Notes from the Islamic Republic

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Walking down the street in Tehran, if you’re from the Great Satan, is like starring in a triumphal procession, you attract so much attention. I was there last week and it’s the oddest feeling, nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy. People come up to you, not by ones and twos, but by the scores and hundreds and snap selfies and tell you how much they like Americans. If you happen to pass by a picnic, whole families will wave you over to join them. If it’s close to a mealtime, and it’s always close to a mealtime, strangers will invite you into their homes to eat.

Sometimes Iranians will elaborate a bit and tell you that, although they really do like Americans, they don’t approve of our government . . . which struck me as profoundly sensible, since I feel exactly the same way. Every now and then I’d wax especially geopolitical and opine that, all over the world . . . Canada, South Africa, India, you name it . . . nobody likes their own government. To which they’d reply, “Yes, but we don’t like our government a lot more than they don’t like theirs.”

It’s hard to figure where all this goodwill comes from. Back in the day, a lot of Iranians studied abroad and plenty of them must have brought home warm memories of their time in America. Part, I suspect, has to do with the fact that they don’t see that many of us anymore. I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place. Some of the good thoughts may spring from the very public alternative we provide to the society they’re forced to live in. Whatever, two or three even told me they liked President Trump because “his sanctions force our government to pay attention to the people.”

It's nothing like what you expect, especially not those of us whose strongest images of Iranians involve mobs tearing into the American Embassy.

For a government trying its damnedest to turn the Islamic Republic into a police state, the mullahs aren’t getting a lot of buy-in at the interpersonal level, at least when the other person is a foreigner. Iranians will tell you right up front, “We like talking to foreigners because we can discuss politics with them.” The unspoken . . . and, sometimes, spoken . . . corollary is that they’re afraid to talk politics with their own countrymen, at least if they don’t know those countrymen well enough to share a drink with. In a society where the strictures of Islam are jammed down everybody’s throats, sharing a drink with a friend is the ultimate act of trust. In fact, drinking itself is an act of trust because, with the borders shut tight and the vineyards at Shiraz long since uprooted, most of the available alcohol is brewed up from raisins.

Public defiance happens in small ways, but small rebellions are the hardest to control. Women — every woman, foreigner and local alike, even female SCUBA divers — have to hide themselves under layers of cloth. Some of that cloth can be astonishingly form-fitting, and the head coverings that go with it pushed so far back on the skull that they become more of a tease, like a very low-cut gown in the West, than anything exemplifying feminine virtue. Once, in a mosque of all places, I saw a woman remove hers entirely. It was early morning and she stood in the light streaming through a curtainwall of stained glass, the colors dancing off her face and clothes, to have her picture taken. Then pulled off her scarf so her hair could be in the picture, too. A guard, who’d been posted in the shadows to protect the mosque from just such an outrage, marched over and ordered her to cover back up.

“Now.”

With the time-honored gesture imperious women everywhere give to dismiss bothersome males, she flicked her fingers at him, he retreated to the dark recesses he’d risen up from of, and she went back to the serious business of having her picture taken.

I’ve had that theory for a long time that there’s an inverse relationship between how well-liked Americans are in any given place and the number of us who travel to that place.

Iranians have rebelled in more substantial ways, too. After the Revolution, when a particularly crazed mullah ordered Persepolis bulldozed, townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the mullah gave up and the bulldozers lumbered away.

Whatever religious feelings individual Iranians have, or don’t have, they pretty much keep to themselves. Or, at least, they don’t make a show of to foreigners. Aside from a lady in the Grand Bazaar in Isfahan who wanted to sell me a tile painted with lovely Farsi script, then commanded not to use it as a trivet because the script spelled out “In the name of God,” religion only came up one time. That was in a park in Tehran when a claque of schoolgirls presented me with a scrap of paper, also lettered in Farsi. It took some asking, but the paper turned out to be a prayer for the return of the Mahdi. It was his birthday and the girls were celebrating by passing out prayers to park-goers.

The Mahdi, for those not versed in the intricacies of the Shia brand of Islam, is the Occulted Imam who, in the fullness of time, will reveal himself and reign over the Latter Days before the Resurrection. Oddly, given the echoes of Christianity in the story, or fittingly, or eerily, or because of rotating calendars, or for reasons known only to the common God our more ecumenical theologians claim we all share, his birthday fell on Easter Sunday this year.

Townspeople lay down in front of the Gate of All Nations, the gorgeous bas reliefs, and the remnants of Darius’s palace and treasury, and stayed laid down until the bulldozers lumbered away.

