The view from Tehran

Iranians are fed up with the high price of tomatoes and their provocative president. But it would be dangerous for Bush and the West to overlook their national pride.

Published February 21, 2007 12:10PM (EST)

At the local greengrocer on the corner of Hedayat and Safi Alishah, in the decidedly unchic downtown section of Tehran where I'm staying, the fruits and vegetables are stacked high in perfectly formed pyramids. A dilapidated pickup truck parked in front and loaded with fruit stacked in boxes serves as a billboard for passing motorists as well as extra square footage for the store. Oranges are most visible, a plentiful and cheap winter fruit, but tomatoes, a virtual staple in Persian cooking, are practically out of sight. Tomatoes, it seems, have become a valuable commodity in Iran these days, much to the dismay of everyone, including those in the corridors of power, for whom a kebab, salad or stew without tomatoes is an affront to the palate.

I was born in Tehran and speak fluent Farsi, though I largely grew up in Europe and the United States. I have been traveling to Iran over the past three years, returning again in mid-January for six weeks to continue researching a book I'm writing on Iran and Iranians.

Much has been made in the media of growing discontent inside Iran with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and in Tehran sentiments are indeed openly expressed against him and his administration in many quarters, including some of his own. It may be tempting, therefore, to imagine that the "Iranian people," those to whom President Bush often refers as aspiring to the very same thing we do, i.e., "freedom," are becoming as dissatisfied with their political system as they are with their president. However, it would be dangerous -- and all the more so if the imagining is done by the White House -- to make such a presumption.

Iran's rather unique notion of democracy may not jibe with Western notions, but there are remarkable similarities that are often overlooked by analysts sitting at their desks a few thousand miles away. Iranians, like Americans, vote for their president and fully expect him, perhaps as naively as we do, to deliver on his campaign promises. As Bill Clinton's campaign slogan once went -- "It's the economy, stupid" -- so it goes in Iran. Foreign policy -- what we are most concerned with when it comes to Iran and its unusual leader -- is relevant to the Iranian masses only inasmuch as it affects their pocketbooks and, of course, their broader sense of security.

And in Iran the economy is reeling. Bread and dairy prices are fixed by the government, but fruit prices are not, and as inflation has been particularly bad recently, Iranians have focused on tomatoes, found in practically every Iranian dish. Food price increases and astronomical home prices are making it difficult for the already squeezed working classes -- who were promised a share of Iranian oil wealth by Ahmadinejad -- to make a living. The unemployment rate, officially put at around 12 percent, is in reality 20 percent, or even higher, according to experts.

Every day when I try to hail a cab on Tehran's streets, private cars stop and offer me and others standing nearby a cheap ride. The drivers do not fit the profile of gypsy cab operators in cities such as New York; they are in many cases college graduates for whom there simply is no other work. Recently, I asked one licensed cabbie if he resented the competition, and he merely shrugged. "Why should I?" he asked. "Everybody's suffering, and if they could find better work they wouldn't be doing this." The blame for the economic woes of ordinary Iranians is laid squarely at the feet of the government -- and to Iranians that government is President Ahmadinejad.

As for security, the massive buildup of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf has not gone unnoticed by the Iranian masses, who need only pause by a newsstand for a few moments a day and read the headlines of some 40 dailies neatly laid out on the sidewalk. Ahmadinejad's promises (both prior to and during his presidency) to alleviate Iran's economic woes have fallen short, and the style (but not necessarily the substance) of his foreign policy is widely viewed as having exacerbated the economic crunch and contributed to the sense of insecurity.

The United Nations Security Council resolution of December 2006 imposing sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment is viewed here as an Iranian foreign policy failure. This is not because Iranians disagree with Ahmadinejad's sometimes belligerent and always defiant insistence that Iran will not give up its rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- but because the result of that resolution is that tomatoes have, since the passage of the resolution, become unaffordable to the Iranian masses. The Holocaust conference in Tehran that preceded the U.N. vote is not derided so much because of its preposterous premise but because of the perception that it unfavorably swayed the U.N. vote, which has in turn resulted in tomatoes becoming unaffordable.

