AS COMMENTATORS DIGEST THE RESULTS OF RECENT presidential elections in Iran, the country has attracted more attention in the American media. In the United States, however, Iran remains an entity eminently reducible. It appears to us only in the headlines, rarely accompanied by pictures other than brief clips of bearded mullas or chador-clad women, a two dimensional image constructed of clichés and pundit truisms. With the exception of scholars like Dilip Hiro, discourse on the country and its people in the mainstream media ranges from the demographically mundane “Iran is a young country” to the unchallenged subtext that Iran has the most pro- American population in the Middle East and, as Daniel Pipes says, “that regime change is just a matter of time.” ‘ At the core of such thinking on Iran is the belief that the country, defined in our minds as a perennial arena of revolution, is at heart a Western nation shackled by a theocratic regime. If the international community, so this line of thinking goes, could only apply the proper treatment of diplomatic pressure, sanctions and saber-rattling, the theocratic regime that swept into power after the Iranian revolution twenty-five years ago would itself be toppled by a vindicating proWestern wave of students and reformers.
This poverty of thinking results from the tragic disconnect between Americans and Iran. We are dependent on a narrow stream of data about the country, fed by Western experts whose books and op-eds seem to rely on the bizarre mixture of expatriate musings and taxi-cab gossip that emanates from the rich and discontented northern suburbs of Tehran (I was surprised, for example, to see a New York Times op-ed on the growing political power of the Revolutionary Guard appear a few months after hearing the same views expressed among intellectuals in Iran itself).2 As a student studying Middle East history, I was weary of such second- or third-hand analysis and hoped that an extended stay in Iran would allow me to see if this monolithic vision of Iran was accurate. What I found was that the biggest flaw in American discussions on Iran is our failure to grasp that, like our own country, Iran is many nations in one. The Iran we are familiar with in American discourse is that of liberal Iranian intellectuals, Iranian-Americans outraged by the theocracy of the Islamic Republic. What I concluded in Iran was that however valid this point of view may be, an accurate assessment of Iran must take into account another perspective: that of a socially conservative and devoutly religious society whose grievances with its government have nothing to do with women wearing the chador.
Because I was a Muslim and could speak Persian, my two months of traveling throughout the country became a tour of Iran’s diversity. Due to the astounding, nearly pathological hospitality of the everyday Iranians who invited me into their homes, my travels became a series of home-stays in the different regions of the country. I spent over a month living with the family of a retired bank worker in central Tehran. I stayed for a week with an auto-mechanic’s family in the great pilgrimage center of Mashhad, traveling around the historically rich province of Khorasan. I stayed for several days with a graduate student and his relatives in the ancient desert city of Yazd, one of the oldest inhabited settlements in the world and cradle of Zoroastrianism. I spent a night on the floor of a taxi driver’s kitschy apartment in the humid Caspian resort town of Rasht. I interacted with a wide range of Iranians, from theology students in Qpm to one of the Shah’s former ministers in the posh northern suburbs of Tehran. I spent several afternoons discussing my dissertation with brilliant professors in Tehran research institutes, and another being lectured by a fiery cleric at the madrasa in Shiraz where Mulla Sadrá had taught. Iranian youths took me to impromptu poetry recitals under the bridges of Esfahan, and students eager to practice their English mobbed me in the public gardens of Kashan.
Throughout these travels, it was the immediate contrast between the uniform image of Iran presented in the American media and the diversity of opinion in the country itself that formed my most lasting impression. Iran’s capital city exemplified this heterogeneity. I quickly realized that the Iran portrayed in op-ed pieces and foreign affairs articles represented only one segment of Iranian society: the liberal, rich and Westernized neighborhoods of northern Tehran. On its tree-lined boulevards women find endlessly inventive ways to subvert the country’s rigid dress laws, and no one hides their seething resentment for the Islamic Republic. Walking past the endless shops on Valiasr Street on warm summer afternoons, one sees women in quarter-length pants, their hijabs nothing more than glorified headbands stylishly accenting sculpted bangs and highlighted ponytails. One passes policemen strolling down the sidewalk, unconcerned with people’s dress. In the city’s poorer southern districts, however, another Iran is evident. The women walking briskly through the streets clad themselves in the black chador not because of government rules, but because their society is itself extremely conservative. In the southern district of Rayy, the men waiting for shared taxis display no hint of sarcasm or contempt when discussing their Islamic customs and values.
