August 12, 2015


A Jewish Journalist's Exclusive Look Inside Iran (Larry Cohler-Esses, August 12, 2015, The Tablet)

Thirty-six years after a vast and diverse movement of Iranians coalesced around the elderly Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to overthrow the shah's corrupt rule, the unique, theocratically controlled electoral polity he established sits today on the precipice of a huge change. After decades of isolation, many (though not all) of the international sanctions imposed against it are slated to be dropped in exchange for Shi'ite Tehran submitting to a nuclear inspection regime of unprecedented scope. American sanctions will also be lifted if Congress does not veto the deal negotiated by the United States and the five world powers. Iran consequently stands to reap a huge windfall of unfrozen assets, foreign investments and ramped-up trade that will eventually bring in hundreds of billions of dollars.

At the same time, this opening up threatens to bring with it -- the world.

That afternoon at Cyrus's tomb, the Iranian expatriate, a gemologist from New York City's Upper East Side, with her suspect reverence for ancient Persia's founder, was just an early sample of the flood of people that will come.

And so was I. My visit, coming after two years of seeking a journalist's visa to report from Iran, represented something special: I was the first journalist from a Jewish, pro-Israel (if not always pro-Israel government) publication to be granted a journalist's visa since the 1979 Revolution. Whether this was a reflection of increased openness by the government I cannot say. My visa came only after a former representative of Iran's Jewish community in the country's parliament wrote a letter on my behalf.

But for me, my visit was special for another reason. I had lived in Iran for almost two years in the late 1970s, just before the revolution. There, shortly after having finished college, I taught English as a second language in Shiraz and Isfahan, two of the country's most beautiful cities. In many ways, that time in Iran, coming soon after my academic education, constituted my real education. [...]

During the course of my conversations with several senior ayatollahs and prominent political and government officials, it became clear that there is high-placed dissent to the official line against Israel. No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state. But pressed as to whether it was Israel's policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It's Israel's policies. Others, notwithstanding their ideological objection to a Jewish state, made it clear they would accept a two-state solution to Israel's conflict with the Palestinians if the Palestinians were to negotiate one and approve it in a referendum.

Ordinary Iranians with whom I spoke have no interest at all in attacking Israel; their concern is with their own sense of isolation and economic struggle. Official government statistics estimate the unemployment in Iran at around 10%. But unofficial sources estimate it as twice that -- and this in a context in which only 36% of the population participates in the workforce. An estimated 150,000 Iranians with college educations leave the country yearly.

But among ordinary Iranians the sense that something is now opening up in the country is pervasive. It began with the election of the reformist presidential candidate Rouhani in 2012, long before the recently negotiated nuclear agreement introduced the prospect of crippling sanctions being lifted. And the impact of this mood on people's willingness to speak out is clear.

In Iran today, freedom of the press remains a dream. But freedom of tongue has been set loose. I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of Iranians to offer sharp, even withering criticisms of their government on the record, sometimes even happy to be filmed doing so.

"The people of Iran want in some way to show the world that what's going on in the last years is not the will of the Iranian people but of the Iranian government," Nader Qaderi told me as I filmed him with my phone outside his butcher shop in North Tehran's Tajrish Market. [...]

One thing is for sure: Iran's rulers are aware of the two-edged nature of the opening to the world that the lifting of sanctions would bring -- and they appear to be divided over it.

When Rouhani came to the United Nations, soon after his surprise election victory he made it clear that the nuclear agreement he sought was not just about unfreezing financial sanctions in exchange for nuclear transparency.

"Within a very short period of time there will be a settlement of the nuclear issue," he told the New York press corps then . "And step-by-step [this will] pave the way for Iran's better relations with the West, including the expansion of economic ties, the expansion of cultural ties and the expansion of relations between the Western nations and Iran."

Posted by at August 12, 2015 1:03 PM

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