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The Language of Regime

The journalist on the power of ideas in post-revolutionary Iran.

There is almost nothing more enticing than a mortal enemy. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, which resulted in the captivity of more than sixty hostages for 444 days, relations between the US and Iran have run the gamut from near war to mere fuming hostility. To Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, the US was the “Great Satan.” The sentiment was more than reciprocated by presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. The latter using Iran’s abuses of human rights and persistent threats to American interests and allies made for a perfect third angle to Bush’s infamous Axis of Evil.

If Americans and westerners at large are to move forward in their relationship to Iran and to Iranians, it is critical that our understanding of the country and its more than 77 million citizens evolves and deepens. There could not be a better time for New Yorker contributor Laura Secor’s Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran. The collection is a carefully woven story of Iran’s intellectual, political, and personal history. Secor details the influence that continental European philosophy of the twentieth century had on the leadership of post-revolutionary Iran, including Khomeini, and describes, in riveting detail, the struggle of other Iranian intellectuals to marry ideas like Marxism or analytic philosophy to Islam. Secor’s own understanding of foreign policy and crises was deeply influenced by her experience as a child watching the Iranian Hostage Crisis unfold on television. Seeing yellow ribbons tied around trees and witnessing the profundity of the international crisis had a lasting impact on Secor’s engagement with the world, and with the US’s role within it.

Besides extrapolating the intellectual ferment that continues to characterize Iranian culture, with its “special place for philosophy and for poetry,” Secor also addresses the Iran–Iraq War from a perspective that is at once historical and empathic, and offers many subtly composed, rigorously reported profiles of dissidents and the avenues through which they ended up in prison or in exile. Their stories form a constant drumbeat leading up to the book’s final sections, which focus on the climate following the conclusion of the 2009 “Green Movement” led by President Mohammad Khatami. The book’s detailed account of that time and its context is moving, dark in its realism, and never hopeless. I spoke to Secor about Iran’s intellectual and social history, and about what might be in store for a post-sanctions state. —Andrew Rose for Guernica

Guernica: I think you’d agree with me that most Americans, if asked for an example of a closed society, would put Iran somewhere on that list. But your book makes the case that it is inaccurate to characterize Iran in this way; there’s too much intellectual push and pull. Can you speak to this?

Laura Secor: One of the things that’s endlessly fascinating about the Islamic Republic is that it’s never succeeded in closing off that space. I think that’s a structural idiosyncrasy of the post-revolutionary state. The constitution was a constitution of compromise, and it was devised in a push and pull between Islamic liberals and Islamic radicals, and there’s a dimension of it that is theocratic, but there’s also a dimension of that state that’s republican. There has always been an unsettled space for contestation, and one of the things that my book documents is how the reform movement was probably the most serious challenge to the theocratic structure of the state that has emerged since the revolution. It was an intellectual challenge as well as a political challenge, and it also became an activist challenge because the space that opened up for intellectual challenge under President Khatami produced a generation of very engaged citizens.

It’s been fascinating to me to watch in the time that I’ve been close to this subject how even when movements and people and publications and ideas are suppressed, they have a way of popping back up again and again in different forms and through different avenues. I think that’s built into the nature of this regime, and you really would not say that of most autocratic regimes. The Islamic Republic is a really interesting system, and in some ways it is fiercely repressive, and in many ways it is a classic closed society, but it’s also—I don’t know whether it’s the society that’s irrepressible, or it’s the nature of the state that has this kind of filigree where you think it’s solid, and instead things keep bubbling up through it.

Shariati brought religious people to revolutionary ideas, and he brought revolutionaries to Islam, and that became the seed of the revolution.

Guernica: In Children of Paradise, you write about the philosophical differences between the early revolutionaries—people like Ali Shariati and Abdulkarim Soroush. Could you tell me about the way western philosophy, specifically this schism between analytic and continental philosophy, influenced Iranian thinkers?

