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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Iran Part 3: The Iran of Ayatollahs and Mourners / En-Route to Beirut Now

Iran Part 3: The Iran of Ayatollahs and Mourners
I got onto a morning bus to Tehran. Ali, an English speaking Esfahani, sat beside me on the bus. We spoke quite a bit, perhaps too much when I was quite tired from the poor sleep last night. Although he was only 22 years old, he looked more like early 30s. Middle Easterners seemed to age quite quickly. For instance, the Israelis have just released a 38 y/o Hezbollah turncoat ¨C he looked as though he was in his early 50s. Although it could well be that he had aged while in Israeli prison, I have seen enough of such old-looking young Middle Easterners during the past few months in the region. Many locals thought I was in my mid or early 20s, which was rather hilarious. They were evaluating my age using their usual standards.
Ali was on his way to Tehran to join his parents on a holiday on the Caspian beaches. There was going to be five days of holidays this week ¨C two additional days declared by the government over the 4th June death anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini, 5th June anniversary of Khomeini¡¯s arrest by Shah that marked the start of his resistance movement and the standard weekly Friday rest day. The death anniversary of Khomeini was supposed to be a solemn day of mourning and reflection, but many people, especially the middle and upper class of Tehran, Esfahan and other large cities regarded this as an opportunity to get away and have fun on the cool beaches of the Caspian.
¡°Nobody mourns anymore,¡± Ali said. ¡°We just want to get away from all that fake public mourning, especially on TV. We Iranians mourn too much and in public ¨C but all you see about this is not real.¡± Indeed, in the past few days, banners and huge black billboards with images of Khomeini had suddenly risen everywhere, on top of those that are found year-long. State TV ran documentaries of Khomeini non-stop as though he had only died yesterday (instead of in 1989), plus images of public memorial ceremonies in which men and women in mourning dress marched with black flags, wailed loudly, shouted slogans or beat their chests loudly in typical Shiite expression of deep sadness and sorrow.
Like many young Iranians I have met, Ali did not mince his words about his dislike of the current government. ¡°It¡¯s a dictatorship. All Iranians hate it. It is crazy, trying to make the whole world Iran¡¯s enemy. What has the government done with the economy? Nothing but talk non-stop about Khomeini, the long past Iran-Iraq war, Israel and America.¡±
I remembered what Maryam told me. Most people, in her view, are against the current regime. ¡°The current President, Ahmadinejad, is just a puppet of a group of military clique and Supreme Leader Khamenei. The previous president, the liberal Khatami, had aroused great hopes but disappointed everyone ¨C his hands were tied and real power rests with the unelected Supreme Leader, not the elected president. What¡¯s the use of voting? Furthermore, all candidates have to be screened and approved by the regime before they can take part in elections.¡±
Across Iran, I saw huge portraits of not only Khomeini but also that of Khamenei, whose was often shown standing next to Khomeini, perhaps in an attempt to rise on the former¡¯s stature. Obviously, Khamenei does not have the same standing as the long dead revolutionary leader. A huge mural across the entire western outer wall of Kowsler Hotel in southern Esfahan was self-evident. The English caption below the portraits of the two men said, ¡°Obedience to Khamenei is obedience to Imam Khomeini.¡± The political message seemed to have underscored the political weakness of the former.
Maryam also told me, ¡°Our parents had protested against the regime but that had led nowhere. Now, even they have told us not to bother about politics. You can¡¯t change anything. The brave ones get sent to prison. Now we just keep quiet and get on with our lives.¡±
An Esfahani taxi driver told me that he once worked in a sensitive professional position in Qatar but Ahmadinejad¡¯s anti-West and aggressive nuclear stance had led to him losing his job. Maryam blamed the government for what she thought as a decline in tourism the past few years. A fellow traveler said that a Tehrani told him the latter and many Tehranis would call the main square in South Tehran ¡°Meidan-Shah¡±, by its old name after the overthrown Shah, instead of its current official name,¡±Meidan Imam Khomeini¡±.
In spite of these comments, I wouldn¡¯t be surprised if there is a huge divide in views between the anti-regime urbanites that I met and those in the rural areas who are more religious and pro-regime, i.e., those that bothered to vote and actually voted enthusiastically for Ahmadinejad and the existing order. A tourist told me about how a local pointed a public image of Khomeini, saying, ¡°This man is responsible for everything that is right in this country. We still love him dearly.¡± The huge challenge for Iran is how to bridge the gap between liberals who want to see real secular democracy and respect for personal freedoms, and the rural conservatives who prefer status quo.
The bus got into Tehran at 3pm ¨C as punctual as ever ¨C Ali told me that bus companies would be fined if they arrived too early (that would be evidence of speeding dangerously) or too late (customer rights), and this is monitored by police at the various checkpoints across the countryside that we stopped briefly several times on each bus journey I took.
I was in Tehran merely 10 days ago but the city has now been transformed into Mourning Central. Black flags and banners flew everywhere, with even more Khomeini posters than before. The taxi that drove me to the hotel even passed me a mini Khomeini mourning poster. However, as a local told me, the Tehranis would all go for a beach holiday this week, instead of mourning for Khomeini as the government would prefer to see.
I checked into Atlas Hotel in North Tehran. I was curious about this supposedly upmarket area which I heard was a world of a difference from South Tehran which is full of vehicle repair workshops and metal spare parts shops. In contrast to South Tehran, the streets of North Tehran are lined with shady trees and have a much higher degree of greenery and vegetation. Even then, the streets were dirty compared to almost spotless Esfahan, the jewel of the Middle East.
I walked around the area that also contains the Armenian St Sarkies Cathedral, and the notorious former US Embassy where the Hostage Crisis took place during the Islamic Revolution. During the midst of the Islamic Revolution, radical students stormed the US Embassy and took 52 US diplomats hostage for 444 days, in an episode that continues to poison US-Iranian relations. Following the crisis, US imposed economic sanctions on Iran, which included a freeze on Iranian assets in the US worth billions of dollars.
