The following is the second of three exclusive excerpts for Iranian.com from journalist Afshin Molavi’s newly released paperback, The Soul of Iran: A Nation’s Journey to Freedom (W.W Norton, 2005), which is an updated version of his acclaimed hardback, Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran [excerpt: “Pilgrim“], which was named by Lonely Planet as a “must read” for travelers to Iran and described by Foreign Affairs as “a brilliant tableau of today’s Iran.” For more, see: SoulOfIran.com
Mr. M. and the Nationalist “Por-roo” Technocrats A few days before my pilgrimage to the Mohammad Mossadegh shrine, I went to the offices of Ahmad M, the son of a Mossadegh aide. I was told by friends that Mr. M. would be a good conduit into the world of men and women who knew and revered the late Prime Minister unjustly overthrown in a 1953 CIA-supported coup d’etat. He was also, I was told, among the best of his generation of technocrats who graduated from U.S. universities in the 1970s. Mr. M opposed the Shah and cheered the revolution, he told me, though he turned against it fairly quickly. Like many men of his generation and class, he felt The Shah’s rule was stifling and demanded more open political spaces.
The well-regarded economist and Iran scholar Jahangir Amuzegar in his book Dynamics of the Iranian Revolution aptly described the political stance of people like Mr. M.: This segment of the opposition, consisting mostly of secular university students, professors, writers, lawyers, young professionals, Western-oriented politicians, and the intelligentsia at large were against the [Shah’s] regime because they associated it with SAVAK’s abuses; the CIA coup against Mossadegh; Washington’s strategic interests in the region not compatible with Iran’s; and dependence on foreign powers. They were against censorship of writing and publishing; the absence of an independent judiciary; and an overall climate of thought control and repression. They were demanding political and civil rights.
But unlike so many members of his class who fled after the revolution, Mr. M stayed in Iran, weathered the storms of the revolution, and carved a space for himself in the Islamic Republic. In post-revolution Iran, modern, middle-class, educated men like Mr. M. with foreign degrees and affiliations with secular nationalist movements were unwelcome.
People like Mr. M. and the secular opposition played a critical role in the revolution, but once the Shah was overthrown, the Islamic Republic turned their sights on them. Class played an important role. The secular, modern, middle-class Mr. M. did not hail from the traditional middle class of bazaar merchants and clerics and religious-minded bureaucrats, who gradually took over the government after the revolution. Gradually, they found themselves on the wrong side of a revolution they once supported.
As noted Iranian scholar Shaul Bakhash described the likes of Mr. M.: “They loved the revolution, not knowing it would not love them back.” So, Iran witnessed a large-scale exodus of Mr. M.’s class to the West, especially the United States, where they now lead mostly successful lives as professionals who contribute, by one estimate, some $40 billion annually to the U.S. economy. Iran’s loss was America’s gain.
But Mr. M. stayed behind and built a business of his own that today employs some fifty people. I met him in his gleaming downtown offices in the early afternoon and asked him to recall for me his days as a revolutionary student, as a member of the National Front who joined in the opposition to the Shah.
“I had just returned from the United States in 1977,” he said. “I supported the National Front at the time,” referring to the secular nationalist democratic political party that rose to prominence in the Mossadegh era, “but I had no idea it was just an illusion.”
“Yes, the National Front was a figment of our imagination based on history. The National Front had real power in Mossadegh’s day. By 1977, it had little, if any, power. But I didn’t know this at the time. Still, I went to all the lectures, the meetings. We wanted freedom. We wanted territorial integrity, and we wanted to get rid of the Shah’s dictatorship.”
How did he feel on the day the Shah left Iran?
“I was jubilant and scared. I went to Aryameher Street, and people were dancing and burning banknotes with the Shah’s picture on it. I saw pictures of Khomeini all over the place. I was elated, but I was also scared because I had no idea what to expect next.”
And what did he think of Khomeini?
“I saw him as a religious leader and a nationalist, but in truth, I knew little about him. He seemed progressive. I didn’t see him in a negative light.” He sighed and shook his head. “I didn’t see what was coming.”
You weren’t alone, I reminded him. Many democratic-minded Iranians didn’t understand Khomeini, didn’t forecast his intention of creating a theocratic state and the systematic violence that would be used to achieve this goal.
“Yes, but we were the so-called educated class. We should have known better. His writings were in the public domain.”
How long did it take for his feeling of jubilation to give way to fear? He smiled, took a sip of tea, and said, “Four days.” He was disturbed by the summary executions of former government officials, the angry tone on radio and television, the hints of a nationwide forced veiling of Iranian women.
“It was a strange and frightening time,” he said. “I worked for a bank at that time. The government nationalized it, and they fired just about everyone who had a degree from the West. The interrogators were juvenile and unsophisticated. They asked one of my friends, who had a degree from Berkeley, if he had any relationship with Ronald Reagan, who was governor of California. So silly! As if all Berkeley students take tea with the governor.”
