Saturday, May 21, 2005

An exchange

For your reading pleasure, a thoughtful and well written article on Iran: Axis of Culture, History, and Geopolitics. Had an exchange with the author a while back which I am posting here today in two installments. In particular, note her systematic approach and her acutely probing style-- qualities which make her such effective and interesting interlocutor.

I've deleted some parts and considerably expanded certain others. There is more personal info here than usual. But it might help put my political positions in perspective.

Were you born in Iran? If so, what part of Iran are you from?

Yes. I was born in the capital city Tehran. But have lived in a number of different regions and have traveled (relatively) extensively.

Did you grow up in Iran? If so, what was your educational experience like?

Yes I did mostly. Education in Iran is (was) quite rigorous although it emphasizes route memorization, quick thinking (I really mean knee jerk) and impulsive responses, regurgitations, test taking, and-- with the sort of class dynamics that involves anticipating what is expected of you when put on the spot. A form of ritualized game plays, really. Of course, obsessions with grades and rankings was/is paramount as always.

The education system doesn't encourage independent thinking or much thinking generally. No serious engagements with primary texts aside from poetry. And emphasis remains as always on synopsis, grandiose conceptualizations and/or repetitive problem solving drills e.g. in mathematics/ geometry /set theory and other more exact sciences. And requires absorbing inordinately voluminous information about everything.

The pedagogical relations especially in universities these days given the explosion of the student body seems to have become highly adversarial with students mostly annoyed about not being heard and concerned with overtly arbitrary treatments along with the perception of being humiliated constantly and belittled; with some instructors concerned about lack of discipline and excessive number of entitled hustlers in the ranks whose learning might have breath at best without depth..

The fundamental problem of course remains the emphasis on systematization and having all the answers instead of encouraging students to learn to ask the right questions satisfied at some stage with partial answers but with follow-ups possible because of a cultivated sense of curiosity about the unknown and/or because of the desire to figure out riddles on one's own—just for the heck of it. And a fear of experimentations still a constant problem..

What did your family do for a living? (eg. professionals, farmers, merchants, etc.).

My mom was a homemaker and dad an army officer.

What memories do you or your family have about the Shah's rule? Were these memories generally positive, negative or something else? Please explain.

Memoirs, as you well know, can be tricky. My happiest memories are those that have to do with growing up. An enchanting childhood with a loving family and endless play in wide open spaces, with the aroma of sage and jasmine filling the air and bright star filled sky and moon lit nights and laughter. Lots and lots of laughter with an affectionate mother actively supervising rigorous home schooling and dad putting me to sleep (most of the nights) telling tales from our ancient Book of Kings. Thus, by association, happy memories of the era of monarchy as well.

Since the family was fiercely anti communist /pro-U.S./Israel, all of us were quite happy with the Shah. As a young teen of course-- with the start of the revolution--I split from the family ranks. Something quite normal during revolutionary upheavals which also affected a lot of other families.

So, my father and I had many bitter exchanges and continued our arguments until his death. But the same memories, given my father's profession, include also living in villages without electricity or clean water. Snakes and tarantulas meandering on the wooden poles of our ceiling at night and scorpions on the ground. Parasites that had grown to be huge worms in my intestines and scaring the living daylight out of me as a child when they came out of my rectum and struggling to walk in the sort of mud that practically covered half my body because of the unpaved roads and always being surrounded by poor, dirty kids all around and their parents who looked abused/abusive. Encounters with many bitterly unhappy, poverty stricken families in need etc.

So, yes, both positive, negative and literally something else.

What are your memories and views concerning Ayatollah Khomeini and his revolution in 1979?

I was enthusiastic about the revolution though didn't much care for the Islamists from day one. I never thought of it as his revolution. I have never been religious. I think my family might also have had something to do with my trying to walk a fine line between supporting the revolution and not supporting its particular manifestation by way of the growing predominance of the Islamic groups.

My father was in danger and his friends were being purged, incarcerated or executed right and left and those were the authority figures I'd grown up with and loved. So very concerned, and conflicted with a sense of enthused excitement. And of course, youthful aspirations and dreams of helping build paradise on earth.

What forces do you think led to the 1979 revolution? Do you think the effects of the revolution have been positive, negative or mixed? Please explain

This is such a huge question. Economic factors were one. There was a land reform in the 60's that left many peasants landless and sent them scrambling to make a living in the cities. No structure in place to absorb them. Rapid changes evident also all over the country because of the rise in the price of oil and the influx of money into the country.