Over the years, sanctions have been extended to a ban on all business activities between the US and Iran, and the US had even threatened to impose sanctions on third country companies dealing with Iran. The hostages were only released on 20 January 1981, minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the new US president.
Today, the embassy premises, according to a 2006 Guardian report, is now used by The Committee for the Commemoration of Martyrs of the Global Islamic Campaign, which uses ¡°the US embassy to recruit "martyrdom seekers", volunteers to carry out operations against Western and Jewish targets. Mohammad Samadi, a spokesman for the group, signed up several hundred volunteers in a few days.¡± A bookshop nearby sold war and jihad propaganda, which included some rather gory posters of soldiers and martyrs blown up during wars and conflicts (and who knows, perhaps suicide bombing missions as well).
Apart from the remnants of the chiseled-off Great Seal of the United States at the embassy gates, also interesting were the murals and quotations from Ayatollah Khomeini drawn on the embassy¡¯s outer walls, some of which were hilarious. Among them were the following:
- ¡°The United States is too weak to do anything¡±, which was exactly the case during the last days of the Carter administration. It sent in a helicopter rescue mission but the helicopters got caught in a sand storm and crushed even before reaching Tehran. Eight US soldiers died and Khomeini celebrated the event as an evidence of providential support for his war against America.
- ¡°Tell the US be angry with us and die of this anger.¡±
- ¡°The only way to defy the wild wolf of Zionism and the transgression of Great Satan (USA) is sacrificial resistance.¡± Khomeini later used ¡°human wave¡± tactic against Iraq during the Iran-Iraqi War, killing numerous as a result.
- ¡°We will make America face a severe defeat.¡±
Various images on these walls were iconic, disturbing or even funny, among them, the Statue of Liberty as a skeleton, a hostage with his arms raised in a ¡°surrender¡± pose and a gun in American national colours.
This week, Mrs Clinton during the Democrat primaries threatened to obliterate Iran if Iran attacked Israel (that is, if she goes on to be elected US president) and the Iranian Foreign Minister reiterated that Israel should be wiped off the face of the Earth. The standoff over nuclear facilities continues unabated. Even the 50,000 Iranian rial banknote has the symbol of the nuclear atom superimposed over the map of Iran.
As noted in a commentary in Iran News, an English newspaper, ¡°not only Iran but other peoples in the Third World have been suffering mostly because of policies by the arrogant powers. But we should note that times are changing rapidly and that the era of those arrogant powers will come to an end.¡± Sounds like the Shiite wait for the 12th imam, or the Mahdi, who would come to Earth with Prophet Jesus that will end all injustice and bring peace to all.
I wonder when both Iran and America would reconcile with each other. How can a country develop its economy when it remains stuck in a continuous revolution and a conflict with the world¡¯s number one superpower for 30 years? I am sure a compromise can be struck even between Iran and the US. Both Iran and the US need brave leaders who can overcome past baggage and normalize relations in a way that benefits both great peoples.
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Iran News commented about the reasons for the current real estate boom in Iran, that pushed prime properties in Tehran and the Caspian Sea coastal resorts to record prices, with many properties valued at well above US$1 million. Among the key reasons were the UN sanctions and blacklisting of Iran¡¯s key state banks had restricted activities in many economic fields. On the other hand, there has been an inflow of cash from the Iranian Diaspora which is withdrawing money from developed markets suffering from the subprime crisis. Money previously kept overseas has also been returning for fear of asset freeze to be imposed on Iranian assets if more UN resolutions are passed. These factors combined to lead to the diversion of lots of cash into the real estate sector, leading to what the paper described as a bubble. Yes, there are lots of fancy new apartments and projects across North Tehran. The question to ask, then, would be when the bubble would burst and whether the country and its banks are ready for that. Since time immemorial, what goes up must come down. That never changes.
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Tehran is a dead city today. It¡¯s a mistake to come to Tehran so soon. Everything is shut ¨C almost all shops, many restaurants and even cybercaf¨¦s, even the National Museum ¨C all shut. The TV continues to play Khomeini non-stop, Khomeini speeches and his life, old footage of the mass mourning at his funeral which more than 10 million people attended, and endless speeches by Supreme Leader Khamenei and a whole string of ayatollahs, cheered on by crowds of fist-clenching men in black mourning clothes. Huge banners on the streets, some showing Khamenei weeping at the death of Khomeini, others showing Khomeini with images of revolutionary martyrs. Most Tehranis, I think, are basking on the beaches of the Caspian Sea, three hours away by car.
I switched between all 5 Iranian state TV channels and four of them had Khomeini images on them. The fifth looked like an IT games show but Khomeini¡¯s photo appeared there suddenly after 3 minutes, though in what context I knew not. I cannot imagine going through all these for one week, year after year. It¡¯s like attending a funeral again and again, year after year. No wonder, as I was told by a local, nobody watches Iranian TV. Every household that could afford has a satellite dish although it is illegal to own one. There are hundreds of channels to choose from, including the highly popular 15 Farsi language channels produced by the Iranian Diaspora in California.
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Fifteen days have come and gone. I left beautiful and hospitable Iran on the 19th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini¡¯s death, with lots of mixed feelings. This is definitely a country I would return to and I wish this great, enigmatic nation the best.
Here I am, 3am at Bahrain International Airport. Just flown here from Tehran where I had one of my best travel experiences ever. In 8 hours¡¯ time, I will be flying to Beirut, Lebanon, which is my 173rd country/territory as well as the last stop of my 8-month odyssey. Till then, you will hear from me.
Cheers,
Wee Cheng

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