Twilight in Tehran

Stephen Eric Bronner


Modernity and tradition confront one another everywhere in the Middle East. In Iran, however, the international repercussions of the domestic conflict between them can prove particularly severe. Ignoring the delicate balance existing between theocracy and democracy, Islamic law and human rights, Western nations have been looking with increasing suspicion upon the decision of the Iranian Republic to build a nuclear reactor in Natanz — about an hour’s drive from the beautiful city of Esfahan with its marvelous square and its spectacular, blue, Lotfollah mosque. Contemptuous of suggestions that the most likely beneficiary of external interference in Iran would be religious nationalists and the most reactionary mullahs, as usual, the United States and Israel have been the most unyielding in their condemnation. Not satisfied with the disaster that they created in Iraq, Richard Perle and his neo-conservative gangsters are once again calling for “regime change” in Iran while Israeli officials are warning that they “can’t wait” for the conclusion of negotiations and that an aerial strike on Natanz is a possibility. Especially in the United States, the neo-conservative propaganda machine has been working overtime: American public opinion has already convicted Iran of supporting the insurgency in Iraq, building weapons of mass destruction, and endorsing al-Qaeda. Painted as a country ruled by Islamic fanatics, and staunch in its hatred of western liberalism, its rich culture is ignored and Iran is generally seen as a rogue state intent upon bringing about the “clash of civilizations.” 

Such thoughts went through our minds as we deplaned in Tehran. Twelve of us comprised an independent delegation of academics from various universities, “US Academics for Peace,” which was led by the indefatigable Dr. James Jennings and sponsored by Conscience International. Some of us had been in Baghdad with him as part of another delegation a few months preceding the American invasion of Iraq. We did not experience quite the same sense of urgency in Tehran. We knew that the Iraqi War had weakened the popular will of Americans to engage in yet another war, that the American military was already stretched thin, and that Hurricane Katrina combined with our military adventures abroad had made the cost of yet another pre-emptive strike prohibitive to the rational mind. But we also understood that neo-conservatives were still raring to go. Especially when the rhetoric gets hot, and a certain support can be expected from former European allies, you never know: it is precisely the losers who are sometimes most prone to gamble everything on one last spin of the roulette wheel. 

Iraq taught us what Bush and the boys — or their Israeli proxies — were capable of doing. Leaders of states like Iran and Syria, moreover, were naturally forced to assume the pessimistic rather than the optimistic outcome of a crisis. It was arguably only the staggering incompetence shown by the Bush Administration in dealing with insurgency and hurricanes that saved Iran or Syria from suffering the fate of its neighbors. Our goals were clear: we wanted to spread a message of peace, build intercultural exchanges, offer some insights into America under the rule of Bush, and learn more about the policies and culture of those nations living under the threat of war. Nevertheless, we were fearful of what might come to pass.

Identified with the Ayatollah Khomenei, the hostage crisis of 1979, and the revolutionary posters and graffiti proclaiming “Death of America” and “Down with the Great Satan,” Iran now appears in the American popular imagination as perhaps the most dangerous member of the original “axis of evil.” Its ties with Syria are close and Iran now wields great influence on the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, the largest political party in Iraq. Turning an independent Iran into the dominant power in the region was, ironically, among the most important unintended consequences of the Iraqi War. This had long been what American foreign policy in the region had sought to avoid. Maintaining Tehran as an ally was the principle purpose behind American involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953 in favor of the Shah Palevi,[1] while keeping Iran weak explained the support extended by the United States and most of Europe to Saddam Hussein in his long and bloody war with Iran.

More than preventing the spread of “terrorism” is involved in understanding the current crisis that was spawned by Iran’s decision to build a nuclear reactor, There is a long-standing distrust of Iran by the West in general and the United States in particular, and its claims to national self-determination. This distrust has now, in turn, been compounded by the fear that Iran will make use of its exceptional geo-political position and new stature to further Islamic extremism. There has been little dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran: only accusations, threats, and belligerency. That Iranians should have responded negatively to such an approach only makes sense. Ongoing attempts to humiliate Iran and brand it as a rogue state has only intensified the attraction of Islam and the commitment to national self-determination.  

