Divergence of beliefs
Iran, in the aftermath of September 11
By: Ali R. Rabi
January 2, 2002
I try to be as impartial as humanly possible. For, anyone born and raised
in the East, then educated and matured in the West -- or vice versa -- is
most likely to acquire a double vision through which facts often appear
to be reflecting two diametrically opposing sides. This is especially true
of the Iranian expatriates in America. Although such a peculiarity may also
prove to serve as a guide to impartiality, the existing settings in Iran,
however, exert their own pressures of prejudice.
In the midst of strong political currents in the old central sections
of Tehran -- where aside from the traditional socio-economic and cultural
structures of the community, many Afghans and Iraqis are mixed with the
local population -- the task of differentiating between the right and wrong
and, hence, projecting an impartial view of the affairs is highly improbable.
Particularly, when the issues being discussed are: September 11, the war
on Afghanistan, America, Iraq, Israel, and so on.
Keep in mind that this area has been at the center stage of political
history of Iran throughout the twentieth century. From the Constitutional
Revolution of 1905 to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, almost every political
event of significance has had its roots in this part of Tehran. Memories
of the American coup that toppled Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh's government and
brought back the Shah in 1953 are still fresh in the minds of many people.
The bloody uprisings in response to the exile of Ayatollah Khomeini by the
Shah in 1963 were concentrated here.
The Islamic Revolution was organized, executed and later guarded in the
narrow back alleys of the neighborhoods of central Tehran. Most dissident
groups had their roots in this area. Almost all public places, alleys and
streets are renamed after the martyrs who lived in these neighborhoods that
are currently shared with many refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq who number
in the millions nationwide. And keep in mind that both the Taliban and Saddam's
regime are regarded as the Iran's worst adversaries.
It is, therefore, not realistic to expect an impartial view on any political
and/or cultural issues in these settings. And it is only natural for anyone
viewing the world from this standpoint not to be immune to the forces prevailing
over the socio-political and cultural panorama. This is not an isolated
territory. Whatever takes place in this core resonates widely in the periphery
-- the entire landscape of Iran and beyond.
Assume what follows are rough translations, loose quotations, or simple
interpretations of events. It is intended for those on the other side of
the spectrum. None are aimed at advocating or rejecting any specific tendencies.
However, to be on the safe side, you may also assume that an Iranian expatriate
in America, usually, both loves and hates America at the same time. All
statements, nonetheless, are aimed at providing basic information for a
better understanding of the complexities that have led to the present divergence
of beliefs and mentalities. And all in the hope that even a single word
from this traditional core -- if conveyed well and received well -- may
help to bring the two worlds just a bit closer.
The Shockwaves of the September 11
Not since the days of the World War II has Iran been shaken so rampant.
The American coup of 1953, the uprising of 1963, the Revolution of 1979,
the aftermath of the Revolution, and the Iraqi aggression followed by eight
years of war -- none can be compared with the shockwaves of September 11.
And one may wonder why? With the exception of the Iraqi aggression, the
rest were basically regarded as domestic affairs. And as for the Iraqis,
there was never any doubt that they would be pushed away.
This time, however, it is a foreign force of a different kind. It is
the American military might on the southern waters of Iran. They are here
not for Afghanistan or Iraq, but to get even with Iran. In the opinion of
Iran's rulers -- and most of the public for that matter -- there are only
two forces in the post USA/USSR bipolar world. In the West, the mighty USA
representing the industrialized world -- the oppressors, and in the East,
the Islamic Republic of Iran, speaking on behalf of the Third World -- the
oppressed. Hence, invariably, any statement from Washington is taken to
be addressed to Iran, and any statement from Tehran, is intended for the
political audience in Washington.
The back alleys of Central Tehran
First, there was a deep silence, no comments, and no moves. Then, the
reality slowly set. Oh, Almighty, so it can be done! Never mind about the
thousands dead. That's incidental in any war. For the first time, it has
been proven that the undoable can actually be done. The superpower has been
hit and hit very hard, and right on the spot where it hurts most. The symbol
of the world economic power -- the super structure, The World Trade Center
-- is destroyed; it is no more; it is gone. The heart of the world military
power -- The Pentagon -- is severely damaged. And the political center of
the world -- The White House -- is badly shaken. Never has such an amazing
shock been felt before in Iran. America has been humiliated; the 'superpower'
is not as 'super' as it appeared to be. The huge impenetrable iron security
shield had holes in it -- very big holes -- and in the most sensitive spots.
The Upper-class neighborhoods of Northern Tehran
The youth held a candlelight vigil in sympathy with the Americans. "Down
with terrorism", they shouted. The 'unknown forces' quickly silenced
the crowd. The next day, they returned. This time with an official permit
issued by the Ministry of Interior. But after 10 PM, they were ordered to
disperse. Days later, the soccer game festivities turned into street riots.
Several hundreds were arrested, beaten, and jailed. Dissidents abroad, through
the recently established satellite television networks in Los Angeles, called
for 'civil disobedience'. Police forces entered houses and removed satellite
dishes on the rooftops. Others 'voluntarily' hid away their dishes for a
Immediately after the September 11, President Khatami joined the world
leaders in expressing sympathy with the Americans and strongly denouncing
terrorism. He also offered Iran's support of a worldwide coalition for combating
terrorism, but only if it were under the auspices of the United Nations.
The Supreme Leader
Shortly after the quick visit of the British Foreign Minister and his
departure from Tehran, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, addressed
the nation on prime time television -- as if the whole world was watching:
"America is neither sincere in its claim of combating terrorism, nor
is it qualified to assume a position of leadership in such a war",
he proclaimed. In response to President George Bush's statement of "you
are either with us or with the terrorists", He simply stated: "we
are neither with you nor with the terrorists." By this, the official
position of Iran was clearly laid down.
