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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Secretary's Open Forum > Proceedings > 2001 - 2002

Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran

Elaine Sciolino, Senior Writer, The New York Times' Washington Bureau
Washington, DC
January 31, 2001

Opening Remarks and Introduction by Alan Lang, Chairman of the Open Forum

Photo of Elaine SciolinoThanks so much, Alan, and thank all of you here today. This is one of those times when the speaker really means it when she says it's truly an honor to stand before you today because usually I am on other side of the microphone.

Looking over the audience, I see a number of people who have served in Iran, who know a lot more about Iran than I do. I went to Iran only because I was based in Paris, and I got hooked on Iran because I am a student of the French Revolution, not because I am a trained expert in Iranian history, politics, or culture. I have to start at the beginning because today marks an anniversary. Twenty-two years ago today, Ayatollah Khomeini was getting ready to leave Paris, heading back to Iran. For me it was one of those life-defining events.

I remember being out in a little village outside of Paris in the drizzling snow when the Iranians were trying to figure out where the plane should go and who would be permitted to board. Finally, at about 7:00 p.m., the names of journalists authorized to board were tacked on tree trunks. In the rain, we had to turn over five $100 bills, so we could get on the plane that night. As it turned out, the plane trip was more dangerous than any of us ever knew. It was only in researching my book that I discovered that the Commander of the [Iranian] Air Force, General Rhaby, had brought a plan to blow up the plane to the Carter administration. He took it to Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was then the National Security Adviser. Brzezinski took it to President Carter, who took one look at it and said, "No way. I won't have anything to do with it." In an interview Brzezinski explained, "The United States is not in the habit of assassinating people. a legitimate question to ask is whether the U.S. is in the business of preventing other people from assassinating their own countrymen." So there was nothing to stop the Iranian officers from doing something about that plane. History could have been very different. The Ayatollah Khomeini might never have landed in Iran, and one of the other people aboard, Peter Jennings, might never have become the star of ABC News.

We know how the plane trip turned out -- we arrived safely. General Rhaby had decided not to take action against the plane. Of course, there were 140 journalists on the plane. I sometimes think that we might have been Iran's first hostages. When we arrived, I recall driving into Tehran. It was my first visit to Iran, and there was a banner stretched across one of the highways that said in four languages -- French, Farsi, Arabic, and English -- "Welcome to the journalists coming with the Ayatollah." So I thought, "This is not going to be so bad." Indeed, we watched a revolution, and several weeks later we went with Ayatollah Khomeini back to the Holy City of Qom where he had taught and studied for several years before he was sent into exile. The journalists rode on a flatbed truck in this long procession with the Ayatollah. Some young Iranian men surrounded the truck and started chanting something, so I turned to a colleague and I said, "What are they chanting?" He said, "Where is the BBC man? We want to kill him."

Now, I share with you these snapshots because I think they reflect the complexities and the contradictions of this country and just how difficult it is for us as outsiders and Americans, whose government has not had a presence there for more than two decades, to sort out this country. This is the only theocracy in modern history. It's a society that is still trying to reconcile itself with modern times. It's a place where there are tremendous guerrilla battles raging, not for control over territory, but for the soul of the nation. The attacks, I would argue, are coming from so many different sides and so many different quarters that the conservatives in the regime, those who want to keep the status quo and the Islamic Republic as it has developed, cannot fight all of them at the same time.

Let's examine a few of these battlefields. The first battlefield, and the one that I have been most interested in because of my profession, is the press. Those of you who follow Iran carefully will know that last April the Islamic Republic shut down most of the reformist newspapers. It was really fun to wake up in the morning and open up the newspapers and be absolutely stunned by the boldness and clarity and transparency of the political debate in a country that doesn't have full-fledged political parties. They closed them, but not totally, and this is the key to understanding Iran. This is not a totalitarian society; the closures are not complete. I want to share with you an anecdote. When I was in Iran a couple of months ago, I went and visited a reformer, a cleric named Mosac Kadivar who had just gotten out of prison. He had been in prison for what he had said about the Islamic Republic. You would think that the last person he would want to see would be a New York Times reporter. And he was being even bolder than ever. While I was in his living room the telephone rang, and it was a call from a bold journalist, Akbar Ganji, who was calling from prison. In the old days in Iran, prisoners smuggled in files, knives, and guns in the cakes and rice bowls and things. They are now smuggling in cell phones. So Ganji was calling his friend from his cell phone, and he was very proud of himself because he had just written an article that was very critical of the government that had appeared in a very obscure newspaper. So the goal was -- get my message out; go get a copy of that newspaper and start photocopying it for everyone.