Laura Secor: I think we sometimes have this mistaken impression, both [in Iran] and sometimes here as well, that we can neatly separate the world of ideas into ideas that originate in the West and ideas that originate in the East. One of the things that’s been really revelatory for me as I’ve been digging into this history in Iran is to see how intertwined these intellectual pathways really are. In Iran in particular, under the Shah, a lot of Iranians were sent to Europe to study. You had a lot of people who were going to university in England and France and coming back with ideas that they gleaned in that context.

But it really goes back even farther than that; there’s not really a totally separable intellectual tradition. And that may be true everywhere in the world. In Iran, one of the things that was very interesting was to see how, in the run-up to the revolution, you had, on the one hand, a lot of thinkers who were saying that western ideas had sprung out of western circumstances, and were not adapted to Iranian culture—there’s a sense of frustration around that; for instance, even textbooks that were being used in Iranian provincial schools were making reference to things that had nothing to do with Iran; they were coming from other countries—and, on the other hand, the ideas that were really current in the ’60s and ’70s were coming out of the European continental tradition. Particularly, existentialism was very popular. Marxism was very popular.

A lot of the ideas that were coming out of what we think of as the great tradition of Europe were being transmitted to Iran, and they got folded into an Islamist ideology, and that’s what interested me in those early chapters of the book. That is: how it was that those ideas that came together in the late ’70s was a kind of syncretic thing. Shariati is, in a way, the best example of that, because what he did that was really striking, and new, and potent, was that Marxism, leftism, was the popular language of resistance under the Shah. It was particularly deeply rooted in the universities under the Shah at that time, which were a redoubt of the urban, upper middle class. Shariati took those ideas and married them to Islam in a country where religion was much more of the common coin among ordinary people.

Not to say that the urban elites are not ordinary, of course. You have to remember that, at this time, the country was in flux ideologically; under the Shah, this great wave of urban migration has begun and a lot of traditional people from the provinces were coming into the cities and living next to these secular elites who were very alien to them. So Shariati didn’t argue that Marxism and Islam are compatible—he argued that all of the ideas that were best in Marx originated in Islam. He made a case for Islam itself, particularly Shiite Islam, as a revolutionary creed and an ideology in its own right. In order to do that, he almost had to reinvent the history of Shiism, but it was a very potent thing to do. Religious, traditional people suddenly were not people to be looked down upon by the Marxist activists on campus. They owned the revolutionary vanguard as their birthright because religion was a more native language to them. Shariati brought religious people to revolutionary ideas, and he brought revolutionaries to Islam, and that became the seed of the revolution.

Guernica: You mention Heidegger quite a bit; it seems like he and other philosophers like him were fairly well accepted by Ayatollah Khomeini. Is it correct to say that that was the institutional reading?

Laura Secor: One of the things that I really emphasize in the book is how important ideas are in this culture. This is a culture that has a special place for philosophy and for poetry. There is a part of the book that’s devoted to a kind of proxy battle between Heidegger and Karl Popper, which is something that’s happening in the ’90s between the reformists and the regime loyalists at that time. It’s really interesting to see the language of the regime: they’re very concerned with propagating certain ideas, suppressing certain ideas. That’s a very big part of the contest over the course of the country.

Guernica: Who was championing Karl Popper in Iran, and why was that seen as so threatening to people who would have preferred Heidegger or other more accepted philosophers?

