From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
C-SPAN VIDEO OF COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY APPEARANCE
THE THING IS…
TAQIYYA, KITMAN, KHOD’EH, TAAROF
IRAN’S CULTURE OF RIGHTEOUS DECEPTION
Iran and deception modalities: the reach of taqiyya, kitman, khod’eh and taarof
BY Andrew Campbell / Mar 22, 2006
This article continues the study and implications of the critical role of Iranian deception modalities (1) in Iranian-Shi’ite political discourse, especially in relation to the 20-year clandestine development of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Taqiyya (religiously-sanctioned deception or dissimulation to conceal one’s true intentions and beliefs), kitman (deception) and khod’eh (trickery or claiming one’s true position by half-truths rather than outright lies or deception) are deception techniques inherent in Iranian statecraft and nuclear negotiations with the Europeans and the United States.
Taarof is a form of deception through diversion of meaning from the subject or issue under discussion, which may be playful in some Iranian domestic contexts, but in the context of nuclear discussions may have serious implications. (2)
TAAROF: DIVERSION AND AMBIGUITY OF RESPONSE
Concerning taarof, Nasser Hadian, a Tehran-based political scientist, says: “You have to guess if people are sincere, you are never sure.” (3) Kian Tajbakhsh, a Tehran-based social scientist, notes: (4)
“Speech has a different function [in Iran] than it does in the West. In the West, 80 percent of language is denotative. In Iran 80 percent is connotative…. In the West, ‘yes’ generally means yes. In Iran, ‘yes’ can mean yes, but it often means maybe or no…. It makes for bad political discourse. In political discourse people don’t know what to trust.”
Iranians claim that foreign invasions have taught the them “the value of hiding their true face”. (5) Fatima Farideh Nejat, a prominent and original researcher on taarof notes: “The locution of exchanges of taarof can change depending on who offers taarof and whether the offer is sincere (samimaneh) or deceitful (chaploosaneh), even manipulative.” (6) Muhammad Sanati, an Iranian social psychologist, notes: “When you tell lies, it can save your life. Then you can see the problem of language in this country.” (7)
Western diplomats claim that taarof offers Iranian negotiators an advantage when dealing with more studied and formal skills of other countries. Iranians are used to concealing their feelings and are unsure in dealing with each other and especially non-Iranians. This forms the basis of their attachments to deception.
Taarof–also known as indirection or expediency–affects public and political discourse, but it is a deception modality in the skilled hands of Iranian negotiators. In Iran, taarof is also a knowingly false promise based on a false premise. The matter may be trivial and in relation to everyday patterns of incivility or “irony” or even extend to humorous participation if taarof becomes a game. Failure of a politician to deliver a campaign promise is regarded as taarof and not as a lie. Taarof has been compared to a verbal dance between a giver and recipient until one defers to settle the matter and, as such, is a “language game” commonly used for negotiations to gain advantage.
AYATOLLAH KHOMEINI: THE POWER OF KHOD’EH (TRICKERY AND DECEIT)
The deception technique khod’eh, used by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to overthrow Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, in 1979, demonstrates the centrality and continuity of deception in Iranian history. Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was steeped in khod’eh traditions. Taheri points out: (8)
“During his stay at Neauphle-le-Chateau, Khomeini used all the traditional techniques of Shi’ite leadership. These included khod’eh, which means tricking an enemy into a misjudgement of one’s true position. Khomeini did not tell direct lies but used many half-truths based on well established khod’eh tactics. Later, in 1984, he
admitted to having used khod’eh in order to trick the enemies of Islam …
“Khomeini actively encouraged such illusions in accordance with another Shi’ite tactic, that of tanfih, which means weakening the positions of potential rivals or enemies. Khod’eh, taqiyya and tanfih were also used along with kitman (dissimulation) in opening negotiations with the Americans. On the basis of khod’eh, the Ayatollah never even announced the word ‘Republic’ until after he won power.”
Khomeini used taqiyya for impression-management for Western audiences to support his “united front” campaign against the Shah, including even the operational assets of the Moscow-controlled Tudeh (Communist) Party to overthrow the Shah’s regime. After gaining power, he approved the physical elimination of many of his former supporters. (9)
Khomeini’s mastery of taqiyya and khod’eh was most evident in the years prior to the overthrow of the Shah. From his residence, rented for him by exiled supporters in France in the village of Neauphle-le-Chateau, he described the United States as the “Great Satan” in hundreds of thousands of underground cassettes, pamphlets and speeches which were distributed by returning pilgrims who had visited Khomeini and through clandestine channels of the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party in Iran. (10)
During his four months’ residence in Paris, Khomeini gave 132 radio interviews, television and press interviews and issued 50 declarations which were later published in Iran. Direct contact with Iran was established and two telephone lines and telexes were quickly established. Khomeini was in nearly hourly contact with his field commander in Iran, Ayatollah Morteza Motahari.
According to Taheri’s account, “Khomeini kept quiet about his radical views on social and legal issues; he put himself forward as a moderate man”, emphasising that the new regime would not change Iran’s social structure. He also reassured Western concerns that an Islamic government would not threaten oil supplies. Taheri summarises: “For example, he promised female equality and full press freedom which were, however, qualified with phrases such as ‘in accordance with Islam’ or ‘on the basis of the Koran’.” (11)
Khomeini did not publicly discuss his plan to establish the velayat-e-faghih (the principle of theocratic rule or the rule of the jurist) prior to the revolution of 1979. As Khomeini later told Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr: “In Paris, I found it expedient to say certain things. In Iran, I find it expedient to refute what I said, and I do so
According to a prominent Iranian political activist, Ayatollah Sahabi: “… Ayatollah Khomeini did not view it advisable to raise the question of velayat-e-faghih at that point during the course of the revolution.” During his stay in Paris, Khomeini’s entourage restricted his slogans to “independence, freedom and Islamic government”. Khomeini told his entourage “to change the slogan to the Islamic Republic, because Islamic government had a certain context and form that were not advisable then”. (13)
In 1999, Ezatollah Sahabi, a close colleague of the Ayatollah in Paris, recalled him crossing out the words “Islamic government” from a text submitted to him and writing “Islamic Republic”. (14)
Khomeini’s aides dialled directly to Tehran to spread his revolutionary message and he read his sermons into cassette tapes. William Shawcross points out: (15)
“His [Khomeini’s] pronouncements were published and broadcast almost daily, and his young, Western-educated aides acted as brilliant propagandists. The BBC, in particular, gave full coverage to his views. By the end of 1978, the ayatollah had come to be seen, by many of these Western intellectuals interested in Iran, as a saintly old man who was determined to establish a far more just, democratic, and ‘spiritual’ regime than that run by the cruel, corrupt, and despotic
Shawcross also noted: (16)
“Khomeini had been able brilliantly to dissemble his true ambitions, beneath lofty, almost Delphic generalizations. By suggesting that he shared everyone’s hopes and beliefs, he had managed to form the broadest possible coalition.”
Taheri concludes: (17)
“Khomeini encouraged the fostering of democratic illusions from his supporters in accordance with the Shia tactic of tanfih–taking the sting out of one’s potential enemies–and the tactic of taqiyya- which means misleading everyone about one’s true beliefs.”
On returning to Iran, the victorious Khomeini, on 19 August 1979, in a special message to the Assembly for the final preparation of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, discussed the centrality of the rule of the jurist or theocracy (concerning which he had written as early as 1970 in his work Islamic Government): (18)
“[T]he constitution and other laws in this republic must be one hundred percent based on Islam…. Islamic theologians present in this assembly must clearly express their view if they see an article in the draft of the constitution or a suggestion that deviates from Islam. They must not be afraid of the brawl by gharbzadeh-ha (those under influence of Western culture) writers and journalists.”
Significantly, few had studied Khomeini’s Islamic Government, although he ordered a new translation for publication in Iran. (19) A noted professor of Middle East studies who read Khomeini’s defence of Islamic government and the “rule of the jurist”, or theocratic rule, warned the CIA and forwarded translated passages of the book to CIA Headquarters, but the CIA could not confirm the author of the book, although the U.S. Congressional Library had the text. In late 1978, the CIA finally funded a translation of the book, from the Arabic edition. (20)
As Taheri notes: “The fact that few of the middle class and leftist leaders who sided with Khomeini took time to read his books … was to cost them dearly. Many paid for that omission with their lives.” (21)
PRESIDENT AHMADINEJAD: CONTINUING KHOMEINI’S POLICIES
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regards himself as continuing Khomeini’s mission of winning the clash of civilisations between Islam, as represented by Iran, and the West, particularly the United States and Israel.
In 1997, 1,000 copies of a pirated translation of Samuel P. Huntington’s celebrated book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (22) were forwarded to Tehran. An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps military truck collected 500 copies of the 1,000-print run. Among the Iranian leaders who received a copy was Yahya Safavi, a general and commander of the Guards. Another copy was received by the current President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (23) In 2002, Osama bin Laden replied to a question referring to the “clash of civilizations”, affirming: “No doubt about that. The book [the Koran] mentions this clearly.” (24)
During an official visit to Indonesia in May 2006, Ahmadinejad spoke of his ambition to unite and lead the Muslim world in a “clash of civilisations” against the “infidel”, (25) consonant with Iranian leadership of Shi’ism, which is the indisputable right of the Iranian nation.” (26)
During his visit to Indonesia in 2006, Ahmadinejad referred to his favoured theme: the “historic war” between Islam and the West which “dates back hundreds of years ….” (27) In May, 2005 he declared: “The message of the [Islamic] revolution is global and is not restricted to a specific place or time. It is a human message, and it will move forward. Have no doubt … Allah willing, Islam will conquer what? It will conquer all the mountain tops of the world.” (28)
THE “CLASH OF CIVILISATIONS” AS IRANIAN STATE DOCTRINE
In August 2005, President Ahmadinejad presented a 7,000-word manifesto to the Islamic majlis (parliament) which detailed his Government’s “short- and long-term” plans. The document states that the region is heading for a “clash of civilizations” in which Iran represents Islam, and the U.S. carries the banner of a West that has forgotten God. Ahmadinejad presented the driving force behind Iran’s policy as the belief that the decadent U.S., which is “in its last throes”, is an ofuli (sunset) power, destined to be superseded by the tolu’ee (sunrise) power of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the developing multipolar world, other “sunset” powers include the European Union and other “sunrise” powers include China and India. But the most dynamic power will be Iran, the “core power” around which all Muslim powers will coalesce. Furthermore, he stressed, Iran is prepared to develop its nuclear programme regardless of the concerns of the “outside world”. (29) Further, his policy is: “a jihad to reshape the world and ensure Islam’s universal dominance”. (30)
Dr Hassan Abbasi has emerged under Ahmadinejad with many roles in the Iranian national security apparatus: adviser in the Office of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, theoretician of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ intelligence and head of the Centre for Doctrinal Strategic Studies. He is popularly referred to as “Iran’s Dr Kissinger” and is a leader of the newly-formed “Brigade of the Shahids of the Global Islamic Awakening”. Most significantly, he is a key advisor to President Ahmadinejad.
In June 2004, addressing the Gathering of Seekers of Martyrdom in Tehran, Abbasi stated: (31) “If it is possible to cast terror into the hearts and lives of infidels … and the enemies of Islam, which is in fact possible, then this terror is holy terror…. Until we destroy liberal democracy, there will be no possibility for the Appearance (of the 12th Shi’ite Imam [see details below]).
“[H]istory is nothing except human (endeavor) to sacrifice this body for God. Martyrdom has a road called Jihad…. Jihad is more important than prayer, than pilgrimage, than fasting.”
ABBASI’S STRATEGY OF “WAITING BUSH OUT”
In June 2006, Abbasi addressed the increasingly popular strategy of “waiting Bush out”. Addressing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Baseej Mustafadin (Mobilisation of the Dispossessed) officers, he referred to his “dream” of a recurring image of U.S. helicopters carrying the last of the “fleeing Americans” forced from the Dar al-Islam (The Abode of Islam) “by the Army of Mohamed”.
Abbasi’s believes the U.S. cannot wage protracted warfare as it lacks one of Iran’s greatest assets–patience. He says: “The Americans are impatient. At the first sight of a setback, they run away. We, however, know how to be patient. We have been weaving carpets for thousands of years.” (32)
Given the expected demise of the Bush Administration in the next presidential elections, the U.S. will revert to its policy of “running away”, which will leave Afghanistan, Iraq and the whole of the Middle East “to be reshaped by Iran and its regional allies.” (33) Abbasi has said: “America knows well that attacking Iran would endanger its interests and severely increase the price of oil. We are able to endanger both, U.S. security and its economic interests anywhere in the world.” (34)
Iranian negotiators regard negotiations like a game of chess. Discussions of nuclear-related issues were recently described by Ali Larijani, secretary of the Iranian Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator, as “diplomatic chess”, a game at which Iran clearly excels. (35) These views were clearly evident in the negotiating style of former Iranian nuclear negotiators, Hassan Rowhani and Hosein Musavain in 2005.
GAINING TIME TO COMPLETE IRANIAN NUCLEAR FACILITIES
In September 2005, Hassan Rowhani, the Iranian politician and cleric who headed the Iranian talks with the EU3 (the United Kingdom, France and Germany), informed the Iranian Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution in closed session of his strategy of deception of the Europeans: (36)
“When we were negotiating with the Europeans in Tehran we were still installing some of the equipment at the Isfahan [Esfahan] site. There was plenty of work to be done to complete the site and finish the work there. In reality, by creating a tame situation, we could finish Isfahan…. From the outset, the Americans kept telling the Europeans, ‘The Iranians are lying and deceiving you and they have not told you everything.’ The Europeans used to respond, ‘We trust them’.”