Outside Tehran the conservative baseline of Iran becomes even more apparent. In Yazd, I met several dozen men who had all dropped out of high school and lied about their age to fight in the Iran-Iraq War. Although they had since become successful businessmen, they were prepared to heed any call the government made for the Basijis, or people willing to mobilize in order to defend the revolution. This was not, I concluded, a dying phenomenon. Their younger brothers and cousins shared their political and social values. Although one member of this younger generation owned an internet cafe, his admiration for his older siblings and commitment to their beliefs was palpable.
In a popular teahouse in Esfahan, a group of stylish young men invited me to join them when I could find no empty table. From their brand-name clothing and their immaculately gelled hair, I associated them with the liberal youth of northern Tehran. When the PA system regularly broadcasts a reminder for women to respect the proper dress code, I expected a display of the liberal outrage one would hear in northern Tehran, where such a message would have provoked sarcastic murmurings. When I asked the young men to explain the announcement, they replied without any hint of sarcasm that women ought to dress properly.
It is also plainly evident that many Iranians harbor resentment towards their government. Like almost all developing countries, however, this often centers on perennial complaints about corruption and the poor state of the economy. Complaints in Iran thus do not differ qualitatively from those one might hear in a taxi in Egypt or a teahouse in Turkey. As far as I was able to observe, only among the liberal upper class and portions of the aspiring middle class (and of course among religious minorities) does this criticism target the state’s religious character. It is thus incorrect to equate discontent with the government with an overwhelming native desire to replace the country’s Islamic republic with a liberal democracy. Americans might criticize the Bush administration’s link with Enron or the power of special interest lobbies, but they would not favor a coup or revolution.
Foreign policy experts in the United States should not underestimate support for the current regime, especially in provincial areas. As one former Iranian diplomat admitted to me, “the base of the regime is in the provinces.” Nor should policy makers assume that discontent within Iran would translate into support for foreign intervention. As anyone with even a minimal familiarity with the Persian language knows, nothing in Iran is to be taken at face value. Navigating the niceties and euphemisms of conversation in Iran is almost impossible for foreigners. On two occasions, Iranian men asked me optimistically when the American army would invade. It took only a few minutes of conver-sation, however, to reveal their posturing. Their displeasure with the government was obvious, but on both occasions when I asked the men what they would do if Israel struck Iranian weapons facilities, they said they would gladly go to war.
Highlighting the strong strains of conservatism (political or social) in Iran does not invalidate the valiant efforts of Iranian reformers such as the Nobel Prize winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi, nor should it be confused with apologizing for the current Iranian regime. It simply means that an accurate assessment of Iran and its people must consider the whole range of opinions, many of which do not identify with a liberal Western lifestyle or a U.S.-led regime change. Most importantly, acknowledging the diversity within Iran should remind us that the country is involved in its own internal dialogue. The future of Iran and the character of its government is an issue for Iranians themselves to determine. How would Americans react if a foreign power announced it had heard the cries of liberal New Yorkers outraged by Bush’s reelection and was planning to use whatever diplomatic or military means necessary to coerce a regime change in the United States? How would the populations of “Red America” respond to outsiders declaring that the Blue States were the true voice of a repressed America? I believe that pondering these questions can frame the Iran issue in more productive terms and steer Americans away from the myopic planning that led us into Iraq.
At this point in time, both Iran and the United States are hostages of their own rhetoric. Given the two countries’ lists of outstanding grievances against each other, it seems unlikely that relations between the two countries will thawany time soon. With our governments at loggerheads, it is the obligation of civil society to improve communications. For Americans, this means increasing our first-hand familiarity with Iran and its people and enabling them to do the same. The United States must extend more courteous treatment to visiting Iranian scholars and diplomats, allowing Iranians to become more familiar with our hospitality and values. Iranians are generally opposed to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but even the politically and religiously conservative ones are hospitable and eager to communicate with Americans. My most interesting conversations about the United States and Iran took place over a home-cooked meal with a card-carrying member of the Revolutionary Guard and his family. Iran is a very safe and friendly place (although female travelers should probably not go alone), and police there are more concerned with foreigners having pleasant visits than anything else. Dress code aside, strolling down the street in Iran eating ice cream, or sipping tea in a public garden is a pleasure. As an American now back home amid talk of red states and blue states, the most important thing I learned about Iran is that we should get used to hearing all the different voices from within Iran as well.