Expectations of better life amongst workers denied decent wages and minorities fed up with being abused, and certainly the emergence of a more cosmopolitan student body affected by the global pandemonium of the 60's and 70's who demanded their rights along with the influence of those two main guerilla organizations-- the Maoist Fadayeen and the Islamist Mujahedeen and their mystique. Not to be overlooked of course the obvious impact of the clergy and the mosques and the long history of Iranian nationalism and the yearning for full sovereignty and loathing for foreign meddling/domination..

Inequities and inequality were pronounced in our society with privileged few having access to most of the wealth and the resources along with rampant corruption and out of control authoritarians in power who pushed everyone around as they pleased.

Too bloody I think has been the march of this revolution in its aftermaths. As uprisings go, the overthrow of the monarchy was modestly painless. But what happened afterwards has been a monumental disaster. In a way, I still think it has the potential of having been positive despite all the suffering. I think conservative religiosity might be banished for a long time to come with the demise of this regime—whenever that is. And that's a relief. There has been much expanded infrastructure and native abilities. And Republicanism might become a lasting tradition.

But I might be wrong here and too optimistic. Because from where I am sitting, what is evident is that all sorts of different forms of "mystical" thinking have been gaining ground lately. I have a hunch in a few years even evangelical Christianity might also make huge headways in Iran if you can believe that. We'll see. So who knows, we might even be forced back to square one again. More authoritarianism, princes and princesses and courtly ostentations and their fools and legally sanctioned whorehouses without taxation, medical benefits or representation plus various religious sects vying for the attention of unhappy souls.

The major puzzle for me of course is the following: what set of rules will we have in place to allow the emergence of an orderly society? Years of authoritarianism has ensured that people have no respect for any laws or regulations and now with all the traditional religious prohibitions practically decimated, it has become a free for all in all appalling sorts of ways. How will it all come together? What can be done? Your guess is as good as mine.

What led to the heightened push for democratic reform in the late 1990's?

End of the war, I think, took the lid off all kinds of desires and those pent up frustrations and expectations. And a new generation which thought it had sacrificed enough for the longest of time and so it deserved a more responsive government for a change. And also envy of social freedoms like those enjoyed in the west. Also, seeing how a lot of people had become well off to enjoy authority and prestige in the aftermath of a revolution which demanded so many sacrifices from all citizens while promising such earthly rewards effectively contributed to people's voracious appetite for what they lacked.

What is the general background of the students in the student movement--are they typically from elite families or are many of them first-generation university students from more humble means?

This is an excellent question for which I don't have an answer. But something certainly worth looking into very closely. The conventional wisdom has it that under the Shah 1000 families ruled here. There are some prominent families still left from the older times. But there has been a population explosion with a new ruling elite having emerged in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution.

And even though power and wealth might appear solidified, the diffusion in breath and depth is unprecedented in the history of modern Iran, I think. And most of them have had humble beginnings that stretch back only to 25 years ago chiefly due to their positions and the endless wheeling and dealings in the post revolutionary Iran. So, I don't know if their kids should be considered humble or simply not so humble elites!

Remember, there are two major types of universities here. One is nationalized, first tiered. And the other called "Free Islamic University", which is actually private and requires high tuition. Those who pass the competitive entrance exams ranked in the higher percentiles can get an education for free and I don't know who they are and where they come from. The composition appears quite mix to me.

But all the indications are that those who are better off are often the loudest and also (unfortunately) most quickly intimidated. Like all other countries, the ones not terribly wealthy are more self-reliant, with a natural kind of intelligence and street smarts which translates into more of a stomach for violence. If this group gets more belligerent and involved, they won't be that easily forced to retreat or beaten back. A big enough if though.

And we should never lose sight of the negative affects of the Iranian overprotective family dynamics on the kids. Parental influences play a major role in tempering revolutionary conduct, I think. Something that most observers of Iranian scene don't pay enough attention to probably because of their perception of what happened in Iran during the War—an anomaly I think.

As if parents were really happy to sacrifice their children. Iranian mothers faint quite often with each of their kid's stubbed toes. And fathers lose their bearings in life. You should see the numbers who still sob uncontrollably next to the quite crowded multiple tombs of the unknown soldier all over the place here even after so many years. And the main cemetery is crowded most of the time.

Who'd want to cause so much heart ache for parents?

Drug addiction is also high and really problematic. Can't fight brutal black-shirts stoned you know!

Do you know anyone personally who is/was active in the student movement

Everyone comes to know, at some point, everyone else around here which, incidentally, is one of the reasons our regime has been so effective in preempting organized dissent.

Snitching has become a favorite part time profession of choice for many here.