On 25 February 2005, Rowhani expressed satisfaction at the state of negotiations which he noted approvingly were advancing at a “very slow pace”. (37)
In September 2005, Rowhani made clear that Iran’s goal was to present the world with a fait accompli over its nuclear ambitions: “If, one day, we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice, that we do possess the technology, then the situation will be different”. (38)
In February 2005 Rowhani was asked by Le Monde journalist if Iran was building secret tunnels to conceal its nuclear programme. In khod’eh mode he replied: “This could be true. But what is wrong with that? Since the Americans menaces (sic.) to attack our nuclear sites, what shall we do? One has to save them one way or another”. (39)
On 4 August 2005, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Hosein Musavian was interviewed on Iranian Channel 2. Musavian explained that he entered the negotiations to buy time to complete the Esfahan nuclear facility and rejected critics who insisted that Iran co-operate with the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA): (40)
“Those [in Iran] who criticise us and claim that we should have only worked with the IAEA do not know that at this stage–that is, in August 2003–we needed another year to complete the Esfahan (UCF) [uranium conversion facility] project, so that it could be operational….
“The regime adopted a twofold policy here: it worked intensively with the IAEA, and it also conducted negotiations on international and political levels. The IAEA gave us a 50-day extension to suspend the enrichment and all related activities. But, thanks to the negotiations with Europe, we gained another year, in which we completed (the UCF) in Esfahan.
“There was a time when we said we would not work with Europe, the world, or the IAEA, and that we would not comply with any of their demands. There were very clear consequences: After 50 days, the IAEA Board of Governors would have undoubtedly handed the Iranian dossier over to the (UN) Security Council. There is no doubt about it … this would have meant depriving Iran of the opportunity to complete the Esfahan project….
“Esfahan’s (UCF) was completed during that year. Even in Natanz, we needed six to twelve months to complete the work on the centrifuges. Within that year, the Natanz project reached a stage where the small number of centrifuges required for the preliminary stage, could operate. In Esfahan, we have reached UF4 and UF6 production stages.
“We suspended the UCF in Esfahan in October 2004, although we were required to do so in October 2003. If we had suspended it then, (the UCF) in Esfahan would have never been completed. Today we are in a position of power: (The UCF) in Esfahan is complete and UF4 and UF6 gases are being produced. We have a stockpile of products, and during this period, we have managed to convert 36 tons of yellow cake into gas and store it.”
“Thanks to our dealings with Europe, even when we got a 50-day ultimatum, we managed to continue the work for two years. This way we completed (the UCF) in Esfahan. This way we carried out the work to complete Natanz, and on top of that, we even gained benefits. For 10 years, America prevented Iran from joining the WTO …. In these two years, and thanks to the Paris Agreement, we entered the international game of the nuclear fuel cycle, and Iran was recognised as one of the countries with a nuclear fuel cycle. An Iranian delegate even participated in the relevant talks. We gained other benefits during these two years as well.”
Since 2004, Iranians have been subject to the Iranian National Security Council’s circular banning, as a threat to national security, non-official publication of news and analysis relating to Iran’s nuclear programmes. Iranians receive “official” filtered and sanitized reports of the IAEA, U.S. and European negotiations in which the Iranian regime is depicted variously as victim of foreign conspirators who are denying Iranians the right to a peaceful nuclear programme for much needed energy; are plotting to exacerbate ethnic tensions, impose economic sanctions and making Iran vulnerable to Israeli-U.S. military attack.
In 2004, Iran’s nuclear advisor and senior negotiator with Europe, Sirus Naseri, claimed he had told the Europeans: “If you use threats and act belligerently, we will put the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] aside and continue clandestinely …” (41)
Diplomacy, and its diplomatic synonym “engagement”, is an exercise the Iranians have engaged in, and will continue to engage in, as long it takes to complete their nuclear programme.
WHAT MOTIVATES AHMADINEJAD?
Ahmadinejad’s motivations can be summarised in a single word: mahdaviat, that is, “belief in and efforts to prepare for the Mahdi”. The Mahdi is, according to the Encyclopaedia of Islam, the long-prophesied Islamic messiah destined to be “the restorer of religion and justice who will rule before the end of the world”. (42) A member of the family of the Prophet, the Mahdi is otherwise known as the 12th and last of the Imams, or the Hidden Imam. Shi’ite tradition claims that this mystical figure, as a child in the year 941, disappeared or “occulted” to another plane of existence, but is destined to return at the end of time and reign for seven years before bringing final judgement and the end of the world. (43)
The Hidden Imam evidently has a keen interest in Iran’s nuclear development programme and communicates only through the president and, interestingly, not the supreme leader or the mullahs. Shortly before he announced that Iran was a member of the “nuclear club”, Ahmadinejad reportedly experienced a khalvat (tete a tete) with the Hidden Imam.
Ahmadinejad has “restored” the Hidden Imam with whom he has reportedly written and signed a pact, which displaces the power of the mullahs and the “supreme Guide”, and the Iranian electorate. The Iranian Government, in the person of Ahmadinejad, is apparently responsible to the Hidden Imam. Politics and religion are now inseparable in Iran. It is wrong to say Ahmadinejad has challenged the Supreme Leader’s authority. Politics and religion have been inseparable since 1979.
Ahmadinejad believes the Hidden Imam will appear in his lifetime which will result in an apocalypse in which Muslims and Iran will be victorious. The West and Israel will have been “eliminated”. (44)
In September 2005, after addressing the UN General Assembly, he claimed to a leading Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Javadi Amoli, in a video circulated in Tehran: (45)
“I was told that that, when I began with the words ‘in the name of God’, I became surrounded by a light. I felt that the atmosphere changed there, and for 27-28 minutes, all the leaders [the leaders of the world] did not blink…. And they were rapt. It seemed as if a hand was holding them there and had opened their eyes … they had their eyes and ears open for the message from the Islamic republic.”
In November 2005, Ahmadinejad claimed in a speech to Friday prayer leaders across Iran: (46)
“Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the 12th Imam, the Mahdi. Therefore, Iran should become a powerful, developed and model Islamic society. Today, we should define our economic, cultural and political policies based on the policy of Imam Mahdi’s return. We should avoid copying the West’s policies and systems.”
In January 2006, in the holy city of Qom, he told theology students:(47)
“We must believe in the fact that Islam is not confined to geographical borders, ethnic groups and nations. It’s a universal ideology that leads the world to justice.”
In Bernard Lewis’ memorable phrase, Ahmadinejad delights in “Islamic rage” and, even more, in the rage of Islam’s enemies. In April 2006, he declared: “To those who are angry with us, we have one thing to say: be angry, until you die of anger!” (48)
In August 2005, an Iranian analyst reported: “Ahmadinejad has already shown that he needs a lot of supervision. [In a single week], his government sent two ‘double urgent’ bills to the parliament. He gets so excited.” His cabinet nominations have produced ridicule and criticism after the Iranian parliament rejected four of his choices, including his preferred candidate for Iran’s vital oil ministry. It was revealed that a doctorate that Ahmadinejad’s nominee claimed to have been awarded from an American college was in fact a purchased on-line degree. (49)
Despite his capacity for visions and auditory and visual hallucinations, Ahmadinejad has dismissed and diagnosed opponents of Iran’s nuclear program as “mentally ill”, declaring: “Those, who are concerned by success of other nations, are suffering from mental illness and should be subjected to medical treatment.” (50)
AHMADINEJAD’S GRAND ANTI-U.S. AND ANTI-WESTERN STRATEGY:
Throughout 2006 Ahmadinejad has been engaged in a diplomatic offensive reflecting the policies of Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who claimed on State television in March 2006: “The depth of our nation’s strategy and revolution has reached Islamic countries of the region, Palestine, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.” (51)
In June 2006, Iran successfully participated in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), the Pan-Asian economic and security grouping dominated by Russia and China (two powers which, paradoxically, are concerned about Islamic separatist movements). Ahmadinejad claimed his talks with the Chinese premier were “very
fruitful”. Concurrently, a senior Chinese minister visiting Tehran emphasized that the “economies of China and Iran are closely tied together”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated he wants more collaboration with Iran to win control over downstream energy supplies to “third countries”. He said: “We are talking about setting up a joint venture on the basis of Russian and Iranian deposits … We support these initiatives with our Iranian partners”. He added that Gazprom was “willing to take part in the construction of an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline”, despite U.S. objections. (52)
In June 2006, Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, the highest level contact between the two countries since the 1979 revolution. (53) According to Iranian officials, Ahmadinejad’s outspoken hostility to Israel has created a following in the Arab world, which Egypt, the nominal leader of the Arab world, cannot ignore.
From Iran’s perspective, Ahmadinejad’s 10-12 May 2006 visit to Jakarta, at the invitation of the Indonesian Government, was a resounding success. He met members of the political elite and was greeted enthusiastically by thousands of university students at meetings. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, at a dinner ceremony in honour of Ahmadinejad, clamed, “Tehran-Jakarta relations are very good and satisfactory” and expressed the hope that they would strengthen during the visit. He added that they had held “excellent talks during this visit”, during which they had “reached good agreements” that he hoped would be “executed very soon”. (54) During the visit, Iran and Indonesian state oil companies signed an agreement to build in Java a $U.S.5 billion 300,000 barrel-a-day oil refinery. (55)
At the meeting of the D-8 [Developing Eight], mainly Muslim, nations in Bali on 13 May 2006, Indonesian Energy Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro announced Indonesia’s plans to build its first major nuclear power plant by 2015 and did not expect international opposition. (56) In his address to the D8 meeting Ahmadinejad claimed: “We should appreciate the opportunities given to us, given our remarkable facilities and reliance on the rich common Islamic culture.” (57)
After a meeting with Iranian President Ahmadinejad, Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono declared at a press briefing: “Indonesia believes that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful …” (58)
At the conclusion of the visit, Ahmadinejad invited President Yudhoyono to visit Tehran, stating that Iran defends Indonesia’s territorial integrity, an oblique reference to recent disputes with Australia over East Timor and refugee issues. Ahmadinejad, in an address to university students in Jakarta, described Israel as a tyrannical regime that “one day will vanish”. (59)
On 29 July 2006, President Chavez of Venezuela, a bitter opponent of the United States since his election victory in 1999, pledged in a visit to Tehran that his country would “stay by Iran at any time and under any condition…. We are with you and with Iran forever. As long as we remain united, we will be able to defeat [U.S.] imperialism, but if we are divided they will push us aside.” (60) He added: “Let’s save the human race; let’s finish off the U.S. empire.” (61)
Ahmadinejad was equally fervid in his praise of Chavez, describing him as “a brother and a trench mate…. We do not have any limitation in cooperation…. Chavez is a source of a progressive and revolutionary current in South America and his stance in restricting imperialism is tangible”. (62) Chavez has also proposed “close collaboration” on nuclear energy research with Iran. (63)
On 24 April 2006, President Ahmadinejad met with Sudanese envoys, including Sudanese President Omar Ahmad al-Bashir, for three days. Ahmadinejad claimed that the Iranian and Sudanese nations and governments had “a joint enemy”, which was “constantly impeding their advancement” and “hatching plots against them”. Al Bashir praised Iran’s scientific progress and stressed it belonged to all Muslims. He also praised the Iranian mullahs for mastering nuclear technology. (64) Two months later, Ahmadinejad, speaking from Tehran, referred to Sudan’s isolation as a pariah state for its genocide policy against black Africans. He claimed defensively: “The Iranian Government and nation have always supported Muslim and oppressed peoples in the world.” (65)
Since mid-2000, China and Iran have had high-level political contacts. In July 2005, Iran was offered spectator status in the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO). On 27 July 2006, the Chinese Ambassador to Tehran claimed Ahmadinejad had referred to China as “Iran’s safest friend in the world”. Currently, China is involved in over 150 joint projects with Iran. (66)
IRAN AND THE NON-ALIGNED MOVEMENT
From 27 to 30 May 2006, foreign ministers from countries of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) met in Putrajaya, Malaysia, and criticized central features of U.S. policy and definitions of terrorism. (67) Malyasian Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, speaking at the opening of the conference, said about the issue of Iran’s nuclear technology programme: “In this matter, we must recognize Iran’s right to develop such technology for peaceful purposes.” (68) This statement was incorporated in the NAM’s final official communique. (69) From an Iranian perspective, the NAM meeting was a success.
In November 2005, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro visited Tehran. Castro was given sacred Islamic texts written in Spanish and invited to become a Muslim by the Iranian leadership. Castro’s admiration for Iranians’ revolutionary fervour dates to the 1979 revolution when he sent envoys to recast Cuba-Iran relations and referred to his admiration of the “revolutionary role of Islam”. (70)
On an official visit in May 2001, Castro had agreed with Ayatollah Khamenei that Iran and Cuba could defeat America “hand in hand” and denounced Western hegemony, stressing that the U.S. was “extremely weak”. On that occasion, Castro was awarded an honorary doctorate from Tehran University for his supposed “contributions to justice, humanistic ideals and the fight against discrimination”. (71)
In January this year, Iranian Expediency Council chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani emphasised the importance of expanding Cuban-Iran relations to confront unilateralism of “the big power” (i.e., the United States). He has also expressed Iran’s interest in supplying the “technical and engineering requirements” of Cuba and other Latin American states, and praised Castro for resistance to the “hegemonic policies of the U.S. and anti-imperialism”. (72)
Early this year, the Cuban Ambassador to Tehran defended Iran’s right to use nuclear energy. Cuba has reportedly transferred Cuban biological and chemical warfare information to Iran. Iran has used Cuba’s electronic jamming expertise to intercept U.S. broadcasts to Iran. Covert co-operation between the two countries has led to the development and testing of electromagnetic weapons (“e-bombs”) able to disrupt telecommunication and power supplies and to wage cyber-warfare. These weapons can be delivered by cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles or aerial bombs against the communication and military infrastructure of target countries, notably the U.S. (73)
Ahmadinejad has also expressed his willingness to transfer to Latin America and especially Colombia Iran’s experience in various fields including nuclear energy. In September 2006 he met with Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderon and referred to Iran’s support for Colombia’s nuclear plans, informing him that, eventually, “all countries will feel the need to use peaceful nuclear energy”. (74)
Ahmadinejad’s regional and international meetings–founded on the basis of anti-Americanism, and Iran’s and all Muslim nations’ right to develop nuclear technology–are a strategy to create an Iranian-led, or dominated, “non-aligned” Islamic movement which could also extend to disenchanted and manipulable Muslim diasporas in Western countries.
