October 17, 2006
Excerpt from "Conversations
in Tehran" by Jean-Daniel Lafond and
Fred A. Reed (Talonbooks,
Tehran, February 2004
ashen sky, a chill wind swept the sidewalks, driving clouds of
fine dust before it. A whiff of rain was in the air. Once more
ourselves in Iran, the country we had left on a sunny June morning
three years before. The filming of Salam Iran, a Persian Letter
was behind us. Iran’s future lay before us. It had seemed
so full of promise then: a second revolution was all but inevitable
though no one dared predict where it might lead. Unlike our society,
where past and future have been absorbed by the present, Iran was
awash with bold ideas, new solutions, experiments that might or
might not succeed, but were unfailingly striking.
a locus of cultural conflict between the Islamic East and the
West, Iran under President Mohammad Khatami had been struggling
to transform itself into a place of encounter and reconciliation,
a forum for civilizational dialogue. It was this second revolution
that we had returned to Tehran to chart, and which would go down
to defeat in the parliamentary elections of February 2004.
after our arrival, like all visiting journalists we paid the
obligatory call on the Press Office of the Ministry of Islamic
Guidance. Having duly completed the required formalities and presented
our respectful greetings, we set out on our own, returning the
day before departure to offer our equally respectful farewells.
are two ways for a foreigner to gain insight into Iran. The first
is to spend large sums of money to purchase one’s sources
of information, and even to appropriate their words. This method,
favored by the major media networks, can easily engender the kind
of “professional bias” seen on CNN, whose reports have
more often than not strengthened the hand of the mullahs who hold
power in Tehran, not to mention their counterparts in Washington,
those two mirror opposites who so often appear to see eye to eye.
second method is to build slowly, patiently on a basis of confidence
and friendship, to develop close personal ties, to enter into
social and family relationships. This had always been our approach,
thanks to it, we were able in short order to arrange the meetings
that give this book its shape and form.
* * *
President Khatami had perfectly foreseen the daunting impact
of his program when he published a book entitled Fear of the
hope and intent was to convince his fellow Iranians to meet head-on
and to navigate the whirlpool that would soon engulf their country.
The title’s explicit reference to Ha’afez, the visionary
poet of Shiraz, was hardly fortuitous. It was meant to reassure
and, at the same time, to provoke his compatriots. The Divan,
is one of the cornerstones of Iranian culture, holding pride
of place alongside the Qur’an in most Iranian homes. People
from all walks of life read it, quote from it, and recite it
and pride. By invoking one of Iran’s national poets, perhaps
the one closest to today’s sensibilities, a man who had
lived in a similar, strife-torn age, President Khatami sought
a precise message: the interpretation of Scripture, heretofore
the sole source of legitimacy in the eyes of the clerical regime,
give way to a more intimate, personal, and mystical approach
to the relationship between religion, life, and society.
message was not in the least at odds with the guiding principles
of Shi’a Islam, the driving force of the
Iranian Revolution. Yet, in subtle ways, it aspired to bring
about a shift, both in breadth and scope, in those principles.
we wondered, fear of the wave had a real, as well as a metaphorical
meaning? Were that the case, it could well embody the passage
from a state based on divine right to a democratic state on the
model, with all its accompanying dangers of neo-liberalism. Would
Mohammad Khatami dare to push his program beyond metaphor? Would
the ultimate outcome reconcile the politician’s brave words
with the poet’s dream?
These two questions lay at the heart
of Salam Iran, a Persian Letter. In it, we concluded that life
in Iran lay anchored in
that the past had been rejected, and that the future seemed truly
frightening. But above all, we had concluded that the revolution
was well and truly dead.
Was it possible, we wondered, behind
the downfall of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, to intuit the
outlines of another revolution?
The answer was far from certain, and when, in a final attempt,
we asked the philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush to enlighten us,
he said, “Go
to Shiraz; you’ll find the answer there, at the tomb of
In Iran, if it’s insight you seek, better ask poets than
“I think, today, in the whole world, like in the third
world, we are going through a singular historical period. We
like those Ha’afez wrote about in his poem. To break through
the wave, you need courage. To stay mired in tradition is to
live in darkness; to open yourself to the modern world is to
this terrifying wave.”7
* * *
The men and women we encountered in Tehran represent a
broad cross-section of Iran’s intellectual elite. The stories
they tell draw a compelling picture of Iran at a particular moment
in its contemporary
history -- and of the unfulfilled promises, dreams, and challenges
that loom before it. Several of our partners in conversation
are fully involved in the country’s political life, in
the corridors of power or as members of the civic resistance
to the Islamic regime;
others are analysts or thinkers who dare to speak out; still
others, feminists and grass-roots activists in a region where
be high-risk occupations. Some have received death threats; others
been arrested and tortured.
