In February 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini stepped off a chartered Air France flight, millions of ordinary people lined the streets of Tehran to celebrate the return of the man they called the father of the revolution. Iran’s new regime saw itself as a revolutionary response to the despotic five-decade rule of the Shah—an overthrow that brought an end to more than two thousand years of monarchic rule.
Khomeini’s arrival marked the beginning of a theocracy and an era of convulsive politics. The new regime carried on with the use of repression and brutality, but the shift in the definition of patriot created targets out of those who had previously felt safe.
The arrival of the ayatollahs and their never-before-seen form of government that married democratic structures with theocratic oversight created a kind of fixation in western countries that this new Iran was somehow unknowable. How did one read political and cultural cues at arm’s length in a country where nothing seemed familiar?
This perceived inability to know about Iran also obscured the very robust conversations Iranian intellectuals and activists were engaging in: they debated the moral, philosophical, and political underpinnings of what the Iranian project was and what it could be.
In Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, Laura Secor explores these debates and conversations as they unfolded over decades against the backdrop of political turmoil and repression. Her meticulous reporting, deep research, and lyrical writing have resulted in a gorgeous book thick with history and emotion. Secor tells the story of modern Iran through the lives of the people who have struggled for it: from students and writers to philosophers, clerics, and poets.
As the west cautiously re-opens itself to Iran, Children of Paradise is a necessary contribution to understanding the dynamic and determined work of Iranians to create a modern nation on their own terms.
Naheed Mustafa: Your book is a lush and detailed story about a conversation Iranians have been having for generations, about what kind of society they want to live in. What was the starting point for you with wanting to tell this story?
Laura Secor: I started travelling to Iran in 2004, and I have to admit that my first impulse to go there was in a sense perverse. It was a country that felt like it was forbidden. It was a place that most Americans didn’t go, and that we had received a lot of negative ideas about, and I wanted to know what was behind that curtain, and to understand the place on its own terms, and not as I felt like a lot of us did, as a foreign policy problem to be solved, or as a place that existed in relation to us. So, when I went in, I was curious to know about the life of the country, and what continued to strike me, as I talked to Iranians about the stories of their lives, was the compression of the history of the last thirty years, the sense that so much had happened in such a short time, and it was such a dramatic history, and it had penetrated the lives of individuals at every level. So I kept thinking about the people I met as, in a way, characters in an epic novel and I was captivated by that story, and the way that it threaded itself through those lives.
And so, you’re thinking about Iran in a way that’s different from the kind of narrative that you’re getting from whatever media you’re consuming about Iran. How do you start to try and get past what you already know or think about that country?
To begin with, by talking to people. And by listening to stories, trying to map them against historical events. One of the things that’s difficult about researching Iran is that there is a really vast literature on that country, a lot of it is scholarly, and it’s really rich, there’s a lot that we can and should know about Iran from that literature, but it’s not generally accessible to a broad readership. So one of the things that I tried to do was to do a lot of reading, and try to understand the intricacies of the political history. But then to lift up a little bit away from them, and create a map that I could then hold against the lives of the people I was talking to, so we could sort of say, you know, ‘Where were you when this happened?’ and ‘Where were you when that happened?’ and I started to see that there were common points of intersection with these narratives that made the history come out in more relief. But to me it was really important for the book to be able to tell people’s stories in intimate detail because I think that’s how we get close to a place. The history can feel vast and alienating, particularly when it’s of a place that’s really far away and whose history is in many ways very different from our own. So I tried to use that intimacy to bring readers into the lives of Iranians and into the life of Iran, but at the same time I really found that that frame of reference, because we’re missing it, had to be supplied.
Children of Paradise is focused on the intellectual push and pull from which the modern Iranian state emerged. In the Western narrative of Iran, the modern state is understood as coming out of a series of mostly violent events. How do you reconcile those two realities, the intellectual tradition that you’ve been referring to, and then this way that we’ve understood it as being this convulsing of violence?
