Call it the dawn of the Iranian woman.
Within the past year, Iranian human rights attorney Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize, actress Shohreh Aghdashloo was nominated for an Oscar and authors Azar Nafisi and Firoozeh Dumas saw their memoirs climb The New York Times paperback best-sellers list. In the political arena, Iranian-American Goli Ameri won the Republican nomination in Oregon's 1st Congressional District in May, and will face Democratic incumbent David Wu in the fall.
These women represent millions of other Iranian-born women and men who adapt well to positive Western values. They can be instrumental in championing democracy and pluralism in the Muslim world. Yet, the Bush administration continues to alienate Iranians as a whole with policies and pronouncements that isolate and demonize their home country.
Though they come from a tradition that has marginalized women for centuries, the Iranian women who now find themselves in the international spotlight have shown admirable self-confidence.
Shirin Ebadi, firm and dignified, rebuffed the clerics who belittled her achievements – Iranian President Mohammad Khatami opined that the peace prize was of little importance compared to those for literature and sciences – and ridiculed her for keeping the award money rather than donating it entirely to philanthropy.
Aghdashloo, nominated for best supporting actress as the wife of an exiled Iranian officer in "House of Sand and Fog," more than held her own during the grueling pre-Oscar weeks of lobbying and publicity events. "A beauty contest in a slaughter house," George C. Scott called the process before declining his Oscar for "Patton" in 1970. Aghdashloo, relating deferentially to her colleagues and the press, focused in interviews on how she strove to bring authenticity, nuance and depth to her performance, to avoid Hollywood stereotypes of Middle Easterners.
Nafisi has also used the forums afforded her as the best-selling author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" and a Johns Hopkins professor to debunk preconceived notions of Iranian women. Her book describes how she invited her students to study Western novels at her home after she was banished from Tehran University as an English literature professor for defying the clerics. In the informal study sessions, the young women defined for themselves identities separate from those imposed on them by men and the Islamic state.
American women, in book clubs and study groups across the country, are using Nafisi's work to learn more about their Middle Eastern counterparts, sometimes identifying with them in their own long struggle for self-definition and parity.
"Funny in Farsi," Dumas' memoir about a daughter who helps her immigrant parents assimilate in America, echoes narratives by writers who have come here from abroad. These stories, in their universality, transcend national and religious differences. They show how the early empowerment of immigrant children in America, with their ability to learn English and adapt faster than their parents to a new environment, is a continuous source for this country's exceptional energy and enterprise.
With the campaign slogan of "Go America," Goli Ameri is contesting Taiwanese-born Wu's Congressional seat. Their district, in suburban Portland, Ore., is indicative of an emerging new America of vigorous, constructive diversity.
While Wu voted against the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, Ameri so far has toed a strict Republican Party line. Noting that she personally witnessed how Islamic radicals gained the upper hand in Iran, she said of the beheading of American engineer Paul M. Johnson Jr. in Saudi Arabia: "These terrorists hate Americans because we are pluralistic, prosperous and free. There is no negotiating or reasoning to be had with these fanatics. We must find them and destroy them before they can realize their evil intentions."
But when her rival suggested that her Iranian descent might make her softer on the war on terror, rather than downplay her heritage Ameri instead emphasized that her strong ties to the Middle East gave her a special understanding of the region's politics.
Ameri and other Iranian women, who have so successfully selected from a rich Eastern heritage and the possibilities offered to them by the West, are in a unique position to foster between their two worlds the mutual understanding which today is critical to world peace.
The Nobel Prize committee's selection of Iranian reformist attorney Shirin Ebadi to receive the 2003 Peace Prize demonstrates a way of promoting peace and democracy in the Middle East that the Bush administration should heed.
Ebaldi's achievement brings focus to thousands of Iranian women and men who are actively changing their country's sociopolitical landscape by promoting the rule of law, human rights and a more pluralistic government in place of the country's clerical regime. Far from rattling sabers and demonizing the whole country of Iran, President Bush should make common cause with just such Iranians.
Ebadi, 56, is married and has two daughters. Before the 1979 Islamic revolution she became Iran's first woman judge. Forced to resign her position by the mullahs once they took power, she has become an outspoken dissident and defender of rights for women and children, a lecturer in law at the University of Tehran and an attorney for a number of the regime's victims. She does not see a conflict between Islam's Sharia law and broad, equal human rights for men and women.
