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REVISITING IRAN - Part I: Perceptions/Misperceptions


By Kam Zarrabi, Intellectual Discourse

I spent the entire month of October and the first week of November in Iran, my fourth trip to the old homeland in less than three years. I had published a commentary about my first trip after some 32 years of absence from Iran, titled Iran, Back in Context, in an attempt to expose some of the realities behind the hype and propaganda that saturate the Western media regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Since then, I have revisited Iran three times; it is rather inexpensive - $1,100 to $1,500 roundtrip from the West Coast, depending on the season - and quite an educational and eye opening experience for any interested observer. Still, more needs to be done to clarify the fog of disinformation and misrepresentation that has been masking the realities on the ground, as well as some of the relevant points of contention between the two countries, Iran and the United States.

My trip coincided with the intensified negotiations between Iran and the representatives of the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in attempts to resolve the West's stated concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions, also bearing on the increasingly draconian economic sanctions imposed against Iran, and even dovetailing with the ongoing explosive situation in the nearby Syria, where Iran is actively involved in supporting the Assad regime. These were indeed hot and eventful times, offering a rare opportunity for a groundbreaking rapprochement between the decades-long antagonists, the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Or so we are all supposed to believe!

As I was expecting, I was asked by friends, relatives and colleagues, both in Tehran and other towns where I travelled, if there were any realistic prospects for a thaw in the Iran/US relations, and a possible relief from the sanctions that are causing increasing difficulties for the public. Many remembered my comments and predictions of a year and two years ago that 2013 - well into President Obama's second and final term, and with Iran's presidential elections - would mark a turning point toward an easing of tensions and a potential rapprochement. The basic question was: Are things going to get better for us?

Sadaf Park near my sister's flat in Tehran.

Part 1: Perceptions/Misperceptions

I spent a good deal of time verbalizing my personal views and analyses at friendly gatherings and family dinner parties, mostly to the upper crust educated folks who might better appreciate some of the subtleties of international politics. There, very much like right here, we have the incorrigible hardcore knuckleheads, progressive liberals, and the forever skeptics, as well as others who fall somewhere in between, in all walks of life.

There is a general consensus among the middle and upper class Iranians that the United States, with its vast economic, military and diplomatic resources, is intent on furthering its hegemonic influence over as wide a region, especially in the Middle East, as it can in pursuit of its own interests, regardless of all the harm it might cause by violating human rights and dignity, and by preventing democratic movements, independence, and economic progress in the region. It is also believed that Israel, as well as Arab sheikdoms and kingdoms, are America's proxies in the region helping promote and support America's hegemonic plans for their own respective benefits.

It is also the general belief that the Islamic Republic's resistance against America's pressures, and refusal to capitulate under threats of attack and sanctions should be maintained at any cost regardless of the hardships the nation must endure to remain independent.

Iranians do also blame their own government for many things, including the mismanagement of the economy, corruption at all levels, misappropriation of funds, inordinate power and influence of the "Sepaah" or the Revolutionary Guards Corps, etc. Such criticism or blame is expressed openly and loudly, although seldom in the mainstream media.

The average citizen has learned to cope with the status quo, while the more vocal members of the upper crust simply cannot stop exhibiting their utter frustration over such socioeconomic issues. Those involved in larger scale manufacturing and trade complain about cash flow and the difficulty of importing needed supplies and equipment, as well as about the limitations created by the imposed sanctions over the export of their products.

The annual inflation now calculated to be nearly 30% is also affecting the day to day affairs of ordinary people. The taxi driver who drove me to the Fire & Water Park in north-central Tehran was complaining about the chaotic traffic to which he was personally contributing exceedingly well, and mentioned that he had to hold two jobs to make the ends meet. Eggs, he said, were now costing him 600 tomans, equivalent of about 20 US cents, apiece. I suggested jokingly, 'If people cannot afford to buy eggs anymore, chickens should then be instructed to stop laying eggs that nobody buys; they'd rot away and go wasted! Or, do you think that the rich North Tehranis and the "Aghayoon" (The word means "gentlemen", used sarcastically to refer to the clerical ruling establishment) are now consuming all those eggs that ordinary people cannot afford to buy?' 'No sir,' he replied; 'the Aghayoon know that eating too many eggs is bad for their cholesterol. But we now have to work extra hours to earn enough to buy the same eggs we are used to consuming, as we do meat, fruits and vegetables - we manage.' I finished by commenting, 'So, you are able to cope; you don't really see anybody starving or begging for food anywhere; do you?' 'No, not really.' he said.

