Sunday, December 11, 2011

Post #115 - Last Postcard from Tehran

This is the last of Professor Beeman's dispatches from Iran [my graphics added]:

Date: Mon, 28 Nov 2011 12:32:08 -0500

I write now from London after a long trip back from Tehran where we were stuck for five hours on the ground in Yerevan because of snow.

The traffic in Tehran on my last day was as bad as usual but the focus of the traffic jams has shifted from the Central city to the North. Niavaran and Tajrish seem to be the most crowded areas--the two metro lines and several new express bus lines having made the Central City nearly tolerable outside of rush hours.

Khodro auto plant
However, the cause of the biggest traffic jam was, we discovered, the Auto Show sponsored by Iran Khodro, the Iranian automobile manufacturer. It is scheduled to produce 850,000 vehicles in 2011 in six factories all over Iran. This output represents 65% of the Iranian vehicle market, and is the largest manufacturer in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. The exposition created hour-long jams on all the expressways in the northern part of the city. Iranians were always a little overenthusiastic about cars, but in a time of economic recession, this level of interest was still a surprise.

Several people have asked about "side conversations" at the Human Rights Conference. First, it should be clear that the conference was not sponsored by the government of Iran, though it was held at the foreign ministry -- really the foreign ministry graduate school. The Irish Center for Human Rights and the International Red Cross (which has an eight-story building in Tehran) were co-sponsors along with the Non-Aligned Movement Center for Human Rights, although the government probably did provide funds.

Whereas direct criticism of Iran's own human rights' record was clearly not part of the conference, it was obvious to everyone that that this was part of the agenda. Papers given by Iranians on education, women's rights, ethnic minorities, language policies, Islam and human rights, representative government, the exercise of "reason" in applying Islamic law, etc. all raised issues in general philosophical terms that were immediately pertinent to Iran. Only a very dense person would not see this. My own paper was on artists and freedom of expression stressing the need for tolerance for the artists' role in shaping public imagination. Approaching these topics obliquely allowed them to be discussed freely. Having that kind of discussion can only strike a blow for moderation.

In the corridors and meals I had many conversations with ministry graduate students and ministry employees. The ministry employees were most interesting. They made a point of telling me in one way or another that they were separate from or different as a unit from the judiciary or from the Revolutionary Guard. As a group that sees themselves as having a face on the world, looking out rather than inward, they emphasized that their perspective was toward Iran's relations with other nations. They see heavy-handed elements in Iranian society as "unfortunate and unnecessary" in one person's words. They spoke openly of Israel, and expressed a desire to visit sometime in the future "like our Jewish friends in Iran are able to do."

One long conversation dealt with the highest Iranian leadership. This was with a md-level ministry official who had taken off work just to come and talk with me. He said that in his opinion there would be changes in leadership, but probably not in the basic structure of government. His assessment of Ayatollah Khamene'i was to say: "We had an ideal leader in Ayatollah Khomeni, so it is to be expected that others may not always meet that standard," noting that the United States has had good and bad presidents as well. He showed some concern at the Revolutionary Guard, but not because of their military role -- it was due to their increasing control of the domestic economy. I noted that they seem to be "corporate sponsors" for most public events like concerts and exhibitions, and he said with a smile: "perhaps they think that they need some good public relations." It is both cute and curious that the events that the Guard members do sponsor all get some military or revolutionary title, like the "Revolutionary Art" exhibit going on, which for all intents and purposes was simply an exhibition of high-quality contemporary art. Generals X, Y and Z become benefactors and appear in photos and events' sponsorship rolls.

These students and ministry officials are much different than the ministry officials immediately after the Revolution of 1978-79 who were basically ignorant of the world and anything outside of their own narrow focus. These younger people are sophisticated, multi-lingual and largely foreign educated for part of their training. (This applies to young journalists as well). To a person they told me that they see better formal relations with the United States as essential for Iran's future and puzzle over the impasse that keeps it from happening. The nuclear issue is seen as completely irrelevant and "silly" according to one young woman. Since virtually all of them were born after 1979 their puzzlement at the impasse is perhaps no surprise. To my surprise many had heard of my book, The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs" etc. and urged me to "have it translated." "It is what we need to hear," said one graduate student.

We are seeing a rising generation of young leaders who are positively disposed to the West, yet deeply patriotic. They know much more about us than we do about them. I had several long conversations about the Republican presidential debates, for example. My partners in conversation knew all the candidates and their positions. They appreciated Ron Paul's stance on Iran, and decried Rick Santorum. They asked me why Paul Wolfowitz was asking questions in the last debate, given his discredited role in Iraq. How many Americans know Iranian politics in this detail?

I am now in London. We have a wonderful program planned at the British Museum on Wednesday, November 30 of new ethnographic films on the Persian Gulf. It will go most of the day. Anyone who is free should certainly try to come. It is free and open to the public.

As a final word, I sat next to a retired professor from the University of Toronto on my way from Tehran to London. He got on in Yerevan. Born in former Soviet Georgia, he had lived in many places including Africa. I asked him if he had been to Iran and he said that he wanted to go, but was afraid to, because he thought he might be arrested. I asked him why he thought that, and he said: "well don't they just arrest anyone there for any reason?" I asked him why he had such a notion, and he said: "well, that is what the press says all the time." I pointed out that he had just been in Armenia for two weeks, and that Armenia was considered one of the most corrupt countries on earth, and for that matter, what about Georgia? . He said, "I know all that, but Iran must be even worse--look what people say about it. Nobody talks that way about Armenia or Georgia."

William O. Beeman
University of Minnesota

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