The Real Iran

Trita Parsi goes be­yond car­i­ca­tures.

Forward Magazine - - News -

Over the course of the past 25 years, the im­age of Iran pre­sented by the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment has be­come in­creas­ingly sim­plis­tic, one-di­men­sional, void of any nu­ance — in short, in­com­plete at best and in­ac­cu­rate at worst. The Ira­nian gov­ern­ment it­self has con­trib­uted greatly to re­duc­ing the im­age of Iran to an in­vari­ably men­ac­ing en­tity with no other pur­pose than to cre­ate headaches for the West and Is­rael.

This sim­plis­tic im­age of Iran has be­come so per­va­sive that Western jour­nal­ists al­most with­out ex­cep­tion are shocked when they visit the coun­try and dis­cover a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent re­al­ity.

And so it was with Larry Cohler-Esses’s re­port about his re­cent visit to Iran. Cohler-Esses’s de­scrip­tion of Iran con­tra­dicted at its core the im­age and the as­sess­ment of Ira­nian in­ten­tions pre­sented by Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu. This was not be­cause the For­ward re­porter did not come across hos­tile in­ten­tions to­ward Is­rael among Ira­nian hard-lin­ers, but be­cause he came across the one thing Ne­tanyahu has de­nied Iran in his at­tempt to push Is­rael and the United States to­ward a mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion with that coun­try: nu­ance.

It may sound like a cliché, but Iran is not a mono­lith. Even among the hard- lin­ers, sig­nif­i­cant di­vi­sions ex­ist on is­sues as ide­o­log­i­cally crit­i­cal as the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic’s po­si­tion on Is­rael.

The real Iran is very dif­fer­ent from Ne­tanyahu’s Iran. The Is­raeli prime min­is­ter’s de­pic­tions of Iran have be­come in­creas­ingly com­i­cal over the years, from claim­ing that Iran con­sti­tutes an ex­is­ten­tial threat to Is­rael (ques­tion­able at best, as this is chal­lenged by many se­nior of­fi­cials in Is­rael’s se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment), to as­sert­ing that Ira­ni­ans are not al­lowed to wear jeans ( prompt­ing Ira­ni­ans to take to so­cial media to post pic­tures of them­selves wear­ing jeans to mock Ne­tanyahu), to tweet­ing that Iran’s ul­ti­mate ob­jec­tive is to take over the en­tire planet, to pre­sent­ing Iran as if it is as ob­sessed with Is­rael as Ne­tanyahu is with Iran.

A sin­gle week in Iran was suf­fi­cient for Cohler­Esses to dis­cover a dif­fer­ent re­al­ity where Ira­ni­ans stake their at­ti­tudes to­ward Is­rael more on Is­raeli poli­cies than on Is­lamic ide­olo­gies. Where the de­sire to con­front Is­rael can be found among only a small mi­nor­ity and is over­shad­owed by the de­sire to be left alone, which is held by the ma­jor­ity. Where the ven­omous rhetoric against Is­rael com­ing from parts of the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment does not trans­late into hos­til­ity to­ward a self-iden­ti­fied Amer­i­can Jewish jour­nal­ist writ­ing for a Jewish pro-Is­rael pa­per — not even from mem­bers of Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary

Guard Corps, who let that jour­nal­ist cut through the line and use his cam­era in places where he wasn’t per­mit­ted to do so.

The re­al­ity is that most Ira­ni­ans worry more about traf­fic than they worry about Is­rael. They’re sim­ply too busy to ob­sess about Is­rael — Ne­tanyahu’s and Ira­nian hard-lin­ers’ the­atrics notwith­stand­ing.

Skep­tics counter by ar­gu­ing that these moder- ate Ira­ni­ans are ul­ti­mately ir­rel­e­vant, since the real power lies in the hands of the hard-lin­ers who ad­here to an un­com­pro­mis­ing, ide­o­log­i­cally driven, anti-Is­rael agenda.

But these skep­tics also ar­gued that Iran’s mod­er­ate pres­i­dent, Has­san Rouhani, would never be able to win the pres­i­dency; that he would never be able to get a green light to ne­go­ti­ate di­rectly with the United States; that he would never be able to sign an in­terim deal with Washington that en­tailed lim­it­ing Iran’s en­rich­ment ca­pac­ity; that the Ira­ni­ans would never be able to up­hold their end of the bar­gain in that in­terim deal; that ul­ti­mately, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps would never agree to a deal with the United States, be­cause en­mity with Washington was an im­mov­able ide­o­log­i­cal pil­lar of the Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion.

On ev­ery sin­gle point, the skep­tics were wrong. Rouhani did win the elec­tions, and only months later he did have a his­toric tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion with Pres­i­dent Obama. He did sign an in­terim agree­ment with Washington, and Iran did fully live up to its obli­ga­tions in for­mu­lat­ing the deal. And Iran’s supreme leader has, through­out all this, backed the ne­go­ti­a­tions and pro­tected Rouhani from his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents in Tehran.

In fact, as pro­found as en­mity with Washington may be on the Ira­nian side ide­o­log­i­cally, you might ar­gue that it’s even more deep-rooted on the Amer­i­can side, given the fe­roc­ity and vit­riol of the cur­rent de­bate in Congress.

Make no mis­take: From an Is­raeli per­spec­tive, Iran will con­tinue to pose nu­mer­ous chal­lenges to Is­rael. De­spite Ira­ni­ans’ de­sire to dis­en­tan­gle them­selves from Is­rael, geopo­lit­i­cal forces will en­sure var­i­ous de­grees of ten­sion be­tween the two coun­tries for the fore­see­able fu­ture. But pre­cisely be­cause of the dy­nam­ics in­side Iran — pre­cisely be­cause of the dif­fer­ing per­spec­tives and nu­ances that do ex­ist — there is no rea­son to be­lieve that a con­fronta­tion be­tween the two sides is in­evitable. There is no

'Most Ira­ni­ans worry more about traf­fic than they worry about Is­rael.'

rea­son to be­lieve that the threats and chal­lenges the two pose to­ward each other can­not be man­aged.

On the con­trary, the big­gest dan­ger in eras­ing the un­de­ni­able nu­ances that ex­ist in Iran is pre­cisely that it can end up mak­ing an avoid­able con­fronta­tion un­avoid­able.

Trita Parsi is pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Ira­nian Amer­i­can Coun­cil and the au­thor of “Treach­er­ous Al­liance: The Se­cret Deal­ings of Is­rael, Iran, and the United States” ( Yale Univer­sity Press, 2007).

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