The former Soviet Union and Europe have sufficient reserves of anti-Americanism to cement Iran’s planned anti-U.S. alliance which would necessarily be conducted on many levels and not openly declared by all participants. Nevertheless, it could be a potent force for the Islamic and non-Islamic mobilisation of anti-U.S. resentment throughout the world, and could lead to more Islamic, or anti-U.S. South American, countries demanding the right to their own “peaceful” nuclear weapons programmes.
IRAN A “SOFT” INTELLIGENCE TARGET?
Every Iranian nuclear breakthrough has been a surprise to U.S. and Western intelligence, as it has been clandestinely constructed through a maze of cut-outs, cover companies and espionage. Although there have often been technical indicators derived from satellites, there has not been the necessary information from human sources.
The conventional wisdom and official pronouncements define Iran as a “hard target” or denied area. CIA ethnocentric organisational culture has failed to develop the necessary cultural and sociolinguistic and operational skills to conduct effective penetration programmes against Iran. Farsi-speaking officers operating from third countries with access to Iranians are exceedingly rare. However, Iran’s cultural patterns of deception define Iran as a potential “soft target” for clandestine recruitment and covert action. According to the U.S.’s 9/11 Commission Report, the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence retains “some of its original character of a university gone to war” (75)–unsuited for aggressive, timely and quality-information collection.
Many commentators correctly point to the pro-U.S. attitudes of many Iranians, especially Iranian youth who have to bear the burden of massive unemployment and burgeoning social problems. Many commentators point to the admiration and awe in which the United States is held by many Iranians. Most of the anti-U.S. hatred emanates from the dominant mullahs. It is not shared by much of the populace which silently opposes the regime and, as such, constitutes potential recruits. Approximately 7,000 Iranians are involved in the country’s nuclear programmes. The recruitment potential through their foreign travel, kinship and professional networks is self-evident.
Islamic and Iranian traditions of deception could be played back against the Iranian intelligence services. The critical weakness in CIA operations against Iran has been the failure of counter-intelligence to ensure communications and operational security and protect its agent networks. To date, key CIA operations have been
neutralised by the Iran intelligence service’s aggressive counter-intelligence operations. (76)
The CIA documents seized during the Iranian 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy revealed that the approximately 5,000 “sources of information” were recruited from “all walks of life” and included almost all of the Shah’s known non-clerical opponents over some 25 years. (77)
The documents showed that many Iranians agreed to “become informants, informers or outright spies partly in order to advance their own careers in business or the civil service”. Consequently, they fed the United States with “information that suited their own personal schemes”. (78) In the 1970s, this meant that an unusually high percentage of the information gathered was biased or unreliable and contaminated by the Iranian passion for deception. The documents also demonstrate the vital role of counterintelligence in checking the bona fides of Iranian HUMINT (i.e., human intelligence) sources.
In the collection of nuclear intelligence, the problem of deception is more challenging as the stakes are higher and can involve national survival. Kitman and taqiyya are so “layered” and diffuse that verifying Iranian claims is virtually impossible, as Iran refuses to allow inspections without warning and threatens to withdraw from IAEA inspections.
IAEA ADMISSIONS OF FAILURE
Since 1998, IAEA reports on Iran paint a picture of deception, evasion, concealment and obstruction. Iran has refused to hand over critical documentation and refused full inspection of selected and suspicious sites. In December 2005, IAEA Director-General Dr Mohamed ElBaradei warned that Iran could be “a few months away” from a nuclear weapon. “I know they are trying to acquire the full fuel cycle. I know that acquiring the full fuel cycle means that a country is months away from nuclear weapons, and that applies to Iran and everybody else”. (79) In January 2006, Dr ElBaradei admitted: “For the last three years we have been doing intensive verification in Iran, and even after three years I am not yet in a position to make a judgement on the peaceful nature of the [nuclear] program”. (80)
In April 2006, the IAEA board of governors, in its overall assessment of this situation, noted: (81)
“After more than three years of Agency efforts to seek clarity about all aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme, the existing gaps in knowledge continue to be a matter of concern. Any progress in that regard requires full transparency and active co-operation by Iran … if the Agency is to be able to understand fully the twenty years of undeclared nuclear activities by Iran.”
Iran has developed its clandestine nuclear programme for three decades by deception modalities–taqiyya, kitman and khod’eh–and proven it can “outwit” European and U.S. diplomats. Concurrently, Iran claims (a) that it is victimised and prevented by the U.S. and the West from its right to develop peaceful nuclear weapons programmes, and (b) that all Islamic countries have the right to develop nuclear programmes within a framework of anti-Americanism and Islamic fundamentalism.
Inspired by fear of, or respect for, Iranian nuclear capability, so-called “moderate” states, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have recently embarked on nuclear technology programmes. (82) Not all of these states are more than allies of history and convenience to the United States. In the case of Egypt, the febrile political situation could lead to a victory of the Muslim Brotherhood. This new regional nuclear proliferation reverses the traditional policy of a nuclear-free Middle East–promoted by IAEA chief Dr ElBaradei–and undermines Israel’s posture as the sole nuclear-armed regional player and its policy of ambiguity known as the “bomb in the basement”. (83)
“Learning to live with the [Iranian] bomb” could be conceivable if Iran were not a “crazy state” and if it had at least a nominal adherence to international norms and conventions. However, Iran funds and trains terrorist entities such as Hamas and Hezbollah; enjoys fraternal relations with a developing network of rabidly anti-U.S. states, including Syria; threatens to “annihilate” Israel; and has regional and global ambitions to lead a coalition of “Muslim states”– some with prospective nuclear capability or at least intentions– against the U.S. and the West.
Iran is a “low-trust” society in which suspicion of “dark forces” and conspiracies are rife: it is one of the most conspiracy-minded countries in the Middle East. (84) Given the domestic backdrop, the question must be asked: would Iran permit–without engaging in deception–on-site, without-warning and detailed inspections of its suspected nuclear installations? The record to date demonstrates that Iran will not permit such inspections (which it regards as an assault on its sovereignty). It also shows the secrecy surrounding Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear programme.
President Ahmadinejad is a leader who has visions and claims to communicate personally with the Hidden Imam. His period as president has been characterised by an unprecedented issuing of dire warnings threatening the extinction of designated countries, even extending to the threat of a military first strike against the U.S. Many of these statements and threats, which would normally be greeted with derision in other countries, are issued regularly in Iran, particularly on ceremonial occasions with large crowds present. They indicate the mood of the current leadership.
Ahmadinejad’s threatened extermination of Israel reflects the continuity of Iranian policy since 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini first declared that the Jewish state occupying Jerusalem “must be eliminated from the pages of history” (a policy which Ahmadinejad described, in 2005, as “very wise”). (85) In December 2000, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterated his predecessor’s call for the elimination of Israel. In 2000, he described Israel as “this cancerous tumour of a state should be removed from the region”. (86) In October 2005, President Ahmadinejad claimed that, after a short period, “the process of the elimination of the Zionist regime will be smooth and simple”, (87) and, in July 2006, warned that it wouldn’t take long before “the wrath of the people in the region and the world turn into
a terrible explosion that would wipe the Zionist entity off the map”. (88)
Although expressing the traditional mood of the “Arab street” and popular media through the Middle East, Iran’s policy is a declaratory policy and a major propaganda coup in the Middle East, where opposition to Israel is a source of political legitimacy.
No other Middle East leader issues threats to annihilate Israel, although the desire to do so is the staple of, and prevalent in, the Arab media, universities and popular and elite opinion. Israel (“Little Satan”) is seen as a colony of the U.S. (“Big Satan”) and as a nuclear threat to the region and to Muslims. This view provides support for the case that Iran requires a nuclear capability to help it “annihilate” the “Zionist entity”.
INTERPRETING THE IRANIAN THREAT SPECTRUM
Some American analysts are prone to literal interpretation of Ahmadinejad’s threats. But Iranian military threats emerge primarily from the dominant mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard which controls nuclear policy and doctrine. The threats may be a form of psychological warfare in the form of khod’eh or kitman and designed to intimidate and shape Western and regional perceptions and to probe reaction. Assessing the ratio of taqiyya and kitman in Iranian threat statements calls for intimate knowledge of Iran’s culture, Shi’ite Islam, and sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics in the Iranian context–a formidable challenge for U.S. intelligence analysts.
Many demonstrations of alleged Iranian strength–including bellicose statements by Ahmadinejad–may be taqiyya, operational games, or a form of threat and perception management against real and imaginary enemies to distract the country from looming economic and social problems.
For example, on 27 August 2006, the Iranians released a video allegedly showing the successful test of a new submarine-fired missile that flies across the water surface and targets ships. The missile, named “Sagheb” (i.e., “piercing”), was described by Iran’s top naval commander Admiral Sajjad Kouchaki as a long-range missile that could be launched from a number of ships, could avoid radar detection and was a smart weapon which “has a very high degree of precision, taking the enemy by surprise”. He added: “The missile has a massive destructive power.” The Pentagon assessed the video as a hoax which matched the video of an earlier Chinese test. (89)
Although many Iranian threats are virulent and infused with religious and political symbolism they cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric as they express deadly intention. A regime based on the doctrinal-theological and political threat of “Death to America!”–which is an all-too-frequent liturgy in Friday prayers–gives the Iranian injunction to find “truth behind the curtain” (90) a new urgency. As the intelligence controversies before and after the 2003 Iraq war demonstrated, the words “don’t know” have assumed overdue importance in intelligence assessments. As John R. Bolton, U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, noted in August 2004: “If we permit Iran’s deception to go on much longer, it will be too late. Iran will have nuclear weapons.” (91)
In April 2006 the chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee acknowledged that “we really don’t know” how close Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon. (92) But there is an evidence-based international consensus derived from statements of formerly undisclosed Iranian nuclear negotiators, technical surveillance, numerous IAEA reports, recorded attempts by Iranian authorities to conceal sites from inspectors, and new revelations relating to disclosures from the clandestine, Pakistan-based nuclear network of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, that Iran is systematically planning to develop nuclear weapons.
Given the proven Iranian capacity for deception, combined with the parlous state of intelligence coverage of Iran by Western intelligence, there may be a parallel clandestine programme and concealed facilities or research programmes using cover organisations.
Unless “the truth behind the curtain” concerning Iran’s nuclear status is uncovered by on-site, without-warning and multi-national verification, Iranian deception modalities ensure that Iranian pronouncements on its nuclear programme cannot be trusted.
The lack of trust is a religious and cultural factor inspired by the Koran and hadiths (the recorded sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) and the 1,500-year-old traditions of taqiyya, kitman, khod’eh and taarof, which are embedded deeply in Iranian culture. Iran is unique and is proudly outside of, and hostile to, the prevailing system of “secular” and “satanic” states and international order. Iran has conducted, in the words of the IAEA, “twenty years of undeclared nuclear activities” (93). The imperative injunction in relation to Iran must therefore be: do not trust, but verify.
1. See the author’s three previous articles on the subject: Andrew Campbell, “‘Taqiyya’: How Islamic extremists deceive the West”, National Observer, No. 65, Winter 2005, pages 11-23; “‘Taqiyya’ and the global war against terrorism”, National Observer, No. 66, Spring 2005, pages 26-36; and “Iran’s nuclear deception: taqiyya and kitman (part I)”, National Observer, No. 67, Summer 2006, pages 8-25.
2. This article includes the examination of khod’eh and taarof and their significance for communication and nuclear negotiating strategies.
3. “A lesson for Americans about Iranians: the fine art of hiding what you mean to say to Iranians”, The New York Times, 19 August 2006.
4. Michael Slackman, “Iranian 101: a lesson for Americans: The fine art of hiding what you mean to say”, The New York Times, 6 August 2006.
6. “The concept of Persian taarof: a sociolinguistic knowledge of the speech act measured by the Persian Taarof Comprehension Test”, Fall 2004. Developed by: Fatima Farideh Nejat. Monterey Institute of International Studies, California. URL: http://www.iranian.com/Nejat/2005/July/Taarof/index.html (updated: 13 July 2005).
7. Michael Slackman, op. cit.
8. Amir Taheri, The Spirit of Allah: Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1986), pages 217, 230.
9. Ibid., page 217: Khomeini’s Komiteh revolutionaries [an 80-member group of mullahs and other fervent Iranian Shi’ites] executed many former army officials and national enemies. He claimed, “These people are guilty in any case, so hear what they say and send them to hell.” After viewing the naked and bleeding corpses from the roof of a school, he declared: “Allah gave them their just deserts.” Khomeini claimed that those who objected to the killings only “had animal understanding”. According to Taheri, and verified by contemporary accounts: “The pro-Moscow Tudeh Party provided invaluable service in psychological warfare, sabotage and the organization of industrial strikes.” (Taheri, op. cit., page 257.)
10. Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), page 310.
11. Taheri, op. cit., page 227.
12. Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, My Turn to Speak: Iran, the Revolution & Secret Deals with the U.S. English trans. (Washington DC: Brassey’s,
1991), page 2.
13. Ezatollah Sahabi, “What Happened in the Council of Revolution”, Iran Farda 52 (March 1999), pages 7-8, cited in Behzad Yaghmaian, Social Change in Iran: an eyewitness account of dissent, defiance, and new movements for rights (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), pages 253-4.
14. Ibrahim Yazdi, “Behind the Scene of the Revolution in Paris”, Iran Farda 51, February 1999, pages 22, cited in B. Yaghmanian, Social Change in Iran, page 253.
15. William Shawcross, The Shah’s Last Ride: The Fate of an Ally (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), page 116.
16. Ibid., page 260. Readers should note taqiyya and kitman are often used synonymously. The operational definition is clear: both terms refer to religiously-sanctioned deception of kaffir (unbelievers) and Muslims. Kitman is a deception modality used in Iranian domestic and external politics. Both are justified by Islamic history, with reference to religious authorities, including the actions of the Prophet Mohamed, and the Koran and hadiths (the recorded sayings of the Prophet) and in dealings with kaffir generally. Ziad Abu-Amr, a noted scholar of Islamic fundamentalism, notes: “It is true that the concept [taqiyya] is primarily a Shi’ite strategy. But it also remains Islamic, and Sunnis can use it suits their purposes; there are numerous verses in the Quran that justify the concealing of one’s intentions if that serves the interests of the Muslims.” See Ziad Abu-Amr, “Shaykh Ahmad Yasin and the Origins of Hamas”, in R. Scott Appleby (ed.), Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), page 256, note 42.