Laura Secor: There’s a philosopher in the book named Abdolkarim Soroush who, early on, was an acolyte of Khomeini. He was coming not from the left but from what you could loosely call, in the Iranian context, the Islamic right. In the early, prerevolutionary days he was looking for a way to confront leftism, and to battle with it in the name of a more traditional Islamism. He was ill-disposed toward Shariati and toward the use of Marxist ideology to further the aims of Islam. He was a philosopher of science who was studying in England and he came upon the work of Karl Popper. Popper was originally Viennese, and he settled in Britain; he was also a philosopher of science, which is how Soroush originally came by him. He wrote a big treatise after World War Two called The Open Society and its Enemies. It was a scorched-earth attack on Marx. To Soroush it was very appealing because it provided a lot of tools to attack Marxism. Popper was a liberal—not exactly part of the positivist circle in Vienna, but related to it. That was not Soroush’s agenda when he took up Popper; his agenda was to take an axe to Marxism. He uses Popper’s ideas in that way at first, but over time Soroush does become increasingly liberal, and increasingly an advocate of the open society. But you see some of the language that appears in Popper come up very frequently throughout Soroush’s writing, and through the writings of his followers. Popper has been, in many ways, eclipsed in the philosophy of science in this country, but in Iran there was a big moment when Popper was probably the most written-about western philosopher in Iran.

Iran is such a fixture on our foreign policy horizon that our own policy options, and the question of how this all relates to us, has come to stand in for any knowledge of the country.

Guernica: You describe how the character of the Iran–Iraq War was such that Iraq was ready to capitulate in 1982 and Iran just kept going for six more years. It was interesting to note that, basically, the US wasn’t interested in the war that much; they just thought it would play itself out. And it feels like the US was totally uninterested in the interior of the country, at least starting after the revolution. I’m just thinking about the way the average person perceives Iran in this very flat way.

Laura Secor: In regard to the Iran–Iraq War, we were disinterested to the degree that there was this popular perception that it was two nasty countries and we don’t care if they fight each other to the last man. But to be fair, we did favor Iraq in that war, and we provided intelligence information to the Iraqis that was used in chemical weapons attacks. Yes, the Iranians continued fighting after they regained their territory, but if you look at it from their perspective they did feel besieged by the world and abandoned by everybody. That isn’t to justify anything, but from their vantage point the threat perception has to encompass that.

In terms of the flatness of the interiority of the country, I couldn’t agree more. We have a problem in this country—I don’t know whether it’s specifically in regard to Iran or if it’s just where I’m so focused, but Iran is such a fixture on our foreign policy horizon that our own policy options, and the question of how this all relates to us, has come to stand in for any knowledge of the country. And it’s not that it’s not available: we do have available information about what goes on inside of Iran. But the public discourse tends to center on our own image, and our own options. I think it’s dangerous, it’s obscuring, because it’s a country of 77 million people. It’s a really diverse, interesting place with a lot going on under the surface. Even putting aside what that means for American foreign policy, it’s a piece of human history that we fail to understand.

Guernica: The people at the core of your story have mostly fled the country. You describe what sounds like a very successful effort to destroy the intellectual discourse and the possibility of dissent that came up in the wake of 2009’s Green Movement. What does the future of Iranian liberal dissent or civil society look like? Is there a future for it right now?

Laura Secor: Predicting the future is a fool’s game. [laughs] My inclination is to believe that there’s always a future for it. I don’t think this is a passive country. The system itself, as I said before, generates space—whether it means to or not, and much to its own frustration, it generates space for dissension. I don’t think that’s going anywhere. What form it will take, and what avenues it will find, I don’t know. The idea of reform at the beginning was that they would use the electoral levers, they would use the republican dimension of the state to start to pry open a space for civil society and to make the country more representative, more open. The electoral levers turned out not to be as useful, or as available, as the reformists thought they were. That said, even conservatives who have been elected since then have often wound up in a similar position, confronting similar forces. There are real roadblocks that reside in the judiciary, and now, increasingly, the Revolutionary Guard—those are places that are not all that amenable to pressure. That’s a big problem for people in Iran to puzzle through and to resolve. The women’s movement in particular has been up against that.

Guernica: There’s a pretty arch part of your book when you talk about how near the end of his time in office Ahmadinejad was accused of fomenting velvet revolution—“couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” as you put it. If it could happen to him, it could happen to pretty much anyone.