On a broader scale, modern-day relations
between the West and the Islamic Orient are fraught with danger
and turmoil as perhaps
before in their long history of cohabitation and clash. It should
come as no surprise that Iran’s attempts to grapple on
its own terms with the legacy of geography, history, and the
of geopolitics place it squarely in the storm center of conflicts,
both latent and actual.
The Tehran we came to know through our
encounters is the social, cultural, and political focal point
of opposition to a pseudo-theocratic
system that has never been able to overcome its own self-created
contradictions; of stubborn resistance to a regime that has demonstrated
its inability to transform the doctrines of Islam into the lodestone
of everyday existence, of social life and economic life.
had been the intention of the Shi’a clerics who seized
power in Iran following the overthrow of the shah. Having emerged
as the only political counterweight to Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi,
whose dictatorship had silenced all opposition, the religious
successfully transformed the deep mistrust of human authority
inherent in Shi’ism into a powerful movement that brought
down the ephemeral “King
But the clerics had not been alone. Others, inspired
by the Constitutional Movement of 1906, dreamed of a modern,
independent country, open
to the world. In 1951, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq transformed
the dream into reality by nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil
Company. But the dream rapidly soured, and then turned to nightmare
a coup d’état engineered by Kermit Roosevelt of
the CIA and his counterpart in the British Intelligence Service,
Christopher Montague Woodhouse, overthrew the Mossadeq government
two years later. Accused of rebellion against an imperial decree,
Mossadeq was sentenced to three years in prison, and spent the
of his life under house arrest.8
The coexistence, collaboration,
and often-violent confrontation of these two ideological currents
-- the religious and the secular
-- were to give political life in the young Islamic Republic
its unique shape.
They also provide perhaps the most satisfactory explanation for
the seemingly paradoxical, contradictory workings of the Iranian
system. On the one hand, Iran is ostensibly a republic. The monarchy
has been overthrown, replaced by a parliament elected every four
years by universal suffrage; a putative system of checks and
balances prevails, overseen by a nominally independent judiciary
is nonetheless appointed by the Supreme Guide.
On the other hand,
Iran is an Islamic republic, conceived in the image of the community
founded by the Prophet Muhammed when he emigrated from Mecca
to Medina in 622 to begin the Islamic era. As if that were not
must also contend with the startling innovation in Shi’ite
tradition, devised by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that gives
a single man, the Supreme Guide, near-absolute powers based on
of the Velayat-e faqih, the rule of the jurist-consult.9 And,
to further complicate matters, certain members of the clergy
that Khomeini’s innovation not only has no basis in the
and the other sources of Islamic doctrine, but that it draws
its inspiration from the Iranian monarchical tradition.
a hybrid, one-of-a-kind regime, designed to perpetuate the power
of the religious establishment over society. But it
a regime that must tolerate within it other voices, other forces.
These may not be completely secularist, but they are bitingly
critical of the mullahs’ attempts to obtain a stranglehold
on power. Seen from the West, it is tempting to view Iran’s
religious state as a theocratic monolith. In reality, the state
except by a constant balancing act between factions that believe “Islamic
values” to be the only criterion, and others for which
religious solutions are far from the sole panacea for the country’s
political and economic woes.
Not surprisingly, we quickly began
the work of unravelling the semantic complexities of Iranian
politics, began to “read” its
shades of meaning. Thus, in this book, the words “regime” and “government” cannot
be understood as synonymous. It had early on become quite apparent
that in its dealings with the regime, President Mohammad Khatami’s
reformist government -- Iran’s executive branch -- had
come to resemble nothing so much as an outsized NGO (non-governmental
organization). What could it hope to achieve, after all, against
a regime based on the absolute power of the Supreme Guide who
stands alone as head of state, and who draws his legitimacy from
institution unique to the Islamic Republic, the Velayat-e faqih?
But even this institution was grounded in yet another paradox:
Mr. Ali Khamene’i, who succeeded Imam Khomeini as Supreme
Guide, was awarded his absolute power by the majority vote of
democratically elected parliament!
