“Because for us, the war is not over . . .”
FROM HIS FIRST BREATH, the bearded Believer invokes divine power, for among the most devout every communication begins: “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate . . .”
This Iranian holy warrior chooses his words deliberately, speaking to me in 1998 in a cramped office in the mosque at Tehran University, where the threadbare furnishings and plain walls mark a monastic preoccupation with issues of the spirit.
His eyes are fearless. And with the certainty of an evangelist on a mission of conversion, Dr. Alireza Zakani is about to take me back with him to the marshy, trench-laced battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. He was wounded ten times and survived fifteen major offensives that remain among the bloodiest engagements in modern warfare.
Zakani was just fifteen when he volunteered for the carnage, breaking the age rules to join what he believed to be a “sacred” war. The fight had sparked a spiritual reckoning for Iran, deepened zeal for Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, and forged a militant ideology that today forms the bedrock of the Islamic Republic. In their eagerness to get to the war—to prove their faith, their purity of heart—young men would alter the birth date on their identity cards so they could “legally” sign up for combat.
Zakani was as religious as he was eager. His forehead is marked with the indelible dark smudge of a life spent in daily prayer, by the clay disk that Shiite Muslims bend down and press with their heads five times a day, to physically connect with the earth from whence they came.
“We didn’t enter the battlefield to become martyrs, only to defend Islam and the Revolution,” intones Zakani, his paralyzed right hand resting limply by his side.1 “But we knew that if we died, we were going to be martyrs, and that was important to us. So we would have victory either way. If we died, we still won—martyrdom is the highest aim.”
Still today, that collective war experience is alive, and affects every aspect of Iran’s politics and worldview. Iranians call it the “Imposed War,” launched in 1980 when Iraqi forces invaded Iran. The turbulent Islamic Revolution ushered in by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was still young and vulnerable. Then it was beset by a horrific war of attrition and Iraqi chemical weapon attacks that left one million dead and wounded on both sides.
The Revolution survived, but even Saddam Hussein felt obliged to mark the scale of the slaughter. Halfway through the war, in Baghdad, he built the towering crossed-swords monument, its hands larger-than-life metal replicas of those of the Iraqi dictator. When I first saw it in the late 1990s, what struck me most was not the magnificence of the swords, but the nets filled with five thousand Iranian helmets from the battlefield.2
The Iranian beliefs forged in that crucible—where the Iraqi enemy drew overt and covert support from the West—are one cause of the still-bitter estrangement between the United States and Iran. The war became a vehicle to enhance hatred for both sides. In Iran throughout those eight years of conflict, anti-American vitriol became more and more a pillar of Iranian policy. And in America, anti-Revolution disdain led the United States to provide Saddam with satellite intelligence, to make Iraq’s chemical weapon attacks even more lethal.
Inside Iran, the trauma of the conflict meant that ever afterward, True Believers like Zakani would seek to impose their grip on the rest of Iran’s diverse society. After such wartime sacrifices, these ideologues saw themselves as Iran’s self-appointed moral authority, tasked with “defending” the Revolution against all threats, especially those from the West. They wanted to convert their wartime scar tissue into a divine right to rule.
When I first met Dr. Zakani in 1998, that small office was far from the front lines, both in years and miles. At the heart of Tehran University, the mosque is on the edge of a vast asphalted space with a high roof, where carpets are laid down every Friday and prayers attract thousands. Among the revolutionary banners, this saying from Ayatollah Khomeini has long endured: “We will resist America until our last breath.” Prayer leaders hold the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle in one hand while they lead the nation in ritual anti-Western chants.
The rest of the week it is quieter. And so it was when I found Zakani at the mosque office, transported from the present to a past that was very close to his soul. He was back in the reeds, tasting the ingrained dirt of the trenches, breathing the pungent smell of exploding shells, and hearing the air-slicing whistle of blast-hot shrapnel. More than anything, he was reaffirming his conviction that it was God’s war, a battle to proselytize, to convert pagan Iraqis to God’s way, to prove His transcendent supremacy. Zakani was doing divine work fighting along the southern front, and found inspiration and evidence of it everywhere.
But nearly a decade after the conflict, Zakani’s type was no longer the majority. This was because the same war that bonded Iranians with a new national unity—doing so much to solidify the Islamic Revolution—also sowed seeds of deeper division in Iranian society. The spiritual sense with which tens of thousands marched to the front line was not shared by all.
So the war experience magnified the social rift in Iran between those who fought and bled, and those others—most often wealthy residents of north Tehran who had the means to flee the country—who rejected all notions of a “sacred war” and skipped out on its dangers. Even among war veterans, many were growing disillusioned by the repressive authoritarianism and incompetence of the clerical regime, traits which they thought were undermining the very freedoms they had fought for.
It was all these Iranians, the moderates who sometimes leaned toward the West, and war veterans and other revolutionaries adrift in their fear of permanent social and political stagnation, who had in 1997 voted President Mohammad Khatami to the highest elected position in the country, by a landslide. Those voters wanted to keep their Revolution, but they also wanted to reform it.