To believers of a certain ilk, the Mahdi has already taken a stab at revealing himself. This happened in the 1880s when he led an uprising in Sudan. But it didn’t stick. He won a spectacular series of battles, then died and became occulted all over again. His movement fell apart a few years later when his successor in Mahdiship attracted the notice of a British army equipped with Maxim guns and Martini-Henry rifles. Whether he’s planning on re-revealing himself anytime soon has not been communicated to me but, whatever he has in mind, there’s not much doubt what those girls were thinking. Their faces were ablaze with the joy and light of the true believer.

All of which is to say that, whatever tensions exist between America and the Islamic Republic, they’re not on the personal level, or even the religious. Government-to-government is a different story. Citizens of almost any place in the world can pick up a visa to Iran upon arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport City in Tehran. Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even APPLY for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa . . . which means sending in a form four months in advance setting out, among other things, the complete itinerary of our hoped-for visit along with a curriculum vitae for the past 15 years . . . where we worked, what we did, what our employers did . . . and then waiting three of the four months while they check our bona fides. The people who aren’t bona fide, the ones they don’t want in their country, are employees of “certain” US government agencies, and those of us with a history of practicing journalism. That practicing journalism business gave me pause until I realized that scribbling the occasional screed for Liberty is about as removed from journalism as an honest writer can get.

If you pass muster in the government-employee and journalism departments, they’ll favor you with a document granting permission to apply for a visa. This lets you fill out a visa application, slip the document, the application, your passport, a couple of photos, and a money order into an envelope and . . . Iran not having an embassy in the US . . . send the envelope to the Islamic Republic of Iran Interest Section at the Embassy of Pakistan. Which leaves you with the uncomfortable thought that I just sent my passport to Pakistan.

Those of us who live in Britain, Canada, or the Great Satan, though, can’t even apply for a visa. We have to apply for permission to apply for a visa

Our government isn’t all that gung-ho about Americans travelling to Iran, either. Here’s what the State Department posts on its website for those of us who might be tempted:

“Do not travel to Iran due to the risk of kidnapping, arrest, detention of U.S. citizens. There is a very high risk of kidnapping, arrest, and detention of U.S. citizens in Iran . . . .” (Bolds copied directly from the original, State Department font.)

After warning you about kidnapping, arrest and detention, the site highly encourages you to register with the American embassy so that our folks in Tehran will know you’re in town and can help you get back out if things go awry. Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering. One of the ladies who traveled with us did, though, and got a note back instructing her to appoint a hostage negotiator before setting out. She submitted the name of her 14-month-old granddaughter on the ground of, “that girl always knows what she wants.”

In Iran, traveling with a group is pretty much de rigueur on account of you aren’t allowed go anywhere without a guide. (“Guide” is Farsi for “minder.”) After you leave the country, your guide goes down to the Internal Security Police and reports on you. One of our guides told me he hated doing that, not because he felt that he was betraying his clients, but because he never knew what to say. “They ask me where the tourists went and what they took pictures of and what they talked about. I tell them they went to Persepolis and took pictures of the Gate of All Nations, and talked about Alexander the Great, and the Security Police get mad and threaten to pull my license.”

Since we don’t actually have an embassy in Tehran, it’s hard to see how this would work, and my wife and I didn’t bother registering.

At the end of our trip we had to fly from Shiraz to Tehran to catch our flight home. Tehran has two airports. The old airport, for domestic flights, and the new Khomeini Airport for international travel. On a good day, meaning at midnight when traffic is lightest, these airports are an hour and a half apart. Our tour arranged for a cab to take us.

The driver was more than accommodating, even by the standards of an Iranian dealing with Americans. When we arrived at Khomeini, he insisted on carrying our bags into the terminal . . . even though all we had was carry-ons, and the carry-ons had wheels.

Then he insisted on waiting in line with us.

And accompanying us to the ticket counter, and on through to emigration . . . at which point he couldn’t insist any more, so, pulling out his phone, he took a selfie of the three of us with the emigration booth in the background. “To remember you by.”

To REMEMBER us by? This guy was a cab driver.

Or, when I thought about it, something more than a cab driver. The selfie documented the fact that he’d gotten us onto the plane.

Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one.

The mullahs weren’t as queasy about what we were allowed to see while we were in Iran as they were about making sure we didn’t overstay our welcome, and one of the first places we went was the Nest of Spies. Also known as the Den of Espionage or, more poetically, the Museum-Garden of Anti-Arrogance, where we were invited to inspect all of America’s latest (à la 1970s) high-tech computer gadgetry, Faraday cages, and shredding equipment left over from when the place really did harbor spies. So it’s not exactly true that we don’t have an embassy in Tehran, it’s just that we don’t currently have diplomatic personnel serving in the embassy.

A few days later we drove past, but weren’t invited to examine, the uranium processing facility at Natanz with, presumably, stuxnet still whirling away at the centrifuges.

