What is Iran? Is it a nation ruled by savage mullahs who are the world's prime sponsors of terrorism, who seek a nuclear capability in order to advance their hegemonic aspirations, and who order the murder, rape and torture of their political opponents in order to protect their illegitimate regime? Yes. Is it also a country populated by freedom-seeking people, inheritors of a grand civilization, who, after more than 30 years of soul-crushing theocratic rule, find themselves filled with warm feelings for America and what it stands for? Also, yes.
The Atlantic.com's international channel posted a pair of pieces this week that make the unassailable, if by-now stale argument, that most Iranians actually like the U.S. Christopher Thornton, the author of the pieces (one is a travel narrative, the other a photo essay) writes in a faux-naive, or honestly-come-by, naive style, but a style laced with condescension -- condescension directed at Americans, who, he claims, without evidence, are ignorant of the "real" Iran. The only thing Americans care about, he argues, is the alleged perfidy of the Iranian government. Thornton's introduction to his photo essay will give you a sense of his mission:
The version of Iran that Americans see in the media can certainly seem like a frightening, hostile place: stern mullahs, clandestine nuclear programs, angry (if often staged) anti-American protests. Yet Iran seen first-hand is very different, and much friendlier. Approximately half of Iranians are willing to tell pollsters they hold a favorable view of Americans, but when visiting the country it seems like many more share that view. The many Iranians I've met have been eager to tell me how much they like Americans and the U.S., the many commonalities they see between the two countries, and of course their desire to visit--and remain permanently if at all possible. I hope this other side of Iran comes through in these photos I've taken on my visits to the country. These are not nearly as disturbing or frightening as the Iran-related images you're likely accustomed to, but they show the "real" Iran that outsiders rarely see.
The photos include images of children playing in a fountain and of women buying fabric, One photo comes with this immortal caption: "Men laugh over the poultry at a bird market in Esfahan."
But do Americans really believe that Iranian children don't play in fountains, and that Iranian women don't buy fabric? Or that Iranians don't eat chicken?
Thornton's project -- and not just the stilted, propagandistic quality of his photo captions -- reminded me of a display I once saw in a hotel lobby in Soviet-era Moscow. The blown-up photos of the happy proletariat promised hotel guests the "international friendship of the Soviet peoples." But in a non-democratic society, of course, the friendliness of disenfranchised citizens is not only unsurprising -- there's nothing like living in a repressive society to make a person yearn for America -- it is not relevant. It is relevant, of course, if you are sitting in the Pentagon, devising plans to undermine or overthrow of the regime. But it is not entirely relevant if you are an American policymaker confronting, say, the Iranian government's aggressive, destructive and anti-American policies in the Persian Gulf.
Thornton tells us that he was treated with kindness everywhere he went in Iran. This is undoubtedly true, because Iranians are, indeed, very warm toward Americans (I have experienced this myself in Iran) but it is also true because Thornton didn't seem to ask any hard questions, or explore any of the regime's barbaric and anti-democratic policies. If you behave like a journalist in Iran, well, your reception won't be so friendly. Contrast Thornton's article with that of Laura Secor, of the The New Yorker, who, because she's an actual reporter, asked actual questions on her last visit to Iran, and got into actual trouble because of it. Her piece makes for compelling reading. Here is the moment she first meets trouble:
My translator and I left Alef just before noon. I was supposed to fly to Dubai that night, and was racing to make my final interviews. Soon after we stepped onto the street, a wiry man in a black nylon jacket stopped my translator and talked to him intently. This did not strike me as unusual: Iranians often talk to strangers at such length, and with such warmth, that at a glance it is hard to tell old friends from people who have just met.
But the conversation intensified into a relay of insistence and objection. My translator's face was a mask of tension. He would translate nothing, despite my repeated requests. A car idled in the street, and he nudged me in its direction. "We have to get in the car," he told me, looking away. The man in the nylon jacket got in the front passenger seat; the waiting driver was larger and silent. I asked who they were and where they were taking me. Silence. My translator finally said, "Passport and visa office. They want to have a short conversation."
Read Secor's whole piece; it's fantastic.
There seems to be a purpose to Thornton's argument: To convince Americans that Iran poses no threat to the United States or its allies because its people are friendly. The editor of The Atlantic.com's international channel, Max Fisher, described Iran, sardonically, on Twitter: "A weak impoverished country a zillion miles away, full of people who love Americans, our 'greatest enemy(.)'" But obviously Fisher and Thornton both know that weak, impoverished countries sometimes pose threats to the United States -- Afghanistan, a weaker, more impoverished country than Iran, was the indispensably important launching pad for the 9/11 attacks. They also must know that, in the age of transnational terrorist threats and ICBMs, distance by itself does not protect America; and they also know that the love of the Iranian people for America is not nearly so relevant as is the hatred of those Iranians who make regime policy. (For more on how the regime treats dissenting citizens -- or citizens it merely imagines are dissenting, along with gays, Baha'is, etc. -- please visit Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which both do exhaustive work exploring the lives of real Iranians.)
Are the Iranian people natural allies of the U.S.? Of course. Is the regime an adversary? Of course. And it's a dangerous adversary: Obama Administration officials have estimated that at least a quarter of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq can be attributed directly to Iranian-backed organizations. It's worth pointing out that many Iranians want to see their country be more like the U.S., but there's no good reason to make believe that Iran today is a benevolent place.
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