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."

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