By contrast, let me just share with you something that just happened a few days ago. Shallah Sherkat, who is a very close friend of mine and editor of a monthly feminist magazine, has just been sentenced in a trial of many Iranian journalists for attending a conference on reform and liberalization in Berlin several months ago. The conference was disrupted. A woman did a bellydance. A man started taking his clothes off. It was played back on Iranian television, and there has been a dramatic trial. Shallah Sherkat is the kind of woman whose magazine exposed many of the realities facing Iranian women and American women, too. She looked at such things as the difficulties inherent in divorce, the epidemic of young girls running away from home, and spousal abuse. Issues and trends related to how women see themselves are evident, too. For example, getting a nose job has become a thing to do in Iran. Shallah Sherkat has been to the U.S. and has even visited The New York Times. She has been sentenced to 4 months in prison. Under Iranian law, even if this sentence is commuted, because she is a convicted felon, her magazine will probably be closed.

Another one of these battlefields is the Parliament. Last spring the Iranian people went to the polls and overwhelmingly elected a reformist parliament. It has had a number of set-backs, and it keeps fighting back. Several months ago it tried to reform the press law, and Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who holds more power than any other person in Iran, prevented them from reconsidering the press law. Last week the Parliament passed a resolution condemning the courts for its illegal actions in the judicial system, particularly the trial of those journalists and intellectuals who went to the Berlin conference. They sent this letter to the judiciary, and it was reported in the press. Paradoxically, the Parliament in recent days also has taken up a bill appropriating $20 million to fight U.S. influence and cultural invasion, a complicated proposition.

Another one of the battlefields is the mosque. Now, you may say this is an Islamic Republic -- don't all the clerics think alike? Well, they don't -- because -- and I don't have to tell those of you who are experts in Shi'a Islam -- Shi'a Islam is based on debate and argumentation. It's a hierarchical religion. In that sense, it is like Catholicism. The Holy City of Qom, long regarded as a society, is a hotbed of reform, and there are many young clerics using the arguments of theology and Islam against the establishment.

One of those is Mosac Kadivar. This man spent 18 months in prison because he compared the Islamic Republic as it has emerged to the absolute monarchy under the Shah. When I saw him a couple of months ago, this is what he had to say: "I believe in a religious democratic state. I believe that democracy and Islam are compatible. A religious state is possible only when it is elected and governed by the people. And the governing of the country should not necessarily be in the hands of the clergy. So what I support is a healthy state." The reformers are promoting an Islamic republic, not what exists now. This is the sort of person who is the most dangerous to the Islamic Republic -- the person who wears the turban.

Another one of these battlefields is the court. I have been telling you about how the courts have been extremely repressive and unfair, but the courts are also a vehicle to lay bare some of the realities of the Islamic Republic. I would like to take you back to a trial that I covered in 1998. It was the trial of the mayor of Tehran, Karbaschi. This was the sort of mayor who -- I can only compare him to Mayor Daley who was mayor of Chicago. Let's say he bent the rules to get things done. He had a beautification campaign, for example. He went around telling shopkeepers near the bazaar that they had to paint storefronts and clean up the garbage in front. If they didn't do it, they would wake up the next morning and find that there were these cement boulders that just sort of appeared in front of their shops so that they couldn't park their cars anymore. He also bulldozed the whole slaughterhouse area. He put up huge high-rises in the wealthy part of Tehran. For those of you that know Tehran -- in north Tehran with its beautiful villas -- suddenly these 30-story low-income housing high-rises went up. So he antagonized an awful lot of people. And those of you that know Tehran know that one always cuts corners to get things done. So there was enough evidence certainly to take him to trial. The thing about Karbaschi was that he was trained as a cleric. In fact, his father had actually worked with Khamenei as a spiritual leader. He had enough clout and enough political savvy to get his testimony televised on national television. It was the first time that a trial had ever been televised. It was sort of like the O.J. trial here. I mean people kept their kids up until 2-3 o'clock in the morning to watch this because it was like a nationwide civics lesson in Iranian politics. Karbaschi would do things like get up in the morning, and he would start with the judge who would happen to be a friend of his; he had been to his wedding. Karbashi would take time and start reciting the Koran in Arabic and the judge would say, "Excuse me, Mr. Mayor, this is not the time to say your prayers." Karbaschi would turn to the judge, who wears a turban, and say, "Excuse me, Mr. Judge, it's always time to say your prayers." He did things like manage to inject into testimony information that had never been revealed before in Iran, like the issue of torture. Evidence was taken from some of Tehran's Deputy Mayors against Karbaschi, and he managed to interject into the transcript and for everyone to watch on television that, indeed, some of this testimony had been taken "under duress." Karbaschi was so clever that he managed to get one of his testimonies postponed because it conflicted with the World Cup Soccer match in France, and he wanted to maximize his television audience. So he played with the schedule of the court date. And he went to prison. Now he is out of prison, and he's back trying to do politics.

