/ 14 January 2008

Life behind closed curtains

The scenes of boisterous revelry would not have been out of place in a crowded nightclub. In time to a throbbing beat, men and women of varying ages danced with a sensuality and abandon at odds with their surroundings.

For this frivolity was taking place not on a dance floor, but in the passageway of an Iranian bus on a seemingly humdrum cultural excursion from Tehran to the western city of Hamedan.

Denied a more appropriate venue by rigid Islamic regulations that forbid dancing in public, the passengers turned the coach into a travelling disco. Drawing the curtains to keep their illicit activities hidden, women discarded their obligatory overcoats and hijabs before letting their hair down for an uninhibited knees-up.

The unlikely setting was deeply symbolic of modern Iran, where what you see on the surface is often not what you get.

To the outside world, Iran is a religiously devout Islamic republic in the grip of a rigidly ascetic revolutionary ideology. But that image conceals a multitude of surprises and wells of pent-up energy.

Such insights gained from surreptitious glimpses beneath the surface of this bewildering and contradictory country will be lost to me from now on.

Kaleidoscope of memories

After nearly three years, I am leaving Iran. Having arrived fortified only with superficial snippets of knowledge gleaned from books, I depart with a kaleidoscope of memories and images, a limited but (I like to think) rapidly expanding grasp of Farsi and an Iranian wife.

The austere image fostered by the Islamic authorities is very different from the Iran I know. Far from being the religious monolith projected by the regime, it will be forever associated in my mind with glorious food, dancing, dramatic landscapes, dazzling mosques and stunningly beautiful women. My departure is involuntary. The authorities have refused to renew my residence permit and have resisted all entreaties to reconsider.

The culture and Islamic guidance ministry, responsible for monitoring the activities of foreign journalists, provided no reason for the decision but a foreign ministry official told me I had been deemed guilty of negative coverage of “his excellency”, by whom he meant President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Whether it can be taken at face value, the explanation provides an illuminating counterpoint to Ahmadinejad’s protestations that the Islamic regime allows free speech and tolerates criticism.

In fact, the president’s description is an Orwellian inversion of reality. Under Ahmadinejad, the flame of relative glasnost tentatively ignited under the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami has been extinguished. Liberal-minded newspapers critical of the government have been closed and journalists jailed for misdemeanours ranging from printing “lies” to insulting Islamic mores. Criticism is not welcomed and is being met with decreasing tolerance.

This prohibitive atmosphere has spread to the rapidly dwindling foreign press corps and, in that context, my effective expulsion is hardly surprising.

Covering Iran has always been fiendishly complicated. Permission has to be sought for virtually all trips outside of Tehran; requests to visit sensitive border provinces such as Kurdistan and Sistan-Baluchistan are routinely denied. Information has long been hard to come by. The local English-language papers, providing a mixture of international wire reports and regime-spun propaganda, are rarely a source of news. Access to officials is virtually non-existent and interviews with important figures a pipe dream.

Yet when I arrived at the tail end of Khatami’s presidency, I joined a small and active community of Western correspondents, who were closely watched but relatively unmolested by the authorities. Having been virtually absent since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution, the foreign media had drifted back after Khatami’s landslide election victory in 1997, which seemed to promise a thaw in Iran’s relations with the West.

The dynamic changed after Ahmadinejad’s election in June 2005. Driven by fears of a United States military attack and a residual paranoia that suspected all Westerners as spies, the new president’s hardline administration put the spotlight on foreign reporters as never before. Resident press visa applications were denied, press cards were not renewed and correspondents were expelled on flimsy security pretexts.

Those reporters remaining were subject to harsher scrutiny. From personal experience, this could lurch from the Kafkaesque to the ridiculous. On a visit to an archaeological site that could hardly have been considered a security threat, a man in dark glasses — presumably from the the intelligence ministry — followed me with a video camera. Some months ago, I became aware that a camera had been trained on my front door after a contact in the Iranian student movement told me that during an interrogation intelligence agents had shown him photos of him entering and leaving my house.

A journalist’s dream

The irony of this Ahmadinejad-inspired clampdown is that the man himself is a journalist’s dream. His theatrical persona and blow-torch rhetoric have given a dramatic lease of life to a story that hitherto, while interesting, was largely dormant.

