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Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

Washington has not yet succeeded in getting Tehran to reassure the international community about its nuclear program.  But the Obama Administration’s efforts to increase economic sanctions against Iran for not doing so now appear to be paying off.  The EU’s willingness to cut back on buying Iranian oil, the dramatic collapse in the value of Iran’s currency, and the increasing economic stress on the Iranian people are all higher costs that Tehran is paying for defying the international community on the nuclear issue.

The Obama Administration seems to think that no matter how much Iran’s leaders may want to acquire nuclear weapons, Washington has finally succeeded in raising the costs of their attempting to do this so high that the only rational choice Tehran now has is to give up the attempt.  This is because the economic costs that these sanctions impose on them increasingly threaten the survivability of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary regime.  And surely the rulers of Iran would prefer giving up their nuclear ambitions to falling from power.

Rationality, though, has a way of appearing differently in different places.  I last visited Iran in May 2005, before Ahmadinejad was first elected president.  Even then, I was told that Iranians had noticed something about American foreign policy:  the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq which were countries that did not possess nuclear weapons, but the U.S. has not invaded North Korea—a country that does possess them.  The lesson they drew from this was that America was likely to behave far more circumspectly toward a nuclear Iran than to a non-nuclear one.

But surely, I argued, there was far more at stake for Iran than whether the U.S. behaved circumspectly toward it.  I pointed toward the then recent example of the Libyan-American rapprochement in 2003 in which Libya gave up its nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction programs in return for close collaboration with the U.S.  The Iranian scholars and journalists I met with all laughed derisively at this, saying that Tehran would never kowtow to the U.S. like Qaddafi had done.  Besides, one of them asked, what was to prevent America from turning against Qaddafi once he had given up his nuclear program?

In 2011, this is exactly what the U.S. did.  While the U.S. did not cause the uprising against Libya, actions taken by the Obama Administration and several U.S. allies prevented Qaddafi from quickly crushing his opponents and greatly helped the latter bring down his regime. 

This, of course, was a good thing for the Obama Administration to have done.  The lesson that Tehran undoubtedly drew from this experience, however, was that giving up its nuclear ambitions at America’s behest will not stop the U.S. from acting to bring down the Islamic regime later should the opportunity ever arise.

Just as the Obama Administration wants it to, Tehran understands that the U.S. will continue trying to weaken it for pursuing its nuclear program.  But the unintended consequence of Obama’s successful policy toward Libya is that Tehran also believes the U.S. will continue trying to weaken it even if it gives up its nuclear program.  So what incentive, then, does Tehran have to cooperate with America and others on the nuclear issue?

The Obama Administration is so dedicated to increasing sanctions against Iran for not giving up its nuclear program that it might not be able to acknowledge even to itself how what happened this past year in Libya might make Tehran even more fearful of cooperating with the U.S. than defying it.  President Obama’s success in inflicting genuinely painful economic sanctions against Iran, then, may result not in Tehran renouncing nuclear weapons, but seeking to acquire them all the more quickly.

If this is indeed the lesson that Tehran has drawn from what happened to Qaddafi, then the lesson that Washington needs to learn is:  in formulating a policy designed to affect how an opponent calculates the costs and benefits of continuing actions that the U.S. does not like, American foreign policymakers must also understand how that opponent sees the costs as well as the benefits of complying with the U.S. vs. continuing to defy it.

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In a Tehran Taxi

Tehran (1992)

“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.

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Tourang’s Aunt

Tehran (1992)

“I’m sorry,” said the voice on the telephone, “but we can’t see you today after all.”

I was talking to her from my hotel room in Tehran.  Tourang, one of my Iranian students, had given me her number before my trip to Iran.  She was Tourang’s aunt.

“You see,” she continued, “my mother–Tourang’s grandmother–has become gravely ill.  I must take her to the hospital.”

We had spoken twice on the phone already.  The first time I called to introduce myself and tell her what I knew about Tourang and her other relations in America.  This was when she invited me to dinner.  During our second conversation, she gave me detailed instructions about how to get to her home by taxi.

But now it was off.  I told her how sad I was to hear about her mother’s illness.  I was also sorry that I was not going to get a chance to meet her since I was leaving the next day.  “When I get back home,” I said, “I’ll tell your relatives the news about your mother.”

“No!” she practically shouted.  “Don’t tell them!”

“But why not?” I asked.  “They will want to know.”