I have compared his trial to Akbar Ganji's. This is the guy in Evin Prison that called on his cell phone who, during his trial, recently talked about torture and blackmail and said that the decision to imprison him was made even before his trial started. He has now been convicted and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and after that 5 years in exile in a remote part of Iran -- all for things that he said against the government and what he wrote against the government. Recently, there was also a trial of intelligence agents who were implicated in the political killings at the end of 1998. Fifteen of them have been convicted; three of them have been condemned to death. The trial was held in secret. And the families of those who were killed have said that they don't want revenge; they don't want these people to be hung or put to death in some way -- they just want the truth. Their words and the words of their lawyers have been published in what is left of Iran's reformist press.

I mentioned television earlier. Television is one of the guerilla battlefields as well. We hear all the time that television is controlled by the Islamic establishment and that, indeed, the news is. Every sermon by Ayatollah Khamenei and all the Friday prayers are televised in full. But someone let some interesting producers loose on the entertainment side. What you see in Iran are extraordinary soap operas that lay bare day-to-day life. Soap operas that talk about divorce, suicide, unemployment, the inability of young people to go to a university, polygamy -- all of these things are discussed openly on television. In fact, students in the audience may find topics for fabulous doctoral dissertations on sociology or communications on Iranian television.

Finally, another guerilla battlefield is the street. The streets are used in different ways. On a superficial level, in the streets Iranian women fight the dress code. Not all Iranian women wear the black chador that you see in so many photographs. Many Iranian women don't like to hold that garment under their chins or put it in their teeth; if one is carrying a baby, it's very difficult. I tried to wear one once while taking notes, and it can't be done; you cannot take notes and wear a chador at the same time. So female journalists are strongly advised to examine their wardrobes.

Iranian women are fighting with the dress code. They started with their toes, because in the Koran there is nothing about having to cover your feet. Just recently there was a huge crackdown, and many women were arrested because they were showing too much hair. One of the women who was actually at the conference in Berlin still has charges pending against her, because she was out of the country without anything on her head.

The streets are also a battleground for the students who demonstrated in summer of 1999 in 24 cities. It was a wake-up call for the government, because these demonstrations turned into riots that had to put down by force. It could happen again.

So where is Khatami? Where is President Khamenei in all of this? President Khamenei was elected overwhelmingly in 1997. There were a lot of people in this building that were very hopeful that he would usher in an era of reform, that he would fulfill his promises to create a civil society based on tolerance and the rule of law. Well, I traveled with him a great deal in 1998. I went with him from town to town, having never seen an Iranian leader, except for Ayatollah Khamenei, so welcomed by the people. He is truly a natural politician. He is "Clintonesque," or should I say, as highly regarded among Iranians as Colin Powell is among Americans. He fills a room. He's warm; he smiles. He is not like Ayatollah Khomeini before him who sort of mumbled and wouldn't look at me when I talked to him. He has a great following. I saw him again at the UN last September when he came to meet with a group of journalists. Quite frankly, he is a very subdued man. He is deeply troubled by what has happened with the judiciary, with the closure of the newspapers, with the troubles and now the forced resignation of his Minister of Guidance and Culture. In a recent speech, he said ominously, "I declare that after three-and-half years as President I lack sufficient powers to truly implement the Constitution." Later he told reporters, "Dictatorship continues to haunt us all." This coincides with a bold open criticism of the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. There have been calls for a referendum about whether there should actually be this office of the rule of Islamic jurisprudence. Just earlier this month the main student group issued a letter that criticized the judiciary and put the blame squarely on Ayatollah Khamenei, saying, "You must take steps so that justice can return," and adding, "You are the leader and if you are the leader you are responsible."

