The scene this late August evening is not unlike thousands of others playing out in homes, meeting halls and mosques across the country. Extended family, friends and neighbors have gathered in this working-class corner of South Tehran to commemorate the birthday of Javad, the ninth imam, or spiritual leader, of the Shiites. Arrangements have been made by Ali, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, a bear of a man marked by his girth, superior singing voice and remarkable good humor. Ali lost both his legs in the war and now negotiates his way through life with a wheelchair and a well-equipped 1976 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Most of those assembled this evening are also veterans, or simply former members of the paramilitary Basij force, their families in tow.
I sit with the women, crammed into half of one family’s front room partitioned by an enormous sheet, immersed in their chatter, eating over-sweet pastries and drinking lemon sharbat as children chuck chocolates over our heads. In the adjoining men’s space, a local cleric speaks of Javad, who at the tender age of 8 took on the role of leader for the millions living as adherents to Islam’s underdog branch, Shiism. Amid exhortations and invocations, the name of Iran’s new president passes the cleric’s lips more than once. Much like Javad, he says, this new president is young and unknown, marked by a simple life and an uncompromising commitment to the poor and downtrodden. Like Javad, he continues, he will lead us down the right path in these uncertain times. Ali’s wife leans over to me and says about the new president, “He is one of us.”
On September 24 the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency voted to refer Iran to the Security Council over its nuclear program, one of the boldest steps it has taken over the course of two and a half years of ritual accusations, denials and staged crises on either side. While the exact timing of such a referral was left open and serial holdouts Russia and China abstained (along with ten other countries, many of them from the Non-Aligned Group, on the thirty-five-member board), it was clear that regime-change advocates, with the United States in the forefront, were upping the pressure on Iran–whom they routinely accuse of having nuclear weapons ambitions.
Only days before, on September 13, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had made his debut visit to New York City and the United Nations as Iran’s president. Almost meek and extraordinarily humble, he cut a curious figure in that monumental setting in his simple tan jacket and slacks. On the 17th the new president addressed the General Assembly, speaking of the need for increased Third World representation in international bodies, decried First World double standards and even cited a few lines of Persian poet Saadi on the nature of humanity and justice. When it came to his country’s contested nuclear program, he insisted that Iran has the right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy activities, calling attempts to deprive it of that right a sort of “apartheid.” Though his insistence on Iran’s nuclear rights hardly represents a departure from the stance of his predecessor, the photogenic reformist Mohammad Khatami, his use of the UN platform made for a stark contrast with Khatami’s own; seven years ago, after his election, this was the venue the reformist chose for the launch of his now famous, though defunct, “dialogue among civilizations.”