The twelve rules
... of surviving Iran & Iranians
October 13, 2000
From Elaine Sciolino's "Persian
Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran" (2000, Free Press). No American
reporter has more experience covering Iran or more access to the private
corners of Iranian society than Elaine Sciolino. As a correspondent for
Newsweek and The New York Times, she has reported on the
key events of the past two decades. She was aboard the airplane that brought
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Tehran in 1979; she was there for the Iranian
revolution, the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, the rise of President
Mohammad Khatami, and the riots of the summer of 1999. Join a discussion
about Sciolino's book on The
News York Times web site.
Over the years, I have developed a code of twelve rules that have helped
me survive the setbacks and embrace the surprises of Iran.
RULE ONE: NEVER SAY NO TO AN INVITATION
Iranians by habit operate in two worlds, the public and the private.
Traditionally just about everything meaningful in both social and political
life happens behind closed doors. That is the way Iran has always been,
whether its leaders were kings or ayatollahs.
The contrast is much sharper, however, under the ayatollahs, who have
set strict limits on what constitutes acceptable behavior in public and
sometimes even in private spaces. An outsider can't just open the door
and peer in. The only way to get the door to open is to be invited in first.
I once went all the way to Bijar in Kurdistan to look for the famous
carpets that bear the town's name. I didn't find any. A carpet dealer in
Sanandaj laughed at me when I told him what I had done. "You can't
just go to Bijar for carpets," he said. "All the good ones are
in private homes. You have to get invited."
That was what my twenty years of visiting Iran has been: one long struggle
to get invited in-or to invite myself in. I've shamelessly asked for invitations
to mosques and churches and synagogues; to the homes of clerics and to
the homes of fashion designers; to Koranic classes and to aerobics classes;
to weddings and to funerals. Along the way has come the delight of discovery.
I have found real people with needs and desires even as the Islamic Republic
tries to make them faceless servants of orthodoxy, and an outside world
remains receptive to that stereotype.
It is common to meet people for the first time and have them invite
you to their homes for lunch or dinner. But "Come to my house for
dinner" is the Iranian version of "Let's do lunch." It's
not usually meant literally. The polite response is to reply, "I really
don't want to be a burden," and then wait to see whether the invitation
is extended again. After three or four times, it is appropriate to accept.
I, on the other hand, always accept as soon as the invitation is offered.
It might be withdrawn and it might not come again. I am, after all, a reporter.
RULE TWO: HOSPITALITY DOESN'T MEAN OPENNESS
Concealment is part of normal life in Iran. Veils and scarves conceal
women in public. Both the bazaar and the mosque function as private clubs
for the initiated. The bazaar is not only the commercial heart of an Iranian
city; it is also a densely built community center-with mosques, public
baths, back rooms-that serves as a meeting place and center of communication.
The mosque is not only a place of worship; it is also a vehicle for political
Concealment makes Iranians very different from Americans. Americans
live in houses with front yards that face out to the street. They sit on
their front porches and watch the world go by. Iranians live in houses
with front gardens hidden behind high walls. There is no connection to
the street life outside. It is no accident that figures in Persian miniatures
are often seen peering secretly from behind balconies or curtains or half-closed
doors. America's heroes are plainspoken, lay-it-on-the-line truth-tellers
who love relating their life stories. For Iranians, Jimmy Stewart would
be a chump.
Self-revelation often is seen as a sign of weakness, or at least of
self-indulgence. The only people who can be truly trusted are family. Iranians
remind me of one of my Sicilian grandfathers, who used to curse the stranieri,
the "foreigners," the outsiders who could not be trusted. My
grandfather saw the world as a series of concentric circles with himself
as the center, then the family, then people who had emigrated from his
hometown, then Sicilians, then other Italians, then everyone else. Anyone
in authority is to be avoided. Gharibeh, the Iranians call such outsiders.
Hassan Habibi is emblematic of the concealer who found success in the
Islamic Republic. I first met him in Paris before the revolution, when
Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in France. Habibi said so little whenever
I was with him that I didn't realize until much later that he even spoke
French. Soon after the revolution he was named the spokesman for the ruling
Revolutionary Council. I went to see him one evening and told him the job
didn't seem like a good fit. "I am the silent spokesman," he
said. "That's why they gave me the job." Twenty years later,
he was a Vice President, with a big portfolio to accompany his closed mouth.
