TEHRAN—A rumpling of eyebrows and a forest of quizzical expressions greeted me as I took off my shoes to enter the madrassa. There are plenty of visitors at the modestly housed Islamic school—of which there are scores in the holy Iranian city of Qom, home to some 40,000 students of Muslim thought and teaching—but a foreign journalist is a rare sight. “An audience with the Grand Ayatollah?” people asked, “He does not give interviews. And certainly not on political subjects.” But the Oriental rules of hospitality prevailed, and I was an esteemed if unannounced foreign guest. So the confused frowns quickly gave way to gentle smiles, and I followed a host of white turbans and the swish of black robes into the small room where the Grand Ayatollah held court.


The floor was covered with carpets, as in a mosque, for a madrassa is a place of both study and prayer. Seated around the floor, their backs propped up against the walls, were mullahs and young men in lay dress—boys, even—the various colors of their skin betraying their distant origins. Their eyes gleamed with interest and kindness as they silently pressed their right palms against their breasts, bowing their heads in the Muslim gesture of greeting. Seated in a corner, the only person in a chair was the Grand Ayatollah himself, 85 years old, sprightly, and with a long white beard that jabbed up and down as he talked eagerly. He received me graciously, and I took my place on the floor beside the others.


Hierarchically speaking, this is the equivalent of walking into St. Peter’s, saying you are from the Tehran Times, and getting an immediate audience with a cardinal. Grand Ayatollah al-Uzma al-Hajj ash-Shaykh Luftullah as-Safi al-Gulpauygani is not only one of the 50 top clerics in a state run by clerics, he is also a former Secretary General of the Council of Guardians, the supreme religious and political body in the Islamic Republic and a former close colleague of the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. The son of an Ayatollah himself, Gulpauygani was born in 1337 (or 1917, as we would call it), and the preface to one of his works describes him as having “stepped into the garden of knowledge” when only a youth. “Piety, sincerity, reliance on Allah in all matters, frankness in speech, Enjoining the Good and Forbidding the Evil are among some of the spiritual and ethical traits of this Faqhi,” the preface continues.


He is certainly frank in his speech. “Have you been to the Vatican? Does this”—he waved at the men seated on the floor—“compare with Rome? You see how modest are the Muslim clergy, quite unlike the arrogance of Christians.” “Tell me,” he asked, even though I had been told politics would not be discussed, “Why are the Christian countries allied with the Zionists against Muslims? The Holy Koran says that Jews who slander Jesus and Mary are damned. Every day, I pray for Christians—that they will abandon their alliance with the evil regime in Israel.” I could not have wished for a more immediate reminder of why the foreign policy of the United States is so unnecessarily hated from Casablanca to Karachi. As a Tehran university professor had limpidly explained to me a few days previously, “The Iranian people hate the Israeli regime because it kills Palestinians, who are Muslims. This makes people angry with the USA.”


But the Iranians are not aggressively anti-American. Rather the contrary. As I left Qom, I stopped, like many tourists and pilgrims, to buy the pastries that are typical to the city. Hearing my English, the small crowd assumed I was an American. “Bush good!” shouted one man, and the others laughed. “We have plenty of mullahs to export if you want them,” said another in Farsi, more surreptitiously this time, but the laughter rippled louder. No doubt the praise uttered to the American president was intended as a personal gesture of kindness to me, but it seemed odd, given that “good” Mr. Bush has just reduced neighboring Iraq to rubble and chaos and that he seems to want to turn his sights on Iran now as well.


Iran is far less anti-American than many other countries in the region—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan—even if anti-Americanism has greatly increased here, as elsewhere, in the last two years. Will neocon saber-rattling succeed in turning the least anti-American country in the Middle East once again into a hotbed of hatred for the Great Satan?


Iranians react to the prospect of being the next country in Washington’s crosshairs with an Oriental combination of fatalism and wile. Like Iraqis, and unlike people from the rich industrial world, Iranians are not afraid of war. They have seen too much of it to care now, for they survived far worse during the Iran-Iraq War than they expect the Americans to inflict on them. Some lazily speculate about air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, rather like Israel’s destruction of the Iraqi nuclear power station at Osirak in 1981. But Iranians are generally convinced that their country is too big for the Americans to take on easily—it is the size of Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland put together, or, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, “bigger than the state of Texas.” It is also well armed and believes that it could resist an American invasion with its conventional weapons. “We are powerful enough to defend ourselves,” one foreign-ministry official told me calmly. “America was here before, and she could not maintain her presence,” said another. “The U.S. has no place in Iran through force. That would be the most stupid policy of all. Is the U.S. creating a democratic Iraq, or is it legitimizing terrorism there?” The Iranians also have the perhaps rather complacent view that a country with thousands of years of history cannot be snuffed out even if a few hundred thousand GIs wander over its vast territory for a decade or two.