The back-and-forth between these hard-line and reformist factions—sometimes taking place brutally on the streets, beyond the ballot box—has defined politics in Iran since the Revolution. The winner determines whether Iran should be more a militarized Islamic theocratic state, issuing orders from on high to a spiritualized and compliant populace—which doesn’t really exist so neatly in Iran—or whether Iran’s self-declared status as a “republic,” dependent for legitimacy on the democratic will of the people, should prevail.
That very contest was at the root of the disputed election of June 2009, when the controversial archconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the unexpected landslide victor. What is not in dispute is that more than 80 percent of Iranians turned out to vote—the highest level ever in a presidential race—because many thought their vote could dislodge the hard-line incumbent. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei immediately praised the result as a “divine assessment.” But many Iranians called it a coup d’état against democracy. Weeks of violence and bloodshed ensued, searing the legacy of Iran’s Revolution with unprecedented division.
Now the regime was creating new martyrs—for democracy. Officially, just thirty-six Iranians died in that first burst, though some reports said there were more than two hundred in Tehran alone. Among the dead was Neda Agha Soltan, a twenty-six-year-old activist shot at close range by a basiji militiaman passing on a motorcycle. Cell phone footage of her death, of the blood flooding obscenely out of her mouth and nose and across her face, turned Neda’s demise into the iconic image of Iran’s tumult.
The mask had slipped.
Thirty years after the Revolution, its innate savagery was exposed again and now raw. Many Iranians were enraged. Many were afraid. Some were murderous. Some burned posters of the Supreme Leader. The streets echoed with the chants of “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to Khamenei.” The Islamic Republic—at least down the militarized path where Khamenei had chosen to steer it—had created its own crisis of legitimacy. In the minds of countless Iranians, the regime itself was subverting the Revolution’s original founding principle of freedom.
“The Revolution is your legacy,” opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi declared to rally his supporters.3 “To protest against lies and fraud is your right. Be hopeful that you will get your right and do not allow others who want to provoke your anger . . . to prevail.”
At the peak of the violence in June 2009, Khamenei called the protesters “enemies” who sought to depict Iran’s “definitive victory as a doubtful victory.”4 Those enemies would be crushed. There was no fraud. How could there be compromise over “God’s blessing”?
The Revolution was no longer about the will of the people, the gold standard that had often been held up by Ayatollah Khomeini as a crucial basis of legitimacy. Instead, in one decisive power play in 2009, the contest was hijacked by the most extreme factions in politics. Iranians had witnessed the culmination of a years-long effort to revitalize hard-line conservative rule and make it permanent. With critical roles played by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard and Basij militia, religious ideology was morphing into militarism.
“Do not be worried about the events and earthquakes that have occurred. Know that God created this world as a test,” the ultraconservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi told the Revolutionary Guard.5 “The Supreme Leader holds a great many of the blessings God has given us, and at a time of such uncertainties our eyes must turn to him.”
• • •
IN SO MANY WAYS, Iran’s revolutionary generation has failed to come to terms with itself. For three decades, powerful forces have stood in tension with each other, the religious hard-liners against the secular moderates; those who demand isolation against those who yearn for contact with the West. The result has been a destructive imbalance in Iran’s “sacred” political system—one that I have seen played out during the latter half of Iran’s Revolution.
What for some Iranians is a dated, irrelevant governing philosophy holding the country back in political, economic, and cultural seclusion is for True Believers still the only one that counts. And the example of that frontline doctor I met in 1998 helps to understand why. Back then, Dr. Zakani’s political and religious certitude could be measured in the lines etched across his face, and the heart he put into the ideals of the Revolution.
“I knew it even then, that this Revolution brought us self-respect, self-understanding. It gave us the gift of freedom,” the fighter turned doctor told me. He specialized in pediatrics after the war, before eventually turning to hard-line politics.
Of the three points of the rhyming (in Farsi) revolutionary slogan “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic,” it was independence from Iran’s painful past, the history of constant manipulations by outside powers, that resonated with Zakani. For him, Iraq’s 1980 invasion was simply the latest attempt by Western enemies—after imposing sanctions and fomenting internal unrest—to topple the regime. “We went to break the chain of these plots, to defend our holy Revolution,” Zakani told me. He predicted that another war would be “imposed upon us” by the West. The conspiracy was a reality for Zakani and his comrades.
A decade later, Iran really would be surrounded by the forces of its archenemy, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops east and west, in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, and to the south the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain. The regional tug-of-war was under way, Zakani told me: “I believe, and the revolutionary people believe, that the U.S. will not leave us alone. So they will try to impose problems. The Americans are watching us.”
To this day Iran paints the current standoff with the United States and the West the same way it did the war with Iraq in the 1980s: with broad strategic and religious brushstrokes. Zakani’s decision to volunteer for the war—like that of so many of his fellow fighters—was in response to the personal charisma of Ayatollah Khomeini, the man they called God’s Deputy on Earth.
“Giving us this feeling to fight was one of the miracle arts of Imam Khomeini—he inspired people to religion,” Zakani told me. Khomeini’s “biggest gift” to Iranian believers was the sense of invincible justice, that the Iraq war was a “jihad to save Islam.” Hardships were severe: steaming temperatures in the south, or freezing snows in the mountains of the northwestern front. The ever-present chance of death. And yet there was a worse fate: only severe wounding, perhaps from chemical weapons, and so no glory of martyrdom.
