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Persian Culture and Iran's Defiant Diplomacy: A View From Tehran

Thursday, March 29, 2007

TEHRAN -- I decided to move to Iran after having spent seven years living in and writing about the Arab World, where foreigners are generally handled as a rare and privileged species. As such, I approached reports of Iranian impudence in dealings with the West and Westerners with suspicion. Were these reports just another case of anti-Iranian Western propaganda?

The steady stream of reports coming out of Iran about Westerners being arrested, summarily tried and jailed on spying accusations did make me wonder, however. Iran is the only country in the region where this is a regular occurrence. This doesn't mean that Arab countries don't suspect that foreign spies operate within them; just that the Islamic Republic is the only state willing to throw them in jail and ignore the international repercussions.

Still, I had my doubts. Surely, I said to myself, the Iranian approach to Europeans and Americans couldn't be all that different from the gracious -- sometimes excessively so -- approach of Arab peoples and governments.

I realized how wrong I had been even before I had cleared passport control for the first time at Tehran's ageing Mehrabad Airport. Placing my dog-eared passport on the ledge of the inspection booth, I watched the impeccably attired official flip through it until he found my visa. An expression of detached distaste flickered across his lips. He moved to the personal information page in the back and scratched the periphery of my picture with his fingernail.

"Why is your passport so dirty?" he enquired, zeroing in one of the large stains running along the bottom of each page.

It was not the moment to explain that its condition was down to the frequent traveling associated with being a journalist (a profession that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not take kindly to), nor was it appropriate to explain the stains away as the result of an encounter between Her Majesty's travel documents and a bottle of ouzo on a hot Greek summer night.

After mumbling my weak excuse, the official regretfully yielded his entry stamp and I passed out into the late summer evening.

That was three years ago. Since then, I've made Iran into my home and watched the nuclear crisis with the West escalate. I have realized that, while almost all Iranians are impeccably polite with the Westerners they encounter, they also feel the weight of thousands of years of nationhood more acutely than their Arab neighbors. Iranians never tired of reminding me that Arabs were goat- and camel-herders just two generations ago, and are unencumbered by the inheritance of Persian civilization, which compared favorably to the ancient Egyptian and Greek civilizations. It became clear that Iranian pride doesn't take kindly to the imperialist meddling inflicted by the Russians, British and Americans since the 19th Century. Sensibly, I decided not to remind my interlocutors that it was we Greeks who introduced imperialist meddling to Persia, courtesy of Alexander of Macedon. Let sleeping dogs lie.

As I learned how to speak Farsi, the subtleties of the culture I was living in struck home. Whereas in Greece, the country where I was born and grew up, losing one's temper is a perfectly natural progression for a discussion to take and demonstrates honest frustration; in Iran it spelled the kiss of death in any confrontation. Instant social exclusion followed.

The ta'ruf ritual of politesse governs the rules of social intercourse in Iran. No courtesy can be over elaborate. Essentially, ta'ruf is an effective way for Iranians to populate conversations with comments about the social calendar's stiff occasions and phrases of elaborate praise without giving away absolutely anything about themselves.

"Directness of speech is frowned on as being crude and indelicate," wrote Antony Wynn, the biographer of British explorer, consul and spy Sir Percy Sykes, about Persia. "Things are said obliquely and through subtle suggestion, for it is only to donkeys that one should have to spell out the truth." Little has changed today.

Soon, I detected a paradox: The Iranians I met across all social classes were exquisitely courteous and warm-hearted, yet when it came to negotiating with the West, their officials turned into the frigid passport inspection official I had encountered at the airport.

While Iranian diplomacy during the eight-year administration of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami reflected the courteousness of the everyday Iranians I was surrounded by, the Ahmadinejad era has reflected the angry revolutionary who feels slighted by the West and is intent on setting right imperialist wrongs.

Suddenly, talk of a "dialogue of civilizations" and frequent references to Western philosophers were replaced by sensational utterances. "The Quds-occupying regime must be obliterated from the face of the earth," in reference to Israel, was only the most famous. Ahmadinejad also questioned the historicity of the Holocaust and suggested that, if indeed it had taken place, Israel should have been founded in Austria, punishing the same people who were complicit in the slaughter rather than the helpless Palestinians. As international outrage mounted, Ahmadinejad challenged the Polish government to allow a group of Iranian specialists to travel to its concentration camps and carry out independent research. It was not to the Poles' credit that they denied them visas, allowing the Iranians to claim that their right to free speech was being stifled.

