Dispatch

Misreading Tehran

Iranians realize that the world is lined up against them, but don't expect them to beg for mercy.

Iran's parliamentary election this month may not have provided the political earthquake that attracts blanket coverage on the cable news networks, but it did provide several dozen Western correspondents with an increasingly rare window into a country that is much discussed, but poorly understood.

Western pundits and politicians' obsession with Iran's nuclear program and the fading domestic opposition movement has blinded them to some of the most telling signs of shifting attitudes inside Iran. Had they been looking closely, what they might have seen is a proud nation painfully aware of its international isolation, but unwilling to back down in its increasingly dangerous game of chicken with the West.

Of course, most of the journalists who made the long trip to Tehran spent much of their time jumping through hoops. Two days before the election, for example, visiting reporters and representatives of the foreign media were invited to visit Iran's fledgling space program. A trip to the Alborz Space Center, an industrial suburb an hour's drive outside of Tehran, was not why most of these reporters had come -- but passing up the invitation did not seem to be an option.

As the project manager began to describe the successes of Iran's Navid satellite, a domestically produced observer satellite put into orbit last month, there was one problem: No official translator was present. There was supposed to be one, the scientist told us, but he hadn't shown up yet.

After a bit of jostling, one of the English-speaking fixers for a visiting North American reporter made his way to the podium. "I am not a member of Iran's space program, so please do not put that in your reports," he announced. "That would be wrong information that could get me in a lot of trouble with the CIA. I really don't want to be the next Iranian scientist to be assassinated."

After a brief and awkward pause, and once the ensuing laughter had died down, the project manager answered several questions.

"Was this a joint effort with other countries?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"We asked all other nations with space programs if they'd like to work with us, and none accepted, so we did it ourselves."

"Does this satellite have any military uses?"

"No, as I told you, it's designed to gather weather and other environmental information."

That seemed a little harder for reporters to believe, but, given the high premium Iranians put on scientific advancement, it should come as no surprise.

In the 20-minute press conference, Iran's growing cynicism and pride in its accomplishments were equally on display. Those points were re-enforced later that evening, at a press conference with Iran's dry but no-nonsense Interior Minister Mostafa-Mohammad Najjar.

Several foreign journalists boldly pointed out that "reformist" and "Green Movement" candidates were missing from the ballots. Not missing a beat, the minister responded that those people, "based on their behavior, had separated themselves from the nation." This election represented a national festival for Iranians, celebrating the "season of harvesting truth from the tree of religious democracy."

If that message wasn't clear, it became even more so the next morning. Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaie, at a press conference, described the prospect of allowing independent international monitors to oversee the election as "insulting to the common sense of Iranian people." That sort of assistance, he said, was only needed "by countries and people who don't own their own destiny" -- unlike Iranians have for the past 33 years. Instead, he offered the Guardian Council's services to any country that needed help overseeing its elections.

While the international media has spilled a great deal of ink debating the legitimacy of Iran's electoral process, the argument within the country appears to have largely been settled. Two of the 2009 Green Movement's most prominent leaders -- former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami -- cast ballots in the parliamentary election, apparently to show their confidence in the system.

Rafsanjani and Khatami's decision won them no fans in Iran's increasingly marginalized world of opposition politics. Khatami in particular has been branded a traitor by many reformists, and his decision to vote has been the subject of several biting political cartoons. What their votes did accomplish, however, was to ensure that both maintained their political heartbeats within the Islamic Republic establishment, which is currently the only show in town.

As some Western and Israeli leaders hold out hope for a domestic uprising that rearranges Iran's political system, they seem unable to grasp this essential fact. Even in the face of severe economic and political isolation, no existential domestic threat is worrying the Islamic Republic's leadership as it did in the months following the 2009 presidential election. Air attacks on Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, are viewed as a manageable inconvenience.

Given Iranian leaders' calculations, their recent hard line toward negotiations with international powers should come as no surprise. We've got money, sanctions on our oil don't hurt us much as they'll hurt you -- and we're not shutting down our enrichment program, the logic goes.

That's not to say Iranians wouldn't be open to compromise under the right circumstances.  Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, kept the door open to talks in a recent letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. "If major powers adopt a positive approach toward Iran's nuclear program, we will consider it a step forward in the negotiation process," he wrote.

The views of average Iranians reflect slightly different priorities. There is no doubt that citizens' daily lives are deeply affected by international sanctions -- Iran's import-dependent economy is struggling, and the riyal has lost half its buying power since the beginning of the year. What's more, the progress of Iran's nuclear program isn't a top priority for many of the country's citizens. Nevertheless, it is increasingly difficult to find people who believe the leadership should concede on this issue.

While complaints are rampant about the soaring prices of consumer goods, and Iranians lay plenty of the blame at the feet of the government for economic mismanagement and long-standing corruption, shutting down Iran's nuclear program -- which, incidentally was originally started with the help of the United States in the 1970s -- is out of the question. The essence of the not-so-sophisticated argument employed by Iranians at all levels of society is: "If other countries can have enrichment programs, why can't we?"

