Who Are Those People, really?

We are hearing a lot about the country of Iran these days, and it’s a very political narrative. My generation certainly remembers the overthrow of our embassy in Iran in 1979, and our embassy’s 52 personnel taken hostage for 444 days. Anyone remember watching Ted Koppel every night? We know Iran chants “Death to America” a lot. But I wanted to learn more about this isolated, mysterious country of Iran. Who are these people, and how did they come to be an Islamic Republic? That term alone almost sounds like an oxymoron- Islam and a republic. So I turned to Scott, a best friend and colleague of my daughter and son in law. Scott is from Greensboro, NC and worked with my daughter and son in law in Turkey for several years. Scott is presently finishing a Master degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of London. I asked him what book I should read to help me understand this country. He recommended Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day by Michael Axworthy, who is British expert of Iran. Also Scott recommended I watch “Our Man in Tehran” a 2-part documentary on PBS Frontline. This documentary was filmed over 4 years by Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times Bureau Chief who has lived in Tehran since marrying an Iranian woman 17 years ago. Erdbrink is one of the last foreign journalists in Iran.

So here is what we know: Iran, a country of 81 million people is located between Iraq and Turkey on the west and Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan on the north and east. It has the Caspian Sea to the north, and the Persian Gulf/Sea of Oman to the south. It is a beautiful country of seashores, mountains, deserts and arable land. Its crops include varieties of cereals, veggies and fruits, including figs and pomegranates. Iran produces the world’s largest amounts of pistachios, saffron and raisins. The people are not Arabs, but Persians, a people group who speak Persian, not Arabic. Iran is one of world’s oldest civilizations going back to 4 millennium BCE. The West had always called it Persia because the ancient Greeks called it Persia. In 1935, the then-Shah asked the international community to refer to the country as Iran (pronounced e-ron with a long e vowel sound). The largest indigenous religion was Zoroaster, an unusual religion going back to the second millennium BCE. It is a monotheistic religion influenced by Christianity, Judaism, Gnosticism and Islam. Iran became Muslim due to the many times it was conquered by Muslim warlords over the centuries. In 633, Iran was conquered by a Sunni warlord. In the 1400s, the country formally became Shia/Shiite because of the Safavids who took over Iran. This was a turning point in the national identity of Iran. Interesting enough, since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Zoroastrianism is having a bit of a revival as a pushback against radical Islamism.

Iran is a country of very educated citizens. They love music and poetry. Both Axworthy and Erdbrink talk about this love of culture, and both mention the poet Hafez who has been dead for centuries, but Iranians love to visit his grave, and all ages can quote his poetry. How many Americans can quote from our famous poets, like Dickinson, Whitman or Frost? The West is more familiar with the Persian poet Rumi who was born in 1207 and who had a spiritual awakening when he began to study under the Sufi master Shams of Tabriz. His poetry took on a mystic quality as he called himself the Beloved of God. Beautiful poetry- if you’ve never read any of it, please do.

Erdbrink’s documentary reveals the arbitrariness of the Iranian “morality codes”- meaning head scarves have to cover not only a woman’s hair but her neck as well. No wrist or ankles may show in public- meaning socks and shoes at all times and sleeves to the wrist bones. The Morality Police (yes, their name) are responsible for maintaining societal control by policing the streets looking for offenders. Risk-taking and fear go hand in hand in Tehran. In smaller towns and more rural communities, the chador is required. A chador looks like the full flowing burka except you can see the woman’s face. The chadors are predominately black in Iran. Women can drive and work outside the home, and they do not have to be accompanied by a male relative in public like in Saudi Arabia. (Last month, Saudi eased the restriction on women driving).

Axworthy writes of the long and often tumultuous relationship Iran has had with Russia over the centuries. The Persian Empire over the centuries often butted up to territories that Imperial Russia wanted under the various tzars. Russia has always needed and will always need warm water ports for commerce. Iran and Russia officially began diplomatic relations in 1521. They are sometimes allies and sometimes enemies. As my Dad would say, they are definitely “bedfellows.” With US sanctions against Iran, the country does a lot of trade with Russia. Because of the tense relations Iran has with the US and the West, there is not a lot of growth in the private sector. According to Erdbrink, there is little private investment and no foreign investment. Hence many educated Iranians are underemployed and frustrated.

Politically, Iran is a “Theocratic-republican totalitarian unitary presidential republic subject to a Supreme Leader” (Wikipedia). This appears to be the problem. Citizens, including women can vote for their leaders who have been approved by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his fellow hardliners. Rouhani was elected president several years ago as a moderate. People really felt he would establish more freedoms for the citizens, except he really can’t. He is locked in by the Ayatollah who has totalitarian control in the name of Islam. Rouhani was able to increase the speed of the internet for the country ten fold which has made Instagram the most popular form of social media. The President himself has 1.9 million followers, and the Ayatollah has 1.6 million followers. A tremendous amount of western influence comes into the country via the internet which does not make the hardliners happy. Rouhani has also enabled coffee shops to open and flourish in the cities where the young crowds can listen to western music, freely mix together, and the women brazenly wear their head scarves on the very back of their heads showing a lot of hair and neck. Unfortunately this is not enough freedom for many Iranians. However, when the citizens take to the streets in protests, the hardliners use the chaos and unrest to only tighten their control.

Even though Americans often see images of Iranians in the streets burning our flag and chanting “Death to America”, Erdbrink says these haters are in the minority. Most citizens want to come to America to visit or live. They want our freedom of expression and speech. One of the journalists Erdbrink interviews says the hate of America is built into the political narrative. Iran has to have a scapegoat to blame for its troubles. Iran’s isolation from the rest of the world helps the hardliners blame the West. Problem is the internet tells a different story to the citizens.

Scott has graciously agreed to let me interview him in September after he turns in his dissertation which is on the Islamic Republic of Iran. He will be able to give us information which as citizens we need. I look forward to that interview.

#michaelaxworthy #iran #ourmanintehran #thomaserdbrink #pbsfrontline


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