He survived the purge but resigned.
“I couldn’t work for these people.” “These people” said in a different context or by a different person, the remark might seem classist, but in Islamic Republic Iran, where class and power relationships were subverted, the Western-educated engineer was suddenly on the outside, persecuted by half-educated, newly urbanized men with chips on their shoulders, eager to settle scores with the Western-educated engineers who once looked down on them.
Did he consider leaving?
“Never. Not once. Of my 150 or so classmates with whom I studied in the U.S., I think only three or four of us stayed behind. But this is my homeland. I am an Iranian. In fact, I’m more Iranian than ‘they’ are because every day I cry for this country, as they amass their wealth. I cry for young people who line up outside foreign embassies seeking a visa, and I cry every time I visit Dubai or Turkey, and see their success and compare it to ours. My tears prove I’m more Iranian than they are.
“In fact,” he said, stopping to chuckle, “it’s amazing how many people like me stayed. Perhaps we are just por-roo,” he said, using a Persian phrase that means roughly a combination of “full of nerve” and “persistent.” “After all,” he explained, “our class was rejected completely by the new government. It is a terrible experience to feel alienated in your own country. After a while, however, the government realized that people like me could be useful. We could design airports, and manage sewage systems, and treat the sick and injured from the Iran-Iraq War.”
Today, more people like him are reemerging. Some are even moving back to Iran to run businesses or reclaim property. But, in some ways, all of Iran owes a debt to people like Mr. M.: the por-roo modern, middle-class technocrats with foreign educations who stayed behind, unloved by the new order but affirming their right to the land, helping to rebuild it after the war.
“Nobody can tell me I’m less Iranian than a mullah who looted this land,” he said. “Nobody.”
Afternoon with a Hostage Taker Just before embarking on a pilgrimage to the Mossadeq shrine, I decided to pay a visit to Mohsen Mirdamadi, a one-time student firebrand who led the 1979 hostage taking of American diplomats. Today, Mirdamadi’s politics have mellowed, his hair has thinned, and his beard has grayed. He belongs to the small but vocal group of former hostage takers who now talk of democratic reform.
Amir, my driver, picked me up for the midday drive to downtown, his car thumping with the sounds of a popular Persian female singer, Maryam, who had recently taken the Tehran underground music scene by storm with a song that combined aching love lyrics with rap-style heavy beats. Amir, the son of working-class parents of modest means, had recently bought a new Peugeot, heavily indebting himself in the process.
“The foreigners and wealthy customers don’t want to drive in a Paykan,” he explained to me. “So, I bought this car.” On previous Iran visits, I happily sat in his battered Paykan as he played scratchy tapes of his favorite Tehrangeles pop singers. Lately, he had developed a taste for hip hop. I often found myself bobbing my head to 50 Cent or Eminem as we plied the chaotic streets of Tehran. I asked him what happened to his Paykan?
“I didn’t own it,” he told me. “I made enough money from it to pay 10% of the Peugeot. If I drive 14 hours a day, I’ll pay off the Peugeot in about two-three years,” he said, matter-of-factly. When I told him that I planned to see Mirdamadi, he lowered the volume, shook his head and said, “We’re still paying for the actions of those fools. If they hadn’t taken those American hostages, we’d be much better off. We would still have relations with America, American companies would do business here, and we’d be just a more normal country.”
Amir, like many “children of the revolution,” people under the age of thirty-five who were either unborn or very young in 1979, harbor little ill will toward America. In fact, many are downright pro-American, unlike their parents’ generation, who expressed an anti-Americanism that was both politically motivated and fashionable.
Amir explained it this way: “In my school, we were forced to chant ‘Death to America’ in the schoolyard. We had no idea what we were saying. It was boring. It was a chore that was imposed on us. As I got older, I realized that our government was keeping us behind. They kept telling us what we cannot do, while enriching themselves, and blaming America for everything. They have failed to deliver what we wanted — a normal life, with good jobs and basic freedoms. So I stopped listening to them.”
He went on to describe a mischievous scene in his high school in which a group of young men, rather than chant “Marg Bar Amreeka” (Death to America), cleverly muttered under their breath a phrase with similar intonation but a radically different meaning: “Bar Gard Amreeka” (Please return, America). He laughed as he recalled the scene.
“We did that for a few days, until word spread, a teacher accosted us, and we stopped.” On a couple of occasions, Amir asked me, hopefully, “Do you think America will save us? Overthrow these mullahs?” On other occasions, he asked me, equally hopefully, “Do you think we will one day restore relations with America? So, American companies will do business here again?” Another time, he said, “America should just leave us alone. We can make change ourselves.” All across Iran, I heard such contradictory remarks, r evealing that the shadow of America still looms large in the Iranian psyche.