The award-winning filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami might talk within Iran
about problems like censorship, but never outside. "Even if we have
censorship in Iran, we should deal with it ourselves," he said in
an interview that was appended to one of his films. "As my father
used to say, 'If your head breaks, it is better that it breaks in your
own hat.' Nobody can untie our knots or solve our problems. For that reason,
I never speak about censorship outside of Iran, especially to foreign reporters."
RULE THREE: RULES EXIST TO BE CHANGED AND ALMOST ANYTHING CAN BE NEGOTIATED
The Islamic Republic is a fluid place where the rules are hard to keep
straight because they keep changing. What is banned one day might be permitted
I've heard it said that Iranian political leaders are terrific chess
players, always plotting their strategy ten steps ahead. To me they are
more like players in a jazz band, changing the rhythm and the tempo and
picking up spontaneous cues from each other as they go along. Knowing how
to improvise is the only way to get things done-and sometimes even to survive.
In 1982, during the Iran-Iraq war, I went to Iran to interview the president,
Ali Khamenei. (He later succeeded Khomeini as Supreme Leader.) His aides
told me that my magazine, Newsweek, would have to publish every word he
uttered during the seventy-five-minute interview. That was impossible for
a magazine with space constraints, but as a courtesy, I spent hours with
Khamenei's interpreter and chief aide to ensure that the translations were
accurate and that the cuts did not distort his words.
After the interview was published, the official Iranian news agency
ran an article in its English-language service under the headline: "Incorrigible
Newsweek Mangles President's Words." "Newsweek, a foremost Zionist
and imperialist publication, finally printed in its February 22 edition
a highly censured [sic] and distorted version of the interview which Iran's
President Khamenei had granted with the magazine's reporter," the
As if that were not confusing enough, consider what happened next. A
few weeks later, a large group of Western journalists-myself included-was
invited to tour the war front. But when I presented myself at the Ministry
of Islamic Guidance for credentials, the official in charge of our group
said bluntly, "You again.
Who let you in here?" So I was expelled.
The official asked me to move to a small, secure room where he pulled
out a file with my name on it and rattled off the "lies" I had
written about the revolution. But as expulsions go, it was pretty civilized.
I was not arrested or put on the next plane out of the country. I was allowed
to stay overnight to recover from jet lag. The official said politely,
"You are our guest. You can enjoy our country, but you cannot work.
We would kindly appreciate it if you would leave the country in the next
twenty-four hours." He added that even if he did allow me to stay,
I couldn't go to the war front.
Why, I asked. "Because ladies aren't allowed at the front."
"But I went to the front two months ago," I protested.
"Things were different then," he explained. "The rules
If Iran is a place of shifting lines, often the Iranians themselves
don't know where the lines are. The lines might shift in different circumstances,
at different times of the day or year. The lines of ideology can move.
The lines of institutions, of heritage, of gender, of public and private
spaces, of the economy, of the relationship with the United States-all
are fluid. Even the lines of leadership have some give.
In such an atmosphere, Iranians learn early to negotiate between extremes.
There are negotiations between the sacred and the secular, between the
public and the private, between the traditional and the modern. "Iranians
are like wheat fields," one saying goes. "When the storm comes,
they bend; when the storm passes, they stand up again." Another goes:
"Iranians are like water in a vase.
If the vase is a globe, they become a globe; if the vase is long-necked,
they become long-necked." The negotiations affect all areas of life-from
gaining face time with a public official to avoiding a lashing for drinking
alcohol to reclaiming land confiscated at the time of the revolution. In
order to maneuver in a country of improvisers, I had to become an improviser
myself, seizing opportunities wherever I found them and making mistakes
and crossing invisible lines along the way.
RULE FOUR: BEING A WOMAN SOMETIMES MAKES THINGS EASIER
I hate to admit it, but my stealth weapon in working in Iran is that
I am a woman. As a female reporter I have access to half of Iran's population
in a way that men don't. I can enter beauty salons, lingerie stores, fashion
shows, aerobics classes, swimming pools-private spaces that are closed
to men. I can unveil and be in the presence of any unveiled woman and not
violate any law or religious tradition. For the most part, I don't feel
that Iranian women are threatened by my presence. There is an unspoken
bond among us that transcends culture, history, nationality, and language.
It also helps that the women of Iran are steel magnolias, not shrinking
violets. More than many women in the Islamic world, Iranian women occupy
public spaces. Even as wives and mothers, they work, vote, drive, shop,
and hold professional positions as doctors, lawyers, corporate executives,
and deputies in Parliament.