How do I survive in a country like this? How do you get along as an American, particularly an American journalist? Well, I have come up with a set of rules -- sort of Sciolino's rules on how to survive. I would like to share some of them with you.

One rule is, almost everything meaningful in Iran happens behind closed doors. This is still not a transparent society. I mean Iran-Contra happened; the Iranians bought weapons from the United States, its mortal enemy during the Iran-Iraq war. That was fine as long as it was kept secret. There is still a premium placed on keeping things within the home, keeping things private. This is why Iranians of all persuasions and all levels of religiosity hate this notion of morals police being able to knock on their doors and disrupt them in the privacy of their homes. A friend of mine said to me once, "You know we used to drink in public and pray in private, now we pray in public and drink in private."

This is a country of improvisers. Some people say that Iranians are like chess players, that they are always plotting 10 steps ahead, plotting strategy. I look at them more as players in a jazz band, kind of changing the rhythm and the tempo as they go along. Look at Khomeini, for example. When he was in Paris he talked about democracy; it was one of his favorite words. He spoke of Iran as a democratic Islamic republic. Then we went back to Qom with him. Let me just read you what he said on that day. "What the nation wants is an Islamic republic, not just a republic. Not a democratic republic; do not use the word democratic to describe it. That is the Western rule." Khomeini was the ultimate improviser. First he banned caviar sales because the sturgeon was a fish without scales. Then someone told him, "Ayatollah, we are losing a lot of money on this." So he changed the rule. Those of you who were here during the Iran-Iraq war will recall that shortly after the United States accidentally shot down that Iran air passenger plane, Ayatollah Khomeini changed what he had said all along about war until victory, drank the cup of poison, and ended the Iran-Iraq War.

Another one of my rules is that even seeing isn't believing. I once interviewed the brother of President Khatami, when he was Deputy Health Minister, before he went into politics. I did a lovely interview with him. And toward the end he started talking about the United States and he sort of laid out a few confidence-building measures that the United States could take to help bridge the gap between the two countries. I thought this is was very interesting. I asked, "Would you mind if I write this story?" I knew he wasn't a politician so I said, "Would you mind if I put this on the record?" He said, "Be my guest." So I wrote an article for The New York Times. It was just one of those little articles appearing at the top of those Bloomingdale's ads. We refer to that spot as the shelf. It doesn't get much attention, and he calls me up the next day and he said, "Why did you write that stuff?" I said, "You told me that stuff." He said, "I never said those things." I said, "Sir, I had a tape recorder," and he said, "Even if I said those things, you shouldn't have written them." You can't win.

Another one of my rules is that not only foreign journalists have to watch their backs, people in political life have to as well. Once I was interviewing Khatami's wife, and we were sitting in the pink palace, one of the most beautiful palaces dating from the days of the Shah. Between us was this beautiful bouquet with yellow, purple, and white flowers with a single pink rose in the middle. Halfway through the interview she said, "There is a microphone in the flowers. Somebody is listening to our conversation." It was only afterwards that I realized that the microphone wasn't there for me. I was just asking the questions. That microphone was there for her because someone somewhere thought she might say something that could be used against her husband.

Where do we stand as a country vis--vis Iran? This is the question on everybody's minds. I like to describe Iran as the Bermuda Triangle of American foreign policy. Many U.S. presidents have ventured into these waters and have gotten lost forever. It's interesting to me that from the Iranian point of view, there is delight that George W. Bush has been elected President. Why? Well, Bush's father was perceived as having the right views toward Iran. His Inaugural Address talked about goodwill, begetting goodwill vis--vis Iran. There weren't economic sanctions under Bush I except those that were necessary to limit proliferation. Let's not forget that George Herbert Walker Bush once picked up the phone, so eager to have a dialogue with Iran, thinking that President Rafsanjani was on the other line. It turned out to be a hoax. The head of the main conservative coalition said recently, "We weren't the ones who strained relations between our two countries; Bush can start anew." An American-educated conservative said that it would be certain that oil companies might have more freedom to conclude contracts with Iran with the Republicans in the White House.