“A lot of dust built up on Islam over the centuries. The Imam shook off the dust and showed the realities of this religion to find the real Islam,” Zakani told me, growing animated at the significance of the event. The Revolution aimed to create an Islamic government, he said, but also “had a much further extended message for outside Iran—a message of spirituality for the outside world.” These views were so dangerous to the West, believes Zakani, that it “was good reason for international oppressors to attack us.”
Zakani’s moment of epiphany came one night along the front, when Iranian frogmen directed his small boat with flashlights to an Iraqi position on an island. Hours of hand-to-hand combat ensued, and the Iranians prevailed. When it was over, after a meal and prayers of thanks, a rustle of reeds revealed more than twenty Iraqi soldiers in the water, waving white shirts of surrender. Instead of slaughtering them, Dr. Zakani and his unit tended to the three badly wounded Iraqis and shared some of their own “good bread,” made from wheat and milk.
One of the treated Iraqi soldiers became very emotional and started to weep, Zakani recalled. “Now I know what is Islam,” he said, and he then went back to the marsh to retrieve more and more surrendering Iraqis. For Zakani, it was evidence of how weak the enemy was, how devoid of spiritual motivation. It meant victory was Iran’s. A victory that belonged to God.
“They were crying: ‘Now I know where is Islam, and which side is atheism,’” Zakani told me. “That’s what our real Islam is; see how we even treat our enemies? Yet in your country, the U.S., they introduce us as those who just want to fight. They show a different face.”
FROM MY EARLIEST INTERVIEWS in Iran, the significance of such heartfelt ideology began to dawn on me. Over the course of more than thirty reporting visits to Iran since 1996—a depth of recent experience greater than any other American foreign correspondent—I have been able to probe a society that is largely, and often deliberately, hidden from Western eyes. Iran is a nation where the cultural and religious forces of light and darkness are seen to wage war; where every word, image, and sensibility is often, for an American, deliciously unexpected and counterintuitive.
Iran is also the most enigmatic, fascinating, and challenging nation, as drippingly sensuous as it can be violent; with a life-loving people imbued with a 2,500-year history of Persian pride, art, poetry, and passion.
Iran is a bastion of Islamic radicalism and resistance that has inspired militants for a generation and revels in the most sacred and mournful Shiite Muslim rites. It glories in the aspirations of martyrdom and the protest of flag burnings. Iran is also a charter member of President George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil.
So getting Iran “right”—for their people, and for ours—should be the highest priority. This book aims to challenge the reader’s perception of Iran by providing a revealing and realistic understanding of the Islamic Republic and the voices of its people that will be crucial when choices are made between peace and war.
For beyond a cabal of cantankerous hard-liners and an expanding nuclear program, Iran is a place awash with color and life that many Westerners would recognize. Don’t confuse Iran with the monochromatic existences that marked the Taliban’s Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to the east and west of the Persian massif, or indeed either of those societies after the arrival of American troops—all of which I reported upon extensively.
Iran’s social landscape could not be more different and more vibrant. It includes nose-job clinics and underground heavy metal bands, and malls jammed with irreverent and “Westoxicated” youth who go to parties sodden with alcohol, drugs, and pursuits of the flesh. It has a vocal population determined to create parallel realities of freedom, to temporarily remove their lives from clerical rule. It is also a nation full of ordinary people, getting by at work and at school, and with their families, who often shudder at the extremes they see around them and wish to remain untouched by any of it.
My journey for so many years has aimed to understand Iran, to discover and describe its human face, to hunt for common ground where it is to be found. I have sought to ease the persistent and dangerous prejudices that grew out of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Popular anger in the United States found crass expression in bumper stickers that read I DON’T BRAKE FOR IRANIANS. When I was in high school, my running buddy gleefully wore a “Ban Iran” T-shirt. Crowds of militant Americans in Beverly Hills attacked Iranian students with baseball bats during the hostage crisis; elsewhere an Iranian student was subjected to what police called an “execution.”6
The persistent prejudice was understood even by elementary school pupils in Tehran. In early 2008, a girl wearing a black chador came up to me and said shyly, “Can I ask you a question?”7 She was part of a class trip to Khomeini’s former place of preaching in an old neighborhood of north Tehran. She asked: “Do Americans think Iranians are riding camels and shooting here, there, and everywhere?”
“The problem is, Americans don’t know us,” complained Mahmoud Abdollahi, who worked for the government’s press department.8 Before the Revolution he was at film school in New York and told entertaining stories about narrowly escaping a beating by a gang in the Bronx while searching for a mosque. Iranians “have beards, but they are not terrorists,” Abdollahi said. “They are human and have families and farms—just a different culture. I lived in your country, and I like your people so much.” Holding his thick black beard in both hands, he was more pleading than hopeful: “You journalists have a holy job, more holy than the priest. You should work as a mirror; it’s a heavy responsibility.”
