Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
VOICES FROM INSIDE
I thought I knew what I would find when I arrived in Tehran last spring for the first time. Never a fan of the Islamic revolution, I was not surprised by the sign at the airport that said, "Death to America." In my hotel a banner with similar sentiments waited for me. The next morning a taxi took me down Khalid Islambouli Avenue, named for the assassin of Anwar al-Sadat. It is as creepy as I imagined, I told myself, gritting my teeth. But from then on, the unexpected took over.
Tehran did not look like an old Middle Eastern city. The boulevards were wide and clean, the traffic well regulated. I saw few limousines, few beggars, and scarcely any soldiers. The pedestrians bustled along, as if on important business. Children romped in well-kept parks and playgrounds. Food was plentiful in both outdoor markets and restaurants, and store windows were filled with consumer goods, including pretty dresses, cosmetics, and lacy lingerie. Only the women in chadors seemed incongruous. After a few days in which I rarely heard a muezzin's call, it struck me that Tehran, compared with most Arab cities, was not very distinguishably Islamic.
My first interview was with two political science professors at the Imam Sadeq University, on a campus that was once a branch of the Harvard Business School. The university now has an ayatollah as president and offers a religious curriculum.
The two men, in their late thirties and costumed in tweeds, were Western-educated, but neither seemed uncomfortable being back home. They agreed that the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 had opened the door to a wide-ranging debate--underground for the public but unrestrained among intellectuals--on the legitimacy of the Islamic regime the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established in 1979 after the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Even the mullahs, backbone of the revolution, are examining the validity of Khomeini's claim to absolute clerical power, said the professors. In the classroom, students challenge the notion that Islam has all the answers. Increasingly, the two men insisted, the religious and secular elite is willing to contemplate pluralism in place of a monolithic religious state.
"Iran is now a fairly open society," said Hadi Semati, a Ph.D. from an American university. "There are taboos on public discussion of some subjects, and the government shows no tolerance of political organizing. But there's a new atmosphere since Khomeini's death in 1989. Secularism is rising. We have magazines that can, discreetly, discuss sensitive political issues. Over coffee, intellectuals compete in denouncing government policies.
"The point man for change is Abdolkarim Soroosh, a philosopher of science who first made a name criticizing the Marxists. About a decade ago he began to question the logic of rooting a political system in religion. A practicing Muslim, he challenged Khomeini's Islamic extremism, arguing for more moderation. Although banned from television, he still writes and teaches, and his influence continues to grow. My students revere him."
Javad Tabatabai, a tall, slim man in his forties, is a specialist in Islamic law and an irrepressible critic of the Islamic government, which last year fired him from a professorship at Tehran University. Although students demonstrated in protest--an index, he said, of Iran's tradition of intellectual freedom--he was never rehired. He now works at the Encyclopedia Islamica, another state institution. Iran, he noted proudly, is not like Iraq, where the government tolerates no dissent at all.
Tabatabai, like most Iranians, is without nostalgia for the shah. Iran's spirit, he insisted, is not religious, but the shah's identification with America was a heavy burden for secular democrats to carry, and religion seemed the only weapon available to the opposition. But now religion has become an instrument of oppression, he said, and the people are unwilling to put up with that. The Islamic state, he said cheerfully, will not survive another decade.
"It was Khomeini," he said, "who made the clergy into political agents and turned Islam into a political ideology. Most religious leaders had reservations about his ideas and submitted to them only under repression. An underlying current of dissent remains, which the government contains behind a wall of power. But the crisis is growing. The legitimacy of the state is fading, and some cities are already in revolt. Since Khomeini's death, nothing holds the system together."
Ibrahim Yazdi leads a dissident group known as the Freedom Movement, which survives, despite the ban on opposition politics, thanks to the reputation of Mehdi Bazargan, a foe of the shah who became Khomeini's first prime minister. After the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979, Bazargan resigned in protest and Khomeini replaced his government with a more radical leadership. When Bazargan died last year Soroosh spoke at his funeral, but the state would permit no public ceremony. Yazdi, who had been Bazargan's foreign minister, succeeded him as the Freedom Movement's head.
