• Lost and Found in Iran

    May 31, 2018 // 6 Comments »


    I’m just back from eight days in Iran. Before my trip the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear accords, and while I was in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad, officially moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.


    Inside Iran I spoke with fearful students, anxious Foreign Ministry officials, and clerics seemingly pleased they’d been right, Americans could not be trusted. We’ve empowered the wrong people, a perfect circle of shouting at the very folks who might have helped lower the nuclear temperature.

    Among students there is deep frustration at not participating in the world, and a desire to engage. The universities I visited had foreign students from China, but no one from the United States. One man who had never left Iran spoke English with a scarred Southern accent, admitting he got his start with an DVD of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” his father brought home from an now-ancient business trip. The Trump visa ban which meant he’d never travel, to be able to “sip the water” as he said, was a personal affront to a man who loved from afar. The students I met are not people who’ll take the streets for John Bolton, demanding regime change. Nowhere did I feel any of the sense of panic, crisis or disruption American pundits speak of. These kids want to see LA.


    People from the Foreign Ministry expressed frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why the U.S. still questions the legitimacy and stability of Iran’s government. “The Americans everywhere seem to have quit trying,” one said. There was much talk about Russia and China, little confidence the Europeans would fight the American sanctions, and a sad resignation moderates would not be able to overrule the hardliners again on foreign policy for a long time. “The door you came through to Iran,” one said, “is open but it’s Russians and Chinese who seem to want to come in.”

    Trump’s terms for a new agreement – basically the old agreement plus restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles plus restrictions on Iran’s overseas military efforts plus extending the nuke terms indefinitely plus unlimited inspections – are the equivalent of pre-burned bridges.

    The missiles are central to Iran’s defense. Memories of the 1980s Iran-Iraq missile war, which saw devastation across multiple cities, run 9/11-deep. Detailed talk of Iran’s efforts in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere was too much for our conversations, but the implication was there was no way to curtail such efforts while the U.S. had boots on the ground in the same places. An open-ended treaty to replace one the U.S. reneged on? Unlimited inspections in response to the U.S. breaking a deal negotiated in good faith? Who would accept such terms, the diplomats laughed.


    But my search for people empowered by American actions was not a long one. From a reception side-chat, to a fully-sanctioned speech, to a sermon at the central mosque, the clerics conveyed a single message: we told you so. We told you the Americans could not be trusted. We told you not to listen to those in Iran who sought moderation. Regime change? Why, we’re the ones who were right.

    The theocratic regime seems intellectually stronger than ever in its position. Trump’s actions frightened America’s natural friends inside Iran. His terms for “progress” are designed instead to force failure abroad to look tough at home. Instead of an era of transition (one builds on previous agreements, not trashes them), Iran may kick-start its nuclear program. Teheran’s hegemonic efforts remain untouched. Iran’s missiles still reach Jerusalem. Russia and China are teed up as the good guys. Europe is wandering circa pre-Iraq invasion 2003. In the streets of Mashhad, there seemed no way forward.

    But me, I was at the airport again. Turkish Airlines had lost my luggage, and along with a new German friend I had met at the hotel and an Iranian translator, I had a mission: find my suitcase. It’s not like I was trying to negotiate a nuclear accord or something, I just needed my boxers.

    I lost the first round of negotiations after finding Turkish Airlines had no ground staff in Mashhad and the “local” number rang through to a nightmare multilingual phone tree where, after roaming charges approaching the cost of a cruise missile strike, I was told to submit a lost luggage form from a web site I couldn’t access. Technology wasn’t the answer. I was going to have to do this with the Iranians.

    The taxi driver sluiced through an airport police checkpoint announcing he had a foreigner with lost luggage, damn the hardliners in the security booth. First stop was the wrong terminal. Most of the lights were out, but there was plenty of parking so we tried there. In fact, the airport was surrounded by miles of parking lots, enough to fill with thousands of cars but mostly filled with puddles from afternoon showers. The terminal doors were unlocked but no one was inside absent a handful of local people who might have arrived and missed their rides, or were waiting for another day, or perhaps just lived there.

    Back outside, the taxi driver explained we should try the other terminal, the one with the lights on he hadn’t driven to. It would take him some time to navigate the complex airport roads, so instead he suggested we walk there and he’d follow later in the taxi. Decouple the problems, be practical, got it. Unburdened by luggage of course, we cut across a field and yet another parking lot.

    A woman at an information counter, after reacting as if no one had ever asked her for information before, directed our inquiry down several flights of stairs. We stumbled into an office with a lone cop blasting through TV channels so quickly you’d have guessed the button pushing was responsible for keeping his heart beating. The cop paused on a Korean period drama translated into Farsi. Hands up? Nope, we were redirected to the state airline Iran Air. The bureaucrats would know.

    Under stern photos of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader, three Iran Air employees, two already grinding prayer beads while the third stubbed out a cigarette, stared me down. Tired, I ignored my German friend’s small talk to demand an answer – where the hell was my suitcase!


    I might as well have brought up Trump unilaterally pulling the United States out of the 2015 nuclear deal or moving the embassy to Jerusalem or George W. Bush lumping Iran into a made-up Axis of Evil or the support for Saddam Hussein in his missile wars against Iran or the 1988 American shoot down of a civilian Iranian airliner killing 290 passengers or the U.S. support for the Shah’s secret police or the 1953 CIA overthrow of Iran’s secular, democratically chosen leader, or…

    My German friend stopped me. With the Iran Air staff he brought up mutual goals; a lost suitcase jumbling around the airport was no good for anyone. We didn’t need to be friends, we needed to solve a problem together. There’d be other nights to figure out whose fault it was, why no one answered the phone, why the office to find suitcases was located four stories underground. Sometimes a suitcase is a suitcase and with a little goodwill we found a solution. And my boxers.

