Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Iran: Past the Paranoia

At once theocratic, secular, hostile, and modern, Iran is not America's natural enemy.

The story of the cardboard tanks was a haunting urban myth of 1930s Britain, often recalled by adults during my 1950s childhood. It concerned a middle-class couple who took a motor tour of the Third Reich about the time of the Munich Agreement. As they drove their very solid, very British automobile along a twisting mountain road, they suddenly came face to face with a squadron of Hitler’s feared new tanks. It was too late to stop, too narrow to swerve. Commending their souls to God, the couple braced themselves for certain death. But death did not come—only a strange splintering noise and some strangled cries of “Achtung!” and “Engländer Schweinehund!” The tank was a mere mock-up, made of cardboard, bamboo, string, and chewing gum, and the couple sliced through it, quite unhurt. This tale, wholly false, was told 70 years ago to spread foolish complacency about the real peril of German rearmament. It was retold 50 years ago to remind us how gullible we had been about a dangerous enemy.

It concerns me now as I write about a recent visit to Iran, the country that has been designated as the next official enemy of what is still called “The West.” I came away so completely opposed to this silly hostility that I fear I am in danger of stirring up apathy, like the people who spread the myth of the cardboard Panzers. I am a Cold War veteran who believes in deterrence and accepts that there was a genuine Soviet threat. I am an incorrigible Zionist. I think my own country has allowed its armed forces to become lamentably weak. But I think the difference between the official account of Iran as sinister menace and the Iran I experienced is so great that it is a sort of duty to draw attention to it.

This general fear is so strong that members of my own family, used to my traveling to many curious corners of the world and much-traveled themselves, were apprehensive about my going to Tehran. Feelings were a little high at the time. A group of Royal Navy bluejackets and Marines had just been seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the waters off Basra and released after alleged ill treatment. These trained warriors spoke of their experiences as if they had been held in the dungeons of man-eating pirates, claiming to have been scared of torture and, in the case of the one woman involved, of rape. So terror-stricken had they been that they allowed themselves to be filmed more or less admitting to losing their way and rambling into Iranian waters. One had been persuaded to pen a letter denouncing Britain’s military presence in Iraq. Their subsequent fate—sudden release after an apparent deal, the sale by some of them of their pathetic memoirs to mass-circulation newspapers, a national revulsion against them for their general feebleness—is interesting in itself, but it is not part of my story.

It seemed to me to be a good time to go to Iran, a country currently moving toward the top of the Anglosphere’s list of Most Hated Nations. This list, frequently revised, is maintained by those who feel a pressing need for a national enemy and who have been bereft of a proper foe since the Soviet Union fell in on itself in a cloud of rust. Iran’s leaders, unlike several of the regimes chosen for the role of Chief Threat, seem to enjoy being feared and have encouraged their image by very publicly pursuing nuclear research, rather like a naughty boy teasingly juggling with his mother’s best china.

The ayatollahs do not encourage foreign journalists to visit and declined to give me a press visa. So I went unofficially, unsupervised by official minders, and was able to travel in a great sweep round the country, journeying to within a few miles of the Afghan border and close to the Persian Gulf.

I met anti-regime intellectuals in fashionable cafés, ordinary provincial professional people in their own homes, devout Muslims and fierce skeptics, regular consumers of illegal alcohol, religious zealots, students, and feminists facing prosecution. I attended Friday prayers in Tehran, the weekly 20 minutes hate in which a large congregation is encouraged to bawl “Death to America,” “Death to Israel” and—gratifyingly for a British subject used to our diminished status—“Death to England.” In Persia, at least, we are still regarded as a dangerous and perfidious world force, whose spies are generally thought to be everywhere. I reached the heart of one of Shia Islam’s most sacred shrines and saw how distinct Shia Islam is from its Sunni rival. And I was kissed on both cheeks by a bearded mullah in the holy city of Qom.

I also passed close to one of Iran’s major nuclear sites, Natanz, and was able to observe the anti-aircraft gun emplacements spread on either side of the smooth new superhighway that leads north from Esfahan to Tehran. I can imagine few more useless precautions against the pilots of the Israeli or United States air forces, except perhaps for a patrol of biplanes or some bows and arrows. But the display, visible to thousands of travelers each day, helps to fan the foolish panic about Iran’s supposed attempt to become a nuclear power.

I am not equipped to judge such things technically. I could not tell uranium from plutonium or a centrifuge from a capacitor. But I have been subjected to enough state-sponsored panics about evil dictators and weapons of mass destruction to have become a little dubious when I am told that a Middle Eastern state is plotting my imminent death or a first strike on Tel Aviv. And I have become aware that many real, well-informed experts are highly skeptical about Iran’s ability in this field. The Tehran government appears to exaggerate the number of centrifuges it has in operation. Its capacity to enrich uranium is pitifully short of that needed to produce weapons-grade material. Its elderly nuclear reactor at Bushehr has yet to produce a watt of electricity after more than 30 years. Iran’s claim to need nuclear energy may not be false. This supposed energy superpower imposes frequent power blackouts, as I can confirm from personal experience.

