Demystifying Iran, a complex country of contradictions (Column: Bookends LXXVII)

By Vikas Datta (08:57) 

Winston Churchill once described Russia as a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” – which is what most people recall – but he also went on to say “…but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest”. This quote also seems valid for another long misunderstood country: Iran.

What do we make of this perplexing country where crowds shout “Death to America” but was the only Islamic one in West Asia to have spontaneous memorials on 9/11? One proud of its long and illustrious history and culture but where the president lives on a street named after Louis Pasteur?

A country with a fairly open, modern society despite the presence of significant conservative and religious elements including clerics most dogmatic (but also considerate and pragmatic), a democracy with anti-democratic features like prior vetting of electoral candidates and an unelected leader with unimaginable powers, one where women are subject to a most restrictive dress codes (still managing to be fashionably chic!) but also comprise over half of university students, and are very visible in the workforce, with cultural traits that societies used to directness deem evasion and hypocrisy but the Iranians themselves (and many other peoples) term “good manners”.

There is no dearth of books on Iran – histories, analyses, travelogues, memoirs and so on – by both Iranians (natives and diaspora) and foreign writers. For a comprehensive history, take British diplomat-turned-scholar Michael Axworthy’s “A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind” (2008) and “Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic” (2013). For modern Iran, the distrust of West (especially their governments) can be understood from American journalist Stephen Kinzer’s “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror” (2008) and the 1979 Islamic Revolution’s context and success from Roy Mottahedeh’s “The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran” (1986).

Some incisive autobiographical accounts include Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” (2000), Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi’s “Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope” (2006) – along with Azadeh Moaveni, who herself wrote: “Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran” (2005) and “Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran” (2009).

But for a perceptive account of what makes Iran tick, what do its people believe, what role Islam and clerics play in life and society, then the best person to turn to is Iranian-American journalist and author Hooman Majd.

The grandson of an ayatollah, a relative of former president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, and otherwise connected in a way to the establishment, Majd has a stated goal to shed light on the elusive “truth about Iran” and his three works go a long way in meeting his objective – though a definite, personal point of view (and to be fair, he never claims otherwise).

The first “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran” (2008) is a masterly examination of Ahmadinejad and his presidency as well as key principles of the Iranian psyche including “haqq” or rights, “gholov” or boastful exaggeration and “ta’arouf” or equally boastful politeness and self-deprecation. With its woman taxi drivers and dispatchers, opium-smoking clerics, T-shirt-clad teenagers, and fibre optic internet connected seminaries, the book dispels many stereotypes. Of these, the most revealing one can be the conservative Ayatollah Lankareni’s response to a young overseas follower confessing a “sin”: “Repent, and don’t do it again.”

Majd follows up with “The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge” (2010) about the controversial 2009 presidential elections, the protests that followed and the internal political dynamics – all framed in various versions, including opposites, of the supposed dictum of Hassan-i-Sabbah, the founder of the feared Hashshashins (or the Assassins): “Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted.”

“The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran” (2013) is more personal, about their experiences when he, with his American wife and infant son, moved to Iran for a year in 2011.

What Majd brings out is that Iran should be considered in its own, rather than as part of a “Muslim world” or the Middle East and is more sophisticated and affluent than some people think, knowledge of the Shia faith and its ethos is crucial to understanding the country and this will remain a part of politics and society, the regime does enjoy quite a bit of support, no sudden political change seems likely – the only thing youth want is more social freedom and their elders, more economic stability.

Time these are understood in dealings with Iran (and the last by its leaders)!

(02.08.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


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