17. Amir Taheri, op cit., page 230.
18. B. Yaghmaian, Social Change in Iran (2002), op. cit., page 210.
19. The definitive edition is Islamic Government Governance of the Jurist by Imam Khomeini (ra), published by the Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works (Tehran: International Affairs Department, n.d.). For references to taqiyya, see index to Imam Khomeini, “Islamic Government” [Hukumat-e Islami],
in Islam and Revolution, Hamid Algar ed. (London: KPI, 1981), and especially pages 34, 72, 95, 133, 144, and 147.
20. Edward Shirley, Know Thine Enemy: A Spy’s Journey into Revolutionary Iran (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), page 189.
21. Amir Taheri, The Spirit of Allah, page 197.
22. Samuel P. Huntington’s essay in Foreign Affairs (vol. 72, no. 3, Summer 1993), which he later expanded into a book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1998).
23. Amir Taheri, “A Clash of Civilizations”, Newsweek, 5 September 2005.
24. “Transcript of bin Laden’s October interview”, CNN.com report, February 5, 2002. Bin Laden was interviewed by the al-Jazeera television correspondent in Kabul, Tayseer Alouni, who was jailed by a Spanish court on 19 November 2005 for seven years for his clandestine role in the al Qaeda network. The judge accused him of providing housing, money and residency papers to al Qaeda members arriving in Spain and acting as a courier providing funds and logistics support for al Qaeda members alleged to have plotted the 9/11 attacks. Sam Knight, “Spain jails 9/11 plotter for 27 year”, The Times (UK), 26 September 2005 and “Spain jails 9/11-linked al-Quaida suspect”, The Guardian (UK), 26 September 2005. On 28 September 2005, al-Qaeda’s internet news broadcast Soul Al-Khilafa [Voice of the Caliphate] “expressed compete solidarity with our brother Tayseer ‘Alouni”, and pronounced a formal blessing on him. Transcript reproduced in Middle
East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), clip. no. 869, 28 September 2005.
25. Cited in Amir Taheri, “Iran Restive Provinces”, Arab News, 27 May 2006.
26. Amir Taheri, “Iran’s agenda for the world”, Arab News, 20 August 2005.
27. “Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’: Iran president”, Agence France-Presse (AFP), 26 October 2005.
28. “Global jihad: Iran’s new president promotes suicide squads”, WorldNetDaily.com, 30 July 2005.
29. Amir Taheri, “Iran’s agenda for the world”, Arab News, 20 August 2005.
30. Amir Taheri, “Misunderstanding Iran”, Arab News, 8 April 2006.
31. Hasan Abbasi’s address to the Gathering of Seekers of Martyrdom, Tehran, 2 June 2004, cited in “Official launching of new suicide terrorist organization in Iran promises ‘holy terror'”, Intelligence Council of the Marze Por Gohar Party, Iranians for a secular republic (Los Angeles) at URL: http://www.marzeporgohar.org/index.php?l=1&cat=21&scat=&artid=398
32. Amir Taheri, “The frightening truth of why Iran wants a bomb”, Daily Telegraph (London), 16 April 2006.
33. Amir Taheri, “The last helicopter”, The Wall Street Journal, 29 March 2006.
34. Hasan Abbasi interview in Arash Bahmani, “Plans to harm U.S. interests?”, Rooz (English edition), 27 March 2006, at URL:
35. Simon Tisdall, “Power and the people”, The Guardian (UK), 21 August 2006.
36. “We duped the West, by Iran’s nuclear negotiator”, Daily Telegraph (London), 5 March 2006. Rowhani’s comments were published in a journal restricted to the Iranian ruling elite.
37. “Iran confirms building secret nuclear tunnels”, Iran Press Service, 25 February 2005.
38. “Iran models nuclear plan on Pakistan”, Sunday Telegraph (London), 23 April 2006.
39. “Iran confirms building secret nuclear tunnels”, Iran Press Service, 25 February 2005.
40. Hosein Musavian, “The negotiations with Europe bought us time”, MEMRI Special Dispatch Series, no. 957, 12 August 2005.
41. Interview with Sirus Naseri, MEMRI TV Monitor Project, Clip No 351, 10 November 2004.
42. Daniel Pipes, “Iran’s messianic menace”, FrontPageMagazine.com, 10 January 2006.
43. “The esoteric world of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad”, Jihad Watch, 17 November 2005.
44. Amir Taheri, “The frightening truth of why Iran wants a bomb”, Daily Telegraph (London), 16 April 2006.
45. Cited in Daniel Pipes, “Iran’s messianic menace”, FrontPageMagazine.com, 10 January 2006. See also Golnaz Esfandiari, “President sees light surrounding him”, Iran Press Service, 29 November 2005.
46. “Iran president paves the way for Arabs’ imam return”, Persian Journal, 17 November 2005.
47. “Iran leader: Islam to ‘rule the world'”, WorldNetDaily.com, 10 January 2006.
48. Amir Taheri, “The frightening truth of why Iran wants a bomb”, Daily Telegraph (London), 16 April 2006. The roots of Islamic rage are also expressed in Iranian Expediency Council Chairman Rafsanjani’s reply to a query from a French diplomat concerning the possibility of being a target of a U.S. attack: “Even if I am the target, [Iran will not relinquish its nuclear program]”, reported in Al-Hayat (London), 29 March 2005, cited in Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Inquiry and Analysis Series–No. 218, 7 April 2005.
49. Karl Vick, “Iran moves to curb hard-liners”, Washington Post, 8 October 2005, page A13.
50. “Ahmadinejad calls ‘mentally ill’ opponents of Iranian nuclear program”, REGNUM News Agency, 18 May 2006.
51. “Supreme Leader: Iran’s ideology spans North Africa to India”, Iran Focus, 25 March 2006.
52. “Bush wrongfooted as Iran steps up international charm offensive”, The Guardian (UK), 20 June 2006.
53. “Nuclear proposals contain problems”, Iran Daily, 12 June 2006.
54. “Indonesian President asks for broader ties with Iran”, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), 11 May 2006.
55. “$5b refinery deal inked with Indonesia”, Iran Daily, 10 May 2006.
56. “Iran leader emboldened by Muslim support”, Washington Post, 13 May 2006.
57. “Ahmadinejad calls on Islamic states to promote their potentials”, Islamic Repubic News Agency (Jakarta), 13 May 2006.
58. “Indonesia backs Iran’s claim of peaceful nuclear program” Agence France-Presse, 10 May 2006.
59. Samantha Brown, “Israel will one day vanish–Iran”, iafrica.com, 11 May 2006.
60. “Iranian leader calls Chavez a ‘trench mate'”, Associated Press, 30 July 2006.
61. “Hugo Chavez receives Iran’s highest honor”, Associated Press, 30 July 2006.
62. “Iranian leader calls Chavez a ‘trench mate'”, Associated Press, 30 July 2006.
63. Thomas Joscelyn, “Mullah Chavez: a look at the blossoming of Iranian and Venezuelan ‘brotherhood'”, The Weekly Standard (Washington
DC), 20 October 2005.
64. “Muslim nations can overcome problems”, Iran Daily, 24 April 2006.
65. “President stresses expansion of multi-dimensional ties with Sudan”, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Tehran, 21 June 2006.
66. “Chinese envoy satisfied with current level of ties with Iran”, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), 27 July 2006. “China and the Iranian Nuclear Crisis”, China Brief Volume v1″, February 2006.
67. Robert T. McLean, “The return of the Non-Aligned Movement”, The American Spectator, 27 June 2006.
68. Transcript of Malaysian Prime Minister’s speech at the Non-Aligned Movement meeting at Putrajaya on 29 May 2006, para 30.
69. “Non-Aligned countries declare support to Iran nuclear rights”, ArabicNews.com, 30 May 2006.
70. Frederick W. Stakelbeck, “The Iran-Cuba Axis” FrontPageMagazine.com, 18 January 2006.
71. “Cuba and Iran to fight jointly the United States”, Iran Press Service, 10 May 2001.
72. Frederick W. Stakelbeck, “The Iran-Cuba Axis” FrontPageMagazine.com, 18 January 2006.
73. Frederick W. Stakelbeck, “The Iran-Cuba Axis” FrontPageMagazine.com, 18 January 2006.
74. “Ahmadinejad says Iran ready to transfer experience to Colombia”, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), 16 September 2006.
75. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States [The 9/11 Commission Report] (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004) page 90.
76. John Walcott and Brian Duffy, “The CIA’s Darkest Secrets”, U.S. News and World Report, 4 July 1994. See also: Andrew Campbell, “Iran’s nuclear deception: taqiyya and kitman (part I)”, National Observer, No. 67, Summer 2006, pages 20-22.
77. Taheri, The Spirit of Allah, page 267.
79. “UN chief urges West and Iran to cool brinkmanship over nuclear programme”, The Independent (UK), 5 December 2005.
80. “Diplomacy and force”, an interview with IAEA’s ElBaradei, Newsweek (New York), 23 January 2006.
81. Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Report by the IAEA Director-General (International Atomic Energy Agency, GOV/2006/27, dated: 28 April 2006), page 7, para 34.
82. “Six Arab states join rush to go nuclear”, The Times (London), 4 November 2006.
83. Ze’ev Schiff, “Report: Iran may prompt other Mideast states to go nuclear” Haaretz.com, 24 April 2006. Sections of the 250-page top-secret report, prepared by the Israeli Government’s Meridor Committee, have been made available to selected Israeli and “friendly” sources.
84. Andrew Campbell, “Iran’s nuclear deception”, National Observer, No. 67, Summer 2006, pages 17-18.
85. “Iranian president at Tehran conference”, MEMRI Special Dispatch Series, no. 1013, 28 October 2005.
86. “Iran leader urges destruction of ‘cancerous’ Israel”, CNN.com 15 December 2000.
87. “Iranian president at Tehran conference”, MEMRI Special Dispatch Series, no. 1013, 28 October 2005.
88. “Israel must be removed, says Iran’s president”, Iran Press Service, 8 July 2006.
89. Julian E. Barnes, “Video of Iranian missile test is fake, Pentagon says”, Los Angeles Times, 10 September 2006.
90. In Iran, truth is described as being posht-e pardeh (hidden behind the curtain). See: Andrew Campbell, “Iran’s nuclear deception”, National Observer, No. 67, Summer 2006, pages 17 and 20.
91. John R. Bolton, “Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons”, remarks to the Hudson Institute, Washington DC, 17 August 2004.
92. “Rep. says Iran’s nuke capability unknown”, Washington Post, 23 April 2006.
MR. HAND, WILL I PASS THIS CLASS?
BY Sean Penn / August 22, 2005
It’s the week preceding presidential elections. Candidates attack one
another’s credibility. Activists push to boycott the vote. Traffic and
pollution choke the cities. Leftists support a no-win idealist.
Preachers guide their flocks toward political starboard. The media
have fallen under the grip of standing power, and should they defy it,
they’re imprisoned. University students promote human rights, while
fundamentalists deny them. It is a culture in love with cinema. With
Brad Pitt. Angelina Jolie. And anything Steven Spielberg. It is a
nation of nuclear power, where the lobbies of the religious right
effectively blur the lines between church and state. But it is also a
country of good and hospitable people. And when the local team wins a
big match, there is dancing, kissing, drinking and drugs in the
streets. Women are graduating the campuses in higher and higher
numbers, occupying government in higher and higher numbers. Sound
familiar? But wait. The women. Look at the women. All is not well. I’m
thinking about the women. This is Iran.
It had been six weeks since my friend, author Norman Solomon, and I
sat around in my living room deciding to travel to Iran and called
journalist Reese Erlich to join us. Reese immediately began
applications for visas. Over the month and a half that followed, he
slogged through U.N. attaches and the cultural and foreign ministries
of the Islamic Republic of Iran and swam doggedly upriver through the
multiple bureaucracies that lead to a journalist’s visa. This process
led to continual rescheduling and revised itineraries.
When the visas were finally approved, two days beyond our latest
planned departure, I was in England visiting my wife who was working
there. On the afternoon of June 8, I watched the Iranian World Cup
team dominate Bahrain on the television of the Iranian Consulate in
London. Iran’s victory gave me further reason to mourn our most recent
travel delay, because it meant I would miss the jubilance that would
surely explode in the streets of Tehran.
The next morning, I left London at 6 a.m. to rendezvous with Norman
and Reese in Munich. While I waited in the Munich airport for their
flight from San Francisco, I did some money changing, magazine buying
and snacking. I travel better where English is not spoken. But English
is spoken at German airports, so I remained restless until their
At 3:30 p.m. Munich-time, Norman, Reese and I boarded Lufthansa Flight
602 to Tehran. The other passengers were about 95 percent Iranian and
a few Europeans. Last year, including journalists, fewer than 500 non-
Iranian Americans visited Iran. I looked around the plane, full of
modern men and women in Western garb, returning from vacations, family
visits and business. Alcoholic beverages were served on the plane. But
no alcohol sold for duty- free purchase. Iran is an Islamic state and
a dry one. Nonetheless, many of these travelers were happy to get in
their last swill before landing.
Four hours and 10 minutes later and a time change that would have us
land at 10:30 p.m. Tehran-time, came a P.A. announcement as we went
into approach: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very important
announcement to make. For all our female passengers, by decree of the
government of Iran, all female visitors are required to keep their
heads covered. In your own interest, therefore, we ask you to put on a
scarf before leaving the aircraft in Tehran. Thank you.” With that,
women clamored for the lavatory. One at a time as they exited,
hundreds of years of transformation had occurred. All of these modern
women, who would’ve looked quite at home dancing in a Paris nightclub,
were now covered head to toe in black chadors, makeup scrubbed from
their faces, cleavages and midriffs a memory.