As we were driving along, we passed by some roadwork in progress. They were digging the asphalt to lay pipes or electrical conduits. I noticed that, as I had observed before, most laborers were clearly immigrant workers from Afghanistan, many with obvious Uzbek, Turkmen or Tajik features. The taxi driver confirmed that practically all construction workers busy at government and private projects are from Afghanistan. I had observed the same thing even in remotest areas of the country, working as farm, mine and factory workers doing the menial heavy lifting, which the natives simply refuse to do for that kind of pay.

I was met by two of my cousins at the Fire & Water Park, (named for the spectacular nightly displays) for lunch at a rather plush restaurant row packed with young men and women exquisitely attired and wearing rather provocative makeup, totally at ease and natural. I had to pinch myself to wake up to the fact that I was in Tehran, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and not at some fancy open mall cafe in Los Angeles! There were no "morality" enforcing police anywhere to check out all the "chic" ladies in their fashionable outfits to see if their hair was showing from under their colorful scarves!

My cousins took turns criticizing the economy, the joblessness, the hardships the entire nation was under, lack of progress, and also the government for all its shortcomings. The whole thing was rather ironic: we were having a wonderful time at a fancy cafe in a delightful setting, and feeling no pain while complaining about it all!

Later that day, when I expressed to some acquaintances my utter amazement at the several hundred acres of well-manicured green space with all its state of the art facilities, including a "Sky Dome" and the Botanical Garden about to be opened to the public, in what used to be barren "Abbas Abad" rolling hills, the response was full of sarcasm, as well. The Park is here, they said, because the well-connected contractors who share their profits with the establishment needed to make more money. They buy those million-dollar Porsches and Lamborghinis or send their wealth abroad for safe keeping. 'Just like before, you mean!?' I uttered.

There are several green space or public parks in Tehran, some quite elaborately manicured and maintained, and all featuring rows of colorful outdoor exercise equipment for the enthusiasts who actually put them to good use. These green spaces are a relief, providing for some fresh, oxygen-rich breathable air in the heavily polluted city atmosphere. At the park a short walk from my sister's flat I watched young men and women energetically working out on the exercise equipment or jogging during early morning hours. Older folks were simply walking or sitting on steel benches chatting or smoking, even though there were 'No Smoking' signs posted throughout the park.

I was actually surprised to see city parks, well maintained and equipped with rows of exercise equipment, in even the smallest towns I visited, including the mining town of Sangaan near Afghanistan border. When I expressed my surprise and admiration to some colleagues, the response was, again, loaded with the all too typical cynicism: Yes, these projects mean more money for the Aghayoon!

A young university student majoring in mining engineering approached me at a rather elaborate dinner party in Tehran, when he found out that I was a visiting distant relative from the United States, with background in exploration geology and mining. He was quite upset that sitting next to him at the university classroom was the son of a veteran serving now in the Sepaah. The complaint was that this fellow did not have the required academic qualifications to have passed the strict entrance exams as this young man had to do. He was also complaining about the lack of certain rather liberal freedoms for the youth that he had seen on foreign television broadcasts such as BBC-Persian, Voice of America, or the popular MANOTO (You & I) produced by Iran's former superstar, Googoosh. He was especially angry at the restrictions and filtering of these and some other foreign broadcasts and internet access to certain sites. He said his ambition was to go to Norway, and from there possibly to the United States in search of a better life. I told him that I thought there were many other younger folks who feel the same way. His plan sounded more easily attainable than trying to create a better atmosphere and life right at home. 'Any house cat' I continued, 'would do the same thing if the neighbor's house provided better food and shelter. How curious, though, that dogs don't do that; I guess they are not as smart!' I wondered if he had any suggestions or solutions to, for example, the chaotic and unruly traffic conditions in Tehran or its horrible air pollution. I asked him what he would suggest if he were appointed as the adviser to the Mayor of Tehran? His reply after a short pause was, 'I'd tell him to fix things up; he's paid to do that!' 'Good thinking; excellent!' I said.