I have been assisted over the years by a very special young Iranian
woman in her twenties, Nazila Fathi, the sister of the calligrapher Golnaz
Educated in English translation, Nazila started out as a private English
tutor until the journalism bug bit. Her small frame and delicate features
are reminiscent of a Persian princess painted on a miniature. But they
mask an iron will inherited from her mother, who taught her to regret nothing
and find the way around closed doors. Nazila can recite entire conversations
verbatim days later; she is truly gifted at simultaneous interpretation,
and she is one of the hardest-working people I know. She is also a loyal
friend. "I'm not a friend who would leave you in the middle of a trip,"
she told me once when we were stuck after a particularly arduous assignment
in Shiraz and there was only one seat on the plane back to Tehran that
The onetime CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote a fascinating book, Know
Thine Enemy, published in 1997 under the pseudonym Edward Shirley, about
a five-day secret sojourn in Iran. In it he speculated that "Western
women can often loosen the lips, if not gain the confidence, of even devout
Muslim males more quickly than Western men." He singled out Christiane
Amanpour of CNN, Geraldine Brooks of The Wall Street Journal, Robin Wright
of the Los Angeles Times, and me as "women not scared to project their
femininity in the company of Muslim men." He added, "They would
very likely not be allowed as deep inside a Muslim man's mind as an equally
talented male observer, but they'd get through the heavily guarded front
gate more quickly than even the most intrepid, clever, or duplicitous male
I have never met Gerecht, and in my review of his book for The New York
Times I took exception to his point. How did he know what kind of femininity
I did or did not project? I asked. Moreover, all four of us have been serious
war correspondents. We know the Middle East. What made him think that none
of us would be able to gain as much depth of understanding as a male reporter
Still, Gerecht was on to something, if not for the reasons he thought.
It is not flirtation with men that is important, but sisterhood with other
women. And it is those relationships with other women that have helped
educate me about how to navigate in a country still dominated by men.
RULE FIVE: EVEN SEEING IS NOT BELIEVING
In his 1892 opus, Persia and the Persian Question, the British journalist
and diplomat Lord George Curzon came up with a harsh, cruel, and classically
colonialist description of Iranians. "Splendide mendax might be taken
as the motto of the Persian character," he wrote.
A century later, Curzon is often considered a racist by Iranians and
by scholars of Iran. And Iran is a very different place from the one Curzon
discovered in his travels a century ago. But there is a kernel of truth
in what he said. A number of Iranians I have met over the years know how
to be splendidly deceptive. Even when the evidence is there for all to
see, it could still be denied. In 1995, I interviewed Reza Amrollahi, who
was then the director of Iran's nuclear program. He said that his country's
goal was to become less dependent on oil and that Iran had a concrete plan
to build medium-sized nuclear reactors in the next twenty years-"something
like ten of them"-if there was enough money and trained people. I
wrote the story.
Two days later, he gave an interview to an Iranian newspaper saying
that Iran was capable of building ten nuclear power plants in the next
twenty years, but it had no such plan to do so. He also said that he had
briefed The New York Times on the issue, but it had "distorted"
I ran into the same problem two and a half years later, after I did
an interview with Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the British-educated brother of
Iran's newly elected President, Mohammad Khatami. I was writing a profile
of the President and went to see his brother, a medical doctor, at his
office at the Ministry of Health, where he was Deputy Minister. As we talked,
he suggested ways that the United States could improve relations between
the two countries. It was only fair to tell him in advance that his views
merited a story. He seemed pleased. The story was published. Mohammed-Reza
Khatami called me the next day. He was angry and denied that he had said
any of the things I attributed to him. I reminded him that I had tape-recorded
our conversation. "Even if I said those things, I deny them now,"
he yelled. "You shouldn't have printed what I said." In one of
the Iranian newspapers the following day was a story in which he denounced
me for inventing quotes.
The incidents illustrate that often what happens can be tolerated, but
the exposure of what happens cannot. A friend of mine once told me, "Talk
is more important than reality. Everyone knows that dogs pee in graveyards.
But one of the worst things you can say to someone is, 'A dog peed on your
RULE SIX: BEING POLITE IS OFTEN BETTER THAN TELLING THE TRUTH
Most of the Iranians I've met at least try to be polite when they are
dissembling or stonewalling. Some prefer to invent stories rather than
be rude and expose the whole truth. I asked Javad Larijani, a conservative
member of Parliament and the head of Parliament's research center, about
this one day. I wanted to know why the Parliament had never publicized
its investigation of the country's giant foundations that ran vast swaths
of the economy.