There are no separate queues for Iranian and foreign passport holders
at customs, and, as my pals and I had traveled in the rear coach
seats, we found ourselves somewhere three-quarters back in the line. I
was anxious to get out into the street, to smell the city and its
traffic, to arrive at the hotel, check in with home. Our cell phones
would not work in Tehran, so I hoped that the international phone
lines wouldn’t be difficult to get. I noticed that many Iranians were
freely smoking cigarettes in line, certainly no signs prohibiting it,
and immediately joined them. I was quickly singled out by a uniformed
customs agent who instructed me to put out my cigarette. Only me. Not
the Iranian passengers.
Eventually, Norman, Reese and I went forward to the customs booth and
presented our three American passports. We were told to “wait,” rather
abruptly. With that, the young Iranian customs official left his booth
with our passports, taking them to another office, out of our line of
The official returned, but without our passports or any explanation.
We stood dumbly by, as the remaining Iranian passengers were stamped
and passed us.
Over an hour later, we were still waiting in a now-empty customs hall.
I sat on the floor. Reese paced. And Norman, Zen as always, stood in
place. Suddenly, four uniformed customs officials appeared and hurried
us into a small office, where one by one, we were fingerprinted and
directed in Farsi. It wasn’t clear whether the fingerprinting was
leading to our being permitted into the country, or if our passports
alone were the reason we were being detained.
What does he want?
The agent whose large hands had rolled my black-inked fingers and
palms over several printing forms barked at me to follow him with a
wave of his hand. He led me to a men’s room, where he swung open the
door and indicated I should go in ahead of him. It was a bit of a
ratty hole. Water closets, open. Worn, reflectionless mirrors. Where
our standard toilets might sit, these are simply holes in the floor,
with dark glimmering puddles beneath, and fluorescent light above. He
just stared at me. Neither threateningly, nor warmly. Seconds went by
as I stared back. Neither threatened, nor comfortable. “Now what?” I
said. He raised his hands and wiped his palms over one another. Yes,
he wanted me to have the opportunity to wash my hands, rather than to
walk, black-handed, into the Persian night.
So I turned to the sink, there were the last bubbles in a soap
dispenser and I tried to pump it. The water came on automatically,
nice modern touch, but it was cold. I rubbed my hands together under
it with a bubble or two of soap, to at least a graying effect. When I
looked for some sort of towel to dry them, there wasn’t one. So, I
took a deep breath and slid past my 6-foot-3- inch minder into one of
the water closets, grabbed some toilet paper, and dried my dull gray
There was, it turned out, a contrivance in the tone of all this. The
language of the Iranian Parliament in the decree for fingerprinting
makes no attempt to disguise the retaliatory impetus of the
fingerprinting policy: Americans do it to Iranians. Iranians do it to
us. When I thanked the agent for his help, I was as much thanking him
for not putting my head in the water closet hole as for facilitating
our clean-handed entrance into his country. When we got to the baggage
area, our driver was dutifully waiting, as were our bags. We jumped in
the car and headed for the hotel.
The streets of Tehran at night are reminiscent of Baghdad or Mexico
City. Jousting, yelling, horn honking and warm thickly polluted air,
mud-splattered motorcycles, winding through human traffic at death-
bound speeds. This was the week before the Iranian presidential
election and the city was papered with campaign posters. Dominant were
those of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. I knew it
would be an eventful week. I did not know we were headed into the most
violent week in Iran in more than a decade.
The Hotel Laleh had once been the InterContinental. Its modern
conveniences intact, we pulled our luggage through the lobby, greeted
by bellmen, ever so warm and happy to relieve us of our bags. At check-
in, it is required to surrender one’s passport and identify what type
of visa one travels under. The legality of my presence was based on my
technical position as “journalist.” Hence, I checked in as such, went
up to my room, called home, then got some sleep.
I got up with the morning light, opened the curtains and could just
make out the sparsely snow-spotted peaks above through the polluted
haze. Tehran lies at the foot of the Elburz Mountains. In some
directions, it doesn’t look unlike Los Angeles at the foot of the San
Gabriels. Staring into my room from the boulevard below was a banner
with the visage of Ayatollah Khomeini. Our first scheduled event was
the Friday morning prayer service. But that would not begin for
several hours. I went downstairs, out the door, and walked into the
This would turn out to be one of the few times I was able to be alone
on the visit. But it was an important time for that. My unsure footing
at the airport, the hustle of the city we drove into the night before,
were by now, dreamlike and wary episodes of travel. But now I was just
one more rested body and spirit walking down the Tehran street. What I
had anticipated of this deeply Islamic city was some sort of post-
chant, post-prayer gloominess, dark- eyed men with dark beards, eyeing
me with suspicion, shrouded women not eyeing me at all. But that’s not
what I saw. And that’s not what it felt like.
Of course one doesn’t see a woman without a scarf, called a hijab, on
her head at least, and a chador covering her body. It is unlawful to
touch a woman in public unless you are her husband. Girlfriends and
boyfriends are not permitted to hold hands. However, there are many
smiles. There was laughter and very warm feelings in the eyes that
fell on this American visitor. Surprised to encounter me in their
city, some told me how much they liked the movie “21 Grams,” a film in
which sex and drug abuse are both seen in graphic detail. Over the
next days, I would find that American movies are readily available and
popular in Iran, viewed on black market DVDs. The DVD man goes house
to house, like a milkman might.
The back of the bus
I walked slowly over about a 2-square-mile area. The image of
Ayatollah Khomeini, as stern as an Orwellian leader, is omnipresent on
the sides of buildings, walls, billboards and bus stops, watching my
every move. As I studied one of those building sides, the searing eyes
of their beloved Ayatollah, I stepped off a curb and was nearly
flattened by a transit bus. I leaped backward onto the sidewalk. And
there they were, staring down upon me, Iranian men, in the front of
the bus. But as I regained my bearings, the last third of the bus
passed me and it was there, where everything went into slow motion.
Sliding by me was the rear of the bus, occupied only by women in black
chadors. The back of the bus. I thought of Rosa Parks.
Back at the hotel, I went for coffee and scrambled eggs at the
downstairs buffet. A canned, Muzak version of “I Will Always Love You”
plays. The scene downstairs reminded me of similar scenes in Iraq, at
Baghdad’s Al Rashid and Palestine hotels. International journalists
with that “What the f —
are you doing here, Mr. Penn?” look on their faces.
I grabbed a copy of the English version of Iran News. I read that the
United States was considering the sale of commercial aircraft parts to
Iran. The Muzak changed, and an instrumental of “Unchained Melody”
took over. After breakfast, I swung by the front desk to inquire about
exercise facilities, in or out of the hotel. There wasn’t much
available, but there were a couple of times I found myself running the
emergency stairs twelve floors up and twelve floors down. And it got a
I headed upstairs to get ready for a 10 a.m. meeting with the Iranian
agency that represents visiting journalists. I loaded my camera, my
tape recorder and changed into a more formal pair of shoes, as I
didn’t know what expectations of dress the prayer service required. My
television was on and CNN World Report registered a viewer complaint
that there were too many stories about China. Too few covering the
Downing Street Memo revelation. I had put myself to sleep the night
before with CNN World Report, special edition on China’s sex museum.
After getting our official credentials, we headed off to Friday
prayers. Security was very tight around the stadium of Tehran
University where the faithful assemble for Namaze Jumeh or Friday
Prayers. We surrendered all metallic objects after going through a
series of metal detectors. I was subjected to an upper body search,
triggered by a cash pouch around my waist. (The interest on credit
cards is against Islamic doctrine and therefore, one carries and pays
in cash.) Then we were escorted to the press balcony.
The stadium was hung with banners. One translated, “We shall always
support the Palestinians.” Another, “Resistance against the
conspiracies of America and Israel will disappoint them to predominate
over Iran’s nation.” This phrase is attributed to “the grand, great
leader.” Bit by bit, the stadium filled until 10,000 worshipers
created a sea partially of white and black turbans (the black
represents the Seyed or direct descendent of the prophet Mohammed)
pale and dark shirts. Chanting echoed throughout the building.
Government officials fill the front rows. Military arrived in groups,
in the belief that their prayers will be answered in multiples. Many,
as simple conscripts, seemed less focused on the proceedings. And
behind them, the sea of the devout.
The opening sermon was delivered by a low-level cleric, Ayatollah
Mesbehi, and focused on economic morality. With every bow, and only
backs showing, the bodies of worshipers created the illusion of an
undulating Persian carpet. The women were sequestered in an entirely
separate area, all but unseen from the press balcony. The hard-line
cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati arrived to deliver his sermon. He leads
the six-man Guardian Council, the controversial and largely considered
fundamentalist body that governs state decisions over and above those
made by the president or parliament (Majlis). In an apparently direct
targeting of centrist candidate Rafsanjani, he preached against the
dangers of nepotism in government. Rafsanjani was known to employ many
of his relatives in his cabinets, and represented a power and
following that directly threatened that of the Guardian Council.
As Jannati transitioned toward international policy, he reminded what
was largely considered a reluctant voting public that every vote is a
shout of death to America. He goaded the crowd to join the chanting
calls for “Death to Israel!”, “Death to America!” Ten thousand strong
of voice. I was struck by the familiar: a cleric guiding his followers
in their politics, and toward particular candidates away from others.
It has been my observation that this kind of invective speech is
common, not only in Iran but in the Arab states as well. According to
many with whom I spoke, it had always been clear from the Iranian
point of view, that the call is related to American foreign policy and
does not intend to target the death of the American people. However,
when the supposed purpose of a 10,000-person rally is in the prayer
and scruples of Islam, I can say that as an American (a half Jew, by
the way), the chant demeans both intent and any religion that aspires
to a core of love and reduces it to a cheap political threat of
As the service came to its end, hands released the prayer beads
counted for pacing of prayer. In our case, we checked Reese’s watch,
which said it was time to beat the crowd and get back to the car. We
went back through the multiple security checks like the first fleeing
audience members of a rock concert..
A short history of U.S.-Iran relations
Iran is not an unsophisticated country. These are not unrefined
people. And many, even among the worshipers at the Friday prayer
service, do not subscribe to a literal interpretation of the call for
“Death to Israel” and “Death to America.” However, in the mantra of
chant, comes an adulated sense of horror. Why such anger at the United
States? Where had Iran’s traumatic experience with American power
Just after the midpoint of the 20th century, Prime Minister Muhammad
Mussadiq — erudite, secular and committed to a democratic vision of
Iran – cast a formidable shadow across the world stage. At home his
popularity grew as he insisted on putting an end to Britain’s long-
standing plunder of Iranian oil. In April 1951, Mussadiq took decisive
action, nationalizing the British oil firm that had enjoyed a
sweetheart deal with Iran’s government. Despite fury in London, he set
up the National Iranian Oil Co.
British leaders got nowhere when they asked the Truman administration
to use the U.S. government’s more trusted position in Tehran to help
overthrow Mussadiq. But as soon as President Eisenhower took office in
early 1953, his foreign-policy team rolled up its spooky sleeves to
get the job done. The regal Shah of Iran — a faithful buddy of
British oil executives — was losing his power struggle with Mussadiq,
and in August the Shah abruptly left the country and fled to Rome. The
CIA, working as senior partner with Britain’s MI6, quickly moved to
subvert Iranian democracy.
CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of Theodore Roosevelt,
labored feverishly in Tehran to coordinate a coup that brought down
Mussadiq in August 1953 and quickly restored the Shah to the throne.
Western oil companies were back in charge of Iran’s oil, and the Shah
initiated what turned out to be a quarter-century of political
repression, torture, and killing.
Author Dilip Hiro wrote:
“America — a power that most secular nationalists had initially
to be benevolently neutral to Iran in its dispute with the British —
had clandestinely allied with Britain to overthrow a government that
represented popular nationalist interest. This reprehensible act of
the United States left a deep scar on the minds of Iranians,
implanting most of them with abiding animosity toward America.”
With the 1979 revolution, came the flight of the Shah and the return
of Iran’s exiled spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini.
After attending Friday prayer services in Tehran, Sean Penn, who
visited Iran in June in the days before the country’s presidential
election, prepares for a meeting with the son of a former president of
Iran. Mehdi Rafsanjani was also a campaign director for his father.
We were sitting in Nayeb restaurant in central Tehran. I’d been
holding a piss through the hours of prayer service. So after I ordered
my lunch, I excused myself to the men’s room. “Men’s” was written in
Farsi above, and “Manly” in English below. I stepped into the water
closet, grateful to just have a piss. If I’d had more serious business
there, it would’ve been a squat job with no hook for one’s jacket.
Now, that would’ve been manly.
After lunch we had an appointment with Mehdi Rafsanjani, a campaign
director and son of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
He’s an informal man. A little portly, he seemed almost amused at the
opportunity not so much to answer our questions but to anticipate
them. We spoke on a range of issues, from Iran’s nuclear intentions to
the rights of women, the process of elections and the history of our
two countries’ tension. In almost all cases, he referred our questions
back to us. “You have less candidates than we do.” “You develop
nuclear energy.” Norman Solomon took this one on. Referring to pockets
of high cancer rates in the vicinity of our nuclear facilities, he
conceded that perhaps we have made some mistakes. The young Rafsanjani
responded, “We like your mistakes.” The issue of nuclear weapons
brought an ironic smile to his face. “Why does the U.S. administration
continue to pressure and pry into our business? It was the United
States that made the chemical weapons used by the Iraqis against
10,000 people at Halabja.” (Only six weeks after the horrific events
in Halabja, President Reagan sent his Middle East envoy, current
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to deliver to Saddam Hussein the
news that the United States had taken Iraq off its terrorist hot list.
The meeting was sealed with the now infamous photograph of Rumsfeld
and Hussein shaking hands.)
Currently, the United States holds $12 billion in Iranian assets
frozen. And young Rafsanjani suggested the releasing of those funds
might be a good first step for the United States in the normalization
of relations with Iran.
Then he said something that really caught my ear. “There are four or
five dissidents only who are currently in prison,” he said with
disconcerting ease. “Even you, in the United States, have journalists
in prison, probably the same amount, and some currently under threat.