I think both are true, and I was really interested in a story of ideas in this history, because in Iran ideas are taken seriously, in a way that they aren’t always here, in the West. And one of the things that I felt strongly was that this kind of language of abstraction is really a native one in Iran, the literary and intellectual forms that are most powerful in the culture are poetry and philosophy, so to see how closely those literatures tracked with people’s psyches, and with the psyche of the country, in a sense, was really fascinating to me and, I felt, an important part of Iran’s story that’s often missed. And that’s not to say that ideas ever function in a vacuum. Ideas are connected in some ways to violent events, and they certainly are in Iran, so while I think it’s definitely true that, and I think the book also does document a lot of convulsive events, there is also this other architecture that I wanted readers to understand and to see in order to better know the country, and to better understand what was motivating those events.
You referred earlier to this idea of the compression of history. I’m wondering given that we’re in this phase of the West trying to get to know Iran, or get to know again the new Iran, or a newer version of it, how do you think that compressed history is going to be understood outside of Iran?
I don’t think that’s for me to say.
Do you think it’s even possible to understand that?
I think that if we pay attention it is. One of the things that it’s sometimes very difficult to persuade people of is that we really do need to understand the events inside foreign countries on their own terms. There is a sort of impatience, at least in my country, with that kind of reporting. We kind of want to know, well, what does this have to do with American foreign policy and with our next policy decision, and I haven’t written that book. I believe that we need to engage with the interior life of countries if we wish to understand them. And that doesn’t mean that we need to get involved in their internal politics, but to at least know what motivates them and where they come from and what the history is I think is significant for anyone who’s seeking engagement and broader understanding.
Early in your book, you talk about the story of the little black fish. Can you tell us about that story?
[Laughs.] It’s funny, the first time I heard about that story was from one of the reformists who had been a revolutionary, who said that the piece of literature that brought him to the revolution, that made him a revolutionary, was a children’s story called The Little Black Fish. So I went to the library and found that story. And when I had finished reading it, I wanted to throw the book across the room, because I could not understand at that point, very early in my research, what this story had to do with a revolution. [Laughs.] And it’s a story that was written by a secular leftist writer in the sixties, it’s a parable that’s told through animals, which is common in Iranian fiction and poetry.
The main character is a little black fish, who lives in a very small stream, and decides that he believes that there is a world beyond this stream, and that he wants to explore it. And everyone tells him, you’re crazy, there is no world beyond this stream, this is where life begins and ends. But he insists on exploring it, and he goes through a number of trials and adventures on his way out to the open sea, where, in the open sea, there is a school of brave fish like himself who have made this quest, and they are so strong that they can drag the fisherman’s net to the bottom of the sea. But he gets there, finally, and reaches his freedom, and winds up sacrificing himself for the freedom of another fish, and at the end of the story he dies. So it’s not the kind of children’s story that would be typical in my country, it’s got a rather dark cast to it. But it contains themes that I later realized just resonated again and again with the history and the mentality in a way of revolutionary movements in Iran. It’s a story that is about refusing to be bounded by some received idea of one’s fate, or destiny.
It’s a story about free will, and it’s a story about sacrifice, and at the time that it was published, which was I guess 1968, one of the things that’s also very haunting about the story is that the author of it drowned, he was on vacation, and he stepped into this river with very rapidly coursing currents, and he didn’t know how to swim, and there was for a while a rumour that he had been killed by the Shah’s secret police, nobody could really verify that, but the fact that he drowned became part of the myth of the story and the author. So to me, the story, at first, I didn’t understand it, and the more time I’ve spent on this book and on the lives of the people I’ve met, the more it seemed to resonate with everything that I found. And one of the things, you know, I bring it back again at the very end of the book because one of the themes of the book is this persistence of a very dynamic civic spirit in Iran, under very unpromising circumstances. Again and again you see people emerging who are willing to put themselves at risk in order to make a better life for their countrymen. It’s a source of wonder to me, in many ways, and really of awe.
At the very end of the book, in the final section, I introduce a character who is also an avatar for the women’s movement in Iran. The women’s movement really takes wing at a time when so many other movements have been crushed, but these people come forward and take on some of the most obdurate parts of the establishment, the judiciary, and I really started to think about that woman who I introduced in that section, her name is Asieh Amini, as the little red fish, the one who picks up this journey at a time when others have abandoned it.