Both the seemingly unyielding insistence of the Iranian leadership upon building a nuclear reactor and the recent electoral losses by the more western and reformist elements of Iranian society must be framed by the ideological preoccupation with national self-determination. Not only is it useful to consider the usual arguments against nuclear energy, -- Chernobyl, it should be noted, is not that far from Tehran -- but the unique stresses that the current nuclear policy has placed on the citizenry: Iran has seen its stock market plunge 30% since 24 September of 2005. Its international stature has been compromised by the investigations of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the threat of international economic sanctions is real should Iran be dragged in front of the UN Security Council. Indeed, making public the decision to build a reactor has put Iran in the position of lacking a genuine deterrent to Israeli or American aggression while seemingly planning an attack on, presumably, the United States sometime in the near future. 


National self-determination, the wish to stand up against the imperialists, trumps what is a seemingly objective and a purely material national interest. That is why Iran has attempted to frame the demand for nuclear energy as a universal “right,” called for a consortium of unaligned nations to supervise the construction of reactors, kept its own construction of nuclear facilities within the terms required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and — unlike the United States — also signed the Additional Protocol with its provision for snap inspections.  Iran has also allowed the installation of cameras from the International Atomic Energy Agency to supervise its work on nuclear energy and undergone the most intrusive inspections of any member of the United Nations. Throughout the crisis, Iran has claimed that its concern is with producing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and there is no evidence to suggest the opposite.[2] Even were Iran embarking upon building a nuclear bomb, according to a National Intelligence Estimate, such a device will not be ready until the early or middle years of the next decade and creating a delivery system capable of attacking the United States will take much longer (The New York Times August 3 2005).

Only Israel and the United States have disagreed with these predictions and only they have made the claim that Iran poses an imminent danger that might require pre-emptive action. Imagining a joint understanding, or even a joint military operation, between Israel and the United States does not stretch the limits of reason. In the first half of 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney stated that Iran was “right at the top of the list” when it came to rogue states and he speculated that Israel could “be doing the bombing for us” without any American pressure being applied ( Condoleeza Rice has, in the same vein, told the world that the United States cannot wait forever for diplomacy to do its job while Richard Perle and his clique remain intent upon “liberating” yet another country. Unleashing the ideology of the “pre-emptive strike” to justify American actions in Iraq has, however, backfired: it has created an incentive for nations that feel threatened by the West to build nuclear weapons for defense and use them as a form of what Richard Haas has termed “symbolic currency.”

Working toward the abolition or, at least, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons would seemingly demand a policy predicated on reducing the value of this symbolic currency. But that is apparently not the position of the Bush Administration. The only nation ever to use a nuclear device in wartime is instead taking the view that it can arbitrarily decide what nations are responsible enough to have the bomb (India, Pakistan, and Israel) and what nations are not (Iran). Unwilling to discuss why Iran should not have what western nations and other onetime “rogue states” like China and Russia possess, the Bush Administration has no specific plan for action other than the employment of military threats and economic sanctions. It doesn’t seem to matter that Iran has asked for nothing that is not specifically guaranteed to signatories of the Non-Proliferation Act, which was signed by the United States, or that the demands of the Bush Administration fall outside the framework of this document and thus have no legal or ethical basis. It also doesn’t seem to matter that the “crisis” sparked by the Iranian pursuit of nuclear energy may actually be a red herring since the real threat today comes not from a missile but from a bomb smuggled into an urban center in a briefcase. Hardly a word has been said, moreover, about the idea that perhaps the best way to deal with a “rogue state” is by integrating it into it into the world community rather than excluding it, emphasizing the need for “regime change,” or bombing it to smithereens.  