There seems to be some disillusionment among the population with the limited success of the reform movement. I have read from different sources, including on your blog (2/5/05), that Iranian youth seem alienated and cynical and have withdrawn from a sense of community. Please discuss how much this is a problem and what, in your opinion, could be done to change it for the better.

I have a hard time thinking a viable answer. Ours is still a highly socialized and meddlesome culture. This means people are in very extensive interrelated networks even when they don't want to be. Then patriarchy, hierarchy and all the other negative factors work their magic, and that means at any given time most kids are being pushed around by the older kids, their parents, their teachers , their peers and of course the authorities, the Bully-in-Chief.

At some point you just have to play expected roles just well enough to get by although what you are actually doing is tuning others out to remain sane. And this is what I think is happening everyday here. People are so much in your face that one just ends up shutting the eyes and the ears to have some peace of mind. Even with this Islamic regime in power, if people just backed off a bit respecting each other's private spaces, I think that would go a long way in taking away some of the pressures.

I think what we need here is time and space to map out our own priorities. So my only solution for now is freedom, freedom and more freedom and tolerance and space. Freedom from the arbitrary impositions of various modalities of formal and informal authority structures to begin with. Some peace of mind until people learn to listen to and discover a measure of their inner voices and requirements. It will get nasty and might be a disaster, but I can think of nothing else.

For a while, I think post Islamic Iran might look like one of those spring breaks in Cancun MTV covers plus some idiotic zealots dumping acid on naked bodies. I sincerely hope I am wrong though.

What I am trying to say is that no one will get any further mileage out of pushing Britney Spears/Animal House model on Iran. The paradigm is now effectively contributing to the perpetuation of the authority of the Islamists here since everything is being done in private and those in power are quite happy to let kids do drugs and dance and copulate as they wish just so long as they never lose sight of the fear factor and the fact that the authorities can and will strike at will.

A paradigm shift is in order.

Do most Iranians seem to be moving toward wanting a secular government or are they still trying to find better ways to reconcile an Islamic state with democracy? If the latter, what are some of the more popular ideas of how to achieve a better balance?

A large percentage has had it with this regime and all its various possible mutations. A small, but sizable minority has not. Even assuming a 70/30 ratio always thrown around in the media, we will still have considerable millions-- rather devout family of believers of all different ages who'd want to see some strict Islamic interface with the government. Some are striving for a balance. Others just want out of the whole construct.

I have been looking at some of the more rightwing models. I think in a way they mimic some features of the American Right. But it has been slow work and so I won't be able to give you any quick answers just yet.

A measure of our progress towards a saner society, I have come to believe, is the actual number of Iranians who don't start their utterances by emphatically saying "Iranians want…." There is no such thing as a unified Iranian voice. We are a highly divided, fragmented country and at some point our political discourse has to allow for that.


Upon closer examination, the recent reformist movement in Iran seems more complex than it is portrayed here in the mainstream U.S. media. For example, there are more moderate clerical members who are calling for reform as well as secular democrats. I have read that those who advocate for political liberalism are often opposed to economic "liberalization" (i.e. free trade policies, opening up Iranian assets to foreign ownership, mass privatization, etc.). Is this true from your observation?

Yes. And quite problematic. Look, Iranians are really a complex bunch with rather confused/confusing set of expectations and some weird sense of entitlement. We really think we are a very rich country because we have oil and so we start out with terribly grand expectations.

Look at it as a paradox of self definition. Iranians think themselves highly intelligent and cunning.(probably true) Yet, I often wonder how it is we have managed to successfully delude ourselves into thinking we have the same sense of communal sense of responsibility evident amongst the Israelis, and the discipline of the Japanese, the planning acumen of the Germans and the executive management skills of the Americans and as a result we always set ourselves up for disappointments in that we just can't subsequently understand why Iran is still the rotten place it has always been.

In a way, I think, the ideal image most Iranians have of their society is the Swedish model, except no one likes to pay any taxes. We'd like to have government subsidies for everything we do, but have no tolerance for expectations in return. No sense of reciprocity really. Everyone is business minded and expects a share of the oil money directly accessible for all the needs without any limitations imposed. And not much long term patience and frankly, not the most systematic people you'd encounter although very formalist in our approach to thinking.

My gut feeling here is that Iranians will not be happy with any regime whatsoever. But we will begrudgingly accept a govt. that has policies which subsidize our various activities while demanding little in return. In the long run, I think it best to confront the attitude instead of fanning expectations because no one will be able to rule this particular bunch democratically any time soon with that attitude and given the country's limited resources in absence of some more advanced modes of cooperation.

