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.
During my visit to the northern suburbs of Tehran, I was struck by the presence of wealth. Many ideologues in the United States, including those who currently occupy the corridors of power in Washington, conclude that this segment of society not only awaits US intervention to overthrow the regime but would actually cooperate with and facilitate any such effort. There is certainly a circle of Iranian secular intellectuals who chafe under Islamic law. Many of them are drawn from the ranks of the “old rich,” those who made their fortunes during the time of the Shah and who yearn for the return of a Westernized, secular society. In conversation, these intellectuals often speculate about the possibility of US intervention, but more and more the hope of such liberation has been tempered by the ever-deepening disaster in Iraq. While most Iranians welcomed the elimination of Saddam, the horrors inflicted and unleashed by US military forces next door have left many of the old rich in Tehran with the realization that the dream of American intervention may turn into a nightmare. My trip convinced me that support for US intervention does not exist to any significant degree but rather resides solely in the minds of those in the West who have had their impressions of Iran shaped by pro-Shah expatriates who have been absent from the country for more than a quarter-century.
Iran today is a fully functioning capitalist society, and in addition to the old rich, there is a larger population of wealthy Iranians who made their fortunes after the Islamic revolution and who owe their ability to sustain their wealth to the continued governance of the Islamic Republic. Likewise, those in the West who believe that the youth of Iran (more than two-thirds of the population today is under 30) share the same aspirations as the Western-oriented moneyed class will be disappointed. Those under 30 have no memory of the Iran that existed pre-theocracy and seem more willing to support a moderating change from within than a drastic change imposed from without.
The vast majority of Tehran’s citizens are working- and lower middle class. These people reside in the urban sprawl of southern Tehran, where out-of-control population growth strains the resources of municipal government and the Islamic Republic as a whole. The province of Tehran has expanded from 6.8 million people a decade ago to a current official count of 10.5 million; the actual population may be closer to 12 million, with more arriving every day. Unemployment is rampant (the official figure for the country is 12.4 percent, but it’s probably closer to 20 percent), and there is a growing level of dissatisfaction that has manifested itself politically in recent years.
The political center of Iran used to rest in northern Tehran. However, the 2005 presidential election saw a dramatic shift to the southern neighborhoods, whose voters helped elect one of their own, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Western media have for the most part depicted his victory as evidence of a resurgent religious fundamentalism, but anyone who walks the streets of southern Tehran (where most Western journalists are loath to wander) and visits the workshops and markets will find a much more nuanced reality. In the motorcycle repair shop I walked into I found the owner and customers evenly divided between Ahmadinejad and his principal rival, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani actually won the most votes in the first round, but in the runoff Ahmadinejad shocked everyone by bringing over to his conservative platform the supporters of the reformist candidates. The key factor in his stunning victory was not religious fundamentalism but widespread disillusionment over the state of the economy, coupled with charges of nepotism and corruption surrounding Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad was, more than anything, a reform candidate. This is what swept him into office, and it is on this issue that he continues to be judged today, with decidedly mixed results, by the people of Iran.
For all the attention the Western media give to Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy pronouncements, the reality is that his effective influence is limited to domestic issues. The citizens of Tehran I spoke with, from every walk of life, understood this and were genuinely perplexed as to why we in the West treat Ahmadinejad as if he were a genuine head of state. “The man has no real power,” a former Revolutionary Guard member told me. “The true power in Iran resides with the Supreme Leader.” The real authority is indeed the Ayatollah Sayeed Ali Khamenei, successor to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
According to the Iranian Constitution, the Supreme Leader has absolute authority over all matters pertaining to national security, including the armed forces, the police and the Revolutionary Guard. Only the Supreme Leader can declare war. In this regard, all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program are controlled by Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad has no bearing on the issue. Curiously, while the Western media have replayed Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel statements repeatedly, very little attention has been paid to the Supreme Leader’s pronouncement–in the form of a fatwa, or religious edict–that Iran rejects outright the acquisition of nuclear weapons, or to the efforts made by the Supreme Leader in 2003 to reach an accommodation with the United States that offered peace with Israel. While Ahmadinejad plays to the Iranian street with his inflammatory rhetoric, the true authority in Iran has been attempting to navigate a path of moderation.
The Supreme Leader’s powers are impressive, but they are not absolute. Iran has a system of checks and balances that is played out through two primary bodies: the Guardian Council and the Expediency Council. Until recently the Guardian Council had absolute veto power over parliamentary legislation and was unchecked in the exercise of its oversight responsibilities. However, in 1997 Khamenei beefed up the role and responsibility of the Expediency Council, and it was further strengthened last year; now the decisions of the Guardian Council, if challenged by the Iranian Parliament, can be overturned by the Expediency Council. The Guardian Council is still a dauntingly authoritative body, especially when one considers that the Supreme Leader has the power to appoint half its members (and all of the Expediency Council’s). Iran, after all, remains an Islamic republic, which means that the political pulse is generated not in Tehran but some fifty-five miles to the south, in the holy city of Qom.
