Hooman Majd’s Postcard from Tehran

Author and analyst Hooman Majd traveled to Iran last month and has published an initial report from his travels, “Postcard from Tehran,” in ForeignPolicy.com.  Hooman makes a number of important points in his article, which largely reinforce our analysis of Iranian politics since the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election and of U.S/Western policy toward the Islamic Republic.  Hooman opens:

Memo to Secretary Clinton: Iran is neither a military dictatorship nor a police state.  Yet.  There is no visible military presence at the international airport, where despite a European ban on flights to and from its capitals in mid-April when I arrived, jumbo jets discharged and loaded thousands of passengers a day arriving and leaving for points east and west.  Tehran’s sleek and bustling Imam Khomeini international airport reminded one that an Icelandic volcano had temporarily managed to do to Europe what no American administration has succeeded in doing to Iran: isolating it — though not for lack of effort.  There is also no visible military presence in the sprawling city of some 12 million souls and at times it seems an equal number of cars — save for the occasional hapless-looking, newly shorn, and unarmed young army conscript in fatigues, begging a ride on the back of a motorcycle or in a shared taxi, a presence that has always been visible in any city in Iran, even in days of the monarchy.

This description is very consistent with our own experience in Tehran in February, as we recounted it on www.TheRaceForIran.com:

Shortly before we arrived in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Islamic Republic is turning into a “military dictatorship.”  As we drove around Tehran, we looked hard to see a soldier anywhere on the street but did not see a single one — except for a couple at the entrance to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery just south of Tehran, where many of the Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War are buried.  Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in a lot of Middle Eastern capitals.  We have never been in one — including in Egypt and Israel — that has fewer guys in uniform on the streets than in Tehran right now.

We also agree strongly with Hooman’s assessment of whether the Islamic Republic is on the verge of fundamental political upheaval, and find his reporting on the enhanced standing and importance of the Supreme Leader (rahbar, in Persian) since the June 2009 presidential election very consistent with our own analysis.  On this point, Hooman writes:

Iran is not in a revolutionary, not even pre-revolutionary state and the emperor is, unlike the shah of old (whose nakedness was revealed for all when he proclaimed in November 1978, on live national television, that he had “heard the people’s revolution”), still very much clothed.  “We can only pray for the health and life of the rahbar,” I heard many times in Tehran; people from all walks of life (including staunch reformists) agreeing that without the supreme leader firmly in control, the stability of the country was seriously at risk, or that a small and extremist group of politicians might accomplish what Clinton warned of, a military dictatorship, back in February.  A working-class acquaintance from South Tehran, one who told me last spring that Ahmadinejad would win the election even though he has boycotted every election in the Islamic Republic, was particularly dismissive of any talk of revolution or toppling the government.  “Those on the other side of the water,” he said, referring to Iranians in the United States, “exhort us to spill onto the streets and confront the system.  For what?  They want me to revolt on behalf of those who drive $300,000 Benzes on the streets of Tehran?  Never.”

Additionally, Hooman’s description of popular attitudes in Iran about the nuclear issue and the risks of a military confrontation with the United States and/or Israel are right on the money:

The nuclear issue looms large here in Tehran — there has never been as much talk and even anxiety over the possibility of a military assault on Iran, not even during George W. Bush’s days — but the issue seems to have become a distraction that impedes progress on all fronts, and not the weak point for the regime.  My airport cab driver reminded me, as we were going around a traffic circle at an early-morning breakneck pace that he would be unable to repeat later in the day, that despite the ills of society and the political differences in Iran he recognized weren’t disappearing as fast as the anti-government street demonstrations, Iranians had one thing in common.  “We Iranians have namoos,” he said, “and if anyone even thinks of ravishing her, our gheirat will take over.  Iran is our namoos.”  Namoos is a man’s wife, his woman; her chastity his responsibility to protect, and gheirat is pride and dignity — concepts both Persian and Islamic and one reason women, “sisters” in the Islamic Republic, wear the hijab and many did even under the secular shah.  What the driver meant was that if Iran were attacked, Iranians, and he presumably thought me as well, would defend her with their lives.

Tehran’s nuclear summit in mid-April, dubbed “Nuclear Energy for All; Nuclear Weapons for None” and timed to contrast with Obama’s own summit in Washington (to which Iran was not invited), was, despite a paucity of media coverage in the West, successful in laying out Iran’s stated nuclear agenda — non-proliferation as well as complete disarmament — for a domestic audience and sympathetic listeners in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the developing world.  Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s opening address to the conference, read by his top foreign-policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, in which he emphatically proclaimed weapons of mass destruction haram, strictly forbidden in Islam, went a long way in convincing at least the pious that Iran is not developing nuclear arms. . . .

But Iranians seem to also know that no summit, fatwa, or public proclamation by their officials will convince the United States that Iran is not hell-bent on building a nuclear bomb and then either deploying it against Israel, handing it over to terrorists, or using it to threaten the world at large (none of those scenarios appearing to be particularly plausible to the average citizen or even to citizens of the region).  There are no scientific polls that can accurately gauge public support for Iran’s nuclear posture, but here in the capital it is hard to find an Iranian who doesn’t agree with at least the concept that Iran deserves to enjoy the same rights as other states when it comes to nuclear energy, even as many may find Ahmadinejad’s diplomatic tactics distasteful.  In that sense, the military parade in Tehran on the second day of the nuclear summit and the Revolutionary Guards’ maneuvers in the Persian Gulf a week later were simply expressions of the national gheirat, particularly in light of escalating threats emanating from Washington and Tel Aviv.

And we broadly support Hooman’s policy recommendations for the United States:

From Tehran, despite the ambiguity of what the future holds, of what the Green Movement might be or become, or how the government will deal with the fundamental problems it faces, it is evident that neither debilitating sanctions nor military action (nor continued threats) will accomplish the Obama administration’s stated and unstated Iran policy goals — to induce Iran to alter its nuclear course, or to lend support to an opposition that, even if successful in bringing about change in the leadership, might not do so.

Most Iranians believe their country is powerful, and unlikely to bend to any Western threats.  “The rahbar basically told Obama to go fuck himself, didn’t he?” said my South Tehran friend, a little admiringly.  “And what happened?  Nothing.  No one can touch these guys.”  Iran’s nuclear program is entrenched as important, legal, and valid in the minds of most Iranians, and many of them with whom I’ve spoken find it hard to believe that there is no solution to the crisis short of armed conflict, fewer still believing that the U.S. military would even win a war.

Many Iranians can forgive Obama for his hesitancy to enter into serious negotiations with Iran in the aftermath of the elections of 2009, but given what they know now — that barring a major natural calamity the government is here to stay — it seems the U.S. president’s only real option is to negotiate with Iran in good faith and reach an agreement that satisfies Western concerns about its nuclear program while also satisfying Iran that its rights as a sovereign nation have not been eroded.

We do not agree with every aspect of Hooman’s analysis of Iranian politics — but he combines a deep knowledge about and existential connection to Iranian politics with enormous intellectual honesty, in a manner that we admire and from which we learn.  We look forward to reading his new book when it appears this fall.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 7 May 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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