The New Yorker
Sept 5 1988
By Robin Wright
FOR many Teheranis, particularly the middle and lower classes, Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, often begins with a visit to Behesht-e Zebra, or Paradise of Zahra, a cemetery named after one of the Prophet's daughters. Since the war with Iraq began, in 1980, Behesht-e Zahra has also been a good place to judge public morale. On the southern outskirts of Teheran, along the road to the theological center of Qom, it stretches for miles and miles. A man whose father-in-law was buried in its soft yellow clay shortly after the cemetery opened, in the mid-nineteen-seventies, recalls musing at the time, "They'll never be able to fill this." Indeed, he says, he then thought Teheran might never need another cemetery.
The Ministry of Islamic Guidance, which oversees foreign journalists, has for the past two years actively discouraged visits to the cemetery. I was told that, because emotions tended to run high at funerals, the presence of a foreigner, and especially an American, might lead to an incident. A more cynical Iranian suggested that the cemetery's tiered fountain, famous for spewing red water that looks dreadfully, and intentionally, like blood, might be broken, and it was because the government could not get the spare parts to fix it that journalists were no longer welcome. (I later heard that the fountain did still work but, to save water, was turned on only for important occasions.) A third Iranian probably had it right: the government, he believed, did not want attention drawn to the huge numbers of war dead.
Early one Friday morning in June —before Iran announced its accep¬tance of United Nations Resolution 598, providing for a ceasefire—I went to Behesht-e Zahra with a friend and his mother. My friend's father, who had died of natural causes, and brother, an Army lieutenant who had died in the war, were both buried in Zahra's Paradise. En route, we stopped at a florist's shop, which was among the few places open on the Islamic weekend. Despite the economic hardships created by a combination of war costs, trade bans, and sagging oil prices, many Iranians still indulged their passion for flowers. Arrangements of pink roses mixed with daisies in wicker baskets and bunches of red roses accented with single lilies were lined up neatly along the shelves, ready as gifts to commemorate a birth or an anniversary as well as a death, or to take to parties. My friend selected two dozen gladioli, half red and half white. The stems of each bouquet were wrapped in tinfoil and tied with a black bow.
On the busy highway to Behesht-e Zahra, we passed two funeral corteges. The first was led by a green hatchback. Two men sitting in the open rear were running a large tape recorder, from which a man's chanting of Koranic verses was amplified on two loudspeakers strapped to the car roof. On the hood of the car, a garland of flowers surrounded a picture of the deceased, a young man who had died at the front. A beige ambulance van carrying the body was next; its back doors were open, and I could see young men—probably family members or fellow¬soldiers—crowded on both sides of the body. Buses packed with relatives and friends followed. On the rear of one bus was another enlarged picture of the victim; a banner on one side read "Congratulations on Your Martyrdom." Traffic was so congested at the en¬trance to Behesht-e Zahra that a policeman was frantically whistling directions to converging funeral con¬voys. "Fridays are always like this," my friend said.
The dry terrain and poor mud-brick houses in the suburbs near the ceme¬tery made the entrance seem, indeed, a paradise. Gardeners were working on bright-pink rosebushes along a median dividing a six-lane boulevard; streams of water on both sides of a reflecting pool leaped from the ground to form arches. We made another stop, at the cemetery's florist—it was 10 A.M., and already he was almost sold out—to buy rose water, sold in clear Coca-Cola-shaped bottles. Most of the cemetery was austere, block after block of granite or marble slabs stretching the length of each grave. Visits, however, were clearly not perfunctory stops simply to pay respects. In each lot we passed, small groups were sitting near the graves or on the sidewalk, women on blankets sipping coffee from thermoses or peeling fruit, and men under trees talking or, in two cases, stretched out on grass mats napping. Several groups had brought radios and were listening to music or Friday-prayer services. Iranians treated these areas like a park, and the atmosphere was tranquil and almost pleasant.
Teheran's war dead were buried in a different section of the cemetery. Their graves, like the deaths they represented, were more visible. At the head of each grave was a glass-fronted box perched on a stand perhaps five feet high. Behind each glass were personal or religious mementos, a picture, often a small vase with plastic flowers, occasionally even a toy, and usually a Koranic verse written out and attached to the back. Most of the boxes were draped with curtains or thick plastic to prevent their contents from being bleached by the sun; most also had flags —either the green-white-and-red national standard or multicolored banners declaring commitment to the war or to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—flying from poles atop the frames. The gravestones, which were tightly packed, were also different. On each was chiselled an open book, one page bearing the date of birth, the other page the date of death, adorned by a dove—the symbol of martyrdom, indicating that the victim had ascended to paradise, as those who died in the war had been promised. "This section for the martyrs is now four kilometres long and four hundred metres wide, just for Teheran," my friend said.
Carrying one of the large bouquets of gladioli, a half-dozen bottles of rose water, and a bucket filled with regular water (there was a faucet on the edge of each block), my friend, his mother, and I walked over the gravestones to the appropriate marker. My friend's mother and I were both wearing a hejab, or head scarf, and a roupoosh, the dark housecoat that has become the fashionable alternative to the all-enveloping black chador. Before getting out of the car, my friend's mother had put on a chador as well. All women visiting the cemetery were supposed to be fully covered, a tradition that dated back long before the 1979 revolution but had not been enforced as strictly as it was now.
At the grave, my friend's mother wept as her son cleaned the dust from the marker, first pouring water from the bucket, then sprinkling the rose water liberally on the stone in preparation for the flowers. I laid the bouquet down, and was stunned to see my friend break the long stems of the flowers and pull off some petals. "You have to do this now," he explained. "If you don't, people will come and take them."
"To resell them?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Times are hard." Dried, broken-stemmed flowers on adjacent stones indicated that this was indeed common practice. In the final act of the rite of mourning, my friend's mother bent over and began tapping one forefinger on the edge of the grave¬stone. Weeping harder, she tapped and prayed for her dead son and then, tapping some more, talked to him. When she had finished, my' friend followed suit.
Every family with whom I talked in Teheran had lost at least one relative in the war. In the cemetery section we visited, I saw three adjacent graves with the same surname. Mohammad, Ahmad, and Mahmoud Ghassemizadeh, three brothers, had died on the same day. Tens of thousands had also been taken prisoner. By this summer, even conservative tallies showed a total of a million killed, wounded, or missing in the war, up to two-thirds of them on the Iranian side. Meanwhile, on the day we made the trip to Behesht-e Zahra, the front was almost back to where it had been when the war began.
TEHERAN this summer had the appearance and the feeling of an embattled city. It has never been a pleasant place. Because it was chosen as the capital in the late eighteenth century, by the Qajar dynasty, it has no history comparable to that of Damascus or Cairo, and it lacks the scenery of prewar Beirut. With the exception of the mosques and some of the newer villas, the architecture is mostly block functional, and most buildings are dirtied by' some of the worst pollution in the world; beginning at dawn, the air is thick with exhaust from aging motorcycles and carbon-belching bus mufflers. Angry traffic is more aggressive than that in Rome and Mexico City combined; stoplights, lane dividers, and street signs such as "Stop" and "One Way" are largely ignored, as are, often, ambulance sirens. An Asian envoy told me that the police reported an average of five hundred accidents every day in Teheran, and on some days I felt as if I had witnessed most of them. Like any other capital, Teheran is not totally representative of the entire nation, but, with an estimated twelve million of the nation's fifty-million population now crammed into it—the figure was about five and a half million at the time of the 1979 revolu¬tion—it has become a fair reflection of Iran's travails, especially since it was drawn into the war this spring.
In July, the windows of high-rise office buildings and shop fronts downtown, of clinics and mud-brick shanties in the arid south, and even of splendid villas in the wealthy northern suburbs, were still crisscrossed with thick strips of tape, and the entrances and entire first floors of many government offices and all banks were protected by layers of burlap bags filled with sand. These measures had been hastily taken when the so-called war of the cities—the name given to sporadic occasions since late 1983 on which Iran and Iraq have thrown artillery and missiles at each other's civilian areas—spread for the first time to Teheran. Except for limited aerial bombardment after the war erupted, in September of 1980, Teheran had been comparatively safe. Baghdad had always been within easy reach of Iranian artillery and missile positions on the border, but Teheran, being some three hundred miles from the frontier, was beyond the range of Iraqi weaponry. Baghdad's media had boasted of Iraq's new ability to fire enhanced-range missiles at Iran, but, like many of the claims made by both sides during this conflict, it was not taken seriously. Then, on February 29th, Iraq fired Soviet-made Scud-B missiles at Teheran. "At first, we thought they were bombing us," a cabbie recalled. "So did the military. The sky was full of anti-aircraft fire. It was two or three days before we knew what had happened."
Over the next two months, Teheranis either fortified or fled. The general feeling among European and Asian envoys was that about a quarter of the residents had left, many for the shores of the Caspian Sea. Teheran's streets were empty and its schools closed; shops opened only sporadically. Many government officials and civil servants were, as one diplomat put it diplomatically, "unavailable." On April 20th, the missile war ended as abruptly as it had begun. The damage and casualties from more than a hundred and forty missiles that had hit Teheran, however, turned out to be, by the standards of modern warfare, marginal. By June, only a few traces were visible. The corner where the Häfez street market, a government store that sold meat, rice, fruit, and other basic foodstuffs, had once bustled with early-morning shoppers was now an empty lot, and half of the front windows of the Armenian Catholic cathedral were missing. A missile had hit at two-thirty in the morning, when the shop was closed and the cathedral vacant. Also in the city center, a crew was still clearing up the ruins of an apartment building that had taken a direct hit; it was the one area that reminded me of Beirut under siege. Imam Khomeini Hospital, across the street, had been hit by fragments of the same missile; windowpanes were still missing, and the exterior was charred black in spots. Among those injured when shrapnel hit the hospital, I was told, were war wounded. Most other damage to the city had been patched up or removed. Injuries from flying glass, including blinding and maiming, were the most frequent casualties, diplomats reported. "There weren't a great many deaths, but psychologically it was devastating," an Iranian journalist who covered the bombardment told me. "It was Russian roulette on a vast scale. Before, the capital was always separate from the war, the way America was during the Second World War. This was like having raids over Washington, D.C. It came as an awful shock."
