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The Truth About Iran

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In random interviews in Tehran's bazaar, Iranians complained about government economic policies but also expressed strong opposition to Trump's interference. Image by Reese Erlich. Iran, 2018.

In random interviews in Tehran's bazaar, Iranians complained about government economic policies but also expressed strong opposition to Trump's interference. Image by Reese Erlich. Iran, 2018.

Whenever I’m in Tehran, I like to visit Friday prayers. The weekly event, which can draw 10,000 or more people, attracts deeply religious Iranians who often support hardline policies.

And on my most recent visit, in December, I was not disappointed. I had barely taken out my recording equipment when a sixty-three-year-old woman named Massomeh asked to be interviewed. She wore all black, with her chador pulled tightly over her head so only her face was visible. She let loose on Donald Trump.

“I really hate the guy, not just for Iran but for the whole world. I just hope he doesn’t start a war,” she told me. “Really, I don’t know why the Americans voted for him.”

I told Massomeh (she gave me only her first name) that many Americans would agree with her. She responded, “I feel sorry for the American people. They are stuck with this guy.”

In search of other viewpoints, I went to Tehran’s famous Grand Bazaar. There I met Masoud Nashebegi, a thirty-something textile salesman. He has bushy black hair and a soul patch on his lower lip, making him look like an American hipster. He backs the reformists trying to make change in Iran’s government, but he also loathes Trump.

Nashebegi put the current conflict in a historical context. “The animosity toward American policy has been like this since the 1979 revolution,” he told me. “With each different President, it’s getting worse. I think it’s because we in Iran stood up to the Americans.”

In two dozen interviews in Tehran, in rich neighborhoods and poor, I couldn’t find a single Iranian who supported the U.S. President—even among Iranians like Nashebegi who are sharply critical of the Iranian government Trump loves to attack.

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According to Ariya Khosravi, an electrician in Tehran, the lifting of sanctions due to the nuclear accord “hasn't had any effect on the working class.” Image by Reese Erlich. Iran, 2018.

According to Ariya Khosravi, an electrician in Tehran, the lifting of sanctions due to the nuclear accord “hasn't had any effect on the working class.” Image by Reese Erlich. Iran, 2018.

Thirty-one-year-old Ariya Khosravi is a skilled electrician who has no permanent home in Tehran. Sometimes he stays with relatives. Sometimes he sleeps in refurbished shipping containers at construction sites. He’s an imposing figure, standing over six feet tall with a shock of black hair. He wears a leather jacket against the winter chill. And he’s not afraid to speak his mind.

Back in 2015, Khosravi and many of his friends were encouraged that the United States, Iran, and five other countries and the European Union signed the nuclear accord. Iran agreed to stringent inspections of its nuclear power program in return for the lifting of Western sanctions. Khosravi had high hopes that eliminating sanctions would improve his life. It didn’t work out that way.

“We were waiting for change but it wasn’t much,” Khosravi told me. The lifting of sanctions “hasn’t had any effect on the life of the working class.”

Centrist President Hassan Rouhani was first elected in 2013, following eight years of rule under the nation’s hardline former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani promised to end corruption and continue his predecessor’s policy of privatizing some state-owned industries. But in late 2017, his administration proposed a budget that followed neoliberal austerity measures promoted by the International Monetary Fund, including reducing subsidies for food and other basic services and increasing fuel prices by 50 percent.

On December 28, conservative opponents of Rouhani held a rally criticizing the austerity measures in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city. (Iran’s parliament rejected the initial budget proposal a month later.)

Conservatives were caught by surprise when young workers around the country responded by marching, rallying, and even burning government buildings. Although maybe they shouldn’t have been: youth unemployment in Iran is a staggering 29 percent. Over the next week, tens of thousands of young workers demonstrated in some eighty cities. These were the largest anti-government protests since the Green Movement uprising of 2009.

Trump tried to jump on the protest bandwagon. He tweeted, “Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!”

But such pronouncements did nothing to erode the distrust that Iranians feel toward Trump. As one of his first acts in office, the President banned all Iranians from travel to the United States, even for family visits. He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which most Iranians see as an affront to the Palestinians.

“Iranians don’t like Trump,” Khosravi said. “People don’t believe that he’s supporting the people of Iran.”

