Tehran's Two Worlds

By David Ignatius
Friday, September 8, 2006

TEHRAN -- At the end of a 10-day visit here, I am struggling with a question: Is the Iranian revolution of 27 years ago following the normal arc of history and moving toward a rational and stable society? Or is this country still exploding with radical energy and a desire to export its revolution to other Muslim nations?

The answer, I'm afraid, is that while Iran is maturing as a nation, the heat of the Islamic revolution is still intense -- and dangerous. This should be Iran's moment, in which this big, dynamic country claims its place as the region's dominant power, with commensurate responsibilities. But its leaders seem unable to make the compromises that would lock in Iran's gains. They have an "up" staircase toward confrontation but not a "down" staircase toward agreement.

The standoff over Iran's nuclear program is dangerous in part because the Iranians are counting on the West's prudence to save them from their own actions. You hear over and over again versions of a comment made at a conference here by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Reza Sheikh-Attar: "Why won't America attack us? Because we consider that America is not naive enough to do that."

Iran is one of the most surprising and confounding countries I've visited. It's more modern than one expects, more open, more diverse. You hear conflicting opinions on almost every topic -- from different factions within the government, the clergy, the media, the business community. This isn't North Korea or even China, where a ruling party enforces consensus. At the center of the Iranian government is a black hole, a group of senior clerics whose decisions are wrapped in mystery. That's the essence of the problem -- there are so many competing factions, and so many checks built into the system, that sometimes nobody seems to be steering the ship of state.

Which is the real voice of the country -- the fulminating rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the measured tones of Iranian parliament member Kazem Jalali, who insists in an interview that Iran is ready for negotiation with the West? Is it the gravelly sermon of Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who leads the crowd of worshippers in chants of "death to America" at Friday prayers at Tehran University? Or is it the learned discourse of Grand Ayatollah Yusuf Saanei, who tells me in his seminary at Qom that he favors dialogue with the West and that in today's Iran, "there is talk of human rights everywhere you go."

You sense this split personality in the two worlds of Tehran, north and south. In the apartments of the Iranian elite in North Tehran, the headscarves and matronly manteaux of the women disappear and the conversations are as animated as anything you might hear in Paris or London. This is post-revolutionary Iran.

An example of this progressive Iran is Rajab Ali Mazrooei, who heads the association of Iranian journalists. His own son was arrested for running one of the thousands of Internet blogs here, yet he insists that despite Ahmadinejad's zeal, "the whole society is moving toward freedom and democracy."

But in the sprawling slums of South Tehran, where Ahmadinejad draws his power, the revolution seems very much alive. I visited the famous martyrs' cemetery south of the city and encountered Mohammed Rashidi, 73, standing over the grave of his son Jaafar, who died 20 years ago in the Iraq-Iran war. "We have no problem with another war starting," he says. "Iran is powerful. Martyrdom is its slogan." From the cemetery, the wealthy suburbs of North Tehran are barely visible in the afternoon haze -- distant, another world.

Iran's business leaders know that in a globalized economy, Iran needs foreign investment. "Growth is closely related to cooperation with the international economy," says Ali Naghi Khamoushi, the president of the Iranian chamber of commerce, at a conference for foreign investors here. But after 27 years, Iran is used to going it alone, and business leaders don't seem especially worried about sanctions. Indeed, Iranians see a perverse economic benefit in defying the international community. "If we cooperate, oil is $7 a barrel. If we don't, it is $70," former defense minister Ali Shamkhani observes at the investment conference.

Upon leaving this puzzling country, I ask myself what policy would make sense for America and its allies. The best answer may be the same one George Kennan proposed in 1947 for countering a rising Soviet Union: a policy of containment -- backed by the threat to use military force -- that seeks to limit the damage Iran can do while its revolution runs its course. Kennan's version of containment worked because the Soviets believed America's military threat was real. The Iranians I met seem to doubt it. Oddly, that calm attitude is what worries me most.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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