Many Iranians saw the missiles as a turning point, and few seemed to feel that the threat was over. "Why don't you take the tape off the windows now?” I repeatedly asked. Eyes would widen and heads shake; the possibility of a resumption of the missile strikes apparently needed no explanation. On two weekends, I saw men making new sandbags and piling them in front of banks; and several families who in past years had spent the hot nights on their roofs during Teheran's frequent summer power shortages complained to me about having to stay inside, in case the missile war should start again.
The latest round in the war of the cities coincided with the end of Iran's six-year domination of the war and with the beginning of its retreat. On April 18th, Iraq recaptured its Fao Peninsula, which Iran had seized in a series of human-wave assaults in 1986, during some of the bloodiest and most intensive fighting of the war. This swampy but strategic foothold had for twenty-six months put Iranian artillery within range of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, whose potential capture, many Western military analysts had earlier predicted, could ultimately break Iraq's back. Instead, this year's counter-offensive by Baghdad's elite Presidential Guards and Seventh Army Corps was a thirty-sex hour rout. Reports from diplomats and from the efficient Iranian bush network—troops sending word to relatives, or medical-staff members hearing accounts from the injured—described punishing Iraqi artillery barrages on Iran's largely underarmed Revolutionary Guards and undertrained hard, the very young or very old militia volunteers. Other Iraqi units flanked the peninsula by sea, coming up behind the Iranians. The Iraqis announced that they would give the Iranians twelve hours to leave. The Iranians, surrounded, outnumbered, and with their guns pointing in the wrong direction, fled back across the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, control of which had been the pretext for the original Iraqi invasion. For a change, Iranian casualties were, reportedly, comparatively small.
The day of the Fao defeat, Iran was pounded by the United States Navy, in retaliation for planting a new Iranian minefield in the Persian Gulf which had ripped a hole in the American frigate Samuel B. Roberts and injured ten American sailors. In one of the biggest United States military engagements since the Vietnam War, the Navy destroyed two Iranian oil platforms, sank a patrol boat and a frigate, and badly damaged a second frigate and three small craft. It had originally intended to hit three oil platforms and a frigate, I was later told by a White House official, but Iran upset the plan by counterstriking—at a cost of almost a quarter of its Navy. Iranians have rarely been predictable, but the disparity of reaction in fleeing the Iraqis at Fao and making a suicidal attack on the United States Navy seemed to reflect an erratic desperation.
The Iranians' war-weariness and the ultimate loyalty of the regular military, many of whose members served under the Shah and were trained by the United States, had For some time ken subjects of debate in Teheran. More recently, the commitment of the Revolutionary Guards had also come into question. "People in the urban areas of Iran are now eighty per cent against the war, but there is still rural support," an Asian envoy told me. "The hezbollahis are ten per cent of the population, and they are fully committed to the war and the revolution," he said. Hezbollahis, or “partisans of God,” have formed the backbone of the revolution, but they do not, as in Lebanon, constitute a specific organization; "membership" is, more or less, a state of belief. "Their influence is disproportionate to their numbers," the envoy added.
In late May, Mehdi Bazargan, who for nine months served as the Islamic Republic's first Prime Minister, until his resignation over the American-hostage crisis, issued an open letter of protest to Ayatollah Khomeini about Iran's war policy. In this case, "open" meant distributed in Iran and overseas but not published by the Iranian press. "Since 1986, you have not stopped proclaiming victory, and now you are calling on the population to resist until victory. Isn't that an admission of failure on your behalf?" Bazargan wrote. "You have spoken of the failure of Iraq and the crumbling of its regime, but thanks to your misguided policies, Iraq has fortified itself, its economy has not collapsed, and it is we who are on the verge of bankruptcy." Ile appealed, "You say that you have a responsibility toward the spilled blood. I answer: When will you stop the commerce with the blood of our martyrs?” Bazargan had been considered a political gadfly since his resignation, but his bold, outspoken letter indicated the depth of feeling about the war.
This spring, Teheran's bush network reported that spontaneous anti¬war demonstrations had erupted in Isfahan and Tabriz—reports that the government vehemently denied but which Teheran-based diplomats believed. More significant were reports that clerics were making pilgrimages to tell Khomeini, bluntly, that the war was sapping public morale.
These events marked a reversal in Iranian thinking, for until this spring the war was always seen as more than a territorial dispute. On July 12th, six days before Iran agreed to uncondi¬tionally accept Resolution 598, Teheran Radio broadcast a communique from the armed forces' general command. "This war is not about territory," it said. "It is a continuous con¬frontation between the righteous and the wicked which today has turned into a bloody conflict between two systems of values and countervalues. And what is at stake here is the all-round defense of Islam and the Muslims.” For the ruling mullahs, it really was a jihad, or holy war, elevated to a cosmic plane of good versus evil. Even after 1982, when the tide of the war turned in Teheran's favor, they always perceived Iran as being on the defensive. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was socialist and secular and Sunni-ruled, despite its Shiite ma¬jority, which was an obvious injustice. The Western naval deployment in the Gulf by the United States and five European nations--France, Britain, Italy, Holland, and Belgium—was also seen by the ruling mullahs as an attempt to create a harrier not around Iran but around Islam, like the outside world's attempt to block the path of the Prophet when he revealed the faith in the seventh century.
A second motive in the war was Iran's ambitious sense of revolutionary mission on behalf not only of Iranians but also of other Muslims and of the mosiazafin, or oppressed, of the entire Third World. Iran's Constitution, which was passed in a national referen¬dum ten months after the revolution, states, "All Muslims shall be considered as a single nation, and the Islamic Re¬public of Iran shall determine its general policy on the basis of coalition and unity of all Muslim people and shall constantly make every endeavor to realize the political, economic, and cultural unity of the world of Islam." M ostazafin has been one of the catch¬words of the revolu¬tion, reflected in the graffiti artfully painted on walls throughout Teheran. A huge blue sign at Mehrabad Airport's International Terminal quotes Kho¬meini: "We are with all the innocents of the world." Last year, the powerful speaker of the parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said in an interview in Die Welt, "For the Third World countries —the `have-nots'—our resistance to Communism, imperialism, and capitalism is reason for hope." An official at Teheran's Institute for Political and International Studies, which is the Foreign Ministry's think tank, framed even Iran's costly naval clash with the United States in terms of its broader mission. "What are the consequences if Iran attacks the United States?" he said to me. "No one expects Iran to defeat the United States militarily, but when Iran reacts militarily it shows small countries that small powers can defend themselves."
A third factor was nationalism, particularly among those Iranians who had become disillusioned with the regime and did not necessarily accept the argument that the Iraqi leaders were infidels. A long history of antipathy to Arabs has fuelled nationalism among the Iranians, who are descendants of an Aryan tribe (from which Iran gets its name) that came to this region more than two millennia ago. With some arrogance, various Iranians have told me over the years of their feelings of being racial outsiders, and clearly superior, in this part of the world, and of their anger at the Arabs for imposing on them everything from their script to their religion. Persian is an Indo-European tongue written in Arabic letters; armies of the early Islamic Empire overwhelmed the native Zoroastrian faith in the seventh century, and, in the sixteenth century, the Safavid dynasty introduced—or imposed, some Iranians say—Shiism as the state religion in order to differentiate Iran from the Ottoman Empire and to create a sense of separate and united identity. "This is a racist war," the friend who took me to Behesht-e Zahra said. He did not like the war, but neither did he like Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. "Really, this is very bad, what he has done to Iran. He must be made to pay, really," he said.
In other words, the war, for a variety of reasons, sustained the revolution and gave it legitimacy—until the Karbala offensives.
ON Christmas Eve, 1986, Iran launched what it heralded as the Final Offensive, on the southern front around Basra; its code name was Operation Karbala. This was not the first final offensive announced by Teheran, but it may have proved to he the last. The goal was to take the city and then cut off Iraq's supply routes between the north and south.
Over fourteen weeks, Iran threw wave after wave of troops, particularly the bash, at some of Iraq's best-defended positions; military attaches in Teheran later estimated that up to half of the hundred thousand basij used in the winter and spring of 1987 became casualties. The bash, who volunteered for as little as three months, were as young as thirteen or fourteen, on tem¬porary leave from school, or as old as fifty-five, eager for the monthly payment of more than five hundred dollars to supplement their low incomes. Often wearing keys around their necks to insure their passage into paradise, they served, in effect, as human minesweep¬ers in advance of the Revolutionary Guards, who themselves were often in front of the Army. The Iranian offensives also used much of what remained of the American war materiel obtained during the arms-for-hostages swap. By April, 1987, however, the Iranians had been checked; they had eaten away at Iraqi territory, but at an enormous cost in human life. Behesht-e Zahra had to be expanded.
"The will has been drained out of the people," an Iranian war correspondent told me before the ceasefire. "The hezbollahis don't want to fight. It doesn't make sense to them anymore. As long as they were winning, it was fine. If a fight is a holy war, then you're supposed to win and you expect miracles. What is happening now is something else." Before Iran's accep¬tance of the ceasefire was announced, diplomats in Teheran estimated that the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which had originally been a volunteer body and had closely vetted its members Islamic and revolutionary credentials, was by then eighty per cent conscripts. The shift was also reflected in a con¬versation I had with a government official who had spent eighteen months in the Army and then had covered the war for the Islamic Republic News Agency before joining a key ministry. A month before the ceasefire was announced, I asked him if he could ex¬plain the contradictions in Iran's war policy, which appeared to be more than two-track diplomacy. Khomeini had pledged to continue fighting even if the war took twenty years to bring down Saddam Hussein, and yet the govern¬ment for the past year had called for pursuing mediation. The official re¬plied in a soft voice, "It is not only the West that cannot understand." Then he volunteered, "From the beginning we used the wrong motto"—a reference to the implied goal in the slogan "War until victory," a standard chant of troops, at Friday prayers, and in government propaganda for eight years. The war that had sustained the revolution had slowly begun to destroy it.