Most preposterous perhaps is the general lack of knowledge concerning the nation that the Bush Administration has now placed at center-stage in its war on terrorism. Its diversity is unrecognized, its major writer — Hafez — is unknown other than to those who have read Goethe’s West-Oestliche Divan, and its cultural heritage that reaches back over Cyrus the Great to the fabled religious figure, Zoroaster, is ignored. Our delegation was reminded of all this during a trip to the Iran National Museum where we saw the “laughing lion” from 1250 BC that any modernist would have been proud to produce and the remains of the “Salt-man” from 1700 BC — found in a salt mine where he was probably murdered — with his leg stuffed in a boot, remnants of his clothes, and a golden ear-ring enmeshed in some hair curled around what was left of his skull. We saw the life-size sculpture of a calf, beautiful renditions of cats, as well as detailed engravings, seals, multi-colored vases, and plates reaching back to 5000 BC. We also thought about how much President Bush and his boys cared about the treasures of Iraq. 

Time means something different in the Middle East. In the United States we are amazed at artifacts a few hundred years old and, in Europe, at findings a thousand years old. In the Middle East things don’t get interesting until they are a few thousand years old. Humbling is the simple and dignified tomb of Cyrus the Great and awe-inspiring the tombs of his descendents – Darius, Xerxes, Artaxerxes — that were carved into the huge rock of Naqsh-e-Rustam. Most fantastic, however, are the ruins of Persepolis built in 580 BC with its Gate of all Nations and the Aramaic, Babylonian, and Edomite inscriptions above it. Persepolis, built by artisans brought to Persia from everywhere in the known world, is the first and arguably the greatest example of cosmopolitan architecture. Now, of course, only the ruins remain. Gone are the colors that once adorned the columns and the houses; gone are the faces from the friezes that were obliterated and disfigured by Islamic fanatics; gone are the gardens known as the parades, from which the word “paradise” derives. Alexander the Great — a general from the West — destroyed Persepolis. Legend has it that he had his troops perform this act on the dare of a mistress. More likely the deed was done to strike at the heart of the Persian Empire. Persepolis, among the greatest cultural treasures of humanity, can be considered an early example of “collateral damage.” 

Cultural ignorance breeds political ignorance. Iran retains a tradition of national independence that reaches back thousands of years and a religious orthodoxy that stems from the victory of Islam over what had become an increasingly corrupt and hyper-ritualized Zoroastrianism in the ninth century. But it also evidences a tradition of liberal tolerance and cosmopolitanism that reaches back over the Savyed Renaissance of the 19th Century to Hafez and ultimately to Cyrus the Great who allowed the Jews to rebuild their Temple and his other subject peoples to worship their gods as they chose. Some like to say that this division is reflected today in the cosmopolitan style of Shiraz and Tehran as against the somber orthodoxy and gray provincialism of a city like Qom. In any event, these tendencies evidence themselves in the Iranian Republic with its conflict between a liberal — or better, moderate Islamic — political constituency and another that is more orthodox.

Many commentators insist on the importance of American intervention with an eye on “regime change” in Iran because an ultimate confrontation between secularism and religion, the “clash of civilizations,” is supposedly inevitable. “Regime change,” in their view, would pave the way for a victory of liberal forces. But the Koran casts a long shadow and the western notion of rights, especially when it deals with women, lacks the kind of over-riding consensus in Iran that exists elsewhere. Reformist elements within the theocratic state are still profoundly influenced by Islam and, whatever the criticism of their own regime, Iranian citizens are united in their allegiance to the Islamic Republic. It therefore makes little sense simply pitting secular liberalism conceived in western terms against Islamic radicalism or trumpeting American values where much of the population is suspicious of American imperialist intentions and contemptuous of its policies in the region.

Meaningful change can only take place in a practical way when reactionary forms of religious extremism are countered immanently in terms of religious moderation and when the limits of an authoritarian republic are countered immanently from within the republican tradition.  The best possible scenario would involve identifying with secular democratic forces. More likely, however, only Islamic moderates can counter Islamic extremism. Extending support to them does not necessarily imply blunting the critical edge of human rights or reducing the idea of rights to the ability of any given nation-state to maintain any given set of customs.