She was also awarded the 2001 Norwegian human rights Rafto Prize, and has been praised by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Her clients have included the family of Darioush and Parvaneh Frouhar, who were among several Iranian writers and intellectuals whose mutilated bodies were found on the streets of Tehran in 1999. Those murders have been traced to some of the most dangerous elements within Iran's vast security police apparatus. In 2000 Ebadi was briefly jailed for exposing the regime's use of vigilantes to suppress dissent. She received a suspended sentence and was banned from practicing law in a closed court.
The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) carried a brief dispatch to report Ebadi's award --without mentioning any of her activities.
Ebadi received news of the award while in Paris to attend a conference on Iranian films and human rights. At a news conference she expressed her surprise, and added, "It means that our way is correct, and I must say it doesn't belong only to me. It belongs to all the people who work for human rights and democracy in Iran."
In contrast to Ebadi's bold yet nonviolent work for human freedom, instead of finding and supporting those who share the best American values in Iran and elsewhere in the Islamic Middle East the Bush administration is alienating the entire region with its military presence, as it futilely tries to buy friendship with billions of American taxpayers' money.
The attempt to determine the course of Middle Eastern events from Washington is badly misfiring. Each day brings news of fresh violence in Iraq. American forces are engaged in open-ended battles along the Afghan-Pakistani border, Iran is defying calls not to enrich uranium at its nuclear power plants and an Israeli air raid on Syrian soil threatens a wider regional war.
The Bush administration, in a desperate attempt to salvage the Iraqi occupation, is shifting the burden of carrying on its manifestly misguided policies from the Defense Department to the National Security Council.
With every passing day, as only armed soldiers continue to symbolize America's presence in the Middle East, the region's most radical elements become more emboldened, posing an ever greater threat to this country's interests and security abroad and at home.
Lost in the fury of blind power politics are the sane voices of thousands of Middle Easterners who share Shirin Ebadi's values and are willing to fight for them to bring changes from inside -- not outside -- the region. Perhaps Ebadi's lifetime of courageous activism, and the visibility now afforded her, can mark a new beginning in how Americans view and relate to Middle Easterners.
PNS contributor Behrouz Saba (BehrouzSA@aol.com), a native of Iran, writes widely on Middle Eastern and American social, political and cultural issues.
Iran's ruling ayatollahs have little to fear from the student protests that are raising the hopes of regime-change proponents in the Bush administration.
Without a coherent message and a national organization, it is doubtful that a disgruntled, youthful majority can pose a credible challenge to the Islamic regime at this time.
These are the last days of the month of Khordad in Iran. Elite students at Tehran University stage their traditional anti-government demonstrations before the dead of summer sets in. Final exams that drive students to cram all night studying by rote are coming to an end.
Tehran, an urban nightmare without the infrastructure to accommodate decently even a tenth of its population, can only look forward to a long season of unbearable heat and choking pollution.
Restive young people loiter along bustling sidewalks with little hope that their punishing education would mean a secure future. There is little hope as well that the current explosion of youthful protest would be able to change this condition.
It was in the same month 40 years ago that the Shah's regime brutally quelled street demonstrations, later executing a number of protest leaders and sending into exile a little-known cleric named Ayatollah Khomeini.
For the next decade and half, Islamic activists worked across the country in urban neighborhoods and villages, creating a support system through local mosques without which an Islamic revolution would never have come to pass.
Today's opposition has the media savvy to make its presence known worldwide with a few nights of demonstrations. But it clearly lacks the patience and political know-how to back its protests with an effective, nationwide organization.
The Islamic government, since its inception, has consistently strengthened its roots in a power-base of urban and rural poor, using well-funded foundations to secure political loyalty with gifts of food, clothing, medicine and educational material. The Shah's dictatorship never had the ubiquitous role that the Islamic regime plays in the daily lives of ordinary Iranians.
Equally strong is the Islamic regime's hold on the armed forces. Confident of its base of support, the government has even arrested several members of Ansar Hizbullah, the highly organized vigilantes who have attacked protesting students and damaged a dormitory.
While the riot police are very visible, they have mostly avoided violent clashes with demonstrators. The regime has learned a valuable lesson from the Shah's mistake of ordering his troops to answer stone-throwers with live rounds. One dead body on the street in Tehran, Isfahan or Shiraz, where recent protests have taken place, could lead to a drastic shift in public opinion.
The United States' vocal support of the protests also gives clerics additional credibility as they warn young Iranians not to be "fooled and misled by American plots."
"America, realizing that they cannot defeat us in war," said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, "now publicly supports anarchy from within Iran."
