A New Beginning in Tehran

14 minute read

For 33 years, I tried to get into the old U.S. embassy in Tehran, which sits behind a brick and metal fence on bustling Taleghani Avenue. I had been at Algiers airport in 1981 when 52 American diplomats, held captive in their own embassy for 444 days, disembarked to freedom. The embassy was then turned into a Revolutionary Guards training center–and made off-limits to Americans. On several trips to Tehran since, I had asked to look inside; I was always turned down.

But in December, shortly after Iran and six world powers signed a temporary nuclear deal–which goes into effect on Jan. 20–I was finally allowed into the place that symbolizes all that went wrong between Iran and the U.S. This time the doors were wide open, and a museum docent took me on an authorized tour. Being American, apparently, no longer bars entry.

The main building, two stories of red brick, has the feel of an American public school designed after World War II. Diplomats nicknamed it Henderson High after the first resident ambassador, Loy Henderson, who later helped orchestrate the 1953 CIA-led coup that ousted a democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and restored Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to the throne. Code-named Operation Ajax, the CIA intervention spurred payback a quarter-century later, when revolutionary students seized the American compound for fear that Washington was again plotting to return the Shah.

The embassy seems frozen in time. The gold shag carpet is still there, now flattened and filthy. Vintage teletype machines are loaded with tape. Mannequins in disheveled wigs, standing in for embassy staff, sit in a room that was insulated to allow top-secret conversations. The Iranians have added murals in the hallway, depicting U.S. military interventions from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. “All these things were done in the name of freedom and human rights,” says Mohammad Reza Shoghi, the docent, referring to the American wars and patting the wall for emphasis. He rattles on with old anti-American rhetoric. The 9/11 attacks were made up, an excuse to invade Afghanistan. American fashion and television shows are designed by psychologists and politicians to destroy foreign cultures. “Exposure to American ideas makes people feeble,” he tells me.

But the bromides about U.S. perfidy no longer reflect the dominant mood in Tehran. Since President Hassan Rouhani’s upset victory in last summer’s election, Iran has been consumed with a strategic recalibration–a reaction to both the electorate’s rejection of hard-line rule and economic hardships produced by eight years of gross mismanagement and increasingly tough international sanctions. The signing of the short-term nuclear deal in November generated tangible change in Iran’s relations with the world, potentially the most important shift since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Iranian Foreign Minister and U.S. Secretary of State are now on a first-name basis. And among ordinary Iranians, it’s no longer off-limits to talk openly, sometimes even with enthusiasm, about eventual reconciliation with a country long known as the Great Satan.

Tehran tingles with anticipation–and tension. “The sun is shining again in Iran,” says Nazila Noebashari, owner of Aaran Art Gallery, which often shows the work of young female artists. “There are smart people at the helm. The world is treating us differently and speaking with us differently, and we’re speaking differently now too.” Even normally cautious politicians talk of a new beginning. “We have all been given a historic opportunity to try to restore confidence that has been lost over the years,” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tells me.

Over the next six months, diplomats will try to turn the temporary deal into an enduring pact. The outside world wants to ensure that the Islamic Republic, which over the past decade has developed much of the know-how, equipment and technology to make a nuclear bomb, does not produce the world’s deadliest weapon. In turn, Iran seeks to come in from the political and economic cold.

As the revolution celebrates its 35th anniversary in February, Iran and the U.S. are, after many false starts, on the same page for the first time. The question is whether they can get beyond fear and suspicion to turn that page.

A New Calculus

After my tour of the old embassy, I visit Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the three student leaders of the embassy takeover; he later served in parliament and on Tehran’s city council. Today, his smartly barbered hair is white. He wears designer glasses and is clean-shaven, a contrast to the beard that he once wore–and that is still de rigueur among most of the political elite. Like that of many in the revolutionary vanguard, Asgharzadeh’s politics has evolved over the years.

The embassy takeover was supposed to last three to five days, Asgharzadeh recalls, a gesture of protest against Washington’s decision to give the Shah refuge. “But it got complicated, and it was out of our control, and it caused a deep wound,” he tells me. He now supports renewing relations with the U.S.–and reopening Henderson High. “I would like to spend all my energy to heal this wound,” he says.

The new thinking is not just the mellowing of middle age. Iran’s strategic calculus is also shifting as the regional balance of power flips. Tehran was inadvertently the big winner after American military muscle ousted its two neighboring archrivals–the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003. But with the U.S. troop drawdown in both places, the predominantly Shi’ite country suddenly feels more vulnerable. It is threatened by the return of al-Qaeda franchises in Iraq and Syria and the rise of Salafism–a fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam that is vehemently, often violently, opposed to Shi’ism–across the Middle East.