The Bush Administration probably will take a very cautious attitude toward Iran. We don't know yet whether this Administration will brand Iran a rogue state. National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice was asked this question after a speech she gave last October, and she said: "I don't know what to call them [rogue or outlaw states]; whatever you call them they're bad." In his confirmation hearings, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld mentioned Iran only once, and it was in the context of Russian technology transfer to Iran. Iran will figure in the national missile defense debate, and President Bush told The New York Times that his real intent in building a national missile defense was to intercept an accidental launching of one or two nuclear weapons or to deprive, I quote, "some nation like Iran [of the opportunity] to eventually say to us that [they] have one aimed at Israel." When Vice President Richard B. Cheney was head of Halliburton, he characterized the state of U.S.-Iranian relations as a tragedy and said that efforts to isolate Iran and other countries through unilateral sanctions have failed. Similarly, the new Secretary of State, Colin Powell, questioned the wisdom of unilateral sanctions and blanket sanctions during his testimony at confirmation hearings. He seemed to draw distinctions between Iran and Iraq. This suggests that dual containment will be reexamined. He said, "Iran is a different case -- it is an important country undergoing profound change from within. We have important differences on matters of policy. But these differences need not preclude greater interaction -- whether in more normal commerce or increased dialogue. Our national security team will be reviewing such possibilities." And that word "reviewing" is the key word here. If there is a review of policy toward Iran, it will be all to the good. There was a serious review of Iran policy that was done after the Persian Gulf war, and it was determined to keep things the way they were, that any action that would have been politically acceptable in the United States would have been seen as meaningless in Tehran. But reviews are what all of you people do.

There is no dearth of information about what to do about Iran. I brought some props today. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which generally takes a pro-Israeli line, has a section on Iran in its report on "Navigating through Turbulence: America in the Middle East." Just listen to this excerpt: "Iran is one of the great political enigmas facing U.S. policymakers. This country that sponsors international terrorist groups, lends support to the violent opposition to the Middle East peace process, and spends scarce capital on developing a nuclear weapons program, also has a political system that, other than Israel and Turkey, may be the most animated, vigorous, and dynamic in the region." And the report has several policy recommendations.

The Atlantic Council is in the process of putting its final touches on its report. Because it is in draft form, I can't tell you what it says, but it's very good. Finally, a couple of years ago, the Nixon Center produced a wonderful book entitled America in Iran. Anyone who needs information on U.S.-Iranian relations should read this book.

There must be frustration in this building because you regard Iran as its own worst enemy. You cannot close newspapers, put people on trial because of their religion (in the case of Jews), put people behind bars because of their political beliefs, and think that the United States is going to reward you. This is an open-ended game. The stakes are enormous because the new reformers are challenging the old-line clerics. It's not yet a place where transparency and accountability are the rule -- and anyone who dares to innovate can get tripped up by this tough style of domestic policies. As one Iranian journalist said to me, "We don't know where the red lines are." He is now in prison.

I had a terrible time when I was trying to come up with a title for my book because nothing seemed to make sense. The only thing I said I wouldn't do was use the word "veil" in the title. It was not going to be "Behind the Veil," "Under the Veil," "A Hundred Veils." I felt that that image had been used too frequently to describe Iran.

I found the title in a palace -- a green palace that had been built by Reza Shah, the late Shah's father. It was a reception room that is probably about a third of the size of [the Dean Acheson Auditorium], and all of the walls and ceilings were covered with thousands and thousands of little bits of mirrors. These mirror mosaics have to be put together very, very carefully. At first I looked at this room; it was a very welcoming room. I felt embarrassed by the extraordinary light and reflection. I tried to look at my face in the mirrors. Well, you can't see yourself in these mirrors. I realized just how forbidding and distancing and alienated the room made me feel. It's this image that I try to capture in my book and also in my approaches as a journalist covering Iran. That's why I called it Persian Mirrors. Thank you, and I welcome your comments and questions.

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