Iran’s Quiet Revolution
As the standoff with the United States heats up, Iranians are united on nuclear policy, but little elsePhotography by Alfred Yaghobzadeh. Click here to see a larger image.
The bus rumbled along a highway in southwest Iran, passing a series of anti-aircraft batteries and rickety guard towers before pulling in through a checkpoint to the Bushehr nuclear plant compound. Having anticipated significant difficulties finding, much less nearing, the reactor, I stared in stunned silence at its dome. So much for state secrets. It glistened like a mosque.
I sat in the women’s section at the back, mentally drafting the travel brochure: “Welcome to Bushehr! Take our budget bus tour of the facility that has everyone talking!” One could imagine the collective synaptic energy emanating from Washington, London, Paris, and Bonn, striking the gleaming white dome like flint sparks. Yet to my fellow travellers—locals being taken to their homes surrounding the plant, weary labourers half asleep in the men’s section, women in the brightly coloured layers traditional in the Persian Gulf—it was just an average day in a quiet Iranian fishing village where nothing much happens. They didn’t even look out the window.
We passed a sign that welcomed “Dear Guests” to the reactor’s information centre, but the bus tour was just as good: no security shakedown and all for less than a dime, round trip. Plus it ran past the ocean, providing a stellar view of the Persian Gulf and a lung full of sea air. What more could one ask of a nuclear power plant tour
So much has changed since the Bushehr reactor was launched in the early 1970s with the enthusiastic endorsement of the United States. Whether it will ever produce weapons-grade fissile material is open to question, but thirty years ago the Ford administration (at the urging of Westinghouse and other US companies, which stood to make billions as suppliers) agreed to sell the Shah of Iran a full nuclear fuel cycle, thereby providing all the ingredients necessary to make nuclear weapons. Then as now, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld held key national security portfolios and Paul Wolfowitz was in charge of stemming nuclear proliferation. According to Henry Kissinger, who was privy to the agreement, that subject never came up.
The deal dissolved after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when the uprising’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, deemed nuclear weapons “un-Islamic” and halted the program. For twenty-five years, the issue of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and ambitions was of no great concern. Today, they are deemed a threat to the West, while within Iran the pursuit of nuclear energy has become a powerful symbol of national identity.
On the other side of Bushehr, among the salt-encrusted fishing vessels, I chatted with a woman in her thirties, a pleasant-faced housewife in a flower-patterned chador. “Come to my home, “she said, leading me through a labyrinth of mud brick alleyways. The walls of her home were painted turquoise, the colour of the sea. Inside was her husband, an invalid, thin and drawn, unable to walk. He talked of the wounds he had sustained in the war with Iraq—a war that spanned the 1980s and claimed a million lives. Taking my hand, he pressed it into the missing flesh of his thigh. He had endured countless surgeries, but he and his wife were able to have a child—a delicate eight-year-old son, their greatest joy.
We sat on carpets drinking hot tea and eating oranges as a ceiling fan lazily nudged the sultry air. To be in an Iranian home is to enter a private garden where the problems of the outside world recede. So much of what the world knows about Iran is distorted, enslaved by the past or, in the present, by war-on-terrorism rhetoric. I wondered how this family would fare in the event of a military strike on their neighbourhood reactor. Would they so readily invite a foreigner home
Iran is a complex, even contradictory nation, and in the context of rising tensions and a growing threat of war, the lens through which the West and the Islamic republic view one another has become dangerously blurred. For the West, Iran is a nation of wild-eyed zealots shouting the familiar refrain of marg bar Amrika—death to America. It’s an image Iranian authorities have not hesitated to promote in their efforts to quell internal dissent and present the outside world with the image of a fearsome, loyal populace. Yet Iran has changed remarkably in the quarter century since the Islamic revolution, and such reductionist images are deceiving.
The war with Iraq was unsettling for many reasons, not least of which were American support for Iraq and weapons sales from the West that served to arm both sides. After a period of uneasy transition, the election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997 ushered in an era of social liberalization that proved to be transformative. Expats were lured back, satellite television and the Internet seized the popular imagination, and in Iran’s cities, at least, a repressive, closed society opened its doors. If current military threats have had little impact on the population, the juggernaut of Western cultural hegemony is an altogether different matter. Having adopted (or adapted) many of “our”ways, Iranians today know far more about the West than the West knows about them.
The mutual mistrust between the administrations of Iran and the US is illustrated by their reciprocal epithets: the Axis of Evil versus the Great Satan (or the “Global Arrogance,” as Iran’s leaders now refer to America). Among certain American politicians, there are mounting fears that the “mad mullahs” are on the verge of obtaining the bomb, potentially annihilating Israel (though of course this could annihilate the Palestinians in the process), and strengthening Iran’s role as a regional power. Meanwhile, Shia leaders with strong ties to Iran have risen to power in Iraq, a result that should have been anticipated but wasn’t. The Iranian government nonetheless sees itself surrounded by hostile forces: an American-occupied Afghanistan; a nuclear-armed Pakistan; and Iraq, a fractious nightmare where Americans forces are constructing permanent military bases and the world’s largest US embassy—reportedly the size of Vatican City. Iran’s leaders fear an aggressive Israel and its undeclared nuclear arsenal as well as America’s desire to see not only change, but regime change.