The Iranian state is, in any case, famous among its own people for being very bad at delivering grand projects. Tehran’s new Khomeini Airport has just opened after 30 years under construction. A supposedly ultra-modern TV and telecommunications tower stands unfinished on the capital’s skyline after 20 years of work. Several cities, promised metro-rail systems years ago, have yet to see a single train run. Tehran’s metro, sorely needed in that traffic-strangled megalopolis, is operating a few lines, but they opened years late, and there are far too few of them.

Many Iranians privately fear that their government’s clumsy fumblings with the atom will subject them to a Persian Chernobyl long before it endangers anyone else. In any case, if you wish to become frantic about Islamic bombs, then there is surely a better case for worrying about Pakistan, which already possesses such a bomb along with the missiles to hurl it about the region. Yet Pakistan, mysteriously, is our friend and ally, despite being a lawless military tyranny and the only country on earth to have an army unit specifically trained to mount putsches against its (rarely) elected governments.

In any event, it is idle and wrong to see Iran as part of an undifferentiated Muslim world. It is astonishingly distinct from its Arab neighbors and, come to that, from its interesting non-identical twin, Turkey. While Turkey is an Islamic state kept secular (so far) by a covert army dictatorship, Iran is a secular state kept Islamic by an overt clerical despotism. Iranians, as they will swiftly point out to you, are mostly non-Arabs. Nor are they, apart from an important but small minority, Turks. And their espousal of the Shia rather than the Sunni branch of the faith cuts them off, whether they like it or not, from most of the rest of Islam. This divide is far more important than most of us realize. We are aware of it mainly because of the Shia majority in Iraq and the influence that Iran can exercise through them. But what I did not properly appreciate before visiting Iran is that Shia Islam is for all practical purposes a separate religion. I had, on a visit to Iraq, been lucky enough to visit the Shia shrine cities of Najaf and Kerbala but only in search of opinion on the Anglo-American occupation. I had noticed that the mosques were interestingly different from the Sunni ones I had seen in Jordan, Egypt, Jerusalem, and England but had made little of it.

In the great Shia pilgrimage city of Mashhad, on the old Silk Road to China, I understood for the first time that this was something utterly apart, as separate from Sunni practice as a Sicilian Roman Catholic might be from a Scotch Calvinist. I have never felt so close to understanding the passionate pre-Reformation world of medieval Europe, its relics and devotees, its enormous, thronged, and gilded shrines. Passing through ever more ornate courtyards decorated with lovely blue-tiled recesses and overlooked by a dome apparently made of solid gold, I was able to look into the glittering center of the shrine of Imam Reza, one of the sad heroes of this tragic faith. All Shia martyrs were the victims of political, temporal defeat, some slain in unfair battle, others—like Reza—foully murdered by conspiratorial enemies. They are still mourned, as if these events had happened yesterday rather than more than a thousand years ago. The Twelfth Imam is thought to have disappeared from the world of men, only to reappear at an unknown date to restore the rule of peace and justice.

The martyred Reza lies in a green-shrouded tomb surrounded by a solid silver cage, which the pilgrims surge forward to touch, some crying out in a sort of ecstasy at having reached their goal. The sepulcher is approached down marvelously carpeted corridors —one for men and one for women— whose walls and ceilings are lined with thousands of tiny pieces of mirrored glass and sparkle perpetually. Many devotees force their way through the multitudes and, before they are pushed away by competing worshippers, hurriedly tie green ribbons to the silver bars, or even fix padlocks to them, in the hope of having wishes granted when the knot eventually comes loose or the lock is broken. Others push quantities of banknotes into the enclosure. Frequently, passionate funeral parties process through the precincts, as huge drums beat from the shrine’s rooftops. Shia believe that a special blessing attaches to those whose bodies are brought close to the shrine.

Something very old indeed is taking place here—something much frowned upon in the Sunni lands. Some trace connections to the ceremonies of a sect of Zoroastrianism, the great monotheistic faith that dominated Persia before the coming of Islam and still survives even now in small but persistent pockets. Whatever its origins and nature, it is not liked by the austere forms of Sunni Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia and its allies. If Shia make the pilgrimage to Mecca, they find they are sourly tolerated but not welcomed as friends.

