Three Decades in the Wilderness

Photo/Iason Athanasiadis

After three decades in the wilderness, Iran has emerged as one of the world’s most independent countries.

Tehran Bureau | comment

The West and its Arab allies have tried to quarantine the Islamic Republic in the longest and most dramatic containment policy since the effort to hem in the Soviet Union. What’s more, the USSR and the United States came together during the eight year Iran-Iraq conflict in an unprecedented Cold War alliance to ensure that the Islamic Republic did not alter the regional balance by erupting beyond its borders. Saddam was helped with financial aid, weapons transfers and satellite intelligence, all in the name of containing Tehran. For a regime fighting for survival both at home and abroad it was a baptism in international relations by fire.

I lived in Iran from 2004 to 2007. The paradoxes of Iran’s post-revolutionary mindset were on view whenever I strolled past the day’s headlines at my local newsagent in Tehran. On the front page of the Kayhan governmental daily would be a blockbuster headline along the lines of, “Gaza was Liberated, Tomorrow the Turn of Jerusalem.” Alongside the bombast — which for Iranians was as much background chatter as the building-high murals of martyrs deceased in the Iran-Iraq War staring out at them in the suddenly-Islamized public spaces — was the real news. For an Islamic Republic situated in one of the world’s most traditional regions, the announcements were surprisingly modern: ‘New High-Speed Train Reduced Tehran-Mashhad Route to 7.5’ ran one memorable title, alongside an image of a bullet-nosed train. Repeatedly, mullahs would preach about the importance of embracing modernity without abandoning Islamic principles.

With this mindset, it is little surprise that the segregation has not been all bad for Iran.

Sure, Iran’s isolation meant that it couldn’t overcome battles in international bodies such as the UN. It missed out on billions of dollars of potential trade and financial sector development. And it has suffered from being locked out of the market for valuable additions to its defense sector.

Iranians also lost face. When in the West, many duck and obfuscate when asked where they are from, often describing themselves as “Persians,” the appellation of the country bequeathed the world by the invading Greeks. (Reza Shah Pahlavi changed the name to Iran in 1934.)

On the other hand, its leaders argue, Iran was not as isolated as the Bush White House would have had the world think. The ‘international community’ is nothing but a pseudonym for a cabal of Western powers claiming to represent the world, its diplomats protest. Accordingly, Iran has heavily focused its diplomacy on engaging with Muslim powers, wooing the Non-Aligned League and buttressing its ties with Beijing and Moscow as counter-weights to Washington’s regional dominance.

Iranian politicians argue that the UN deck is impossiblely stacked against countries refusing to adhere to the status quo. They point out that the international body did little to protest Iraq’s poison gassing of Iranian citizens during the Iran-Iraq War.

Isolation breeds self-dependence, they continue, pointing to the leaps and bounds made by Iran’s indigenous sectors in the industrial, space and nuclear technology fields.

Iran has got around being excluded from the kind of advanced weaponry that the Shah developed an appetite for by developing the Middle East’s second largest arms industry after Israel. Centers of technological excellence in Tehran churn out home-grown talent who work on their own designs or reverse-engineer Chinese, Russian and North Korean designs. In February, Iran joined an even more exclusive technological club than the nuclear powers, when it became one of a dozen countries to launch its own satellite into space. Some of the same engineers working on that project might have had a hand in developing the electronic warfare capability that allowed Lebanese Hezbollah to fight Israel to a standstill in 2006.

Isolation has not been bad, Iran’s politicians rejoin. It has been character-forming. So goes the Islamic Republic’s narrative on a generation spent behind closed doors, restricted borders but horizons stretching from Karbala to MIT.

Countless times, frustrated Iranians of the older generation spoke to me wistfully of the respect they had been accorded when traveling in Europe or the United States during the Shah’s time. The Iranian rial was accepted everywhere and the Imperial passport guaranteed entry to countries outside whose embassies long, dejected lines of frustrated Iranians queue today.

Equally many Iranians argued that respect and a good reputation were some of the rewards of playing by the Western rulebook but did not reflect anything but a form of hypocrisy. Since Iran decided in 1979 to go off on its own tortuous way, these little luxuries are no longer available. But other advantages are at hand. Iran today is more independent and sovereign than at any time in its recent history.

Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, made this point in a public lecture at Tehran’s Center for Middle East Studies. U.S. pressure on Iran has nothing to do with its human rights record or nuclear program, he said, but “reflects the fact that Iran is capable of emerging as a regional balancing power that can affect U.S. designs on the region. Their ultimate aim in the Middle East is that an asymmetrical power not rise against Israel.”

Rather than bombastic, Larijani was calm and collected. Later proxy conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza between the United States and Iran proved him right. Yet the Western media loves to report Ahmadinejad’s rantings over the mostly level-headed analysis of the Islamic Republic’s strategists. It’s all part of the demonization game: portraying another country as crazed and irrational as a prelude to striking it.

The real struggle in the region has little to do with ‘soft’ issues like human rights or democracy. Rather, it is about Iran’s search for regional hegemony at the expense of the U.S.-administered regional status quo.

Last week, Iran proved that it was inching closer to full self-sufficiency when it launched a space satellite it claims is entirely indigenous. The launch was clearly timed to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary celebrations and caused shivers of tension to run through Western capitals.

Shortly after the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini said that “The Revolution was not about the price of watermelons,” the implication being that a new moral order was to be constructed in Iran. The Shah’s rule was overturned violently because Iranians needed to re-instill their country with religious fervor and a morality that they felt had forsaken them in the oil-boom scramble. Thirty years later, a poor economy and the Islamic elite’s rampant corruption have turned a generation to unemployment, drug addiction, prostitution and petty crime. It’s true: the Revolution was not about the price of watermelons. It wasn’t about space technology either. It was about morality. What has come out of all this however is a strong sense of independence.

Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based writer and photographer. He is currently exhibiting Exploring the Other: Contemporary Iran Through the Lens of Iason Athanasiadis in Los Angeles. It is the first show of political photography from Iran to have been featured in an American museum since 1979.

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