“You don’t believe us!” she cried. “Were you taken in by the official propaganda?”
I was sitting in a beautifully decorated apartment in Tehran. Expensive Western and Iranian art work hung on the walls. My hostess was wearing a blouse and mini-skirt. Neither she nor the other lady present had her hair covered as is required in public.
“You’re from the old elite,” I responded. “It’s not surprising that you oppose the Islamic regime. I just wonder if the ordinary citizens share your point of view.”
My host reminded me of the Iranian guys I had gone to college with in the ’70s: hair slicked back, expensive clothes, a casual air. “Okay,” said his brother. “I’m going to prove to you that the ordinary citizens oppose the regime too. Tomorrow I’m going to take you down to the Tehran Bazaar.”
I was in Tehran for a conference sponsored by a research institute affiliated with the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Several of my Iranian students had provided me with the names and phone numbers of their relatives in Tehran. I was now the beneficiary of one family’s lavish hospitality.
They had all been telling me that the Islamic regime was extremely unpopular. They insisted that the ruling clerics were both corrupt and incompetent. The women made it clear that they despised having to conform to the rigid dress code imposed by the mullahs.
When I asked whether change might result from the spring 1992 parliamentary elections, they merely laughed. They indicated that they only had a choice between a more extreme fanatic and a less extreme one. No other candidates were allowed.
The portrait of contemporary Iran painted by this family was very different from the one provided by the Iranian officials and scholars at the conference I was attending. The latter described Iran as a nation living in perfect ethnic and religious harmony. Hardships existed, but these were the result of the war with Iraq and Western imperialism generally. Yet even the Iranian women at the conference outspokenly criticized the dress code and other rigidities that they had to conform to. “This is not true Islam,” said several.
At the bazaar, people were surprised when my friend introduced me as an American. They immediately started complaining about the regime. Many said that the system of justice was utterly chaotic. One lawyer observed that clerics trained in 14th-century theology simply didn’t have the ability to make judgments about a modern, complex society.
In one shop, a young man begged, “Please do something for us!”
Many merchants wanted to know why the U.S. retained its economic embargo against Iran. “The ayatollahs can sell as much oil as they want to Western Europe and Japan. Your embargo only hurts people outside the government.”
* * *
“Now do you believe me?” my Iranian friend asked.
I shook my head. “These people are all merchants. They’re not average citizens.”
“God, you are stubborn!” said my friend. He frowned for a few seconds, but then smiled. “I know how I can prove to you that even ordinary citizens are fed up with this regime. Come on.”
We got into a taxi. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“We’re just going for a ride so I can prove my point,” he answered.
In Tehran, people mill around intersections on the major thoroughfares, shouting out their destinations in the hope that a taxi, or even a private car, will take them for a small fee. There were an extraordinary number of people trying to get rides today, I was told, because the bus drivers were on strike.
In order to maximize their earnings, taxi drivers carry as many passengers as possible. Thus, our tiny little cab was crowded with as many as eight people during our two-hour ride.
People entering the cab instantly asked who the Westerner was. Upon being told I was American, they all had something to say. One man insisted on singing a song for me. Another told a dirty joke, which the women in the cab laughed at too. Virtually everyone condemned the government. What especially amazed me was that they didn’t seem to care if other Iranians they did not know heard them utter such sentiments. It was simply assumed that everyone present thought the same way.
One elderly lady got in the cab and was introduced to me. She practically shouted in English, “I hate the Islamic government!” She then said something in Persian which made everyone else laugh uproariously. My friend translated: “She says that the clergy is so corrupt that one of them demanded that she, an old lady, go to bed with him.”
The cab ride became a moving seminar on the current ills of Iran. Among the many thoughts expressed were the following:
–Iran’s current mess was all the fault of President Jimmy Carter who had advised the Shah not to use force against his opponents. If only the Shah could have kept the lid on until Ronald Reagan came to office, things would have been different.
–The Shah was a pretty stupid guy; the fact that he listened to advice from Carter proved that. But life in Iran was much better under him than under the mullahs.
–Iran possessed tremendous oil wealth, yet almost everyone was now poor and everything was getting shabbier. Where had all the money gone? Obviously, the clerics were pouring it into their Swiss bank accounts.
–America and Britain wanted the ayatollahs to rule Iran because they wanted Iran to be weak. It was obvious to Iranians that the Islamic regime couldn’t last a day without Western support. I tried to disabuse them of this notion. Their expressions made it clear that they thought I was either a fool or a liar.
When the cab finally pulled up at my hotel, my friend asked, “Now do you believe me?”
* * *
That evening, I had coffee in the hotel lobby with the brother of one of my students. After he left, two Iranian ladies who were sitting nearby asked me to join them. They quickly began to complain about the status of women in Iran.
They said that coming to this hotel to have coffee and pastries in the lobby was the most exciting entertainment allowed to them under the present regime. One of them said bitterly, “We don’t want to live like this. We’re not Arabs–we’re not fanatics!”
Most of the Persians I met expressed highly negative views about Arabs. “If the Arabs want to burden themselves with all this fundamentalist rigmarole, let them!” said the other lady. “We don’t want it! We Persians are civilized! We’re Europeans!”
If the Iranian people didn’t want this Islamic regime, I asked, then why was it still in power? “It is what America wants,” said one lady. But the other one predicted that the regime “had to fall” within a year or two.
“Tell the Americans,” said one, “that Arab women may want to hide themselves away from men, but Persian women don’t. Persian women are not shy.”
The other one said that Persian women express their opposition to the law forcing them to cover their hair in public by leaving some of it exposed.
“Why did the mullahs impose such strict regulations on women?” I asked.
“They have some sort of complex about women,” one of them shrugged.
* * *
The night before I left Iran, I had dinner in the house of one my student’s aunts. Her husband, brother, and daughter were also there. There were beautiful Persian rugs and antiques everywhere.
I told them how at my conference we were discussing the future of former Soviet Central Asia. Iranian officials and scholars confidently predicted that the people of Central Asia would be so attracted to Iranian culture and religion that all these new republics would naturally gravitate towards Iran.
Everyone burst out laughing. “These clerics can’t run their own country properly,” said the aunt. “How do they expect to run anyone else’s?”
We watched a video of Pavrotti visiting his native Naples. The Iranians were sad afterwards. “The Italians enjoy life,” observed the brother. “Why can’t we?”
The aunt asked a series of questions in a bitter tone of voice: “Why can’t we have comedies on the TV? Why can’t Iranian women sing in public? Why can’t they let us have accurate news? When will we be able to live like normal people?”
She looked depressed. But then she smiled. “I don’t want you to leave here feeling sorry for us,” she said. “We Persians have a history of conquering our conquerors. Our culture is so strong and rich that we eventually absorb them.
“And this time,” she added, “our conquerors are not foreigners, but come from our own people. So conquering them won’t take all that long.
“Believe me,” she said, “we will do it. You will see.”
Edited, abbreviated version published as “On Streets of Tehran, Disgust with Regime Is Voiced Openly,” The Washington Times, August 12, 1992.