The protests that erupted last year in Iran were spontaneous and without apparent leaders. They focused on economic issues such as late payment of wages, the collapse of numerous banks, and high unemployment. They took place mostly in smaller cities and towns.

Khosravi remembered previous demonstrations protesting late wages and bank failures that quickly fizzled out. “But this was serious,” he said, “both in the demands and the numbers participating.”

Protest chants reflected a wide range of views. Some called for the return of rule by the Shah, the dictatorial family that ruled Iran before 1979. Some called for the downfall of Iran’s entire system. They chanted, “Death to the Dictator,” referring to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Some demonstrators also criticized Iran for spending billions of dollars to support regional allies such as Syria, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Hamas. “First you have to feed your own people and then go around helping others,” explained Khosravi. “The government is always helping other nations and, as a result, we have poverty at home.”

Authorities in Tehran quickly denounced the protests as provocations instigated by the United States and Israel. The government organized tens of thousands of counterdemonstrations in the big cities. The government also cracked down hard on the protests. An Iranian member of parliament claimed that the government arrested nearly 5,000 people. At least twenty-five people died.

Khosravi told me that, because of the repression, some people he knows hedged their bets, and turned out for both demonstrations. “They don’t want this government, but at the same time they are so afraid,” he said. “The government is too strong. They are afraid they might lose whatever they have.”

Trump, predictably, used the protests to justify hardening his anti-Iran positions. He seeks to pull out of the 2015 nuclear accord, signed by the United States, Iran, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union. He calls it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

The Trump Administration asserts that Iran poses a threat to U.S. national security. But according to U.S. intelligence agency estimates in 2007 and 2011, Iran has had no nuclear weapons program since 2003. So why is Washington—Democrats as well as Republicans—in such a dither over the Iran nuclear threat?

Patrick Clawson welcomed me into his office in Washington, D.C., with a smile. His shelves are lined with books, including mine, The Iran Agenda. So he knew we don’t agree on Iran. But he’s an articulate spokesperson for a view on Iran that was considered fringe under Obama and is now mainstream under Trump.

Clawson, the research director at the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is a former leftist who marched in demonstrations against the Shah of Iran in the 1970s. He became a conservative, he said, after working for the International Monetary Fund and witnessing what he calls the hypocrisy of Third World, leftist governments.

He has been suspicious about Iran’s nuclear power program from the beginning. Referring to uranium enrichment facilities, he said, “Iran has put a lot of effort, a lot of money, and a lot of prestige into building facilities which don’t have any obvious civilian use but do have a very clear potential military use.”

I asked him whether he thought that, even now, with the nuclear accord in place, Iran is developing atomic weapons. “I think the program is aimed at having that option and that’s disturbing,” he replied.

But conservatives can provide no proof. The International Atomic Energy Agency has released eight reports indicating Iran is complying with the nuclear accord. The agency closely monitors all uranium in Iran, from mining to refining to enrichment. Iran, it has concluded, has no nuclear weapons program. All of the country’s enriched uranium is slated for use in electric power generation or medical research.

The Trump Administration has so far not imposed new sanctions on the nuclear issue, which would blatantly violate the accord. But it has imposed numerous new, unilateral sanctions on issues of human rights, terrorism, and ballistic missiles. Iranian leaders say Trump’s policies are really aimed at preparing the groundwork for overthrowing their government.

I met Foad Izadi, an assistant professor in the North American Studies Department at the University of Tehran, in his cramped office. He’s an expert on the nuclear issue and consults frequently with the Iran Foreign Ministry.

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Foad Izadi, a professor at the University of Tehran, said U.S. officials use the nuclear issue as an excuse. In reality, they want to make sure the region's oil is “directly or indirectly controlled by the United States.” Image by Reese Erlich. Iran, 2018.

Foad Izadi, a professor at the University of Tehran, said U.S. officials use the nuclear issue as an excuse. In reality, they want to make sure the region's oil is “directly or indirectly controlled by the United States.” Image by Reese Erlich. Iran, 2018.

Izadi earned his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He arrived there in 2005, just before the devastating Hurricane Katrina. He developed a deep admiration for how Americans responded to the crisis, impressed by how members of different religions helped one another.

