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From the critics. It was retold 50 years ago to remind us how gullible we had been about a dangerous enemy.
I am a Cold War veteran who believes in deterrence and accepts that there was a genuine Soviet threat. I am an incorrigible Zionist. I think my own country has allowed its armed forces to become lamentably weak. But I think the difference between the official account of Iran as sinister menace and the Iran I experienced is so great that it is a sort of duty to draw attention to it.
This general fear is so strong that members of my own family, used to my traveling to many curious corners of the world and much-traveled themselves, were apprehensive about my going to Tehran. Feelings were a little high at the time. A group of Royal Navy bluejackets and Marines had just been seized by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the waters off Basra and released after alleged ill treatment.
These trained warriors spoke of their experiences as if they had been held in the dungeons of man-eating pirates, claiming to have been scared of torture and, in the case of the one woman involved, of rape. So terror-stricken had they been that they allowed themselves to be filmed more or less admitting to losing their way and rambling into Iranian waters. Their subsequent fate—sudden release after an apparent deal, the sale by some of them of their pathetic memoirs to mass-circulation newspapers, a national revulsion against them for their general feebleness—is interesting in itself, but it is not part of my story.
This list, frequently revised, is maintained by those who feel a pressing need for a national enemy and who have been bereft of a proper foe since the Soviet Union fell in on itself in a cloud of rust. The ayatollahs do not encourage foreign journalists to visit and declined to give me a press visa. So I went unofficially, unsupervised by official minders, and was able to travel in a great sweep round the country, journeying to within a few miles of the Afghan border and close to the Persian Gulf.
And I was kissed on both cheeks by a bearded mullah in the holy city of Qom. I can imagine few more useless precautions against the pilots of the Israeli or United States air forces, except perhaps for a patrol of biplanes or some bows and arrows. I am not equipped to judge such things technically. I could not tell uranium from plutonium or a centrifuge from a capacitor. But I have been subjected to enough state-sponsored panics about evil dictators and weapons of mass destruction to have become a little dubious when I am told that a Middle Eastern state is plotting my imminent death or a first strike on Tel Aviv.
The Tehran government appears to exaggerate the number of centrifuges it has in operation. Its capacity to enrich uranium is pitifully short of that needed to produce weapons-grade material. Its elderly nuclear reactor at Bushehr has yet to produce a watt of electricity after more than 30 years. This supposed energy superpower imposes frequent power blackouts, as I can confirm from personal experience. The Iranian state is, in any case, famous among its own people for being very bad at delivering grand projects.
Several cities, promised metro-rail systems years ago, have yet to see a single train run. In any case, if you wish to become frantic about Islamic bombs, then there is surely a better case for worrying about Pakistan, which already possesses such a bomb along with the missiles to hurl it about the region. Yet Pakistan, mysteriously, is our friend and ally, despite being a lawless military tyranny and the only country on earth to have an army unit specifically trained to mount putsches against its rarely elected governments.
In any event, it is idle and wrong to see Iran as part of an undifferentiated Muslim world. It is astonishingly distinct from its Arab neighbors and, come to that, from its interesting non-identical twin, Turkey. While Turkey is an Islamic state kept secular so far by a covert army dictatorship, Iran is a secular state kept Islamic by an overt clerical despotism.
Iranians, as they will swiftly point out to you, are mostly non-Arabs. Nor are they, apart from an important but small minority, Turks. And their espousal of the Shia rather than the Sunni branch of the faith cuts them off, whether they like it or not, from most of the rest of Islam. This divide is far more important than most of us realize. We are aware of it mainly because of the Shia majority in Iraq and the influence that Iran can exercise through them.
At once theocratic, secular, hostile, and modern, Iran is not America's natural enemy.
But what I did not properly appreciate before visiting Iran is that Shia Islam is for all practical purposes a separate religion. I had, on a visit to Iraq, been lucky enough to visit the Shia shrine cities of Najaf and Kerbala but only in search of opinion on the Anglo-American occupation. I had noticed that the mosques were interestingly different from the Sunni ones I had seen in Jordan, Egypt, Jerusalem, and England but had made little of it. In the great Shia pilgrimage city of Mashhad, on the old Silk Road to China, I understood for the first time that this was something utterly apart, as separate from Sunni practice as a Sicilian Roman Catholic might be from a Scotch Calvinist.
