IRAN
Blog - August, 2006
by Amanda Roraback
Day 2 Part 1

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DAY 2 (On the way to Qom and Kashan)

Ali came by the hotel at 7 am (I was waiting at the door at 6) to take me to Kashan and Qom south of Tehran. 

Before setting off, we stopped to buy some bottled water and fresh baked bread which he wrapped in newspapers. His wife had packed cheese and jam. 

It was already very hot by 8 am and I was glad that I had decided not to wear anything under my black jacket. It took a few sweltering days before I had discovered that I could dip my scarf in water to keep my head cool until it was dried up by the sun – an hour in the morning, a few minutes in the middle of the day. Sometimes when performing my cooling ritual in the public restroom, I’d notice ladies watching me in amusement. I was amazed that they hadn’t already discovered one of the few advantages to the hijab and equally surprised that they didn’t follow suit. Perhaps again it was admiration of martyrdom that stopped heavily black-clothed women from seeking a little relief, even in an unconventional way.

On the way out of Tehran, I took note of the murals on the buildings. Most displayed painted pictures of martyrs from the 1979 Islamic Revolution or “the war,” that is, the “Iraq-Iran War” that claimed the lives of more than a million people.

Others showed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei or his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini with various expressions often accompanied by words of wisdom or religious verses. Some, like the mural pictured above, had both.

Also visible were pronouncements of hatred for America and Israel – the cause celebre these days. What I found especially intriguing was the fact that the messages were written in English. For whom were the posters intended? Iranians? Americans? Europeans? Were they supposed to stand as a collective declaration to the world? Was I, a foreign tourist, supposed to photograph the pictures to show to my friends so that they would believe that Iran was united in its disgust for the Israeli “Zionists” and their sponsors?

What made more sense to me were the ubiquitous yellow banners showing Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah raising his rifle defiantly to the sky.

 In one of my interviews later in the trip, an Iranian fellow wondered why Iran was so preoccupied with the fight with Israel: “What gripe do we have with Israel?” he queried out loud. “There are plenty of Jews in Iran. Two Jews even serve in the government.” Although I did see a working synagogue myself, I couldn’t really attest to what Iranians wanted to believe was a country free of discrimination. But for the record, Ahmadinejad did clarify on Fox with Mike Wallace and in other interviews that he had no issue with people or individuals (read: Jews) but rather he despised their “heinous actions.” That could explain why no one ever had a problem with me as a member of the “oppressive empire” of America. 

On the topic of Israel: one local theory was that Iran needed the backing of its Arab neighbors for support in Iran’s battle with the West over the enrichment of uranium (which can be used to produce nuclear bombs.) The Sunni Muslim Arabs are neither Shi’a nor ethnically Persian but the Iranian government intended to show they had a common enemy: the United States and, by extension, Israel, or, to put it their way, the “Zionists” and their supporters.

I discovered that advertisements had been placed in Iranian newspapers offering $2000 a month to anyone who wanted to fight with Hezbollah in Lebanon – not a small sum considering the average salary was $6-800 a month. The question was, would Turkey let them through?

Iranians are allowed to visit Turkey for three months without a visa. For many Iranians, this is the easiest way to reach an American Embassy. But because Turkey is an ally to both Iran and Israel, it was put in a delicate position in the Hezbollah-Israeli war. I had heard that Turkey had in fact blocked passage of some eager Iranian fighters on their way to battle with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The detention provoked an Iranian demonstration in front of the Turkish Embassy in Tehran.

According to Ali, the specter of war and sanctions that came from the current Israel-Hezbollah conflict and American threats was already wreaking havoc in the Iranian economy. Homebuyers and homeowners weren’t sure whether home prices would drop or rise, businessmen didn’t know when or whether to put their money into new ventures and foreigners (investors and tourists) were staying away all together.

The drive to Qom

On our way out of town, I continued where we had left off on the first drive in Tehran. My head was full of questions to ask and Ali was kindly willing to answer as best he could. Some excerpts:

On Nuclear Weapons:

Ali had once done work for the nuclear energy department and by his estimation, there was no way that Iran could be anywhere near developing weapons. There was too much arguing for any progress to take place, he claimed, and eager technicians regularly made empty claims of successes in order to get more funding.