"Bazargan resigned when he saw the direction in which the revolution was moving," said Yazdi. "Our movement had helped to make the revolution, and we are loyal to it still. But we did not anticipate a despotic, one-party state. We stood by the regime in the war with Iraq, although we advocated a cease-fire when the nation was no longer in danger. But Khomeini went with the hard-liners, and they have dominated our country ever since.
"We also disapproved of Khomeini's authoritarian philosophy, and we protested the restrictions he imposed on the people and the press. Being a democratic movement, we reject an electoral system in which the government must approve every candidate. Iran must find a way to absorb values outside Islam. The Islamic republic does not have all the answers."
Yazdi provided a grim assessment of the government's performance. Nepotism, cronyism, and corruption are rampant, he said; the mullahs have proved as proficient at graft as the shah's officials. Inflation has soared to nearly 100 percent. Public industries are bloated. Promises of economic reform succumb to inaction. Antigovernment disturbances erupt regularly in Tehran and the provinces. Many Iranians, Yazdi said, feel that no one is in control.
"The clergy who made the revolution are intellectually stagnant," said Abdolkarim Soroosh, the small, balding man whom many consider Iran's most creative thinker. We met in the cluttered office of a small publishing house where he does his writing. "Islam today is in a straitjacket. I don't think its scriptures are enough for addressing current problems. They would cut off your hand if you steal, but they do not tell you how to be happy and prosperous so that you will not steal. I am a good Muslim, I pray five times a day, but I understand Islam's limits. Religion is for the next life, not this one. The danger to Islam is that the revolution will give it a perpetual bad name."
AUTHORITARIANISM AND IMPROVISATION
"The present government, though it is in principle Shiite, is not based on a consensus of Shiite religious ideas." The speaker was Hojatolislam Hasan Taromi, a cleric of about 40 who like most of his class wears a thick beard, a gray robe, and a white turban. Gentle in manner, Taromi studied at Qom, the center of Shiite learning, where he specialized in theology and jurisprudence. "It is the product of Imam Khomeini's conception. His vision of the Islamic state is not the collective ideology of the mujtahid [specialists in Shiite theology], though it has become the ideology of the regime."
Iran is a Shiite society, its Persian population professing a form of Islam that separates it from the Sunni world to which most Arabs belong. After Mohammed's death, Sunni Islam evolved into more a legal than a spiritual system, and by Islam's third century the chief Sunni thinkers had declared that the interpretation of religious texts was forever closed. Since then, Sunni thought has remained frozen. The Shiites, in contrast, gave their allegiance less to the Prophet than to a succession of imams, teachers who safeguarded the faith. Shiite theology, shaped by the imams' pronouncements, is more imbued with both rationalism and mysticism than the Sunni variety. In 940 the 12th imam disappeared, and Shiism maintained that he had hidden himself, to return one day as a Mahdi (messiah). Until he does, Shiite dogma holds, the community must improvise a government. This imperative largely distinguishes Shiite from Sunni Islam, and even today provides the writ for incessant political debate within Iranian society.
In the nineteenth century Iranian Shiism experienced a new phenomenon: the rise of a powerful clerical class anxious to play politics. Claiming a divine mandate to guide the government, its leaders called themselves mujtahid ("interpreters of the scriptures"), and as their numbers grew they organized a hierarchy, with simple scholars, the mullahs, at the base and highly trained specialists, the ayatollahs ("agents of God"), at the top. In recognition of his role in overthrowing the shah, Khomeini became the undisputed leader of this establishment.