Reading about 19th/20th century political history of Iran, it seems that the majority of the Iranian population did not benefit from or were even exploited under these foreign investment/free trade policies imposed by the British. Do you think that most Iranians think these policies are unwise and not in their best interest based on their historical experience with foreign control and socioeconomic stratification?

I don't think too many of us these days reflect much on the wisdom of any policies. We've come to think life as jungle with the strongest doing whatever they can get away with. And so yes, we start with an innate antipathy towards foreign control. But since our notion of the universe is one controlled by out of control thieves, the consensus is, any thief who shares more crumbs is going to be tolerated more easily although always begrudgingly.

Middle East journalist Sandra Mackey has suggested that Iran, as well as others in the Muslim world, are having a crisis in terms of maintaining their identity and sense of stability in a world that is experiencing rapid changes via technological advances in communications/travel, along with a more Westernized/corporate capitalist culture being thrust upon them. Do you think there is truth to this? How do you think globalization is affecting Iran both culturally and economically?

Look this again is tricky. In explains nothing. What is identity really? In so far as we are all men and women caught up in a rapidly changing world, we all struggle to maintain a sense of self no matter where we are. But you are not dealing with the Soviet Union here. Iran and perhaps the entire Islamic world have always been capitalistic, and entrepreneurial in orientation. It is one giant bazaar, when you think about it. And we are much less disciplined here curtsey of the authoritarian rulers who want to regulate all breathing spaces.

Hence, when you think about it, if and when we succeed in getting the head Imam to leave the government and return to the mosque, given the new sense of self confidence that will have resulted, why would anyone want to tolerate the Imam attitude in a CEO?

And culturally, Iranians have always been quick to jump on any foreign coattail. There is a famous, beautiful and oft quoted description of Persians in Herodotus--something about a nation that thinks itself superior to all other nations while she is most ready to borrow from others. And that hasn't changed much as best I can figure.

Even in the heydays of the Islamic regime's cultural isolationism and brutality, Iranians didn't easily relinquish their "western" ways. Iran has always been highly cosmopolitan formally, with people open to outside influences. Most often without even reflecting upon the consequences as we are a fashion minded lot. Thus love/hate dialectic has always been the side effect. As best I can figure, it is not going to change much in the foreseeable future.

What is the current situation like for women? Is it overall getting better or worse?

I think woman have come a long way precisely because of this Islamic regime and not in the way you might think in terms of where the credit might be due. Think of it as a classic case of unintended consequences.

Quite a large number of more traditionalist families who would have fought allowing "their" woman access to education, sports, social participation, etc. decided it was fine with them to give women more leeway since the society was now Islamic. And obviously since Islam was deemed superior to all the other organizing principles for societies, folk wanted to prove Islam can facilitate achievements for women. This allowed large segments of woman more breathing room.

The less traditionalist segment, precisely because of seeing their own hang-ups and fears about/of more independent women codified in restrictive Islamic laws and acted upon by those in a Government they consider backward, strived to appear more "open minded," and so they too tired to be "liberal" when it came to woman.

But more importantly, women have been in no mood to play nice given all they do here while being pushed around all the time. And Iranian woman are generally strong, ambitious and not easily prevailed upon. In many ways, I really think, Iran is a matriarchal culture. And precisely because of the strong presence of women and their formidable interventions, patriarchy manifests itself so grotesquely.

Men are really dependent on woman in a lot of different ways and so fear works out in the form of aggression. But just watch what is going to happen here twenty, thirty years down the road if my hunch is right. This country will be managed by woman in all sorts of unexpected ways. I have a couple of entries on woman you might want to check out in my blog for more thoughts on the subject. But many problems remain, both legal and personal. Prostitution is rampant. Abuse and addiction and high divorce rate and unemployment , and of course the obvious, all the legal discriminations as well as both formal and informal social limitations.

Discuss Iran's geographical location in relation to its current & historical political realities. It seems that geography has made Iran vulnerable to invaders and outside powers using it as a base to compete for domination. At the same time, it has also contributed to Iran's cultural richness & sophistication

Yes, the last aggressive foreign war initiated by Iran was eons ago. And we have had chunks of this country absorbed by aggressive neighboring powers large and small over the years. But that has also meant a diverse country that has been in the crossroad of a multiplicity of influences from different civilizations. The more "sophisticated" my understanding of other cultures becomes, the more amazed I become at how much of their echoes I detect in our own culture and vise versa. Something that cannot be explained away by parallel development or independent recognition of "universals". You would be amazed at the degree of Greek, Indian, Jewish, Chinese (among others) influences you encounter in Iran. Just look at some Persian miniatures as a simple exhibit of intercultural influences. Their faces and the Chinese motif of the clouds for instance….