When I arrived, Iran’s nuclear programme was a source of Western concern but lacked the urgency of an international crisis. Khatami’s nuclear negotiating team had suspended uranium enrichment in a conciliatory gesture and the issue was essentially on the back burner. Coming from a background in the revolutionary guards and with a political philosophy rooted in messianic beliefs, Ahmadinejad transformed that scenario. Within days of his taking office, the country’s uranium enrichment programme had been re-started and within months he was boasting that Iran had joined the nuclear club and was not for turning back.

It may not have been all his doing; nuclear policy comes under the ultimate direction of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet it was Ahmadinejad’s polarising personality that converted Iran’s relations with the West, particularly the US, from simmering mistrust to outright conflict.

Internationally, Ahmadinejad has been viewed largely in the context of his views on Israel and the Holocaust, which was perhaps his intention as well as his just deserts. The Holocaust conference, staged at his behest and attended by an international rogues’ gallery of deniers, was an unmitigated disgrace. Yet depicting Ahmadinejad as a pantomime “new Hitler” bent on Israel’s destruction over-simplifies a complex, if misguided, political figure who does not lack sympathetic traits.

It may not redeem him in the eyes of his many critics, but his demagoguery and ignorance of Western history are often leavened by a capacity to be funny, intentionally or not. It is hard not to laugh about a politician brazen enough to offer his services as a US presidential election observer. There is also something reassuringly human about a man so sensitive to mockery that he orders aides to monitor SMS jokes circulating about him.

His more humane impulses manifested themselves in a desire to deliver “justice” to the poor, expressed in a pre-election promise to bring oil wealth to people’s tables and in a chaotic mix of measures, such as mandatory wage rises for the low-paid and awarding “justice shares” in state-owned companies to low-income families.

None of these redeeming features amounts to sufficient qualification to be president and they are offset by a darker side. Ahmadinejad’s chaotic economic management has triggered an inflationary spiral that is crippling the middle classes and threatens to deliver his goal of economic justice in the unintended form of a more even spread of poverty.

Strikingly for a man so keen on displaying his spiritual leanings, his pre-occupation with justice does not appear to extend beyond the economic or material realm. He seems to have no room for human rights, which have deteriorated alarmingly during his presidency. In the past year, the number of executions has soared while scores of women and student activists have been arrested and some allegedly tortured in detention.

Yet it would be wrong to conclude from all this that Ahamdinejad is mad or evil. As the reformist politician Saeed Hajarian explained to me months ago, the president’s beliefs and governing style are rooted deep within the traditions of Iranian society. Those traditions are religious and rural in origin. They are held dear by millions of Iranians. At their core is a fear of many aspects of the modern world that are taken for granted in the West.

The new and the old

This was lost on me when I first arrived in Tehran. The city’s concrete modernity, stylishly attired population, the ubiquity of mobile phones and myriad other contemporary features all conspired to delude me into believing that, despite more than a quarter-century in isolation, this was a country at home in the modern world.

It was a mirage. Iran is a country still in thrall to the past, I gradually discovered. While Tehran’s affluent northern suburbs display an alluring modern edifice, tradition — far more than religion — is the true bedrock.

It refers not just to a few quaint customs rooted in a bygone age, but to much of what Iranians live by today.

The Farsi word for tradition, sonnat, also explains Ahmadinejad’s intolerance of press freedom and dissent, which stems from Iran’s traditional tendency towards authoritarianism.

Yet change is coming and its key agent may well be the very man charged with holding it back. For the past two years, Ahmadinejad and his revolutionary guard backers have been preparing for war. But that prospect seems to have receded after this month’s report from 16 US intelligence agencies concluded that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons programme four years ago. Ahmadinejad hailed the report as a victory, but in the absence of looming war as its defining raison d’être, his team has to come up with a programme for peace.

There is little evidence of such a plan, but unless he finds one fast, the radical president could be washed away in a tidal wave of economic problems of his own making. If so, events may show him to have been an essential catalyst to political change by demonstrating the limitations of Islamic radicalism.

Iran is desperately in need of a sustainable political consensus.

Ahmadinejad’s narrow ideology is incapable of delivering that. The nation’s culture is too varied and too vital to be wrapped up inside religion alone. — Â