Guest post by Tori Egherman
Tori Egherman, an American, and her husband Kamran Ashtary, an Iranian, lived and blogged in Tehran from 2003 to 2007.
A few months before I left to live in Iran, the news broke of a heavy water plant near the capital of Iran’s Central province, Arak. CNN broadcast maps of the region. Satellite images were circulated. Just six months later I was in a car, speeding down a six-lane highway towards Arak. I had only half a seatbelt as we flew past crumbling mud brick villages that were returning to the desert and walls with seven-foot letters painted on them, reminiscent of the “See Rock City” ads on the roofs of barns throughout American Midwest. My Persian was limited to Hello, how are you? And I did not yet know how to read. In my mind each sign held some revolutionary slogan, reminding the citizens of Iran just who was boss. After a few months, dozens of trips, and improved Persian, I was finally able to read the many signs along the highway: LEMON JUICE AHEAD. NEW TIRES CHEAP.
The nuclear issue was in the news then. It was a subject of much conversation the entire four years I spent in Iran. I watched as Western diplomats and politicians stumbled into the Iranian government’s playing field, confused and unaware of which game was being played. In an interview I did with Gary Sick who worked for the Carter administration during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, he characterized negotiations with Iran:
“…America is a football culture: it’s all about confrontation and open head-to-head competition. Iran is more of a chess culture that proceeds with a subtlety of moves. They are always thinking three steps ahead, trying to make the opponent look foolish, trapping somebody so that they think you are doing one thing when you are really doing another.”
The public communications about the goals of the nuclear negotiations were not clearly stated. It seemed that the negotiating team did not know that people in Iran were listening to what they had to say in an effort to decode their own government’s communications. The Iranian regime was telling its population that the West wanted to block its right to the peaceful use of nuclear power and European and American negotiators didn’t clearly deny this. As a result, a population that questioned every other communication uttered on state-run media believed this one. There was no counter-narrative.
Should Iran Have a Bomb?
In conversations about the possibilities of Iran building a bomb, we are told over and over again how an Iranian bomb will start an arms race in the Middle East. I guess it’s not surprising for people who can’t even find Iran on a map to not realize that it shares a border with a nuclear state: Pakistan. Or that Israel, which is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement, is part of the Middle East. The arms race has begun. With or without Iran. And it’s not going to end with a successful deal.
What often surprised me in conversations with people in Iran was that those most opposed to the regime and its excesses were often those most in favor of its nuclear policy. Maybe it was because they were also those most aware of the many betrayals of Iran’s nationhood: the exploitation of its resources; the CIA-led coup against their prime minister, Mossadegh, in the late 1950s; the double-dealing during the eight-year war with Iraq; the chemical attacks on Kurdish villages and the lack of international response; the shooting down of a passenger airplane. Maybe it was because they saw the Islamic Republic as temporary and viewed the ability to make a bomb as one of national security.
The one thing I do know is that the stand-off with the West and the 30-year history of sanctions has strengthened Iran’s hardliners. It’s given them a tool to control the populace both politically and economically. An Iran under sanctions is an Iran under siege. Even the smallest acts of defiance, acts that would be seen as reform in another political system, have been punished harshly with long prison terms and crippling bails. Sanctions provide cover for poor economic planning and bad decision-making. They allow the most connected, most hardline, and most venal to thrive. Anyone who has read Catch 22 by Joseph Heller should have some idea of what war profiteering looks like. Why is that so hard to imagine in a country under sanctions?
The idea that the suffering of Iran’s population under sanctions would or could lead to an uprising was magical thinking. Anyone who is familiar with the story of Masada should know better.
This Time We Make It Stick
Near the end of the Lauren Bacall-Humphrey Bogart film Key Largo, a gangster who has been wreaking havoc on guests holed up in a hotel during a hurricane says, “I bet you in two or three years we get Prohibition back. This time we make it stick … absolutely, yeah.” I’m sure that’s how many Iranian hardliners and profiteers felt about sanctions. Let’s make ‘em stick…
For a group of Iranian hardliners aligned with the Supreme Leader, who benefited both economically and politically, the end of the sanctions regime is more bitter than sweet. They (initially) opposed an agreement because the sanctions had allowed them to exert great control over the economy, and they had invested so much in bypassing the sanctions.