Laura Secor: Here, again, I have really wondered to what degree some of the cyclical nature of this history has to do with structures reproducing the same dynamics over and over again. Ahmadinejad, of all people, by the end of his presidency, was being surrounded and pushed out and delegitimized and disempowered in the same way that Khatami was before him—for very different reasons maybe, but in some ways, toward the end, his circumstances started to look very familiar. [Current Iranian president Hassan] Rouhani’s a very different kind of character; we’ve only begun to see what he’s capable of, and what his relationship to the deep state is going to be. He came in with this foreign policy mandate, which he has acquitted very successfully. All along, from the domestic side, the expectation has been that once he concluded the nuclear negotiations, he would then have space to maneuver domestically, and to make good on some of his earlier campaign promises to open up that space. I don’t know what he can do there: he faces the same structural barriers that presidents before him faced, among them that even if he is in favor of loosening press restrictions, journalists are being arrested not by him, but by the judiciary or Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence or what have you. It’s not entirely within his control. Exactly how he leverages the power he does have, and whether he has the political will to do so, is something that’s going to determine a lot in the rest of his term.

Guernica: Why haven’t you been able to return to Iran?

Laura Secor: In 2009, the Iranian regime held the foreign press partly to blame for the post-election unrest, and for several years, no western reporters were admitted into the country. They started issuing visas again, very gingerly, in 2012. I was one of maybe half a dozen allowed into the country for the parliamentary election in 2012—I think it helped that I wasn’t on the ground for the 2009 events.

The 2012 visit was extremely tightly controlled, really under conditions no western correspondent could recall experiencing before in Iran. We were given very short visas, told we had a compulsory program of press conferences and the like, and bussed around in a group on two occasions, including election day. That afternoon, we were forbidden to leave our hotels. But there was some ambiguity as to exactly when this curfew was to end, or maybe, in retrospect, I chose to think there was: I went out that evening to conduct some interviews. I had only five days in the country, after all, to report a New Yorker story, which requires depth, and I had work to do. The next morning I was picked up by a couple of men in an unmarked car and brought to something like a police station for about three hours of hostile questioning. These people never identified themselves, but I believe for various reasons that it was the intelligence service of the Revolutionary Guard. They wanted names of Iranians who’d been in contact with me, they wanted me to account for my movements on occasions when they’d lost track of me in the previous days, they accused me of being a spy, and they threatened to hold me in the country. I think most of this was bluff. They let me go after several hours, but confiscated all my receipts—they thought it suspicious I’d collected these for reimbursement—and made a big show of hanging on to a passport-sized photo of me that I’d had among my things for visa purposes.

When I returned to the US, my Iranian handlers told me not to write about any of this. I didn’t see a way around it. If I wrote about what I’d seen without disclosing the apparatus of coercion that stood between me and everything else, I think it would have been a real disservice to the truth—because the truth was as much or more in what I was forbidden to see as in what was placed before me. What was placed before me, it so happened, was the repressive apparatus. So I wrote about that. The Iranian mission to the United Nations sent representatives to The New Yorker afterward to tell my editors that none of what I’d written had ever happened. And I have not gotten a visa since, though I have applied several times.

One of the things I really discovered over the course of reporting the book is that in the context of this revolutionary state, where ideas are taken with such seriousness, it’s normal and common that people change their positions radically over the course of a political life.

Guernica: Could you tell me a little about Rouhani? As you say, he’s succeeded with the nuclear deal, and I imagine he’s pretty popular in Iran. Who is he as a politician or as a person? What’s his history?

Laura Secor: He’s a security figure. He comes out of the foreign policy establishment. He was long associated with the faction around former president Rafsanjani, which is considered a pragmatic faction. He was never ideologically inclined toward reform; that’s not his background. He was one of these characters more associated with taking an approach to foreign policy that was less ideological and more practical than the hardliners. On domestic affairs he was always pretty conservative. That doesn’t mean that that’s his profile today. One of the things I really discovered over the course of reporting the book is that in the context of this revolutionary state, where ideas are taken with such seriousness, it’s normal and common that people change their positions radically over the course of a political life. I think we may too easily look at a person’s background and say that’s who they are. But in Iran, the revolution is an ongoing experiment, and a lot of people have traversed broad spectrums over the course of those years. I don’t know Rouhani personally, but I have talked to people close to his faction and my sense of their general outlook is that they are flexible on foreign policy. They are interested in assessing Iran’s interests in a way that is not rigidly determined by the past or by ideological concerns. I don’t know how deep their commitment is to a domestic agenda. I don’t think they came in with that at the top of their list, so that’s going to be something that’s going to be built now that the first order of business has been taken care of, although it hasn’t been entirely taken care of, because Rouhani has domestic enemies, and defending what’s been done here is going to have a domestic dimension.