I often describe Iran as a paradise for journalists, where the tree of knowledge is ripe with counterintuitive succulence and therefore always sweet and unexpected. So I delighted in my early visas, recognizing them as forbidden fruit but realizing only years later how rare they were, and what geostrategic insight they would provide.
I have witnessed a crowd of Iranians spontaneously prevent an American flag being burned by militants. I have observed hot tears of sorrow and devotion falling at Iran’s many war cemeteries. I have felt the powerful chants of thousands of men shake the ground as they pounded their chests in unison with religious fervor. I have played paintball in Tehran on five hundred tons of sand carried from the Caspian Sea; been to cinemas and vasectomy clinics; talked to female firefighters proud of rescuing women and children; found American NBA players scoring high in Iran’s basketball leagues; and mourned with my distraught Iranian colleagues when a 2005 plane crash killed sixty-eight fellow journalists in Tehran.
And I have marveled at the joyful reaction on the street when I carried a large flower arrangement—Iran is a country with a flower shop on nearly every corner, and a history of paying floral tribute to friends and presidents alike. Walking on drab and broken sidewalks, Tehranis would lock eyes on the flowers, and I saw their faces brighten like a blessing as they were swept away from the tough daily grind to a lush Garden of Eden.
But these Persians with such a well-honed affection for flowers come from the same country which repeatedly sent assassination squads to Europe to kill regime opponents in the 1990s. The same country that killed or helped kill hundreds of Americans in attacks from Beirut to Baghdad. The same country full of Believers willing to sacrifice themselves in human wave attacks against Iraq in the 1980s, with pictures of Khomeini sewn crudely onto their uniforms and divine dreams in their minds.
Perhaps most precious of all, I have seen how Iranians cope with their unique regime: by adhering to, loving, and embracing it in the name of God; or attacking, vilifying, and undermining it, sometimes just to spite God. And while many Iranians despise rule by men in turbans, I have learned that few would accept any outsiders toying with that rule on their behalf. They want to grasp freedom for themselves, and wage with their own hands the internal battle that will define what that freedom means.
For just as Americans are so often proud of their nation, Iranians are fiercely proud of their own patriotism, their heritage, and of what it means to be Iranian.
FOR THOSE WHOSE LIVES span both societies, the heady sense of exceptionalism drawn from both Iran and the United States can be as untamable as it is enlightening. Witness the bald irreverence of a good friend of mine—let’s call him Reza—and how he successfully shuttles between the iron-willed world of war veteran Zakani and the “corrupted” one of the West.
These two men represent the extremes. If Dr. Zakani sits at one end of Iran’s broad social spectrum, then Reza sits at the other. Between them live the majority of Iranians, occupying a most fertile ground of varied voices, aspirations, and daily struggles.
Short and sure, Reza was raised in the United States and grated against authority—a characteristic common to both Americans and Iranians alike. He told me he had a “machine life” in America, of early starts, school, and work. But returning to Iran as a teenager in the mid-1990s was tough, too. He was stopped fourteen times in the first two months, his long hair and cowboy boots drawing the attention of hard-line morality police. A girlfriend at his side often complicated the picture. “I was in shock,” Reza tells me. “They said: ‘What the hell is this look?’ Everybody used to be afraid at that time.”9
But not Reza. These days he has a receding hairline and a face that can shift in a wink from earnest, attentive sobriety to a very mischievous smile. “Everything is here but freedom, and that can be bought,” Reza informs me. He may be an extreme example—very unlike the average working Iranian—but he is also not alone as he pushes the envelope again and again. He had done his military service, for example, among the basiji militia, the outfit known for its uncompromising ideologues and rigorous religious training. “I was one of the hard-liners!” Reza says in disbelief.
But he was an impertinent soldier. Reza once humiliated an overbearing commander when ordered to make tea by secretly unzipping his trousers and dripping in three drops of his own urine. “I watched him drink my piss!” Reza exclaims triumphantly, and laughs at the practical joke. On a remote training base near the Caspian Sea, he selectively doled out gifts of marijuana, opium, pornography, and good Marlboro cigarettes, winning well-chosen friends who enabled him to break all the rules, so that he could fish when he wanted to and have campfires in the nearby forest. His homemade still produced alcohol that he carried in plastic Baggies.
For Reza, the God-sanctioned war of the 1980s for which Zakani was ready to die was nothing more than a meaningless illusion, a mythology used as a tool by fanatics to spread their fanaticism. But like many Iranians, Reza is also an operator, a master of deception who understands these competing trends in his own society and knows how to manipulate the system to get whatever he wants. His secret history includes teaching English at a university, where he parlayed his popular American accent into a job. But he was often buzzed from the booze he carried to class disguised in plastic water bottles, a clove of raw garlic ready in his pocket for a quick chew to mask the telltale scent of spirits. Persians, he told me, detest an overpowering odor of garlic on the breath.
Reza has appeared on Iranian television, also partly inebriated, in tearful scenes of devotion meant to encourage greater religiosity—acts he dismisses as “brainwashing.” He can’t stop chortling about the scene: “I had my little garlic and wore so much cologne, it was like a cloud!”
