Q&A from Iran

persian pillar 298 (photo credit: Reza Zarabi)
persian pillar 298
(photo credit: Reza Zarabi)
Reza Zarabi, JPost.com's Iranian blogger, answers readers' questions about life in Iran under the rule of Mahmoud Ahamdinejad Arnold Moscisker, Barnet, UK: Does the religious nature of the government adequately reflect society as a whole, or would the mainstream be more secular if they were allowed to be so? This question aims at the heart of the current conflict and the greater situation in Iran. Iran is an ultra-nationalistic society, yet not necessarily religious. Iranians view their complete history, especially their pre-Islamic empire, with much adoration and respect. Islam, to this day, is viewed, primarily by the youth, as an outside element that really does not belong to them or their society. The reverence Iranians have toward Islam comes from the evolution that Islam undertook within Iran, hence the Shia and Sunni divide. Shia Islam is more or less the Persian version of Islam. The religious nature of the government, is in no way representative of the population at large and in many ways, is at enmity against the population. The regime actively vilifies ancient Iranian heroes such as Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, Babak, and Ferdowsi by denouncing them as "illegitimate." Yet in classic Persian fashion, the more that true Iranian culture is suppressed by the regime, the more Iranians relate to their pre-Islamic past. Iran, at its core (within one's home) is a very secular society. Once the regime falls, many Iranians feel that Islam might even disappear from public life, to be only practiced within the home and in places of worship. This is especially true in regards to Islam's future in the political arena. David Firester, Tikrit: I am currently deployed in Iraq as a US soldier. I am curious as to where anti-Semitism comes from in Iran. Is it derived from education, media, or some other form of indoctrination? Is it even a prevalent concept at all? It always interests me to know to what degree anti-Semitism is present in Iran if at all it can be found in the general populace. There is no prevalent Anti-Semitism among the people of Iran. Jewish and Iranian history, although quite different, have intersected at certain times in the past. Iranians are highly educated, therefore, they know and appreciate this fact. For example, the Jewish prophet Esther was also the Queen of Iran and the Jewish prophet Daniel was a highly appointed figure during the Achaemaneid dynasty, the founders of the Persian Empire. There is no Wahabbi-like indoctrination of children in Iran. The regime continues to vilify Israel as the "Zionist entity" yet this notion does not resonate with the average Iranian. Jason, Bryant, Florence, Italy: I am fairly certain that the United States and Israel do not present a threat to Iranian national security. With that said, why the fuss about going nuclear? I imagine most Iranians want no part of a war with the US, or with Israel for that matter. Am I correct? If so, how can a new government be elected? Thank you. To Iranians, Israel has never been any type of threat. However, the United States has always been a threat, specifically within the last 60 years. If the clerical regime seeks nuclear weapons (which to date has not been verified by any IAEA report), then they would want them to deter the United States. From 1980-1988, Iran fought a very difficult war against then American ally Saddam Hussein and his Iraq. During that war, a large part of the Iranian infrastructure was destroyed, costing the lives of an estimated 1.5 million Iranians. At that time, the United States, along with overwhelming majority of the Arab world, funded Saddam's war against Iran and provided his regime with chemical weapons, which Saddam finally used on our people. To this day, there are approximately 30,000 former soldiers suffering from illnesses caused by exposure to chemical weapons. Regarding the question of a new government, the only viable option, for all those seeking regime change in Iran, is to align their support with the Iranian resistance WITHIN Iran. The support (whether financial, moral, or demonstrative) given to the Iranian population will be the only way that a new government could come into power. It is a vision that all clear-thinking Iranians pray for. Jim Haischer, Tampa, FL: In response to the headline teaser, let me first say, it isn't the Iranians I worry about, it's Ahmadinejad. My question: what has the economy been like in the past year for the average family? The economic situation in Iran, for the majority of Iranians, is quite grim. Years of economic mismanagement by the Islamic Republic government, the effects of US sponsored sanctions, and the imposition of the Sharia (Islamic law) have the left the Iranian economy in shambles. In December of 2006, the Teheran Times (a paper that is endorsed by the conservatives and the clerical regime) reported that in the year of 2006, the Iranian economy suffered from 15.9% inflation. One does not need to be an economic genius to understand what that does to a society. Most Iranians are on fixed incomes. Therefore, the effects of a failing economy are at the root of the