I have never felt so close to understanding the passionate pre-Reformation world of medieval Europe, its relics and devotees, its enormous, thronged, and gilded shrines. Passing through ever more ornate courtyards decorated with lovely blue-tiled recesses and overlooked by a dome apparently made of solid gold, I was able to look into the glittering center of the shrine of Imam Reza, one of the sad heroes of this tragic faith.
All Shia martyrs were the victims of political, temporal defeat, some slain in unfair battle, others—like Reza—foully murdered by conspiratorial enemies. They are still mourned, as if these events had happened yesterday rather than more than a thousand years ago. The Twelfth Imam is thought to have disappeared from the world of men, only to reappear at an unknown date to restore the rule of peace and justice. The martyred Reza lies in a green-shrouded tomb surrounded by a solid silver cage, which the pilgrims surge forward to touch, some crying out in a sort of ecstasy at having reached their goal.
The sepulcher is approached down marvelously carpeted corridors —one for men and one for women— whose walls and ceilings are lined with thousands of tiny pieces of mirrored glass and sparkle perpetually. Many devotees force their way through the multitudes and, before they are pushed away by competing worshippers, hurriedly tie green ribbons to the silver bars, or even fix padlocks to them, in the hope of having wishes granted when the knot eventually comes loose or the lock is broken.
Others push quantities of banknotes into the enclosure. Shia believe that a special blessing attaches to those whose bodies are brought close to the shrine. Something very old indeed is taking place here—something much frowned upon in the Sunni lands.
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Some trace connections to the ceremonies of a sect of Zoroastrianism, the great monotheistic faith that dominated Persia before the coming of Islam and still survives even now in small but persistent pockets. Whatever its origins and nature, it is not liked by the austere forms of Sunni Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia and its allies. If Shia make the pilgrimage to Mecca, they find they are sourly tolerated but not welcomed as friends. The separation, whatever its reasons and origins, helps to reinforce a strong feeling that Iran is trapped in the middle of a world to which it does not really belong.
Wander through Tehran, or any other Iranian city, at the delightful evening hour always pleasing in any Middle Eastern capital, soon after evening prayers have been called, when the sweet and cake shops are preparing for business and the lights are warm and bright. You will quickly notice that it is not—as it would be elsewhere—an all-male street scene. Women are walking about quite freely, and not in that hunched, submissive posture so common in the Arab lands.
They are, especially in the more middle-class areas, consciously subverting the ridiculous dress codes imposed on them by the mullahs. The veil is plainly imposed, not willingly worn as it increasingly is by Arab women on the luxury shopping streets of London. Clothes intended to be shapeless have been carefully nipped in and adapted to emphasize the waist, contrary to regulations.
Headscarves are placed so far back on the head that they are barely there at all. Heels are high, and many walk and stand like Parisians. Every so often, squads of morality police still descend on the streets to try to enforce compulsory modesty.
Green Ribbons and Turbans: Young Iranians Against the Mullahs
But the battle is undoubtedly lost. And that is important because it symbolizes the way in which the regime has failed to hold the hearts of the people in so many other ways as well. A sort of public opinion does exist in Iran. Despite a still fearsome formal repressive apparatus, which swiftly and disgustingly punishes formal open dissent in newspapers or in street demonstrations, private conversation is quite unregulated, deeply irreverent, and totally fearless.
Even in poor South Tehran, where the Islamic enthusiasts have more influence, I was told an unprintably rude joke about the Ayatollah Khomeini that suggested the old man was not very clever. This private dissent has an interesting effect, a sort of passive resistance expressed by a lack of enthusiasm. In Mashhad, I was assured, public executions had become rare because they were unpopular, and people would not go to watch them unless the condemned man had committed some especially heinous and bloody crime.
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In private homes and in public places, the men and women to whom I spoke expressed dissenting opinions with amazing, sometimes alarming freedom. I had to ask myself from time to time whether I was in a tyranny at all. What were those opinions? As in any proper country, they varied. I had dinner with a group of professionals, male and female, the women voluntarily veiled, where almost all said they had voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for president.