"The ulama--the organization of the clergy--has been in conflict with the government throughout our history," Taromi continued. "Because of the tyrannical practices of governments, the clergy has usually been more popular. But there was no advocacy for an Islamic state, and even Khomeini started out supporting the legality of the monarchy. Most clerics merely wanted advisory powers, and some proposed to refrain from politics completely. This changed in the 1960s, when the shah was consolidating his power and issuing decrees that were regarded as anti-Islam.
"At this point Khomeini emerged as the shah's most outspoken clerical opponent. He was first arrested in 1963 and released, then was rearrested a year later and exiled. Living in An Najaf, Iraq, he developed veleyat-e faqih ["the mandate of the jurist"], his philosophy of Islamic authoritarianism. His ideas circulated in clerical circles in Iran. The ulama was cool to his proposal for an Islamic state, but he was so powerful a leader that when the revolution came, few Iranians opposed him. Because it was Khomeini's revolution it became Khomeini's government."
Would it be accurate, I asked, to call the revolution fundamentalist? In Sunni countries, fundamentalists--like Egypt's Muslim Brothers and members of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front--are considered advocates of restoring the Islamic values and social practices of the Prophet's era. But Shiites do not much venerate the Prophet's age; their reverence is for the twelve imams, whose heritage includes an esteem for knowledge and reason as instruments for dealing with social problems. Save for a few puritans, who deviate toward Sunni-like beliefs, Shiites make no apologies for their modernism.
"Khomeini," Taromi told me, "declared that Islam was not for 14 centuries ago in the Arabian peninsula. His position was that today's mujtahid must build a scientific, technological, industrial culture."
In his last years Khomeini even issued fatwas (legal rulings) endorsing music and chess as forms of popular diversion, shocking traditionalists with the suggestion that Muslims might have a life beyond God and the mosque. In Iran today the conventional vices have not disappeared. "Under the shah," quipped an Iranian, "we engaged in public drinking and private prayer. Under the republic, we practice private drinking and public prayer." More than a few Iranians boasted to me of the quality of their homemade wine, and drinking parties appear to be common. So is Western television, though last spring, over public protest, the government cracked down on satellite dishes, claiming that they were placing the population in "cultural jeopardy." (This only increased the demand for bootleg videotapes.) Recently the newspapers carried a notice that 100 Central Asian women had been arrested for violating Islamic dress codes. Iranians explained to me that this was a euphemism for the women's real offense: serving Tehran's thriving prostitution industry.
Government vigilance in these areas is constantly monitored by self-appointed revolutionary scolds, known as basiji, who focus particularly on women. In Iran women are freer than in the Arab world. They are prominent in the work force, dine in restaurants, argue feminist issues in the press. Audacious women, though risking harassment, commonly expose an ankle or some hair beneath their chador. Yet the dress code itself, as one of the revolution's visible symbols, remains unchallenged. My overall impression is that even the Iranians struggling to break the power of clerical rule do not propose to abandon the revolution, much less the faith. Nor do they have any regrets about the departure of the shah.
FREEDOM FROM AMERICA
Anti-American as Khomeini's revolution was, Iranians, I was frequently told, still feel a strong bond with America. Much of that feeling is the product of history. America's example inspired Iranians to rise up in 1905 in hopes of forming a democratic, secular state; an American teacher who died in the fighting remains a legend in the popular culture. My own experience confirmed that Americans are still warmly received in Iran, though looked on as specimens from an outside world--one from which most Iranians now feel painfully isolated.
The popular view of America changed abruptly in 1953, I was told, when the CIA engineered the overthrow of the antimonarchal government of Mohammed Mossadeq, whom Washington regarded as a communist agent. Many Iranians, seeing Mossadeq as the heir of the 1905 revolution, maintain that, left alone, he would have made Iran into a pro-Western democracy. Instead, Washington, by bringing back and propping up the shah, opened the door to tyranny and burdened the monarchy with a puppet's image. Khomeini manipulated that image astutely. To this day Khomeini's victory is inextricably linked with liberation from Imperial America.