concerns that ordinary Iranians presently have. Kelly Franz, Fort Worth, TX: I used to live in Iran from 73-77 and really liked the people and culture. In fact, I still keep in contact with an Iranian friend who came to the USA. Do the majority of Iranian people really hate Americans? Do they really support the current regime or do they tolerate due to fear? What can we do to let the average Iranian knows that we don't hate them but instead dislike their leadership? Most Iranians would give anything to turn the clock back to the time when you were living in Iran. Iranians have no enmity for anyone. They do not hate any group of people. They are an extremely proud people who love their culture and their country, yet there is no feeling of superiority over any given culture. Intrinsically, they are very secular. The overwhelming majority of Iranians detest the clerical regime. When the regime, specifically Khomenei, came into power, Iranians were promised more economic opportunities and more freedoms. These two contentions were at the heart of the 1979 revolution. Yet what Iranians received in return was government that was even more corrupt than the former Shah. The freedoms that they took for granted under the Shah were stripped away from them. What the world can do to help the Iranian population is align themselves with their resistance against the despotic regime of the Islamic Republic. This is the only option that will cause the fall of the regime. War, sanctions, endless threat against the lives of average Iranians only work in favor of the clerics. Lee Jakeman, Wellington, New Zealand: I get the impression that Ahmadinejad is more popular at home than is readily admitted, being seen as someone who has "stood up" to the rest of the world. Is this true? Absolutely not- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is despised by average Iranians. During his presidential campaign, he was an unknown figure who did not wear the cloth. That was his advantage against his clerical opponents. He was elected on a purely domestic agenda, to revamp the broken Iranian economy- not a word on "wiping Israel of the map", "the Holocaust being a myth", or any other type of nonsense which he has effectively used to embarrass the Iranian people. Noni Morgan, Jerusalem: Do you think that Ahmadinejad is likely to be voted out of power in the next elections? If he survives his present term, conservatives and reformists alike feel that he has no chance of being re-elected. Currently there is a wave of fiery criticism coming from his political base. In his first 2 years, he has not kept one substantial promise regarding the economy and has successfully alienated Iran from the rest of the world. There are even growing efforts, by both conservatives and reformists, to have him impeached. Zak Akkerman-Feig, Jerusalem: Reza, Thanks for taking my question. I wanted to ask about freedom of speech in Iran - do you feel that you can say what you like without fear of punishment from the State? It depends. The freedom of speech that citizens of westernized countries enjoy does not exist in Iran. If you are an Iranian citizen, you cannot disrespect the former and current Supreme Leaders, Islamic Law, or Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Yet there are trends. For example, if you are a theatrical writer, a novelist, a journalist, or a musician, you might be able to "push the envelope" and put out a work that would have been banned only a few months ago. Due to Khatammi's presidency, there has been a certain amount of leeway given to artists and writers that did not exist before the Khatammi presidency. Yet if a conservative trend comes back, these same artists and writers can be put out of work, literally overnight. Like many aspects of life within the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is seldom any consistency. Sami Eini, New York: I heard that Jews in Iran could only inherit property if a child converts to Islam. Is this correct? Also that the headmaster of the Jewish schools must be a Moslem. None are Jews. Regarding property rights, Iran, like many other countries in the region, is a patriarchal society, regardless of religion. For example, if a father dies, the son's inheritance will be more than the daughter's. This has nothing to do with religious affiliation whatsoever, so that assumption is not correct. Regarding Jewish schools, because of the implementation of the Sharia, school curriculum is both Islamic and and Jewish now. The Tanakh is taught in Persian, rather than in Hebrew. However, the Ozar Hatorah organization still conducts Hebrew lessons on Fridays, the day that most Iranians do not attend school or work. Mladen Andrijasevic, Beersheba: Was Robert Spencer correct in describing Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush as an invitation to convert to Islam, a da'wa, an Islamic requirement before waging war against the unbelievers. Do most Iranians view it this way? Absolutely not- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter was an attempt to feign to the Iranian public that the current regime is attempting to have dialogue with the American government. It, in no way, was a da'wa. Most Iranians view that letter this