“The fact that you could see all this charity, all this goodwill toward people in New Orleans was touching,” he told me. “We saw the best of what humanity can offer and also the negligence of some government agencies.”

Izadi continues to make a distinction between Americans and their government. He argued that Iran never had a nuclear weapon and never posed a threat to the American people. And the current nuclear accord guarantees that Iran will never develop one. Izadi argues that the fear of an Iranian nuke is being used as a justification to ensure the region’s oil is “directly or indirectly controlled by the United States.”

Because the whole point of the criticism is to instill fear, there are no compromises or concessions that Iran can make that will satisfy the United States, according to Izadi. He says the people of Iran see that sanctions were in place both before and after signing the nuclear pact, “so what’s the use of accepting what the United States wants you to accept?”

From an ideologically opposite position, Clawson agreed. He argued that the United States is justified in imposing sanctions that go beyond the issue of nuclear weapons because Iran violates the human rights of its own people and supports terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

“It’s very difficult to see circumstances under which Iran is going to satisfy the United States on those issues,” he said. “Just as the Iranian government would be delighted if the U.S. government fell, so the U.S. government would be delighted if the Iranian government fell.”

Ex-CIA analyst Paul Pillar takes a very different approach. We met on a blustery winter morning in Lafayette Park across from the White House. He wore a parka over his sport coat. He recalled that, during past administrations, he often visited the basement Situation Room in the West Wing to discuss crises in the Middle East. At one such meeting during the George W. Bush Administration, officials were discussing the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Pillar knew the intelligence was dodgy.

“Consistent with the spirit of that whole sales campaign,” he said, “it was not about trying to find the truth and to present the most insightful things about Iraq or the Middle East but rather to sell the idea of the war. For intelligence professionals like myself, it was not a very comfortable situation.”

Pillar argues that the Trump Administration is utilizing the same methods as President Bush: demonizing Iran over a nuclear weapons program that the intelligence community says hasn’t existed for fifteen years.

In December, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, held a much-heralded press conference to display parts of a ballistic missile that the Houthi group in Yemen had fired into the Riyadh airport in Saudi Arabia. Iran allegedly provided the missile, which the administration said violates a 2015 U.N. resolution. Haley also claimed that the missile could be fitted with a nuclear warhead.

“When you look at this missile, this is terrifying, this is absolutely terrifying,” Haley said. “Just imagine if this missile had been launched at Dulles Airport or JFK or the airports in Paris, London, or Berlin.”

But Haley’s statements of alarm were met with immediate skepticism by European diplomats and major media. The New York Times noted that the missiles could have been delivered to Yemen prior to the 2015 U.N. resolution banning Iranian arms exports. And according to an expert on missile technology, the missile displayed by Haley could not carry a nuclear warhead.

Pillar said Haley’s reference to Iranian missiles being fired at U.S. airports reminds him of the kind of exaggeration used by the Bush Administration prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He said the Trump Administration has copied another tactic from the Bush playbook.

In November, then-CIA director Mike Pompeo tried to link Iran with al Qaeda by disseminating documents taken from Osama Bin Laden’s captured computer. But the documents didn’t contain any new revelations about Iran forging a military or political alliance with al Qaeda. And Pillar said Iranian and al Qaeda leaders have huge religious and political differences; Iranian leaders are Shia and are fighting Sunni al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.

Trump, like Bush before him, has cherry-picked intelligence to reach a predetermined conclusion, Pillar said. The administration publicizes “a couple of lines in one seized document out of hundreds of documents that point in other directions,” he explained. “That’s not objective intelligence analysis.”

Meanwhile, back in Tehran, sporadic protests have continued. In some, women have removed their mandatory head coverings, put them on sticks, and waved them like flags. Then they posted photos of this on social media sites.

Sufi Muslims, known as Dervishes, protested against the arrest of their leaders—holding rallies and clashing with police. Several Dervishes were severely beaten and five security officers were killed during clashes in Tehran. The Dervish sect had allied with Mehdi Karroubi, a 2009 presidential candidate and reformist leader.

No matter what the protests yield, the opposition of the Iranian people to government policies and U.S. interference seems likely to continue for some time.