Complicated Iran

My friend and colleague J.M. Tyree has posted a nice reference to an essay by Steven Levine and myself a few years ago about the neo-cons. (I’m getting to Iran I promise). Since then, I’ve been amazed by two things. One is the extent to which the neo-cons have shown that their commitment to American Exceptionalism subverts and destroys essentially every platitude about freedom or democracy they utter (The CPA, Abu Graib, The ICC, etc.). The second is the extent to which the traditional Left has become almost completely irrelevant to discussions about freedom and democracy around the world (The Orange Revolution, The Iraqi Purple Finger, etc.). Into that gap a new political matrix will spring, I think, and the coming years will begin to show us what it looks like.

And here’s where Iran comes in. Steven and I posited in the afore-mentioned piece that the geo-strategic vision of most neo-cons has long seen Iran as the true linchpin of all things Middle Eastern (which is probably true). Thus, it was troubling to read Seymour Hersh’s recent article about just how ham-fisted the neo-cons continue to be in imagining (fantasizing) about how American interest and virtue are supposed to coincide with respect to Iran.

All the better, then, that we continue to get smarter, richer, and more complicated pictures of what is happening inside Iran these days (which is not to apologize for or appease what continues to be a despicable and repressive regime). Christopher de Bellaigue’s new book “In the Rose Garden of Martyrs,” seems like quite a good read, especially as it is described in Pico Ayer’s review.

In the prosperous northern Tehran suburb of Elahiyeh, ladies who lunch visit a French-trained psychologist downtown (to talk of their adulteries, no doubt), while their teenage daughters (”matchsticks marinated in Chanel,” in Christopher de Bellaigue’s pungent words) get nose jobs, hang around the pizza parlor and perform oral sex on their boyfriends so they’ll still technically be virgins when married off to their first cousins. Occasionally the ”morals police” stop by in Land Cruisers to check handbags for condoms, but Elahiyeh honors the age-old Iranian principle of veiled surfaces and highly embroidered interiors. Indeed, when de Bellaigue and his Iranian wife invite one of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s former hoodlums to lunch — an Indian meal — the man and his wife marvel over the apartment’s interior design.

This is the Iran of only a very, very few, of course, and de Bellaigue devotes only two dashing pages to it in his impenitently stylish and arresting debut book, ”In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs.” Yet it speaks for his method of pitching us into the very heart and streets of the Iranian revolution today, its troubled consciences, and giving us so jolting a sense of ordinary lives and human losses that we can no longer see the country in simplistic, public-policy terms of ”conservatives versus reformists.” A young British journalist who writes for The Economist, de Bellaigue aims to complicate from within a world that too many of us associate only with turbaned ayatollahs and slogans of ”Death to America.” That former hoodlum, for example, introduced to us as Mr. Zarif, laid mines in the war against Iraq at 15, joined a seminary at 17 and now, playing around with screenwriting, can barely recognize the places where he sent people to their deaths. Civil wars, de Bellaigue is agile enough to see, often take place invisibly.