After our visit to Tehran a couple of weeks ago, we wanted to share some of our observations. We highlight six points, in particular.
First, we are struck by how much hope was invested in President Obama by a wide range of Iranians—from students to senior officials and other important elites. Iranians were positively impressed by Senator Obama’s courageous campaign stand in favor of U.S. engagement with the Islamic Republic, which stood in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton’s threat to “totally obliterate” Iran. Like people in many other parts of the world, Iranians were struck by the election of the first African-American President of the United States, and by the many unique and compelling aspects of Barack Obama’s personal story. The Tehran University graduate students in American studies with whom we spent time told us that both of Obama’s books had been required reading in some of their classes. Moreover, we saw that Obama’s books were available in Persian translations, making them accessible to a much wider Iranian audience. Even today, Iranian policymakers and other elites seem strongly inclined in private conversation to draw a distinction between Obama the individual—who is still seen as a highly intelligent and basically good man—and the American political system of which he is a part. (And, of course, Obama’s name provides the basis for an Iranian pun—ū bā mā means “he is with us” in Persian.)
Second, Iranian policymakers and other elites believe that their government tried to respond positively to President Obama’s early efforts at rhetorical outreach to the Islamic Republic. In this regard, our Iranian interlocutors underscored the significance of the public remarks made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei two days after Obama issued his Nowruz message last March. Perhaps most importantly, Khamenei said in these remarks that, if the United States were to change its behavior toward the Islamic Republic, the Islamic Republic would change its behavior as well. Our Iranian interlocutors emphasized that this statement represented a calculated and rapid response to Obama’s Nowruz message from the Islamic Republic’s highest level of authority. Some of our interlocutors pointed out that Khamenei’s formulation—which left it up to Obama to determine what “change” in American behavior he was prepared to pursue—was deliberately crafted to maximize Obama’s room to maneuver.
Third, we are struck by how much disappointment there is among Iranians that Obama now appears unwilling and/or incapable of changing U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic. We wrote last week about the corrosive effect that the perception of continuing U.S. involvement with groups such as Jundallah is having on Iranian assessments of the Obama Administration’s seriousness and good intentions. More broadly, from an Iranian perspective, there has been no substantively meaningful change in U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic during Obama’s presidency.
In some cases, this perception has sparked a rhetorical backlash against President Obama. This was perhaps most prominently displayed in January, when Mohammad Javad Larijani—a former parliamentarian and deputy Foreign Minister who is one of Iran’s leading physicists, head of the country’s human rights council, and brother to both the parliament speaker and the head of the judiciary—made a widely noticed statement while addressing the Islamic Society of Engineers in Tehran:
“When Barack Obama was sworn into office he talked of verbally engaging Iran. What has changed is that today the kaka siah [a racial term, described in some commentaries as ‘the equivalent of the N-word in Farsi’] talks of regime change in Iran…I am not a racist, but I must respond to this man somehow.”
Some of our interlocutors put this observation in a more structural context, expressing concern that the U.S. political system will not allow Obama—however well-intentioned he may be—to take America’s Iran policy in a fundamentally different direction, and that these structural constraints may be more acute for Obama because he is African-American.
Fourth, we believe even more strongly than before our trip that the Islamic Republic is in no way a society on the verge of fundamental political upheaval. Since the Islamic Republic’s presidential election last June, we have come under much criticism for arguing that Mousavi’s supporters in that election and the Green Movement which arose in the election’s wake did not represent a majority of Iran’s population. We were in Tehran just after 22 Bahman (February 11), the anniversary of the Islamic Republic’s founding, which was widely seen as a manifestation of the Green Movement’s attenuation and the extent of popular support for the Islamic Republic.
For all of the critical discussion of Ahmadinejad’s economic policies, Tehran stores are fully stocked, with a wide range of consumer goods and foreign products, including automobiles, personal computers, and high-end Asian electronics. Notwithstanding the global financial crisis that broke in the summer of 2008, Iran’s economy has not gone into recession and continues to grow. According to the IMF’s latest assessment of the Iranian economy, published last month,
“Iran’s economic performance was strong in recent years…at the same time inflation has declined significantly. The current account surplus is estimated to have remained strong in 2008-09 despite the drop in oil prices reflecting good performance in non-oil exports.”
