A Turn in Tehran

8 minute read
Richard Stengel; Aryn Baker

Leaning against the wall in ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Tehran sitting room is a portrait of a young boy. A portrait of the Prophet Muhammad as a young boy, to be exact. How is it that this fire-tongued figure of radical Shi’ism, this thrower of fatwas, the face of political Islam, would permit something so sacrilegious as a portrait of the Prophet in his presence, when we all know that depicting the founder of Islam is a sin? The guard at the gate of Khomeini’s house and museum in Tehran just shrugged. “I don’t know. He just liked it.”

A few days later, we had the opportunity to ask one of Khomeini’s old friends the same question. We were in Qum, Iran’s center of Islamic study, and we visited Khomeini’s home there, a cheerful mud-walled compound wrapped around a small fountain flanked by fruit trees. Farahjolah Moussavi was the cleric in residence, an expert in Islamic law who took calls from across the nation on matters both arcane and mundane. (When we arrived, a woman was asking his advice about a potential suitor for her teenage daughter.) Moussavi explained that Islam prohibits the worship of images, not the images themselves. So as long as the faithful don’t prostrate themselves before a portrait of Muhammad, having a picture or two around is no big deal. “In Shi’ism, we are a lot more flexible,” said Moussavi. “More than anything, Khomeini was pragmatic. He liked the painting, so we left it in his house as it was.”

You could say the same thing about Iranians more generally–they are flexible and pragmatic. They have carved out a life for themselves between strict religious control and their more artistic and sensuous heritage, between the weight of economic sanctions and their history as traders. Young women in chadors have elaborately painted fingernails. Young men kneel to pray wearing tight T-shirts and fashionably frayed blue jeans. At a political rally, the crowd can be chanting “Death to the USA,” and then a bearded fellow will turn to you and say, very solicitously and earnestly, “We hope you are enjoying your trip to Iran.” And he means it.

For one week, in the lead-up to the June 14 presidential election that replaced the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the moderate Hassan Rouhani, a cleric and close associate of Khomeini’s, Time was granted access to the Islamic Republic, a country as misunderstood as it is inaccessible. And even though our movements were limited to Qum and the capital, Tehran, we roamed those cities, chatting with citizens at train stations and bazaars, shisha bars, political rallies and religious shrines. We saw a country that challenged our assumptions, a cosmopolitan capital that thrives in the face of sanctions, even as residents grumble about the price of rice and cooking oil.

Decades ago, someone in the city government had the foresight to plant trees on every street, and the Iranian capital–a place of over 12 million people and no discernible traffic regulations–is green and leafy and welcoming. Under this peaceful canopy of trees, small cars screech around corners, cutting one another off at every opportunity. Pedestrians cross the street randomly, seemingly anywhere and anytime they like–blithely ignoring the motorists.

We were accompanied everywhere by a Foreign Ministry–appointed translator, whose discomfort with political talk was balanced by his tolerance for two curious American journalists. Wherever we spoke to people out on the street, interviewing them about the election and sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program, Iranians gathered round to politely listen in, sometimes interjecting their own views, until there was a crowd 10 people deep. They were eager to venture their opinions and to hear ours. Internet restrictions and censored news have cut them off from the outside world and made them more curious to hear what outsiders have to say.

Everywhere we heard concern about the Iranian economy and criticism of sanctions. Sanctions seem to have had the effect of making Iranians both less friendly toward the U.S. government and more adamant about their nuclear program. Conservatives see sanctions as part of a larger plot for regime change, a push to so deprive the populace that it rises up in revolt. But Iranians are only a generation away from their revolution and are loath to open old scars. “We have seen what happens when the people rise up. We are not ready for that again,” said computer technician Ali Momtaz. Even moderates and liberals were not ready to compromise on the nuclear program. “We have a right to pursue nuclear energy,” said Ehsan Sharif, a young entrepreneur. “It is not up to the West to tell us what to do with our technology. If India can have nuclear power, why not us?” We heard this sentiment over and over. Almost no one said Iran needed a nuclear program to create weapons, but almost everyone pointed out that the decision, one way or another, should be left to the Iranians. No one, but no one, wanted to go to war over it.

We sat down with the editor of Kayhan, Tehran’s most hard-line newspaper, a lean man with a short beard and a sharp pinstriped suit. Hossein Shariatmadari’s card identifies him first as “Supreme Leader’s Representative” and then as president of the Kayhan Group of Newspapers & Publications. Like many, Shariatmadari was bitter about the U.S.-led sanctions. “Sanctions are a sham,” he said. “What do you want from us? America wants to take our Islam away. They want separation of church and state. Islam itself is against tyranny, and they want to take our identity away.” Would someone like Rouhani change the status quo? Shariatmadari smiled and said, “Reformers are people seeking changes within the framework of the system. Not seeking to subvert the system.”

In 2009, Iran’s young people were trying to reform the system in their enthusiastic support of presidential candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. But when incumbent Ahmadinejad was declared the victor with more than 60% of the vote, even before the polls closed, many gave up on democracy. We found young men and women more than disillusioned with politics; they seemed to want to subvert the system. One young couple we spoke with at a polling station on election day were there to urge their friends not to vote. That’s one reason Rouhani’s victory, fueled in part by the support of young people, came as a surprise to so many. “The memories of 2009 are still too strong,” said a 21-year-old poet who gave only his first name, Khoshrow. “We voted, and our votes were not heard. We complained of fraud, and our complaints were not heard. When our government does not listen, why should we bother to speak? I will not vote for a system that closes its ears to my voice.”

Yet a last-minute get-out-the-vote campaign promoted by candidates, activists and even Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, resulted in a turnout of more than 75%, similar to what it was the last time a moderate was voted into power, Mohammed Khatami in 1997. It’s an indication, perhaps, that the majority of Iran’s electorate still yearns for reform.

Reform, Not Revolution

Westerners were glad to hear Rouhani’s call for a nuanced approach to nuclear negotiations; Iranians were delighted with his promise to release political prisoners and improve relations with the rest of the world. But as President he will have little power to change the direction of the country’s nuclear policy. That lies solely under the purview of the Supreme Leader, Khomeini’s enigmatic and volatile successor. But the fact that Khamenei allowed a reformist to succeed this time around is an indication that Iran’s hard-line stance of the past eight years may begin to soften.

Iranians are adamant that they would not be willing to compromise their right to peaceful nuclear power, no matter how hard the sanctions bite. But there is a universal desire to find a middle way, one that lets Iran keep its program online while preventing further isolation. “We don’t want to be another North Korea,” said political activist Kian Rezaaei. “But we can’t be pushed backward either.” She was passing out flyers at a get-out-the-vote rally just a few days before the election. We asked how she would prevent Iran from going the North Korean route. She held up a poster of Rouhani. “We vote,” she said. “Democracy is the only way to make change. Not revolution.”

Rouhani, like the cleric in Qum, was an early follower of Khomeini’s. In the days before the revolution, they shared hardship and exile. After the revolution, he watched Khomeini craft a unique form of government in which a religious leader for life shares power with a President elected by the people. It is, at times, an ungainly arrangement, one that will likely check Rouhani’s attempts at real reform both in the domestic realm and in foreign policy. But the most important thing he inherits from Khomeini is a lesson in pragmatism. Khomeini learned how costly ideological inflexibility can be: his eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s brought Iran to its knees before the imam sued for peace. Blind service to dogma, Khomeini eventually found, does no good: not in war, not in religion and not when it comes to negotiating a country’s place in the world.

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