The distance between the northern suburbs of the Iranian capital of Tehran and the nuclear enrichment facility of Natanz is roughly 180 miles. What transpires on the ground between these two geographical points has seized the attention of the international community, and in particular the government of the United States, as the world wrestles with how best to respond to the issues surrounding Iran’s decision to pursue indigenous enrichment of uranium in defiance of the United Nations Security Council’s resolution demanding that all such activity cease.
I recently returned from a trip to Iran, where over the course of a week I made the journey from the northern suburbs of Tehran to the gates of the Natanz enrichment facility, and in doing so had my eyes opened. The Iran that I witnessed was far removed from the one caricatured in the US media. I left with the frustrating realization that, as had been the case with Iraq, America was stumbling toward a conflict, blinded by the prejudice and fear born of our collective ignorance.
The first thing that becomes apparent upon arrival in Tehran is that Iran is nothing like Iraq. I spent more than seven years in Iraq and know firsthand what a totalitarian dictatorship looks and acts like. Iran is not such a nation. Once I cleared passport control, I was thrust into a vibrant society that operates free of an oppressive security apparatus such as the one that dominated Iraqi daily life in the time of Saddam Hussein. This does not mean there is no internal security apparatus in Iran–far from it. A visit to the cable cars operating in the mountains north of Tehran puts you next to a major communications station of the ministry, where cellphone conversations can be monitored using advanced software procured from the United States. Iran has a functioning domestic security apparatus, but it most definitely is not an all-seeing, all-controlling police state, any more than the United States is in the post-9/11 era, when the FBI and the National Security Agency use similar software to selectively monitor the conversations of American citizens.
Iran is certainly not an open society that operates on a par with the West. I recently had the honor of spending some time with Shirin Ebadi, who was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, and have heard her account of the intense repression meted out to those who challenge the political system. The theocrats who govern in Tehran have a history of shutting down media that are not obedient to the state, and the Iranian prison system is notorious for the jailing, beating and even execution of those who dare to protest publicly the rule of the mullahs.
In spite of these abuses of human rights and civil liberties, Iran is not a closed society. There is a ban on satellite television dishes, but many Iranians get their news from the BBC, CNN and other international television services simply by flouting the rules, which seem not to be too widely enforced. Some, like the Revolutionary Guards I became acquainted with, disguise their dish as a flower planter. The government has tried to censor the Internet, and has targeted online journalists and blocked thousands of websites. But the Internet is heavily used by Iranians, who continue to find ways to evade government controls. And cellphones are as ubiquitous as they are here in the West.
The point is that while the Iranian government often cracks down on organized public displays of dissent, the free flow of information that is vital to any dynamic society exists despite the efforts of the government to contain or control it. Ebadi is permitted to travel abroad, speaking and publishing words harshly critical of the Iranian theocracy. She has been harassed by the government but still operates freely, unlike her fellow Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Peace Prize in 1991 and is again under house arrest in Myanmar.