Guernica: When you were there, what did you observe to be the effect of sanctions on average Iranians?

Laura Secor: That was obscured in a lot of ways. There were economic problems in Iran that preceded the latest round of sanctions. The first time I reported on Iran, in 2008, there was already a lot of serious inflation, and a lot of complaints about unemployment and general economic volatility. So that stemmed from mismanagement. While the mismanagement wasn’t entirely new, it was vastly exacerbated by Ahmadinejad. His handling of the economy was flamboyant and not very rational. By 2012, when I was there last, the European oil embargo was about to take hold along with other new sanctions. The banking sanctions were particularly severe. There was definitely a sense that the sanctions regime was ratcheting up, and nobody could tell you for sure whether the problems they were facing were due to economic mismanagement or to sanctions. In 2012 the government hadn’t decided on an official line about that, because either one was bad. I think to this day, officially, sanctions didn’t hurt them. But they also didn’t want to say that the problem here is mismanagement. They kind of vacillated; I think in the end they settled on mismanagement, which was all Ahmadinejad’s fault. That became part of the drumbeat against him. People I talked to in industry, privately, were convinced that the sanctions were the real problem for the Iranian economy. They couldn’t move money in and out of the country. That was a bigger problem than goods. And the oil and gas industry were going to be seriously affected. The way they handled not being able to spin this narrative in 2012 was by not releasing the statistics. There was a period when they were denying that there was any inflation, and then they changed course within a couple of weeks after I left, and started releasing the statistics.

Guernica: It’s very telling what they don’t say.

Laura Secor: Ultimately, whatever the fundamental cause of the economic malaise was, lifting sanctions will certainly help.

Guernica: I was watching a Democratic debate, and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were arguing about the advisability of normalizing relations with the Islamic Republic. Putting aside the political will in this country, can you imagine an Iran that would be willing to normalize diplomatic relations with the US? Isn’t one of the Islamic Republic’s founding credos “death to America”? Isn’t the state kind of founded on that?

Laura Secor: I think it would be a hard sell. [laughs] In a way, a lot like here, both countries have a political investment in the non-relationship. I felt that was a huge obstacle at the beginning of the nuclear talks. You had a sense that both countries were having to sell this to domestic political parties who were dead set against it. Normalizing relations—in a way, we’ve been talking to Iran quite regularly since Rouhani came into office. We’ve had very high-level meetings with them. Opening an embassy there would be hugely symbolic, and much to be wished for in the end, but I’m not particularly optimistic that that’s immediately forthcoming.

Guernica: Do you think Iranians are very optimistic about their country’s future right now?

Laura Secor: I think right now is a hopeful moment. I wouldn’t underestimate the power of the nuclear agreement to raise hopes and expectations to fuel a sense of positivity and relief about the future. A lot of people in Iran were really hoping for, if not normalization of relations with the US, then for the opening of their economic borders and a sense that they were integrated into the world economy again.

I haven’t been there recently, but from what I follow there’s a psychological element to feeling like Iran’s nuclear file, which has been so disruptive and defining of Iran’s relationships, not just with the US, but with European powers, to have this case settled and have Iran be perceived as an equal partner in these talks. This makes people feel a little more comfortable. The fundamental thing is that even if individual Iranians are not themselves sympathetic to their government, to feel that their country is a legitimate member of a community of nations means a lot to ordinary people.


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