With sanctions biting, ever-industrious Iranians have found ways to do business under the table -- and, as usual in these situations, the wrong people are benefitting. Crooked politicians, the greedy Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps elite, smugglers, and low-level middle men have all gotten rich by preying on the misfortunes of others -- while average Iranians suffer.

Iran's sanctions profiteers also have their choice of luxury goods to choose from in Tehran. An insane proliferation of European luxury cars has been building in the capital for several months -- a Maserati dealership is set to open any day now, just off one of central Tehran's main squares. Some Iranians see their country's capacity for unchecked consumption as progress, but it's also a reminder that the economy is still functioning, even if top White House officials insist that sanctions are "working."

What is really at stake is Iran's relatively high standard of living, not something so grave as starvation. Iranians asked about their country's economic struggles resent comparisons with any countries other than those of the developed world.

"You can't compare us to Africa," they say, with the understanding being what they mean is that "we're better than that." They don't even accept comparisons with Arab countries and their uprisings. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates -- relative success stories in the region, which Iranians believe have thrived due in large part to Iranian investment -- are topics better left alone.

Iranians are unsatisfied with many aspects of their leadership, but certainly aren't eager for a war or even a revolution. They are proud of their accomplishments, old and new, and want to be acknowledged for both. From Tehran, it's hard to see how Washington's strategy -- which seems to hold no incentives for the Iranian state or its people -- can ever fulfill these aims. Iranians feel as if their arms are being twisted, and one thing that should be crystal clear by now is that they are not known for saying "uncle."

Dispatch

Shalom, Beijing

Israel and China just celebrated 20 years of friendship. But will this new special relationship come to the breaking point over Tehran?

TEL AVIV, Israel – It's no secret that Israeli-American relations are under strain. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Barack Obama's Oval Office last week may not have been as tense as last year's, but the two leaders' uneasy body language and discordant messaging have made it clear their relations remain, at best, professional.

But while Israel's relationship with its longtime squeeze may have turned chilly, the Jewish state has discovered an unlikely candidate with which to forge a new special relationship: China.

Netanyahu may have needed a few takes to nail down his Mandarin delivery, but there he was, in late January, wishing the Chinese people a happy Year of the Dragon. "We are two ancient peoples whose values and traditions have left an indelible mark on humanity," he gushed. "But we are also two peoples embracing modernity, two dynamic civilizations transforming the world."

The message was promptly mirrored on the other side. "As two ancient civilizations, we have a great deal in common. Both of us enjoy profound histories and splendid cultures," Gao Yanping, China's ambassador to Israel, told an Israeli newspaper a few days later.

Gao was even more poetic on the Chinese Embassy's website. "Our relations are shining with new luster in the new era," she wrote. "It is my firm belief that, through our joint efforts, Sino-Israeli relations will enjoy wider and greater prospects!"

As they mark 20 years of diplomatic relations, China and Israel are exchanging far more than florid praise. Bilateral trade stands at almost $10 billion, a 200-fold rise in two decades. China is Israel's third-largest export market, buying everything from telecommunications and information technology to agricultural hardware, solar energy equipment, and pharmaceuticals.

At least 1,000 Israeli firms now operate in China, home to a massive $10 billion kosher food industry that sends much of its output to Israel. Last September, the Israeli government announced Chinese participation in a rail project that would allow overland cargo transport through Israel's Negev desert, bypassing the Suez Canal. Two months later, the Chinese vice minister of commerce announced the two countries were mulling a free trade agreement.

China's links with the Jews stretch back at least a millennium. The central city of Kaifeng retains a tiny Jewish community, the remnant of merchants from Persia and India who passed through around the 10th century. In the 1930s and 1940s, China was a safe haven for nearly 20,000 Jews fleeing Europe from the Nazi menace -- a shared history Chinese and Israeli officials often cite with pride. China's Jewish population swelled to almost 40,000 by the end of World War II, though most left after the war for Israel or the West.

Israel and China are almost the same age: The Jewish state was born in 1948, the People's Republic a year later. But though Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Mao Zedong's communist regime, it would take more than four decades for the favor to be returned. That lag stemmed not from any ideological opposition to Israel (both Mao and his nationalist predecessor, Sun Yat-sen, were favorably disposed to Zionism), but the calculation that China had more to gain from friendly ties with Arab and Islamic states than with an embattled and economically feeble Jewish enclave.

Relations started to warm in the late 1970s, however, when -- following China's rupture with the Soviet Union and its establishment of ties with the United States -- Beijing started cultivating secret links with the Israeli military. Israel had routed the Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War and suddenly found itself with enormous stockpiles of Soviet weaponry seized from its enemies. China's weapons were also Soviet-made, and Israeli technicians quietly helped Beijing modernize thousands of its rusting tanks.

The secret partnership grew throughout the 1980s -- extending beyond military ties into agriculture and high technology. The 1991 Madrid peace conference launched the peace process between Israel and its neighbors and provided the push for China's establishment of official relations with Israel a year later.

