When Bush Comes to Iran

The view of American tough talk from Tehran.

Iranians at a market. Click image to expand.
Iranians at a market

My cousin Kamran is a successful software engineer in Tehran with a house, a thriving business of his own, and a brand new Peugeot, which he likes to show off by careening through the city’s clogged streets at maniacal speeds. Like most of Iran’s young and highly educated population, he must rely on other means to make ends meet. So, in addition to running his software business, Kamran tutors neighborhood children, raises chickens on his aunt’s farm, hires himself out as a guide and translator for tourists, dabbles in real estate, and occasionally sells imitation designer handbags out of the trunk of his car.

“What kind of life is this?” he confides in me. “I have a master’s degree. I fought in the Iran-Iraq war. I have my own business. But here I am forced to sell purses out of my car to feed my family?” He laughs to hide his shame. “I tell you, when Bush comes, things will be different.”

When Bush comes. It is a popular joke in Tehran, akin to saying, “when pigs fly.” Of course, behind every joke lurks a genuine sentiment. Sure, Kamran laughs when he says it. But then he grips the wheel and, for a brief moment, glances up at the sky, as though expecting an American fighter jet to zoom overhead.

I can’t blame him. There is a palpable sense among many Iranians that the United States might start dropping bombs on them at any moment. After all, Iran is literallysurrounded by American troops: The U.S. maintains military bases in Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. A fleet of heavily armed American warships is conducting military exercises in the Persian Gulf. The CIA just received a presidential directive to launch black-ops meant to destabilize the Iranian government. The Bush administration might well be believed to be considering launching its own nuclear weapons (so-called bunker busters like the B61-11) against Iran’s suspected nuclear sites. And Congress has approved another $75 million to “promote democracy” in Iran, which means, unapologetically, regime change.

All of this makes Kamran chuckle. “Regime change. Regime change,” he mocks in an American accent. It’s not that he doesn’t want an end to the clerical regime. He’d love nothing more than to drag the mullahs out of the halls of government. But he has stopped caring. Like the rest of his friends, Kamran has grown so disenchanted with Iran’s political system and so suspicious of American intentions in the wake of the Iraq war that he has simply given up. He doesn’t vote in Iranian elections anymore. He barely reads the newspapers. He’s stopped watching CNN International and the BBC. He has more immediate concerns, like how to pay his mortgage, how to afford skyrocketing gas prices, what to do about the impoverished Iraqis flooding into the country, and, most of all, how to use his immense computer expertise to make a decent living. The only time he pays any attention to the news is when the Iranian press announces yet another impending threat from America.

Those stories are popping up a lot lately. In the past couple of weeks, President Bush has raised the rhetorical stakes again, first by threatening to label Iran’s military/intelligence branch, the Revolutionary Guard, a terrorist organization (essentially a declaration of war in the age of the “War on Terror”), then by announcing in a fiery speech before the American Legion that he is authorizing U.S. forces in Iraq “to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.” Both moves come after months of accusations that Iran is arming and training Shiite militias who are killing both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

The accusations of Iran’s meddling in Iraq are no doubt true. But consider this: According to a report released by the New York Times, of the 60 to 80 fighters who enter Iraq each month to join al Qaida in Mesopotamia, half are from Saudi Arabia. The majority of suicide bombers are Saudis, as are about 45 percent of all foreign militants targeting U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians. And nearly half of the foreign prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia. Yet, far from threatening to confront Saudi Arabia’s murderous activities, Bush has just offered to supply billions of dollars in advanced weaponry to that country. Why? According to State and Defense department officials, to help ward off Iranian influence.

No wonder Kamran is so paranoid about an impending U.S. invasion. He’s not alone. For all its blustering confidence, the Iranian government is convinced it is next for the “Axis of Evil.” And Iran has learned the obvious lesson from its fellow Axis members. The country without nuclear weapons (Iraq) was attacked and occupied by U.S. forces. The country with nuclear weapons (North Korea) is being plied with hundreds of millions of dollars to give them up. It’s not hard to figure out why Iran is so frantic to develop nuclear capabilities. In fact, almost everything the Iranian regime does—from accelerating its nuclear program to arming Shiite militias in Iraq to crushing opposition movements at home—must be viewed from the prism of the overpowering fear of a coming military attack.

Perhaps no event is more indicative of the regime’s paranoia than its detainment of four Iranian-Americans, including Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Center on International Policy, on charges of spying for the United States. (Esfandiari, who was specifically accused of trying to start a velvet revolution in Iran, was finally released on bail last week.) The charges are absurd, of course. But the Iranian government’s actions cannot be isolated from the announcement made by the CIA in May that the United States is actively recruiting Iranian-Americans who, in the words of one intelligence officer, “have links with their families at home,” and who could be “a good two-way source of information.” Kamran shakes his head when I tell him this. “How did you think the mullahs were going to react to that?” he asks.

It’s true that President Bush has made a concerted effort to temper his administration’s saber rattling with direct appeals to the Iranian people. “My message to the Iranian people is: You can do better than this current government,” Bush said last week. “You don’t have to be isolated. You don’t have to be in a position where you can’t realize your full economic potential.”

But such statements enrage Kamran and the rest of Tehran’s young and struggling middle class even more than the threats of military attack. It’s not so much the fact that not a penny of the $75 million for “democracy” has been accepted by any organization inside Iran. It is that Bush’s comments only exacerbate the paranoia of the Iranian government, resulting in further suppression of dissent, greater international isolation, and less opportunity for Iranians like Kamran to achieve their “full economic potential.”

That explains why Iran’s most prominent advocates of democracy have repeatedly asked the president to stop reaching out to them. Noble Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who is also Esfandiari’s lawyer, has argued that Washington’s policy of “helping” the cause of democracy in Iran “has made it more difficult for the more moderate factions within Iran’s power hierarchy to argue for an accommodation with the West.”

On my last visit to Tehran I asked Kamran what the United States could do to foster democratic reform in Iran. “Just leave us alone,” he said wearily.

Then, after a beat, “And please, no bombs.”