My first experience with Iran came after the February 1, 1979 return of the exiled religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. I was an Army officer stationed near Wiesbaden, West Germany and members of our unit had been tasked to help with the evacuation and processing of American citizens fleeing Iran. It was immediately evident that there would be a revolution in Iran to oust the government of Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar. The stories from the American refugees confirmed that Iran was becoming increasingly unstable and the days of government as it existed under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi were over.
We planned a number of actions to help stabilize the evacuation, including sending members of our unit to Iran. We all believed that the next major war would be over oil in the Middle East, and thought this was its beginning. It turned out we were wrong about when there would be a war for oil. While we were in the middle of the evacuation, I returned to Iowa to separate from the Army. I still remember listening to the radio in my apartment on November 4, 1979, when the report came that 53 American hostages had been seized at the American Embassy in Tehran. We were all beginning to learn about Iran.
Fast forward to today, and Iran seeks to be a major regional force in the Middle East in a context where the United States dominates world affairs. The Islamic Revolution that began in 1979, engendered Islamic fundamentalism throughout the region. The key points about Iran are that the people in Iran seem anything like the stereotype of religious fundamentalism we see in the mainstream media and the culture is anything but homogeneous.
When I discuss life in Iran with Iranians who live in Iowa, it is a personal story. They have relatives living a life apart from what we see in the mainstream news media. They have direct connections by telephone and the internet the same way Iowans have with each other. The talk is about the things that make up their social and economic life. They discuss the fear created when a U.S. drone flies a mission near their homes. Western culture influences behavior as a result of Iranians traveling abroad and attending western colleges and universities. These influences are changing Iran and are a point of concern to fundamentalists. What is striking to me is that power in the country may lie with the religious elite and the government, but the people of Iran seem a lot like people I know in my neighborhood. The diversity of opinion among Iranian people makes characterization of the country as good, bad or neutral a flawed endeavor, even if people like former UN Ambassador John Bolton demonize Iran and make accusations about their intentions to deceive the world community.
The recent flap over whether Iran would enrich uranium for its nuclear program outside the country is an example of the lack of constancy of purpose within the Iran government. On October 1 in Geneva, the Obama Administration announced an agreement between the United States and Iran. Iran agreed to ship 2,600 pounds of uranium to Russia for enrichment and then the enriched uranium would be returned to Iran for use in medical applications and in nuclear power reactors. In light of the recently released photographs of the enrichment facility near the Shiite Muslim city of Qom, this was perceived as a breakthrough. It was evidence that the Iranians were willing to refrain from finishing this nuclear enrichment facility, and stand down from their perceived efforts at nuclear weapons proliferation. A month later, the Iranian government reversed its position. This apparent and swift 180 degree policy shift may likely have been the result of the lack of a clear voice within Iran’s government. The skeptics say the October 1 statement by Iran was intentional and a willful deceit. Iran watchers I know believe this quick turnabout was a result of bad diplomacy.
To sum up the current state of Iran’s nuclear intent in a blog post is tough. Does Iran have nuclear intentions beyond running nuclear reactors to generate electricity and to support medical applications? Is there a nuclear weapons program within Iran to counter the perceived threat of Israel’s nuclear arsenal? Don’t look for answers here.
What Iowans can do about Iran is to support President Obama’s efforts to negotiate the reduction of the threat of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, including Iran. One more thing: take the assertions made by John Bolton and others, that Iran is stonewalling the United States, or that they want to harm the United States and it’s allies, with a grain of salt.
If we focus some of our attention on the people of Iran, we may find that this changing and largely Shiite Republic is hardly a homogeneous force of hatred directed at the United States. If Iran’s goal is to become a significant regional power, then they must engage the world community in peace. Iranians I see and know believe that is possible.
~Paul Deaton is a native Iowan living in rural Johnson County.