"There's a hidden reality, a hypocrisy that keeps the peace,"
Larijani told me.
"It protects the dignity of the other. Architects don't build glass
houses in Iran. If you don't speak of everything so openly, it's better.
Being able to keep a secret even if you have to mislead is considered a
sign of maturity. It's Persian wisdom. We don't have to be ideal people.
Everybody lies. Let's be good liars."
Even my most trusted friends in Iran are accomplished in what I consider
the art of lying. Over tea at a diplomat's house one afternoon, an American
woman who had recently arrived in Iran modeled a full black robe and headdress
that had been custom-made for her in Egypt. The headdress covered every
strand of hair and part of her forehead; the sleeves came long and tight
over her wrists. It was overkill. It told the authorities, "Not only
do I accept your restrictions about women's dress, I revel in them."
Nazila told her that it was lovely.
"Maybe I should have one made for myself," she added.
"Why would you ever wear something like that?" I asked Nazila
after the encounter.
"I wouldn't," she said.
"Then why did you make such a fuss about it?"
"It's taarof," Nazila explained. "It's exaggerated good
manners that keep the peace. My mother always tells me I have bad manners
because I usually don't do taarof. But in this case, I felt I had no choice.
No harm was done."
Taarof is reflected in everyday Persian expressions of excessive politeness
that when translated literally diminish the self in front of others: "I
sacrifice myself for you." "I am your little one." "I
am your slave maiden." "Step on my eyes."
I heard a great taarof story from Ali-Reza Shiravi, from the Ministry
of Islamic Guidance. A Canadian journalist went into a store to buy a hat.
The journalist went to pay for it, but the shopkeeper said, "Be my
guest," indicating that the hat was a gift. The journalist insisted
he should pay, but the shopkeeper insisted he should not. The journalist
thanked the shopkeeper and left. A few minutes later, a policeman grabbed
the journalist as a thief. The shopkeeper had turned him in.
RULE SEVEN: IRAN IS NOT JUST THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC. IT'S NOT JUST PERSIA
Over the years I have discovered that Iran, even after a revolution
in the name of religion, would not be simply an Islamic Republic. It would
always be Persia as well. The austere spirituality of Shiite Islam meshes
with the sensuous richness of Persia, even as the two clash. And Iran is
even more varied than that. Yes, there is the Iran of austere Islam in
the holy city of Qom.
But I found another Iran in Shiraz, at Bagh-e Eram, or Garden of Earthly
Paradise, a sprawling public garden filled with two-hundred-year-old cypress,
pomegranate, salt cedar, and sour cherry trees, musk roses, coxcomb, and
honeysuckle. I found a third Iran forty miles from Yazd at an abandoned
caravansary where no one could see me slip off my scarf and jacket so that
the breeze could touch my bare skin. And I found yet another Iran in Hamadan,
at a mausoleum with a basket of yarmulkes at the entrance and the Ten Commandments
mounted on a far wall.
According to legend, Queen Esther, the biblical Jewish queen who saved
her people from persecution in the fifth century b.c., and her kinsman
Mordecai are buried there.
I have discovered that only half of Iran's estimated 65 million people
are Persians. One fourth are Turks who filtered into the northwest Iranian
province of Azerbaijan from Central Asia. Eight percent are Gilanis and
Mazandaranis; 7 percent are Kurds; and the rest are Arabs, Lurs, Baluchis,
and Turkmens. Only 58 percent of the people are native Persian speakers;
26 percent speak some sort of Turkish dialect. Most Iranians feel Iranian
first, and their ethnic affiliation second. But it still startles me to
visit Kurdistan and find people who speak only Kurdish or to enter the
bazaar in Tehran and hear more Turkish than Persian spoken.
Even the climate and topography of Iran is a surprise to the uninitiated.
Iran is susceptible to droughts and floods, sandstorms and snowstorms.
It can be suffocatingly humid or desert dry. The weather can shift suddenly
without warning. I once took a trip to the Caspian where I swam (on a women-only
beach) in a bathtub-warm sea and then drove back to Tehran through snowstorms
in the mountains. When people ask me if Iran has camels and deserts, I
answer more deserts than camels. I also tell them that Iran has rice paddies,
tea plantations, wetlands, wheat fields, and some of the best mountain
climbing and snow skiing in the world. Try moving around Tehran when there's
three feet of snow on the ground.
Many Iranians revel in their ethnic diversity, but not if they think
it makes them appear backward. Of all the stories I have ever written in
covering Iran, the one that sparked the most criticism within the country
was not about political infighting or repression or the private lives of
women. It was a story about Azeri cave dwellers in a tiny village in the
northwest corner of Iran called Kanduvan.