There are some human rights issues, then we have to solve that. In the
United States, your Guardian Council are the rich. It is not so
different.” In the days to come, the younger Rafsanjani’s words would
be put to the test. He had posed a balance between Iranian treatment
of free press and that in the United States. I chose to diligently
consider this proposition, and was mindful of the cases against Matt
Cooper and Judith Miller, and separately, the suspicious umbrella over
Robert Novak back home. (Iranian law demands journalists reveal their
sources upon government request. Our own 1972 Supreme Court decision
effectively demands the same of journalists in the United States.)
While the language of the court decision may have been gray, today
Miller sits in jail for refusing to reveal a source. The information
assault aimed at a high-profile visitor will keep you busy.
Journalists seize the opportunity to chat you up with their Middle
East expertise. If you’re not feeling chatty, they’ll write dismissive
things about you in their columns and blogs. In all these things, the
human ego affects information.
At the same time, I found myself approached with hundreds of
opportunities for interviews with all those on the journalists’
circuit of interviewees. I was offered interviews over here,
interviews over there. I was even contacted for a potential interview
with former president and candidate Rafsanjani himself. But I was a
little uninterested in most of it. Journalists spend so much of their
time in pursuit of regurgitated information. Let’s talk to this one
for that side, that one for this side. The analysts say there is a
possibility of developing arms. The diplomats deny any interest in
doing so. Some say it’s anti-Islamic. And other journalists back in
the States read those quotes and paraphrase them or borrow them for
their own articles. Offhand remarks by the “usual suspects” suddenly
become unassailable fact. It adds up to a lot of print about the same
thing; it makes you dizzy. You begin to lose your clarity, focusing
entirely on the power establishment and losing the important story of
any land: its people. Meanwhile, on the street, there are interesting
rumblings about people who dared to challenge the official version of
Akbar Ganji, a heroic investigative journalist who at one time wrote
columns implicating high-ranking individuals in assassination of
dissidents, had disappeared two days before my arrival in Tehran. The
talk on the street had him in prison or dead. Ganji had already spent
62 months behind bars on a term that began in April 2000 for
expressing political views. (The following day, it would be revealed
by Human Rights Watch that he had been taken back into solitary
confinement at Tehran’s Evin prison, was barred from contact with
family or lawyers and has taken to a life-threatening hunger strike.)
I put out the word that I would like to speak with Abbas Abdi, another
prominent dissident who had been jailed two years for polling Iranians
on relations toward the United States. I was told that in the
uncertainty of the moment, and because of the disappearance of Ganji,
Abdi was giving no interviews. I was starting to question, very
seriously question, Mehdi Rafsanjani’s view of what represents a free
press in Iran versus that in the United States.
In the late afternoon on Friday, following our meeting with Mehdi
Rafsanjani, there was to be a rally at the primary campaign
headquarters of the elder Rafsanjani in Elahiyeh, on the north (and
rich) side of Tehran, in the highlands. Some outdoor cafes, nice cars,
posh houses. We drove through the congested city some 40 minutes to
the foothills that are Elahiyeh. We pulled over beside a cafe and went
It was a little, bohemian-looking place, but still clean and upscale.
So was the crowd. Three women sat at the table behind us. We asked if
they would talk to us about the election. They were happy to talk, but
not so much about the election. They didn’t intend to vote. Seemed
like a sham to them. Women count as one-half a man in this country.
Insurance benefits are half. Death benefits, called diyeh, half. And
in the “he said – she said” weight of testimony in a criminal case,
half. Guess who wins that verdict? The disappointments of the Mohammad
Khatami regime had created a lot of this. “Nothing happened and
nothing will happen. We have zero sense of hope in the election,” one
of the women, a 31-year-old Arabic instructor, told us. “Khatami
promised us some freedoms,” she said. “I can’t even get any in my
house. I can’t even have satellite television. They are playing with
We were briefly joined by a man from an adjacent table. He offered,
“This country was in a state of mourning after the Iraq-Iran war. We
lost an entire generation of Iranians. One million people were killed.
You cannot forget these things if you aim to understand our country.”
And I did understand it in this context: The United States lost 58,000
men in combat in Vietnam. Our population at that time was roughly 220
million, so the casualties were approximately .026 percent of the
entire population. And yet we all feel wounds of that war to this day.
I imagined what it must have been like for Iran to have lost one in
every 50 people in the country, a full 2 percent of the total
population wiped out in an eight-year war. He went on, and in
describing the evening following the Iranian soccer team’s victory
over Bahrain, said, “You should’ve seen it. I did not think my people
could be happy like this again.” (The celebrating on the streets of
Tehran that night was so buoyant and large that police allowed women
to take off their scarves, and there were even reports of open
drinking. The celebration and police tolerance ended at 6a.m. the
following day.) The young man thanked us for listening and returned to
Two of the women lived together. It seemed that they might have been
insinuating that they were a lesbian couple, but I can’t say for sure.
I refer to my internal manual of ethics, and there it is right there,
in “questions unbecoming a gentleman”: Don’t ask two women you just
met if they’re lesbians. I’m big on prudish restraint. Yet without
asking, they do make it clear that their holing up together is frowned
upon by their families and society alike. A single woman may live with
her parents, perhaps on her own if she is able, but with another
single young woman, everybody’s back gets itchy. Yet, whatever the
private truth of these two women, “sexual freedom” would make for a
difficult movement to mount, as even uttering those two words together
is against religious law in the Iranian republic.
At some point in the conversation, a man somewhere in his early 40s,
wearing a dark pinstriped suit, stepped over to my companion Reese
Erlich and whispered something in his ear. When the man returned to
his window-side table, we thanked the women for their time, and they
returned to their table. “What did that guy want, Reese?” I ask. Turns
out that fellow had recognized my face. Seemed to feel he could set up
an audience with Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the late Ayatollah
Khomeini, the one whose image was staring at me everywhere I went. He
said he could also facilitate an interview with Mehdi’s father, Ali
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
While I have said there is a great warmth toward Americans, it’s never
far from your mind that you’re one bedside book in the toilet away
from death. One handshake with a woman away from jail. A visitor is
subject to all the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all its
thinly veiled oppression. And less thinly veiled restriction on the
press. It’s like dancing on a volcano. So, who was this “Star Wars”
Sith? And why did he want to give us his connections? We were wary, to
say the least. He’d given Reese a phone number, and, after we left the
cafe, we shared our thoughts and concerns.
Of course, we wanted the interviews if we could get them. These were
two major figures, one of whom, it appeared at the time, was likely to
be returned to a presidency he’d relinquished in 1997. But we wanted
to be careful not to be led into something by one, and there are many,
of those who, for their own purposes, would design circumstances
simply to create a sense of Iran as an unstable place. We called the
cell number, and the gentleman was strangely pushy. We told him we
couldn’t do it immediately. He said he could come to our hotel at
10:30 p.m., and Iran he and some others would pick us up and take us
to the interview with Khomeini. When we said we had our own car and
driver, he pursued, saying, “Oh, it’ll just be easier. This way you
won’t get lost.” Reese told him he’d call him back, and filled us in.
We decided that if he really had the pull that he claimed, perhaps he
would have it in the daylight of the following day. So once again, we
called back the man in the suit and gave him a window of daylight
hours the following day, when we would be able to make time for the
interviews. And added that we would drive ourselves. It had also been
requested that our translator not accompany us. He assured us that
they had fully capable translators of their own. Why was I seeing
knives in my head? Later that evening, the stranger returned our call,
saying the meeting had been set for 3 o’clock the following afternoon;
we could come in our own car to the well-known estate of the late
Ayatollah Khomeini for an audience with Hassan. The meeting with
Rafsanjani would take place the following day.
Saturday morning. We headed off to the grand bazaar in the southern
end of the city. Its covered shopping alleys spread over nearly a five-
mile area. There are several mosques, but it primarily serves as a
place of commerce, a shopping mall with history. Men pushed newly
woven Persian rugs through the crowds on trolleys. Stores sell
ceramics, silver, electronic equipment, lingerie. There are great
corridors of tile and brick ceilings. There are goldsmiths, bridal
shops, figurine parlors. At the entrance, there is even a bookseller
featuring biographies of President Bush and Sen. Hillary Clinton.
The bazaar was crowded, loud and pungent. I knew that it had been an
economic power center throughout its history. Being a merchant and
being part of the body politic were one and the same. One of the
mosques serves as a paramilitary training center for the Baseej, (a
volunteer militia affiliated with Ansar-e-Hizbollah, the Iranian wing
of its Lebanese Shiite base,) whose thugs make it their business to
control social freedom and enforce their view of Islamic morality,
participating in everything from the beating of young couples for
unlawful contact to the international assassinations of dissidents.
Here they are. The radical right’s muscle, who answer only to the
office of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Their bazaar
chapter is 5,000 strong, and uniformed police defer to their
On my first trip to Baghdad, prior to the war, it was easy to see the
effect of U.S. sanctions. Sadly but not surprisingly, when I returned
to Baghdad during what had become the guerrilla war (writing for The
Chronicle: Part 1 Jan. 14, 2004, Part 2 Jan. 15, 2004), things had
only gotten worse. There had been many debates regarding the
effectiveness of sanctions. From my observations, the historical
effect of sanctions is to leave the people of a country paying the
greatest price. There’s no question that Hussein pillaged benefits
intended for his people and that that additionally contributed to the
destitution of his country. Nonetheless, the sanctions on Iraq were
strict and made obtaining standard goods difficult and often
impossible. That is not the case in Iran. Iran is a rich country. And
the sanctions imposed on it by the United States do not limit access
to American or international goods, except to those unable to afford
it. If you want a Mercedes Benz, it comes through the middleman in
Dubai. If you want Frosted Flakes – from Turkey. Heroin, of course –
that’s Afghanistan, and represents a significant problem in this dry
Islamic state. I saw these goods in Tehran as commonly as one might in
Des Moines. As I write these notes, I’m drinking a Coca-Cola from the
Brazilian subsidiary of that American company. So as not to implicate
anyone, I’ll only say this about alcohol: I found it. It was easy to
find and tasted just as good as it does here at home. .
Tomorrow: A meeting with the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini.
For better and worse, U.S. is a role model
With his family fortune rooted in the pistachio business and his
father the country’s former president, Mehdi Rafsanjani is a man who
is comfortable with power. He uses that sense of his family’s
influence well, with charm and finesse. When we pressed him on the
question of what Iran does with its radioactive waste, his only
response was, “Well, America does it.”
Not only is “America does it” a blind justification for harassment,
fingerprinting and nuclear technology in Iran, it is also rooted in
the culture of the country as a kind of aspiration. There is a love
for our nation that is palpable on the street. There is a deep desire
for our respect in return. And this seems very crucial to the
psychology of Iranian politics, both hard-line and reformist. For all
of the bad blood between our nations, you can’t help observing that
Iranians also love us, and what they know of America. I’m not talking
now of the minority militant bastions of hatred but, in my limited
experience, of Iranians in general.
This is a country where over half the population is under 26 and,
given a chance, would indeed move their nation toward a more secular
democracy. It isn’t just their declarations of love toward this
traveling American. There is proof of it in their knowledge and
excitement about our country. This interest was not created for my
benefit. It was there when I arrived. Yet if the United States
continues to pursue inflammatory rhetoric, like the “Axis of Evil,” or
worse, increased sanctions and potentially unjustified military
action, you can’t help wondering if it may move a heterogeneous
country, well on its way to new ideas and pursuits of freedoms, into a
homogenous monolith of hatred. While the regime’s behavior has been
suspicious, Iran consistently claims compliance with the Nuclear Non-
Proliferation Treaty (of which it is signatory), and the International
Atomic Energy Agency seems to concur. Any reckless action on the part
of the United States or Israel may lead to Iran dropping out of the
treaty. For the moment, Iran’s greatest concern is a possible Israeli
attack on Natanz or Bushehr, its primary nuclear facilities. (It
should be noted that only weeks prior to its inclusion in the Axis of
Evil, Iran invested $560 million in support of U.S. actions in
conjunction with pro- Iranian Afghans against a declared, mutual enemy
in the Taliban.)
After a series of mysterious phone calls, arrangements are made to
transport Sean Penn to a compound in the foothills of Tehran to meet
with Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah. Penn visited Iran in
June, in the days before the national elections.
We rendezvoused with the Siths at 2:45 p.m. in the hills over Tehran.
We were waiting for another car full of them to join us. A police
station to our left, the armed sentry paced, nervous about our growing
convoy across the street. The third car joined us, and we snaked up
the road, like a cruise into the Oakland hills. We came to a guard
station, our arrival was announced, the traffic bar raised and we were
allowed on to the estate.
It wasn’t clear to me at the time, but this was a private road under
military guard, on the grounds of which lies not only the Khomeini
compound but the private home of Rafsanjani as well. As we arrived at
the entrance to the Khomeini home, all the Siths exited their vehicles
in front of us and behind us. There was a lot of Armani going on. Nice-
looking suits. We still didn’t know who they were or what they had to
do with Hassan Khomeini or Rafsanjani. But now one emerged as the
spokesman. He was bearded. Spoke strongly. And had a familiarity with
the terrain. But unlike him, the other Siths seemed as intimidated by
their surroundings as we were. Yes, they had the connections to make
these interviews happen, it seemed, but just barely. And there was a
lot of nervousness about protocol as we emerged as a large group:
three Americans and nine Iranians, including our interpreter, Maryam.
Now it was time to cross the compound to meet with Hassan Khomeini.
When we got to the door, we were asked to take our shoes off. We
complied and were led into a sitting room. A couple of couches and a
few chairs. When Hassan Khomeini entered the room, he was accompanied
by another cleric and three or four others. With not enough room for
all to sit, the Siths had taken up fidgety positions against the wall.
I had already been guided to the chair that would be closest to
Hassan. The meeting had clearly been sold on my presence.
As he approached, I was immediately taken with him. There was a
striking twinkle in this man’s eyes. He was younger than me by perhaps
a decade. But looking in his smiling face, I wouldn’t have put it past
him that he might read my mind. He had a nearly ginger-colored beard,
light skin and eyes, and the black turban of a Seyed. He greeted me
first, then my companions, and asked us to sit. We were told that
while he understands some English, he would prefer to speak in Farsi
and be translated.