SOME Iranian officials appeared to have come to that realization. The headquarters of the Sepah Pasdaran, or Revolutionary Guard Corps, consisted of two unimaginative yellow brick high rises. The blocks around them were tightly cordoned off, and I needed a minder—as escorts were called—from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance to gain entry. The entrance of the first building hustled with troops checking in from leave, picking up their pay, and getting papers processed. We crossed a courtyard filled with beds of well-tended red rosebushes into the second building, where an enormous red sign, in Farsi and English, proclaimed, "THE PERSIAN GULF- WILL Be: THE GRAVEYARD OF THE UNITED STATES."
I had come to see Mohsen Rafiqdoost, the Minister of the Revo¬lutionary Guards. Before the interview began, I was escorted into the Sepah public-relations department and of¬fered tea. In general, Iranians are extremely polite, and hospitable protocol had been observed in every office I visited. As I chatted with one bureaucrat, he pulled out a scrapbook and showed me the official collection of Pasdaran pictures, which, I noticed, were printed on Kodak paper. There were dozens of different shots, including a series showing a gala sendoff of troops leaving for the front. They could have been troops from any Third 'World country, except that each Pas¬dar wore a bright headband declaring the greatness of God or Khomeini. The picture that impressed me the most, however, was a closeup of Rafiqdoost showing him in plain green fatigues with the yellow-and-blue Pas¬dar badge on his pocket. It was the standard dress of the Pasdars, without bars or dusters for rank, without medals, without epaulets—a stark contrast to the Iranian Army and Navy uni¬forms, which were still based on the American models. Tied around his forehead was a red bandanna with a yellow inscription: "Sayyed Shohada," or "Master of the Martyrs." When the official noticed me studying the photo¬graph, he came over and pulled the picture out of its plastic cover and offered it to me.
Mohsen Rafiqdoost turned out to be a surprisingly small man, with a carefully cropped beard and mustache, and with a twinkle in his dark eyes. Everything on his desk was neatly placed. The only special piece of equipment was a shortwave set next to his desk. Unlike other Iranian officials I had visited, Rafiqdoost did not begin with the standard amenities. He was very businesslike and said that he did not have much time and that he was ready for my questions. At first, we talked about the origins of the Sepal) Pasdaran and its early role as the mullahs consolidated their power over various counter-revolutionaries, referred to as gornhcheh, or "grouplets," and monafaqin, or hypocrites. The Sepah Pasdaran insured that the mullahs emerged alone from a loose coalition of leftists, Communists, and Islamic secularists, the last being those who favored Islamic law but wanted it administered by lay bureaucrats. Between 1979 and 1983, the Revolutionary Guards, in street clashes and raids on opposition headquarters or hideouts, suppressed all the leading challengers, including the Mojahedin-e Khalq, which advocates Islamic socialism, and the Communist Tudeh Party. They also subdued the various Kurdish, Baluchi, and Turkmen ethnic political factions. The Revolutionary Guards started as a force of several thousand in 1979 and grew to about three hundred thousand by 1988—almost as large a force as the regular Army, according to estimates by London's International Institute for Strategic Studies. When I asked Rafiqdoost about the Pasdaran's strength, he smiled at me as if I should have known better, and said, "In wartime, no nation reveals numbers."
The Pasdaran played a central role in the war but did not always act in unison with the Army. Over the years, there have been sporadic reports of clashes between the two units because of both ideological and tactical differences. Still smiling, Rafiqdoost conceded, "There is a kind of competition between them." But he denied the general scuttlebutt of Teheran that the rivalry had been exacerbated during the past two years because the Pasdaran had begun developing its own navy and air force. "Between the Army and the Revolutionary Guards under the Commander-in-Chief there can't be a fight," Rafiqdoost declared. For one thing, he said, they had different functions. "If the Iraqis invade, then it is the duty of the Army to provide protection," he explained. "But since that war was started with the agreement of the United States and the Soviet Union, and with the intention of over¬throwing the revolution, we also fought."
Rafiqdoost was perhaps more candid with me about his own background. He told me that he was trained in the nineteen-seventies by the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, but he made a point of saying that he no longer "accepted" P.L.O. chairman Yasir Arafat, and added, a bit angrily, that be had known Arafat well. (The P.L.O. trained many Iranian dissi¬dents, and in the early years of the Khomeini regime relations were close; the former Israeli Embassy in Teheran was turned over to the P.L.O. in 1979. But Iran and the P.L.O. fell out after Iran discovered that Palestinian guerrillas were training the opposition, and Palestinian-Shiite hostilities in Lebanon estranged them further.) During the initial upheaval in Teheran, Rafiqdoost said, he had provided the demonstrators with weaponry, of unspecified calibre and quantity, and after the revolution, shortly before his appointment to the Cabinet, he had led a group of Pasdars to Lebanon, in what was the first successful export of the revolution. I asked him more about the Lebanon excursion.
"The first Revolutionary Guards went in with me in 1982 after Lebanon was invaded by Israel," he said. "We wanted to transfer our culture to Muslims in Lebanon. I saw the corrupted culture there. We started to show Muslims in Lebanon our way of living and our way of fighting. We hope many in Lebanon who live under the tyranny of the minority will get back their rights." This apparently seemed a quite normal admission to him; as the minder translated for me, Rafiqdoost put on his glasses and read the morning paper.
By and large, Iran's presence in Lebanon has been subtle. The Revolu¬tionary Guards were indeed missionaries more than fighters during the three-year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. But they built up a network of extremist militiamen, who managed to accomplish in three years what the P.L.O. had been unable to do in two decades. Under pressure from small Shiite squads of attackers and suicide bombers, Israel withdrew from all but a small enclave of Arab territory without a single security guarantee for its vulnerable northern Galilee or for the volatile border.
I asked Rafiqdoost about charges that his troops, who were still deployed in Lebanon, had been behind the suicide bombings and the hostage-taking in Beirut.
"We don't need such action by the Revolutionary Guards," he said. "In Lebanon, we trained the people who drove a bomb into the American Marine barracks, but we didn't tell them to do such an act. We only trained the Lebanese to defend their country. When we heard about the bomb"—which killed two hundred and forty-one American troops were happy. But we didn’t plan it. It was their right. Ask yourself, Why were the Americans in Lebanon?" Not, he implied, to help the Muslim community.
At least since 1981, the Pasdaran has been a leading vehicle for spreading the Islamic Republic's vision, through training, arming, and also, it is said, funding Islamic extremist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere. "If they want help, then we will help them. Iraqis, Lebanese, and Afghans, we do train them," Rafiqdoost said with some pride. "If any foreign forces want to be trained, they are trained by the Revolutionary Guards, not by anyone else in Iran."
He drew a distinction, however, between different forms of violence. "We are against hijackings," he said. "We can do something against the military but not against women and children." He did not directly address the hostage issue except to say, "We are not responsible for all the organizations in Lebanon." Later, an envoy from a nation that has dealt with Iran over its own Beirut hostages told me his government believed that Iran had been experiencing some difficulty in "influencing" its Lebanese Shiite allies.
What seemed to interest Rafiqdoost more than the past, however, was the future. He talked about reconstructing the country after the war. "During the Shah's time, they were only constructing big cities, and all the money was spent there. A lot of our villages need to be constructed." He then leaned forward and became more interested in the interview. "The revolution has already done a lot in the countryside, but there is still much to do," he said. "In the Revolutionary Guards, we have a lot of experts, and many people come to us with ideas. They have been able to make us more self-sufficient in weaponry, but they can do social, cultural, and war reconstruction, too. The duty of the Army is to take care of the whole country and to protect the lands. The duty of the Revolutionary Guards is to take care of the revolution."
TAKING care of the revolution, especially at the stage it seemed to have reached this summer, preoccupied Iranian officials. A sense of insecurity and and defensiveness permeated the revolution. The lofty ambitions of its early years seemed to he mellowing into a realization, if not a public admission, of its shortcomings and flaws. At the same time, perhaps sensing the revolution's vulnerability, the komitehs, or committees, which police social and political conduct, were ever vigilant. They often set up roadblocks, especially on the Islamic weekend, to catch possible saboteurs as well as to detect deviant behavior, such as the use of alcohol. The depth of the komitehs' penetration was evident when I attended a party where one of the guests brought a bottle of real French champagne. "Ooh!" the hostess cooed. Then she turned to her houseboy and instructed him to smash the bottle into tiny pieces after it was emptied. "You have to be careful of the garbagemen," she explained to me. "Some of them go through things and tell the komiteh." She went on to tell me of a foreign family that had been caught this way. In many cases, foreigners were exempt from Islamic codes of conduct, but this family had made large amounts of wine and had not taken precautions. Neighborhood komiteh members got wind of the operation, presumably through the garbage collectors, and visited the family. They found eight hundred bottles of wine, and smashed all but one.
I had a personal encounter with the komitehs. During a visit to Teheran last year, I stayed at the former Hilton Hotel, where the Miss Iran contest had been held during the Shah's regime. Since the revolution, it had been renamed the Esteqlal, or Independence. The hotel was, at best, sloppy about telephone messages and paging, so when an Iranian arrived for an interview I asked him to come up to my room. After we had talked for about forty-five minutes, I received a call. "We know there is a man in your room," the voice said. "Unless you both come out immediately, we will be forced to come in. We are across the hall." My visitor and I immediately left the room and headed for the lobby. I went over to the desk and summoned the assistant manager, whom I had previously suspected of being the in-house zealot. I told him, in a calm voice, that I was outraged at being treated this way. If the hotel could not take messages or page me in the lobby, I said, what did it expect me to do but invite guests to my room? He became very apologetic. "I am sorry for this terrible misunderstanding. It will not happen again," he said. Then he added, "It is really better if you do not have men in your chamber. We are trying to stop prostitution and it doesn't look good." I realized then that the komiteh's concern was possible sexual activity.
My visitor and I decided to continue our conversation in the lobby, near a window. We had just begun to talk when the assistant manager, now blushing, came over. "I am sorry, but must ask you to move," he said. "The men, you know, are swimming." The place we had selected overlooked the Hilton pool, and I, as a woman, was not supposed to look at hare-breasted male swimmers.
