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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tehran, Tear On

The portrait of Iran has surely changed in the past weeks. But, the green, black, fire orange, and blood red photographs of uprising and transformation and the more recent, seemingly placid, eerily quiet photo of a boy releasing a bundle of baby blue balloons from a rooftop in Tehran are equally revolutionary. Even from a remote hotel in Europe, I saw German language news networks beaming Iran's open arms to the Western media in the days leading up to the elections; the table was upturned as just a few days later following Ahmadinejad's "win," Iran's leadership organized the full suppression of an all out physical revolution, shackling of the media, and jailing of Western correspondents. And this how the leadership has almost always been— a Jekyll and Hyde. Actually, more of a Hyde in hiding.

It's funny how the name Ahmadinejad rolls off more easily. In fact, whether we'd like to believe it or not, Iran has always been a household name, has always been at the center of history. I find it impossible not to be strangely and wholly drawn to Iran. No, it's not just because my elementary school crush was half Iranian. It's more than the vignettes that my father told me as a child that perked my interest— of living in America in the early 80's during the Iran hostage crisis, seeing Iranians he knew in America disdained, harassed, and ostracized; I could see my father trying to reconcile a new land that was so open to his young mind, but so closed to others, accusing them of pilfering fresh produce as they innocently walked through New York City delis.

Iran has a truly fascinating, extraordinary gravity. The little history and culture I know is impassioned and unmatched with richness. It's tough to keep your eyes off of the Persian identity, the early Arab invasions, the first code of human rights, the brutal near annihilation by Genghis Khan, endless, indelible contributions in every corner of art, music, philosophy, science, and literature, and the more recent century of revolutions. Even still, this is entirely romantic, and, by definition, just as I write this, I am wholly detached from Iran, the brutality that just took place, the thought of having hands, ideas, and passions shackled, fear itself; I won't pretend to know what it feels like to live in Iran. It's more than the fact that we might have "Reading Lolita in Tehran" on our book stacks. With all that's unfolded, the mainstream has finally seen the unveiled face of Iran. Iran is not its narrow, powerful, self serving, out of touch, anti Jew, anti women, anti American ruling elite. We believe in Iran. We believe in Iran's women.

Tehran stood as the single spire to vote in support of the opposing party, Mousavi, of supposed progress, or at least a change of wardrobe. After the dust settled, what happened? It's tough to say because the dust has never settled in Iran, with revolutions in 1906, 1953, and 1979 already, not to mention the student uprisings just ten years ago. While the most recent uprisings centered on election results, they are now a part of something far broader and steeped— sentiments that are miles wide and miles deep. But, moving from a 14th century penal code to modernity will be a slow, lurching, fitful process.

What can America do? This is nothing new, but we must change our attitude and approach to the Muslim world in general. In the recent past, American leadership egregiously lumped Arab with Persian with Al Qeada with Shia with Sunni with Pakistani and vilified the whole lot. What has been so clearly shown in Iran is that, in fact, the canyons that within Islam itself are just as grand as those between the West and Islam. Further, not only have we held a misconception of Iran, we've held a misconception of Iran's anti Americanism. Not so long ago, a Fox News ignoramus harped "Why do they hate our rock music?" It's easy to overlook that America supported the shah in the 1970s, turned the other way when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, and even easier to forget the confusing signals America sent when it armed both sides during the Iran Iraq war. I find it even more difficult to understand how we forget that nearly one million lives perished in the Iran Iraq war, including a generation of Iran's men. Despite all this, most crucial is the fact that Iran's anti Americanism, because it is seen only through the cartoonish Ahmadinejad and the clerics, is vastly overstated. Iranians envision a world far more sophisticated and modern than do their leaders. Additionally, Fareed Zakaria presented a simple image in considering what the world looks like to Iran— it is surrounded by nuclear powers in Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel with over 200,000 U.S. troops surrounding Iran in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the common knee jerk reaction to equate this to heresy and to siding with the fully illogical and convoluted Ahmadinejad. But, this couldn't be farther from the truth and simply illustrates the little value we place on wearing another's shoes. Tragically, even potential legitimate grievances are poorly articulated by an aggressive, dysfunctional, and isolated leader.