Considering that the U.S. has a history of hostility toward Iran and is now militarily occupying Afghanistan to the east and Iraq to the west, as well as having a military presence in the northern Caspian area, do you think Iranian leaders see it as a logical step to obtain a nuclear weapons program as the only viable means of protection?

Yes, and I am not persuaded by all the denials and prevarications to be frank, although I have no solid proof for my statement. If you have been reading my blog, you have noticed how much I complain about the evident deterioration of Iranian character. We were never this angry before or this violent or self absorbed as far as I can remember. If you look at both the revolution and the initial stages of the war with Iraq you will see how things just escalated gradually. A part had to do with post revolutionary confusion. A bigger part was gentility. Iranians of old weren't as mean-spirited and fierce then. Not this time though. Iranians appear to me to genuinely enjoy inflicting pain these days if someone robs them the wrong way. And this is what worries me a great deal about any potential conflict.

This generation in power really likes all the money and the prestige and the privileges. They think they won it fair and square in the face of global opposition and they have sacrificed much and quite enough already. And they are acutely aware of their waning influence in the society. As far as they are concerned, they won a revolution and overcame adversaries in a civil war and then fought Saddam for eight years when the fellow was supported by practically all the major Western powers and they lost large numbers of their friends and relatives.

They are not going to play nice and they are not going to play defense exclusively. . And they are not going to gradually escalate especially as they saw what happened to Taliban and Saddam. And they have nowhere else to run to. And this time around, no one is going to innocently walk on land mines to defend god, Islam and the country either. They are going to fight for power, and prestige and money and if they have to die, they will want to make sure they take as many of their enemies with them as possible.

They are going to fight dirty and all over the place. They have tasted what money and power can get them in real life. So they will want to have as many deterrents as possible to maintain their hold on power and if there is a conflict, it would be dirty and nasty with them initially lashing out ferociously at their own weak center, i.e. the internal opposition-- "the enemy fifth column."

I have read that most of the Iranian population across the political spectrum is supportive of a nuclear deterrent based on a strong sense of nationalism. In your observation, is this true?

Yes and no. There is a strong sense of what Strauss calls "permissive egalitarianism" in operation in Iran. People don't think in terms of differences. If someone has something, we don't like being denied. I don’t know if we can call this also an innate sense of fairness, but it certainly qualifies as what some have called "indignation envy." Whatever you call it, people don't like being surrounded by nuclear bombs. But whether a large percentage just wants to have the Bomb out of some sense of nationalism, I am not sure I can vouch for that.

Some journalists who have recently covered Iran have illuminated the ambivalent feelings that Iranians tend to have toward the west in general and the U.S. in particular. What are your thoughts on this?

Look, the Iranian encounters with the West in modern times have been problematic. The West's conduct in Iran has been less than exemplary. Assorted intrigues and conspiracies and wars and coups. And you can't reconstruct those memories away. So the West has become an entity to look up to while also to be fearful of.

But the enemy of an enemy is a friend, and since a lot of people loath this regime so emphatically, most are willing to forgive and forget …well, until the next round that is.

Iranians are really a fickle bunch and so we are either passive aggressive or unabashedly belligerent. This "soft" feeling for the West can evaporate in an instant given any set of distasteful policies.

Do you think that Iranians in general would be open to reconciliation with the U.S. if it were sincere and equitable on the part of the U.S.?

Yes of course. A lot of people just want normalcy. A lot of people want hassle-less visas to go visit relatives and the possibilities of lucrative business interaction once the sanctions are lifted remain attractive enough and a lot of people might even be dreaming of emigrating. And the idea of being on the good side of the US and all it evokes here has certain charm. Iranians are much like Americans. That innate lawlessness and that sense of limitless freedom and license resonate with Iranians. So yes, even if it is not terribly equitable, my best hunch is a lot of people look forward to reconciliation.

And precisely because Iranians are so like Americans, quite a large number loath the idea of being dictated to. Remember how Americans regard one their own who even so much as receives election contributions from an outside power and so people still remember all the unabashed meddling here. And recall how some New Yorkers responded to the Saudi fellow who contributed money while talking about American policy in the aftermath of 911. So just imagine how those who have been tending to the victims of Saddam's chemical warfare feel knowing full well who was partially responsible for the mayhem.

You don't have to agree with the emotional reactions one way or another. Just have to recognize the intensity of the emotions involved when it comes to the matter of reconciliation.

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