Finally, the invisible hand of the komiteh was revealed. As my visitor and I carried on our talk in a different part of the lobby, I saw a young woman sweep by, her chador billowing and exposing only her eyes, nose, and mouth. She stopped and looked at me, then turned and walked over to have a few words with a waiter who served tea and cakes. While I watched, he draped a white cloth over his left arm, put a little pink card on top of a doily on a plate, and headed in my direction. "The Islamic Society kindly seeks your considerate observance of its customs in promotion of mutual respect," the pink card read, in English. "To further our good relations, we respectfully request your observance of Islamic dress during your stay with us." The reverse side had a picture, in case there was any doubt. It turned out that my head scarf had slipped, revealing several inches of hair. With the komiteh woman look¬ing on from the other side of the lobby, I pulled up my hejab. She then left.
FREEDOM of expression, in body and in soul, has long been an Iranian passion. That includes a lot of complaining, no matter who is in power. The home is, at least in theory, sacrosanct from penetration by the komitehs, so people's homes were one place I could go to find out what Iranians were thinking. One evening, I went to a party in the home of an upper-middle-class family. About twenty of us sat on the floor on oblong cushions woven in rich reds and browns, chatting and eating a refreshing light soup of yogurt and cucumbers seasoned with dill. A pony-tailed three-year-old in overalls pranced back and forth, sneaking potato chips and pistachios from bowls laid out on tables. Her mother, the hostess, had streaked blond hair and wore turquoise balloon trousers and a blouse in a floral print of turquoise, pink, and white. Her costume jewelry matched the ensemble. The hostess's sister, in a pleated pink outfit, had salon-coiffed hair, at which I marvelled, because it did not have the squashed, flattened look of hair that had been under a hejab. Since the revolution, many Iranian women have become skilled at draping, rather than tying, their brightly decorated scarves around their shoulders to save their hairdos. When they take off Islamic dress, they can be among the most exotic women in the world.
The host had asked me what I wanted to drink. Thinking of the homemade stills I had seen on visits to Saudi Arabia, I inquired where he managed to get liquor. For the past three or four years, he told me, he had had a regular source of quality moonshine made locally. Stories about the sources of liquor are legendary in Teheran, but he preferred not to know the details of its production. Liquor, however, is not Iran's biggest substance problem. Long before the revolution, homegrown opium was the drug of choice, and since 1979 it has been cheaper and more accessible than alcohol, especially for those of less than moderate means. Teheran's papers regularly reported drug busts, and members of a family that lived near the prison reserved mainly for narcotics dealers and users told me that they occasionally heard shots in the night, and assumed they were firing-squad executions.
As we sat cozily on the floor, a man in the corner began to tap on a senior, the Persian equivalent of a xylophone, which sounded melodious, if a bit tinny, to an unaccustomed ear. "He was very famous before the revolution," one of the guests said of the musician. "He used to play in many of the clubs. Now he gets some work in private homes, but not very much." Soon the hostess's brother-in-law began to sing along with the music, his eyes closed and his body swaying slowly from side to side. He worked in biology and genetics, his wife said, but his first love had always been the lyrics of the fourteenth-century poet Hafez. Many of the men then began to click their fingers, and several urged the singer's wife to dance. She took the center of the floor and began to move rhythmically, and rather erotically. The chandelier above her exposed the outline of her hips and thighs under her pleated pink skirt, which I some¬how sensed that she knew. The guest next to me asked if I had seen this type of dancing before. I made the mistake of saying yes, I had lived in the Arab world for several years. "This is nothing like the Arabs' dance," the guest protested. "This kind of dance is done only in Iran."
I asked another guest if this was a typical kind of evening for the group.
"What else is there to do?" was the reply. "This is one of the biggest prob¬lems of the revolution. We are confined to our homes."
THIS summer, frustration and discontent also began to be played out on a more critical level for the government. Virtually every aspect of life and politics had been troubled by economic problems. In July, the dollar was legally worth sixty-seven rials, hut the black-market rate was twenty times higher. Although Teheranis' salaries were in rials, all prices except for ra¬tioned goods were pegged to the black market. Gasoline was rationed to about sixteen gallons per car per month, and it was not unusual to see lines a quarter of a mile long in front of gas stations, many of which had only one out of three or four pumps in operation. At the government food store on Vali-e Asr Avenue, ten of the twelve rows of shelves were filled by two items—locally made Chin Chin tomato ketchup and canned beans. Basic foodstuffs, such as meat and sugar, which were also rationed, were hard to find, and some commodities on the black market could run up to ten times the official price.
In the aftermath of the ceasefire, the fate of the revolution may well depend on how the Islamic Republic deals with its economic issues. Public demand for solutions to these problems clear¬ly played a role in the decision to end the Gulf conflict, and even before the ceasefire was accepted Iran was attempting to shift its primary focus from exporting the revolution and challenging assorted infidels back to meeting at least some of the failed expectations of its constituents. Finding a way to do this, however, may not be as easy as ending the war.
The role of the Teheran bazaaris, or merchants, will be crucial to this effort. Support from the hazaaris, who have at various times controlled as much as a third of Iranian commerce, has since the sixteenth century been one of the three mainstays, along with the military and the clergy, of all governments that have managed to survive. (The bazaaris' decision to close down during the final months of the Shah's rule was one of several moves that gave him no alternative but to leave.) Since the spring, the bazaaris have again been growing restless. Teheran's Great Bazaar, which dominates a network of bazaars throughout the country, is a covered labyrinth of shops and tiny stalls crowded into a few square blocks. Here one can buy both the essentials and the frills of life, from a quarter's worth of spice to a hundred-thousand¬dollar carpet. Not much light comes in from narrow slits in the bazaar's high roof, and the dust is so thick that venders regularly pour water from plastic jugs onto their alleys to damp it down. Yet the bazaar is a festive place, full of flashy lights, bright colors, and rich aromas. Near the main entrance is the gold section, sparkling with bangles, chains, and pendants, their richness enhanced by backdrops of mirrors or royal-blue felt. Hanging from the marquee of a ladies' apparel shop are samples of several of the items available inside, including a ruffled red negligee. Despite the imposition of the chador, several shops carry Iranian carpets depicting the Mona Lisa, Rubensesque women with revealing bosoms, and other female figures.
Historically, the bazaaris have been an integral part of Iranian politics, both because they have had a central role in the economy and because they have been closely allied with the mullahs. The main link in a complicated triangle of power was money. The government looked to the bazaar as a source of revenue and to help keep the economy healthy. The bazaar, in exchange, received' the ear of government, which usually had to factor bazaari feeling into major decisions. Through religious taxes, the mullahs relied on the bazaar for the resources to sustain their religious institutions. The bazaar had influence within the clergy also. When prices rose, the bazaaris could turn to the mullahs to calm public grumbling. In other words, the survival of each of the three powers was traditionally dependent on the survival of both the others.
That equation began to change, however, when Iran nationalized oil, in 1951. The government then began to look to petroleum sales, not to the bazaar, as its main source of revenue. This disruption of the status quo meant that the hazaaris began to lose their influence. Modernization and foreign goods contributed to the emergence of supermarkets and department stores that rivalled the bazaar. "The xenophobia expressed during the revolution had to do not only with resentment of foreign influence over the Shah," a European commercial attache explained to me. "A big part of it also came from the hazaaris, who lost their monopoly over Iranian commerce. They didn't want to get rid of Coca-Cola, Kleenex, or Mercedes, but they wanted to he the ones to sell it." The classic alliance between the bazaaris and the mullahs, who were also losing their influence on government to foreign advisers, gained new momentum. "The bazaar subsidized the mullahs in order to get the foreigners out during the revolution," the attaché said.
The hazaaris played a major role in the aftermath of the revolution, but the bazaar-clergy alliance gradually began to break down, because the theocrats made the same mistake as the Shah. "The mullahs now have their own money—from oil—and they don't need the bazaar so much," the European attaché said. Moreover, foreign trade, which the bazaar had once again begun to dominate, was gradually usurped by the government. Pro-bazaar elements have increasingly been replaced in the executive branch. In this spring's elections for the parlia¬ment's two hundred and seventy seats, the bazaar put up several candidates, but only one of them won, and then just barely.
Several bazaaris were uncommunicative about their relationship with the government. They would talk incessantly about their goods, but the mere mention of officialdom would si¬lence them. The most candid remark I heard came from the owner of an appliance shop. "Even if I don't like the regime and even if I have troubles, I'm not going to say so," he remarked grumpily. "I'm Iranian. You may not like Reagan, but you're American, so you would never say so to a foreigner." Business was clearly bad. His shop used to specialize in sewing machines, but he re¬cently had been unable to import any. A lone black Sinclair of vintage manufacture sat on the floor. Most of his merchandise—toasters, blenders, and beaters—was either secondhand or limited to a single sample, each bought from an Iranian who
had travelled abroad and brought back foreign wares.
"Frustration must run very deep in the bazaar now," the European attache said. "The mullahs have gone into the bazaar for taxes—for war 'contributions,' for the two religious taxes, and for state taxes—and the bazaaris have paid up. But the bazaaris are getting even less in return than they did from the Shah."
BECAUSE of its conflicting constituencies, the revolution has always had inherent contradictions. Although the bazaaris helped make the revolution possible, it was in fact conducted in the name of the disinherited mostazafin and the adherents of "barefoot Islam." On several occasions, Iran's parlia¬ment has tried to deal with economic disparities, but the deep rifts between the sectors have always reemerged to stymie implementation. In 1980, the then dominant Revolutionary Council approved a land-reform law, but it gave rise to such chaos and so much criticism from the clergy and the land¬owners that Khomeini suspended it after seven months, and hundreds of thousands of acres were given back to their original owners. Subsequent bills on trade nationalization, on expropriation of the lands of Iranians who had fled the country, and on urban-land use, as well as some labor laws, were, after lengthy deliberations and compromises, also passed by the parliament, only to be vetoed by the Council of Guardians.