Readers should be aware, then,
that the term “regime” is
used throughout this book to refer to the true seat of power:
the hard core of the Shi’a clerical establishment; Iran’s
great traditional families, including those of certain influential
ayatollahs; the security and intelligence services; and the Revolutionary
Guards, the paramilitary force established in 1980 to protect
the nascent Islamic Republic. This power structure finds its
expression in the two bodies created to supervise the key institutions
of the dual-headed state: the Council of Guardians, that rules
on the conformity with Islamic criteria of all parliamentary
and the Council of Experts, which oversees the work of the Supreme
Guide -- and whose members are appointed by him.
In these pages,
we use the term “conservatives” as
it is used in Iran, to refer to those Iranians who share this
how the state should be organized, and support the predominant
role of religion in society.
Their chief opponents, the “reformists,” are
the no less legitimate heirs of the revolution’s strong
nationalist and secular streak. Early on, they had diagnosed
the malfunction and,
worse, the failure of the absolutist model, and set out to transform
the Iranian political landscape. Instead of calling for the violent
overthrow of the regime, they chose to attempt change from within,
to reshape by patient argument the dominant mindset. In their
attempt to do so, they underestimated the power of the conservatives.
overnight, their brave new movement had fallen apart.
while, since 1979, the United States has worked diligently to
cast Iran as a “rogue state.” Not even the election
of Mohammad Khatami at the head of a reform government in 1997
brought about more than a slight shift in American attitudes.
When, in 2003,
with the full approval of the Supreme Guide, the Khatami government
submitted to Washington an offer designed to settle all outstanding
differences, it was rejected out of hand.
American policy toward
Iran sees “regime change” as the
only option. And when Washington says regime change, it really
means destruction of the regime. In 2006, American intransigence
fortify -- if not justify -- the outspoken stance of Iran’s
newly elected conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on
nuclear energy program, and on the Palestinian conflict. Long
targeted, and threatened, by the Zionist state, Iran has developed
perspective on Middle Eastern geopolitics. In challenging the
legitimacy of Israel, it has substantially increased its popularity
broad cross-sections of the Arabo-Islamic world.
The aim of these
conversations is neither to approve nor disapprove of what Iran
says or does, but to trace the ebb and flow of ideas
across the immense and fragile space of the Middle East, and
of Iran as a discrete component of it. Iran has become particularly
to seismic shocks, both natural and man-made. In this book we
attempted to understand what we have seen and heard, far from
the shopworn clichés and commonplaces that so often masquerade
as informed comment in our docile media. Political life in Iran
marches to its own drumbeat. Threatened by nuclear attack in
the wake of
George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, Iran,
as an independent country, is arguably taking whatever action
as necessary to defend itself and to protect its interests.
decline, in short, to measure Iranian society against the yardstick
of American foreign policy imperatives. Instead, we
hold it to
account against its own contradictions, its unkept promises,
its own failings.
* * *
Welcome then to Tehran, a city where modernity often finds
a violent, even virulent outlet; a city that at the same
tradition that has survived the assaults of the modern
age intact. Could there possibly be a more propitious place for
with our Iranian friends and acquaintances, for a free
unfettered exchange of words and ideas?
Ours has been a geographical journey, an excursion into
the society around us, and a voyage into the imagination.
sought out --
and often accidentally encountered -- assertive, powerful
voices. Each one staked its own claim to legitimacy; and
as we were
formulating our questions, each one was probing us for
in Tehran" available on amazon.com
6. Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, Hope and Challenge: The Iranian
President Speaks, trans. Alidad Mafinezam (Binghamton: igcs, 1997).
7. Abdolkarim Soroush, in Salam Iran, A Persian Letter (2002).
8. Jean-Pierre Digard, Bernard Hourcade, and Yann Richard, L’Iran
au XXe siécle (Paris: Fayard, 1996), 101–20.
9. Velayat-e faqih: an innovation of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
which postulates that the divine law of Islam had been transferred
to the Prophet during his lifetime, and thereafter to his legatees,
the Imams -- “It is unreasonable to believe, argues Khomeini,
that God had left mankind to its own devices after the Occultation
of the Twelfth Imam. The difference between the just jurist-consult
and the Imam is no greater than between the Imam and the Prophet” (Yann
Richard, L’Islam chiite [Paris: Fayard, 1991], 110).