The public and the private

My following article appeared in yesterday’s Guardian Comment is Free section:

Spending time in Iran inevitably results in endless conversations about politics. Virtually everybody has an opinion about the US, Israel, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the nuclear issue, women’s rights or even underground hip-hop (one of the country’s most famous rappers was recently arrested in Tehran for subversive activity.) I’ve never visited a country where the bounds of behaviour are so profoundly divided between the public and private spaces.

The country’s former vice president in parliamentary legal affairs under previous President Khatami, Mohammed Ali Abtahi – he is also a popular reformist blogger – told me last week that the country’s current tensions with the west were highly regrettable, but could be resolved with better diplomacy. He imagined an Iran with strict Islamic values, filtering of “pornographic and inflammatory” websites, no engagement with Israel but societal liberalisation. Like many in Iran, Abtahi is a contradictory figure – not willing to tell the west what they wanted to hear about the Islamic republic – but he remains a believer in strong engagement with the US.

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Iran was the private discussion over the Iraq war. State-run media was comprehensively against the US-led occupation, but many people told me, including Abtahi, that a sudden withdrawal of American troops from the war-ravaged nation was inadvisable. There was a general belief that the country’s chaos would only worsen if US forces left too suddenly. I had simply expected common consensus against the American presence. Despite this position, nobody had any comprehensive ideas how to end the current crisis.

The Iran regularly portrayed in the western media – a Jew-hating president determined to strike Israel – is shunned by many Iranians. Access to the internet is pervasive – around one million blogs exist in Iran and while many are for meeting boys and girls, rather than political in nature, the web has changed the dialogue – and young Iranians are very well aware of the damage being done to their country by Ahmadinjad’s ravings (though none supported a US strike against the country). Iranians appear willing to shun US foreign policy while warmly embracing the American and British peoples, despite both countries meddling in the republic.

Internet censorship is a growing problem, however. Type in words like “choral” or “queer” into Google and both will be blocked (the former because “oral” is a banned phrase.) Google Earth is not generally accessible. There is little international e-business because Iranians can’t easily obtain a Visa or Mastercard, making such transactions virtually impossible (likewise trying to purchase products on sites like Amazon.) The mullahs have realised the potential of the internet – magazine editor and blogger Bozorgmehr Sharafedin said that the reformist movement was failing to gain international support because it translated none of its newspapers into English – and now train bloggers in the holy city of Qom.

Using the internet at Iranian “coffeenets” is an interesting experience. Numerous, seemingly harmless sites are blocked – Australian news-sites are filtered, the New York Times is not – and censorship appears to be based on certain key words appearing regularly on websites. Like in China, where western multinationals are covertly assisting the government in building a massive filtering system, the Iranians, under Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, are following a similar path. Engagement with the outside world is matched by a paranoid mentality that views many Western sources as suspect.

The surreal nature of the regime was highlighted when I spent the day at the offices of the magazine edited by Sharafedin. He received a call from a bureaucrat inside the ministry of culture and was asked why his publication had been released without covers for the past two months. Sharafedin explained that glossy covers had been attached to all editions, and clearly the copies that the ministry had received had been inadvertently published without them (every publication must be submitted weekly to the ministry for their comments and criticisms.) After a short, terse conversation, Sharafedin organised copies of his magazine to be sent to the ministry immediately.

While Iran is an authoritarian country, there is far greater political debate there than many other Middle Eastern nations (such as, say, Syria). Iranians may be the most hospitable people in the world, and yet any American or Israeli attack against the country’s nuclear facilities would be met with even-greater repression at home and rallying around the conservative leadership. For many westerners, the concept of Islam at the heart of a prosperous nation is too much to bear. It’s a sad indictment of many post 9/11 mindsets.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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