Something else the mullahs seemed a bit lax about was military couture. Apparently, when you join Iran’s fighting forces nobody issues you a uniform. Instead, you go to a tailor and get fitted for one, which makes Iranian soldiers a lot spiffier in the personal appearance department than baggy fatigues make our guys look.

I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter.

The tailors have a full line of insignia to complete the look and, like merchants all over the Middle East, don’t seem to care whom they sell to. So, if you want, you can walk into one shop and get fitted out in the regalia of a full colonel in the Iranian air force. Or, as I did, come away more modestly accoutered with a black Revolutionary Guard shoulder patch embroidered in gold thread with a hand clutching an automatic rifle. I heard there were Hamas shoulder patches on offer, but didn’t get one.

Despite this military stuff I find it very difficult to believe that anybody in the entire country has any stomach for war with America, or any other place for that matter. In the been-there-done-that department, Iran is top of the line. Back in the Eighties . . . almost the whole of the Eighties . . . it got in a dispute with Iraq and refought World War I. Trenches. Machine guns. Gas. Shells. Barbed wire, and a lot of Iranians died. Two-hundred-thousand. Six-hundred-thousand. Eight-hundred-thousand, you can take your choice because nobody believes the official stats. Reminders are everywhere.

On bridges. On lampposts. On sides of buildings. And, especially, down the center lanes of highways leading into towns.

Unlike the men whose names are chiseled beneath the words “We shall never forget” on obelisks and the bases of statues in Britain and America, these dead really are hard to forget. Their faces are on big black-and-white portraits hanging, two at a time, every 20 meters or so along the center strips of highways as you drive into town. Every town, and back out on the other side. Kilometers of young men. Miles of young men leading into Tehran and Qom and Kashan and Isfahan and Yazd and Shiraz and every little village and berg in between, and into the countryside beyond. Hometown kids. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands.

The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

As with people in photographs everywhere, you feel you can look them in the eye, that you can sense who they were, and who they could have been. Skinny, scared boys. Smirking cads. Athletes. Sad sacks. You make up stories in your mind. That one was proud to serve. Or a scholar. Or wishing he were home. Or back in school. Or in his uncle’s shop, or working the farm, or hanging out on a street corner. All . . . because you know what trench warfare is like, because you know what machine guns and gas and shells and barbed wire do to human flesh . . . destined for horrible, filthy deaths. The very fact that you’re looking at their pictures tells you all you need to know, all you want to know, about what became of them.

I don’t have any better idea than any other friend of Liberty what really happened to those four tankers that are said to have been sabotaged in the Persian Gulf in mid-May but, to a person of my generation, the news can’t help bring up memories of what we were told happened, but didn’t, in the Gulf of Tonkin. This time feels different, though, and I sure hope it is. Under Johnson we had a president who not only was looking for a fight but was willing to manufacture an incident to create one. Blunderbuss that some people will tell you our current president is, he’s said from the beginning he doesn’t want to get us involved in wars. So, maybe, he won’t.

Whatever is really going on between us and Iran and those tankers, Iranians are not people we want to fight. They are people who, in a different world, would be our closest friends. They are funny and spontaneous and laughing and much more like us than anybody else I know about in the Middle East, than many Europeans, for that matter, but I’m not sanguine about what’s going to happen. Not that I think we’ll get into a shooting war with them, I just can’t see how we can ever get out of each other’s faces.

Two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves.

Nobody who isn’t Iranian wants the Islamic Republic to control the Persian Gulf, and nobody who isn’t Saudi wants Arabia to control the Persian Gulf. The problem from the point of view of those of us who aren’t Iranian or Saudi is that Iran has the best army in the region, is a major industrial power, has a thriving agriculture sector, and is just short of world-class in high tech. Arabia can’t so much as make a ballpoint pen. Heck, Arabia can’t even feed itself. Wheat that sells for five dollars on the world market costs ten dollars worth of water to grow in Arabia. All of which puts America in a classic geopolitical bind.

Unless we want to send our own young people to the Persian Gulf to keep Iran from taking over the whole show, we don’t have any choice but to play balance-of-power, which means sanctions, and scaring away tourists, and pushing every country we have any sway with to keep cranking the screws down tighter.

It didn’t have to be this way. It used to be there was a built-in balance of power, with Iraq sitting on Iran’s western flank, tying up its army and its resources and generally putting the brakes on the Mullahs getting too frisky. But two presidents ago we elected a fool who broke that balance, and now we don’t have any choice but to maintain it ourselves. As one of the ayatollahs, or imams, or mullahs or somebody said at the time, “Allah has blinded the Great Satan into doing our work for us.” Or something along those lines.




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