way. The letter was very poorly written, filled with ill-conceived platitudes that further confuse the situation and the history between both countries. The regime consistently tries to portray itself as having a ready ear for dialogue, yet their actions are simply a masquerade, intending only to fool the Iranian population. Ms. Shana, Portland, Maine, USA: Do you think Iran will attack Israel and if so do you think the US would support Israel with forces? Do you think if Iran does attack Israel that the people of Iran will support the move made by Ahmadinejad? No- for two reasons: Iran would not attack Israel for fear of retaliation. Secondly, no clear-thinking Iranian, which most are, would support an Iranian imposed war on the Jewish state. No Iranian mother would send her child to die for the "liberation of Palestine." This thought process does not exist in the minds of ordinary Iranians, no matter how the Western media portrays them. However, if Iran were attacked by anyone, regardless of who they are, all Iranians, conservatives and reformists alike, would rally around the regime to protect their country. Iran is an ultra-nationalistic society and in past times of war all have united, regardless of ethnicity or faith. Rick K, Los Angeles: Is there any religious freedom in Iran? If so what are the religions in Iran besides Islam? Under Khomenei's edict, shortly after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians were and are free to practice their religion, without "government interference." There are still many churches and synagogues within Iran. Zoroastrianism, the original state religion of Iran, has still a deep, if not more of an impact upon Iranian culture, than Islam has. For example, Iran's official calendar is not the Islamic Calendar that is used in the rest of the Muslim World, but rather the Iranian calendar, which is heavily based upon Zoroastrianism. Festivals such as Norouz (the Iranian New Year that falls on the first day of Spring), Char Shanbe Souri (the last Wednesday of the Iranian Year), Jashne Mehragan (a pre-Islamic festival in the Iranian month of Mehragan), and the Night of Yalda (the longest night of the year that is based upon Ancient Persian mythology) are all holidays that are heavily based upon the former state religion. These holidays unite all Iranians, both within Iran and in the Diaspora. The only religion that is looked down upon by the regime is the Bahai Faith. Starting out as an offshoot of Shia Islam, the Bahai Faith has grown to have an identity of its own. The regime views this religion as heretical and therefore, members of this faith are persecuted by the regime. However, there is still a substantial amount of Bahai Iranians within Iran. Eytan Leibovitz, Jerusalem: Dear Mr. Zarabi, although most Iranians don't view Israel as their archenemy, most Iranians will choose the side of Ahmadinadjad if Iran's nuclear facilities were to be attacked. How do you reconcile this with the Iranians being pro-peace? To understand this, one must first understand the nature of the Iranian people. Most Iranians do not view Israel as a threat and, in no way, would support an Iranian-imposed war against Israel. The overwhelming majority of Iran detests its government and view it as illegitimate. However, if Iran were to be attacked, conservatives, reformists and liberals would unite as in times past; not because of any fondness for the president, his policies, or the Islamic Republic government, but for the love of their homeland, their culture, and their families. Iran, in many ways, is an enigma. Being comprised of many ethnicities, one would think that this dynamic would be a stumbling block for unity, however, as in times past, when conflicts arise, all Iranians defend their homeland. Susan Johnson, Las Vegas, Nevada: How does the average person on the street REALLY feel about the USA and Israel? Do you think the average Iranian wants some sort of democracy in Iran? How can you improve the life of women in Iran? Being intrinsically secular, Iranians probably have more in common with their American and Israeli peers than with most of their neighbors. The average Iranian is greatly intrigued by American culture. American movies, books, and music are easily available and very popular within Iran. Regarding Israel, no Iranian has any enmity towards that country. During the reign of the former Shah, there were even many Israeli firms within Iran. Once a secular government comes into power in Teheran, diplomatic relations between Iran and Israel will probably be restored overnight. Regarding democracy, the majority of the country yearns for democratic change. However, this cannot be attained through the Islamic Republic regime. That is why efforts to align with the Iranian population's resistance will be most fruitful in bringing democracy to the Iranian nation. As far as the role of women in Iran, the 1979 revolution set back the role of women within Iranian society. However, Iranian women are allocated most of the same responsibilities that their male counterparts have. They are allowed to have positions in management, teach in universities, and even run for elected office. For example, the former Vice President of Iran (before