So the U.S. is increasingly attractive as a de facto ally–or at least not an active rival. “Al-Qaeda is a cancerous tumor in the Islamic world,” Asgharzadeh tells me. “So we have common ground in fighting terrorism.”

Many of the clergy in the world’s only modern theocracy are also preaching a different line. Mohsen Gharavian, a theologian in the holy city of Qum, campaigned for ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. But he too favors renewing U.S. relations–and even a visit from President Obama. “The nuclear deal is very positive and a step forward,” he says. “We cannot always be in a position of argument and animosity with the U.S.”

So, I ask him, why are there still shouts of “Death to America” during the celebrated Friday prayers at Tehran University? “This slogan has a long history,” he says. “Removing it depends on what the U.S. government does.” Like the rest of the population, he adds, the majority of clerics in Qum voted for Rouhani.

Man With the Key

During the presidential election last summer, Rouhani’s supporters nicknamed their candidate Hassan Kilidsaz, or Hassan the Locksmith. He won the six-way race decisively, Tehran University political scientist Nasser Hadian explains, because voters decided he could “make a key that would open the door” after eight dark years of the bellicose Ahmadinejad.

After six months in office, Rouhani may already rank as the most powerful President since the revolution. His candor has startled even close advisers. He tapped smart technocrats to rescue the imploding economy after acknowledging on national TV that the state coffers were almost empty. His government has since stemmed the slide of Iran’s currency, which had plummeted 60% since 2011. Inflation has begun to climb down from a high of more than 40%. He has won favor among women, tweeting that a woman’s dress does not define her piety. And he has charmed young Iranians, shedding his white turban and clerical robe for a baseball cap and parka to take weekend hikes in the Alborz Mountains that overlook Tehran.

Most of all, Rouhani has nimbly navigated Tehran’s venomous politics better than his predecessors. He has so far kept the Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, on his side–unlike the wily but ultimately marginalized Hashemi Rafsanjani. He has straddled the political spectrum, unlike the mild-mannered reformist Mohammed Khatami or the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad. In the process, he has carved out a new centrist category of political realists.

Many of Rouhani’s priorities reflect changes that the U.S. would like to see in Iran, especially on personal freedoms and censorship. He has chastised state TV for ignoring Iran’s biggest problems. “When IRIB airs the birth of a panda in China but nothing abt unpaid workers protesting, obvious that ppl & youth will ignore it,” read a July 3 tweet from Rouhani’s account. In October, the Scottish-educated cleric even exchanged tweets with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. Dorsey asked Rouhani, “Are citizens of Iran able to read your tweets?” Rouhani replied, “my efforts geared 2 ensure my pp’ll comfortably b able 2 access all info globally as is their #right.” The fuller answer is that Iranians still have to bypass state-controlled servers to access most social media. But by speaking out on Twitter and Facebook, Rouhani has pressured branches of government he does not control on many issues.

Key levers of power remain beyond Rouhani’s reach. Both the judiciary and parliament are still dominated by hard-liners, as are the politically powerful Revolutionary Guards. Two of the presidential candidates from the disputed 2009 election–both long-standing Rouhani friends–are still under house arrest. Rouhani’s social-media accounts may be his most potent tools in those struggles.

For now the agenda of the Rouhani realists is modest compared with that of the ambitious but failed reform era of the late 1990s. “Expectations were wild during Khatami’s presidency,” explains Hadian, the political scientist. “Now they’re more balanced.” The core issue since the revolution has been whether the Islamic Republic of Iran’s political identity is first and foremost Islamic or republic. Reformers favor a republic, including limits on the Supreme Leader’s powers. Hard-liners fear the demise of ideology and religious influence in politics. The issue is far from settled, but realists want to open up political space rather than overhaul it. At an Aug. 3 inaugural event, Rouhani called it “a patient approach … in order to be distant from the abyss of extremism.”

Fear of Betrayal

If Tehran’s ubiquitous billboards are any indication, Iran’s hard-liners are just waiting for the right moment to pounce. In October, flashy new billboards went up overnight on numerous streets depicting U.S. and Iranian diplomats taking part in negotiations. Above the table, the American was dressed in suit coat and tie. Under the table, he was clad in military fatigues, and a concealed shotgun on his lap was aimed at the Iranian. american honesty, the billboards warned.

