Iran: Into the Heart of the Islamic Republic

Ramita Navai's deep look at eight ordinary Tehranis offers a window into the nature of the Iranian state.

Ramita Navai, City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran (PublicAffairs, September 2, 2014), 320pp., $26.99.

It’s a bit cliched to call Iran a land of paradox. We get it, you might say. It’s a complicated place—but every place is complicated if you look close enough. Yet Iran’s complexity still stands out: more than almost any other country in the world, it’s torn between opposing identities, opposing visions and even opposing histories. It’s home to a panoply of ethnicities. It’s a Middle Eastern country whose language shares roots with the European tongues, not Arabic or Hebrew. Its leaders are virulent opponents of Israel and America, yet Iran has more Jews than any other Muslim country and more favorable popular attitudes toward the United States than any of its neighbors. It’s been a great empire—and one of empire’s great victims. It’s a Shia country that had many of its greatest achievements under Sunni—and non-Muslim—rulers. Its government is held together by both devotion and corruption. There’s even a burger joint named after a hunger striker.

And there is paradox in the very heart of the Islamic Republic. The revolution that brought it into being had a deeply conservative aspect. Ruhollah Khomeini first achieved notoriety for his denunciation of the Shah’s modernizing reforms in the early 1960s; his early allies included traditionalist clerics and landowners furious at their lost privileges. In the language of the French Revolution, Khomeini and his allies were one part of the ancien régime; throw in the devout urban merchants that joined in, and recall all the leftists that Khomeini discarded after they’d helped him tear down the Shah, and the revolutionary core looks rather reactionary. Indeed, political Islam in general, and the Islamic Republic in particular, tends to represent itself as an alternative to modernity—or even as a return from it.

Yet there’s also a strong radical-revolutionary aspect. The monarchist elite was overthrown—flying to exile in Los Angeles or London or being paraded before the cameras on mortuary slabs, fresh from the firing squad. A new revolutionary elite emerged, drawn heavily from outside the long-established ruling class. The new regime proclaimed its support for the “dispossessed,” with interference in the economy in their name eventually reaching almost Venezuelan levels under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And the rhetoric around Iran’s foreign policy—to be sure, rhetoric that is not always backed by action—is almost as radical as that of the early Communists. The Islamic Republic’s leaders were ecstatic about the Arab Spring—the Islamic Awakening, they called it—with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling it “a new the history of the world.” They call for pan-Islamic unity, and argue for an inversion of the Middle East’s strategic order: “Today the presence of America is more important than all other problems of the world of Islam. This problem should be solved. It is necessary to push America out of the arena. It is necessary to weaken it, and fortunately it has already been weakened.” And other radical upheavals win Tehran’s endorsement—the Supreme Leader was a big fan of Occupy Wall Street.

Iran, in the radical view, inhabits an international system whose dominant feature is American exploitation and the power of “Zionist” financial interests; its neighborhood is full of reactionary monarchies, anti-Shia fanatics, U.S. military bases, and the Regime Occupying Jerusalem; at home, the Islamic Republic is beset by secularists, liberals, radicals of various stripes and those who seek accommodation with the West. (Western intelligence services, of course, are perceived pulling the strings of much of this.) And whenever Iran offers concessions, the West pockets them and makes further demands. But the conservative view is there, too: Iran is struggling to preserve “Islamic democracy” as an alternative to liberal democracy, resisting the emergence of a world in which, according to Khamenei, “there is not any moral value and humane feeling....In fact, [the liberal democracies] are disgracing themselves....The only thing that they believe in is money and bullying.” And a close reading of Khamenei’s speeches shows they often emphasize defense and retaliation rather than the initiation of revolutionary action.