“It is better that they don’t,” she responded.  “If you tell them, they will only worry and feel bad that they are not here.  There’s no need for them to go through that, especially since they cannot do anything about the situation anyway.”

I thought that this was very strange logic.  I concluded that the whole story about her mother being ill was just an excuse to cancel our meeting.  But her real reason for caceling it, I thought, was legitimate enough:  after the initial surprise of hearing from an American who knew her relatives, she became fearful that there might be negative repercussions for her if the Iranian authorities discovered that we had met.

If this was her reason, she obviously could not say so over the phone for fear that the line was being tapped.  Thus, she thought up the story about her mother being ill.  Her insistence that I not tell her relatives about this led me to think that this story was not true.

“Your niece is going to ask me if we met,” I said.  “What should I tell her.”

“Tell her anything,” said the aunt a little impatiently.  “Tell her that the people who sponsored your trip decided to take you to Isfahan today and that there was no time for us to meet.”

My suspicions were confirmed.

 * * *

When I got back home, I worried about how I was going to explain to Tourang about why I had not met her aunt.  I would tell her I thought the aunt was fearful about meeting an American, but Tourang would know that the aunt would never have said this on the telephone and would demand to know what she actually said.  I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to tell the whole truth either–especially since I wasn’t sure what the truth was.

But when I saw Tourang, I didn’t get a chance to say anything.  When I ran into her unexpectedly on campus, she said, “What an absent-minded professor!  My aunt called from Tehran to tell us that you couldn’t meet her because you had to go to Isfahan.  Couldn’t you have planned things a little more carefully?  Silly Dr. Katz!”  I left her and her two girl friends laughing loudly at my obvious lack of social grace as I slunk off to my next lecture.

I was shocked that the aunt had telephoned to say that I had canceled our meeting when it had been her.  Why had she done so?

I told the whole story to a friend of mine, an Iranian woman who is a professor at another university, and asked her to explain the aunt’s behavior.  My friend told me that she thought my initial conclusion was accurate:  the aunt was too afraid to see me, and so had made up the story about her mother.  But she obviously had not thought of the possibility that I would repeat the story.  Fearing that I would tell her relatives about her mother being ill, she had telephoned to say that I had canceled the meeting.  The aunt had done this knowing that Tourang would repeat this to me.  This was the aunt’s way of warning me not to say anything about her mother.  The aunt obviously feared that I would tell the story, thus causing the family in America to worry needlessly until the aunt explained to them that it wasn’t true.

The aunt believed I would have told them, my friend continued, because she saw me as a simple, naive American who thought he would be doing good.  But she anticipated that I would say nothing if she preempted me by calling first.  For, she calculated, I would not tell her relatives about the mother after hearing from Tourang since I would essentially have to call the aunt a liar by doing so.  The aunt judged that I would not want to do that.

I shook my head in amazement.  “You may not believe me,” said my friend, “but that is probably what happened.  We Iranians think in far more complicated, convoluted ways than you Americans do.  That’s because life for us is more complicated and convoluted than it is for you.”

“So what should I do?” I asked.

“Say nothing,” she advised.

 * * *

Several months later, at the end of the summer, Tourang called me for advice about what courses she should take.  She told me that earlier in the summer, her mother had gone to Iran to visit her relatives there.  “And I am so angry!” Tourang told me.  “It wasn’t until several weeks after she got back that my mother finally told me that my grandmother was extremely ill.

“This is how Iranians are!” she continued.  “They won’t tell you bad news.  They think you are happier not knowing the truth.  But when you do learn the truth, it’s worse.  You not only get the bad news, but learn that your relatives lied to you.  And you wonder what else they aren’t telling you.  Now I know I can’t trust either my mother or my aunt!  How could they not tell me that my grandmother was so sick as soon as they knew it?”

I felt terrible.  I confessed that I too had known about her grandmother but had not told her.

Tourang was incredulous.  “What?” she cried.  “You knew too?”

I told her the whole story, including what my professor friend had said.  When I finished, Tourang laughed.  “Poor Dr. Katz!” she said mockingly.  “The innocent American caught in a web of Iranian intrigue!

“The sad thing is,” she added after she had finished laughing, “you were the one person to whom my aunt told the truth.  And you didn’t believe her.”

Revised version published as “A Tale of Iranian Intrigue,” Middle East Times (metimes.com), December 19, 2007.

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