I knew that there were cave dwellers in Turkey, but I had never read
anything about cave dwellers in Iran. So when a friend in Tabriz offered
to show me, I accepted. We found an odd honeycomb of caves hidden in the
side of a deep valley. There, hundreds of Turkish-speaking herders live
in the damp dwellings dug into the steep, strangely shaped cones of porous
volcanic rock. They do not get many foreign visitors and keep to themselves.
But one old man named Hassan recognized my friend. Hassan had sold vegetables
and walnuts to my friend's father before the revolution.
In Hassan's cave, we sat on thin, brightly colored woven carpets that
served as floor coverings. Bookshelves and closets were chiseled into the
walls of tufa stone, which had been painted white. There was a refrigerator
in one corner; mattresses were hidden behind a colorful curtain. Hassan
and his wife even had a working television. Most of the caves have at least
minimal electricity tapped from the main electrical lines below and cold
running water pumped up from a spring.
The most difficult time, Hassan said, is the brutally long winter, when
the people use makeshift heaters to burn dried manure, the same fuel they
use for cooking.
There are no telephones, local newspaper, mail delivery, or hot running
water. When I got back to Tabriz, I wrote a feature for The New York Times,
describing daily life in the remote community. After the story appeared,
a number of officials called my friend Nosrat at the Ministry of Islamic
Guidance to complain. "People didn't like the story," Nosrat
explained to me later. "They said it was humiliating, that it made
us look backward. It's difficult for them to understand what was interesting
about such a place. "I told them," he continued, "'She went
to Tabriz. This is what it's like near Tabriz. All kinds of people live
there. Why should we be ashamed of it?'" Still, Nosrat did not put
my story on Kanduvan into the daily foreign press digest he prepared for
the ministry that day.
RULE EIGHT: IRAN IS FIGHTING SEVENTH-CENTURY BATTLES IN THE TWENTY-FIRST
Iran's leaders haven't figured out what Islamic message to rely on in
their struggle to build a modern society. Some insist on a strict version
of Islam as they believe it was at its creation. Others want to interpret
Islam to fit the modern era. All of this is colored by the Messianic nature
of Shiite Islam, which predominates in Iran but which is in the minority
in the rest of the Muslim world. Today, 99 percent of Iran's population
is Muslim, of which about 80 percent are Shiites and about 19 percent are
Sunnis. (The remaining 1 percent are Christians, Jews, Bahais, and Zoroastrians.)
The Shiites split from the mainstream Sunnis in a conflict over who should
succeed the Prophet Mohammad as Islam's political and spiritual leader
when he died in a.d. 632. The Sunnis, whose name comes from the Arabic
word for "tradition," argue that the leader should be selected
in the pre-Islamic way: through consensus among the community's elders.
But a minority believed that Ali, the Prophet's pious first cousin and
son-in-law, should replace him, because that's what Mohammad decreed. These
dissidents became known in Arabic as the Shiites, or "partisans"
of Ali. The conflict intensified in a.d. 661, when Ali was stabbed to death
while praying in Kufa, in Iraq. Then, nearly twenty years later, Ali's
followers, led by his son Hosein, rebelled against the ruling hierarchy.
Hosein had been forewarned of his martyrdom in a vision-but still he set
out for Kufa. The forces of the Sunni Caliph Yazid stopped him on the sun-scorched
plain of Karbala. During a ten-day battle, Hosein was stabbed to death
as he held a sword in one hand and a Koran in the other. His male relatives
and their supporters were shot with arrows and cut into pieces. Their severed
heads were brought to Yazid in Damascus. The Sunni caliphs continued to
For Shiites, the death of Hosein is the seminal event in their history.
And because few Shiites came to Hosein's aid during the battle, their successors
were left with both the burden of Sunni oppression and a permanent guilt
But martyrdom and guilt are not the only pillars of Shiite Islam. Most
Shiites recognize twelve historic Imams or rightful spiritual rulers. The
infant twelfth Imam "disappeared" in a cave in a.d. 874 and is
believed to be not dead but somehow hidden. He will return one day as the
Redeemer who will create the perfect, godly society. Until then, all temporal
power is imperfect. Ayatollah Khomeini was always referred to as "Imam
Khomeini," and although it would have been blasphemy to draw a literal
connection with the twelfth Imam, the title certainly gave Khomeini additional
Khomeini wore a black turban and was called a sayyid, indicating that
he was a descendant of the Prophet's family. Night after night before the
revolution, many people in Iran swore that they saw Khomeini's face-his
turban, his eyes, his nose, his beard-in the moon. Then, against all odds,
he brought down the King of Kings.