During my visit I was asked to join a graduate seminar at Tehran University on U.S.-Iranian relations. A dozen of the students were men, three were women, all were over 30. Well informed and articulate, they were far from stridently anti-American. Yet when I inquired what the revolution meant to them, their answers all resounded with pride in an Iran free of American domination.
"Before the revolution," said a man in a shabby jacket, "our intellectuals looked to the West as the model to be copied. That's changed, and now they are looking for an Iranian way."
"Iranian identity had always been dependent, marginal," said a woman in a chador. "Under the influence of Islam it has changed to its true identity. We are now standing against the United States, and for the first time it takes us seriously."
"Before, we barely knew Iran," said a well-combed man in a sweater and jeans. "Now we're looking to rediscover everything about it, going back to pre-Islamic Persia. Iran now gives us a sense of ourselves, of who we are."
"The shah tried and failed to invoke patriotism based on Iran's imperial past," said a bearded man in his forties. "Since he fell, we've internalized our values. The state still does not tolerate dissent, but the deep sense of fear has vanished. We may oppose the regime, but we still identify with it."
In a mansion in a walled, wooded tract in North Tehran, I discussed the recent history of U.S.-Iranian relations with Mohammed Shariati, an Islamic cleric, now 47, who graduated from the seminary in Qom, then went off to join Khomeini in exile. He has been in politics ever since, he said, serving the revolution in the cabinet, as a diplomat, and in parliament. He is currently the director of an agency, housed in the mansion, which preserves all recordings and film of Khomeini. Out of enduring loyalty, he said, he still follows Khomeini's line. Shariati began by denying the premise of my first question, that the United States and Iran had once been friends.
"There was never a friendship between our peoples," he averred, "though before the revolution there was a friendship between the U.S. government and the shah. We are aware of America's contempt for Third World countries--Vietnam, Cuba, Latin America, the nations of the Arab world. You wanted to dominate them. You helped to save us from Soviet communism, and we are grateful, but your reason was to dominate us, too. Sometimes what you did was shocking, like overthrowing Mossadeq. You personally are welcome here"--he smiled as if to reassure me--"but the generation of the revolution, to which I belong, cannot imagine that relations between our countries have been or ever will be good."
I pointed out that Americans also have grievances, the most memorable of which is probably the capture in 1979 of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, where 52 Americans were held hostage for more than a year. In terms of U.S.-Iranian relations, I volunteered, that was surely a mistake. Shariati disagreed.
"I respect your viewpoint," he said politely--our talk was tense but always polite--"but mine is its mirror image. The United States was the shah's biggest supporter, aggravating all of Iran's problems. The American embassy was the headquarters of the plot against Iran. What the Americans did there was not an embassy's normal work. They were a nest of spies. The United States rejected our revolution and tried to crush it, as it once crushed Mossadeq. The taking of the embassy was not a mistake. It was a confrontation with our oppressor, and we have no regrets."
I asked Shariati if he thought there was any hope of improved relations between the two countries. He did not hesitate.
"Some events are unpredictable--like the fall of the U.S.S.R. or the Iranian revolution itself. Better relations may also happen, without predictability. But we cannot forget the past or put it behind us, and we can't start over without putting relations on an equal basis, which you don't want. We remain loyal to the values of our revolution, and they will not change. Our view is that the United States wants to be the only decision-maker in the world. But we will not be oppressed, and will continue to resist your domination."
Later, relaxing over tea and cookies, I asked Shariati whether his fierce judgments represented an Iranian consensus. It was the only question on which he paused to reflect. "What I expressed," he said at last, "is what some people in Iran think. Basically, the opinions I express are those of the people who made the revolution."