The Council of Guardians, which is the fourth branch of the Iranian government, after the executive, legislative, and judicial, consists of twelve members, half of them theologians picked by Khomeini and half of them Muslim jurists nominated by the Supreme Judicial Council and approved by the parliament. Its mandate, according to the Constitution, is "to maintain the tenets and precepts of Islam," or to check the compatibility of legislation with the Sharia, or traditional Islamic law. Since the revolution, the Council of Guardians has evolved into one of Iran's most conservative bodies; it has strong connections with the bazaaris and the landowning clergy. The trade and land-reform laws were vetoed because they interfered with property rights and freedom of trade. The ground for rejection of the labor laws was that the Sharia made no mention of the rights of laborers; the council ruled that the relationship between em¬ployer and employee should be established by mutual agreement, not by the state. The result, as in vetoes of other crucial bills, has been to leave the legislation and the country in limbo. In 1983, parliament's frustrations led its speaker, Rafsanjani, to appeal to Khomeini for guidance. At that stage, the Imam's only instructions were to refute contentions that "the heavenly religions cannot serve as a basis for the social life of the people."
The ongoing impasse has underscored how pivotal the Imam has been to the Islamic Republic. Only he has been able to break deadlocks and set the revolution back on course. In 1982, he intervened to end the first years of terror and excesses—mass executions and purges, suppression of the press and the opposition, widespread komiteh and Pasdaran raids on private homes and offices, expropriation of land and general harassment and surveillance—with an eight-point declaration of individual rights. He banned arbitrary arrests and searches, and returned sanctity to the home. He called for new committees to investigate public complaints, of which there were thousands, and which actually led to the dismissal of some officials. The komitehs and the Revolutionary Guards were put under tighter supervision in Cabinet-level Ministries. It was arguably Khomeini's most important pronouncement since the revolution. "We should no longer say we are in a revolutionary situation," he said in a follow-up speech. "No. Now is the time of calm."
A POPULAR joke in Teheran this summer concerned Kho¬meini's health. The Imam, the story went, recently bought an African gray parrot—the kind that, according to legend, lives a hundred years. One of his grandchildren asked why he had bought the parrot, to which Khomeini replied, "Because I want to see if it's true." Khomeini's health has been an obsessive topic of conversation, and often the subject of rich Iranian humor, ever since the revolution. His heart trouble is reported to date back to the nineteen-fifties, and his health was so frail on the day of his triumphant return to Teheran, in 1979, that he fainted at Mehrabad Airport, But for years Iranians scoffed at American and European predictions of Khomeini's imminent demise as wishful thinking, pointing out that his older brother, Ayatollah Morteza Pasandideh, now in his late nineties, is still active. In 1982, an Iranian told me with great assurance that the Imam himself planted those stories about his poor health, to see who - in government would try to maneuver into a better position for the succession. Then the old man would pull the rug out from under the manipulating politician and emerge in miraculously good shape. It was the Imam's system of checks and balances at a time when his heir apparent had not been named, "Surely," this Iranian added, almost earnestly, "you know that Khomeini is never going to die."
Since shortly after Khomeini's return to Iran, he and his entourage have lived in austere simplicity in the northern Teheran suburb of Jamaran, a name that the regime’s opponents relish pointing out translates as "the haven of snakes." During those first turbulent years, Khomeini, as the Veliyat-e Faqih, or Supreme Jurisprudent, was the final authority on the purges that allowed the mullahs to consolidate power; on the four¬hundred-and-forty-four-day confrontation with the United States over fifty-two hostages; on the early losing stages of the war with Iraq; on sporadic Western economic sanctions; on the framing of a constitution for the twentieth century's only theocracy; and on the Islamization of society. It was a period when the new Islamic Republic had few friends and its survival appeared precarious—endangered by forces both inside and outside the regime. In 1980, the Imam appeared on his balcony at Jamaran to pronounce that Iran was in "chaos" and to warn that "the Islamic Republic could he defeated by those on our side." In those first three years, however, Iran's ruling clergy defied the odds of survival—in some cases literally. In June and August, 1981, two enormous bombs eliminated a President, a Prime Minister, ten Cabinet officials, and twenty-seven members of the parliament. Because of internal wrangling and an assassination, Iran had to hold three Presidential elections in a twenty-one-month period, the second and third within ten weeks. The current President, Ali Khamenei, has walked with a cane and his right hand has dangled uselessly at his side ever since a small bomb planted in a tape recorder went off while he was giving a Friday-prayer sermon in 1981. The Iranian press reported that, during a four-month period in 1981, more than a thousand government officials, including mullahs, judges, police officials, Islamic Republican Party leaders, and Khomeini aides, had been killed. Throughout that turbulence, the Imam provided continuity and direction.
In July of this year, a huge white banner was stretched across Jamaran’s high entrance gates, which are manned by a police unit of the Revolutionary Guards. "God, God, Keep Khomeini Alive Until the Mandi's Revolution," it said. The Mahdi is "the rightly guided one," awaited by Muslims to restore the original purity of the Islamic faith; for the Shia, Islam's so-called second sect, the Malidi is the twelfth and last Imam, who went into occultation—a form of hiding—in the ninth century. Teheran's walls have been covered with similar messages; and speeches in parliament and official letters to Khomeini's office have often ended with felicitations on the Imam's health. The depth of the feeling that the revolution's fate depends on the Imam was reflected, perhaps inadvertently, in another sign at the airport: "Islam Will Be in Our Blood as Long as Khomeini Is Our Leader."
The prospect of the Islamic Repub¬lic without the Imam, who is widely rumored to be battling metastasized cancer as well as heart disease, has made even those Iranians who have opposed the regime or found it distaste¬ful somewhat uneasy. However the revolution has evolved, Iranians with whom I talked generally seemed to feel that Khomeini began it in good faith. "If Khomeini created a hell," a middle-aged Iranian professional told me, "he created it with good intentions." The anxiety has centered not only on the loss of the leader but also on fear of the future at a time when the nation is deeply divided and has reached a juncture as tumultuous as the Islamic Republic's early days.
Last December, the Ayatollah issued a secret new will, to replace one written in 1982. He summoned leading figures in the government to Jamaran anti handed over two sealed copies.
The first was given to the Council of Experts, which would oversee the transition, and the second was flown to Mashad, to the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth of the twelve revered Imams. (The Council of Experts is made up of eighty-three members, mostly clergymen, who were selected in a 1982 national election, in which Khomeini cast his vote like anyone else.) The new will took Iranians by surprise, because the mechanisms for the transition of power of the Supreme Jurisprudent had already been determined. In 1985, after almost three years of discussion, the Council of Experts announced that Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, a Khomeini protégé, had been selected as the heir apparent. In light of the 1982 will and the 1985 selection, the new will, which Khomeini said was a revision occasioned by “the conditions and needs of the times,” triggered many rumors about new instructions from the post-Khomeini era. Although the Ayatollah’s influence on the running of government has diminished since the Islamic Republic's early years, the revolution's dependence on the Supreme Jurisprudent has been evident throughout, even in minor issues. One of the small issues in which Khomeini recently intervened was television. I heard the story from Mohammad Hashemi, a brother of the parliamentary speaker, Rafsanjani, and a power in his own right as the managing director of the Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic, which runs the two television channels and Teheran Radio.
"There were some differences about the music we played," Hashemi explained as he padded around his office in his stocking feet. "This is an Islamic government organization, and since some people didn't like musicals or TV shows or series they started to criticize us in several places—in the mosques and in the papers and at Teheran University. We can't say, `We're right, you're not, your understanding is not correct.' Usually in these sorts of differences of understanding, you must have someone say who is correct. Our reference is the Imam. We wrote to him and asked him questions, since there is no reference in his books to this subject. He answered that most of our programming is edu¬cational and useful and contains nothing against religion, but that you have to he careful about nonreligious themes. This is not something unusual in Islam. You have to ask questions in daily personal life, so you go to a mullah and ask, just as you go to a doctor for a cure. In this country, we go to the clergy on social issues. With big questions, we go to the Imam. His word is the last word."
The same problem arose over the use of foreign films and the broadcasting of sports programs like wrestling and soccer. The Imam's official response was "Watching such films and play is no impediment to religion, and many of them are instructive.” So the shows continued. Hashemi, like his brother, is among those who want to make the Islamic Republic compatible with con¬temporary times. Several Teheranis had told me that the media problem arose because Hashemi was aware that Iranians were turning away from the monotonous Islamic programming and war propaganda in favor of home video recorders or, worse, Voice of America and BBC broadcasts, But the introduction of more entertainment, particularly sports shows and foreign films with non-Islamic music, had provoked a backlash.
Hashemi's office was filled with the latest in television and video equipment, most of it Japanese, and he let slip the fact that he had viewed ABC's "Nightline" when lie referred to a Ted Koppel show on America's homeless, which had disturbed him deeply. He seemed embarrassed at revealing that he had watched an American program, just as he had seemed reluctant to admit travelling to the United States, which I had asked him about because he speaks American-accented English. No, he had not visited America, he said, and he added that his knowledge was based on hooks. "I read about the C.I.A., the F.B.I., how much wealth you have, and your high-rise buildings and your Cadillacs and how much corruption there is," he said. "You are a free society as far as men and women are concerned, but how many men attack women?" Later, an Iranian in Washington asked if Hashemi had spoken to me in English, noting that he had attended the University of California at Berkeley. A call to the Berkeley registrar confirmed that Hashemi was a student there in 1978, shortly before the revolution.
I asked Hashemi how he had man¬aged to see "Nightline."
"We're not totally isolated here, you know," he said. "I have access to satellite transmissions."
RECONCILING the tenets of fundamentalist Islam, which is based on a puritanical interpretation of a seventh-century doctrine, and the requirements of a modern state, with its need for contact and trade with the outside world, has been one of the underlying tensions of the revolution. The Shah had faced a similar dilemma: how to retain authoritarian control—in his case, based on Persian rather than Islamic tradition – and at the same time modernize. The revolution has in fact never rejected modernization; instead, it has spurned the Westernization that for most of the postwar era has been inherent to so many foreign-designed development schemes. The Ministry of the Interior, for example, has monitored the activities of the revolutionary komitehs under its control on a set of the latest LB.M. computers complete with multicolored screens and extra disk drives. Despite serious financial problems, the government not only has not cut off funds, originally allocated during the Shah's era, for a Teheran subway system but has increased the budget. At the same time, however, wearing a necktie is considered an act of defiance and automatically connotes Western, and therefore anti-Islamic, inclinations. Often proud to the point of arrogance, Iranians, under the Imam as well as the Shah, have wanted Western technology and scientific advances without many of the accompanying influences, obligations, or symbols. The theocracy has been better than the monarchy was at avoiding all three, but it perhaps has also paid a higher price.
