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The twelve rules
... of surviving Iran & Iranians

October 13, 2000
The Iranian

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.


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.


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 mobilization.

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."


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 the next.

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 article said.

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 have changed."

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.


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 Fathi.

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 night.

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 colleague."

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 would?

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.


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" his assertions.

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 father's grave.'"


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.


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.


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 reign.

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 complex.

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 authority.

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 pre-revolutionary Iran.


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 world.

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.


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 again.

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.


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.


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 said.

"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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Elaine Sciolino

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