The separation, whatever its reasons and origins, helps to reinforce a strong feeling that Iran is trapped in the middle of a world to which it does not really belong. Wander through Tehran, or any other Iranian city, at the delightful evening hour always pleasing in any Middle Eastern capital, soon after evening prayers have been called, when the sweet and cake shops are preparing for business and the lights are warm and bright. You will quickly notice that it is not—as it would be elsewhere—an all-male street scene. Women are walking about quite freely, and not in that hunched, submissive posture so common in the Arab lands. They are, especially in the more middle-class areas, consciously subverting the ridiculous dress codes imposed on them by the mullahs. The veil is plainly imposed, not willingly worn as it increasingly is by Arab women on the luxury shopping streets of London.

Clothes intended to be shapeless have been carefully nipped in and adapted to emphasize the waist, contrary to regulations. Headscarves are placed so far back on the head that they are barely there at all. Heels are high, and many walk and stand like Parisians. Every so often, squads of morality police still descend on the streets to try to enforce compulsory modesty. But the battle is undoubtedly lost. And that is important because it symbolizes the way in which the regime has failed to hold the hearts of the people in so many other ways as well.

A sort of public opinion does exist in Iran. Despite a still fearsome formal repressive apparatus, which swiftly and disgustingly punishes formal open dissent in newspapers or in street demonstrations, private conversation is quite unregulated, deeply irreverent, and totally fearless. Even in poor South Tehran, where the Islamic enthusiasts have more influence, I was told an unprintably rude joke about the Ayatollah Khomeini that suggested the old man was not very clever.

This private dissent has an interesting effect, a sort of passive resistance expressed by a lack of enthusiasm. The authorities have drawn back from the strict application of sharia punishments except in cities where the middle class is weak and the regime’s more fanatical supporters remain strong. In Mashhad, I was assured, public executions had become rare because they were unpopular, and people would not go to watch them unless the condemned man had committed some especially heinous and bloody crime. In private homes and in public places, the men and women to whom I spoke expressed dissenting opinions with amazing, sometimes alarming freedom. I had to ask myself from time to time whether I was in a tyranny at all.

What were those opinions? As in any proper country, they varied. I had dinner with a group of professionals, male and female, the women voluntarily veiled, where almost all said they had voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for president. The women, especially the younger ones, dominated the conversation. Would they vote the same way now? Hardly any would. They had done so, in any case, in the hope of change that they had not gotten. Many now found him embarrassing and disliked his aggressive talk.

In the great square at Esfahan, I talked to a group of teenage girls about to graduate from high school—one strictly veiled, one less so, one whose scarf was subversively far back on her head. They all thought war was coming, all believed that the U.S. was not a truly free country and that Iranians and Muslims were persecuted and mistreated there. These opinions arose from state-sponsored ignorance and were fanned by our own militant hostility. The students were not in themselves hostile to the West—like almost all Iranians, they yearned to live there. They were personally friendly and open to me. But they warned that an attack on Iran would drive them closer to their government. And this was not just their view. I heard the same from many far more liberal-minded and skeptical. Before the Iraq War, many such people were all but wishing for an American invasion to free them from the ayatollahs. But having seen what American liberation has done for Iraq and Afghanistan, they have turned away from any such thoughts.

The Islamic leadership knows this and is glad of the threats and grumbling coming from Washington. Once it was able to use the great national trauma of the war with Iraq to unite the nation around its leadership, much as the Kremlin used the war against Hitler to give itself legitimacy. Now memories of that war are growing weaker among Iran’s incredibly youthful population, and something else is needed to bind the state and the people. The mullahs also wish to close the gap between Shia and Sunni so as to make a united front against the Great Satan. They are using the crudest tactics to achieve this. While ordinary Iranian Shia are coldly welcomed in Sunni lands, Mahmoud Ahamadinejad is the hero of every Muslim cabdriver from Morocco to Malaysia because of his disreputable Holocaust denial. During Friday prayers, I heard a mullah urge reconciliation between Shia and Sunni, claiming that the wicked, slippery English had been trying to split the two branches of the religion for centuries.

Now, while we should be glad that a civil society is being reborn and that Iran’s alliance with the rest of the Muslim world is shaky, we should not be too optimistic or expect that we can return to the days when the shah was the embarrassingly loyal friend of the West. In the end, his devotion to Washington was one of the things that finished him off.