Also, our foreign policy mindset has yet to evolve. We continue to look to impose, direct, and strong arm Iran, and just because Iran does this does not mean that America should stoop and return the favor. We cannot make Iran's leaders change, but we can make Iran's leaders think they must change themselves. While this is surely easier said than done, and granted America has been making genuine efforts in this manner, fundamentally, foreign policy has yet to adopt this frame of mind. As such, we must rethink sanctions on Iran and on other countries that exchange with Iran. While sanctions are meant to change the behavior of the Ayatollah, instead they just end up raising prices, adding weight to the Iranian poor. Meanwhile, Iran's leadership simply unclasps its oil purse and digs its heels further. Iran illustrates best the fundamental challenge of "balancing" that exists today— just when more cooperation is needed, cooperation is as difficult as ever as countries are increasingly asserting their chin up nationalism, pride, confidence, and individuality.

Most crucial is the understanding that the freedoms that over 70 million Iranians desire can only take shape with fundamental economic change. Economic progress will prime the pump for progress for Islamic views, women's rights, and education. While it is dangerous to point to singular causes holding Iran up, it is safe to say Iran's problems are rooted in its two main exports— oil and bravado. Aside from emissions we usually think of, oil produces other equally dark emissions that poison political, economic, cultural, and technological development. With piles of money from so much oil, Iran's leadership sees little reason to create a diverse and dynamic economic base that drives innovations to compete. This kills technological progress in its tracks. Oil revenue goes to the pockets of a narrow few in government and landed business, while a more diverse service and manufacturing economy enriches many people. Moreover, the government has been able to hold its grip, carrying roughshod for so long because, by relying on oil, Iran collects few taxes from its people and therefore leadership has no reason to represent them. Freedom, women's rights is at a standstill. In fact, counter to conventional wisdom, even the outmoded views of women's rights has less to do with the rooted in Islamic culture and patriarchal society and more to do with oil. Oil prices, even within Islamic countries directly correlate with women's voting rights, empowerment, and manufacturing jobs.

Little innovation, socially and technologically, coupled with a feeling of having no stake is a recipe for regress. For solutions, America must 1) mobilize and collaborate with Iran's neighbors to encourage Iran to work within the global structure rather than try to overturn it, 2) give incentives for American and Middle East businesses and NGOs to connect, collaborate, and innovate with Iran, and 3) enlist the help of Iranians living in America to help reshape Iran's worldview. Iranians have every right to be nationalistic and see themselves holding a strong status, a pivot to the Middle East. Iran also has a secret weapon— it's youth; while Iran's Islamic Republic is 30 years old, more than two thirds of its people are under 30 years old.

I cannot fathom what will happen. I am highly suspicious of the arrogance of those who claim they know what will. There is new clarity, but still tremendous uncertainty. Will Iranians strike despite soaring unemployment? Will Rafsanjani, the man second in command and in a rift with The Supreme Leader, forge an opposing council? Will the series of disappointing maneuvers continue? Will even more dangerous fringe groups file into the cracks? Has Iran truly been reset? What is true is that the strange calm and quiet now belies an underlying sea change. While the volume has subsided, the churning rages on. Fingerprints of Dr. King's arc bending toward justice are everywhere. What is also true is that women will carry this new revolution and, while they have carried the world and history quietly on their backs, they will not be so quiet in Iran.

Hot blood and a heavy hand, however presented by Iran's leaders, can do little to hold down hearts, minds, and ideas. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently quoted National Security Council democracy specialist Michael McFaul, who so deftly put it— “In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable. Beforehand, all revolutions seem impossible.”