On the drive back from Qom to Tehran, it took an hour and a half to negotiate the phenomenal traffic jams that clog the city from the suburbs to the center. The glacier of six lanes of cars in both directions is one indication, albeit a rudimentary one, of a country positively teeming with social and economic activity. Pilgrims were returning in their tens of thousands from their Thursday evening visit to the vast shrine to Ayatollah Khomeini, whose four floodlit minarets illuminate the dusk next to the freeway heading south. In southern Tehran, the roughest part of town where foreigners are advised not to walk alone, young men sat out by the street, smoking water pipes and occasionally hashish or even opium. Prostitution is said to be rife in Qom, as it undoubtedly is in Tehran too—and was I just imagining it, or had I caught flirtatious glances from dark pear-shaped eyes as beautiful young women billowed past in their black finery? As we entered the city center, we drove past the huge central park of Tehran, where students and mullahs sit by day and where drug pushers and gay cruisers meet by night.


The politics of Iran are as complex and multi-layered as its society. Unlike Iraq under Saddam, Iran is also deeply inscrutable. The Islamic Republic does not have one government but two or more competing ones. The uncertainty this generates creates a palpable climate of fear in the country—in contrast to Saddam’s Iraq where the atmosphere was far more relaxed. No fewer than three of my meetings were suddenly canceled because people were too afraid to meet me.


But these competing power centers also mean that Iran is one of the most pluralistic countries in the region. The much-discussed division between “conservatives” or “hard-liners” and “reformers” is in fact a misnomer. The “conservatives” are those most attached to the values of the Islamic Revolution and indeed used to be referred to as “radicals.” Those values include a deep attachment to Islam in government, national independence, law and order, and social justice. The “reformers” used to be called “moderates”—Mensheviks to the Ayatollah-Bolsheviks. Like the different factions within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the end of communism, even those who want an end to the system pay considerable lip service to the overall goals of the revolution and say that their disagreements with the other camp are only about methodology. For instance, even reformers would never overtly say that they were prepared to recognize the state of Israel—but, in reality, they would probably be happy with a form of words that came to the same thing. When I explained to some mullahs at an Islamic research institute in Qom that I was from The American Conservative, they listened with interest and evident familiarity to my account of divisions within the same political family on the American Right.


The reformists claim that they stand for political pluralism, civil society, and “participation.” In reality, they seem to be far more aggressive toward their enemies than the conservatives are toward them. Official government press communiqués denounce the conservatives tartly as “a minority of non-elected clerics who rule Iran.” But one of the leading conservative opinion-formers, the gentle-mannered, old-fashioned, and evidently devout Dr. Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the national daily, Keyhan—a man who refused to be photographed without his jacket on— insisted to me that his reformist enemies were all well-meaning, pious Muslims and patriotic Iranians. He refused to be drawn on whether any elements within the reformist camp were manipulated or encouraged by outside forces.


One is told constantly in Iran that the country is really governed by the conservatives. This is like Serbia, where three years after the fall of Milosevic, the government still calls itself the opposition. The reality seems to be that there are a few last outposts of conservatism in a country otherwise totally dominated by reformers. In Iran, the reformists control the presidency and the parliament, which means they control the Interior Ministry and the intelligence services. The overwhelming majority of the press is also in their hands—of 13 national daily papers, only five are controlled by allies of the Supreme Leader, while the majority of the 100 or so local daily papers are also reformist. The Press Council within the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has seven members, of which only one is a conservative.


If conservatives control the television and radio, this did not seem to prevent radical, alcohol-drinking secularists like my interpreter from working for state TV. Conservatives, by contrast, wield power only through the office of the Supreme Leader, the Council of Guardians, and the judiciary. The situation is like that in France from 1997 to 2002, when the presidency was controlled by the Gaullist Jacques Chirac and the rest of the government by the Socialists.


The result is that it is difficult to find any conservatives at all. When I asked the Foreign Press Bureau whom I should see in Qom, it was suggested that I visit Ayatollah Montazeri—a man who is under house arrest for calling for an end to the Islamic regime and who recently said that the taking of American hostages in the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 had been a mistake. My other attempts to meet “hard-liners” were generally thwarted. Perhaps most significantly, even people who are generally classified as conservatives seemed to me to have mainly reformist policies. Take, for instance, the director of the moderately conservative daily newspaper Entechab (The Choice), Dr. Taha Hashemi. He is said to harbor ambitions to become the next president of Iran. If so, it seems obvious that his strategy is to present himself as a conservative while in fact pursuing very reformist goals.