Speaker of the Parliament Mehdi Karoubi, countering Bush administration charges that pro-democracy activists are being silenced said, "We have democracy in Iran. The national elections are symbols of democracy in the country. You will see once again massive turnouts in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Iranian people don't like American-style democracy. They have proved this in practice."
America can best show its commitment to democracy in Iran, and the Persian Gulf region as a whole, not by trying to force another regime change. It would do better with policies that indirectly help a still-strong reformist movement in the country.
More diplomatic and cultural exchanges, as well as the lifting of crippling economic sanctions, could boost the reformists, as a more open and prosperous Iran would make Iranians even less inclined toward fundamentalism than they already are today.
Most crucially, if greater power sharing between reformists and conservative clerics evolves, the traditionally skeptical Iranians would start gaining confidence in their own civil institutions. The process could serve as desperately needed model for the entire region.
Saba writes widely on Middle Eastern and American social, political and cultural issues.
While Iraq is being targeted for a possible "regime change," Iran may be plunging toward political disintegration -- a huge, rarely discussed wild card in U.S. plans to unseat Saddam Hussein.
President Bush, in a departure from his "axis of evil" condemnations, has offered Iran an olive branch of sorts. "As Iran's people move towards a future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States of America," he told the Iranian people in a written statement.
Iran's government-controlled broadcast media quickly denounced Bush's statement, accusing him of "shedding crocodile tears," while the conservative clergy and the reformist President Mohammad Khatami condemned the president's "meddling."
Both the overture and the rejections, however, were meant strictly for public consumption. Washington continues back-channel contacts with the Iranian government, including with representatives of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council, whom Bush has branded as "unelected leaders." (They are in fact selected by the Assembly of Experts, which is an elected body.)
Reports indicate that envoys from both countries have met confidentially to examine Iran's role in the Pentagon's plan for the possible overthrow of Hussein. The Iraqi leader initiated a devastating eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s and is loathed by most Iranians.
Iran's ruling clergy, of course, has no choice but to join the chorus of opposition to a possible American invasion of Iraq. And the reform-minded Khatami recently charged Bush with "misusing" Sept. 11 to "create an atmosphere of war."
The clergy vehemently opposed the bombing of Afghanistan, yet gave a green light for Iran to play a key role in creating the post-Taliban regime. In exchange, the United States assured Iranians that Mohammad Zaher Shah would not be restored to his former position as the king. Iranian negotiators were particularly concerned with Zaher Shah, since his rule would have set a precedent for the restoration of the Iranian monarchy.
While Iraq is being targeted by many in Washington, D.C., Iran is plunging toward greater domestic instability. Ayatollah Jalal-al-Din Taheri, a stalwart of the Islamic revolution, recently resigned from his influential position as Isfahan's prayer leader in protest of the country's rampant poverty, political repression and financial corruption. His resignation coincided with student demonstrations at Tehran University, three years after similar protests ended in bloody police action. Signs of unrest are everywhere as the standard of living continues its downward spiral.
Young, progressive Iranians, counting on their huge demographic edge to emerge as ultimate political victors, have consistently avoided violence. The dominant clergy, however, is increasingly using special forces, plainclothes operatives and even militiamen from Lebanon to crack down on the opposition, triggering the possibility of another violent uprising.
The last thing Iran needs is another revolution to send tanks to the streets and bodies to the morgue. The gradual move toward a civil society, rocky as it has been, has served Iran well and should be encouraged by Washington through practical measures.
The last thing the Bush administration should risk is the possibility of American troops on Iraqi soil while Iran next door unravels.
Indeed, the Bush administration should put its money where its mouth is if it wants to be a real friend to Iran. Bush should publicly offer to lift sanctions against the country and support its entry into the World Trade Organization (blocked recently by the United States and Israel) if the ruling clergy puts its house in order by ridding the government of corrupt officials and tolerating dissent.
In response to Ayatollah Taheri's resignation, Ayatollah Khamenei said, "I also have been saying for several years that we have to mobilize all possible means to fight poverty and corruption." To put it in Iranian terms, it's high time for Khamenei to bring to the house the lamp he donates only to the mosque.
Despite a virulently anti-American facade, Iranians know very well that they can repair neither their economy nor their global image in absence of constructive relationships with the United States. America, too, needs Iran to protect its considerable oil and geopolitical interests in the world's most volatile region.
A native of Iran, Behrouz Saba is writing a memoir of his introduction to America in the 1960s as a foreign student at Monterey Peninsula College.