the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) was a woman. In this respect, the role of women in Iran is much more progressive than most countries in the Islamic World. Christopher Gold, Melbourne, Australia: What, if any, foreign media access does the general population have access too? Television programming within the Islamic Republic is not the most exciting thing in the world. All sitcoms, sporting events, news, and most other programming is censored by and filtered through the "Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance." As a result, most Iranians rarely watch Islamic Republic programming, with the exception of a couple of popular sitcoms. However, Iranians do have a great amount of access to foreign media. Satellite dishes, although illegal, are owned by virtually most Iranians now. Within the past few years, the cost of these satellite dishes has gone down considerably, giving more people access to foreign media. Having myself watched programming received from these satellite dishes, I can assure you that Iranians are very well aware of the world around them. Iranians have access to all foreign news, westernized sitcoms and movies, European and American sporting events, and, yes, even some soft-core pornographic channels that are in some European countries. Regarding the Internet, the government does a "better" job of censoring that. However, the only censored websites are highly political in nature or illicit pornographic sites. When in Iran, one can have access to most media and news outlets throughout the world, even most, if not all, Israeli news outlets. Robby Brodsky, San Jose: I have read that Hebrew is not allow in Iranian Synagogues, is that true? I do not believe that to be true at all. Even the Islamic government has a website in Hebrew. The organization of Ozar Hatorah still conducts Hebrew lessons for Jewish pupils within Iran. Under Khomenei's edict, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians are to be protected by law. I have never heard of any type of censorship from the Islamic Government towards religious minorities worshiping within their house of worship. Now the concept of Jewish schools is quite different. The government requires these schools to teach some "mandatory" classes, with some having a heavy Islamic slant. Yet, regarding houses of worship (churches and synagogues), the government primarily keeps out of their affairs. Joseph Feld, London: How genuine is Iranian democracy? How much do the ayatollahs limit the choice of candidates? Iranian democracy is non-existent. The people of Iran have a very limited, if any, say regarding the state of their nation and the future direction of Iran. The regime describes the political system in Iran as a democracy that is based upon Islamic principles and teachings. Yet that could not be further from the truth. The political system within Iran is a Theo-despotism. Even according the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the majority of power rests with the un-elected Supreme Leader and the un-elected Guardian Council. Therefore, elected leadership within the Iranian political arena has no substantial means of power, whether they are reformists such as former President Khatammi or conservatives like current President Ahmadinejad. The clerical regime not only controls political propaganda within Iran, but also a candidate's eligibility. All candidates must submit their candidacy to the Guardian Council. If, for some reason, they are deemed as not "Islamic" enough or do not hold the worldviews of the un-elected Guardian Council and/or the Supreme Leader, they are not allowed to be on the ballot. In other words, elections are rigged by the clerical regime from the onset. Greger Donner, Berlin: How would you feel if Israel attacked Iran? As an Iranian, I would feel that such an event would be the worst-case scenario. Most experts believe that such an attack will spiral the broader Middle East into a vicious regional war, with a final result that no one can clearly predict. As a proponent of democratic change, I would feel that such an action would result in an opportunity forever lost to both Iran and Israel. Unlike the Arab world and even some places in Eastern Europe, there is no prevalent anti-Semitism among the Iranian people. There is no enmity for Israel and her citizens among ordinary Iranians. Furthermore, there is also a significant portion of the Israeli population that are of Iranian origin and/or Iranian expatriates. There is no need for these two countries, which once were close allies, to go to war against each other. If the sole concern of the Israeli government is an impending war with Iran, then, I must say, that they have a failed approach in bringing lasting peace and security for their people. Instead of focusing on the Islamic Republic government, they should, both overtly and covertly, align themselves with overwhelming resistance of the Iranian population and help them bring democratic change to their country. When that occurs, these two sworn enemies will become staunch allies once again, literally overnight. Victor Hanan, Fairfax, USA: I read your article in response to Morris's scenario. I would like to know what is the