Several years ago I was in Kabul, and I ended up at a conference basically on women and political participation, it was an international conference and the representatives were all from Muslim majority countries and the rep from Iran, she was an Islamic scholar. She was talking about Islamic law, and how women in Iran had used Islamic law as a way to move themselves forward but it was incremental, but if you saw the shift that had happened in the previous three decades, that there had been profound advances that women had been able to make by contesting and engaging with this particular aspect of the Iranian system which on the outside is perceived as monolithic and unchanging. How do you see that from inside Iran? What has that engagement been like and is it an engagement that people in Iran are generally well aware of?
First of all, nothing is monolithic and unchanging in Iran, that’s one of the interesting things about the Islamic system in that country. It’s got a lot of different pressure points in places where you can tug on a string that makes something happen over here, and it’s a very dynamic place, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t also some pretty hard and fast barriers to how much can be accomplished and how fast.
The women’s movement is really variegated, it’s not easy to describe a single strategy or a single approach to taking on some of the issues, and there is part of it that is legalistic, there’s part of it that has concentrated on lobbying, in a sense, to get laws changed. There’s part of it that has focused on society. There’s the Million Signatures campaign, which involves women basically hand to hand, behind closed doors, distributing pamphlets that delineate discriminatory laws and educate other women and get their signatures on a petition with the aim of collecting one million signatures.
The person I’ve profiled in the book is Asieh Amini, and her focus was on juvenile execution to begin with, and then eventually on stoning, and these issues don’t only affect women, but they do have a disproportionate affect on women. So there’s really all kinds of ways, I think, that the women’s movement has approached the systemic discrimination in Iran. I also think we have an idea in our minds of Iran as being a particularly repressive place for women, and while that is true, it’s also probably by regional standards a very dynamic place for women and you do see, if you travel to Iran, you see women in every kind of public role, and that’s something that may not be true in some of the other neighbouring countries.
In talking about the state that emerged after the Islamic revolution of 1979, you write, “It emerged in impassioned, ambivalent dialogue among passionate, ambivalent people, and the state it produced is passionately ambivalent too.” What do you mean by passionately ambivalent?
[Laughs.] I think of Iran as straddling a very profound fault line, both culturally and politically. It’s a country that is kind of defined by and driven by its divisions, and those divisions even run through individual people, at least that’s what I found in a lot of my research, and in the people that I profile in the book.
At the very beginning, the revolutionary impulse is a really divided and interesting impulse. I think we think of it as, well, there was this revolution that produced an Islamic theocracy, therefore it was a revolution for Islamic theocracy. It was not. It was a really diverse movement that included people who were leftists and people who were liberals and nationalists. Even among the Islamists, the Islamism that drove it was a really dynamic and variegated force at that time. The thinker who I profile mainly from that period is Ali Shariati, who is interesting because what he does is he takes the language and the concerns and the commitments of the left, and he marries them to Islam, and that becomes a really potent force, because, in Iran, you had a really secular left that was largely urban and educated, and then you had, and this is complicated and it’s dealt with in the book, but the country had at that time a pretty serious urban/rural divide, and in the countryside you had a lot of traditional people who were at that time migrating into cities and finding themselves cheek-by-jowl with these urban secular elites who they didn’t understand and who they felt looked down on them.
What Shariati’s ideas did was, in a sense, they gave the revolutionary impulse back to the traditional people, and it gave Islam back to the urban elites, and in a sense unified the country for a moment, behind that idea, so suddenly if you were a traditional religious person, you were not some rube from the countryside to be looked down upon, you were the revolutionary vanguard, and according to Shariati it was not that Islam was compatible with revolutionary impulses, it was that leftist revolutionary ideology actually originated in Islam. So that was a really powerful way of thinking. But it was also, in a sense, it had its own in-built ambivalences, because he was reconciling a lot of things that did not spring from a single source and there was always, I think the cliché, which I hesitate to use but I can never get away from it, is that Iran is a country torn between tradition and modernity. I don’t really much like that, because I don’t think tradition is one thing and I don’t think modernity is one thing, and I don’t think that they’re necessarily pulling against each other, but in some sense, the intellectual and political project after the revolution was to create a uniquely Iranian vision of modernity that could enfold the traditions that were also indigenous to that country.