By all accounts, the makers of the revolution hold the rest of Iran hostage, notably in the Salman Rushdie affair. Scarcely any Iranian denies that Khomeini's 1989 fatwa calling for the author's death for blasphemy profoundly damaged Iran's relations with the outside world. Rushdie remains in hiding, fearing for his life. Iran's official position is that no government agent will attempt to kill him but that Islamic law precludes the fatwa's recision. When an Iranian foundation recently placed a $2 million bounty on Rushdie's head, however, the government did nothing, and when Iran's ambassador to Norway made a public effort to soften the official position on the Rushdie affair, he was dismissed from the diplomatic corps.
"The Rushdie matter, like the women's dress code, remains taboo," explained a university professor. "No one can publicly call it a mistake--though intellectuals all believe it was--because Khomeini did it. To the masses, the Rushdie fatwa represents the courage and integrity of the revolution. It symbolizes defiance of the West and of imperialism. If the government tried to reverse it, there would be demagogues stirring up crowds in the streets."
Other Iranians say it is naive to deny the political impulse of the fatwa. Several critics said it summed up the presumptuousness of Khomeini's doctrine of veleyat-e faqih, in that it claimed for the imam absolute power not only in Iran but wherever a Muslim might be. To condemn an Indian Muslim living in Britain was an assertion of authority barely imaginable in a medieval pope, much less on behalf of Shiite Islam, whose scriptures contain no authority for a formal hierarchy.
The universalist view that Khomeini took of his powers, some Iranians said, led him to call for the export of his revolution to the entire Islamic world and perhaps beyond. It was a factor in provoking the Iran-Iraq war and sustaining it for eight bloody years. Though the ardor of his disciples has cooled, Iranians say, Khomeini's universalist vision, illustrated by the Rushdie death sentence, remains part of the state ideology. It also strains the revolution, jeopardizing its integrity while casting a shadow on Iran's reputation throughout the world.
TRUE BELIEVERS, THE REST, AND THE WEST
Since the revolution, the true believers who dominate the bureaucracy and the streets--the hezbollahi, or "partisans of God"--have blocked Iran's reconciliation with the United States. Their opponents--designated pragmatists or moderates--have failed in their efforts to return Iran to international normality. Ideally, said one observer, the government would like to have it both ways: a strident religious populism to please the masses and a quiet back channel to Washington to mend fences. Instead it has confrontation, in which the demagogues have the edge, needing only to appeal for revolutionary purity to stir up the masses. To compete, the pragmatists must record some real gain; so far Washington has refused to offer any.
The pragmatists apparently outmaneuvered the hezbollahi last spring when the government, in a gesture to Washington, selected the American firm Conoco from among several bidders proposing to invest $1 billion in Iranian gas and oil production, with the prospect of excellent returns. In forcing Conoco to withdraw its bid, the White House vindicated the hezbollahi's contention that the United States has no interest in improving relations. The snub left Iran's pragmatists to lick their wounds.
"The American government does not seem to understand that we have people in Iran who think the revolution needs to feed on anti-Americanism to retain its vigor," said Saeed Khorasani, Iran's former ambassador to the United Nations and currently an influential member of parliament. "America's policy is strengthening these elements.
"I have argued since Khomeini's time that Iran's relations with Washington should not be based on ideology, but it takes two for a rapprochement. We have made overtures and not seen the slightest sign of reciprocation. Washington, for example, has had Iran's assets in America frozen for 15 years, and President [Hojatolislam Hashemi] Rafsanjani has asked for talks on releasing them. The issue is not money; it is a way to get the relationship restarted.
"On our side, important officials are pressing for a reconciliation, but I know of no American counterpart, not in the State Department, Congress, or the media. The hostility we feel from Washington plays to that segment of the masses which loves to take to the streets and shout anti-American slogans."
In April President Clinton ratcheted up the squeeze on Iran by announcing a total trade embargo, which he called "the most effective way our nation can help curb Iran's drive to acquire devastating weapons and support for terrorist activities."