“Why was the government making such a big deal out of nothing?” He asked rhetorically. Well, I thought, because even the possibility that Iran could become the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons (besides Israel, that is) could provide the country with great prestige and power in the Middle East. Actually HAVING nuclear weapons would also provide security against attack. Nevertheless, Iranian leaders have insisted that they have no intention of building nuclear weapons.  Khomeini once called nuclear weapons “un-Islamic” after the Revolution and had discontinued the Shah’s weapons program.  In my humble opinion, the Iranian government will continue to tow this line as long it serves them -- or until Iran finally does acquire nuclear weapons.

On Corruption

Ali told me that it is a fact of life that the government is corrupt. Even doctors and nurses working in government-run hospitals must be bribed before they will practice any medicine. Doctors must pay their nurses an additional “salary” to do their work and to prevent them from badmouthing the doctor in front of potential patients. Patients must pay doctors five times the government fee to have an operation or they will be left to die.

Bribes and “permission” is needed all along the bureaucratic ladder. “Permission” is needed to get a visa, to get a tour -- the foreign ministry even needs bribes to get foreigners booked in hotels.

We once talked about the restaurant ratings system in the U.S. (an “A” means it’s clean, “B” means there are some sanitation issues, “C” means they serve Asian food, etc.). Ali just laughed. The concept would only create a whole new set of jobs for corrupt inspectors.  No one would know whether an “A” meant cleanliness or whether the inspector was the owner’s cousin’s school chum paid a pretty penny to stay “mum.”

On the Government

In Ali’s opinion, only 10% of the population supports the government and only because they depend on the regime for jobs and an income.  The rest would be very happy to see a change of guard but are too busy working and too disunited to do anything about it. Indeed, about 90% of the people I spoke to shared his view.

On Iraq

Ali said that in the first days of the 2003 war in Iraq, Iranians were optimistic. Since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian government and the people were consumed with the threat that Saddam Hussein posed. They welcomed his downfall with great enthusiasm.

But the enthusiasm waned when the war continued without a clear victory. People were being killed: pilgrimage to the Shi’ite holy sites of Kerbala and Najaf was still difficult: and the war created a new threat that the chaos would bleed into Iran.

The Iranians believed that the U.S. was much more powerful than Saddam Hussein as had been proven during the swiftly won Gulf War in 1991. The veil on invincibility had now fallen exposing a disunited American government led by an unpopular leader.

The common perception now is that the United States is actually maintaining instability in Iraq in order to convince people that the U.S. needs to stay. The more people die in Iraq, the more Iranians believe that America is just interested in oil and money and not the problems of the people.

“They had a dictator regime. Now there is no security. It’s worse. Iraq is losing more people every day than during the Iran-Iraq war.”

As for the financial cost to Iran: After the Gulf War Iraq had been ordered to pay reparations to countries that had been affected by its belligerent actions (particularly Kuwait and Iran). Kuwait got its money after the war but Iran was still supposed to receive 1 billion dollars a year. The 2003 incursion into Iraq and the change of regime meant that Iran was unlikely to see the money. 

Before the 2003 attack, Iraq had sent dozens of planes to Iran to be protected. The Iranians instead confiscated them to compensate for lost payments. They just painted the planes with Iranian flags and voila, they were Iranian.  

One of the detrimental effects of the U.S.-imposed embargo on Iran has been the harm to its aerial fleet. For years, Iranians have not been able to get parts to repair and upgrade their airplanes leaving them dangerously substandard.  The fatal crash of an Iran Air Tour plane landing in Mashhad on September 1, 2006 (luckily after I had already returned home) was just the latest casualty. 

On Israel

Before the Revolution, Iran was a close ally to Israel. In fact, Iran was one of the first countries to recognize the state of Israel in 1948.

Today more than 75,000 Persian Jews live in Israel including Israel’s president, Moshe Katzav, who was born in the city of Yazd, Iran. Also born in Yazd was Iran's former President Mohammed Khatami.  

During the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, the alphabetical seating arrangement put Katsav and then Iran's President Khatami next to each other. There was a rumor that Khatami didn’t know who Katsav was and started a conversation with him in the Yazd dialect of Farsi. Katsav said publicly that the two also shook hands but Khatami vigorously denied it. Hmmm.

Next -- Gardens, Mosques and Mullahs.

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