In December of 1987, with his revolution deadlocked on economic issues, confounded on modernization, ostracized diplomatically, and sapped by a war costly in both human and financial resources, Khomeini initiated a series of steps designed to generate new mo¬mentum. The timing coincided with the issuing of his new will. One of the first steps was a ruling that partly broke the impasse on the labor laws rejected by the Council of Guardians. Khomeini instructed the executive branch that it could threaten to cut off public utilities for businesses that did not honor the laws' stipulations pro¬tecting workers.
The next major move was a fatwa, or religious edict, in January on the power of the Islamic state. In effect, Khomeini ruled that the state was superior to Islam, and that, if necessary, even some of the five pillars of Islam, including the hajj pilgrimage, fasting, and prayer, could he suspended in the interests of the state. In context, the fatwa was revolutionary. The Shia, unlike Sunni Muslims, have refused to recognize temporal authority ever since Islam was revealed, in the seventh century. In the nineteen-seventies, the Imam had originally called for Islamic rule because of Shiite contempt for the corruption and irreverence of the modern state in Iran and other Muslim countries. The term "Islam" means "submission," and the Shiite interpretation had for centuries implied that both the individual and the state must submit to Allah's will. Perhaps more important for Iran's revolution, the fatwa also provided direction on the matter of coping with modernity. A leading envoy from a European country that has maintained a steady work¬ing relationship with Iran remarked to me, "This fatwa provided the legal or theological basis of how to cope with requirements of modern times. It opened up the way for legislation that is very modern and is not necessarily in accordance with the Sharia."
In February, the Ayatollah then announced the formation of a new gov¬ernment body to settle disputes between the reform-oriented parliament and the conservative Council of Guardians. In response to a letter from several government officials, including his chief of staff—his son, Ahmad—Khomeini ruled that arbitration would be con¬ducted by a thirteen-member Expediency Council, made up of an equal number of government officials and members of the Council of Guardians, as well as a representative from his own office. Former Premier Bazargan warned that the step amounted to entrenching an absolute dictatorship, and I heard grumbling in June about the government's becoming top-heavy and bogged down in its own debates. The European diplomat, however, pointed out that the new body could also open the way for reform. "It could act on land reform, nationalization of foreign trade, and taxation," he said. "This is important, because I believe that the majority in this country is in favor of reform. The decision might go beyond Khomeini's lifetime. It provides for the implementation of his ideas. He has come to terms with modernity by saying that the power of government is most divine. It amounts to seculariza¬tion of the state on the basis of theological reasoning. It should give the government some flexibility to act in modern times."
Before the ceasefire, I asked the envoy whether the steps were reactions to the mounting crises or genuine initia¬tives to insure that the revolution would endure.
"Ah," he said. "That is the key question, which none of us outsiders can answer. It remains to be seen if it is enough to do what they want. This is a difficult stage for Iran. Over the last three months, the situation has become very fragile. People are fed up with sacrifices, the economy, and the war. It was one of the very last moments they could have done what they did."
IN June, Khomeini's next step was to appoint Speaker Rafsanjani as Commander-in-Chief, a position that had technically been reserved for the Ayatollah. Battlefield losses since mid-April of this year had clearly created a need for more dynamic leadership in the war effort—and, many Teheranis argued, on the peace front. As might have been expected in Iran, the capital was filled with conspiracy theories suggesting two opposite motives for the appointment. First, because there were so few ways for Iran to make a military comeback, it was part of a grand plot to undermine and discredit Rafsanjani, who had long been second only to Khomeini in power. "This is the end for Rafsanjani," a young Teherani told me earnestly. Second, the decision represented the first step on the road to peace, because the Supreme Defense Council had neither the unity nor the guts to make such a bold move. A single figure was needed to shoulder the responsibility. "This proves that Rafsanjani is truly Akbar Shah," said an Iranian merchant, referring to a popular nickname for the Speaker, one that implied he was gaining the power of an Iranian king.
The second theory appeared the more likely. Since the passage of Resolution 598, in July of 1987, Iran had been unable to persuade the United Nations to alter the sequence of the terms for ending the war. 'Teheran had wanted a commission to determine responsibility for launching the war before it would agree to a ceasefire, but a year of negotiating had failed to bring either the United Nations or the Iraqis around. By then, the war had begun to turn against Iran. Two days before the unconditional agreement to the United Nations peace effort was announced, Rafsanjani and President Khamenei held a late-night summit of the leading representatives of all four branches of government and decided that it was time. Iran's stunning reversal was widely believed to be Rafsanjani's ini¬tiative; one report said he threatened to resign if the ceasefire was not accepted. Two days after the Iranian announcement, Khomeini pronounced the decision worse than drinking hemlock but called for the Iranians to unite behind it.
Like the earlier religious rulings, the appointment of Rafsanjani could survive Khomeini's death and provide Iran with the strong leadership that the nation has sought since the days of Cyrus II and Darius I, the Achaemenid kings, in the sixth century B.C. Rafsanjani, as only a hojatoleslam, which means "authority on Islam" and is the rank below that of ayatollah, has not had the religious credentials to succeed Khomeini. Rafsanjani has, however, been the Islamic Republic's shrewdest politician, dabbling in the legislative and military branches of government, collecting political I.O.U.s, and placing family and friends in key positions. He was a member of the secret Revolutionary Council that initially ran the country from behind the scenes. In 1979, he was one of the founders of the Islamic Republican Party, which dominated theocratic politics until its demise due to factional differences in June, 1987. In 1980, he was elected to Iran's first parliament and then became its first and, so far, its only speaker; in a 1982 national poll, he won the second-high¬est number of votes for the Council of Experts. He has also been on the Su¬preme Defense Council as Khomeini's personal representative.
Rafsanjani's credentials actually date hack long before the revolution. In the window of the Shams carpet shop, on Vali-e Asr Avenue, I saw a poster of the parliamentary speaker. It had been made from an old mug shot: Rafsanjani was wearing a T-shirt and prison overalls, and his head, bare of the white turban of a mullah, revealed hair cropped short. Under his round, beardless face, which hints of his Mongolian ancestry, was the number 3324-1354. During 'the Shah's rule, Rafsanjani—who, as a mullah, takes his name from his birthplace, Rafsanjan, just as Khomeini's name comes from the town of Khomein—was in prison at least four times between 1964 and 1978. Rafsanjani has been close to Khomeini since his student days, which were spent at the Ayatollah's side, and was part of the network that the Imam left behind when he was deported in 1964.
Unlike the generally glowering figures of the revolution, Rafsanjani has been known to smile. During his sermons at Teheran University's Friday-prayer services, he cajoles and gesticulates, and even occasionally jokes, in a soft, almost melodious voice. His collection of credentials and his char¬ismatic appeal have made his position, so far, indestructible, even though most Iranians I spoke with were aware that he had reportedly been linked to the arms-for-hostages deal with the United States.
Early one morning, I went to Iran's parliament, or Majlis, to watch Rafsanjani in action. It was the day parliament was to choose a new speaker after the spring elections. There were also disputed election results to he resolved. The unicameral Majlis met in a bright room with royal-blue carpeting and red upholstered chairs and tables. An enor¬mous crystal chandelier hung from a high ceiling, but the absence of neck¬ties gave the room an informal air.
The Majlis has evolved over the past eight years into a center of vigorous debate, and even criticism of the government. This particular morning, there were three listed speakers. They blasted the government on the black-market rate, on the government's neglect of the farmers, and on poor economic planning—often in heated language. Throughout the speeches, Rafsanjani sat above the proceedings, carrying on his own business with a stream of M.P.s—one of them a woman—who walked up steps to the Speaker's chair and either bent over or knelt at his side and whispered in his ear. Rafsanjani would occasionally turn and say a few words, but most of the time he listened, until the end, when he had a final word or two. This, I had the impression, was where the real political bartering was often done. In his disarmingly low voice, Rafsanjani then leaned forward into a mi¬crophone and announced the status of several recently elected M.P.s who had not yet been confirmed. Three M.P.s had withdrawn their protests against the credentials of four other M.P.s, he said. Two M.P.s who were protesting each other's credentials had been referred to an investigation committee. Enough parliamentarians had been confirmed to make a quorum, however, and a secret vote later that day elected Rafsanjani speaker for his ninth term. The official announcement reported that only five ballots were blank.
RAFSANJANI has nevertheless had serious rivals in government, and even within the parliament. The third parliament is more reform-oriented than the two previous ones, and many of its members are thought to favor sweeping economic changes that Rafsanjani feels might alienate the bazaaris, some landowners, and even some of his conservative colleagues in the clergy. Analysts in Teheran categorize at least a hundred and thirty M.P.s as reformists; seventy or eighty others are considered conservatives; the remaining members have yet to be positioned. Because no parties ran in this election, and campaign platforms were limited to a line or two, figuring out the M.P.s' politics can be difficult. For outsiders, the Islamic Republic's political spectrum has been even more of a mystery, because conventional labels of left or right do not fit: any cleric or politician may stand at different ends of the spectrum on different issues. An economic conservative, for example, might be a militant on exporting Iran's revolution. Although the mullahs all agree on perpetuating Islamic rule, there is enormous diversity—and division—within that framework.
Among the emerging rivals to Rafsanjani this summer was Hojatoleslam Ali Akhar Mohtashami, who since 1985 has served as the Minister of the Interior, one of the most powerful jobs in government—because it controls the komitehs—and the only broad national base rivalling Rafsanjani's Majlis. Last year, after the collapse of the Islamic Republican Party, Mohtashami's min¬istry was also given responsibility for supervising parliamentary elections. The increase in the number of reformist M.P.s was widely attributed to the Interior Minister's influence. Like the Speaker, Mohtashami was a Khomeini protégé, and he has an even longer record of service to the Imam. Rafsanjani stayed in Iran during the Ayatollah's exile; Mohtashami went with him, and now, at the age of forty-two, has spent most of his adult life at Khomeini's side, first as a student arid then as an aide in Khomeini's inner circle. Insiders say that the Ayatollah looks on Mohtashami as a son.
