Saturday, April 02, 2011

Persian Paradoxes And Politics

In my time here in Iran I have come to regard it as a country of paradoxes. I've already mentioned a few, such as the surprisingly good transport infrastructure paired with the complete lack of respect for road rules, and the Iranian love for camping and the outdoors, as long as they don’t have to leave their cars. Today I want to cover a few more as well as touching on some political issues. So please bear with me as this post may be slightly disjointed.

Perhaps the biggest paradox in Iran is that of its women. The overwhelming view of Iran’s women in the West is of a poor, repressed underclass, forced into submission and degradation, hidden away behind chadors and hejab. I have found the truth to be very different. First there are the simple facts: women form the majority of university graduates, they can work, run for parliament and drive cars. Significantly better than most countries in the region. Sure, there are many limits to their rights, and in theory permission from male guardians are required although often not in practice. I find the obsession of the West of the mandatory wearing of the headscarf to be very much misplaced. It is a very small, cosmetic annoyance and is the least of women’s worries in Iran (what Western media fail to report is that there is also a dress-code for men as well, which, although less restrictive, is also a reality). But then there are also the women themselves: fiercely independent, resourceful, spirited and clever they are universally the driving force within any household. They don't let the restrictions of the regime get in the way of chasing their dreams. Throughout the country I have been surprised by the strong women who are bold and outgoing and unafraid to air their opinions. Unlike their more emancipated Western sisters who take their freedoms for granted Iranian women are aware of what they have fought to earn and guard it jealously.

A simple wristband but one that could potentially get you arrested, symbolising, as it does, the pro-reform green movement.

There are other social paradoxes that seem very peculiar to the outsider. The Islamic Republic takes a very hard-line stance against homosexuality, which can be punishable by death. And yet transgender operations, for people seeking to change gender, are provided on the national health service. The thinking behind it being that although relations between people of the same sex is very much harram, if you change your sex then it’s all OK then. Another aspect is drug abuse. Since Iran shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan, where well over 80% of the world’s opium is produced (Iran also leads the world in the volume of drugs that are seized and pays a heavy financial and human toll in police and border guards killed every year in clashes with smugglers – almost 1 a day), opium and heroin are easily available. Once again the penalty for drug possession is very severe, and yet the government has a drug rehabilitation programme that would be the envy of many liberal European countries.

Then there are a couple of practical paradoxes that completely baffle me. I generally really like food. Give me pretty much anything edible and I'll be happy. I do, however, like to sample various local dishes whilst travelling as I find it to be one of the joys of discovering new cultures. And from all the different cuisines I have tasted I can safely say that I think Persian food is right up there among the best. There are a multitude of national and regional specialties that are each tastier than the next; but as a tourist you would be hard-pressed to know, because more than 99% of restaurants (and the term is being used quite liberally here) in Iran are either kebab, pizza or sandwich joints (or sometimes a combination of the three). You will almost never find a restaurant that sells local specialties which can make travelling rather monotonous in terms of sustenance. Luckily Iranians are famously inviting and so it is quite likely that at some point you will be invited into a house and get to taste some proper Persian cooking. And then there are the banks. Despite being completely severed from the international banking system there is an over-abundance of banks on the high streets of Iran. It seems as if every second shop is a bank and they always seem to be full. How and why are beyond me.

The religious paradox is perhaps the most comical. It is a self-proclaimed Islamic republic and as such state-approved Islam permeates public life at every turn. Alongside roads, as well as signs advising about public safety and speed cameras you will find some with religious slogans such as "Allah Akbar" or "Ya Hossein"; similar religious advice adorns random walls (my favourite being "the only path to righteousness and salvation is through (Islamic) prayer", implying that being a good person is very much secondary); street names are often renamed to commemorate a panoply of martyrs (as mentioned before, this is a very Shi’ite trait) and posters of martyrs are plastered everywhere; instead of service stations motorways have mosques located at convenient intervals should you feel the need for divine intercession on the roads (something that could come in very handy indeed); people cry genuine tears and beat themselves to commemorate the death of their Imam over thirteen centuries ago. On the other hand I have rarely heard the call to prayer whilst hear, certainly far less than in secular Turkey; I've met numerous Iranians who can trace all their ills back to the Muslim conquests and cry for the loss of their ancient culture, customs and religion; and Iranians are certainly fond of their hard liquor despite it being forbidden and often have a secret stash of good stuff hidden surreptitiously hidden in a cupboard or in the fridge masquerading as water. And despite (or perhaps because of) the generally dour nature of Shi'ism with its propensity for wearing black and self-flagellation Iranians have an incredible joie de vivre. My guidebook uses the word sensual to describe Iranians and, try as I might, I can't think of a word that is more apt. Iranians love to read and write poetry, dance, sing, clap their hands, click their fingers and party and will do so anywhere they can; that is until the party-poopers from the Basij show up. Furthermore every Iranian is at least partly artistic and dabbles in painting, music, interior design or photography on the side.

The cult of martyrdom is an integral part of the Shi'ite psyche, and posters, murals and banners celebrating martyrs can be found throughout Iran.

