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Reading shades of meaning
Unravelling the semantic complexities of Iranian politics



October 17, 2006

Excerpt from "Conversations in Tehran" by Jean-Daniel Lafond and Fred A. Reed (Talonbooks, 2006).

Tehran, February 2004
Under an 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 we found 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 even 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.

Historically 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.

The day 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.

There 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.

The 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, and 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 Wave.6 His 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, his masterwork, 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 with reverence 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 to convey a precise message: the interpretation of Scripture, heretofore the sole source of legitimacy in the eyes of the clerical regime, must give way to a more intimate, personal, and mystical approach to the relationship between religion, life, and society.

Mr. Khatami’s 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. What if, 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 Western 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 the moment, 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 Ha’afez. In Iran, if it’s insight you seek, better ask poets than politicians.

“I think, today, in the whole world, like in the third world, we are going through a singular historical period. We are experiencing conditions 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 confront 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 both can be high-risk occupations. Some have received death threats; others have 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 never 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 hard realities 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.

This 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 establishment successfully transformed the deep mistrust of human authority inherent in Shi’ism into a powerful movement that brought down the ephemeral “King of kings.”

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 when a coup d’état engineered by Kermit Roosevelt of the CIA and his counterpart in the British Intelligence Service, Colonel 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 rest 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 political 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 whose head 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 enough, Iranians 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 the principle of the Velayat-e faqih, the rule of the jurist-consult.9 And, to further complicate matters, certain members of the clergy believe that Khomeini’s innovation not only has no basis in the Qur’an and the other sources of Islamic doctrine, but that it draws its inspiration from the Iranian monarchical tradition.

It is a hybrid, one-of-a-kind regime, designed to perpetuate the power of the religious establishment over society. But it is also 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 cannot function 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 that peculiar 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 Iran’s 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 official 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 legislation, 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 view of 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. Almost overnight, their brave new movement had fallen apart.

All the 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 was to fortify -- if not justify -- the outspoken stance of Iran’s newly elected conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on Iran’s nuclear energy program, and on the Palestinian conflict. Long targeted, and threatened, by the Zionist state, Iran has developed its own perspective on Middle Eastern geopolitics. In challenging the legitimacy of Israel, it has substantially increased its popularity among 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 vulnerable to seismic shocks, both natural and man-made. In this book we have 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 it considers as necessary to defend itself and to protect its interests.

We 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 time harbors a religious tradition that has survived the assaults of the modern age intact. Could there possibly be a more propitious place for these conversations with our Iranian friends and acquaintances, for a free and 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. We 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 answers. Comment

"Conversations in Tehran" available on

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).

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