He had been told that I had gone to the Friday prayers, so he began
the interview by asking my feelings about that. I told him that while
the sea of belief in Islam had been impressive, that the use of
seductive rage in the chants of “Death to America” and “Death to
Israel” are taken quite literally by mothers and fathers in the United
States. I said that it seemed to me a highly destructive and
inaccurate representation of the country I had come to learn about.
Hassan listened with kind interest. His eyes didn’t leave me as the
translator made clear my statement. He uttered a very brief sentence
in Farsi. He said, “Then we should change it.” I found myself very
moved when he spoke about tolerance for other religions. He said, “The
purpose of multiple religions is for each to complete the other,” and
that “therefore, they are not only to be tolerated, but embraced.”
This, from the closest living male descendant of the Ayatollah, who
had declared a death fatwa upon writer Salman Rushdie. And I believed
him. Yet he cautioned me upon further questioning about the definition
of terrorism. “What is the yardstick” he asked, “that defines Iran as
a terrorist-supporting nation, yet dismisses such a claim against
Israel?” And I supposed that his question could be asked about the
United States as well.
As we parted, we were escorted back to our car by the Siths. We still
had no idea who these men in their black suits were, who had
facilitated this meeting. And they were promising candidate Rafsanjani
for the following day. It didn’t occur to me to ask them who they
were. I wouldn’t have trusted the answer. But we agreed to speak later
and hit the road.
Jeanette Scherpenzeel-Pourkamal is the cultural attache for the Dutch
embassy in Tehran. As arranged by Maryam, our appointed translator,
and Babak, a friend of my companion Reese Erlich’s from his first trip
to Iran in 2000, we would meet at the Scherpenzeel-Pourkamal house for
a dinner party. Invited, at my request, were the pre-eminent
filmmakers and actors of Iranian cinema, notably directors Abbas
Kiarostami and Dariush Mehrjui. Though Kiarostami is widely acclaimed
in international cinema, I was shamefully unfamiliar with his films
and those of the other guests. (It should be said that I’m unfamiliar
with the films of John Ford as well, not much of a cinephile.) We
chatted a bit about censorship issues affecting Iranian filmmakers. It
was explained to me that as the government finances the films, many of
those filmmakers’ works are simply banned within Iran. The lucky ones
find distribution at international film festivals. It is mandatory to
submit proposed screenplays to government censors prior to production.
One young director was in the process of shooting a film in Tehran
when we spoke, despite being pre-banned. He had found independent
financing and went his own way. I asked if he had government
interference on set. “Not really,” he said, laughing. “Only the Baseej
beat up my leading actress, and they shoot tear gas into my car window
when I drive home each day.” He grinned. This was considered mild
I am a reasonably social person, but that isn’t to say that I have
been in a group or a party of more than four or five people without
the support of alcohol in as long as I can remember. So, though we
shared an industry, I found myself dry and shy.
Toward the end of the night, one of the guests suggested that I might
venture, the following day at 5 p.m., to the boulevard entrance of
Tehran University. A women’s rights group would be mounting an illegal
demonstration. I was told that violence was likely. Sunday morning, I
got up early again and I took a walk around the back side of the
hotel. It was going to be a hot day, in more ways than one.
The Siths came to escort our car to the Kakhe Marmar (Marble Palace),
where we would have our audience with Hashemi Rafsanjani. As present
leader of the Expediency Council, the body that resolves legislative
issues on which the Majlis and the Council of Guardians fail to reach
agreement, this was Rafsanjani’s place of business. Today, he would be
speaking before a group of business leaders assembled from throughout
We went through fairly heavy scrutiny at the security check, but we
did make it in time for his entrance into the hall. I was permitted
inside to videotape from about 6 yards from where Rafsanjani sat in a
front row among the 200 or so in the audience. Prior to his
introduction and speech, a senior business leader who had previously
opposed him spoke and officially threw Rafsanjani his support. I was
tapped on the shoulder and told that the moment Rafsanjani finished
his speech, which would be short, my companion Norman Solomon, Reese
and I would have our private interview in an adjacent room, and it
might be prudent to move in that direction presently. As Rafsanjani
was introduced and began to speak, we backed off and were guided into
the waiting area.
The Siths milled about nervously and then, “He’s coming. He’s coming!”
barked the bearded Sith. I placed my video camera on a nearby
stairwell to record the event of our interview. One of the Siths came
to me and positioned me at the shoulders as though I were a mannequin
in a window display. I laughed. But standing square-shouldered would
not be the greatest compromise that I had ever suffered. And then he
came. White turban, white robe and his famously thin beard. He was
guided to me. We shook hands. And then we were repositioned for what
seemed more a photo op than an interview. I began by asking a simple
question related to a New York Times article where he was quoted
comparing our two democracies but favoring his own. He basically
repeated what I had read in the New York Times — that they had eight
candidates for president where we only had two legitimate ones. Simple
as his answer was, he eluded the heart of my question. So I repeated
it in different words. “What is it that you consider to be the core of
democracy?” His answer: that they had more candidates than we do. That
was pretty much it.
It became clear we would not have more than two or three minutes
between the three of us to ask questions, so I passed the torch to
Norman and Reese. And as I stood by with my recorder to tape their
short questions and his even shorter answers, it was then that my
video camera recorded my friend, the bearded Sith, literally pushing
me into the photo op that somebody thought would excite the kids in
Rafsanjani’s campaign. It was dumb show of proximity without
substance, and my video camera dutifully recorded the shove. I left
Kakhe Marmar with less than what I entered with.
During his visit to Iran in June, Sean Penn had the chance to witness
a rare demonstration in support of women’s rights.
The demonstration was to begin at 5 p.m. I wanted to refresh a bit, so
I took a shower at the hotel and began to dress when, at about 4:30
p.m., my companions Reese Erlich, Norman Solomon and Babak knocked on
my door. They’d gotten an update. What had been anticipated as likely
violence the evening before was now considered certain. This is a
guilty admission, but when you have come to a place that is
unfamiliar, with the intention of gaining a familiarity, absolutely
nothing is more seductive than to see its darkest sides. I am an
optimist. I can always look up. But to see down is to be down. We
headed down to the demonstration.
As we approached Tehran University, traffic slowed to a stop. It was
hot in the car. And sweaty. I could see people on overlooking
apartment balconies, pointing in the direction of the demonstration
and then retreating inside. The closer we got, the louder the volume
of the couple of thousand people before us. The singing of the
demonstrators, the honking of horns, the heckling of the crowd were
rising. I was taping through the windshield as we approached. A
traffic light came into my viewfinder and turned to red. At this
point, rather than stay car-bound, I suggested we walk into the
demonstration on foot.
People were being pushed, tempers were rising, but for the moment, we
could see that the demonstrators had not yet been dispersed. There
were uniformed police, yelling in threatening tones, and I was taping
as I walked. I zoomed through the crowd catching several close images
of some of the 100 female demonstrators. Women were prepared to take a
baton across the head or more as the cost of speaking out. As we
walked through the crowd, I led the way, being jostled about, moving
closer and closer to the center of the demonstration. A demonstration
like this is quite rare in today’s Iran and was probably planned to
correspond with the election-week presence of international press.
Of course, I knew that either the camera or my Western face could
promote any number of responses in this kind of situation, and on my
video screen, there he was: one of many who were considered to be
plainclothes intelligence officers infiltrating the crowd. (This would
later be confirmed by several sources.) I didn’t understand what he
was yelling at me, but I knew he was displeased with my presence and
my camera. I said to him, “American journalist! ” He yelled, “No
camera! No camera!” I continued to shoot and got as into his face with
the camera as I could. That’s when it happened. Like Michelangelo’s
“The Creation,” he touched me. I thought, “Are you crazy? You don’t
even send me flowers. Take me out to the movies? And you’re grabbing
my hand? You mother — theo-fascist pig!” Though I didn’t speak these
words aloud, I certainly meant them. (The irony of being accosted for
having a camera was not lost on me.)
This was the muscle of the oppressor I was looking at, perhaps of the
Baseej, one of the violent volunteer militias in Tehran. Or, as it
turned out to be, an officer of the intelligence ministry. We
struggled briefly over the camera. I didn’t know what the limits were
exactly. I struggled with my left hand to retrieve my journalist’s
credential from my pocket. This guy didn’t know who he was f — with.
And it is my belief that to this day, he still doesn’t care.
The longer I held on to the camera, the more likely I’d get hit in the
back of the head by one of his cronies. So I let the camera go as he
held onto my wrist and pulled me through the crowd. In all the chaos,
I was separated from Norman and Reese. We had planned that if anything
like this happened, whoever could stay and get the story would. We
prearranged a meeting place should we be separated, but those would
turn out to be the best-laid plans of mice, and the snakes had
something else in mind.
I couldn’t see Maryam, our translator, at this point, but I knew she
was close behind me. As I forcefully presented my journalist’s
credential, the bastard snatched that from my grasp as well. Now I had
a hand pushing my hip forward behind me. It’s hard to imagine that
guys like this have friends, but evidently he did. And then Maryam
appeared at my left shoulder, urgently explaining to the officer that
I was an accredited American journalist. He released his grasp on my
wrist, and while he didn’t give me a goodnight kiss, he did return my
camera and credential, forcing me to put the camera into my pocket,
which it barely fit into, and giving us a shove into traffic to cross
the street and away from the demonstration.
It was a dance of thousands of people, many of them men, and most
supported the demonstrators. Others just observed with curiosity,
pouring through the street onto the crowded sidewalk opposite the
university. For a moment, looking back at the demonstration, I caught
a glimpse of Norman. He was within feet of the demonstrators,
seemingly invisible while he recorded and took notes. I was envious
because I was suddenly recognized by a lot of people. “What are you
doing here?” “Be careful. They’ll beat you or arrest you. ” My video
camera was closed in my pocket, but it was not turned off. It was
still running. And I recorded all that followed on audio. Several
people warned me that interspersed in the crowd were a large number of
anti-reformist vigilantes and intelligence officers. “They’ll approach
as friends; they’ll stand by and listen to your conversations.” Some
people were less concerned with being overheard. A woman came to me
weeping. “You have to tell our story. You have to tell our story!
They’ve just beaten two of the women.”
The demonstration had turned somewhat violent, but it was more a
series of whirlpools within the sea of people than a tidal wave
throughout. I was told that one of the women who was beaten had her
hijab ripped from her head. These hijabs are tied tight and don’t come
off easily. She defied her assailant’s order to put her hijab back on.
She said, “You took it off.” And with enormous courage, she went on
with her protest. (Take that, wardrobe malfunction.) As the story was
told to me, her assailant impotently went back to his duties of crowd
control. A telling example of the power in courage.
As Maryam went back to the crowd to try to find Reese and Norman, the
police began to arrest journalists. By day’s end, approximately 30
journalists were jailed. I ran into one well-known, and I will
confess, left-leaning Western journalist who suggested I make an
effort to get arrested, that it would “make a great story.” So that’s
the way they play it, huh?
Maryam returned dazed and alone, unable to find Reese and Norman. She
then tried Reese on a cell phone that he’d acquired, but the
intelligence ministry had initiated the use of jamming devices,
shutting down all cellular phone signals in the area of the
demonstration. With no intention, beyond a desire to make another
attempt to get some pictures, I said, “We’ll find them later. I want
to try to get back into the demonstration.”
We pushed our way across the street. Two older women in chadors
passed. They whispered to me, “We don’t want the mullahs, we just have
to pretend we do.” They disappeared into the crowd. With car fenders
pressing against our legs, Maryam and I serpentined through the crowd
and automobiles until we were shoulder to shoulder among the throngs,
within about 40 feet of the center of the demonstration. And then
everything got loud. Really loud. A line of uniform policemen began
batoning the mass of which we were a part. There was screaming and
panic. And our bodies were four-walling each other — you could barely
move. It certainly seemed as if some could have been trampled, though
as far as I know, that did not occur. But the following describes the
irony of oppression: There was a woman among the panicking crowd. She
reached her hand toward mine and I took it. Between us, we’d support
each other out of this chaos.
All of this couldn’t have lasted more than 40 seconds, but at the end
of it, the force of the police had only forced an illegal touch
between a man and a woman. We parted instantly as the police stepped
back from the line they had been assaulting.
The crowd dispersed somewhat. I crossed back to the opposite sidewalk,
rendezvousing finally with Reese and Norman, who by now had been
forced away from the demonstration as well. I was getting too much
attention on the street as a movie face, and I felt inappropriately
engaged by it. So, while Reese and Norman continued interviews on the
sidewalk, I jumped in a car with Babak and his wife. They dropped me
off at the hotel, where I waited for Norman and Reese’s return.
That evening, we dined at a pan-Asian restaurant called Monsoon in the
trendy section of town. Evidently, some journalists had witnessed the
confiscation of my camera and press credential, and there had been
reports that I had been beaten. I worried that my family would hear
this distorted news, so I borrowed a local cell phone and called home.
Next, we got a call from someone within the police department
apologizing for what had occurred. But, while they were apologizing to
me on the telephone, an Iranian journalist arrested at the scene
reportedly was beaten in their jail that same evening for protesting
the verbal abuse of him and the other detained journalists.
Within hours of these reports and the embarrassment of my treatment (I
was unharmed), all 30 journalists were released. We had just asked for
the dinner bill when Maryam got an urgent call on her cell phone. She
stepped outside for a clearer connection and then rushed back into the
restaurant with the news. “There’s just been a bombing in Tehran.”
Guess I gotta call home again.
Iranian student is not afraid to mock the mullahs
After my brief photo op with Hashemi Rafsanjani, I headed to the
University of Tehran, which on Sundays is in full swing.
We hit the campus about lunchtime. There were many students,
socializing, eating lunch, laughing. We approached a small group, a
young man and two young women, sitting on a bench. “May we talk to
you?” I asked. Hearing our English, the good-looking, angular young
man turned to us, “Where are you from?” he asked. “The United States
of America,” I said. He responded, “The big evil, huh?” clearly
mocking the mullahs who refer to the United States as the “Great
Satan,” and to Britain as the “Little Satan.”
The young man’s name was Arya. He was 21, an undergraduate student in
political science. I asked him about the needs of his peer group.