There is more than one Iran, and even the passionately Islamic version should not be dismissed with scorn or distaste, though some of it remains baffling or repellent to us. One of the most articulate and intelligent people I met was a young schoolteacher, the mother of a young child. It was clear that her relationship with her husband was that of an equal. Yet as we discussed propaganda in the classroom, I was greatly struck by her extraordinary, medieval, night-black robes, so intensely somber that they darkened the well-lit room in which we sat and so emphatically, ferociously modest that they represented an unspoken, passionate argument against secular modernity and all its works. Much less persuasive or sympathetic was the bearded, taciturn man in an Esfahan ironmonger’s shop close to that lovely city’s tourist arcades of carpets, beaten copper, and spices. This man’s wares were not so picturesque. Displayed on his shelves were the sharp, gray zanjeer chains employed by Shia zealots to lash themselves bloody during the fierce, miserable festival of Ashura. This marks the great defeat of Shia arms at Kerbala more than 1,300 years ago. Also on display were other, heavier chains with an equally disturbing but secular purpose. These are used as weapons and threats by the Basiji, a sort of pro-government Islamic militia that is deployed to intimidate any public expression of opposition, much as similar “people’s militias” were used by Warsaw Pact states to ensure the Communist Party’s rule went unchallenged.

I was also unpleasantly surprised, during an evening stroll through Mashhad, to encounter a shop entirely devoted to the sale of chadors, the enveloping black shroud favored by the mullahs. Especially disagreeable were the tiny child-sized models ranged in the window. I had just been marveling at the near-European normality of the surrounding district, its busy cinema with its mixed clientele, its wedding shops and bookstores, its bold, regulation-defying young women. And here was this reminder of how this place remains anything but normal in many important ways.

Even less normal is the holy city of Qom, headquarters of the ayatollahs, for many years the home of Khomeini himself. I was urged by some Iranians not to go there. “It is Arabia in the middle of Persia,” warned a bookseller in Esfahan who had just shown me some rather rude but very beautiful prints featuring wine and young women not wearing chadors. Others just said that a sort of darkness seemed to hang over it. And yet, like so much of Iran, it was paradoxical.

I went to Qom by way of the strange shrine of Jamkaran, especially favored by President Ahmadinejad, where the fabled Hidden Imam is widely believed to be most likely to reappear. It is a rather desperate, dusty, and angry place, beloved by the very poor and the very fervent, who slog to it on foot for many miles. But in Iran such things are part of life in a way almost forgotten in the American and European world. The worldly and the otherworldly, the commercial and the spiritual, mingle happily and unselfconsciously. The modern highway that leads from Tehran to Qom is a 21st-century construction in a partly medieval land. It has electronic speed-check cameras every few miles, alternating with official signboards bearing quotations from the Koran. Devout drivers recite them to keep awake on long night journeys. Imagine I-95 overhung with signs proclaiming, “I am the way, the truth and the life” interspersed with advertisements for Howard Johnson’s.

At dusk, the half-built mosque of Jamkaran glows greenish, like a cooling spaceship on the jagged Martian landscape of the region. But beside it sparkles a garish row of shops selling the local sweetmeat, a sugary brittle made of pistachio nuts, without which no pilgrimage is complete. Picture Washington National Cathedral surrounded by stalls selling cotton candy, illuminated in primary colors, and nobody at all surprised or concerned, and you may get some impression of the effect.

The outer suburbs of Qom, likewise, are anything but holy in appearance. Hardware stores, candy outlets, and religious emporia selling the Koran at 40-percent reductions crowd the busy streets. There are parking lots the size of modest counties for pilgrim cars and coaches. Over it all towers the floodlit gold dome of another great Shia shrine, with an entire wall of mirrored glass, shining into the warm, windy night and the green flag of militant Islam floating above. Little by little, the visitor becomes aware of the enormous number of mullahs, all bearded, all in coffee-colored robes and white turbans. There are mullahs climbing off buses with briefcases, mullahs driving cars, mullahs on motorbikes, rigidly clutching the handlebars.

Thus I had no difficulty in finding one of these holy men and having a wholly circular argument with him about the Islamic revolution. So what if the people were not enthusiastic and if the reforming former President Khatami had loosened the regime? These things would strengthen the Islamic Republic in the long run. The idea that Shia clerics should stay out of politics, once orthodox, was mistaken. I had to try, but we were from different worlds, unable to communicate—until he changed the subject and began to question me about the captured British sailors. He was convinced that they were spies—since I am English, he was probably convinced that I was a spy—and could not be put off this fancy by the fact that the sailors had been wearing uniforms. This was a typical English double bluff, in his view. Then a very stern look came into his eye and he asked if, when I returned home, I would behave like them, saying rude things about Iran. When I said that I rather hoped not, he suddenly gave me a great hairy kiss on both cheeks and surged off into the night, grinning to himself.

I do not want to give him, or those like him, any pleasure. Their rule is stupid, oppressive, cruel, lawless, and intolerant. Nor do I want to peddle foolish complacency, like those who invented the tale of the cardboard tanks. But I would like to give pause to all those who imagine that Iran is a place of undifferentiated evil, malice, oppression, and fanaticism, or our natural and rightful enemy. There is hope there. The difficult question is how best we might nurture it.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.