The current Iranian administration's goading of President Bush and the U.S. government -- whether on Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian question or basic issues of Iranian and American power -- is not viewed as illegitimate. But it is seen as having resulted in unilateral U.S. economic sanctions (and undue U.S. pressure on European and Asian allies), which mean foreign letters of credit are essentially now unavailable to Iranian businesses. This will cause them to downsize, especially if sanctions continue or even expand, and will exacerbate Iran's already unenviable unemployment rate.

Bush's speech on Jan. 10 was keenly watched and read in Iran, and its emphasis on aggressive confrontation with Iran, along with the subsequent raid on Iran's "consulate" in Irbil, Iraq, is viewed partly as a reaction to Ahmadinejad's foreign policy (and also, fatalistically, as evidence of unending U.S. hostility toward Iran). The muted European response to the seizure of Iranian "diplomats" in Iraq, however, is viewed as evidence of Ahmadinejad's unpopularity abroad, an unpopularity that has resulted in European banks agreeing to American demands that they curtail their dealings with Iran. (This is emphasized more than the threat to European banks' U.S. operations if they don't cooperate with U.S. policy.)

Iranians here are neither shy nor fearful in expressing their dissatisfaction with their president. And as much as the White House wills it to be, Iran is neither a police state nor does it resemble a dictatorship along the lines of Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Kim Jong Il's North Korea, despite periodic crackdowns on journalistic freedom and free speech. Few people here feel the kind of oppressive air often heard about in the West. It's remarkable how freely people speak out, and drink liquor and smoke dope and have unmarried sex, without fear of a secret police. Depending on where one is in the country, Iran can feel like a modern southern European state or a peaceful and modernizing third-world country.

And in terms of public opinion, a sense of President Ahmadinejad's stature in Iran is not unlike the sense of President Bush's stature one might now find in New York, or even in the Midwest. Since Ahmadinejad's popularity started falling precipitously at the end of 2006, the newspapers have been filled with extremely harsh criticisms of him and his government. If Ahmadinejad's honeymoon with both Iranian voters and the Iranian media has been even shorter-lived than Bush's (which was extended by the events of 9/11, as it was), it does not mean that he is politically doomed, nor does it even mean that he cannot regain his popularity. In the minds of Iranians, foreign policy is in some sense inextricably linked to the price of tomatoes. But it is by no means certain that Iranians, who seem to prefer that their president project a more benign image abroad, are willing to forgo what they believe to be nuclear independence in order to buy cheaper tomatoes.

The most common political view expressed in Iran is one of justice and a nation's rights. For many decades Iranians have felt that their leaders have sold those rights away for a pittance, and foreign concepts of justice simply mean foreign hegemony and exploitation. The nuclear issue clearly fits into Iranians' worldview, and even those among the Westernized and highly educated population in Tehran -- which openly worries about war and believes President Ahmadinejad to be incompetent at best -- admitted to me in discussion about the nuclear standoff that Ahmadinejad is right in saying that the Americans "harf-e zoor meezanan," literally "speak in the words of force," but meaning that the Americans want to impose their views regardless of what is right or fair.

However, the Iranian government has to carefully balance its foreign policy goals with economic programs. Iranian obsession with the price of tomatoes is evident in the airtime the subject still receives on national television and in Ahmadinejad's remark, widely ridiculed here, that people should shop in his neighborhood because the price of tomatoes at his corner bodega hasn't increased. Ahmadinejad actually was not too far off the mark with his quip, which was intended as much as a dig against the nation's elite as a defense of his economy. Still, his populist tone isn't putting tomatoes on the tables of the working classes.

On a weekday afternoon at the Behjatabad bazaar, however, Tehran's chicest and most expensive outdoor food emporium, tomatoes of every variety are piled high in front of the vegetable stalls, and hawkers beckon the well-dressed shoppers to sample their wares. The exquisitely red tomatoes, out of reach for most south Tehrani residents, are bought by the kilo by men and women who pull up in their $120,000 Mercedeses and $60,000 BMWs, in a city otherwise filled with $8,000 Iranian-made cars. Many of them will go on to discuss the price they paid at dinner parties with the same seriousness they reserve for discussing the Dow Jones average or foreign-exchange rates.