The Minister of the Interior is, however, widely identified as a leading hardliner, committed to the literalness of the revolution, particularly its export. As the Islamic Republic's Ambassador to Syria between 1982 and 1985, Mohtashami was said by Western intelligence to have abetted the 1983 and 1984 suicide bombings in Lebanon of the United States Marine and French contingents of the multinational peacekeeping force, in which two hundred and forty-one Americans and fifty-eight French troops were killed. He was also said to be involved in the bombing of two American Embassy buildings, in which virtually the entire C.I.A. presence in Beirut was wiped out, and of the Israeli Defense Force headquarters in the port city of Tyre, in southern Lebanon. "He is considered crazy," said one envoy in Teheran, who did not want to be identified even by the continent from which he came. "He is so fanatical and difficult to deal with. He has no common sense." An Iranian journalist told me, "He's a mad dog. The damage he did to the Islamic Republic is unrecoverable." He added, however, "Mohtashami has balls, and that's admired." A month before the ceasefire was announced, the Interior Minister told a Teheran paper that Resolution 598 was "dead," and declared, "I still believe that a weapon is the best answer to weapons."
In person, however, Mohtashami proved to be a diminutive and quiet man with a round face and a trim black beard and mustache. He was dressed in a black turban, denoting descent from the Prophet. Over his gray gheha, a floor-length cassock, was a sheer black aba of woven mohair, under which he kept his hands hidden. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, but after an initial nodding acknowledgment of my presence he rarely looked at me except for the next question. He acted as if he were shy and maybe a little nervous – hardly a figure capable of evoking awe among Iranians and fear among foreign powers.
I asked Mohtashami what the revolution had achieved over the past de¬ade and in what areas it had failed. He began with the standard Muslim opening incantation, in a near whisper, "In the name of God, the compassionate and merciful," and went on, "Naturally, the Islamic revolution has many goals. One is to bring about social justice and to eliminate the influence of foreign powers in the country. We believe that for three hundred years the West has been trying to be ruler and to decide for the Third World nations, to take over their power and to run their countries for them. In two ways they were trying to take over the Third World nations and to take in their hands the fate of these people. The first was through military occupation; the second was through influence. Therefore, for this revolution, one of the main goals is to enlighten minds throughout the world, especially the Third World, about what is really happening behind the scenes and to open this thick curtain for the people who are behind it and to show the true face of imperialism. One of the achievements of the Islamic revolution that has worked well has been to make people believe they can stand on their own feet, without support of either East or West," he said.
"Now more nations are taking us as an example. You may find the face of the Islamic revolution inside the movements in Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and especially among the Palestinians. People are trying to copy us and find an example from our revolution. When it comes to the Islamic revolution, both East and West, although there are old differences between them, set aside those differences and become united. They now get the feeling that the revolution appears as a third power in the world which is endangering them both. Our revolution fights East and West by its mere existence and by giving a good example to the Third World countries. Our breathing gives them a lot of hope."
He paused. "Is this clear to you?" he asked, and his right hand came from under his aba and began to gesticulate. There was little left of the hand—the thumb, and a forefinger and middle finger that both stopped after the first joint. The rest was missing; thick scar tissue ran all the way down what should have been the middle of his palm and wrist and into his forearm. His left hand never emerged from under his cloak, but I could see that it stopped at the knuckles. Three months after the Marine bombing, Mohtashami had received a parcel containing a book purported to be on Shiite holy places, and the parcel had exploded when he opened it in his office in Iran's Embassy in Damascus.
I asked him about details of Iran's assistance to Muslim groups elsewhere.
"We have never directly, or even indirectly, supported the arguments of those opposition groups outside Iran," he said. "This, of course, does not mean that if a nation has been crushed by a foreign power and if it stands up and fights a foreign power we don't support this right. For example, a man in Lebanon bombed Israeli soldiers in Tyre." The Israeli Defense Force headquarters in Tyre was bombed in 1983, killing twenty-eight Israeli troops and more than thirty Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. "His name was Ahmed Ghasir. Before we make a judgment about this, we have to look at the situation. He lost all his relations under Israeli boots and bombardment. We believe it is the right of other nations to defend themselves." I checked the name to make sure I had it right, for the names and the backgrounds of the various Lebanese suicide bombers were not generally known.
Mohtashami then wanted to go back to the earlier subject, specifically the United States. "America has no understanding of our revolution," he said. "They are engulfed by their imagination. One day, they say all Muslim movements and the Islamic revolution depend on the Imam's life. They think if the Imam passes away it is all over and finished. So many times they have published that the Imam is gone. It shows how weak they are and what problems they have." In reference to reports of a power struggle inside the government, he added, "Sometimes they think and speculate that among the rulers there are slight differences, and they enlarge this and feed people false ideas and say this will break or weaken the Islamic revolution. They feed this to the whole world. Their views of our revolution and our leader are wrong." I asked him about reports that he might be headed for a higher position —particularly with Presidential elections scheduled for next year. In Iran, the President is limited to two terms in office, and President Khamenei will be stepping down in 1989, when many Iranians with whom I spoke anticipate a shakeup in the hierarchy, possibly including the Premiership and key Cabinet positions.
"We cannot speculate about the fu¬ture, which is in the hands of the Iranian nation," Mohtashami said sol¬emnly. "They will select those who have given more service." I had the impression, however, that he was pleased with the question.
At the end of the interview, I asked Mohtashami if he had ever determined who had sent him the book bomb. Ile replied that Iran's best forensic experts had gone through the evidence and had concluded that it was a highly sophisti¬cated device—one that he and the experts believed could only have been concocted by the Americans or the Israelis.
DETERMINING the impact of Iran's power struggle is difficult for anyone outside the inner circle. I heard stories, for example, that Mohtashami had been known not to return Rafsanjani's calls. There were detailed accounts of an assassination attempt on Rafsanjani in June. Most versions agreed that at least one of his bodyguards and from three to five of the assailants had been killed. There were differences of opinion about the identity of the attackers, who were alleged to range from a Revolutionary Guard faction to malcontents in the Army, and even, in one account, to outsiders, including a Lebanese. None of these stories could be confirmed. That the divisions were indeed deep was indicated by an increasing number of public pleas for unity. In June, the Chief Justice of Iran's Supreme Court, Ayatollah Abdul Karim Musawi Ardabili, warned, “If you people fail to be unanimous, this revolution, which is the great miracle of the century, made under the auspices of God, thanks to the Imam's leadership and with your selflessness, will collapse." The degree to which those divisions might be destructive over the long term, however, was unclear.
To untangle some of the disparate aspects of the revolution, I went to see Mohammad Javad Larijani, who is an affable man known for his candor and his familiarity with the Western idiom. Larijani is Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister, and since this, spring he has been in charge of the portfolio for the United States and Europe. His office in the ornate Foreign Ministry felt much like a professor's study: a dark wood desk was piled high, and a bit haphazardly, with papers, charts, and books; pipe smoke filled the chamber. Before returning to work full time for the revolution, Larijani was a doctoral stu¬dent in mathematics at Berkeley, and he told me that he still used his limited free time to instruct four graduate students at Teheran University.
"We have a huge number of problems, but they are our own problems," he said when I asked him about the Islamic Republic's internal politics. "There's a sense of authenticity. I know we're in trouble, but we are making the decisions. I love the sense of crisis sessions. None of us are angels; we are natural human beings. So we have power struggles, yes. But this sense of authenticity is the most fabulous thing we have. Everything else is secondary. We love it. Even if we make the wrong decision, it's ours."
I told him that others in government had tried to play down factionalism. "It's impossible to believe that there are no factions in Islam, even in one sect of Islam," he said. "It would be a dull life if we all thought alike. There are factions in all respects—about the type of society, about the type of Is¬lamic system, about the method of achieving those virtues. Definitely, we have factions."
He laughed, and went on, "I spend a few hours every day thinking about the revolution. Solving hard mathematical problems is sometimes much easier. Take the first point, the conception of Islam," he said. "What is Islam? A fixed number of strictures and things? Or an authentic source of knowledge? There are very zealous and fierce people who think it is fixed, and anything outside is rejected categorically. Others think it is evolving Islam, a base from which to grow. This has divided scholars, politicians, and people on the street. Let's look at one example, the issue of art and music. We have a number of orders that have banned certain instruments for use. That means we could never listen to the beautiful sound of a guitar or a flute, as it is forbidden by our scriptures. The other side of this is that art by itself is authentic as a method of expression. Khomeini is on one side; without ex¬ception he endorses artistic expression. Or take women, who are not allowed to sing. Khomeini's view is that women can sing songs. But ninety per cent of the Islamic scholars think that women should not sing in public places. This is not an area in which you can quiet the people of scholarship. If Khomeini says to do it, they will do it, but you can't make them believe." He added, "The guitar is coming back. Women will come later. We don't want to antagonize our people."
Puffing on his pipe, he seemed to be enjoying this subject. "We have a kind of political system which is not perfect —not watertight or functionally harmonized," he said. "But we have a structure that is working. We never thought it would work. At the outset, we had only conviction. This Constitution is not divine. It is full of contradictions. But ten years later we can sit on the basis of this Constitution and amend it and correct it and go ahead with it."
Finally, I brought up the United States. I had been told by a White House official shortly before my trip that Larijani was the focus of much attention in Washington. In the spring of 1987, the Reagan Administration had relayed a message to Iran through a third party asking whether there was any reason for the two countries to talk about relations. There had been no immediate response, but sporadic communications had continued, through interested parties, on other issues, notably the Persian Gulf. Then, in April of this year, Larijani had come to New York for a round of talks at the United Nations on the war. He had also secretly relayed a message to Washington: Yes, there might indeed be grounds for talks. Whatever might have resulted from this, however, was soon superseded, at least temporarily, when the U.S.S. Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine, and Washington ordered retaliation.
I asked Larijani about this sequence of events. He confirmed the contacts but tried to play down the specific message. "In the last two months, there have been more than fifteen mes¬sages, direct and indirect, exchanged on a lot of subjects," he said. "It is our understanding that the United States wants to keep them confidential, and we honor that."