It wasn't just religion and tradition that triumphed in 1979. It was
a long overdue popular revolution that just happened to have a leader in
clerical robes at its head. Still, it was not surprising that in Khomeini's
war against Iraq in the 1980s, Iranian fighters dreamed of redeeming the
martyrdom of Ali and Hosein in that same land thirteen centuries before.
More than a decade after the end of that war, Iran is still engaged
in a battle over interpretations of Islam. The struggle is not only between
Shiites and Sunnis but within Shiism itself. Contrary to the perception
outside Iran that religious truth is monolithic and that dissent is not
tolerated, one of the defining traits of Shiism is its emphasis on argument.
Clerics are encouraged and expected to challenge interpretations of the
Koran, even those of the most learned ayatollahs, in the hope that new
and better interpretations may emerge.
It is a concept little grasped in the West, but it is critical to understanding
Iran's current reformers and their leader President Khatami, who is the
son of one of the most revered-and liberal-minded-of the ayatollahs in
RULE NINE: A TIME BOMB IS TICKING AND IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH EXPLOSIVES
Iran's clerics, like Muslim clerics everywhere, invoke the authority
of the Prophet in explaining their positions and issuing orders. But, like
interpreting the view from a fractured mirror, it is sometimes hard to
figure out where those decrees will lead. That's what happened with the
policy on procreation. Early in the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini encouraged
his people to breed. The policy would create a generation of soldiers for
God. "My soldiers are still infants," Khomeini explained. The
policy worked better than even Khomeini could have envisioned. By 1986,
the official annual growth rate was 3.2 percent-among the highest in the
When the war with Iraq ended in 1988, the ruling clerics realized that
such a large birth rate was disastrous for the economy and reversed themselves.
Sure, the Prophet Mohammad was on record as saying, "Marry and multiply,
for I shall make a display of you before other nations on the Day of Judgment."
But Ayatollah Khomeini was also on record in 1980 as saying, in a little-noticed
statement, that Islam allows some forms of birth control as long as the
wife receives the consent of her husband and the chosen method does not
damage her health. The statement was used to revive the government's moribund
national familyplanning program. Later, Ayatollah Khamenei went further,
proclaiming, "When wisdom dictates that you do not need more children,
a vasectomy is permissible."
In the late 1980s, Iran's Health Ministry launched a massive nationwide
family-planning campaign and by the late 1990s, the population growth rate
had been more than halved to 1.47 percent. But the trend had been set.
At the time of the revolution, Iran's population was roughly 35 million.
Today, it is approaching 65 million. And 65 percent of that population
is under the age of twenty-five. The infants are growing up. Unlike their
fathers, who lived the events of the revolution, most young people know
it only through their history books. Many feel no particular love or hatred
toward the Shah, or for that matter, toward Ayatollah Khomeini himself.
But they know what they want: more jobs and fewer constraints on their
personal lives. They can vote at sixteen, and that makes them a threat
to the power of the clerics who had promoted the anti-contraception policy
in the first place.
RULE TEN: IRAN IS THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE OF AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY, SO
DON'T LET YOUR GUARD DOWN
Iran's Islamic Republic is not a police state, but it is not a liberty-loving
democracy either, at least not yet. Nowhere has that been more evident
since the dawn of the Islamic Republic than in its political use of terror
outside the country.
In fact, probably the deepest fear of Iran among decision-makers in
Washington and among the American people is that Iran might sponsor terrorism
against American targets, either in the United States or abroad. The seizure
of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 was the first but not the only
time the United States was targeted. Shiite terrorists (believed by American
and Israeli intelligence to have acted with Iranian support) were responsible
for the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, in which 241
American servicemen died. In the 1980s, the holding of American and other
Western hostages by Iranian-backed Shiite radicals in Lebanon culminated
in the most embarrassing foreign policy scandal of the Reagan administration:
the sale of weapons to Iran in violation of American policy and the illegal
use of the profits to fund the contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Only some of the American hostages were freed as a result of the arms
sales, but Iran eventually paid the captors between $1 million and $2 million
to free each remaining hostage, according to American intelligence reports.
Iran expected that economic and diplomatic rewards from the United States
would follow, but by then the relationship was so sour that President George
Bush decided against it, arguing that Iran should not be rewarded for doing
something that should have been done years before.