The Chairman of the Assembly of Discerning the State's Interests
Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the head of the Expediency Council. completed the
official political round. "Terrorism is the effect and not the cause
-- to eradicate terrorism, we must fight the cause, and the cause is injustice,
it is the arrogance of the world powers. We have been the victims of the
most vicious acts of terrorism; yet, no one has once denounced these atrocities
against us. America supplied weapons of mass destruction -- biological and
chemical -- to Iraq to annihilate the innocent civilians. What can we call
that other than terrorism?"
The Revolutionary Forces
The National Security Council held emergency sessions lasting several
days. The Revolutionary Guard issued statements about their readiness and
ability to defend the country against any threats. Mass mobilization of
militia groups went underway. Military maneuvers began. The Exposition of
'Shattering of the Glass Palace' opened to the public on the anniversary
of the 'hostage crisis' in the former American embassy in Tehran. The slogans
on the embassy walls were repainted afresh. "We will crush America
under our feet -- Imam Khomeini", "Who is America to tell the
rest of the world what to do? -- Supreme Leader". All in all, it resembled
the early days of the war against Iraq, as though, a military strike is
imminent. The real question is when and where? The Americans are here to
It is "clash of civilizations", "North against the South",
"East against West", "'haves' against 'have-nots'",
"Judeo-Christians against Muslims", it is the "New World
Order", "New War on Terrorism", or "it is all about
oil", so we have been told. It has been claimed that September 11 was
a turning point in history because "now, for the first time, guns were
pointed in the opposite direction." All familiar statements emanating
straight from the current literature on the Internet. But something else
resonates in the air, something very different. "It is a war against
democracy!" The West cannot tolerate a democratic Iran. It will be
detrimental to "the vital national interests of America".
She is almost a hundred years old. "Come Ali, hurry up, come and
see what's on TV. They are killing all the babies. Hurry up, the young naked
boy is screaming and running from the bombs." Assuming she was watching
a movie, I asked "Who's killing who?" "Those damned Americans
-- they are killing everyone in Afghanistan. See all those old men lying
dead in the fields with their hands tied behind their backs. What are they
doing in this part of the world? Don't they have their own land? Don't they
fear God?" When I went closer to her, she held me tight in tears: "I
will not let you go back there any more. They will kill you too. You shall
promise me never to go back to America."
Group discussions with the university students
The West, at least in the rhetorical sense, had maintained a high moral
ground in most of the recent past. It preached democracy, peace, civil liberties,
individual freedoms, rule of law, human rights, free press, and so on. It
used and abused its preaching to justify its actions throughout the world.
For the first time, however, there seems to be a change. Now, the West,
primarily represented by the self-appointed leader -- the good old USA --
is declaring a crusade, a "war on terror." Now, the most powerful,
wealthiest, "Judeo-Christian" nation in the world is destroying
what is left of the wreckage of the weakest, poorest, Muslim nation in the
Ironically, the country branded as a "terrorist state"by the
USA for the last two decades -- The Islamic Republic of Iran -- has become
the focal point of the call on "dialogue of civilizations" --
a dramatic shift of paradigm indeed. What has been the underlying force
causing such a drastic shift?
The immediate response to the horrible events of the September 11 was
the universal condemnations by all the governments throughout the world.
More significant, however, was the unanimous proclamation of the "war
against terror". Exactly, when was the last time that all leaders of
the world cast such an instantaneous and unanimous vote? Was it because
they are facing the same problem? And if so, doesn't this imply that "terrorism"
is also a universal phenomenon?
Listen to Iranian leaders: "America is not qualified to lead",
"Western democracy is a farce, see the press censorship, see the infringements
on their own civil liberties." Listen to the intellectuals: "It
is a war on democracy." So, it seems, while America has resorted to
force, Iran has resorted to morality. And one can't help but wonder if a
presidential popularity contest were held throughout the world today, which
of the two presidents would come ahead -- George Bush or Mohammad Khatami?
It may be claimed, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that the aftermath
of September 11 and the war on Afghanistan -- aside from the countries directly
involved, namely: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. -- had no more far
reaching effects than it did on Iran. In a sense, perhaps, the short-term
effects on Iran were even greater than they were on Pakistan.
The immediate government reactions throughout most of the world were
the imposition of limitations on civil liberties. Such limitations, however,
may have adverse long-term consequences with devastating effects on political
developments and the democratization processes in countries such as Iran.
One of the initial effects was the expeditious trial of top members of the
outlawed Freedom Movement of Iran behind closed doors in Tehran.
If the primary objective of the terrorists was to limit civil liberties
in the West and undermine the democratization processes in the East, they
may have, indeed, been partially successful. Fortunately, no terrorist has
ever claimed to pursue such an aim. And this, perhaps, provides the best
opportunity for the reassessment of the current policies and practices for
all. Namely, when there is a call for a dialogue, the least the other side
can do is to lay down their arms. The remarkable Swedish approach might
provide an exemplary guideline. They are almost half way in their efforts
on throwing away their arms.
Ali R. Rabi is the chairman of the Middle East Citizens Assembly (MECA)
associated with HCA (Helsinki Citizens Assembly), chairman of the Mohajer
Foundation in the U.S., associate member of the Iran NGO Initiative (UN
sponsored) and senior advisor at ECI -- Engineering Consortium of Iran.
He presented this paper at the gathering of the Coalition of Civil Societies
Against the Clash of Civilisations: Euro-Mediterranean Dialogue on Terrorism
and the New War, held December 7-9, 2001 in Istanbul, Turkey.