I left Iran in mid-August, a few weeks before the scheduled NAM (Non Aligned Movement) gathering of representatives from the 120 member states that form a new block demanding to be reckoned with on the global stage. The usual security measures were even tighter, almost a month before the event was to take place.
For a country that has been under severe security threats, cross-border infiltration by terrorist groups, saboteurs and Special Ops operatives active in sensitive strategic areas of the country, not to mention the assassinations of Iranian scientists in Tehran, no amount of security measures would seem too strict or too harsh. Yet, for the average citizen or visitor, scenes of "morality police" harassing pedestrians for their rather lax observance of the dress code, or for carrying a dog in their cars are, although rare, a more common occurrence than any "visible" enforcement of issues pertaining to real national security.
There is no doubt that security related monitoring is ongoing, as the televised accounts, in unprecedented detail, of the identification and arrest of terrorists who assassinated one of the nuclear scientists clearly revealed. The security system does and must have eyes and ears open at an increasingly higher states of awareness throughout the country.
Traveling in the rural central Iran, visiting old or abandoned, as well as active, mining districts that took me back to my own experiences many decades ago, our vehicle was stopped and briefly inspected by armed security officers who had suddenly appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes they were simply game wardens enforcing the no-hunting regulations in wildlife preserves areas. On occasion we also witnessed vehicles stopped by what seemed to be locally dispatched gendarmes, inquiring about the relationship between the male and female passengers in the car! That had obviously nothing to do with security.
In the "old" days, the poor, underpaid gendarme was granted de-facto license to steal chickens from farmhouses or to extort money by selling protection to hapless rural folks in order to subsidize his meager income and to actually survive; and everybody knew it and had accepted it. Today the practice continues in rural areas through the useless and meaningless enforcement of the so-called morality regulations. I thought it was quite ridiculous to see a small locally made "Pride" compact car stopped on a dirt road a few miles from the rural village of Khorheh (the name sounds almost exactly as the name Gorge does in Spanish! I have actually heard local stories about a foreign, Spanish perhaps, settler who had established homestead in that area centuries ago!), where the two occupants were asked to show proof of their legal relationship. We intervened and a little bit of cash settled the issue!
I was also quite interested in hearing what the locals in cities and small towns and villages had to say about the changes in their lifestyles since I had talked with them during my previous visit a year ago. The economic and trade sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and some major European trading partners with Iran has resulted in shortages of many necessary commodities, from chicken feed to grains and legumes and even pharmaceutical products.
More people I talked to blamed Iran's own government, its policies and its economic mismanagement for the nation's problems, than they did economic and political pressures imposed or spearheaded by the United States.
One rather outspoken businessman put the blame squarely on the government's incompetence and mismanagement of the nation's economic policies. He was soon joined by several others at the small cafe in Esfahan where we had stopped for some tea and soft drinks.
I was somewhat surprised that my businessman friend was sounding off his criticism of the regime loudly enough to have attracted the attention of others in the diner, who had come over to our table to join in the conversation.
"Economic mismanagement by the regime, you say." I started. "Could you elaborate in a little more detail?"
"Let's start with all the oil money," he responded. "Where did it all go; those billions of dollars that they had promised would vitalize our economy?"
One of the newcomers joined in: "It's the corruption at the top, my friend, corruption, corruption! And, there, of course, is the Sepah and Basij (the irregulars and the militia, who are blamed for being the main beneficiaries, regardless of what economic gains or losses the nation incurs.)"
"So," I continued, "you believe that the problems facing the country is mainly the mismanagement of the economy, topped by rampant corruption at the top."
Another fellow, a younger man in very stylish blue jeans and wearing an expensive-looking pair of sunglasses, started: "That's not all. I think the main problem is our lack of direction in our relationships with the West, especially with America. They are pressuring us toward bankruptcy. Just compare our miserable status with the days before the Revolution when an Iranian travelling to any part of the world could hold his head high with pride. We are now regarded as backward, the lower caste, even terrorists in most places."
"Yes," I said, "many, if not most, Iranians you find in Europe or America don't like to call themselves Iranians, they are mostly "Persians!" It's as though it is a disgrace to be known as Iranians.
But, tell me, none of you has put the blame on the theocratic nature of the government; I didn't hear any criticism of the Islamicness or the religious aspects of the regime. Do you think that a less religious or a more secular government would have done any better with the affairs of the nation?"
My question dropped like a lead balloon! They began to look at each other, each hoping someone else would try to answer my question. Finally, the younger fellow, the same guy who had commented about the Iranians' image abroad, began: "Well, as I said, we were doing rather well before the Revolution. We had money in our pockets, money that meant something, a dollar was seven tomans then, not 1,700 or more these days. We were buying shares in some major international companies and even giving loans to some European countries to help them out!"
"Tell me," I asked, "how old are you, if I may ask?"
"I'm in my Fortieth year; why?"
"So, your recollections of life before the Revolution are all second-hand. I bet your folks were well-educated and also rather well to do. Am I right?"