Reza is an absolute example of how Iranians often lead double lives and get away with it. I joined him one late night at a Tehran pool and sports complex, where he and some friends were sneak-drinking alcohol between sessions in the sauna. I enjoyed a swim, too, then the sauna, the heat made all the hotter by a boy whose job was to wave a towel vigorously as a fan, creating air flow and a furnace effect.
Afterward, when my glassy-eyed host finally got behind the wheel, he surveyed the glittering, empty avenues that stretched out below the north Tehran perch. He revved the engine like the practiced hot-rodder that he is, schooled in racing in Southern California during a very different youth. He turned to me with his hand on the stick shift, and boasted that he had once driven rally cars in the States. It was not an idle boast: Reza shot out of the parking lot, tires squealing, as my fear was swallowed by uncertainty—even marvel—at this flagrant display of fun in the uptight Islamic Republic.
We took flight, the car careening down the avenues, his friends racing alongside in their cars, windows down, music pumping on too-large and expensive speakers. It was a perfect re-creation of the rush of freedom I felt when growing up in America, pedal to the metal, with screaming music on a long stretch of deserted highway in Seattle. Reza gave voice to a fact rarely recognized by outsiders, which applies if you have money. Over the rushing wind, the roaring engine, and the pounding sound system, he slipped me a twisted grin and shouted, “In Iran, anything is possible!”
BUT NOTHING IS EASY, especially if you are an American journalist. To gauge the difficulties of reporting in Iran, and tapping into its complex political currents, consider my nine-year quest to cover a story that emerged in 1998, that day I interviewed Zakani, the frontline doctor. He had told me about the mysterious power that could still be found in the former battlefields along Iran’s border with Iraq. The martyrs there spoke wisdom from a soil drenched in blood. Zakani wanted to send me on a quest to join an ideological tour of the front called the Followers of the Light Path.
Twice each year, the basiji organized bus trips for students to hear those voices, to see for themselves their spiritual pedigree. Perhaps I would like to visit with them? No Western journalist had ever been on such a tour, which was clearly a mechanism of spreading inspiration for the regime. Normally, such events were off-limits to foreigners, or at least very hard to find.
From his position as the head of the Basij students at Tehran University—the Iranian equivalent of an ideological ivory tower—Zakani acknowledged that not every Iranian believed as he did. But instead of the hostility that emanated from many of his fellow hard-liners, he spoke in conciliatory tones about liberal Iranians. “It is natural that not everyone thinks the same way. We are convinced people are for the Revolution, but at the same time some are Westernized and have different views,” Zakani told me. He noted that 98.2 percent of Iranians voted in favor of forming an Islamic Republic in 1979, the only time such a referendum was conducted.
“We try to attract them to us. We don’t want to refuse them, except those who pull a gun on us,” Zakani said. “We as fundamentalists believe we should make the rest aware, we should give them guidance; talk to them.” This liberal crowd was only a “minority” and not a threat, he asserted. “But our response is to make sure it doesn’t expand . . . this mandate has been given to us by the war.”
I must have indicated a sufficient understanding of Zakani’s words, for he honored me with a gift of a basiji scarf, a chafiyeh, its soft white cloth crosshatched with thin black lines in a pattern distinctive from the Palestinian version. It still had flecks of dried blood. It was a genuine relic, the same kind favored by Iran’s young warriors as they strode into the fight—worn as a scarf, or used as a prayer rug, or turned into a tourniquet or makeshift bandage.
“We’re trying to transfer these feelings and beliefs to the next generations, because for us the war is not over,” Zakani told me. “The oppressors are always after us . . . so we must be wary.” In many ways, he was right. Iran’s “enemies” in the United States were “investing” in minority groups, he said, noting that $20 million had not long before been earmarked by the United States to undermine the regime.
And Zakani was finding success in passing on the message. He had letters of appreciation from students who had made the trip to the border, undergone a Saul-to-Paul conversion, and now embraced the sacred nature of the war. They described, in childish Persian penmanship, how the gritty, otherwise unremarkable battlefield had been transformed by their journey into a symbol for the most heroic legend of Shiite Muslim belief: the seventh-century martyrdom of Imam Hossein ibn Ali on the plains of Karbala, in modern-day Iraq. At the top of each questionnaire was printed this quotation, to put the students in the right mood: “Here is the center of the earth. Love was raised from here; here is also the ladder to the sky [heaven].”10
The new converts could not have been more eager. The first was a pharmacy student of modest religious commitment who now never missed her prayers.
“You may not believe that this letter is being written by a nineteen-year-old girl student,” she began. “Come and hear my heart! Listen to what I want to say. Understand me that I never believed in the war front, in the fighters. Now would you believe how I think today?”
She explained how she had found her “real self,” how she learned that “martyrs are witness and the martyrs would never leave us alone. They are always with us.” She acknowledged that the place itself looked like any other. “But I tell you, brother, that’s not true. You have to have a deep eye to see the difference . . . the ear to hear [the land] say what it has been witness to. If you don’t believe me, wait until judgment day!”
The second testimonial came from the son of a martyr, who did not understand his father’s sacrifice until he stood upon the spot. “I was here to find my father. Although I did not see him, I felt him and his comrades, and I truly believe that in all the moments of your life, the martyrs are watching your actions. And if you really don’t follow their sacred goals, they would not be happy with us.”