And that’s a conversation that’s still ongoing.
One of the things that’s difficult to disentangle is whether the politics have been Islamicized, or if Islam has been politicized. Is that even a conversation worth having when it comes to Iran?
That’s a really interesting question. I feel that the more time I’ve spent on Iran, the less I think that any of this is about religion. I think that it’s really a story of politics, and in many ways the revolutionary state, although at first blush, the world looked at it and said, ‘My god, this is medieval fanaticism,’ actually it was a very modern state that the revolution produced and the kind of autocracy and repression that it produced is very familiar, that techniques of it and the shape of it. Over time one thing you see in the early revolutionary years is even Ayatollah Khomeini slowly becoming more and more pragmatic in his approach to politics and to the world, and this pragmatism is a very big piece of the Islamic republic’s outlook. So while it’s certainly not a secular state, and while it certainly is a state that has made a very special place for Islamic jurisprudence and for Islamic morality, it is a system that’s also actually more familiar than not, and that does not, I don’t think, need to be understood in religious terms.
From the outside, Westerners tend to see Iran as a static state with an unchanging ideology. What kind of shift has there been in how Iran’s leaders and intellectuals see the project of the theocratic state?
I think that from the very beginning, the theocratic state was never totally static, because it had contestation built into it, whether it meant to or not. The constitution of the Islamic Republic came out of compromise and conflict. There were on the one hand these Islamic nationalist liberals who were in the government at that time who presented a draft constitution that looked like the French Fifth Republic, and then you had clerics on the other hand who said, ‘No, this won’t do, we need to include a dimension of clerical rule.’ So these two dimensions were brought together from the very start into a kind of contradictory document, and that has produced a set of contradictions that make it impossible to eliminate dynamism from the system, as hard as they’ve tried. [Laughs.] Because the theocratic elements of the state, no question, are stronger than the republican elements. They ultimately control the security apparatus, the judiciary, the foreign policy, a lot of the most definitive levers of the state. But what they have not been able to do is eliminate dissention within their own ranks, or within the ranks of the larger bureaucratic government that includes the republican elements. So it’s been really interesting, over even the last ten years, when we’ve had a very open contest between the more autocratic elements of the regime, and the more republican elements, to see that even when the conservatives hold all the offices, they still wind up producing dissent. And you still wind up with factions that are critical of the system as a whole in some ways. I think that is in a way the fate that the country set itself when it adopted that constitution, and it’s something to be grateful for.
A couple of years ago, I was assigned to review a couple of books, one that was a history of the revolution and of the late Shah period and the other that was a history of the Islamic Republic, and as I was reading these books I was thinking, there was a sense that we as Americans, we knew Iran under the Shah, because we were close to the Shah’s court, and so any history you read of that period has granular detail about the inner workings of government. But after the Islamic Revolution, I think we imagine that we don’t know Iran anymore, that it’s receded, it’s become an unknowable place. But if you look at any history of the Islamic Republic, it is actually so much richer, in terms of its connection to the society. So much more is visible, because the Islamic Republic, which is no less autocratic than the Shah’s regime, still has somehow created a space where the currents that actually move through the society can bubble up to the surface and be seen.
And so in a lot of ways it’s in keeping with the tradition that you’ve already laid out, where there’s been this constant engagement with ideas.
So how do you explain that? When you’re out and about in your life as a journalist, and people are talking to you about Iran and you’re talking to people about Iran, is it a matter of convincing people that this is actually what’s happening there, and not this sense of static and immovable ideas?