Dr. Hashemi is himself a cleric and so wears turban and robes. (During our interview, I tried to imagine my editors in London and Washington sweeping into their offices in soutane and biretta, but the attempt failed.) “Fundamentally,” he told me with the tone of man who is used to being listened to rather than listening, “The current U.S. administration has shaken democracy to its very foundations. Everyone in this region is rendered quite speechless by its acts.” Like everyone else I met, Dr. Hashemi sang the praises of democracy—and insisted that American foreign policy was antithetical to it. “No serious analyst can deny,” he said, “that the Islamic Revolution in 1979 occurred with the support of the people and against the hated Pahlavi dynasty. Many Western countries supported it; only America did not. This shows that America’s aim is not democracy but hegemony.”


Dr. Hashemi, like many others I met, emphasized that all Iranians feel bitter about U.S. support given to Iraq during the eight-year war with Iran. They also still resent the coup engineered in 1953 by the CIA against the popular Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. But underneath his anti-American rhetoric, fundamentally pro-American positions emerged. It was with a mounting sense of surrealism that I watched this Islamic clergyman denounce first Saddam Hussein and then the Taliban. “The Taliban were created by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and Pakistan,” he told me. “How can a democratic country like America even dream of supporting such a backward regime as the Taliban?” He said that the Taliban’s obsession with beard length and their refusal to educate women were “the opposite of a progressive Islam that adapts itself to new developments”—by which he meant the kind of Islam they have in Iran. He reminded me that the Islamic Republic of Iran—like the Republic of Iraq, for that matter—never recognized the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan.


In short, Dr. Hashemi wanted me to understand, Iran is America’s perfect ally—and the Americans had really better understand that, for their own good. Indeed, he even twisted his anti-Zionist rhetoric to support his basically pro-American position, when he said that the only country that was determined to prevent Tehran and Washington from normalizing their relations was Israel.


This is exactly the line the government peddles strenuously. Although Iranians enjoy saying that the United States has embarked on a program of world domination, two deputy foreign ministers I met, as well as diplomats in London, stressed repeatedly that Iran ought to be a valued partner of the United States. They emphasized that Iran is a vital strategic player in the Middle East and that it wanted to help the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iranians clearly believe that if they co-operate with America over Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans will see the light. On two or three occasions, officials emphasized to me that Iran had encouraged the Iraqi Shi’ites—including the subsequently assassinated Iraqi Ayatollah, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim—to co-operate with the American occupying forces in Iraq. “Iran’s positive contribution to calming down the Shi’ites in Iraq should be appreciated by the United States,” said one. “We made them understand that Hakim’s assassination was not the fault of the Sunni Muslims. Our policy towards Iraq is very similar to the policy of the United States.”


Indeed, so extreme is the determination to play the game that a government minister, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the Iranian Parliament, even suggested two months ago that the Islamic Republic send troops to join the “coalition” in Iraq, saying that Iranian troops could be used to protect the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Dr. Hashemi, like the government ministers, insisted to me that Iran had no interest in fueling the war against the occupying forces in Iraq because that would be a threat to Iran’s own security. And the Iranian government seems to think that it can outwit the Americans by being as non-confrontational as possible in the current dispute over Iran’s nuclear power stations. The only stumbling block, as far as Iranians are concerned, is Israel.


Iranians like to denounce the double standards and inconsistencies of American foreign policy. This is not difficult when Israel has—unlike Iran—neither signed nor ratified the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, even though it is widely credited with having some 200 nuclear warheads. Many Iranians attack the politicization of the International Atomic Energy Agency and especially the ultimatum it imposed on Iran in September, for they say it has become an American tool. But their arguments never contain the kind of denunciation of America per se for which the Ayatollah Khomeini was notorious.


For instance, Dr. Mohammed Hossein Adeli, deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, insisted to me that current American foreign policy was above all damaging the United States itself and its own values. “America is America not because of its military power but because of its belief in liberty, equality, and tolerance,” he told me,


All of these values created America, but the current administration is attacking all of them. The U.S. has started to target its own values—the very values for which it should earn recognition and respect throughout the world. All civilizations rise and fall: the larger the civilization, the longer the fall. When a civilization starts to attack its own values, then the process of fall will start. If the trend continues, we will see an ever-widening gap between the United States and the peoples of the rest of the world.


Dr. Adeli says he cannot believe that the U.S. really thinks that Iran has nuclear weapons, when it is precisely Iran that has called for a nuclear-free Middle East. “The American pattern of problem-solving is to jump from one crisis to another, leaving things unresolved, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine.” He even suggested that the Bush team deliberately provokes new crises in order to distract attention from unresolved old ones—as if the White House positively thrived on crises to which it could respond robustly and, if possible, violently.