Although Americans still fear that one day an Iranian bomb will blow
up near the White House or on Wall Street, historically the most vulnerable
targets of Iranian terrorism have been other Iranians. The attacks have
tapered off in recent years, but opponents of the Islamic Republic anywhere
in the world remain potential assassination targets.
One political assassination particularly affected me. For years, Abdol-Rahman
Ghassemlou was the leader of Iran's Kurdish autonomist movement. He spoke
passable English and Russian and took money wherever he could find it.
I first met Ghassemlou in August 1979, when a civil war was raging in Kurdistan
and the new revolutionary government in Tehran had not yet suppressed it.
For five days I traveled through Kurdistan with Ghassemlou and his pesh
merga-ready-to-die guerrilla fighters-as he met with his commanders. We
bounced along in a jeep that seemed to have lost its springs, and we slept
on the floors of safe houses.
On the fifth day, a group of Kurdish women drew a bath for me and washed
my clothes. I was lent a Kurdish wedding costume with a sheer red veil
and a black velvet vest trimmed with gold coins to wear until my clean
clothes dried. "Miss Sciolino," Ghassemlou said when he saw me
in full bridal regalia, "I think I'll just call your editors at Newsweek
and tell them you got lost somewhere in the rugged Kurdish hills."
We laughed. He sent me safely on my way the next day. I didn't see him
One evening ten years later, Ghassemlou and two other Kurds were meeting
with officials from Tehran in a borrowed apartment in Vienna to negotiate
an autonomy agreement for the Iranian province of Kurdistan. The police
later found Ghassemlou shot dead, his body propped up in an armchair, a
baseball cap placed in his lap. His two associates were also killed. Austrian
authorities assumed that the officials from Tehran were the assassins.
RULE ELEVEN: IRAN IS IN THE MIDDLE EAST, BUT NOT ENTIRELY PART OF IT
Americans tend to think of Iran as a Middle Eastern country. But the
word "Iran" comes from the word "Aryan." The people
who settled in this region in the second millennium b.c. were Indo-European
nomads who migrated from Central Asia in the east, not from the Semitic
lands of the west and south. The Persian language is Indo-European, a distant
cousin of English, French and Sanskirit. It is barely related to Arabic,
even though it is infused with Arabic words.
Looking at a map doesn't solve the identity problem. Iran shares borders
with Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, and three former Soviet republics:
Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Iran is the only land bridge between
the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Iran's intellectuals and politicians
have long debated the direction to which they should turn: South to the
Persian Gulf? West to Europe? North to the Caucasus? East to Asia?
Iran is the land of one of the world's oldest religions. Centuries before
the birth of Christ, the prophet Zoroaster preached a message of monotheism,
the central feature of which was a long battle between good and evil. (Good
will ultimately win.) Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were influenced
by the Zoroastrian belief in the devil and angels, heaven and hell, redemption,
resurrection, and the last judgment. The word "paradise," which
means "pleasure park of the king," comes from Old Persian.
Iran is also one of the world's few civilizations that, like Egypt,
has enjoyed cultural continuity since ancient times. The boundaries of
most other countries in the Middle East were defined in the twentieth century
by European colonial powers. "Tribes with flags," is how the
Egyptian intellectual Tahseen Bashir described them, insisting that Iran
and Egypt are the only real countries in the region.
Even in its modern history, Iran has had an ambiguous relationship with
the Arab Middle East. The issue is complicated by the fact that Iran is
a Muslim country, but Muslim in its own way, and it has a small Arab minority.
Persia was the first-and fastest-growing-superpower of the ancient world.
It started in the early seventh century b.c. as a small southern province
named Parsa (now Fars). Hence the name Persia. It expanded through war,
occupation, revolts, cruelty, and marriage, until under Cyrus the Great
in the sixth century b.c. the empire stretched all the way from the Mediterranean
to India. In victory, Cyrus was a tolerant ruler, allowing the Jews to
return to Jerusalem after a long period of exile at the hands of the Babylonians.
His grandson Darius introduced a sophisticated administrative system,
an empire linked by a 1,500-mile highway complex. Mail carriers used a
relay system that became the model for the Pony Express, and the U.S. Postal
Service adapted the original motto of the Persians: "Stopped by neither
snow, rain, heat, or gloom of night." The empire also pioneered irrigation
techniques, codified commercial laws, and created a universal system of
weights and measures.
As a lasting testament to his reign, Darius built Persepolis, a magnificent
new ritual city and capital on a vast, sunbaked platform in the desert,
a place where the peoples of the empire could come to pay tribute.