I suppose. I like to think that our ideas about Iran have changed in the last ten to twelve years, to some degree. There was this reformist period between 1997 and 2004, when President Mohammad Khatami was trying to open up the country, and at that point there was a lot of press about the dynamism of Iranian society, and then things kind of skewed to a different side, where the image of Iran was, well this is a place where there’s really a free press and people are very active and engaged and young people are yearning for connection with the world. And that too was a skewed impression, because that movement was up against some very hard forces of repression that were often not also brought into that frame. And then under Ahmedinejad I think we swung back the other way, and started to look at Iran again as a sort of hardline monolith, so when I talk to people about my work, I find a pretty wide variety of impressions that they’ve gleaned from the news and from other sources or maybe even their friends with Iranian backgrounds, because there are increasing numbers of Iranians in the United States, and as you know, even more in Canada, so I don’t want to overly generalize about what people think about a country they haven’t seen, but I do hope that my work is useful in bringing readers and ordinary people into contact with the sophistication and diversity and dynamism of that culture.
Your book is a series of portraits of Iranians who engaged in various ways with the revolution, and then you go on to see what became of them. You talk about a man named Akbar Ganji who started out as a true believer but within a decade had lost his fervor. You summed up his views as, “in a religious state, religion became vulnerable to the vagaries, the antagonisms of politics. To criticize the state was to criticize Islam.” Iran has the same Islam it’s always had, well, not always had, but let’s say that Islam has always been part and parcel of that conversation since the revolution, but Iran has, as you’ve just alluded to, made a variety of political decisions, and taken a variety of political pathways. So how true do you think that that idea that Akbar Ganji put forward, how true is that still?
Well I think what he was getting at with that idea was not then that you couldn’t criticize the state because it would be to criticize Islam, but that in order to make sense of this problem, you had to think about Islam in a different frame, and I think that he and some of the other reformists that were connected to a philosopher who’s featured in the book, Abdolkarim Suroush, a lot of their efforts were focused on removing religion from this kind of wordly interplay of conflict and politics, and saying, ‘Look, religion is not besmirched by these things, it’s not touched by them, religion the thing itself is ineffable, it is in a sense unknowable, and everything that we have built around it is only human, and therefore we can argue about it, and we can interpret it, and rediscover it, and disagree about it.’ This was a radical thing to do, philosophically, and Ganji was a follower of Suroosh’s and I think in the end, that was the view that he came to, that allowed him to be critical of the state without being critical of his religion. He’s a very religious man. So, that was the innovation in a sense of the intellectual reform movement, was to take this inner core of religion and try to protect it from the accretions of ideology and politics, which was in a sense the opposite of what Shariati did. Shariati took religion and tried to make of it an all-encompassing ideology. I think it was Suroush himself who put it this way: Shariati wanted to make religion corpulent and he wanted to make it small.
When it comes to the state itself, does the state take dissent—I mean, we know how it treats dissent—but does it understand dissent against the state as being related to religion?
What I’ve described for you is the reformist point of view, which has now fallen into the opposition, but the state itself does use religion in this way. The state itself does stipulate—the problem with dissenting in Iran is that you can always fall into the category of being accused of apostasy or of waging war against God, or of various formulations that turn dissent into an act of religious warfare, and that falls into a punitive category that can be quite severe. So yes, the state, part of its power, lies in its assumption of its own identity with religion and really divine right.
How useful are terms like “reform,” “moderate,” “conservative?” How useful are these terms when you’re talking about Iran?
They’re useful if you know what they mean, but the trouble is that they’ve been kind of evacuated of meaning in the foreign press in a lot of ways. Not intentionally, but I think that American readers certainly have a hard time distinguishing among them because the spectrum of political thought in Iran does not match ours one-to-one or really in any other ratio. It’s hard to talk about left and right, it’s hard to talk about moderate and conservative, without defining those terms. There are definitions for those terms, moderate less so. I have a problem with moderate, because it doesn’t really describe anything that can be fixed to a political category in Iran. But certainly there is a spectrum of political factions that you can look at and clearly delineate, but the trouble is that our terms, and our political vocabulary, doesn’t totally fit it, and it doesn’t automatically signify what we want it to signify when we talk about the Iranian spectrum.
So when you are talking about the spectrum of political opinion, there are always going to be marginal voices on either end, but in general terms, even when you make reference to reformists in the current context, are the parameters still that Islam is to play into a role in politics, or are people able to talk about the idea of separating religion from politics and still be taken seriously in the Iranian political context?