Another minister to whom I spoke, off the record, expressed the sense of superiority that many Iranians seem to feel towards the U.S. “Twenty-five years ago,” he said,


[T]here were 50,000 Americans in Iran working in the army and the secret services. Now there are none. The Americans would do well to reflect on the lessons of history. Iran is now the only country in the region that has lived without the Americans for 25 years. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other countries are terrified of jeopardizing their relations with the U.S., but their populations are full of hatred for America. Indeed, I even met a Saudi government official recently who told me that the time for dialogue was over, and that what was needed now is jihad. Iranians are more moderate. We have managed to contain the more hate-filled and violent expressions of anti-Americanism that we might have seen here and that we have seen elsewhere. Iran does not fear America. We do not want there to be a world consensus against Iran. We wish to resolve this dispute non-violently.


The Iranians are indeed gambling that at least some European countries will not toe an aggressive U.S. line on Iran and that the Islamic Republic will, through clever diplomacy and by non-confrontation, be able to prevent the whole world ganging up on it. “In any case,” added my minister with a glint of secret pleasure, “Iran has had a greater effect on the internal politics of the United States than the U.S. has had on our internal politics.” It is indeed true that Iran caused regime change in Washington, when the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages under Jimmy Carter brought Ronald Reagan into the White House.


So what is strikingly lacking is any sense of combative spirit, which the Iraqis made such a play of before the war and continue to nourish. Most insist that the nuclear bomb is incompatible with Islamic teaching on peace. On the other hand, Iranians seem to agree that American aggressiveness will be bad for the reformers and good for the conservatives. Even the most radical reformers insist that anything more than moral support from the United States for reform elements in Iran will be fatal to their cause.


Isa Saharkhiz describes himself as a radical reformer, and he edits a newspaper, Aftab, that publishes people who have been imprisoned for their views. I have met people like Mr. Saharkhiz many times before: he loves to dramatize the extent of his own difficulties. He made much of the harassment that, he says, reformist papers suffer at the hands of the conservative-controlled judiciary—but at the same time admitted, “There is freedom [for the press in Iran].” Given that there are over a thousand publications in the Islamic Republic, and that a dozen new national dailies have sprung up in the last four years, this seems fair. Saharkhiz admits that reformers control the majority of the press, but it is clear that he will not be happy until all of it is. He also told me that an open letter written by 155 parliamentarians criticizing the government had never been published. On closer questioning, it turned out that the press did quote from the letter and even published it in full, if a few days late. Finally, he claimed to have been on “hunger strike,” and indeed before I met him, people said, “Let’s hope he is still alive by the time of your appointment.” When I arrived, he looked surprisingly healthy —chubby, even—and slurped sugary coffee during our discussion. It turned out that the “hunger strike” had lasted precisely one day.


But even Mr. Sakharkiz insisted that no one in Iran, not even the Tehran University students, wanted to be associated with the United States. “All the reformers,” he said, “from the moderates to the radicals, are agreed on two things—that we must not accept any help from the Americans and that we must be seen not to accept any help. As soon as any foreign assistance is accepted, you lose your independence.” Others similarly insisted to me that pressure from outside, especially military pressure, would rally the Iranian people around a nationalist and anti-American cause that would undoubtedly benefit the conservatives and damage the reformers, who are under the perennial accusation of being too accommodating to outsiders. In other words, the best thing the neocons could do for the forces of anti-Americanism in Iran would be to turn the screws on the Islamic Republic, because pressure from outside would strengthen anti-, not pro-American, elements.


As one official said, “The balance of forces in Iran will be upset by foreign pressure because all factions in Iran will react against it. To be sure, Islam is very important to Iranians. But the sense of national independence is probably even more powerful.” Indeed, the conservative Dr. Shariatmadari even put it to me that the student movement in Tehran University fizzled out the instant George Bush, Ari Fleischer, and the State Department stood up and said they supported it.

As Israel launches military attacks on alleged Iranian-backed terrorist camps in Syria, therefore, neoconservative threats against Iran put the United States in a deeply paradoxical position. Iran’s diplomacy seems to be based on an astonishing gamble: the Islamic Republic says it is prepared to co-operate with some of the most radical aspects of current American foreign policy, including the establishment of American military protectorates on Iran’s borders in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Central Asia, while some elements in Iran are even prepared to come to a modus vivendi with Israel. In return, Iran wants the right, as a sovereign state, to be treated with dignity and to enter into collaboration with the United States on equal terms. Secondly, she wants to remain officially opposed to the policies of Ariel Sharon. The gamble, in other words, is that Iran wants to appease America in return for its national independence and the right to say what she thinks. The development of the incipient standoff between Washington and Tehran will therefore show whether the Bush administration is prepared to tolerate a willing but conditional ally in the Middle East or whether—as I fear—the goal is simply to subjugate everyone.  
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John Laughland is a London-based writer and lecturer and a trustee of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group. He recently traveled to Iran as a reporter for TAC.