A Foreign Love Affair
The last time I visited Iran I was ten, and although I looked eight, I still had to wear a hijab and be covered head-to-toe anytime I was outside. This summer, I planned on returning to Iran to see my grandmother for most likely the last time. I am now 21, and although I look 15, I was still prepared to wear whatever I had to in the 110 degree dry heat in order to see my grandmother. But after a phone call with my aunt last week, it turns out I will no longer be visiting my parents’ homeland. As I sat listening to her explain how it is too dangerous for me to visit Iran, I was stunned. I expected this from my American friends or co-workers, but not from one of our own. I responded as I did to friends who worried if it was a safe time to visit, “But I have dual citizenship, my parents are Iranian, I speak Farsi, and I’ll still have the protection of the good ol’ U-S-of A.”
Aside from the obvious fears of potential war, she emphasized how my visit would fall on the month of Ramadan, an Islamic holiday entailing dawn until dusk fasting everyday for a month. Hence, in about a week in Iran (and many other Muslim countries), there will be no eating, drinking, or smoking in public during the daylight hours. Moreover, the already absurd and oppressive laws will be enforced under a zero tolerance policy. If I wear too much make-up, if my hair is showing a bit, if I am not dressed like a wizard, etc. special police called “modesty squads” will be on the streets enforcing their standards with punishments for violation including lashes, fines or imprisonment. Wonderful.
As I reflect upon my last visit, this is neither the Iran I remember (although not as a liberal haven, a far more lax vision than the current state of affairs) nor the Iran my parents spoke so fondly of, a progressive Iran they were so proud of. Countless times I have sat in the car beside my father as he (un-prompted) began explaining how the “Persians liberated oppressed minorities, invented mathematics” and essentially began the civilized world. His bias pride and thick booming accent aside, he is right about a few things. In his Iran, the Iran of the generations before us, the Iranian government was a beacon of progression and innovation, not an oppressive expression of insecurity and ignorance. I used to ask my parents why, after living in the United States for twice as long as they ever lived in Iran, their hearts ached for a homeland I did not understand. My mother explained, “Azizam (my dear), things were not always this way…the Iran I love was a place where women wore shorts and were not afraid, where the government, like Cyrus the Great, reflected his people’s values instead of oppressing them.” As a child, I never understood her deep love affair with Iran, but after my first visit, her nostalgic vision slowly became my own.
The Empire That Once Was
Although it is difficult to tell from today’s Iran, there remain historical symbols amongst the Iranian people that more accurately reflect the people’s priorities, as referenced by my mother’s mention of Cyrus the Great (Iran’s Abe Lincoln). From government rulers to religious tenants to progressive innovations, the country’s past shows us the greater potential of Iran’s future.
Among the artillery of Iranian history my parents’ generation is surely to reference is Cyrus’s Great Cylinder, a piece The United Nations continues to promote as “an ancient declaration of human rights.” Yet, more than a written relic, the ruler’s legacy as a tolerant and progressive figure towards those he defeated and ruled serves to symbolize an origin of tolerance in Iran that has since been forgotten.
In fact, the issue of modern Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic government falls short of the country’s original religious roots: Zoroastrianism. As one of the first religions of the world, Iran’s foundation of Zoroastrianism held free will, “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds” as fundamentally key to happiness and the maintenance of chaos—quite different than today’s Islamic Republic of Iran.
Lastly, what more reflective of the promise of a progressive and engaging nation than its contribution to man’s innovations, including the first: power windmill, banking system of the world, distillation of alcohol, and the creation of algebra, trigonometry, and of course, ice cream (you’re welcome).
Modern Iran’s Failing Politics and Economy
But what has Iran become today? A theocracy. Oppression. Violence. Torturing and killing political opponents. Quarantined from the global social, political and economic realms. Sexism. Persecution of Bahá’ís, gays, and really anyone who isn’t (or isn’t pretending to be) part of a fundamentalist gang running a nation at complete discord with its own people.
In today’s Iran, homosexual behavior and adultery (for women only) are illegal and can carry the death penalty. If a Muslim woman engages in a relationship with a non-Muslim man, she may be sentenced to be whipped. Men (and only men) can contract multiple marriages at a time (up to four permanently and as many temporarily as desired) and can terminate each marriage at will. As for custody, under Iranian law, the children always go to the father—even if the father is not present, the children go to his parents over the mother herself.
Furthermore, a recent announcement of 36 Iranian universities closing 77 fields of study (mostly math and sciences) to women only goes to further devolve the great country that once was. Following the election protests of 2009, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei blamed universities for encouraging subversive behavior and mandated a greater focus on Islamic principles in universities. How promising.