I did travel, as I had done during my previous visits, quite far and wide. On one occasion we drove across the forbidding Kavir high desert all the way to the Afghanistan border, visiting small towns, villages and mining camps along the way. We were also planning a trip further to the south to the Sistan/Baluchestan province and Jaaz Muriaan Depression in the southeastern corner of Iran, but a terrorist attack by a group from the Pakistani side of the border that resulted in the massacre of a couple dozen Iranian border guards changed our plans.

While visiting the stone quarries of the Mahallat travertine region in central Iran, I was treated to a wonderful luncheon at the home of the youngest daughter of my former mine foreman who had passed away some twenty years earlier. Also present were her eighty-one-year-old mother, school teacher sister and a brother, a nephew, and her young son. This young lady works as a marketing analyst for a mining firm, and is receiving her PhD in business administration from the local university, all while raising her seventeen-year-old son as a model student. Having been raised in a small dusty village near Delijan before the Revolution, her siblings now include a very successful British educated plastic surgeon in Tehran and a mining engineer with a Masters Degree operating his own stone quarry nearby.

And, on the opposite end of the spectrum is someone I happened to know in my distant past. She is an uneducated, now sixtyish but looking older, housecleaner who, as I found out, also takes care of two half-brothers, one in Tehran and the other in Sabzevar, some 300 miles east of Tehran, by commuting back and forth by bus once a month. Both are Iran-Iraq war casualties, one permanently damaged by the effects of Saddam Hussein's mustard gas, and the other shell-shocked, psychotic, in and out of rehab, trying to recover from drug addictions. As war veterans, they receive government subsidies and medical assistance. I made an effort to see her and inquired about her own condition. She never once complained about her problems or financial difficulties, only about her rheumatoid arthritis. As a single woman, she benefits from her recently deceased father's health insurance policy and retirement allowance; he was a street sweeper before the revolution, and had retired due to ill health shortly after. There are many in similar circumstances who have to struggle to stay afloat, but you seldom hear them complain or beg for help.

My own half-brother is also a war veteran who had his own battles with disorientation, addiction and loss of self-confidence, resulting in the alienation from his wife and two sons for over fifteen years. They have somehow managed without his help through difficult times. His older son is now a second-year student at Kashan University, studying electrical engineering, and the younger boy is about to finish high school. They are closer together now and will hopefully remain connected.

There is hardly a family in Iran that has not lost a member or been directly touched by the war they label as the Imposed War, or alternatively as the Sacred Defense. The wounds do run deep and the nation does take pride in the sacrifices made by its downed and damaged heroes, the veterans of the Sacred Defense, whether the young university student I met at that dinner party I mentioned has problem acknowledging their rights to privileged treatments or not.

October this year also coincided with Moharram, the lunar month during which Shi'a Saints (Imams), the descendants of Ali, whom Shi'a Moslems consider the first true Imam after the Profit's death, were martyred in the 7th century at Karbala in today's Iraq. These annual mourning rituals overshadow all other social events throughout the country. Nov. 4th also marked the anniversary of the takeover of the American Embassy in 1979. Street parades and a show of solidarity against the "Great Satan" was to be expected for the occasion.

This year, however, things were different. The government controlled media, daily newspapers and TV programs, were having a hard time adjusting to the fast evolving political developments. There was a strong, and sometimes even hostile, rhetorical exchange between the establishment hardliners on the one side, and some of the descendants of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Revolution, also supported by the former president, Rafsanjani, on the other. The debate was over Imam Khomeini's declarations regarding relations with the United States. Information was beginning or, better put, "allowed" to leak that the Ayatollah had not initially approved of the American embassy takeover by the radical leftist gangs in 1979, and, in fact, had ordered the removal of the hostage takers from the premises, but to no avail. It was also revealed that, before his death, he had made certain conciliatory remarks, such as declaring that the Islamic Republic had nothing against the America as a nation, but had objections against the policies of the United States. It was also coming out that the founder of the Islamic Republic thought that the slogan, Death to America, should be put to rest in due time.