After receiving Dr. Zakani’s invitation, I wanted to go, too. I was eager to push the limits of what was possible for a foreign journalist to do in Iran, which would enable me to glimpse one of the fundamental seedbeds of the Islamic Republic. As a seeker of revelatory experience—how better to tell human stories?—I could see that such a journey would be rich with emotive power. But it was almost a decade and many frustrating but useful lessons later before I would get close to Iran’s former front lines, to feel for myself the revolutionary magic that still grips and inspires Iran’s True Believers and sustains the ideology of the regime.
My own saga to get there tells much about Iran today: How steadfast and ideological it can be. How self-defeating its bureaucracy so often is. And how remarkably similar on many levels Iranians and Americans truly are. That unexpected revelation helps explain the rancor of the U.S.-Iran divide all these years—what prideful fighter wants to be the first to give in? Further experience gave me one reason after another to take seriously warnings about the risks of any U.S. conflict with Iran, or of even believing that it is possible to “defeat” the Islamic system until it corrodes further and eventually defeats itself.
Before I got anywhere near the border, I needed permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which handles all Western press requests. When in 1998 I first broached my interest in making the trip with students and other pilgrims on the Followers of the Light Path tour, or Rahian-e Nour, these officials were dismissive.
“The border? No, no chance of that,” I was told with a shake of the head. Forget it.
When I explained that the Basij chief at Tehran University had made the invitation, eyes widened. “Well, if they want you to go, that’s different!” But over the years the trip proved impossible to arrange. Or I had just missed one, and they only happen once a year, not twice. Or as the war drums from Washington began to quicken their martial cadence, and accusations flew that the United States was recruiting anti-regime minorities in the border areas, it all just became too sensitive.
The chances of making my journey seemed to dim in 2003 and 2004, as those militant Iranians most paranoid of the West—and most dangerously suspicious of journalists of all types, Iranian and foreign—clawed their way back into power. Finally, the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, vowing to restore the roots of the Revolution. Among all the candidates—and there were a host of conservatives running—he alone explicitly disdained improving ties with the United States, saying Iran had “no particular need” of them. These were indeed the revolutionary roots he was seeking. The Islamic Republic, again, was taking on the world. And it was finding enemies everywhere.
Nevertheless, early in 2007 permission was finally granted for me to go to the border region, to the former battlefield where the dead martyrs lived on. Ironically, that green light came at one of the lowest points in U.S.-Iran relations, when the two nations—egged on by their respective noisy neoconservative leaders—were bracing for war.
The United States raised the stakes in January 2007 by detaining five Iranian “diplomats” in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil and accusing them of being Revolutionary Guard operatives working against American troops—though the real target was two of Iran’s most senior security officials.11
As Washington talked regime change, U.S. forces and agents just across the borders in Iraq and Pakistan had been encouraging Arab, Kurdish, and Baluchi minorities of Iran to mobilize against Tehran.12 Among them were the Pakistan-based Sunni Jundallah (Soldiers of God) guerrillas, which declared responsibility for, among other operations, bombing a busload of Revolutionary Guard soldiers, an attack that killed eleven in February 2007. Later that year, President Bush signed a presidential finding asking for $400 million to escalate military and CIA covert operations inside Iran to destabilize the regime.
U.S. Special Forces were reported to be already at work within Iran’s borders, clandestinely laying the groundwork for combat and planting radiation sniffer units that could detect any presence of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient of a nuclear weapon. Armageddon seemed just around the corner. Iran was responding with shrill denunciations.
And the permission for my battlefield pilgrimage came at another low point, too, between me and Tehran. I had received only a single visa, for just a few days, despite more than a year of trying. When I finally did get back to Iran, I wanted to understand why I had been shut out for so long. I had my suspicions and found out how very closely Iranian officials study the American media. On some levels, I was caught up in a small-scale version of the same rhetorical battle poisoning U.S.-Iran relations.
After so many visits to Iran, the files kept in Tehran about me are certainly very fat, overstuffed with stories—and doubtless very many intelligence reports about my activities. While sometimes that can work to your favor, because officials (and security services) may feel they “know” me, it can also create new obstacles, when those same people ask, “Why do we know Mr. Peterson so well?”
In Iran, such questions are reason enough to delay a visa, or reject one. But there had been other issues with my newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor, and with me. Tehran grated at some decidedly anti-regime editorials, and elsewhere on the opinion pages an extraordinary piece that argued for a “timely defensive first strike” against Iranian nuclear and military targets.13 It urged “anticipatory self-defense” attacks against 2,500 aim points in Iran. The writer claimed that such strikes would be “entirely legal” and rooted in a 1625 “classic” treatise, in which Hugo Grotius “expresses the enduring principle: ‘It be lawful to kill him who is preparing to kill.’”
Iranian officials were apoplectic, and complained that the opinion piece supported the neoconservative “agenda of war among civilizations.”
I understood the Iranian outrage and knew that it would extend far beyond official circles, to Iranians themselves. Yet in Iran I was determined not to let expectations of any official affect my work. Early on in my visits, I had made a deliberate decision to let the facts and voices that I found speak for themselves. But any Western journalist who writes about Iran becomes a “player.” Whether you like it or not, Iranian papers and news agencies of all political flavors will quote your work—or misquote it—to suit their purposes.