Tehran took the news calmly. It noted that Clinton announced the embargo before the World Jewish Congress, which, it said, confirmed its long-held contention that Zionists run American foreign policy. Independent economists pointed out that the embargo would cause little damage since Iran does not depend on American imports and can readily find buyers for oil, its chief export. The Iranian press, with obvious satisfaction, also reported the refusal of other countries, including America's allies, to support the embargo. On May 6 the Tehran Times carried ten articles on the failure of the U.S. policy.
The Western diplomatic community in Tehran was puzzled by Clinton's action. No particular event seemed to provoke it. "Why Iran?" asked one diplomat, insisting that Saudi Arabia had contributed far more money to extremists who engage in terrorism. The consensus was that Washington had presented its allies with only the vaguest documentation to support its charges against Iran. Several diplomats told me their governments were irritated at not being consulted on the action, and they speculated that the State Department realized that the American move would not have received their support in any case.
"The feeling in the diplomatic community," one diplomat told me, "was that America's calculations had nothing to do with foreign policy. They all had to do with domestic politics, a field in which we had no interest in getting involved."
President Rafsanjani addressed President Clinton's two concerns in a subsequent press interview. On Iran's aid to terrorism, he said: "We spend some money in Lebanon. I would like to ask whether the struggle of those people in Lebanon whose land has been occupied by the Israelis is really terrorism. Is that your definition of terrorism? We help them to push the Israelis back from their land. We also help some indigent people in southern Lebanon, some in the Shiite community who are the victims of aggression and occupation. There is no other instance in which we pay money, anywhere else."
On the nuclear question he was equally categorical: "We are only looking for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. We have explicitly declared that we are investing for this purpose only. The president of the International Atomic Energy Agency has announced several times that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Nuclear energy has many useful purposes that can be used for development, in the health sector and hundreds of other fields. Before the Islamic revolution the United States offered to help Iran build up to ten nuclear plants. We do not understand the logic of why a great country like ours should be deprived of such an asset. Why are you providing North Korea with nuclear facilities? The American treatment of Iran is bullying."
I found no diplomat in Tehran willing to challenge the basic accuracy of Rafsanjani's statements. The international nuclear regulators have said on the record that they have no evidence to support the U.S. claim that Iran could build a nuclear device within a few years. A reliable source in the CIA said that America's charges against Iran on the nuclear issue were "spotty."
"Our embassy regularly raises the nuclear question with Iran," a foreign diplomat told me, "as do all Western embassies here. We do it to remind the Iranians that the international community is watching. We receive regular reports of Iran's aspirations to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Many Third World countries share that aspiration. On a scale of 1 to 10, the data rates about 2 for us, while Washington rates it at 10. That's why our policies are so far apart.
"As for Iran's support of terrorism, some of the charges are undoubtedly true. We are not impressed with the case against Iran in the bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires a few years ago. But the defeat of Zionism has always been part of revolutionary doctrine, and it remains important to the hezbollahi. The government argues that its relations with the West should not be tied to its Israeli policy. But it wants to be the champion of the Islamic cause, and is vying for the leadership of radical Muslims worldwide. In time, we believe the pragmatists will prevail. But they are still on the defensive, and the momentum remains with the true believers."
My own sense is that the forbearance shown by most of America's Western allies has much to commend it. Knowingly or not, the United States is providing support to Iran's Jacobins when its interest lies in promoting the Thermidorians. It is true that Washington has been burned in the past when it sought out pragmatists, most notably in President Reagan's Irangate fiasco. No public official wants to take another such risk. But after a month of interviewing in Tehran, I must conclude that what was naive when Khomeini was alive could be sound policy today.
The revolution's Napoleonic days are over, and the monarchy will not be restored. Given America's regional interests, permanent hostility toward Iran serves no purpose. Washington has major differences with Tehran, but no more than it has with China or Serbia, with which it recognizes the importance of diplomatic communication. America's humiliations of 1979 remain unexpunged. But Iran is likely to be an Islamic republic when the United States decides, even a decade hence, to regularize relations. The Iranian government is reaching out. A decade from now, it will not necessarily be easier to respond.