Unlike virtually every other large Middle Eastern city, there are no visible signs of grinding poverty in Tehran—e.g., slum neighborhoods, beggars on the streets, etc.
Slowly and reluctantly, some of those who let themselves be swept up in a wave of enthusiasm for the Green Movement are beginning to acknowledge, however grudgingly, the accuracy of our analysis. (Our favorite example of this so far is a sentence in a recent article about us by Michael Crowley in The New Republic. While trying to muster as much criticism of us as he could, after summarizing our analysis of Iranian domestic politics since the June 12, 2009 presidential election, Crowley wrote, “It is not obvious that this analysis is wrong.”) Conversations and observations in Tehran confirm our assessment that the Green Movement’s social base is shrinking, not growing. We met a number of young people who claimed they had supported Mousavi’s presidential candidacy (and, in some cases, said they had participated in demonstrations against the results in the first few days after the election) but who now say they are deeply disappointed in Mousavi—in particular, for having continued protesting against the outcome after failing to produce evidence of electoral fraud.
There is no significant elite challenge to the current political structure. Mousavi is increasingly marginalized. Former President Khatami has been publicly silent of late. While we were in Tehran, the Islamic Republic’s Assembly of Experts—headed by former President and current chairman of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—convened for one of its regular, twice-a-year meetings. In his opening address, Rafsanjani—whom a number of Western analysts had mistakenly estimated would lead a behind-the-scenes effort to remove the Supreme Leader—said that
Fifth, Iranian assessments of President Obama’s seriousness and good intentions are also being negatively affected by the Obama Administration’s evolving positions on post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan and Iraq. With regard to Afghanistan, Iranian policymaking elites are appalled at the Administration’s willingness to engage the Taliban about prospective power-sharing with the Karzai government. As one of our interlocutors put it to us, “if you [the United States] want to make a deal with the Taliban, why did you come to Afghanistan in the first place?” Similarly, with regard to Iraq, Iranian policymaking elites are put off by the Obama Administration’s championing of the cause of former Ba’athists who have been disqualified from participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections. In this regard, one of our interlocutors said that the United States would lose all influence in Iraqi affairs if it continued to champion the cause of the disqualified Ba’athists. Iran, though, has such wide and deep influence in Iraq that it could work productively with virtually any of the Shi’a political slates.
Sixth, President Obama’s statement in his State of the Union address linking the Green Movement and grassroots efforts to promote the status of Iranian women strikes us as both ill-informed and misleading about the issues confronting women in the Islamic Republic. There are certainly restrictions on women in the Islamic Republic that we would challenge in our own society. However, it would be a serious mistake for the United States to base its Iran policy on a faulty premise that the Islamic Republic is a misogynistic political order which systematically represses women and that the United States should, therefore, seek to “help” Iranian women by promoting regime change.
As far as the status of women is concerned, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is also not Afghanistan. Women in the Islamic Republic vote and are represented throughout the Iranian government, including at the ministerial level. Women are now the majority of the students in many schools and departments in Iranian universities (including medical faculties); in the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran, which hosted us, women constituted a clear majority of the graduate students. Women hold faculty positions at Iran’s leading universities, including as department chairs at the University of Tehran. (We even saw a female bus driver in Tehran.) From our conversations with female graduate students at the University of Tehran, we got the impression that those women see themselves as having real choices in life—e.g., what to study, what profession to enter, etc. They also face dilemmas and challenges that would be very familiar to professional women in the United States today—such as how to find a husband who is as educated as they are.
The political views of Iranian women seem to cut across the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum. Certainly that was our impression of the political views of the educated, professionally-oriented young women we met at the University of Tehran. In this regard, Western polling data suggest that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad carried the women’s vote in the June 12, 2009 presidential election. While Western media exhibited a strong proclivity for posting pictures of Green Movement rallies in which women were prominently featured, a review of any reasonable sample of photos of “pro-government” demonstrations would suggest that at least as high a percentage of women were involved in those gatherings. (Perhaps the women captured in photos of pro-government rallies are somewhat more conservatively dressed than those in the Green Movement gatherings, but they were present in large numbers.)
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett