Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Larry Cohler-Esses Travels to Iran and Discovers a Place with Politics

In the wake of the international agreement with Iran, The Forward has managed to send one of its reporters to Iran for an extensive trip. Larry Cohler-Esses managed to meet private citizens, members of the legislature, republican guards, grand ayatollahs, and many others all over the country. He writes about his trip in a lengthy piece published this morning: A Jewish Journalist's Exclusive Look Inside Iran. 

It's a lengthy report, but well worth a read for anyone interested in Iran, or the Iran deal currently before Congress. 

Image: Larry Cohler-Esses
Some excerpts from the article:  
Thirty-six years after ... Iranians coalesced around the elderly Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to overthrow the shah’s corrupt rule, the unique, theocratically controlled electoral polity he established sits today on the precipice of a huge change. After decades of isolation, many (though not all) of the international sanctions imposed against it are slated to be dropped in exchange for Shi’ite Tehran submitting to a nuclear inspection regime of unprecedented scope. American sanctions will also be lifted if Congress does not veto the deal negotiated by the United States and the five world powers. Iran consequently stands to reap a huge windfall of unfrozen assets, foreign investments and ramped-up trade that will eventually bring in hundreds of billions of dollars.
At the same time, this opening up threatens to bring with it — the world.
My visit ... represented something special: I was the first journalist from a Jewish, pro-Israel (if not always pro-Israel government) publication to be granted a journalist’s visa since the 1979 Revolution.
The Iranian Jewish community, whose members are today free to stay in the country or emigrate, currently numbers anywhere from 9,000 to 20,000, depending on whom you talk to, and down from 80,000 to 100,000 before the revolution. These Jews — along with Christians and Zoroastrians — are tolerated and protected under Iranian law, but subject to a number of discriminatory laws and practices that limit their opportunities for work in senior government posts and in other ways. But they do not limit their opportunities in business.

The Jews, who felt free to complain to me openly about these areas of discrimination, as they do to the government, are basically well-protected second-class citizens — a broadly prosperous, largely middle-class community whose members have no hesitation about walking down the streets of Tehran wearing yarmulkes.

But there is a catch. The government makes a rigid distinction between hostility to “the Zionist entity” and respect for followers of Judaism. As for that Zionist entity where some 6 million Jews live, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s avowal that Israel “must vanish from the page of time” or, as it has been inaccurately translated , “wiped off the map” (either way, an unequivocal threat) continues to be the policy of the Islamic Republic….
During the course of my conversations with several senior ayatollahs and prominent political and government officials, it became clear that there is high-placed dissent to the official line against Israel. No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state. But pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies. Others, notwithstanding their ideological objection to a Jewish state, made it clear they would accept a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians if the Palestinians were to negotiate one and approve it in a referendum.

Ordinary Iranians with whom I spoke have no interest at all in attacking Israel; their concern is with their own sense of isolation and economic struggle. Official government statistics estimate the unemployment in Iran at around 10%. But unofficial sources estimate it as twice that — and this in a context in which only 36% of the population participates in the workforce. An estimated 150,000 Iranians with college educations leave the country yearly.
But among ordinary Iranians the sense that something is now opening up in the country is pervasive.

In Iran today, freedom of the press remains a dream. But freedom of tongue has been set loose. ….
In Shiraz, in south-central Iran, Hassan Sha’aeri, a locksmith who appeared to be in his 60s with a shop on Zand Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, told me: “Generally speaking, people are in favor of the agreement. But I personally don’t think it will make any special change in the lives of people. The power holders will not allow it to benefit the people.”

Asked if he thought the agreement could open up Iran to the world and usher in broader cultural changes, Sha’aeri, a man old enough to recall earlier days, said: “Before the revolution we had all kinds of arts and culture. Of course, we had some limitations. But now there are many more problems in terms of things like the economy and political prisoners.”

“We have no enmity toward any countries,” Sha’aeri said in regard to Israel. Besides, he added as a small group of men in his shop listened in, “I think it’s impossible to destroy Israel.” If Iran were to attack the Jewish state, he said, “there will be huge destruction in return. It cannot happen. Every action has a reaction. Israel will not stay motionless, and the United States will not stay motionless.”
As I left Sha’aeri’s shop, the dignified locksmith said he wanted me to know that separately from everything else, “I’m happy people like you come here and seek to make friends. If people like you come here, I will learn from them.” …

When Rouhani came to the United Nations, soon after his surprise election victory he made it clear that the nuclear agreement he sought was not just about unfreezing financial sanctions in exchange for nuclear transparency. “Within a very short period of time there will be a settlement of the nuclear issue,” he told the New York press corps then . “And step-by-step [this will] pave the way for Iran’s better relations with the West, including the expansion of economic ties, the expansion of cultural ties and the expansion of relations between the Western nations and Iran.”

But under Iran’s hybrid theocratic electoral structure, it is Khamenei, not the elected president of the country, who has the last word, and he seems to be on guard already against what his security services regard as the dangers of a “velvet revolution.”

“We have repeatedly said we do not negotiate with the U.S. on regional or international affairs, not even on bilateral issues,” he said July 18, shortly after the nuclear agreement was signed. “There are some exceptions, like the nuclear program that we negotiated with Americans to serve our interests. U.S. policies in the region are diametrically opposed with Iran’s policies.”
Twelve years after President George W. Bush bet that the exercise of American hard power could introduce democracy to Iraq at the point of a gun and spread its virtues regionwide, his successor appears to have premised his nuclear agreement with Iraq’s neighbor on a much different bet: a wager, essentially, on the long-term efficacy of soft power. …. 
Read  more HERE.

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