Iran is a dangerous place these days, at least in a car. Traffic here moves like Tetris, with drivers pushing their way into any open space they think will fit. Trips begin in chaos and play out in confusion. How it ends is always up to God’s will, everyone says.
In Iran I met with students at Mashhad University, Ferdouse University, and at a woman’s educational institute, as well as with visiting scholars from Tehran. Just before my trip the United States withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear accords, and while I was in the northeastern city of Mashhad, officially moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. All at the start of Ramadan. These events were tracked in Iran as closely as World Cup scores, though absent celebration.
It was not hard to learn students’ opinions. “What does America want from us? To force us to negotiate? We did, we agreed, already, in 2015,” said one student. “Regime change — do Americans even know we vote for our government here?” said another. In answer to a question, a grad student responded “The Shah we overthrew, yes, but he was not selected by the Iranians, you installed him. Trump and Bolton (the two names are almost always mentioned in one slur of mispronunciation) want us to change our government? And why do they think we will, because you make it harder for us to purchase western goods?”
Two American Studies students likely headed to government jobs collectively translated a local idiom into “Who can sail an ark on such waters?” when asked if perhaps smarter, more targeted sanctions might move Iran to negotiate a new accord. “Who would we send to talk? The hardliners? Trump just told them they were right in 2015 when they said not to trust America. President Rouhani? He doesn’t have the power anymore — ” There was a sharp side discussion in Farsi before one student corrected his peer to say “The President doesn’t have the power under the Constitution he meant, yes.”
People have reasonable access to information. Web tools such as VPNs get around government blocks. Instagram and Facebook are popular. You can watch the latest superhero movies on smuggled Blu-Ray. The ban on popular social media app Telegram is seen as just an inconvenience to make “old people,” perhaps a euphamism for the hardliners, feel better. But there is an absence of counter-balancing physical presence to the rhetoric, theirs from New York and ours from places like Mashhad.
So despite the facts, conclusions are often amiss. Opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia is the west using culture to attack morals — “Hollywoodism.” Israeli soldiers broadcast pornography into Muslim homes, and a well-known western media magnate is secretly creating child sex movies in Farsi. Israel drives American foreign policy, the group MEK (Bolton again) is behind every bush. America demands a unipolar world which excludes Iran. And it is no conincidence American decisions favoring Israel were pushed into Muslim faces at the start of Ramadan!
There is little sense of the powerful role American domestic politics played in moving the embassy to Jerusalem, faint awareness of the evangelical voting bloc. Instead, American actions are evidence of… everything. Iran is a nation under attack. Iranian efforts to reach out to the United States are slapped down, the time between reach and slap a measure only of the degree of duplicity. The students expressed an ongoing concern the United States wants to destroy them. That America has since decades before they were born wanted to destroy them. These students are terribly familiar with the United States while terrified of it. Too many sat with me in a quiet room at a university named after a famous ancient poet and worried other Americans will someday come kill them. It is absurd to imagine these young people taking to the streets for reigime change with the immediacy you’d think they had if all you watched was cable TV news in the United States.
Outside, in Mashhad city, there were no demonstrations, no flag burnings, and visiting the central mosque here after Friday prayers more people were interested in a selfie with a foreigner than anything else. This is a religious city, home to the sacred shrine of the Eighth Iman, but you would be wrong to think things are measured more evenly on these streets than in Tehran by everyone.
The clerics were harsh. One looked me up and down like I was an unappealing meal before politely explaining the goal of burning the American flag is to “end the state.” On the wall behind him was a photo of the Statue of Liberty holding a Menorah, another showing Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu in jail. In a stemwinding speech, an important cleric stated the European Union is breakable by an Iran-China-Russia bloc. Zionist banks control the media. There is a dictatorship of the United Nations, Hollywood, and the International Monetary Fund.
People from the Foreign Ministry spoke in more measured tones of a deep frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why 40 years after the Revolution that created Iran’s complex democratic theocracy the United States still questions its legitimacy and stability. The anger from America, one older diplomat said, was like a phantom itch people who have lost limbs sometimes experience, left from some past, stuck in the present, an itch there is no way to make go away. “Do you want this to all fail?” he asked, sweeping the room with his arm. “The Americans everywhere seem to have quit trying.”
Iran is an odd silk road. The air is a mix of honeysuckle, saffron, and diesel exhaust. Aside from the ubiquitous American sodas, somehow immune from sanctions (ordered here by color — red for Coke, white for Sprite, orange for Fanta), there are few products from home to crowd out the Chinese names alongside LG, Peugeot, Samsung, and Sony. Things are modern and extraordinarily clean, but at the same time worn, and when you look closely, patched and often repaired. The past, both 5,000 years ancient and in more recent images of the Revolution, is omnipresent in posters and murals.
It would be naive to think a place as complex as Iran could reveal itself in a short visit, but the people I encountered took that as their mission. They left me anxious trying to calm the fears of aspirational people now seemingly cut off from aspiration, while bad actors in Washington and locally fill their gaps in understanding. “Our future,” said one scholar, “is already forgotten.”
Outside several of the students piled into a taxi and dove into the mad, mad traffic. You see people off here in the hope everyone gets where they need to go, because driving is always slow and often dangerous. It’s God’s will, everyone says.
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. @WeMeantWell