"Yes. We used to own, actually my father still owns, one of the better carpet stores here. But the market is not as good as it used to be; the sanctions, you know."
"But, you all still manage somehow. I am sure you have travelled abroad."
"Oh, of course; several times, but not to America. It is very hard to get a visa to America; they refuse visas to people like us, you know, the terrorists! This is what I was talking about. Why are we being treated like that?"
I turned to the group of five sitting around our small coffee table: "What do you think must happen, or to put it more succinctly, what should the government do, or morph into, to improve the economic and social problems of the nation? I know we don't have enough time to open up a comprehensive discussion here. But I want to hear each of you come up with a very brief response to this question."
One of the older fellows, perhaps in his Fifties, put his tea cup down and, with a serious look on his face, asked me, "Pardon my rudeness, but allow me to ask you a question: We don't really know who you are and what you are doing here. You are obviously a visitor who hasn't been in Iran in a long time. So, I would personally like to know what the purpose of this session is, especially since I see you writing some notes and you have a small tape recorder here, too."
"You are correct; this is my second visit to Iran after the Revolution. My first visit after 32 years of absence was a year ago, and I wrote a book about that visit after returning to America. I am basically a writer and a political commentator now."
"You're not getting us into any trouble now, I hope!" He said with an uneasy smile.
"No, nothing like that. Don't forget, I didn't invite you guys over to our table; you invited yourselves to join our conversation.
But to answer your question, I have been, for perhaps 25 years or more, monitoring the news about Iran, talking to friend, relatives and colleagues who have travelled between Iran and America, and writing about Iran's situation and confrontational stance against the United States.
There are many critics of my views who claim that one must be in Iran and live the life that Iranians themselves live, in order to develop the correct perspective or the sense of the Iranian dilemma. I disagree with that. Yes, for someone who has never been to the Middle East, has no experience with Islam or Islamic cultures, and does not know the language, it would be almost impossible to extract all that is required to understand and analyze the intricacies or nuances of a people's world view and idiosyncrasies.
In my case, even though I left Iran right after the Revolution, Iran never left me, so to speak."
"So, why did you leave Iran in the first place; were you forced to leave like so many other educated and capable businessmen and scientists that the Islamic regime didn't want to have anything to do with, or were you a dissident "taghuty" fearing for your life?"
"There were other categories that you didn't enumerate: There were many hyper wealthy, especially the "nouveau riche" (taazeh beh dowran resideh), who had already stored fortunes in foreign banks, as well as those who had spent long years abroad, had married and raised their children there, and were actually dual citizens or residents. There were also some who had lost their good jobs or prestigious positions, well-deserved or not, and had to look elsewhere to try to restore the lifestyles they were used to. And, of course, there were some who faced persecution because of their religious or political views. You can go ahead and guess what my story has been!"
The younger fellow insisting on taking care of the bill for everyone as we parted with no answers to my last question.
A colleague who has been involved in mining operations at a major travertine quarry near the town of Mahallat, was having a very hard time managing his rather extensive operations. His problem: No cash at hand!
The construction industries have slowed down throughout the country, going back to the global crash of the housing market, which even affected areas far away from the centers of housing bubble burst in the United States and Europe. The result was an oversupply of construction materials at factories and warehouses, which had gradually reduced the demand for suppliers such as the construction stone quarries.
The quarry owners and operators had to continue to carry the burden of heavy installment payments for the very hard to find heavy equipment, plus the salaries for, again, the very hard to locate experienced quarry workers, while operating at less than half capacity, waiting for the economic tide to shift.
The stone-cutting and finishing plants would only give the quarry owners post-dated checks for the dwindling quantities of travertine or limestone blocks they'd agree to purchase. They also had a good excuse for that. They were also faced with post-dated checks from construction companies and contractors who purchased their products. And, the contractors were also trapped in the same vicious circle; the property developers were short of cash, as well, and could only pay for the materials and services by post-dated checks!
Those with good credit or substantial collaterals could sell their post-dated checks at various discount rates to investment groups or individuals, and raise the cash necessary to keep the work force adequately fed.
My colleague actually believed that the dilemma he and others like him were facing was a problem specific to Iran and the country's economic ills. He was surprised to hear what I told him about a similar situation in Southern California, which is in many minds the actual paradise on earth.
My two nephews are both experienced licensed contractors in California and were doing rather well until the bubble burst. For several years now, they have had to become sub-contractors in order to tap into what little remains of the construction business, employed by more prominent contractors. They now have to accept sporadic and odd jobs anywhere they can find work. They also have to hire crews and buy supplies for the work they do. The post-dated check game (actually illegal in the US) is converted to promissory notes or even verbal IOUs. So, they have to borrow money to pay their crews, as they need food to eat and IOU noted are not edible! The big contractors claim that they are owed money by the construction company, who is in turn owed money by X, Y or Z; and the vicious circle goes round and round.
This colleague turned to me and asked what I believed was going to happen in Iran in the near term.