The Iranian political context is religious. And if you’re talking about electoral politics, and the kind of politics that can legally and substantially be a part of the political playing field, that has to fall under the provisions of the constitution, and the constitution includes clerical leadership, and it includes religious law. So to very directly criticize those things puts you in a kind of dangerous space.
Now, the reformist movement, which emerged really in the nineties, came to fruition with the presidency of Mohammad Khatami and was essentially crushed in 2009 with the Green Movement, that movement always defined itself as an internal movement for incremental democratic reform. It did explicitly take on the religious structure of the state or its nature. But even that movement, which was incremental and internal and really an insider’s movement, even that movement after 2009, when it very directly clashed with Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and the revolutionary guards and so on, when it took those forces on, after that it was labeled the sedition, and placed outside the pale of allowable opinion. The reform movement still exists, that’s very clear in the behavior of the state. When you talk to ordinary people, I think the question of religion and the state runs more deeply through the society, and that there are a lot of people who—Iran is still a very religious country, a lot like the United States, and I think that there is rather broad constituency for a politics that is not theocratic, but even so, probably it would have a sort of—I don’t know how to put it, sort of like in the United States, religious people would be elected to a representative government.
You so beautifully illustrate the contraction and expansion of the idea of modern Iran. It’s rigorously debated within the country. How challenging is it for Iranians to engage in that debate about the relationship between what the vision of the country was, and where they want it go?
I think it’s gotten more challenging, not because that debate isn’t still alive and not because it doesn’t still resonate, but because the space for discussing it is not very open and under Khatami what we saw was this opening of the press which really allowed for a very deep and serious debate over the future of the country, and it also allowed for a surge of civic engagement, and you could see how much hunger there had been for that, for young people who wanted to be invested in the future of the country, and making things better, and they got involved in things, not just debating the role of mosque and state, which I don’t think many of them felt comfortable doing at that time, but they got involved in everything from supporting the rights of women and children and minorities and the provinces to laying poison for rats on blighted streets of Tehran to opening up hotlines for family counseling. They really got involved in improving life in the country. And that movement sadly got rather violently crushed, but I never believed that it went away, first of all because a lot of young people earned their chops in those days as journalists or as community organizers and so forth, there were a lot of people who entered the world of work and activism at that time and whose skills and commitments were shaped by it, and there’s also a sense that I think is ongoing, that Iranians want to be involved in shaping the future of their country, so I think it’s hard to totally assess, I haven’t been there myself since 2012, so that’s part of what is inhibiting me, but I think you can see almost always below the surface, this kind of rippling of, I don’t want to say dissent, because it’s not just dissent, it’s of engagement and a sense of wanting to be in charge of their own and their country’s future.
Now that Iran is being cautiously welcomed back, what are the preoccupations internally about how Iran will hold its own internationally?
Again I’m not there to assess that, but my sense is that this is a really delicate and important moment for the Islamic republic, and on the one hand, this opening presents a lot of opportunity. If you look at it from two sides, you have on the one hand the hardliners, and the deep state that Ayatollah Khamenei is at the head of, which does have a guiding ideological commitment to anti-Americanism and to maintaining Iran’s independence and its status as a bulwark against Imperialism, and then on the other hand you have the Rouhani team, which is much more pragmatic and sees Iran’s bread buttered perhaps on a different side. So these forces have not really come to a stable equilibrium, and one thing that we’re going to see is how they manage that, because I think there’s a sense that this opening, there’s no doubt about it, it’s perceived as positive inside Iran. And if that sanctions are lifted, and there is a period of economic recovery in Iran, because Iran has been through a lot economically in the past decade or so, so if you see a real positive economic benefit from reconciling in a sense with the Western powers over the nuclear deal, and if you see Iran being welcomed back at least to some extent into the community of nations and having a role that is less antagonistic in world bodies and so on, I think that’s going to be perceived very positively by the populous, which has really, for a long time—one of the words that you just always hear in Iran and I guess also elsewhere in the Middle East is dignity, and this is a great moment for the restoration of Iranian dignity on the world stage. So that’s something that probably everybody would like to take credit for, you would think.