So praise and searing criticism of my own writing has—and should—come from both sides. My words have sometimes been balm to reformists, who believed I delivered decisive blows to their hidebound hard-line opponents. Likewise, extreme right-wingers have enthused that they had never seen such understanding of their beliefs by a foreign journalist—much less by an American.
My hope had always been that, on balance, all sides would respect professional work, and Iranian officialdom would see in my overlarge files a commitment to being a student of Iran. Usually that openness worked, enabling me to prevail in many visa battles. But not always, and less and less, as Iran’s conservatives expanded their complaints beyond the op-ed page.
I felt sure that one problem was a story about my 2005 visit to the Jamkaran mosque.14 Superstitious Shiite Muslims believe that the elegant blue- and green-tiled mosque, with its perfect columnar minarets, south of Tehran near Iran’s religious center of Qom, had been ordered built by the Mahdi and provides a close link to him. This was the mysterious “hidden Imam” who had disappeared twelve centuries before. He was the Shiite Messiah, and legend held that he would one day return and bring perfect justice to the world.
Among those waiting fervently for his arrival was Ahmadinejad, who as mayor of Tehran was rumored to have ordered a reconfiguration of city streets to prepare for the Imam’s triumphant return. The story required two weeks of the most intense reporting I had ever done in Iran—tracking down source after source, clerical and lay, to understand the resonance of Jamkaran for the new president’s rule.
When I explored Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mind-set, analysts spoke of how similar it was to that of the evangelical President Bush and American “end of days” believers.
“This kind of mentality makes you very strong,” the conservative Iranian columnist Amir Mohebian told me.15 “Bush said: ‘God said to me, attack Afghanistan and attack Iraq.’ The mentality of Mr. Bush and Mr. Ahmadinejad is the same here; both think God tells them what to do,” he said, adding that such beliefs have similar roots in Christian and Muslim theology. “If you think these are the last days of the world, and Jesus will come [again], this idea will change all your relations. If you think the Mahdi will come in two, three, or four years, why should I be soft? Now is the time to stand strong, to be hard.”
My story delved into many issues controversial in Iran but politically ascendant. Comparisons of Ahmadinejad to the most reviled U.S. leader that Iranians can remember also won few favors. Right-wing American writers and Iran bashers quoted the story at length, as proof that Ahmadinejad was an unstable fanatic, detached from reality and prone to spiritual illusions.16 But the reporting also gave me a detailed understanding of some shadowy religious factions, including the Hojjatiyeh, which had been outlawed by Khomeini and advocated creating chaos in the world to speed the return of the Mahdi.
The fact that my story was an issue for the Iranians became clear when I returned to Iran in March 2007, with high hopes of finally visiting the border area with the Followers of the Light Path. My curiosity was piqued when the new Iranian chief of foreign press asked me to critique a story that had appeared in an English-language magazine about the Middle East. It claimed that Ahmadinejad and many of his crowd were card-carrying members of the Hojjatiyeh, a “radical secret society” determined to sow global crisis.17 Ahmadinejad’s 2005 victory had been a “silent coup” for the Hojjatiyeh, the sources in the story argued, enabling the group to promote a “concept of chaos” that would herald the “dawn of a New Islamic world.”
Asking me to critique the piece was like a school quiz, and—struck by the strange request—I swiftly wrote an unsigned, undated eight hundred words about how I understood Ahmadinejad’s worldview to be different. Contrary to the Hojjatiyeh’s chaos theory, I wrote, Ahmadinejad believed that doing good works and purity of spirit were the best preparation for the return of the Mahdi.
“You wrote that without putting a word wrong,” press director Mohsen Moghadaszadeh told me a few days later. “We should call you hojjatoleslam,” he joked, referring to the mid-rank of cleric just below ayatollah, which means “proof of Islam.”
Had I just been rehabilitated? Would visas now be more forthcoming? Was I now back on the list of friends, or still that of enemies? Or had evidence of my reporting diligence reassured the Ministry of Islamic Guidance that I was no more dangerous—and no less dangerous—than an honest observer? All would be clear soon as my years-long bid to reach the border areas finally came to a climax.
Plans looked promising at first. I was to join a bus full of faithful students in Tehran, drive with them to the former war zone, then take in the ideological show in the dusty battlefields. But inexplicably, plans were scaled back, again and again. I waited in Tehran for a week, and was told that only one hurdle remained, the agreement of a top general. Partial approval was finally given, not exactly for the border areas, but for two cities nearby, Ahvaz and Dezful, which had been rocketed during the war and had famously produced legions of martyrs. Full permission might come once I was on the ground.
It would just have to do. And in Iran, when pursuing issues this close to the beating ideological heart of the regime, it was not a bad option. Ahvaz was sensitive in its own right as the center of Iran’s ethnic Arab minority, which had recently suffered a series of blasts and anti-regime riots. Tehran blamed the British—even the Canadians—for stirring unrest in the city. Journalists almost never received per-mission to visit.