Before my appointment with Mirdamadi, I asked Amir to take me to the old U.S. Embassy where revolutionary Iranian students scaled the walls one drizzly autumn day twenty-five years ago and took fifty-two diplomats hostage, holding them 444 days in one of the gravest diplomatic crises in American history.
The former U.S. Embassy compound is a sprawling set of buildings behind a series of tall walls, occupying two full city blocks. One of the walls is covered with anti-American paintings: the Statue of Liberty with its face depicted as an evil skeleton; a large gun colored in red, white, and blue; a U.S. marine being taken hostage. Accompanying this propaganda are statements like: ON THAT DAY WHEN THE US OF A WILL PRAISE US, WE SHOULD MOURN; UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AFTER QODS OCCUPIER REGIME [Israel] IS THE MOST HATED BEFORE OUR NATION; and the old favorite, DOWN WITH USA.
The embassy now hosts a university for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard armed forces. An adjoining bookstore (usually empty of customers) sells religious literature, anti-American screeds, and bound copies of American diplomatic files, some of which were painstakingly rebuilt from shredded documents. When I bought an entire series of these books, entitled Documents from the US Espionage Den, the chador-clad woman behind the desk seemed surprised. The books had a thin film of dust on them, which she wiped away with a wet napkin.
The most striking thing about anti-Americanism in Iran is how little of it actually exists. Yes, there are billboards that depict the red stripes of the American flag ending in missiles and, yes, hard-line officials still urge “Death to America” during Friday prayers, but it hasn’t stuck with the population. Iran is not Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Jordan, where anti-Americanism is rife among the people of those key U.S. allies. “The paradox of Iran,” Karim Sadjadpour, the astute Tehran-based analyst of the International Crisis Group, told me, “is that it just might be the most pro-American — or, perhaps least anti-American — populace in the Muslim world.”
Most Iranians, I found, would rather go to America than chant “Death to America.” When a public opinion poll noted that 75 percent of Iranians favored resuming government dialogue with the United States, the pollsters were jailed. Ironically, one of the jailed pollsters, Abbas Abdi, was also a hostage taker.
Mirdamadi’s office, on the fourth floor of a crumbling government building, was bare and spartan. There were no books, no tea stains on the desk, no clutter. It was one of many offices he “borrows,” he told me, since his virtual ejection from Parliament. His credentials, along with some eighty other sitting Parliament deputies and another twenty-five hundred parliamentary hopefuls, had been rejected by the unelected, hard-line Guardians Council, prohibiting him from running in the February 2004 elections.
The action further damaged the dwindling pretense of Iranian democracy. He and other Parliament deputies staged a sit-in protest that attracted international press attention but little public support. Iranian people had lost faith in reformists like Mirdamadi. Hard-liners benefited from Iranian apathy. They got away with democratic murder. “The parliamentary elections showed that the right-wing extremists still hold decisive power,” Mirdamadi said, as we sat across from each other — he behind a large, imposing desk, underneath a fraying photo of Ayatollah Khomeini, and I, perching uncomfortably on a creaky chair.
Did it also show, I ventured, that the reformists had lost their appeal?
“In some ways, I can understand student frustrations with the reformist camp. They want more rapid change,” he said. He should know what that feels like. He joined the fight against the Shah in the 1970s precisely because he, too, was a frustrated student who wanted change. “When I entered university in 1973, there was a lot of political tension. Most of the politically active students were anti-Shah and, as a result, there was a great deal of anti-American sentiment because the U.S. was supporting the Shah’s dictatorship.
“The two most active political groups were the Islamists on the one hand and the Marxists/Communists/Third Worldists that we called the leftists on the other. I gravitated toward the Islamists, but the leftists were even more anti-American than we were. The Islamists and the leftists worked together. We would coordinate our protests. But from 1975 onward, we split, though we shared the same goal: the overthrow of the Shah.”
After the Shah’s downfall, the competing revolutionary factions turned their sights on each other. Amid this chaos, which included uprisings in two key provinces and light guerilla warfare in the streets, Mirdamadi and other students feared a United States — led countercoup, so they plotted to take over the embassy.
“There were about four hundred of us who took part in the operation,” he began. “I was part of the leadership council. When the U.S. allowed the Shah to enter America for medical reasons, we were convinced they were plotting against us. So, we wanted to send a message. We intended to detain the diplomats for a few days, maybe one week, but no more.
“After we took over the embassy, Iranians from all over the city streamed into the area and chanted anti-American slogans. The events took on a life of their own. When the Imam [Khomeini] blessed the takeover, there was no turning back.” I came to Amir’s question — and mine. I asked Mirdamadi if he regretted his actions.
“Clearly, our actions might have hurt us economically because it led to a disruption of relations, but I don’t regret it,” he said. “I think it was necessary for that time. We needed to preserve the revolution. America had overthrown one Iranian government. It seemed logical that they might try again.”