But there is some concern, I think too, for the hardliners, that they don’t want to see Rouhani’s people taking all the credit for that, and they also don’t want to see Iran becoming overrun by Western influence, and I think that’s a very real concern to them. They have a lot of fear of what that would mean, and how that might weaken their hold on the levers of power. So I think there is right now a very real clash of internal forces in Iran, and we don’t know what the outcome of that is going to be, either for foreign policy or domestic.
The idea of dignity, restoring dignity or maintaining dignity, there’s a real strong sense here, Canada’s just been through a truth and reconciliation process with its Aboriginal people, and that’s part of the conversation around dignity, is reckoning with your past. I’m wondering, do you have any sense of that? You make reference in your book to the infamous summer of 1988, the two months where the state carried out thousands of executions and there are a variety of stories like that. Do you think that this restoration of dignity is going to be connected to that kind of reckoning in any way?
Sadly I don’t. I think for that kind of reckoning to happen, and I do think that kind of reckoning is ultimately going to be very, very necessary to national healing, but I don’t think that this opening, the resolution of the nuclear file and the lifting of sanctions and this international picture, I don’t think that this is really going to have any impact on that. I think for that to happen that requires a much deeper and more dramatic shift, and I don’t really see that happening under Ayatollah Khamenei.
Can you give us some sense of, what was that like the first time that you went to visit Iran, just in terms of your own experience there, what did you see, what was it like?
I went to Iran in the fall of 2004, before I ever went as a journalist, I went as a tourist, and that was in some ways wonderful, because I got a much longer visa than I would ever get as a journalist, and I was able to travel, and to see a lot of the country and it was revelatory in a lot of ways, it was also frustrating, because even tourism in Iran, at that time at least, was very heavily managed, and there was a lot I couldn’t see and a lot of people I couldn’t talk to. But I went back, in the summer of 2005, on a reporting trip for the New Yorker, and that was to cover the election, the presidential election that brought us Ahmadinejad, and that trip was really the one that burst the whole place open for me, and in some ways it would never had happened that way if I hadn’t also gotten to see the country from a different perspective earlier, but in 2005, I really got to talk to a lot of people and to see the country in a moment of real political interest, and I wish I could say it’s the kind of place that you set foot in and you immediately fall in love and in some ways it really should be, because it has everything, and there’s no place more interesting in the world and it’s culturally rich, and it’s beautiful and the food is great and people are hospitable and all of that is true. It’s also a really difficult and in many ways unpleasant place to be. So I found it to be a really complex experience. I’d never really worked or travelled in a place that felt so repressive, and that had as much tension running through it, so that was something I wasn’t totally prepared for and that made a big impression on me. But that combination of there being so much of interest and beauty below the surface, and of the surface being so hard to crack, was kind of irresistible.
The idea of living in a revolutionary society, is that still a sentiment that sits on the surface in Iran?
Not exactly, in the sense that the revolution, yes, for a lot of people who were born after 1979 and that is now a lot of the population, the revolution belongs to their parents and not to them. But that’s still living history, it’s very much alive history, and I think that one thing the revolution did that has been very interesting for Iran is that it gave people a sense of ownership over the state, even though the state kind of slipped their grasp very quickly. So there’s a sense I think that might be special, of a state that ought to belong to its people, and that rightly belongs to its people, and that fuels some of the, at least among the opposition the anger that the state does not seem to be responsive to its people, so I think that that is one of the legacies of revolution, and that sense of agency, and of the rightfulness of agency, whether or not it plays out in reality.
In terms of the revolutionary experiment itself, I think that one of the things that is worth emphasizing is just how unique the state is, that that revolution produced, that for Iranians to try to figure out how to navigate this system that they created after 1979, and how to leverage it to produce the kind of society and atmosphere that they want to live in, they don’t have models, they don’t have other places to look to say ‘This is how it’s done,’ they are looking at their own structures and trying to understand them, and to penetrate them, and it creates a political discourse that is in some ways alienating for those of us on the outside, it seems like there’s a cottage industry of specialists who are telling us what to think about Iran and how to understand its politics, because we can’t look at a frame of reference that feels familiar and understand it as anything like a parliamentary democracy, but I think that uniqueness is a legacy of the revolution as well.