So I smiled to myself as my plane touched down in Ahvaz; I was buoyed by an expectant sense of adventure. But even before the IranAir jet stopped taxiing, a text message came from Tehran on the mobile phone. Fars News Agency, tied to the Revolutionary Guard, was quoting a senior Iranian general opposing my visit and specifically naming “Scott Daniel Peterson” of the Monitor.
It was the same general who had delayed my permission.
“Until the release of the Iranian diplomats kidnapped in Arbil, Iraq, American journalists are not allowed to visit the sites of the eight-year Sacred Defense,” declared Brigadier General Mir-Faisal Baqerzadeh, head of the Foundation for the Preservation and Propagation of the Values of the Sacred Defense.18 Remarkably, it seemed that one weathered reporter was worth five Iranian diplomat/agents picked up months before in Iraq.
The Fars News report was a serious public censure, and part of a bigger game. I knew that such a high-profile statement like this would not be reversed. The hard-line press quickly picked up the story that I had been refused permission to visit the border, and turned me into a full-blown spy. The newspaper Siyasat-e Rooz in Tehran claimed that “when the enemy is expanding the range of its threats and propaganda constantly,” dispatching journalists to the border “can only be described as a cover-up.”19
Naming the “high-circulation” Monitor (my editors chuckled gamely at this misperception), Siyasat-e Rooz apocryphally reminded its readers of the “history of America dispatching spies to regions under the cover of being correspondents.” It called on the Iranian military to deal with “utter sensitivity and neutralize the military plots of America against the Islamic nation.”
About me, the newspaper braced for the worst: “There is no doubt that those who have been appointed for this mission by America are among the experienced spies of the CIA, who are responsible for evaluating the potential of our country’s military arrangements.”
I felt I had no choice but to return to Tehran on the next plane, finally defeated after so many years in my quest to see the battlefield, and to witness the ideological revitalization. But the Islamic Guidance Ministry—still aglow perhaps from my treatise on the Hojjatiyeh—told me to stay put. They promised to back me if any problem arose in the two cities where they had already granted permission to report. So along with two Iranian policemen, who changed out of their uniforms for this foray and were required as escorts, I began to work.
And what of the result, of all the politicking, fearmongering, and my nine-year effort to witness how Iran passes the revolutionary torch from father to son? I was not able to do the Rahian-e Nour tour itself or get right to the border. The photographs shot by Iranian colleagues showed women in billowing black shrouds climbing on the carcasses of tanks at the former desert front, and rows of colorful flags set up along trench lines that marked the beginning of no-man’s-land.
That front was denied me. I had no access to the impressionable pilgrims, as they collected the sacred soil into Ziploc plastic bags to take home in remembrance. I would not hear the hours of war stories and ideological lectures those pilgrims would have heard. In fact, judging by the reaction of one Tehran friend, who made her own private visit, the place itself was a disappointment. “It was riddled with dog turds, plastic bags, and garbage, and no way recognizable as a place for emotion,” she told me about one of the most sacred sites, at Shalamche.20 “I was not even moved to take pictures. You could only see truckloads of shit on the road to sell to Iraq. It was a mess.”
Though I missed the show, in fact I gained a much more powerful and authentic understanding of the sacred dynamic from the True Believers and their families, whom I met as they frequented the war graves in Ahvaz and Dezful.
Far from a hindrance, the presence of my two policemen proved useful at reassuring people, once these men heard my questions and saw that I was not out to sabotage the regime. But they were not enough to reassure all of Iran’s security services. Very late one night, two bearded men arrived at my Ahvaz hotel, and I was summoned to the lobby. They introduced themselves as Iranian intelligence agents.21
One was heavyset with a dark face, short beard, and a daub of gray scar tissue in the middle of his forehead from a lifetime spent kneeling in prayer, head pressed to the ground. He was dressed all in black and gave the name “Hosseini,” which was not his real name. He did most of the talking and knew some English. He had volunteered to fight when he was eleven years old, getting his start taking food to soldiers. The other man, spindly, tall, and less certain, pulled out a school copybook and started making detailed notes, his effort dwindling as the night wore on.
They seemed to know plenty about me already, judging by their precise understanding of my program. Someone had gained access to my trip request, someone who meant to undermine it. They asked if they could take photographs of me and videotape our conversation. I well knew that nothing good comes from any videotape in the hands of Iranian intelligence. It could easily be misused, cut and edited, distorted, and broadcast in ways that would jeopardize my professional reputation, inside Iran and out.
And why did Iranian intelligence agents need video of me, if this were just a “friendly chat,” as they claimed? They stated that they could have a hidden camera or a microphone anywhere (and of course they would have). I said I understood. And agreed that they could take still photographs—not video. Iranian officialdom had enough of those from my press card and frequent visa requests. But taking pictures was very different from acquiescing to a taped interrogation. Just the act of requesting the video was enough to doubt the Iranians’ real intent, to raise the level of menace.
The questioning got under way. In the empty hotel lobby after midnight, we were alone. “Hosseini” settled deeper into his brown leatherette chair. “So . . .,” he began, quite seriously. “When does the bombing start?”
© 2010 Scott Peterson