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A Kinder, Gentler Iran?
January 8, 1998

During the past two decades few countries have had a more troubled relationship than the United States and Iran. Precipitated by the seizure of the American Embassy in Teheran in 1979 by Iranian Islamic revolutionaries, the United States' aversion to and fear of Iran has intensified as TV images have shown Iranian believers shouting "Marg bar Amrika" ("Death to America"), as Iranian clerical leaders have referred to the United States as the "Great Satan," and as Iranians have been implicated in acts of international terrorism. Recent events suggest, however, that Iran may be seeking to rehabilitate its image -- particularly in the United States. Just yesterday, for instance, in an interview broadcast on CNN, President Mohammad Khatami proposed cultural exchanges as a way to end years of mistrust between Iran and the United States. And at the Islamic conference held in Teheran this past December, despite the usual anti-Western rhetoric from Ayatollah Ali Khameneh'i, Khatami delivered another strikingly conciliatory message, declaring that he had "great respect for the great people of the United States" and adding that he hopes to inspire a thoughtful dialogue ... [in which] both countries could get closer to peace, security, and tranquility."

Should the United States and Iran focus on strengthening ties for the twenty-first century? Who truly wields power in Iran, a country that often seems on the brink of implosion? What kind of place is it? Over the past two decades, The Atlantic Monthly has sought to shed light upon these questions and others.

The question of who holds power in Iran was the focus of Robert D. Kaplan's "A Bazaari's World" (March, 1996). Kaplan profiled Mohsen Rafiqdoost, the leader of the Foundation of the Oppressed, Iran's largest holding company -- described by one Iranian as "the greatest cartel in history." Kaplan described Rafiqdoost as a bazaari, an age-old Persian term that today applies to members of the newly established Islamic petty bourgeoisie that "can exist only in places where the society is in the midst of an awkward modernization." The most enduring legacy of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, Kaplan concludes, might be the ascendancy of the "Islamic bazaar state."

Edward G. Shirley, the pseudonym of a former Iran specialist in the Central Intelligence Agency, offered an insider's view of revolutionary Iran in "Not Fanatics, and Not Friends" (December, 1993). Although Iran remains dangerous in many ways, Shirley argued, the country is also rife with anti-clericalism and maintains surprisingly positive attitudes toward the United States. Shirley went so far as to recommend the posture that the United States should assume in its dealings with Iran.
Be tough but fair. In the Islamic Middle East, where political life is usually unforgiving, hard-line foreign policies are most likely to gain respect. The more the United States can consistently pressure Iran, the more Iran's rulers will take heed and avoid provocation. However, the U.S. government should choose its conflicts with the Islamic Republic carefully. As much as the United States may want to deny Iran access to certain markets, its ability to do so, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet threat, is limited. Fear of America is a very important psychological element in American-Iranian relations. That fear, or, as it is understood in Persian, haybat -- awe of insuperable authority -- should not be squandered on public trade disputes with the Europeans or the Japanese unless the United States has the means and the will to win the argument.
Twelve years earlier, V. S. Naipaul traveled to Iran and described his experiences there for The Atlantic in "Among the Believers" (July, 1981). Naipaul had a keen eye for detail, not to mention a quick wit. His impressions of his first afternoon spent in Teheran are typical:
The afternoon cars and motorcycles went by, driven in the Iranian way. I saw two collisions. One shop had changed its name. It was now 'Our Fried Chicken,' no longer the chicken of Kentucky, and the figure of the southern colonel had been fudged into something quite meaningless (except to those who remembered the colonel). Revolutionary guards, young men with guns, soon ceased to be surprising; they were part of the revolutionary sabbath scene.
But Naipaul was not content to merely observe Iran from a street corner. Determined to see the holy city of Qom and meet Ayatollah Khalkhalli, Khomeini's chief executioner at the time, Naipaul undertook a two-hundred-mile car ride through the sweltering Iranian desert with a guide of unknown reputation, all during Ramadan, when daytime fasting is required. When he did finally arrive at Khalkhalli's house, he was granted a brief but memorable audience.
'I was taught by Ayatollah Khomeini, you know. And I was the teacher of the son of Ayatollah Khomeini.' He thumped me on the shoulder and added archly, 'I am very close to Ayatollah Khomeini.'

His mouth opened wide, stayed open, and soon he appeared to be choking with laughter, showing me his gums, his tongue, his gullet. When he recovered he said, with a short, swift wave of his right hand, 'The mullahs are going to rule now. We are going to have ten thousand years of the Islamic Republic. The Marxists will go on with their Lenin. We will go on in the way of Khomeini.'

He went silent. Crossing his legs neatly below him, fixing me with his eyes, becoming grave, appearing to look up at me through his glasses, he said, in the silence he had created, 'I killed Hovedya [the Shah's Prime Minister], you know.'

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