Sunday, January 13, 2008

Barbara Slavin, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies

Barbara Slavin is not the first journalist to become attracted to the puzzling and intriguing Iran’s political system, but is among the very few who admits that she is not so taken with this great revolution. As a matter of fact, she sees signs of decay in the Islamic Republic. In the very first few pages of the book, she says, “Having lived in the Soviet Union in the 1970’s and China a decade later, I knew a decaying revolution when I saw one.” In her twelve chaptered book, she covers her observation of the last ten years of the Islamic Republic with occasional flashbacks to earlier events, and her analysis of its complicated relationship with the United States.

Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies, is a clear departure from the previous Western reviews of the Islamic Republic, which tended not only to keep Iran in a mystical shadow, but accentuated its ambiguity. This book is a pioneer in demystifying what was in three decade intentionally mystified. In each chapter the author tries to explain simply as possible this hybrid of an old civilization and culture, modern technology and education, and religious revolution, and the three dimensions of Islamic Republic of Iran which are woven together and need to be untangled.

Twenty-nine years into the revolution, I did not expect to read anything new in this book, though I found it a very helpful manual in reading Iran’s Islamic Republic system of government. Its best part is the fourth chapter, “The Iranian Square Dance.” She not only draws a diagram of the various councils and assemblies and their place in the hierarchy of Iranian political system, but explains their role and the limits of their power. The collaboration among the various forces of the government and how they take turns whenever they are called for is compared to a square dance with the supreme leader in the middle and the rest around him waiting for their turn to come in the middle. Had this book been written before, we would have come to a much better solution for many of our problems. We would surely not have had the brouhaha over Ahmadinejad in Columbia University, but university president Bollinger might had found a chance to show a little wisdom and treat him more suitably in a way beneficial to all. I wish a copy of this book would find its way to the State Department for future use, if there is any future left for it to be used!

As I’m posting this article, we are all worried over the parliamentary election in late March. At this point I’m counting on “surprises” along the lines of Slavin’s square dance theory. It seems I’m not alone, since Behzad Nabavi, a reformist candidate from Tehran, considering the possibilities of being vetted by the Guardian Council, says “we are used to being nominated every other term.” More likely, he is counting on the square dance theory too.

Another part of the book I find interesting was the chapter on Ahmadinejad, as the president, as a person and, somehow, his becoming who he is. I wish in this chapter Slavin would have talked about the questions surrounding his dubious election. This election was not overseen by any human rights watchdog group and out of 1400 journalist who had gone to Iran to cover the election only handful remained for election day, the rest having to leave the country the day before election since their visas was not renewed as was promised, and the result of the election was what the Ministry of Internal Affairs has provided. None was mentioned.

The four chapters on the “Children of Revolution,” “Opposition,” “Reformists,” and “Mullahs” are very helpful in understanding not only the Islamic Republic but Iran itself.

If it had been written some six or eight years ago, we would not have had Ahmadinejad and his cronies in power today; Washington would have known that the reformists are not “irrelevant.” In these chapters, however, I wish Slavin had departed from the traditional formal journalistic style and been more creative, as she was in chapter four. Though she mentioned that “Iranians have surprised all of us many times and they might do again,” I think working within the framework of her profession did not allow her to go where real changes and surprises in Iran has always been initiated. Universities have been the front line of opposition in Iran in last seventy five years, and as the most important political institution, it deserved a chapter to itself.

Also totally missing was Iranian women as a political institution and not just a gender. Though the Islamic Republic refrains from acknowledging it, the position of women as the speaker of almost all the reform-minded and progressive groups and parties and as a token of credibility even for the fundamentalists indicates their undeniable importance in Iranian politics. They were not looked into as the decisive factors that they are, except as included among “youth” or some other group. The two elections of Mohammad Khatami and the sixth parliament as well as the last municipal election owe their victory to them.

The last three chapters of the book were devoted to the Iran – America relations: The conflicts between the White House and the State Department and between the various groups within them and the similar conflicts between their counterparts in Iran; also, the problem of timing: When Iran was ready, the U.S. was not and vice versa. Each one was dragged its feet to close the deal to delay for a more auspicious time. But two important questions were never raised in this book or elsewhere.

One is the hostility of the hardline cleric towards the Democrats in the United States. Were it not for President Carter, whose campaigned was centered on human rights, particularly in other countries, as he declared in his inaugural speech, the Iranian revolution would have taken a different course. As Mohsen Sazegara admitted to her, “We did not expect such a quick victory.” And indeed, the Islamic Republic owes its victory to this “suddenness” urged by Carter administration, and yet the first response was anger at him. America allowing the Shah to come to the United States was more of a pretext and was used as for domestic political consumption.

The other equally important question is the hostility of Bush administration, and even Clinton’s, towards the reformist Khatami government, in spite of their pro-democracy rhetoric. Though Slavin vaguely referred to it as a lost opportunity and a series of mishaps in the Clinton administration, she never raised the question of whether this was a failure or a matter of deliberate policy. I hope we do not have to wait another two decades to find out about to find out. I pray that the related documents were not among those which Oliver North and Fawn Hall brought to their shredding parties.

Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies undoubtedly helps understand Iranian complex system, although it does not touch the other more important part, American foreign policy. Still I believe, putting aside the political relation of the two countries, that there is something more important involved here. With at least two millions Iranians living in the United States, and several thousands of mixed families and all those born here, it is about time to start a process of ending that animosity. I think the book is successful in that regard. To a great extend, Iranians are alienated from the Islamic Republic, and to great degree she rightly viewed Iranians in opposition to the Islamic rulers. She mentioned even in her talks that if given a fair election Iranian would not elect any of the Islamists to office. The overall impression of Iranians in this book is a more balanced and gentle. They are portrait more sympathetically and humanely. The hostile, angry and unpredictable features which for decades were imposed on Iranian seems be fading away, to be replaced by a more tolerant and friendly one. Undoubtedly if this book is not the beginning of a relationship between Iran and the United States, which I think it is not, surely it is at least the beginning of de-demonizing the grand parents of thousands of American citizens.

1 comment:

Daisy said...

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