It is in Qom where many of the religious figures on the two councils reside. They teach at religious schools and have developed their own followings, comprising religious, civil and military officials who have an enormous effect on day-to-day policy. Qom is a very conservative city, and the religious figures who study there reflect this. However, this conservatism does not directly translate into the embrace of strict religious fundamentalism. There is a growing recognition among the ayatollahs who serve on the councils of the need to seek compromise on matters of religion not only to dilute internal dissent but also to better tend to the needs of the country. The greatest reform pressure on these figures comes not from religious students but rather from the traditional watchdog of the Islamic Republic, the Revolutionary Guard.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps remains very much an enigmatic entity to most Western observers. Born from the tumult of the revolution that swept the Shah from power in 1979, the Revolutionary Guard was the primary defender of the Islamic Republic during its infancy, serving as the country’s first line of defense after the 1980 Iraqi invasion and against anti-regime forces, in particular the guerrillas of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or People’s Mujahedeen (MEK). The Revolutionary Guard also served as defender of the Shiite faith abroad, playing a pivotal role in the formation of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion.
Many of the actions of the guard have been cited by the United States as evidence that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. The guard members I spoke with reject this characterization. “We did some pretty terrible things in our early years, but we were fighting for our national survival,” one veteran member told me. “The MEK was waging a war in our cities, ambushing our forces, assassinating our politicians and killing our citizens with car bombs. We had to crush them, either in Iran or out. But if we kill an MEK operative in France or Germany, we become terrorists. If America kills an Al Qaeda operative in another country, you are counterterrorists. This makes no sense. We have never targeted or attacked Americans or American interests. We condemned the 9/11 attacks as a crime against Islam and a crime against humanity. And yet we are reviled as terrorists, or even worse, co-conspirators with Al Qaeda. Doesn’t America understand that we oppose Al Qaeda and all it stands for? Do you not know that the teachings of Sunni Wahhabism are anathema to the teachings of the Shia faith?”
In our haste to lash out at those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, we forget that Iran not only condemned the attacks, as did its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon, but that it nearly fought a war against Afghanistan’s Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies in the late 1990s. There is no greater potential ally in the struggle against Sunni extremism than Shiite Iran, a point made over and over by everyone I talked to, especially those affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard. As one veteran told me, “Iraq is our neighbor, and of course we have a vested interest in its stability. We fought an eight-year war with Iraq, so we understand the realities of that country. We are very glad the United States got rid of Saddam. But now what America is doing only makes the region more insecure. We could help America in Iraq if only they would let us.”
Moving south from Qom, along modern highways interspersed with rest stops that would meet with the approval of any traveler on the New York State Thruway, I was struck by the long lines of cars at gas stations. For all its oil wealth, Iran has an energy crisis. With its economy focused on the cash business of oil export, little attention has been paid to the needs of the domestic consumer. Iran is woefully lacking in domestic refining capacity, so much so that it spends billions every year importing gasoline at world market prices, which it then discounts so that the Iranian consumer pays only some 40 cents a gallon. This makes no economic sense, but Iran’s oil is already fully leveraged in the export market. With reserves shrinking and new discoveries waning, Iran faces a serious energy crisis in the coming decades unless alternative sources are developed.
Some 180 miles south of Tehran lies the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility. Tucked away on the side of the road, surrounded by a makeshift berm and numerous antiaircraft artillery emplacements, the facility has the outward appearance of something dark and ominous. But the secrets concerning what lies within are well-known to the world as a result of inspections carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency. What the inspectors say is crystal clear: There is no evidence that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, the enrichment program is plagued with technical problems that prevent any rapid progress. There is no imminent nuclear weapons threat from Iran, which hasn’t mastered the technologies and methodologies of enrichment needed to sustain a nuclear energy program, let alone a nuclear weapons effort.
The Bush Administration speaks of the need to move quickly on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambition and to roll back the forces of terror represented by the Islamic Republic. The repeated and explicit demand of the Administration is for regime change, as evidenced in the March 2006 “National Security Strategy of the United States,” where Iran is named repeatedly as the number-one threat to the United States. The alleged Iranian threat espoused by Bush is based on fear, and arises from a combination of ignorance and ideological inflexibility. The path that the United States is currently embarked on regarding Iran is a path that will lead to war. (Indeed, there are numerous unconfirmed reports that the United States has already begun covert military operations inside Iran, including overflights by pilotless drones and recruitment and training of MEK, Kurdish and Azeri guerrillas.) Such a course of action would make even the historic blunder of the Iraq invasion pale by comparison. When we talk of war, we must never forget that we are talking about the lives of the men and women who serve us in the armed forces. We have a duty and responsibility to insure that all options short of war are exhausted before any decision to enter into conflict is made. On the issue of Iran, the United States hasn’t even come close to exhausting the available options.
The solution to this problem is clear. The most logical course would be to put Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a flight to Tehran, where she could negotiate directly with the principal players on the Iranian side, including Supreme Leader Khamenei. If Administration officials actually engaged with the Iranians, they would have an eye-opening experience. Of course, Rice would need to come with a revamped US policy, one that rejects regime change, provides security guarantees for Iran as it is currently governed and would be willing to recognize Iran’s legitimate right to enrich uranium under Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (although under stringent UN inspections, and perhaps limited to the operation of a single 164-centrifuge cascade).
Rice would undoubtedly be surprised at the degree of moderation (and pro-American sentiment) that exists in Iran today. She might also be shocked to find out that the Iranians are more than ready to sit down with the United States and work out a program for stability in Iraq, as well as a reduction of tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. In addition to significantly reducing the risk of a disastrous conflict, such a visit would do more to encourage moderation and peace in the region than any amount of saber-rattling could ever hope to accomplish. And it would do more to help America prevail in the so-called Global War on Terror than any war plan the Pentagon could assemble. In the end, that is what defines good policy–something sadly lacking in Washington today.