“Young people in Iran need some freedom, they need some human
rights. … We need democracy, and the basis of democracy — it takes
a long time. … I think the big problem here in Iran is the religion.
People are so religious, and it’s a big problem here because in the
deep of their hearts they feel something about religion and they do
something unreasonable, I think. … I want to see a separation of
religion from politics. … (In the past few years) a lot of things
changed, people realize that they can say their opinion, it’s not a
big deal that you have a different opinion from the others, and it’s a
good thing, and everybody started to express their feelings and
beliefs. But as you know we have a lot of political prisoners, that’s
a big problem. .. . There’s always a red line — don’t go over it. But
I think it’s gradual, democracy and the knowledge in people is a
gradual thing that’s step by step. . .. Now, it’s not a good
environment, there’s a lot of mental problems — and a lot of things
— you have to hide your love, you have to hide everything, you have
to wear masks; to have jobs, to have everything you have to wear
masks, several masks. You have to change every mask you go
What about young people who did not agree with that point of view?
“They’re affected by the wrong expression of religion,” he said. “They
think religion is just to fight, in Islam especially; you have to
fight with everybody, with anyone who says something against you or
doesn’t believe your thoughts — and it’s a wrong idea. You can have
your opinion, you can have your own beliefs, everything, and you can
live with other people.”
It wasn’t easy to cut through the red tape necessary for Sean Penn to
visit Iran in June, just a week before the country’s presidential
election. But it was almost as difficult for him to get out of the
The bomb had been detonated in Tehran’s central Imam Hussein Square.
Reports of the number of dead ranged from one to 20. Evidently, this
was not a weapon of great sophistication. However, four simultaneous
blasts in Ahvaz, which had killed as many as 30 people, had evidently
been the work of sophisticated extremists, with most suspicion
focusing on the Mujahedeen-e Khalq Organization, MKO (also called
MEK). Among those with whom I spoke, in and out of government, the
consensus was that the bombings in Tehran and Ahvaz were intended to
deter voting in the presidential election. MKO, formed in the 1960s,
opposed U.S.-Iran relations under the Shah and participated in the
assassinations of U.S. military and civilians. Following a power
struggle upon Khomeini’s return to Iran and bombings that took the
lives of more than 2,000 people, MKO’s leadership was exiled to Iraq.
Since that time, they have propagandized their legitimacy and enlisted
the support of conservative members of the U.S. Congress by supplying
dubious information related to the nuclear weapons program in Iran.
Reputable journalists for publications as varied as the Times of
London and Newsweek have reported that the CIA has increasing ties
with MKO. And it is feared the MKO may well be performing the
misinformation tasks in Iran that the Iraqi National Congress has
recently been exposed as playing in Iraq.
As a frame of reference, there are about 68 million people in Iran.
Less than 4 percent are Arab, about half are Persian and the balance
is made up of many diverse groups, including about 25,000 Jews — more
than any other state in the region after Israel.
Journalists were being prevented from visiting the bomb scene.
Everyone we knew who’d made the attempt had been arrested. So we made
the decision that sleeping in the jail for a couple of seconds of
looking at the charred remains of the area wasn’t worth the price of
I went upstairs, called my wife and filled her in on the events of the
day. She was displeased with the bombing stuff, but it was lunchtime
back in the States and she had something on the stove, so I was spared
the “What the f — are you doing there” speech. And I was able to
spare her the dumb “I didn’t plant the f — bombs” speech. I went
through the messages that had been slipped under my door during the
day, and each day there were many. This one sticks out to exemplify
the experience: “Mr. Penn, on Thursday 14/06 at 5 p.m. there is a
great election meeting of Dr. Moin fans in Tehran University Stadium
and we have some secret news that Ansar Hisbollah group threaten to
attack the stadium, I think it’s a good opportunity for you to cover
this news. Because of our safety, please don’t speak to anyone about
this message.” It was unsigned. So I searched my room for hidden
cameras and microphones until I fell asleep. That night I had a dream.
I was in the stairwell of the Laleh hotel, replaying a childhood
pastime, I had a test tube of hydrochloric acid in my hand. I drop 3
inches of magnesium ribbon into it. I place a balloon over the mouth
of the tube. The balloon fills with hydrogen. I lay it on the step and
grab a bamboo stick with a match attached to its end. I light the
match and reach it to the balloon. BOOM! That’ll wake you up. And it
It was 9 a.m. We rushed off to Moin headquarters. Dr. Mostafa Moin was
the “students’ candidate.” A former minister of education and health,
running as the main reformist. He was presently campaigning in the
provinces, but his spokeswoman and key adviser, Elaheh Kulyai, had
agreed to meet with us. Upon arriving at the headquarters, it struck
me that while there were eight candidates for president, there were
only eight. And it seemed odd that there would be no security, the day
after these bombings that even the foreign ministry had acknowledged
were election-related, for a primary candidate in said election. We
cruised right into the building and sat down with Kulyai. She is the
reformist parliamentarian who was the first female legislator to
attend sessions without wearing a chador or body cape, despite threats
of beatings by her fellow female parliamentarians. She was careful to
introduce herself as Dr. Moin’s spokeswoman. “Tolerance is a new word
in our society,” she said. “The obstacles of reform are cultural,
economic and social.” I asked Kulyai what had led to a statistic where
women were so in the majority, both in graduating universities as well
as the 75 percent dominance of university professorships. She said,
“There are two explanations for this. The will and fortitude of
Iranian women. But also, you must know, that men enter the workplace
at a salary of $140 per month, and so, to provide for their families,
they must begin to work, and are not able to attend university at the
rate of women.” Like Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza
Asefi, Kulyai believes that reform should move slowly. She, too,
respected the long reach of the hard-liners and concurred that it
would take great patience to bring reform.
In the mid-afternoon traffic, we traveled across town for a meeting
with Hassan Poushnegar of the National Center of Studies and Public
Opinion Measurement. The center conducts polling on everything from
issues of public transport to presidential elections. He was
considered the most credible of political pollsters. But whether or
not the science of his work was unencumbered by the regime, of the top
four candidates, within days of the election, none would go on to
become president. The numbers at that time were Hashemi Rafsanjani at
30 percent, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf at 21 percent, Moin at 15 percent
and Ali Larijani at 14.5 percent. In fact, there was not one person
throughout my entire visit who mentioned a prediction on behalf of, or
a willingness to vote for, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former Baseej
militia instructor who defeated Rafsanjani in the June 24 runoff
election and today is president of Iran.
While Mohammad Khatami’s regime fell short of legislating for social
freedom, the people of Iran have lived these past eight years under an
increasing tolerance toward reformist behaviors and attitudes. With
the election of Ahmadinejad, even these phantom freedoms may be
rescinded, and I worry for the people I met and faces of hope I saw.
When first lady Laura Bush recently visited Afghanistan, she was
reported to have described it as an “exotic” place. Iran is also an
exotic place. And I can’t help thinking of the students I met on the
Tehran University campus and their steadfast respect for their
ancestry as a foundation for their reform. One can only hope that the
exotic integrity of Persia will be maintained by choice rather than
authoritarian moral slavery. In a statement following the results of
what would be a very questionable election, reformist Moin warned his
countrymen: “Take seriously the danger of fascism. This will lead to
militarism and social and political suffocation.”
I was nearing the end of my visit, with my flight scheduled to leave
at 3: 05 a.m. Tuesday. The Film Museum of Iran had asked for the
opportunity to honor me. I accepted for two reasons: First, I have
deep respect for the creative talent in the motion picture business in
Iran, and many of them were being pulled away from other engagements
or had offered to join in this event. Additionally, it was a way to
appease what had been a fairly aggressive and annoying media that I
was very interested in boring into the submission of not following me
to the airport. So I went. On the drive there, as we were passing
under the trees of Mellat Park, there was an announcement on the radio
that some arrests had been made in the previous day’s bombings. But no
details. Later, at the museum, I was given a tour and a trophy.
I left to pack my bags at the hotel. There was a bit of a crowd in the
lobby waiting for me, just young Iranian movie fans, and I supposed
the event at the film museum might have hit Tehran TV. I made my way
through the crowd and up to my room, with the kind help of hotel
staff. It was just after midnight on the ride to the airport when my
mind began to drift to my 14-year- old daughter. Her middle school
graduation was to take place the following day. Because of the
bombings, the airport and country were on “high alert.” Should
anything cause me to miss my flight or delay it, I would miss the
ceremony, so I started getting nervous.
My car was diverted by airport police some distance from the drop-off
area. But it looked as though all would go smoothly from there. That
was until I tried to put my bag with the trophy from the Film Museum
of Iran in it through the metal detector. They opened the bag and
pulled out the trophy, looking at it the way a gorilla looks at a
football. “What’s this strange object?” it seemed they thought. They
turned it upside down, on its side; one even made a clubbing motion
with it. And just at the point where it seemed it might be
confiscated, the clubber looked at me, suddenly recognizing me. It
stopped him, mid-clubbing motion. He said, “Hashemi?” It was a
reference to a newspaper photo that had appeared from my meeting with
Hashemi Rafsanjani the prior day. Again, “Hashemi?” I nodded, “Yes,
that’s me. I’m the guy in the newspaper with Hashemi.” He put the
trophy very delicately back into my bag. Zipped the bag shut and I was
on my way to Frankfurt, with a connection to San Francisco. It wasn’t
until I landed that I felt sure my notes and pictures would get home
Jet lag had cut me down around midnight the day of my return from
Tehran, but my fractured body clock sounded its alarm at 4:30 a.m. the
following morning. I got up, went to the kitchen, flipped on the TV
and surfed my way through the channels, landing on CNN’s “American
Morning” with Soledad O’Brien. Her every hair in place, perfectly
manicured lip line and striking mascara. She reported that I was in
Tehran — present tense — on behalf of The San Francisco Chronicle,
as, in fact, I sat in my Northern California kitchen. She followed by
saying that while she didn’t agree with me on many things, I seemed to
be a thoughtful and well-read man (I’ll confirm nor deny neither).
Then as footage of me ran from the farewell given me by the Film
Museum of Iran, she observed that I looked to be “playing the part” of
a journalist. Gravitating toward such a packageable level of human
insight, it dazzles the imagination that she is capable of making the
connection. Being an actor, and the notion of playing the part of a
journalist? Get it?
In fact, the tape CNN was airing had been recorded following my
official duties in Iran, in essence, on my way to the airport, and had
nothing whatever to do with journalism. Played or realized. And it
didn’t end there. The talking heads had me as an anti-American/pro-
Iranian sensation, banking one inaccurate presumption after another.
While the dismissive editorializing and trivial attacks on me may be
perceived as bickering over details in the life of a Hollywood actor,
the reporting of the number of dead and the purpose of war are not. I
couldn’t help thinking about the irony: I had just returned to my own
country, where we had a “free press,” after spending several days in a
country that clearly does not. Information is controlled, restricted,
altered to fit the needs and purposes of those in power. And here was
my own American free press, reporting me to be thousands of miles away
from my kitchen in Northern California.
As the Iranian government strives to keep the people in the dark,
consider the outside world and our perception of this ancient, now
strongly conservative culture. What we know of Iran comes largely from
news sources. But if news sources can’t track the current whereabouts
of an actor-journalist, can we depend on the accuracy of the
information we are receiving about Iran? These questions relate to
accuracy of information. So what of the spin? Look at it, more than
1,800 young Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, more
than 10,000 maimed and wounded. Numerous contractors dead. Human aid
workers dead. U.N. staffers blown out of their lives by a truck bomb,
and of course, the untold numbers of civilian casualties unspecified
in a war justified, not by persuasion but by fear. Our nation seems
under a spell where courage is violence, and the archives will show in
television coverage and newspaper print, both through spun journalism
and even more dominantly, editorial restriction, a consistency of
media support for the casting of that spell. And with Iran now in the
crosshairs of the nuclear debate, we might note that the most costly
and competitive arms race in the world is taking place right here at
home, between Los Alamos and Livermore laboratories. Those facts,
above all, seem to me to dictate the importance of accurate and
truthful reporting, on all sides of the world debate.
As I came to the end of the writing of this piece, I was in London. It
was Thursday morning, July 7. I had been writing all night and was
rushing to get a cab to the train station, where I’d board the Euro-
star to Paris to attend the wedding of a friend. I came out the door
of my hotel and asked the bellman to call me a taxi. There were sirens
blaring in all directions within blocks of where I stood.
I said, “What’s going on?”
He told me, “There’s been an explosion.”
‘We need reform, not revolution,’ official says
On our fifth evening in Tehran, we went back to the hotel and sat down
with the deputy secretary and spokesman for the foreign ministry,
Hamid Reza Asefi. This guy was good. He could out-Western any
Westerner, in speech and innuendo. Likable, smart and with the
appearance of great candor. “Iran does not want to encourage an arms
race in the region,” he said. “Show us the evidence. You talk about
Iraq — Iraq was ruined by a stupid dictator. For us, should we have
an independent policy, we experience pressure. But we are glad to see
U.S. troops in Iraq. When the United States leaves, they will not be
well thought of. But Iraq and Iran will have been made new friends. If
the insurgency backs off, the United States should leave Iraq. If not,
it serves us that they remain.”
“Democracy,” he continued, “is progressing every day. Be very clear,
the inclusion of Iran by your President Bush in the term ‘axis of
evil’ is not about squeezing us for our oil. The intention recognizes
the influence of Iran on the entire Islamic region. Look at our
country. They have learned how to express their position under (ex-
President Mohammad) Khatami. And now we are in an election week and
you see what they do?” referring to supposed U.S. support of MKO and
insinuating MKO’s involvement and destabilization of the elections
through the bombings.
We asked about free-press issues, but he dismissed our run-in with the
authorities at the women’s rights demonstration that day. “You know
how this is,” he said. “Sometimes the police officials are in the
lower end of literate and you came across one who behaved wrongly.”
Reese Erlich blurted that indeed “there were no less than 20 rejecting
our combined credentials at the demonstration, and clearly that
represented the policy of the regime.”
“I was not there so I cannot speak about this,” Asefi responded. “We
must be patient. To reform too quickly would cause a deep backlash.
You see about the bombings today, and we expect them now to continue.
This process must move slowly or not at all. We need reform, not