Now they are regrouping, seeing how they can benefit from the end of sanctions. What they are hoping for is continued economic control with no cultural give and take. In their article at Open Democracy, Hossein Rassam and Sanam Vakil call this group “interactionists”. Interactionists are looking to retain and strengthen control over Iranian society and still benefit economically. Their model: Welcome international business, but not international agreements. As far as they are concerned, Iran should not be held to the international conventions they have entered into, such as the convention on the rights of the child. They would like to see the international community give up any thoughts of pressuring them on human rights.
The upcoming elections in Iran, planned for February 2016, are set to showcase the increased social controls this group would like to see implemented. Intelligence forces have already announced security measures and controls on social media and internet usage. Many inside the country are predicting massive social crackdowns, with new arrests. One human rights activist told me, “They’re releasing activists and others now so they can arrest new people later.”
The Elephant in the Room: Iranian Anti-Semitism
I can’t deny anti-Semitism in Iran. I understand why many Israelis are fearful of Iran. The language of the Iranian power elite is incendiary. Their actions have been unforgivable. I do not believe that the government or the population is suicidal, however, which is what many people arguing against the agreement seem to believe.
Anti-Semitism exists in Iran: it’s on television and in the proclamations of those who lead Friday prayers. Yet I also know that it has not taken root in the population. The depth of anti-Semitism among Iran’s population felt fairly low to me. Certainly, less ingrained than it feels in Europe, where I now live. There isn’t a whole history backing it up in Iran. I did not experience any anti-Jewish sentiment personally from anyone I met and often heard people longing for the time when their communities were more diverse. “We used to have Jews and Christians in our community,” I heard people say. “Those were better times.”
When people asked me, I always told them I was Jewish. I told them I had been to Israel. I told this to members of the Revolutionary Guard, the Basiji (militia), judges, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and mullahs. My cultural, religious, or national background never caused me a minute of fear in four years in Iran. Other things did. But not that.
The Iranian regime is a (somewhat) equal opportunity oppressor. It’s not great to be Jewish in Iran, but then it’s no picnic being a Muslim there either. And forget it if you are Baha’i. Despite this, the Jews and Baha’i I met in Iran were generally optimistic about the changes they’d seen in the acceptance of them by the Iranian population. One Jewish man told me that before the revolution, he had to bring his own containers to stores so that his Jewish cooties would not infect the food sold there. Baha’i families seemed to accept the government’s oppression of them as a natural stage of any growing religion. Despite this oppression, I also heard many say that the population had become more accepting of them as the government had become less so.
I want Iran to respect human rights and religious freedom. I do. I want them to engage in less incendiary speech and completely eradicate all vestiges of anti-Semitism from their politics.
The Oven Door
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee warns that this deal is like leading Israel to the doors of the oven. He even went so far as to say that he’d visited Auschwitz three times and knew what those doors looked like.
These kinds of comments from American politicians make my head explode. Iran is not Nazi Germany. It’s not Stalin’s USSR. It’s not Mao’s China. It’s not Pol Pot’s Cambodia. It’s not Bush’s America or Lula’s Brazil or Cameron’s UK. It’s its own thing: a hybrid, unjust, contradictory place with great artists and filmmakers, idiotic and cruel bureaucrats, and pockets of tolerance and intolerance. American politicians and thinkers who have never spent significant time outside the US are beginning to sound ridiculous and out of touch with the world.
Mike Huckabee and others like him remind me of the soapbox war mongers who spoke in Europe’s public squares in the years leading up to World War I. They are woefully unaware of how much the world has changed and how dangerous and destructive war is. They remain romantic about American exceptionalism. Those of us who valued what we thought of as American values– democracy and free speech, human rights and the struggle for equality– have become as disillusioned as the intellectual class that spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We have seen our values trashed as torture and preemptive war were embraced. We squandered our resources and goodwill on lies and bombs.
When was the last time you saw an American tremble uncontrollably at the thought of an Iranian attack? Because I have seen Iranians I love tremble uncontrollably at the thought of an American one. They know what war is and what it does. Few Americans do.
Iran is not a simple story of us versus them. It’s a story of struggle and connectedness. If we’re smart, we’ll encourage the Iranians to become part of the international community and encourage them to keep their human rights obligations and reduce economic corruption. If we can keep this agreement and engage Iran, before we know it there will be busloads of Jewish tourists visiting the tombs of Daniel and Mordechai and Esther and sharing baked goods and tea in a café just north of Persepolis.