Human rights violations are all too common in Iran: one simple little example from everyday life that we heard involved a young girl walking down the street in a provincial town who was slapped hard in the face by a complete stranger for not wearing a scarf and who, when she called a policeman, found herself being criticized and her assailant strutting off with a smile. I understood why so many everyday people we met considered him and his followers responsible for the deep malaise and harbored a nostalgia for the heady days surrounding the Revolution of 1979,  led by the Ayatollah Khomeinei, which helped produce the presidential victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.Civil liberties are too often honored in the breach and emphasis on the uniqueness of Iranian culture is often used a way to excuse the arbitrary power exercised by religious and political authorities. Decisive for the social relevance of “rights” is not the cultural context from which they derive or whether philosophers can methodologically justify and “ground” their universal character. It is instead a matter of whether rights are employed as a wedge for resistance against what constrains the arbitrary exercise of political and cultural power.

Translating this resistance into concrete politics means working with indigenous sources of progressive change; it may mean developing an argument through a particular interpretation of Mohammad’s model for behavior rather than a quotation from Voltaire. Religion can be used to raise issues pertaining to secular rights as surely as philosophy: Martin Luther King and his religiously inspired civil rights movement offer a case in point. If that is the case, however, then any serious and progressive American policy for the Middle East must begin by emphasizing the need to increase cultural knowledge. It must emphasize the need for cultural exchange and the integration rather than exclusion of Islamic states from the world community. It must also be willing to resurrect the idea of impartiality in the treatment of Islamic states and not insist upon them meeting special criteria for what they consider the pursuit of their national interests.  The campaign waged by Ahmadinejad was daring and it mixed religious, liberal, international and national themes. He presented himself as devout, but distanced from the more austere forms of orthodoxy. He embraced the nuclear issue to foster national enthusiasm, but envisioned an economic union of all Islamic states. He has consolidated his grip on foreign affairs by replacing 40 relatively liberal ambassadors with hardliners, and—more recently—ranted about the need to “wipe Israel off the map.” Ahmadinejad’s themes have all highlighted the traditional opposition to western hegemony, the right to national self-determination, and the tone of Ayatollah Khomenei and the Revolution of 1979.

Western leaders and analysts have generally identified reformism with a dull pragmatism and the willingness to avoid discussion of ideological principle. That was the position defining the followers of Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and former President Mohammed Khatami in the last election. They sought to temper many domestic ideological excesses and in terms of foreign affairs they called for a “dialogue of civilizations.” Khatami likes to say that he reduced the number of ritual stonings of individuals for various crimes including adultery from 26 to 1 (really 2). But the reform embraced by the reformers was lukewarm. They recanted their threat to walk out of parliament when their progressive agenda was stymied by the conservative court acting in accordance with the wishes of the current conservative President Khomonei. The reformers also oversaw a spurt in national economic growth from which urban and agricultural workers did not benefit. No less than the mullahs, who so many Iranians privately condemn as thieves, careerist reformers benefited from a palpable increase in corruption. Then, too, Khatami is a man who evidences neither charisma nor confidence. Chubby-cheeked and dressed in religious garb, unctuous and careful with every word, he sought to appear urbane and came off merely as slick; after an audience of little more than half an hour, our delegation realized that not a single question had been answered. I understood why so many everyday people we met considered him and his followers responsible for the deep malaise and nostalgia for the Revolution of 1979,[3] led by the Ayatollah Khomeinei, which helped produce the presidential victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Western media and the “experts” were astonished. Ahmadinejad was seen as coming out of nowhere. But the Iranians knew him well. He had served as the wildly popular Mayor of Teheran and then Governor of the largest province in the country. Ahmadinejad was an activist during the hostage crisis, an important participant in the revolution, and an avowed critic of western policies in the region. His campaign was based on three planks: share the oil profits more equitably, crack down on corruption among the mullahs, and make life a bit happier for the working classes since the rich were happy enough. A young journalist I met said that the words of Ahmadinejad touched the heart while the words of Khatami and the others were only words. [4] The campaign waged by Ahmadinejad was daring and it mixed religious, liberal, international and national themes. He presented himself as devout, but distanced from the more austere forms of orthodoxy. He embraced the nuclear issue, envisioned an economic union of all Islamic states, and — more recently — ranted about the need to “wipe Israel off the map.” Ahmadinejad’s themes have all highlighted opposition to western hegemony, the right to national self-determination, and the tone of Ayatollah Khomenei and the Revolution of 1979.      

