The Hidden Story


There is perhaps no country on Earth more misunderstood in the West than the Islamic Republic of Iran. The corporate media has done a sterling job of denigrating an entire nation by reducing it to its fundamentalist President, who is akin to Hitler in his determination to destroy the Jewish State (and ideally the US, as well).

Leading US conservative Daniel Pipes recently expressed disappointment that the Bush Administration appeared unlikely to bomb the country anytime soon:

An Administration source explains that Washington deems Iran’s co-operation ‘needed for a withdrawal [of American forces]from Iraq.’

Pipes wondered if the ‘Israel Defense Force [can]in fact disrupt Iran’s nuclear program?’ The Iranian people were irrelevant in his calculations after all, they would only be the ones who would suffer from the inevitable ‘collateral damage.’

Within Iran itself, there is growing fear of a US military strike. While it is nearly impossible to accurately gauge the true mood of the people, it appears likely that the regime would welcome such an attack. Journalist Ali Moazzami told me in Tehran that ‘they have been preparing for it for years’ and would institute even harsher methods of repression in the event of a strike.

Watching and reading the State-run media here every day, it becomes clear that the US and Israel are blamed for every conceivable problem in the region and the world. The ‘Zionist regime’ or the ‘illegitimate Zionist entity’ is referenced with tiresome regularity.

I was in Iran during the recent visit of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. It was a pitiful sight watching Ortega and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embracing like old friends, talking of resisting US imperialism and working together to ensure greater ‘justice.’ Many Iranians I met were as dismissive of Ortega’s gesture as they were of Venezuela’s Leftist President Hugo Chávez’s effusive embrace of the extremist regime before him.

Moazzami couldn’t understand why Chávez, who claims to believe in human rights, would come to Tehran and speak of solidarity with a government that imprisons and tortures dissidents. The logic appears to be that resisting the US is the primary goal for both of them and any other factors recede into irrelevance. It is both a short-sighted and morally bankrupt position, but there is silence from the international Left towards such manoeuvres.

The Iranian intellectual elite have become marginalised since the rise of Ahmadinejad. Union leaders, teachers, students, journalists, bloggers and opposition figures feel intimidated and many are reluctant to speak. Some asked not to be recorded, preferring to only meet in their own homes or away from public places.

This is country where the public and private spaces are defined clearly. I attended a party one night last week at an apartment in northern Tehran. Women, legally required to wear hijab at the very least, arrived dressed conservatively but removed their coats to reveal short-skirts, tight tops, striking hairstyles and make-up, and a party attitude.

Discussing politics was generally avoided, though the current regime was dismissed as an aberration. I was soon offered (officially banned) vodka and whisky, and within a few hours, everybody was smoking and dancing to Persian techno. I was even offered ganja, but politely declined.

Thanks to Lukas

(Iran also has a massive heroin problem, due to its proximity to Afghanistan. I was told that one gram costs less than 50 US cents).

One of the great paradoxes of Iran is how Westernised it is 3G mobile phones are ubiquitous, as is ADSL broadband internet but the regime is aggressively censoring and filtering the web see OpenNet Initiative for a comprehensive look at the problem.

The censorship is not logical or methodical, and trying to understand why certain sites are blocked is pointless. For example, most Australian news sites are blocked, but the Israeli press is available. Type ‘Bruce Springsteen’ into Google, and the system will refuse the search. Why? Because ‘teen’ is a blocked term, so any word that includes it will be unavailable.

There are literally hundreds of such absurdities. Iranians often laugh at this situation, but they resent Western multinationals now assisting the regime in its internet filtering process.

Iranians I met around the country are uniformly friendly, generous and curious about Western perceptions of their country. They know that Ahmadinejad has focused unprecedented hatred towards their country but also that he has evinced grudging respect across the Middle East for daring to challenge American hegemony.

The vast majority of Iranians are Muslim, but many told me they were secular or non-practising. I was asked not to reveal their identities because such admissions could result in social ostracisation. ‘It’s the worst thing in the authorities’ eyes,’ one journalist told me.

The owner of my hotel in the glorious city of Isfahan had lived for 20 years in Canada but had returned because he wanted to live out his final years with family and not just friends. He told me that Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution may have resembled a Third World country, ‘but virtually nobody ever wanted to emigrate overseas.’ Today, a majority of citizens are growing tired of the regime’s hard-line attitude towards various forms of ‘dissent.’ For example, a few months ago, an official decree declared that men were forbidden to wear make-up or have piercings. My hotel owner said that, ‘what this Government is doing has nothing to do with religion; it’s all about control.’

It is therefore heartening to see various bloggers take the English blog of Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, the editor of Iran’s biggest weekly youth magazine openly challenging this authoritarianism and warning those who believe in military action that resisting US ‘liberation’ will make Iraq look like a small blip in the road.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.