Since then, Hebrew-language and Jewish studies centers have sprung up in universities nationwide. Indeed, one of the more curious elements in the Israel-China alliance is the latter's widespread fascination with Jews. Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud are iconic figures in the country, and in the 1950s the Chinese communist government issued a postage stamp bearing the visage of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. 

Many Chinese believe Jews to be highly intelligent and possessing an uncanny business sense. The bookshops of Beijing and Shanghai are stacked with titles like Jewish Business Sense and The Ancient and Great Jewish Writings for Getting Rich. Even the Talmud, the ancient text of Rabbinic law and commentary, is widely believed to be a sort of divine business manual. Travelers to Taiwan can stay in the Talmud Business Hotel, where rooms are "named after world famous successful individuals such as [Conrad] Hilton, [John D.] Rockefeller, [Alan] Greenspan, [George] Soros, [Warren] Buffett and Bill Gates" (only Greenspan and Soros are actually Jewish). Each room boasts a copy of the Talmud-Business Success Bible -- "for anyone who would like to experience the Talmud way of becoming successful."

In China, myths of Jewish wealth and influence have rarely engendered envy or malice. Instead, in a country hurtling toward a market economy, they have forged a uniquely Chinese form of philo-Semitism. The same legends may partly explain China's initial eagerness to court the Jewish state -- a ticket, it believed, to winning over America's supposedly all-powerful "Jewish lobby."

Those illusions began to dissolve in 2000, when U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration put the kibosh on Israel's planned $1 billion sale to Beijing of its Phalcon airborne warning and control system. Washington feared China's acquisition of cutting-edge radar equipment could destabilize the entire Pacific region, and it threatened to downsize its annual aid to Israel if the sale went through. Five years later, George W. Bush's administration pressured Israel to cancel the sale of drone aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to China, prompting furious denunciations from Beijing over American "carping."

Since then, Israel has barred its companies from selling China any kind of high-tech military equipment that might aggravate relations with Washington. Nevertheless, despite the ban, intergovernmental ties and intelligence-sharing have flourished. Ehud Barak visited China in June 2011 -- the first Israeli defense minister to do so in a decade. Gen. Chen Bingde, head of the People's Liberation Army's General Staff, landed in Israel two months later in the first-ever visit of a Chinese military chief to Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv. The exact purpose of Chen's visit remains unclear; the Chinese Defense Ministry said only that he had arrived to "deepen understanding, enhance friendships, expand consensus and promote cooperation."

As Chinese-Israeli cooperation deepens and expands, one issue is becoming harder to avoid: Iran. China is Iran's largest destination for exports -- it buys 80 percent of Iran's oil -- and its second-largest source of imports (barely edged out by the trade hub of Dubai). Chinese trade with Iran is valued at over $30 billion -- at least three times larger than Chinese trade with Israel -- and is projected to reach $50 billion by 2015. And with sanctions edging Western companies out of Iran, China has rushed in to fill the void: At least 100 state-run companies now operate in the Islamic Republic, many heavily invested in its fuel and infrastructure industries.

The Chinese officially support a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, but have dragged their feet in condemning Tehran's move toward weapons-grade uranium enrichment. They grudgingly voted in favor of all U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Iran, but each time expressed reservations over the imposition of sanctions and urged more time be given for negotiations.

"China only agreed to sanctions that don't apply real pressure on Iran -- namely, those that don't touch its financial or energy sectors," says Yoram Evron of the University of Haifa and the Institute for National Security Studies. "China's participation might have given the sanctions legitimacy, but it has effectively weakened international pressure."

"The Chinese want to irk the Americans," adds Yitzhak Shichor, also of the University of Haifa. "If, for example, the U.S. says it wants to sell arms to Taiwan, the Chinese can do nothing but weep and wail -- instead they react on the Iranian front."

For years, Israeli officials have attempted to convince Beijing to change course on Tehran. In February 2010, a high-level Israeli delegation again traveled to China, ostensibly to reiterate the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. This time they tried a different tack: explaining the consequences of an Israeli strike on that program -- a prospect they described as inevitable should sanctions fail. "They really sat up in their chairs when we described what a preemptive attack would do to the region and on oil supplies they have come to depend on," an Israeli official said at the time.

The campaign appears to have paid off, and by mid-2010, China's tone had perceptibly changed. In June of that year, when the Security Council slapped Iran with a fourth round of sanctions, Beijing abandoned its initial opposition and ultimately backed the resolution, saying it supported a "two-way method" of continued talks alongside harder sanctions. This January, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued an unusually blunt warning that his government "adamantly opposes" Iran's nuclear-weapons drive.

China's apparent shift has not gone unnoticed in Tehran. In 2010 Ali Akbar Salehi, then head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, cautioned that "Beijing might gradually lose its respectable status in the Islamic world and wake up when it is already too late."

These days, China's diplomatic waltz -- keeping one foot in Tehran and the other in Tel Aviv -- is beginning to look increasingly awkward. As the People's Republic discovers the Jews, it should remember an old Yiddish proverb: You can't dance at two weddings at once.

Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images