi's memoir provides an unusually intimate look at some of the most infamous political assassinations, detention abuses, and student beatings of the past decade.

It's a story told by a courageous feminist lawyer who was herself detained in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, and who has represented the families of many prominent victims, including the family of the Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kasemi, who was beaten to death in police custody in 2002. It's a troubling story, to be sure, and it certainly puts in doubt the religious piety of those who claim to be acting in the name of God. And yet, as her mixed-message title suggests, Ebadi places herself within a much larger tradition of activism and yearning for democracy and the rule of law, a powerful undercurrent of Iranian society that is highlighted in all these books. It is that deeply rooted tradition, often frustrated yet remarkably resilient, that gives her cause for hope. It is also what makes Ebadi and all these other Persian-speaking writers deeply apprehensive about American threats against Iran. "The threat of regime change by military force, while reserved as an option by some in the Western world, endangers nearly all the efforts democracy-minded Iranians have made in these recent years," Ebadi writes. "The threat of military force gives the system a pretext to crack down on its legitimate opposition and undermines the nascent civil society that is slowly taking shape here. It means Iranians overlook their resentment of the regime and move behind their unpopular leaders out of defensive nationalism. I can think of no scenario more alarming, no internal shift more dangerous than that engendered by the West imagining that it can bring democracy to Iran through either military might or the fomentation of violent rebellion."

Bill Berkeley is the author of The Graves Are Not Yet Full -- Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa (2001). He teaches writing at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, and is writing a book about the Iranian hostage-takers.