Postcard from Iran

Posters along a Tehran expressway advertising Iranian-made movies. The one on the left is titled “Soghaat-é Farang” (“Gift from the West”); the one on the right is titled “Zan-é Badali” (“Wrong Woman”). Photo by Eshragh Motahar.

During the past year, I traveled twice to Iran, my first visits to my home country in nearly 30 years. I traveled to Tehran, Kashan, Esfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Nai’in, and the Caspian region. The first thing that struck me was the extraordinary amount of traffic and pollution—by-products of high population growth rates, income increases, low gasoline prices, and lax pollution controls. The nearly doubling of the population in 30 years means that the dirt lane connecting my childhood village to Esfahan is now a six-lane highway (built to international standards).

The horrendous traffic means long taxi rides and an opportunity for chatting about current events. Taxis in Iran collect other passengers on the way, unless the first passenger specifies otherwise. I was struck by how openly taxi drivers and passengers talked about the government. There is a similar openness in discussions at restaurants, teahouses, museums, historical monuments, poets’ mausoleums, public gardens, parks, and so on.

Especially regarding foreign policy, Americans tend to use “we” to refer to U.S. government policies and actions. In Iran, however, I never heard this form of speech—not even from those who had voted for the government in power. It was always “they,” or “they, themselves.” The criticisms ranged from corruption, poor planning, and long delays (e.g., the metro project in Esfahan), to support for Hezbollah in Lebanon (“why don’t ‘they’ spend the funds here where it’s most needed?”). A group of visiting teachers at Hafez’s shrine in Shiraz was worried about economic mismanagement. A bank employee in Esfahan was critical of curtailment of religious and political freedoms. A restaurant owner in Yazd was complaining about last-minute interference by a local committee that resulted in his having to cancel a concert and lose a few thousand dollars of investment. A female lawyer in Tehran was concerned about potential government surveillance of cell phone conversations. Text-messaging of jokes (especially about the president) over the ubiquitous cell phones is quite common.

And yet there was one issue on which I never heard a dissenting voice—nuclear energy. Because of international treaties signed both by the United States and Iran, Iranians regard research and development toward achieving nuclear energy as an “indisputable right.”

A young, soft-spoken university student who was majoring in accounting and driving a taxi to pay for his education told me, “Why not? Why shouldn’t Iran have the right?”

When I asked him if, given the power structure of the world that we live in, it might make sense to temper one’s aspirations, he replied “Not on this issue.” He continued very calmly and emphatically: “I’m prepared to put my life on the line to defend Iran’s right.”

FPIF contributor Eshragh Motahar is a professor of economics at Union College.