Last year, the Ahmadinejad government convened an international Holocaust conference in Tehran designed to present the Islamic Republic as a bastion of free speech and offer refuge to researchers from countries where questioning the Holocaust is a crime. The speeches of almost 70 researchers from France to Indonesia were overshadowed by the presence of Ku-Klux Clan leader David Duke and by members of the Neturei Karta ultra-Orthodox Jewish group, who believe that an Israeli state must not be founded until the Messiah has arrived. Some of the claims made at the conference were so shocking they prompted the Iranian parliament's usually docile Jewish representative to state that denying the Holocaust was "a huge insult."

Unsurprisingly, the diminutive Ahmadinejad popped up at the summit to predict that "just as the Soviet Union was wiped out and today does not exist, so will the Zionist regime soon be wiped out." He also reassured the attendees that "Iran is your home and is the home of all freedom seekers of the world."

Such are the outbursts and posturing that catapulted Iran to the top of a recent international opinion poll of the most dangerous countries in the world (alongside the United States and Israel) and prompted Iranians to joke that Ahmadinejad must be a CIA plant. In a March 3, 2007, editorial titled "Ahmadinejad, our secret agent in Iran," Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonot asked whether "Ahmadinejad is working for us."

"He is, after all, doing an excellent job for Israel," noted the author. "Fortunately, we have Ahmadinejad who insists that his country be isolated and trumpeted as the world's problem child."

And Ahmadinejad's provocative rhetoric is on view across Iranian society's hard-line segments. At a conference on Iraq held last year in Tehran, a member of Iran's National Security Council sat opposite an American academic delegate and raged against him in Farsi thoughout his speech, prompting first shocked surprise from the American, then hysterical laughter. In central Tehran, just behind Iran's futuristic parliament building, is a sign, with blood-stained graphics on its face, advertising the offices of the hard-line Jumhuri Eslami (Islamic Republic) daily. The newspaper is the proud purveyor of bedrock Islamic Republic rhetoric and a favorite stopping-point for journalists in search of an outrageous quote designed to reinforce the impression of Iran as a den of religious extremists.

Baiting Washington

When American saber-rattling begins, Iranian hardliners really hit their stride. Experts at the baiting game, they take their cue from founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose anti-American quotes made waves throughout the 1980s. Even today, Tehran's central Haft-e Tir Square boasts a large mural quoting Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti saying "Let America become angry, and let it die from its anger."

So it was entirely predictable when Ahmadinejad vowed to impose retaliatory sanctions on world powers last year should the U.N. Security Council carry out its sanctions threat.

"We will impose sanctions on them," Ahmadinejad told bemused reporters. "They do their thing and in return we will do ours."

Though less voluble, Ahmadinejad's foreign minister, Manuchehr Mottaki, is equally partial to making the occasional outrageous statement. Soon after the February 2006 decision by Washington to expand its "regime-change" budget for anti-mullah activities to $85 million, Mottaki advised the Bush administration not to waste its money and to use it for "more important projects that benefit the American nation." Always willing to offer a helping hand, Mottaki recommended that the cash should instead fund a "study on why so much hatred towards America has been generated in the world in recent years," adding that Iran would be willing to share its expertise with the United States in such a project.

The Washington-baiting extends to the private sector. Last October, an Iranian software company engaged in a bit of electronic tit-for-tat with the patriotic segment of the American video games market when it issued "Counter-strike." The game assigns players the task of blowing up U.S. tankers in the Persian Gulf and blocking the sea route through which an estimated 40 percent of the world's oil-supplies must transit.

"In the new computer game . . . the ways of shutting down the Hormuz Strait through exploding a ship will be shown to the users," reported -- who else? -- the Jumhuri Eslami daily.

Humor-challenged U.S. officials take Iranian utterances at face value, causing them to ratchet up the pressure. Their Israeli counterparts -- who live in the region, after all, and a considerable number of whom hail from Iran's ancient Jewish community -- know enough to take Iranian rhetoric with a pinch of salt.

Iranian oral culture is rich with hyperbolic mythological tales. In the Iranian street, huge emphasis is attached to exaggerating accounts of events for rhetorical effect. The lanes of Tehran's bazaar and its up-market salons alike resound to the utterance, "Baba, velesh kun, dareh khalibandi mikone!" ("Mate, forget about him, he's pulling your leg!").

The baiting has been best described by Iran expert and Harvard post-graduate Negar Azimi, who calls it "more like a game than cause for serious political concern."

"The game goes something like this: One side ups the ante on the nuclear issue, saber-rattling that Iran's nuclear ambitions are a threat to the free world; the other side laughs it off, insisting that it seeks nuclear energy purely for the generation of electricity. The latter capitalizes on Iranian nationalism, claiming the imperialists are depriving Iran of its rights under international law and, perhaps most important, before God."