    If I had a geopolitical wish to make, it’d be that some expensive Trump luggage got misplaced in Mashhad. You can learn a lot there.


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    Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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    Posted in Iran, Trump

    Message from Iran; Mike Pompeo is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

    May 28, 2018 // 10 Comments »



    Iran is a dangerous place these days, at least in a car. Traffic here moves like Tetris, with drivers pushing their way into any open space they think will fit. Trips begin in chaos and play out in confusion. How it ends is always up to God’s will, everyone says.

    In Iran I met with students at Mashhad University, Ferdouse University, and at a woman’s educational institute, as well as with visiting scholars from Tehran. Just before my trip the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear accords, and while I was in the northeastern city of Mashhad, officially moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. All at the start of Ramadan. These events were tracked in Iran as closely as World Cup scores, though absent celebration.


    It was not hard to learn students’ opinions. “What does America want from us? To force us to negotiate? We did, we agreed, already, in 2015,” said one student. “Regime change — do Americans even know we vote for our government here?” said another. In answer to a question, a grad student responded “The Shah we overthrew, yes, but he was not selected by the Iranians, you installed him. Trump and Bolton (the two names are almost always mentioned in one slur of mispronunciation) want us to change our government? And why do they think we will, because you make it harder for us to purchase western goods?”

    Two American Studies students likely headed to government jobs collectively translated a local idiom into “Who can sail an ark on such waters?” when asked if perhaps smarter, more targeted sanctions might move Iran to negotiate a new accord. “Who would we send to talk? The hardliners? Trump just told them they were right in 2015 when they said not to trust America. President Rouhani? He doesn’t have the power anymore –” There was a sharp side discussion in Farsi before one student corrected his peer to say “The President doesn’t have the power under the Constitution he meant, yes.”

    People have reasonable access to information. Web tools such as VPNs get around government blocks. Instagram and Facebook are popular. You can watch the latest superhero movies on smuggled Blu-Ray. The ban on popular social media app Telegram is seen as just an inconvenience to make “old people,” perhaps a euphamism for the hardliners, feel better. But there is an absence of counter-balancing physical presence to the rhetoric, theirs from New York and ours from places like Mashhad.

    So despite the facts, conclusions are often amiss. Opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia is the west using culture to attack morals — “Hollywoodism.” Israeli soldiers broadcast pornography into Muslim homes, and a well-known western media magnate is secretly creating child sex movies in Farsi. Israel drives American foreign policy, the group MEK (Bolton again) is behind every bush. America demands a unipolar world which excludes Iran. And it is no conincidence American decisions favoring Israel were pushed into Muslim faces at the start of Ramadan!

    There is little sense of the powerful role American domestic politics played in moving the embassy to Jerusalem, faint awareness of the evangelical voting bloc. Instead, American actions are evidence of… everything. Iran is a nation under attack. Iranian efforts to reach out to the United States are slapped down, the time between reach and slap a measure only of the degree of duplicity. The students expressed an ongoing concern the United States wants to destroy them. That America has since decades before they were born wanted to destroy them. These students are terribly familiar with the United States while terrified of it. Too many sat with me in a quiet room at a university named after a famous ancient poet and worried other Americans will someday come kill them. It is absurd to imagine these young people taking to the streets for reigime change with the immediacy you’d think they had if all you watched was cable TV news in the United States.

    Outside, in Mashhad city, there were no demonstrations, no flag burnings, and visiting the central mosque here after Friday prayers more people were interested in a selfie with a foreigner than anything else. This is a religious city, home to the sacred shrine of the Eighth Iman, but you would be wrong to think things are measured more evenly on these streets than in Tehran by everyone.

    The clerics were harsh. One looked me up and down like I was an unappealing meal before politely explaining the goal of burning the American flag is to “end the state.” On the wall behind him was a photo of the Statue of Liberty holding a Menorah, another showing Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu in jail. In a stemwinding speech, an important cleric stated the European Union is breakable by an Iran-China-Russia bloc. Zionist banks control the media. There is a dictatorship of the United Nations, Hollywood, and the International Monetary Fund.


    People from the Foreign Ministry spoke in more measured tones of a deep frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why 40 years after the Revolution that created Iran’s complex democratic theocracy the United States still questions its legitimacy and stability. The anger from America, one older diplomat said, was like a phantom itch people who have lost limbs sometimes experience, left from some past, stuck in the present, an itch there is no way to make go away. “Do you want this to all fail?” he asked, sweeping the room with his arm. “The Americans everywhere seem to have quit trying.”


    Iran is an odd silk road. The air is a mix of honeysuckle, saffron, and diesel exhaust. Aside from the ubiquitous American sodas, somehow immune from sanctions (ordered here by color — red for Coke, white for Sprite, orange for Fanta), there are few products from home to crowd out the Chinese names alongside LG, Peugeot, Samsung, and Sony. Things are modern and extraordinarily clean, but at the same time worn, and when you look closely, patched and often repaired. The past, both 5,000 years ancient and in more recent images of the Revolution, is omnipresent in posters and murals.

    It would be naive to think a place as complex as Iran could reveal itself in a short visit, but the people I encountered took that as their mission. They left me anxious trying to calm the fears of aspirational people now seemingly cut off from aspiration, while bad actors in Washington and locally fill their gaps in understanding. “Our future,” said one scholar, “is already forgotten.”

    Outside several of the students piled into a taxi and dove into the mad, mad traffic. You see people off here in the hope everyone gets where they need to go, because driving is always slow and often dangerous. It’s God’s will, everyone says.


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    Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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