When I pressed him on their substance, he said, "The messages deal with the potential for relations and with the whole region. Our relationship with the United States is not a very obscure or mysterious one. United States foreign policy suffers from two main defects: first, a paranoia about our revolution and, second, a shortcoming of knowledge of the real state of affairs in the whole region, especially Iran."
Ile added, "Have you read the Tower Commission report? Three or four pages mention me. I read the Tower Commission report. It discusses opposition in the bazaar, the military, and the government. It says that at the proper time the United States can ma¬neuver the opposition and give several blows to Iran and put a government that is more reasonable in power. This policy is interventionist. If what President Carter suggested in 1979 had been implemented—recognition and respect for the Iranian revolution and no intervention—we'd have a United States Embassy here today."
His parting words to me were "The United States may damage us and may inflict heavy injuries on us, but it can't take our revolution away from us."
This summer, Iran began to open its doors again to controversial Western nations, in part as a result of Khomeini's rulings that shifted the ba¬sis of the revolution's legitimacy from the war to the economy and recog¬nized, if reluctantly, the need for Iran to reestablish its place in the interna¬tional community. In June, Teheran formally reestablished diplomatic rela¬tions with France after almost a year of tension. In July, on the same day the ceasefire was accepted, ties with Can¬ada were restored after the Islamic Republic dropped an eight-year-old condition that Ottawa formally apolo¬gize for sneaking out six American Embassy employees it had hidden for three months after the 1979 hostage ordeal began. Rafsanjani's brother told me that bettering relations with Britain would also be part of this package. The initiative was temporarily halted, however, after the United States Navy shot down the Iran Air Airbus, on July 3rd, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher issued a declaration that Washington had the right to order its fleet to protect itself. The talks re¬sumed in August. The next logical step would appear to be rapprochement with the United States, although no Iranian official would say that to me on the record. A local political scientist explained the silence by asking rhetorically, "Who dares to he the first mullah to order the 'DOWN WITH THE U.S.A.' signs taken down?"
I was always taken aback by Iranians' two-sided sentiments about the Great Satan. One hot June day, I spent some time with a group of women scholars and researchers. At lunch, the women were eager to talk about American politics. Like many Iranians, including quite a few who were not so well educated, they were fascinated by the coming American election, and they followed the news closely at a Teheran research facility that received major foreign publications. I had toured their library, and had been delighted to see copies of the Times and the Christian Science Monitor which had been published since I left Washington. The library also had the latest copies of Foreign ziffairs, Middle East Journal, and several other scholarly American periodicals, as well as recent publications of similar quality from the Soviet Union, China, France, Britain, Germany, and a number of Third World countries. "Oh, we definitely keep up," my guide, a female scholar, said with a smile.
I thought of her comment when I was back in Washington, and an American official (one of the 1979 hostages) then working on Iranian af¬fairs at the State Department told me that only two Americans were training in Farsi at the Foreign Service Institute's language program. They were to be assigned to the visa section of American consulates in Turkey, where many Iranians, both supporters and opponents of the Khomeini government, apply for visas. They have since graduated, and as of now no one is enrolled in the language at the institute. "It reflects the general feeling here. There’s no future in learning Farsi,” the official said.
The women at lunch wanted to hear about the Democratic and Republican Conventions. They tended to speak disparagingly of Ronald Reagan. One of the women, who had been educated at a major American university, said, "I think Art Buchwald knows more about Iran than Ronald Reagan. I love his columns. The one I loved the best was about an Iranian moderate—it ran after Irangate." She had read it in the International Herald Tribune. Any lingering hopes she had of Reagan, she said, had been lost when she read the claim by Donald Regan, former White House chief of staff, that the President's schedule was determined by an astrologer. "Could this really be true of an American President?" she asked.
Like many in the Third World, Iranians have created myths about the United States, for which they feel both love and hate. After the Iran Air Airbus was shot down, I asked a businessman what his reaction had been.
"I was with two or three friends," he told me. "It was such a shock. We couldn't believe this of America. Every one of us thought maybe an Iranian missile had accidentally done it. We couldn't accept that it had been done by America. We didn't believe it until we heard it from the VOA, the BBC, and Kol Israel."
Anti-American signs were still visible in Teheran this summer, but most were becoming faded or frayed. Shortly after the revolution, the walkway in front of the former Sheraton Hotel in northern Teheran had been painted with a large American flag. Yellow letters below the flag read "DOWN WITH THE U.S.A." The idea was for guests to tread on the flag. Almost ten years later, time, the weather, and many feet had rubbed out all but the faintest trace of the Stars and Stripes.
Yet signs of four decades of United States influence were evident, too. I found "The Final Days," the book on Watergate by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, at two bookstores. Several copies of William F. Buckley, Jr.,'s novel "Saving the Queen" were also on sale, although the fictional queen's cleavage and blond hair on the jacket had been inked out.
One afternoon, as I approached a corner restaurant on Vali-e Asr Avenue advertising “Try Our Fried Chicken,” I detected an unmistakable aroma. "Did this use to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken?" I asked. The manager, a short, paunchy man with a stubble of beard, beamed. "Of course, of course," he said. I asked how busi¬ness had been in the years since Wash¬ington and Teheran broke off relations. As good as ever, he replied. "After chelo kebab," he said, referring to the succulent lamb on sticks which has long been Iran's national dish, "fried chicken is the favorite Iranian food."
I finally went to the Foreign Ministry's Institute for Political and International Studies to talk about United States-Iranian relations. The official who had agreed to see me asked me not to use his name; the subject was too sensitive. He surprised me by framing the discussion in terms of the Soviet Union. "We are living near a big bear, and it is possible at any moment that this big bear will swallow this little thing," he said of his country.
I pointed out that not even American conservatives referred to the Soviet Union as "a big bear" anymore.
He was unconvinced. "Contrary to all these events like glasnost and perestroika, the Russian military doctrine has not changed," he said. As he talked, I recalled a 1985 C.I.A. memo warning of a possible rapprochement between Teheran and Moscow which had played a role in the United States decision to engage in the arms-for¬hostages swap, in part to preempt rapprochement with Moscow. Iran's twelve-hundred-mile border with the Soviet Union, however, seemed, at least to this official, to be of greater concern than the tension with the United States.
"So do you think it is wise to help this country stand up against this bear, or to hurt this country further, or to leave it alone so it can do it itself?" he asked. "It seems our strategic position would call for the West to help even if Iran opposes it politically, because Iran is in such an important location that attention has to be paid to it. If I were in the West's place, I would keep this in mind. The West's position should not be taken in response to positions taken by Iran. The West should be thinking of its interests, and not just our position." He, like many other Iraninas with whom I spoke, apparently did not want to pay the price of his country's misadventures.
I mentioned the American and other Western hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian groups, the suicide bombings in Beirut, and the American-flagged ships that had hit Iranian mines in the Gulf. "Iran's hands are not clean in this relationship," I said.
"You are right," he conceded. "But if I were in the United States government I would suggest that we try to advance the interests of this Islamic Republic government, and support it, even if there are problems between us."
I asked if he was trying to say that Iran wanted relations with the United States again.
"It would be a little too early to discuss that, but the United States should look and see what would help in that direction," he replied.
The Airbus tragedy on July 3rd revived public fury at the Great Satan, yet the aftermath was most interesting for an absence of reaction beyond the predictable rhetoric. A former Iranian ambassador to a Gulf state who had had five friends on the plane told me, "People are angry, but they have the ability to absorb it. If they have the ability to absorb eight years of fero¬cious atrocities, including massive use of missiles and chemical weaponry, they have the ability to absorb this, too. This is a great nation." Ile and others told me that many Iranians had origi¬nally predicted that Khomeini would issue a fatwa declaring war against the United States, but this never happened. In the end, Teheran used the deaths of the two hundred and ninety civilians, including sixty-six children, as a pre¬text for ending the war.
I had also been told by a White House official that Washington in¬tended to try to turn a human disaster into a diplomatic initiative designed ultimately to improve relations between the two nations. I put this to the former Iranian ambassador. "The United States has tried to destroy our country for eight years," he replied. "It is time to recognize the Iranian revolution."
I asked him whether, after so many years of rhetoric and an official policy of hatred, the Islamic Republic was really in a position to do something so dramatic and so conciliatory.
His reply was enigmatic. "It took the Soviet Union fifteen or sixteen years to begin to settle down, and the United States did not recognize the Russian Revolution until Franklin Roosevelt was President," he said. "In an age of jets and computers, revolu¬tions take less time to settle down. Ten years is enough."
Almost a decade after the revolution in Iran, determining how Iranians really feel about their regime, its leadership, and their own future is not easy, particularly since Iranians can be full of contradictions. A West¬ern diplomat gave me some advice that he himself had been given by another envoy shortly after arriving in Teheran. "Don't make the mistake of think¬ing that the longer you've been here the more you understand Iran," he had been warned, "Most of our intelligence reporting has been wrong all along, and not just since the revolution. Yours will be, too. None of us understand the Iranians." After sharing that wisdom with me, the diplomat, now one of the longer-serving envoys, laughed, and said, "He was right."
I remembered the advice one hot evening shortly before the ceasefire, as I sat in a tatty and barren Teheran café with an Iranian friend who is a civil servant. Over coffee cake and melon juice, he told me of his disillusionment with the government. He had marched and protested in 1978 and 1979 to bring down the Shah. He had been among the three million who turned out to greet Khomeini on his return from exile in February of 1979. But now, he said, he was fed up. He had not voted in this year's parliamentary elections; he had not even kept track of who was running. He wanted to end the eight-year war with Iraq; he would sneak his son out of Iran rather than see him join the military if the war was still raging when the boy became old enough. He wanted better relations with the outside world, including the Great Satan. Although he didn't like the Shah, he repeatedly made the point that life had been better during the Pahlavi rule. Then he was briefly called away by a passing friend.
When he came back, he was ashen-faced. According to his friend, he told me, the BBC and Kol Israel had reported that Khomeini was dead. He sat down slowly and remained silent for several moments. Finally, he said, "This is terrible for my country."