Persian Nationalism

The longest holiday in the calendar of the Islamic Republic stretches over two weeks, when the country effectively shuts down. Woe betide anyone in need of getting urgent business done. The Iranians even close down parts of their borders with neighboring countries. Surprisingly, the event being commemorated is not Islamic but purely Persian. Nowrooz (the Iranian New Year, marked on March 21), is a pre-Islamic solstice celebration featuring pagan rituals, one of which topped the list of events to be abolished by the mullahs when they came to power.

Soon however, the clergy understood that trying to cancel events such as Chaharshanbe Suri (a pagan fire festival) was pointless because it was far more deeply rooted in the Persian psyche than Islam. After all, Mohammad's faith has been around in Iran a mere thirteen centuries, less than half the span of recorded Persian culture.

Persian nationalism motivates the average Iranian far more than their Islamic faith. Iranians who loathe the Islamic regime and call its representatives "Arab agents" rue its use of public funds to support revolutionary Islamic movements in the Arab World. Even within the regime, the streak of Persian nationalism is strong, especially in foreign policy. Iran has been around as a country far longer than as an Islamic Republic, something that senior cleric and Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Ali Jannati takes note of when delivering his sermons. Following a large turnout at last year's anniversary of the revolution rally, he thanked Iranians for their presence and described it as "a decisive blow to the enemy. You made the enemy aware of your determination to remain an independent, powerful and respectful nation."

The 1979 Revolution was all about Iran becoming independent, powerful and commanding the world's respect. Iran is the only country in the region to regularly behave unilaterally, and it also traditionally sets the pace of change in the Middle East. Where Iran goes, Arab countries follow. The 1908 Constitutional Revolution, the 1952 nationalization of the British-Iranian Oil Company, and the 1979 Revolution and subsequent creation of an Islamic Republic rippled West across the Persian Gulf to influence the region and spawn copycat events in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries.

Today's belligerent-sounding rhetoric has its roots in Iranian disillusionment with the international community's unwillingness to condemn the unprovoked 1980 invasion of Iran by Iraq, Baghdad's use of chemical weapons against Iranian civilians during the war, and the covert military aid the West funneled into Saddam Hussein's regime. More recently, Iran helped the United States out in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 by sharing valuable intelligence uncovered by its long-established networks in that country. Its reward was to be included in U.S. President George W. Bush's notorious "axis of evil" speech.

"They (the West) keep on speaking about the U.N. Security Council," said Jannati, the cleric. "I think you should call it the council to instill insecurity! Whenever they want to scare someone they mention the Security Council. What sort of security is this? They have put a scarecrow there and show it to whomever they want to scare. So this is security or insecurity?"

When Mottaki or Ahmadinejad make bizarre-sounding statements, it is not just because they are religious fundamentalists (although their anti-homosexual, male-centered world-view is certainly outlandish from a Western perspective). It is because of their background. Whereas these lower-middle class men and pious Muslims were condemned to bump perennially against a glass ceiling during the era of the pro-Western, secular Shah, the Revolution launched them to the top of their country's hierarchy. Along the way, they tasted once more the bitterness of Western duplicity on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War.

Last month, as the U.N. Security Council-mandated deadline for Iran to stop enriching uranium loomed, Ahmadinejad proposed that Iran would cease enrichment if the West would to do the same on its own nuclear programs, thus wickedly exposing the Western double standard on Iran. This apparently logical-sounding suggestion was guaranteed to enrage Western diplomats. Iran's diplomats insist that their country is not defying the international community, as Western rhetoric would have it. Instead, they argue that they are resisting a small group of Western industrialized countries masquerading as the international community, which seek to beat it back into a corner, much like their imperialist ancestors employed gunship diplomacy in the 19th Century to keep the Middle East backward under their thumb.

Even Mohammad al-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, appeared to concur with the Iranians on this point, last month. In announcing that Iran has acquired important nuclear know-how, he said that "you cannot bomb knowledge."

Solving the Persian nuclear puzzle likely will occur through negotiation rather than the use of military force. Until the Iranians have retaken their position at the top of the regional security architecture, as during the pre-revolutionary era, they will not be satisfied. It is only when this Persian perception of Western disrespect has subsided that we can expect the confrontational rhetoric to stop.

Two years ago, an Iranian researcher stood up at a public meeting and commented to the German ambassador to Tehran that as Iranians are an Aryan race like the Germans themselves, when should Iran expect to begin accession talks with the European Union? Not missing a beat, the German ambassador remonstrated that while Iranians and Europeans are both Aryans, not all Aryans can be Europeans.

The cringe-worthy putdown was another illustration of the ambitions that Iran harbors and its periodic and violent collisions with reality. For a Greek listening to this exchange, it was a poignant reminder that, like Iran, mine is just another ancient culture with an over-inflated image and false expectations that the world owes us a living. Plus ça change . . .

Iason Athanasiadis is a Tehran-based analyst and writer.