Then there is the political paradox. The regime crows about being a democracy and yet beats and kills its own people who peacefully demonstrate or happen to air any views that differ to the official line. And yet with the current revolutions occurring throughout the region in Arab countries the government media pays lip service to supporting the protesters in their struggle for democracy. Unfortunately they can get away with such hypocrisy due to the West’s own hypocrisy towards dictatorial regimes.

Which allows me to broach the topics of politics in general. The West's (i.e. America's) preoccupation with Iran rests on two pillars: nuclear weapons and support for "terrorism". For the nuclear issue I think that they probably are developing nuclear weapons, but then again I don’t blame them. Americans have army bases in almost every single country bordering Iran (Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan), so I can understand the regime wanting to secure its own safety by having a nuclear deterrent. The likelihood of it ever using any such weapons seem to me so slim as not to warrant consideration. The regime’s prime goal is to maintain power here in Iran and an attack on the West or its allies would be suicidal. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric may be bombastic, but it is important to remember that he has little say in foreign policy (which is in the hands of the supreme leader) and that his speeches are very much directed at a domestic and regional audience that laps up anti-Americanism (Ahmadinejad is far more popular in the Arab world than he is back home just because of this: he spouts anti-American and anti-Israeli nonsense that is music to their ears and that their governments, being dependent upon American support cannot say, and yet they do not have to live under his heavy-handed autocracy). The West claims that Iran doesn't need nuclear power as it has so much energy in the form of fossil fuels, and yet, because of US sanctions making the construction of refineries tricky and burgeoning car use, Iran needs to import petrol for domestic consumption. Iran also likes to point out that of the 8 nuclear weapons states, three (Israel, India and Pakistan) have not signed up to the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). All three of these, far from being punished for their errant, proliferating ways, are courted and rewarded by the US. Anything but a disincentive for developing your own nuclear weapons.

America also accuses Iran of helping to fund Hezbollah and Hamas which it regards as terrorist organisations. Again, I do not doubt that the Iranian regime helps out both of these, especially Hezbollah which is a Shi'ite faction (Hamas, on the other hand, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Sunni). My only comment would be that these can be seen as being legitimate political parties that take part in their local political process (Hezbollah was a member of a unity government and Hamas even won the Palestinian elections in 2006), and their armed factions as being legitimate resistance groups (the view taken by several European countries, such as Norway and Switzerland). America seemed to have no such qualms with the IRA, who the British government regarded as terrorists, who did a lot of fundraising in the US in the 80's with tacit support from local authorities.

The entire American stance with regards to Iran stems from the '79 Revolution. At the time the Shah was "their man" in the region and his ousting was a serious bloody nose to America. But for anyone who has been following recent events in the Middle East will not be at all surprised as to the reasons for the Revolution. Although much feted by the West, the Shah's regime was heavily autocratic and brutal towards opponents. In 1976 Amnesty International declared that the much-feared, CIA-trained, SAVAK (the Shah's secret police) had the worst human rights record on the planet. The Shah was so far removed from what was going on in his country and only cared in buying ever-newer military toys from his American backers. There is a notorious incident when the Shah's latest shipment of extra-special tanks and guns arrived at a southern port. Unfortunately he had neglected to bother training local truck drivers and so hundreds had to be flown in from South Korea. They subsequently went on strike following poor conditions and awful roads (the Shah also neglected to develop the nation's infrastructure) and the millions of dollars of equipment just lay there wasting away in the desert heat. The revolution that toppled him was due to a great outpouring of rage and frustration at excess, corruption and violence, but unfortunately the animals that deposed the farmer eventually turned into him (and it didn't take long at all). The current lot are in some ways worse, but in other ways they have also done far more for the poorer, ordinary people of Iran than the Shah ever did. Even the smallest villages now have asphalt roads, electricity, schools. Metros, motorways and railway networks are all being built and expanded.

Since the Revolution the West's policy towards Iran has been one of ostracism and isolation culminating in several Security Council resolutions and trade sanctions. Like all embargoes (Cuba, Iraq) this one has done nothing but entrench power and wealth in the hands of those in power and hurt the ordinary people. The most visible example is the excessive numbers of civilian air crashes that occur in Iran because domestic airlines are barred from buying the spare parts necessary to keep their planes in the air in an adequate condition. But more insidious is the creeping grasp of the bloated bonyads. These "charitable trusts" control perhaps the majority of the non-petroleum economy of Iran. They are exempt from taxes, have murky connections with authorities, are notoriously corrupt, and are answerable to no-one but the supreme leader. Similarly the political isolation allows the leadership to spout quite extreme anti-Western rhetoric (although it's nothing compared to the vitriol that I've seen published by Gulf Arab, Wahabi religious foundations that fund madrassas in poorer Muslim countries such as Bangladesh and Mali) because it feels it has nothing to lose and in so doing is pushed towards a more extreme position. A more engaged policy would, in my opinion, be more effective in effecting change, but unfortunately in politics, like in the playground sand box, no-one wants to give way first or admit fault.

Anyway, those are my closing thoughts on Iran, as I will soon have to shoulder my backpack again and hit the road for the next stage of my journey, this time through the Central Asian 'Stans (if I get my visas...).

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