basis of your contention? Given the fact that Hitler was saying the same thing as Ahmadinejad, and followed thru with his plans, what makes you think that Ahmadinejad won't? The bottom line is, he is still the president and he possesses certain powers given to him not only by the ruling group but also by the his people. So you must explain your contention that it is paranoia and not facts that is fueling Morris's article. My contention to Morris is quite simple. It is based on two points that most historians and political scientists would agree with. 1. The Iran of 2007 is not the Germany of 1939. The sweeping anti-Semitism that infected the intellectuals, artists, politicians, businessman, and most of the ordinary citizens of post WWI Europe is not prevalent in Iran. As stated before, both cultures, although quite different, have shared historical and cultural sensitivities. In addition, both cultures reside in an area of the world where they have a common "rival," specifically the Arab World. Once a new government appears in Teheran, it is in the strategic and security interests of both Israel and Iran to have close ties with each other. 2. The endless comparisons between the person of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler is not only an inefficient method in explaining the current crisis, but is also confuses those who do not have a proper grasp on historical context. During and after his ascension to the role of the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler had managed to consolidate so much power that he became the de-facto king of Germany. In addition, he and his policies had the overwhelming approval of the German people. In contrast, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is just a superficial leader, possessing no power over the Iranian armed forces, no power as it relates to matters of foreign policy, and, most importantly, no influence on the future direction of Iran. In further contrast to Hitler, Ahmadinejad is now extremely unpopular among Iranians. Having failed to keep any substantial campaign promise, Ahmadinejad has also managed to alienate his conservative base. There are even growing efforts to have him impeached. Anytime political writers and op-ed pieces warn of "history repeating itself", we must not take them at their word but rather discern the propaganda from historical fact. The Hitler example just doesn't work- different people, different times, different places, different views, and different histories. John Sole, Philadelphia: An Iranian friend in America once said to me that if there was an emigration law in Iran in which anyone could leave the country, that Iran would have no people left. If the intent of this sentiment is the case in Iran, why is there not more popular dissent against the existing government? There is a socio-economic phenomenon known as "Brain Drain." Simplified, brain drain is the phenomenon that a country experiences when their human capital (i.e. doctors, lawyers, scholars, professors, artists, entrepreneurs, etc.) migrate outside their homeland because of their belief that their country is not a conducive place for them to reach their full, God-given potentials. A startling report published in the The Washington Prism in January of 2006 claims that the International Monetary Fund considers Iran to be the highest ranked in Brain Drain among developing countries. The report further estimated that 150,000 people exit Iran per year due to this phenomenon. Even the Islamic Republic News Agency (the official news agency of the regime) reports the figure to be at 200,000 per year. Regarding popular dissent, the overwhelming majority of Iranians have grown to detest their government. Years of economic turmoil, the loss of personal freedoms, the much resented Islamisization of Iran, mingled with the regime's broken promises, all the while the mullahs line their own pockets with ill-gained riches, have taken their toll on the Iranian population. Currently, I can think of no other country in the region that is as ripe for a revolution as is Iran. However, if the world is to help Iranians overcome this despotism, it must be done through calculated diplomacy and overt support for the Iranian population. Any attack on Iran will only give additional life to the regime. The regime's only method of survival during the 1980s was the Iraq imposed war on Iran. Conflict is their life blood. The notion of revolution is always easier said than done, however, Iranians can no longer endure the autocratic rule of the Islamic Republic. There are many in the world who ignorantly criticize the Iranian population for tolerating this government, yet that notion is seldom understood before it is expressed. A wise Iranian once said that "the mystiqe of Revolution only exists in the minds of those that have never experienced it." Revolution is the ultimate gamble that a society can take. For years Iranians feared of another revolution- the popular mantra was, "We did it once and look where it got us." Yet that opinion has long been dead. With the help of all proponents of democratic change, there is no doubt that Iranians themselves can successfully overthrow the Islamic Republic and make Iran, Iran again.