None of this can possibly sit very well with the Bush Administration. But the decision to engage in military action is, one would think, highly unlikely. Putting together an international coalition would prove virtually impossible and create further rifts with Russia, China, India, and perhaps even Pakistan. Tehran has 12 million inhabitants where Baghdad had 7 million and there is a national support for the Islamic Republic that did not exist for Saddam.  Iran is militarily more powerful than Iraq ever was. Iran controls the straits of Hormuz. It is a major oil producer and capable of manipulating already high world prices. Iran now has profound influence in the southern regions of Iraq and as already noted, except for Israel, it is the dominant force in the region. American forces are also already stretched thin; reconstruction in the face of Hurricane Katrina will cost hundreds of billions of dollars; the price of the Iraqi war keeps growing, and the citizenry is sick of war.  

Mistrust of American intentions by Iran, however, only makes sense.[5] Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, a staunch neo-conservative, has implied that the refusal of the UN Security Council to deal with Iran would leave dealing with the nuclear crisis in the hands of the United States. There is also much talk of pressure being exerted by the United States and Great Britain upon the IAEA to over-rule its own inspectors and declare that Iran has breached the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Contingency plans for fostering regime change are being developed and, precisely because precision strikes would allow the Islamic Republic too many retaliatory options, some military planners argue that any attack on Iran should be decisive (The Guardian 10/19/05). 

Pretexts for intervention can always be found: the alleged nuclear threat posed by Iran, its stance on Israel, its support for Islamic Jihad and other radical factions of the Palestinian movement, or even the supposed attempts of its new regime to inflame the region with the slogans of 1979. Certain extreme neo-conservative factions in the Bush administration also undoubtedly believe that yet another appropriately justified foreign intervention can reinvigorate a disintegrating sense of unity and nationalism in the United States. These factions evidence an ever-growing desire to blame the catastrophic failures of their own policies in Iraq on an outside force. Indeed, some gamblers feel driven to bet what remains of their stake precisely when they are on a losing streak.

Implementing a policy of regime change in Iran, either by subversion or outright aggression, would be completely irrational. More rational would be a policy that called for a nuclear embargo on all states of the region including Israel or one that, if Iran remained committed to its nuclear policy, insisted upon simply the observance of all rules defined by the Non Proliferation Treaty without making special demands. More rational would be a policy that fostered international exchanges and that might speak to the cosmopolitan traditions of Iranian history. More rational would be a policy that provided support for identifiable liberal forces and that did not simply identify human rights with American interests. More rational would be a policy that did not rest on inflated rhetoric and ongoing threats of reprisal. But, then, the policies pursued by the Bush Administration in the Middle East have never been rational and it is precisely this irrationality that progressives must continue to struggle against.   



[1] A fine study of this seminal action on the part of the United States can be found in Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (John Wiley: New York, 2003).

[2] No less than when Secretary of State Colin Powell charged Iraq with having weapons of mass destruction, the United States once again trumpeted similar charges against Iran for supposedly being engaged in the production of enriched uranium. Findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency, however, noted that the traces of enriched uranium found at two sites in Iran were imported rather than produced in that country. (The New York Times  August 25  2005).

[3] See Robin Wright, The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran (New York: Vintage, 2001)

[4] A joke was making the rounds that I heard at least a half-dozen times during my week-long stay in Tehran. It goes like this: A man marries a woman who was married before: but he finds out that she is still a virgin. He asks her how that is possible and she replies that her first husband was like Khatami: he promised a lot but never delivered.

[5] Mark LeVine,, Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld Publications: Oxford , England; 2005)