For thousands of years, Iranians and those influenced by Persian culture have celebrated their new year at the first moment of spring. In Washington, it will take place just before 6 p.m. on March 20. The holiday is called Nowruz, which literally means “new day.”
The festivities are naturally all about rebirth, and there are several traditions that suggest an impulse toward self-improvement. Among them are the ritual of spring cleaning, and the fun (but potentially hazardous) custom of jumping over open flames to ward off evil spirits on the last Tuesday on the Iranian calendar, which this year is Tuesday, March 19.
While Nowruz doesn’t have a tradition of New Year’s resolutions, I’ve decided I’m going to start one. Why? Because I can.
In that spirit here are a few principles I think are worth aspiring to in the year to come:
1. Let’s stop trying to explain Iranian domestic politics through the lens of “hard-liners vs. moderates.”
For more than two decades, this is how most outside observers have tried to explain what’s going on in the country. But it turns out to be a pretty crude way of sorting out political alignments in a country governed by an absolutist view of religion. Viewed from a Western perspective, there is no such thing as a “moderate” in a theocratic system whose leaders are most concerned with maintaining divine law. There are no Jeffersonian Democrats there, and we should not expect one to emerge.
But those analysts who would have all Iranian politics reduced to the notion that all officials are identical in outlook are doing foreign observers a disservice. Instead I’m proposing an alternative framework that’s far more illuminating and easier to use.
It makes much more sense to classify Iranian political actors according to two types of worldview: insular or outward-looking. There are leaders who believe the Islamic republic operates best in isolation, and there are those who believe that the country needs to be more fully engaged with other countries, particularly Western ones. This is the real tension in the Iranian system.
One doesn’t have to support either to understand that those are the opposing forces within the regime in Tehran.
Acknowledging this obvious distinction would go a long way in creating an atmosphere of discourse that’s less emotionally charged and more conducive to solving the challenges that Iran presents.
2. Oppose both the Iranian regime and the Trump administration’s dangerous and disingenuous Iran policy.
Forget the either-or choice here. The Islamic republic is based on a bankrupt system that has no place in the modern world: It’s a theocracy that is more unpopular than ever among its own people, in part because it derives its legitimacy from a revolution that has long exhausted its relevance as well as an exceedingly narrow view of religion that is out of step with what many now believe.
The regime is a brutal autocracy. It executes more people per capita than any other government in the world. It practices gender apartheid. It denies the rights of all minorities, which means anyone who is not a Shiite Muslim. It suppresses expression. It jails — without due process — all it perceives as threats. Its leaders openly abuse their power by stealing from state coffers and exerting power over all of society, and they do so with impunity.
Yet the Trump administration’s current Iran policy serves only to frustrate the Iranian people’s quest for a freer and more open society. Economic sanctions, blanket travel bans and other measures supposedly intended to isolate the Iranian regime end up isolating its people. The policy is inhumane, short-sighted and unlikely to result in Iranians achieving a better future.
3. Align with Iranian women.
When in doubt, side with Iran’s women who have struggled — against countless obstacles — to create opportunities for themselves. Women in Iran have made vast advancements in education and in the workplace in recent years. They hold all the same jobs as men and are less prone to the societal ills, such as drug addiction and financial corruption, that plague their male counterparts.
Women are denied real power, but they have always been on the front lines whenever Iranian civil society tries to push for change.
The regime’s brutal treatment of heroic human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been flogged and sentenced to 38 years in prison for defending women’s right to choose whether they cover their heads, should spur people everywhere to stand with Iran’s women in demanding equality.
4. Eat more Iranian food.
A case can be made that the cuisine of any country is the best in the world. I’m not going to do that here. Instead, I simply encourage you to try the food of Iran. There are several good restaurants in the D.C. area serving the food of Iran. If you have an Iranian friend, try to get yourself invited to their home.
When you try it, I hope what you’ll find is food that is deeply flavorful, fragrant, colorful and not like anything else you’ve ever tasted. It’s complex and varied; it’s not one thing. That’s a pretty good description of Iran and its people at home and in the diaspora, and I hope it gives you one more reason to dig a little deeper into the culture.