June 25, 2006


Misreading Tehran (Karl Vick, June 25, 2006, Washington Post)

What's your idea about Iranians? Almost everyone I encountered in my 10 visits to the Islamic republic over the past 3 1/2 years resembled the mortified colleagues of the mad mullah: gracious, hospitable, apparently genuine in their regard for ordinary Americans and reasoned in their criticism of Washington. Years before the Bush administration's recent and surprising agreement to Tehran's request for negotiations , Iranian officials were likely as not to close an interview with a sidelong bid for some contact, any contact, between the two governments.

Perhaps that's why, in scanning my recollection for scenes that might encourage the understanding that eludes both countries, what stands out are the extremes, outliers such as the lanky, intense cleric in the Tehran crowd gathered for the free food and festival on the 26th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Every few steps, he bent at the waist, plucked a paper Iranian flag from the ground and tore the emblem from the center. Then he kissed the scrap and stuffed it in his pocket.

The emblem contained the word ''Allah," he explained, and a close reading of religious texts dictated that it should never touch the ground. His son, who looked about 7, gazed at the street littered with thousands of the paper flags, then up at his father, struggling for comprehension.

You tend to do that in Iran, a place that newcomers invariably describe as not what they expected. The reality turns out to be less severe -- less like the billowing black chador so irresistible to photographers: big, vaguely frightening and often in counterpoint to the more nuanced background scene it overwhelms.

The severity exists these days mostly as memory and threat, a reservoir of fear that surged to the surface of more liberal Iranians last year when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president. The day after the election, a young secretary given to wearing spring pastels with matching sandals showed up at work looking like a nun. "I am making myself ready," she said.

But the crackdown never came. Iran's ruling theocrats know their failures as well as anyone: stunning rates of opiate addiction, brain drain, traffic fatalities and a feeble per capita income. They clearly have calculated that the nation's young majority will not abide both joblessness and ruthlessness. The fear runs both ways.

In a morale meeting for hardliners last month, a young man who five years ago had the power to chastise the young women in his office for not sufficiently covering themselves whined: "They make fun of me."

So today on one side of a Tehran thoroughfare, a fading wall mural celebrates a Palestinian suicide bomber, while on the other a line of posters advertise HUMMER, a cologne named for the American war wagon.

After 2,500 years on the plateau that holds them -- along with their self-regard -- above the Arabs, Iranians know who they are. Their traditions are elegant. If they are indeed proud, as the children of empire will be, a particular aspect of history often pointed out these days is that almost all of Iran's wars have been defensive.

"Why don't Americans know this about us?" a man asked me last month in Arak , where the government is building a water reactor as part of its nuclear program. [...]

Near the center of the city, two stooped men pushed a cleaner's cart while struggling to support a third man, older and unable to walk by himself. Crabbing along, Khodadad Torshamli, his brother and his uncle were a scene from Beckett framed by the dingy white marble that encases half the buildings in the capital.

"I just hear noises," said Torshamli, 46, when I asked him about the Iranian nuclear controversy. "There's no money in it, so why should we care?"

The trio had lost their jobs as farmers in the provinces and come to Tehran like millions of other economic migrants. They worked sweeping the tidy streets. After four years, they were still trying to raise money so their uncle might be able to have surgery on his back.

"What the latest news is, I don't know," Torshamli said. "But they keep saying they are very wise and brave." His smile was deadpan. "What we are looking for is security, but in these noises there's no money, there's no security. I can't smell anything good."

He put a shoulder into the cart and got it moving again, sideways and forward at the same time.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 25, 2006 11:05 AM

Maybe the threat of ultra-religious Shiites is overrated: if they spend time kissing things they pick up from city streets like the lanky cleric, microbes will solve the problem for us.

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 25, 2006 9:07 PM

This is a sad story. The state Iran is in is so pointless, it could be an economic powerhouse, these aren't illiterate Afghans or gun-toting Somali tribemen.

Instead, the mullah have brought the country to it's knees with their hold on it's throat, and only fear and lunacy keeps them from letting go.

I do feel sorry for the Iranians, some people say "they should revolt" but have you tried going up against religious nuts with guns, armed with nothing but your fists? Not much fun.

What a dumb situation.

Posted by: Amos at June 26, 2006 12:04 AM

The reality turns out to be less severe

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" doesn't quite agree with that assessment, though it deals with the period following the revolution. I wonder, though, if there's anything that should make one think anything has fundamentally changed.

Highly recommended.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 26, 2006 2:18 AM