Business As Usual in Tehran

When having specifically asked after the presidential election of June 12, I have been more or less discouraged by colleagues several times to visit Iran. The situation has been described as not really stable, in particular on highly symbolic days as November 4, Ashura, Bahman 22 (February 11)  when demonstrations of adherents of the ‘Green Movement’ have been cracked down by riot police and paramilitary basij with increasing brutality. Right now the regime in Tehran would not allow further protests, in particular in prospect of the anniversary of last year’s election.

Unbiased reports by true insiders are currently rare. Iranian-American Hooman Majd who has been serving as advisor and translator for two Iranian presidents, namely Mohammad Khatami and the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, makes the point after a visit to Tehran in April that life is back to normal in Iran. He starts his five page ‘Postcard from Tehran’ in Foreign Policy with a doozy: “Memo to Secretary Clinton: Iran is neither a military dictatorship nor a police state. Yet.” [1]

Hooman Majd’s highly readable and slightly informative narrations resemble the content of his book of 2008 “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ – The Paradox of Modern Iran” [2]. No visible military, neither at the airport nor anywhere in Tehran.  Business as usual. A country populated by highly interested in politics people who won’t care to discuss politics in public.

“Drivers – men, and often mal-veiled and heavily made-up women – listen to loud pop music of the sort frowned upon by religious authorities, just as they always did, ignoring traffic laws and even the entreaties of the occasional traffic cop. The restaurants and cafes are bustling; weekly, and sometimes nightly, salons at the homes and offices of the elite continue unabated in a city where public entertainment is limited, the conversations usually fearlessly political in nature.”

So, what has actually changed in Iran? Honestly, we don’t know. Iran is (and has been) a dictatorship where the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say in any key issue. After the election protests thousands have been jailed, dozens killed. Unspecified numbers tortured in prisons. Nobody can seriously dispute that. What is described in the West as the ‘Green Movement’ is not acting against the system, something western powers, eager for promoting another regime change in Iran, are not fully aware of. Obama’s doublespeak [3] and his and western powers’ not serious proposals regarding last year’s much discussed uranium swap have not built trust in either the regime or the common Iranian. Interestingly, the strongest denial of the uranium swap came from the opposition, former Prime Minister and defeated presidential candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi and former chief nuclear negotiator and current speaker of parliament Ali Larijani. It might in fact be argued that Obama’s agenda erroneously counted on Iran’s pigheadedness in any of its nuclear issues; and mainstream media have now prepared in the meantime the public for a new confrontation in the Middle East.

What is annoying in Hooman Majd’s ‘postcard’ essay is his hardly tolerable, highly apologetic approach to the persistent horrors of the regime. For instance, when in Tehran, he had met a friend, an artist who was never politically active.

“I spent an evening with a friend, someone who spent 150 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison in 2009, charged with sedition. He was arrested in his apartment soon after the election and during the first series of protest marches and disturbances. Fingered as a neighborhood leader by a local shopkeeper, himself arrested and presumably bartering names for clemency, my friend, a music teacher and guitarist, spent much of his time in solitary confinement and was among the first group of four detainees whose court appearances were televised live in the summer. He was not physically abused and suffered no torture beyond that of incarceration in what is Iran’s Alcatraz, but was subjected to frequent, lengthy interrogations – sessions he actually began to look forward to as relief from the monotony of life in his cell.

“The people, he told his interrogator, don’t care who is president; what they care about is how their government will solve their problems. How will their government deal with the fact that 17-year-old girls are willing to sell their bodies to put food on the table for their families, or even just to buy a $30 handbag? He would tell the interrogator, a man from the intelligence division of the Revolutionary Guards – anonymous and unwilling to let prisoners see his face – that the people were fed up and thought they had voted for change, but were not agitating for revolt. He still believes, though, that if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government is able to make significant progress in relieving economic pressures, and to some extent social pressures, it will not be an unpopular one. My friend, an artist who was never politically active, surprisingly doesn’t hold a grudge against either the system or his jailers; he also told me the warden of his unit, section 2A, less infamous than section 209 but for prisoners of the Guards, phoned him after he was released (and charges against him dropped) and said he hoped he did not take his arrest and detention “personally.” Surprisingly, he doesn’t. Both for the jailers and the jailed, the politics inside Evin evidently mirror the streets of Tehran and other cities.” (Emphasis added.)


[1] Though many analysts have expressed their fears that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has lost his latitude after partisan support of Ahamdinejad after the disputed election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has entertained the people in the Arab world when driveling about Iran as drifting toward a military dictatorship in Qatar and Saudi Arabia in February, both countries not really being flawless democracies. Ms Clinton is used to get things wrong, of course. Most recently, when addressing the UN Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in New York on May 3, she said:

“This morning Iran’s president offered the same tired, false, and sometimes wild accusations against the United States and other parties at the conference. But that’s not surprising. As you all heard this morning, Iran will do whatever it can do to divert attention from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability. Ultimately, however, we will all be judged not for our words but for our actions, and we will all be measured not by how assertively we claim our rights but by how faithfully we uphold our responsibilities. And as the secretary general said in this regard, the onus is on Iran, and so far it has failed to meet its burden.” (Emphasis added.)

That we will be judged not for our nice words but for our actions applies certainly, and in particular, to last year’s Nobel Peace laureate Barack Obama and his administration.

[2] I have posted on this blog a rather critical review of Majd’s book and even concluded:

“The lack of critical distance here and in his closeness to the former president of the country, Hojjatoleslam Ali Khatami is obvious, and I am afraid that Majd, both an insider and outsider in the system, is perfectly taking advantage of an inhumane system which is not really criticized in the book in its monstrous perversion of religion.”

[3] That Barack Obama and his administration have extended a hand to unclench Iran’s fist is a myth. His two speeches on the occasion of Nowruz in 2009 and 2010 have been considered in Iran and elsewhere as interesting words, but no constructive action has followed. Aims for new sanctions may be the prelude for military actions. Iran has been named, together with North Korea, in America’s Nuclear Review Posture as a possible target for a nuclear attack, something which cannot be expected to build-up trust.

Last update May 8, 2010.

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1 Response to Business As Usual in Tehran

  1. Pingback: No Democracy « Freelance

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