Rouhani’s allies in city government scrambled to take them down, claiming they were unauthorized. But some visual reminders of the recent past and lingering mistrust remain. A 10-story billboard on Vali Asr Square, a holdover from the Ahmadinejad era, still shows President Obama chummily leaning on Shemr, a 7th century villain credited with betraying the first Shi’ite martyr. be with us. be safe, its caption reads.

Betrayal, which is at the heart of Islam’s greatest schism–when Shi’ites split from Sunnis 14 centuries ago over who was the rightful heir of the Prophet Muhammad–still shapes the hard-line narrative in the world’s largest Shi’ite country. “The Americans don’t want to solve their problems with Iran,” says Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the newspaper Kayhan and one of Tehran’s most vocal hard-liners.

Shariatmadari was sentenced to life in prison in the 1970s for opposing the Shah; he was freed only after the monarchy ended. He rejects both the nuclear deal and eventual reconciliation with the U.S. “There are 17,000 atomic bombs in the world, and most of them belong to the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France. Israel is estimated to have 300. And the U.S. is afraid that one more bomb might be made? Isn’t that ridiculous?” he scoffs. “Obviously, they’re afraid of something else. They’re concerned about Iran as a model for Islamic countries.”

But Rouhani supporters fear their prospects, both at home and abroad, are more likely to be sabotaged by Washington in an election year than by hard-liners in Tehran. The temporary nuclear deal calls for Iran to halt sensitive parts of its program and allow daily U.N. inspections during six months of intense diplomacy. In exchange, Tehran won a pledge of no new sanctions and minor sanction relief worth about $7 billion. Even so, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators is pressing for a new sanctions bill to cut off Iran’s oil exports; it also calls for the U.S. to use military force and economic resources to stand with Israel if it should decide to attack Iran. The sanctions would not go into effect for six months, but at least 59 Senate co-sponsors contend that more pressure will only enhance diplomatic prospects. Zarif, the Foreign Minister, counters that it is instead a deal buster that demonstrates a “lack of seriousness” on the part of the U.S.: “My parliament can also adopt various legislation that can go into effect if negotiations fail. But if we start doing that, I don’t think that we will get anywhere.” Indeed, by mid-January more than one-third of the 290 members of Iran’s parliament, or Majlis, countered with a bill requiring enrichment of uranium closer to the level needed to fuel a bomb. They too want to ratchet up the pressure.

White House officials express dismay that the best chance ever to de-escalate the nuclear standoff with Iran may be thwarted by legislation with sufficient support to be veto-proof. “For the sake of our national security and the peace and security of the world, now is the time to give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” Obama said in a Jan. 12 statement. Both Presidents are warning that spoilers could be ready to push their nations over the precipice–this time potentially into the abyss of war.

Hanging on the Deal

On my last day in Tehran, I go to see Zahra Eshraghi, a women’s-rights activist who is also revolutionary royalty. Her grandfather was Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic cleric who unified Iran’s discordant opposition to end 2,500 years of dynastic rule. The Ayatullah’s public approval of the embassy takeover was also what turned a brief protest into a 15-month international crisis. Eshraghi’s family remains central to Iranian politics. Her husband is a former Deputy Speaker of parliament. Her brother-in-law is Khatami, Iran’s first reform President.

It is telling that seven of Khomeini’s 15 grandchildren are now outspoken reformers. Several supported the Green movement’s mass protests challenging the disputed 2009 election. Eshraghi has volubly denounced discriminatory laws against women and the mandatory dress code. “The chador is not an obligation,” she tells me. Her grandfather had called the enveloping black shroud “the flag of the revolution” and appealed to all women to wear it. Eshraghi is sufficiently rebellious that the hard-line Guardian Council, a powerful body of 12 conservative jurisprudents, disqualified her (and her incumbent husband) from running for parliament in 2004.

The fate of the nuclear deal, she tells me, will determine Iran’s direction for the next decade, particularly the outcome of parliamentary elections next year and the future of women’s rights. If the deal dies, hard-liners will make their power play, bringing back draconian rule at home and surly confrontations with the outside world. “Right now we have to wait and not focus on other types of freedom because our focus is on foreign policy,” she says. “If the nuclear issue is resolved and relations are restored with the West, tourists can come back, business will grow and a lot of other changes can happen.” She too wants to restore relations with the U.S. “It’s time,” says the granddaughter of the man who once personified the Islamic Republic’s hostility to the U.S., “for us to get along.”

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