The open dissatisfaction with the Ahmadinejad government should be viewed as being not unlike the dissatisfaction European and Asian voters often express with their presidents and prime ministers, and not as a prelude to the fall of an entire political system, in this case the Islamic Republic. Other than the minority of elite and secular Tehranis who would like nothing better than some version of a Western democracy -- albeit only if their class can wield power -- it is hard to find anyone here who feels that an ideal Islamic democracy is an unachievable goal under the concept of "velayat-e faqih," or rule of the jurisprudent. "The people of Iran" to whom President Bush beckons do indeed desire freedom, and they consistently express themselves in what are reasonably fair elections (certainly if one includes the Florida and Ohio standards of 2000 and 2004). But it is a monumental mistake to presume that the freedoms they seek are precisely the same ones Americans do.

One need only witness the massive participation in Shiite mourning ceremonies marking Tasua and Ashura at the end of January and beginning of February in Iran to grasp the fact that Iranians are by and large not only deeply religious but reasonably comfortable with the concept of velayat-e faqih, which is the fundamental philosophy of the Islamic Republic. Iran today is still very much a Shiite country and a source of inspiration to Shiites everywhere. In Yazd, for example, self-flagellation ceremonies at the Hazireh Mosque included large organized groups of Afghans and Iraqis, who beat themselves with chains with as much vigor as, if not more than, the locals.

It may be serendipitous for Ahmadinejad that his low point in popularity came both during Muharram, the most holy of Shiite months, and during the celebrations for the anniversary of the birth of the Islamic Republic. It is during these times that Iranians are most united -- particularly if faced by threats from abroad. From the anniversary of the day of Ayatollah Khomeini's arrival in Iran in 1979 (Feb. 1) until the anniversary of the victory of the Islamic revolution on Feb. 11, Iranian television broadcasts back-to-back documentaries on the revolution, Imam Khomeini (who is still very much viewed as a saint by a large part of the population), and foreign plots and intrigue against the Iranian people. Friday-prayer leaders and top officials across the country remind their bigger-than-usual crowds of the importance of unity in the face of outside threats, namely the U.S. and Israel. Even Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former hojatoleslam who is now ayatollah -- and Ahmadinejad's political nemesis -- has felt the need to toe the government line on Iran's nuclear policy, which rejects any preconditions for negotiations.

On Feb. 2 in Yazd, the current Friday-prayer leader, the mild-mannered, moderate and very charming Hojatoleslam Sadoughi, leaned on an automatic rifle as he stood at the lectern. Sadoughi, who as prayer leader is also the supreme leader's representative in the region, subtly reminded his audience that the revolution is at all times ready to defend itself.

However, Iranians by and large do not believe that the United States will attack Iran, mostly because they cannot envision that the White House could be so very stupid. Perhaps, as I have suggested to some, they put too much faith in the wisdom of George W. Bush. One former Revolutionary Guard told me, with absolutely no animosity, that Americans could not be so foolish as to attack a country where 10-year-olds have been willing to strap grenades to their waists and run under enemy tanks (referring to the Iran-Iraq war). Iranians generally agree, albeit nervously, with their government that U.S. aggressiveness and recent military moves are part of a psychological war to frighten Iran. Whether or not that it is the case, the Bush administration would do well to remember that a prideful Shiite Iran will choose martyrdom over humiliation any day of the week.

Yet Iranians are perhaps now more than ever willing to seek a rapprochement with the U.S., for both political and economic reasons. The attitude of the Iranian "street" is nowhere close to that of the Arab "street" today, and the sense of strength, even real power, that Iranians feel their nation wields means that they no longer see any downside to, nor feel threatened by, having relations with the United States.

Sadly, all indications are that another milestone opportunity is about to be squandered in favor of confrontation. President Ahmadinejad, who is not the decision maker on Iran's nuclear policy nor even on Iran's foreign policy goals, will in all probability survive politically. But his long-term survival will be better ensured if his government tones down the rhetoric on the nation's nuclear prowess, so that any unreasonableness is viewed as coming only from Bush and the West. Equally important is Ahmadinejad's government getting a handle on the price of tomatoes.

By Hooman Majd

Hooman Majd has written on Iranian affairs for Salon since 2007. His book on Iran and its people, "The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran" (Doubleday) was published in September. Majd travels regularly to Iran and has served as an advisor and translator for two Iranian presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on their trips to the United States and the United Nations.

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George W. Bush Iran Iraq Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Middle East Nuclear Weapons United Nations