The Iranian government’s current dismissal of human rights aside for a moment, the recent political actions of the government of Iran are now economically penalizing the entire nation. As a result of the Iranian government’s refusal to negotiate or reverse course on its nuclear program, the European Union (EU) governments have agreed to an immediate prohibition of all new contracts to import, buy or transport Iranian crude oil and petroleum products. Last Monday marked the first day of oil trading under the embargo, and consequently, the International Energy Agency estimates as much as one million barrels of Iran’s crude may leave the market.
Countries such as South Korea, Australia, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, and the United States have also engaged in bilateral sanctions against Iran in hopes of curbing its nuclear program. Iran has a $352 billion, oil-dominated economy, hence the objective of the sanctions to make it harder to obtain specialized resources and equipment needed for the nuclear program. Consequently, the value of the Iranian rial has plummeted since fall 2011 and has now fallen another 10% immediately after the implementation of the recent EU oil embargo, significantly affecting the Iranian people.
Fast-rising prices (the cost of chicken, a staple during Ramadan, has doubled in the last two months) have resulted in recent protests by outraged consumers chanting anti-government slogans like “Death to the looter of public treasure!”— reflecting a popular view among Iranians that public capital is being funneled into bureaucratic pockets instead of benefiting the Iranian public. In response, advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Yadollah Javani, claims “The West is trying to create a divide between the people and the government.”
No, The East is trying to hide a divide between the people and the government for its own manipulative power-maintenance purposes. Iranian currency has devaluated 40% since February; the self-serving political decisions of the Iranian government are having tangible negative effects on millions of citizens all because of a few merciless men who will stop at nothing for power. Not even at killing their own innocent children of Iran. Not even at sacrificing an entire nation’s economy. Not even at demolishing the once great name of an empire.
The vision of Iran from the eyes of the people is not the same as that of their leaders. And more importantly, the promise of revolution lies in the blood of the Iranian people, in their past, in their resume for rebellion, progression, and tolerance–not in its current government’s fundamentalist power struggle. Iran need not remain a nostalgic fantasy, as it is now, a heavy sigh amongst my parents’ generation. After all, as Michael Leeden writes in a recent Foreign Affairs article, “Although an Iranian revolution may seem unlikely to the casual observer, the Iranian people can be said to have revolution in their DNA, having carried out three revolutions in the twentieth century.”
The Future of a Homeland
In summation, although sanctions may temporarily pressure the Iranian government’s economic options for a nuclear program, long-term, the Iranian people need a democracy, one in which their votes are not stolen, their women are not hidden, and their economy is not a gambling chip.
Meanwhile, the government’s intolerance of minorities in reality is really nothing more than a projection of its own weakness and fear; the stricter they enforce their oppressive laws, the more evident it becomes they are losing control of a boiling nation with a dangerously strong youth demographic waiting to be unleashed (60% of Iran’s population are under 30 years old). From the Green Movement to the attacks on Revolutionary Guard Corps last March, tensions grow and patience draws a close amongst the people of Iran, but their sticks and stones fall short when flung against the government’s unforgiving army of machines, ceasing for neither child nor elder. So what will work?
When I last visited Iran as a child, I observed my own temporary oppression and the more permanent bondage of my female cousins as they longed to escape their hijab and wear “two pieces in America.” I resented the government then, at age nine, as much as I do now for its insecure bondage of a people. I asked my father why someone didn’t hire an assassin to take out the top fundamentalist members of the government (obviously I had watched Godfather too many times). Although the idea made my father smile, he explained how that would not actually solve anything—one dramatically eliminated extremist would just be replaced with another. The long-term solution is implementation of a progressive democratic system genuinely created and supported by the Iranian people. It seems that has already begun to some extent. The Iranian people sent a clear message to the Obama administration in November 2009 after the fraudulent Iranian election: “Religion, by the will of the Iranian people of today, has to be separated from the state in order to guarantee unity of Iran.”
Moreover, as Leeden projects, there will be a need for a global union of actions: a call for the end of the regime; airing unbiased, on-the-ground news of Iran to the Iranian people in Iran and America; publicly demanding the release of political prisoners; and implementing international trade unions as a strike fund for Iranian workers.
I believe the last piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the most powerful, are Iranian Americans living in America. With the organization of Iranian citizens within Iran, the support of a global effort for universal human rights, and the tapping of a hugely agitated and patriotic Iranian-American population in America itching to get a punch in at the pillagers of their homeland, I believe there could be a promising and progressive future for Iran. Let us look to Iran’s beautiful past to turn today’s third world shadow of an empire into the bright promise that flutters in the hearts of the generations before us.
Facts and figures from BBC, CBN, and Foreign Affairs.