But empires do not last. In 330 b.c., Alexander the Great conquered
Persia, bringing the imperial age to a close. Centuries later, though,
even after many other waves of conquest and foreign domination, Iranians
feel passionately that they are a separate, special people. One of the
reasons I feel the Iranian system works as well as it does is that Iranians
have such a strong sense of a distinct national identity. Whoever they
are and wherever they go, they want to speak Persian, read Persian poetry,
eat Persian food, and debate Iranian politics.
RULE TWELVE: IRANIANS LIKE AMERICANS
Iranians view America as a land of demons and dreams, of unlimited power
and unlimited promise.
Officially, America is Iran's worst enemy. Among its "crimes":
fomenting a military coup in 1953 that restored Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi
to the throne; bolstering him with billions of dollars in arms sales over
the next quarter-century; tilting toward Iraq in the war against Iran;
failing to resolve financial disputes dating from the hostage crisis; weakening
the Islamic Republic with economic sanctions.
In February 1982 I toured the war-ravaged Iranian city of Dezful with
Iranian officials eager to show how they had recaptured the city from Iraq
a few months before. My Iranian guide pointed out a vast yard where a pregnant
Iranian woman had been killed by a Soviet-made missile. After she was killed
the neighbors came out and chanted, "Death to America," the guide
"If she was killed by a Soviet missile, why didn't they shout 'Death
to Moscow'?" I asked.
"Because it is America who benefits by the war," he replied.
In other words, if you're America, you never win.
At the same time, the United States remains a fantasy Promised Land
for many Iranians, the land of Baywatch and billionaires and an easy life
in Los Angeles, where hundreds of thousands of Iranians have settled. Many
Iranians, even those on very limited incomes, own illegal satellite dishes
that give them instant access to American television. Even without satellite
dishes, I have picked up CNN in Bushehr on the Persian Gulf because Dubai
is so close. I once asked an eighteen-year-old middle-class high school
student who had never traveled outside Iran how he came to speak such colloquial
English and he replied, "CNN."
American CDs, videos, and computer programs are pirated and sold on
the streets for a fraction of their price in the United States. E-mail
is more widely available in Iran than in many other Middle Eastern countries.
A friend once bought software on the black market for $10 that would have
cost $1,500 in the United States.
Even after Bill Clinton imposed an economic embargo on Iran in May 1995,
American goods did not disappear. They just got more expensive. Under Iranian
customs regulations, Iranians entering the country are allowed to bring
in one appliance, which has led to a lively importation of refrigerators,
washing machines, and dishwashers. During a visit to the holy city of Qom
I found a shop selling knockoffs of Wrangler blue jeans just down the street
from the main shrine, one of Iran's holiest sites. Almost every Iranian
I have ever met has a relative living in the United States.
And even those Iranians who rail most about American policy seem to
genuinely like Americans. At the height of the American embassy seizure
in 1979 and 1980, the same Iranian demonstrators who chanted angry slogans
about the "den of spies" in the mornings followed me down Ferdowsi
Avenue in the afternoons asking me to help them get visas or contact their
relatives in Los Angeles or Dallas.
I saw that love-hate attitude again years later on a slow-moving German-made
ferry on a 110 degree day in the middle of the Persian Gulf. In Iranian
eyes, one of the worst American "crimes" was committed in July
1988, a month before the end of Iran's eight-year war with Iraq. An American
naval cruiser, the USS Vincennes, had mistaken an Iran Air civilian airliner
for a hostile military aircraft and shot it down as it flew over the Persian
Gulf, killing all 290 people on board. Every year since, the Iranians have
ferried families of the victims and journalists to a ceremony at the point
twenty-five miles into the Persian Gulf where the plane hit the water.
I went along one year, and a group of young women in chadors, whose
relatives died in the crash, discovered that I was an American. But instead
of venting anger, they shyly touched me and wanted to have their pictures
taken with me. I was the first American they had ever met, and they were
endlessly curious. Did I like Iran? What did I think of the coverings that
women have to wear in the breathtaking heat? They thrust pages from their
notebooks and pieces of Kleenex at me. They wanted my autograph.
I like to tell Iranians that I am American. The information lights up
their faces. For years, I also wore as a badge of honor the fact that I
was on the plane that brought Ayatollah Khomeini from France in February
1979. It opened doors. And then one day it began to work only occasionally.
I told someone I had been on Khomeini's plane.
"So it was your fault," he said.