These revelations met with fierce opposition and denounced by ultraconservative members of the Parliament and some high ranking clerics, who charged Rafsanjani and the Imam's own family with sedition, demanding their apologies to the families of the martyrs of the Islamic Revolution. These arguments continue while the official government position seems to be a guarded wait and see. After all, a potential new opening to the West should not be ignored or jeopardized.

In the central city of Kashan, at a historic house now converted to an attractive restaurant frequented by foreign tourists, I was rather surprised to see the American flag displayed front and center among flags of other countries; absent, of course, was the Israeli flag.

A sudden appearance and a rather hasty disappearance of posters attached to freeway overpasses marked "Trustworthiness Americans Style" was quite remarkable. The large colored posters showed an American negotiator sitting at a table across from his Iranian counterpart while holding a gun underneath the table aimed at the Iranian!

On the day commemorating the taking of the American embassy, marked by marching groups chanting Death to America, the atmosphere was visibly tense. There were semi-official warnings ahead of time that such slogans would be disallowed throughout the country. I couldn't stop laughing at such childish gestures of authority to think that a festering thirty-years-old angst could be extinguished on cue, as though dealing with kindergarten children in a schoolyard. Such things take time; wounds with deep roots heal slowly. I did see groups escorted by the police marching with Death to America banners in a couple of small towns we drove through on November 4th as we headed back to Tehran. I was told these demonstrations were much smaller this year, particularly in Tehran and other major metropolitan areas.

We all knew that the winds of change were already blowing in the air. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamaneh'i, made a rather significant public statement, to the effect that you sometimes, as in a wrestling match, show flexibility or feign softness in order to gain advantage. This was in reaction to the hardliner's criticisms against the Iranian delegation to the nuclear summits for supposedly bending too far and giving too much to the other side.

But removing giant anti-American posters and paintings covering the sides of tall buildings would take some time. It also takes time for a nation to appreciate and accept that people can, in fact, share in common interests and cooperate peacefully without forming a loving relationship!

My arrival at Tehran's Khomeini Airport, as well as my departure five weeks later, were quite uneventful, even pleasant, in comparison to the chaos and overzealous security procedures in Istanbul, Turkey, and even the overcautious and, I personally believe, wastefully unnecessary and arduous reentry process back into the United States, whether one carries a US passport or not.

Just before I left Los Angeles International Airport onboard Turkish Airlines to Tehran, I read an article about the horrors of the draconian sanctions imposed on Iran and the effects these sanctions were having on the lives of the average Iranian citizen: shortages of vitally needed medicines, food staples, and the runaway inflation caused by limitations of foreign exchange or export revenues including payments for Iran's main export item, oil; quite a frightening picture, needless to say.

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:

I was expecting to see the worst, but that's not what I saw. Yes, sanctions and shortages are biting and biting hard, but life seems to go on uninterrupted in spite of all the hardships people have to put up with. At a coffee shop near my sister's flat where I was staying, I ordered two regular coffees and one cappuccino for myself and two companions, and handed the cashier a bluish colored 100,000 rial note, about three US dollars, expecting some pocket change back. I was rather embarrassed when the lady cashier told me I needed to hand over another one of those bluish notes to get any pocket change back! I was surprised; I thought Starbucks prices were exorbitant here in the States! While sitting there at that coffee shop, I saw several individuals and young couples walk in, sit down while continuing to chat on their cell phones, order their "regular" treats and having no problem paying for them. They were certainly not aliens from some other planet visiting Tehran!

If anyone thinks that the so-called draconian sanctions, as tough as they are and as hard as they bite, are bringing that nation to its knees, they should think again. Just study Iran's long history; Iranians are a resilient breed, like blades of grass they bend with the breeze and tolerate even the strongest storms, to rise up and stand tall when the typhoon blows over. They'd suffer any hardship to preserve their sense of honor and dignity. Cocky proud? maybe so; but that's who they are. One thing is for sure: They'd make much better friends than enemies.

Part II: Where Are We Headed

Other articles by Kam Zarrabi:


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