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A New Day in Iran?

The regime may inflame Washington, but young Iranians say they admire, of all places, America

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In the 1960s, the Shah began an aggressive, U.S.-backed modernization effort, from antimalaria programs to creating the SAVAK, the country’s feared internal security service. As Britain pulled out of the region in the 1960s, Iran became the guardian of the Persian Gulf. Iran-U.S. relations were never better. Yet while Iran’s economy boomed, democracy withered. The Shah stifled all political opposition, dismissing or repressing opponents as enemies of the state. The 1979 revolution, led by religious fundamentalists, took him by surprise. Today, Iranians look back on the Shah’s era with a mingling of nostalgia, regret and anger. “He certainly ran the economy better than these mullahs,” one Tehran resident told me. “But he was too arrogant and too unwilling to share political power.”

Mossadegh, in contrast, was more of a democrat at heart. Even though his reforms were modest, he is respected today for his nationalism and tough stance against foreign interlopers. Today, his admirers regularly make the trek (some call it a pilgrimage) to his tomb. I went there early one Friday morning with Ali Mossadegh, the prime minister’s great-grandson. As we toured the worn, creaking house, I asked Ali, who is in his late 20s, what he considered his great-grandfather’s legacy. “He showed Iranians that they, too, deserve independence and democracy and prosperity,” he said. He then led me to an adjoining annex where Mossadegh’s tombstone rests amid a mound of Persian carpets. The walls were covered with photographs of the prime minister: making fiery speeches in Parliament; defending himself in a military court after the coup; gardening in Ahmad Abad. Ali pointed to an inscription taken from one of Mossadegh’s speeches: “If, in our home, we will not have freedom and foreigners will dominate us, then down with this existence.”

The high wall surrounding the former U.S. Embassy, which occupies two Tehran blocks, bears numerous slogans. “On that day when the U.S. of A will praise us, we should mourn.” “Down with USA.” The seizing of the hostages here in 1979 was only the beginning of a crisis that shook American politics to its core.

After a six-month standoff, President Jimmy Carter authorized a rescue mission that ended disastrously after a helicopter collided with a transport plane in the Dasht-e-Kavir desert in north-central Iran, killing eight Americans. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who had opposed the operation, resigned. Carter, shaken by the failure, was defeated in the 1980 election by Ronald Reagan. The hostages were freed on the day of Reagan’s inauguration. Still, Iran was regarded by the United States and others as an outlaw state.

Adjacent to the compound, a bookstore sells religious literature, anti-American screeds and bound copies of American diplomatic files painstakingly rebuilt from shredded documents. The place is usually empty of customers. When I bought a series of books entitled Documents from the U.S. Espionage Den, the chador-clad woman behind the desk looked surprised. The books were covered with a thin film of dust, which she wiped away with a wet napkin.

Mohsen Mirdamadi, who was a student in Tehran in the 1970s, was one of the hostage-takers. “When I entered university in 1973, there was a lot of political tension,” he told me. “Most students, like me, were anti-Shah and, as a result, we were anti-American, because the U.S. was supporting the Shah’s dictatorship.” I asked him if he regretted his actions. “Clearly, our actions might have hurt us economically because it led to a disruption of relations, but I don’t regret it,” he said. “I think it was necessary for that time. After all, America had overthrown one Iranian government. Why wouldn’t they try again?”

Bruce Laingen, who was the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy when he was taken as a hostage, said he had no orders to work to destabilize the new government, contrary to what the revolutionaries alleged. “Quite the contrary,” the now-retired diplomat told me. “My mandate was to make clear that we had accepted the revolution and were ready to move on.” One hostage-taker, he remembers, told him angrily: “You complain about being a hostage, but your government took an entire country hostage in 1953.”

The passage of time has cooled Mirdamadi’s zeal, and today he is an informal adviser to Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, who inspired Iranians in 1997 with his calls for greater openness. Elected by landslides in both 1997 and 2001 despite clerics’ efforts to influence the outcome, Khatami has lost much of his popularity as religious conservatives have blocked his reforms. In any event, Khatami’s power is limited. Real authority is wielded by a group of six clerics and six Islamic jurists called the Guardian Council, which oversaw the selection of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the country’s supreme spiritual leader in 1989. The council has the power to block the passage of laws as well as prevent candidates from running for the presidency or the Parliament. Mirdamadi, like Khatami, says Iran deserves a government that combines democratic and Islamic principles. “We need real democracy,” he told me, “not authoritarian dictates from above.” He advocates the resumption of dialogue with the United States, though specifics are unclear. His reformist views won him a parliamentary seat five years ago, but in the 2004 elections he was among the 2,500 candidates the Guardian Council barred.

A presidential election is scheduled for June, and social critics in Iran as well as international analysts say a free and fair contest is unlikely. With many Iranians expected to stay away from the polls in protest, a conservative victory is almost guaranteed. But what flavor of conservative? A religious hard-liner close to current supreme leader Khamenei? Or someone advocating a “China-style” approach, with limited cultural, social and economic liberalization coupled with continued political repression? No matter what, neither is likely to share power with secular democrats or even Islamist reformers like Mirdamadi. And the clerics’ grasp on power is firm: Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department have all sharply criticized Iranian officials for their use of torture and arbitrary imprisonment.

There’s ample evidence that many ordinary Iranians are fed up with the involvement of Muslim clerics in government. “During the Constitutional Revolution, we talked about the separation of religion and state, without really knowing what that means,” historian Kaveh Bayat told me in his book-filled Tehran study. “Our understanding today is much deeper. Now we know that it is neither in our interests nor the clergy’s interest to rule the state.” Or, as a physician in Tehran put it to me: “The mullahs, by failing, did what Ataturk could not even do in Turkey: secularize the populace thoroughly. Nobody wants to experiment with religion and politics anymore.”

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