I had no intention of pontificating on that subject. I told him if he wanted to know about my personal views and analyses of the subject, he should get to my web site and do a little reading. He asked if my writings were in Farsi, as he wouldn't be able to read English. "No," I said; "find somebody to translate it for you."
I tried several times to have somebody, anybody, to offer some suggestions, some workable solutions, as to what they thought the government should do or what changes were needed to put the nation back on the right tracks.
Oh, many had great ideas, mostly kneejerk reactions out of anger and frustration, in a hurry to offer their draconian suggestions without a second thought.
But quite frankly, even the more "reasonable" sounding or the more sophistucated suggestions couldn't stand to scrutiny once their potential consequences were brought up. In every instance, I resorted to the perfect example or case study of the traffic mayhem in big cities, especially Tehran. I asked the more eager respondents to first offer suggestions to untie the Gordian Knot of Tehran's traffic mess before offering remedies to the much more complex national ills. The results were ranging from hilarious to ridiculous!
In response to a list of questions I had prepared in advance, I had much better luck.
I am dividing the respondents into two very general groups: those I deemed to be the better educated professionals, and those whom I considered the average folks, the proletariat, so to speak. Both groups consisted of adult men and women, urbanites, as well as rural people. Without claiming any statistical accuracy in my findings, the following are the generalized results of my findings:
Question: How important is your religious orientation in your everyday life?
Group a- Somewhat, but not very much.
Group b- It is our faith that is holding us together.
Q: Do you consider yourself an Iranian first and a Moslem second, or a Moslem first?
Q: Would you like the country to return to the pre-Revolution days?
a-Not really; but sometimes, when things look desperate, we wonder!
Q: Would you prefer a secular regime over the current theocracy?
a-Yes. And, it is going to happen. It is an outdated formula.
b-Not if it does away with religion altogether.
Q: Would you like to see a more secular government based on religious values?
a-It depends on how religious. Mullahs should run the mosques, not the country!
b-Yes. Islam should not be taken out of our lives.
Q: How are the imposed foreign economic sanctions affecting your lives?
a-Noticeably, but not that much. Some important things are becoming unaffordable, even though they are locally produced. That should stop. Imported goods - we could do without.
b-We are doing OK.
Q: Do you think the government should submit to foreign demands and stop all nuclear developments?
a-Absolutely not; it is our right and we won't give up that right.
Q: Do you think America and Israel are correct in suspecting Iran's nuclear intentions?
a-They are after our oil; they want us defenseless in case they or their surrogates attack us.
b-Let them go to Hell! We suspect their intentions, too.
Q: Would you like Iran to have good relations with America, Europe and even Israel?
a-America, yes; Europe, perhaps, Israel, no.
b-America and Europe, it depends on how they behave. The Zionist state, never.
Q: What is it about Israel that troubles you the most?
a-Their control over America's policies that is the main cause of our problems with America.
b-They should be driven back to where they came from. They don't belong where they're planted.
Q: What would happen, and what would you do, if America and Israel attacked Iran?
a-They would end up paying a very heavy price. They cannot expect us to die lying down.
b-We will do what we did when Saddam attacked us with their help.
Q: Do you believe that the Westerners misunderstand Iran and the Iranians?
a-Yes; it is mostly our own fault by projecting the wrong image of ourselves, and also because of the negative propaganda by our enemies in the West.
b-We really don't give a damn! We are not going to paint ourselves in colors that they'd prefer!
Q: How would you rate Mr. Ahmadinejad as Iran's President for seven years now?
a-People who like him, even love him, are generally clueless about the nation's economic and social problems. Perhaps he did all he could. Fortunately he cannot run again for that job.
b-He was a good President earlier on, but he seems to be losing control as of late. We would vote for him again if he could have a third term.
Q: When and how do you think democratic reforms might take place in Iran?
a-As soon as threats, pressures and sanctions against our country stop. Maybe that's why our own regime is doing everything to keep these pressures going!
b-What do you mean by democracy?
| Kam Zarrabi is the
author of In Zarathushtra's Shadow and Necessary Illusion.He has conducted lectures and seminars on international affairs,
particularly in relation to Iran, with focus on US/Iran issues. Zarrabi's latest book is Iran, Back in Context.
More information about Mr. Zarrabi and his work is available at: intellectualdiscourse.com
The last question and the answers given were, to me, very telling of the general attitude of people no matter where I happened to be in the three months that I was there.
I am hoping I can make another pilgrimage to the former homeland sometime next year, after the US presidential elections, hoping to see what changes I might observe. My predictions, as I have written in my articles and appearing in my web site: intellectualdiscourse.com, are regarded by many colleagues as overly optimistic. Be that as it may, I am actually counting on my prognostications and hope to be back in a more prosperous and re-energized Iran for another visit by next spring.
order from amazon
Iran Back In Context
Author: Kambiz Zarrabi
Kamran Zarrabi has just completed writing his memoirs of his 2011 trip to Iran. The manuscript called "Iran, Back in Context" also contains the accounts of several interviews with a broad cross section of people, photographs, and details of travels to remote areas of the country.
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