The clamor of sabre-rattling is just the latest chapter in the saga of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations, which have remained officially moribund since student protestors seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran at the height of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Many journalists have written about the Iranian regime since then, about its ambitions and weaknesses, and the images conjured are anything but positive -- bearded fundamentalists calling for "Death to America," disenfranchized women, and the fiery and bewildering Holocaust denial of self-styled populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But few reporters have contributed an account with the breadth and nuance of Slavin. In "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies," the USA Today senior correspondent unravels the paradoxes of an Iranian political system and culture that exhibit far more pluralism and freedom than some of Washington's closest regional allies.
Without losing sight of the brutality of the Islamic Republic and its authoritarian tendencies, Slavin presents a multifaceted Iranian point of view, skillfully weaving the statements of high-level Iranian diplomats with the hopes and fears of everyday Iranian people, trapped in the axis of religion, politics and national pride.
Slavin describes Iran's unique system of government as "a square dance," in which the highly factionalized clerical circle, with strongly conflicting views on foreign and domestic policies, competes for the Supreme Leader's favor.
"Depending on the issue, the leader draws one group or person into the center of the circle, then switches to another in a kind of political do-si-do. No figure is banished for good so long as it remains loyal to the leader and the system; all in the circle have the chance to influence government decisions," writes Slavin. "The dance can be slow and awkward and the steps can change in unpredictable ways."
In 1997, the unpredictable dance brought the reformist movement, spearheaded by President Mohammad Khatami, to the center of the circle and into the crosshairs of the clerical establishment. Khatami's ability to mobilize Iran's young voting constituency yielded 70 percent of the eligible voting public, of which 80 percent flocked to the polls to cast their vote. During the mild-mannered cleric's tenure, Iranians flirted with press freedoms, eased restrictions of the hypermoral space, and engaged in contentious political elections.
However, with the ascendance of Ahmadinejad, a "man of the people" who promised to fight corruption and put Iran's oil wealth on the tables of normal Iranians, the last two years have witnessed dramatic reversals in the political gains made by Khatami. And Slavin dedicates an entire chapter of her book to the blacksmith's son who became Iran's president, portraying the leader as a critic of the very establishment from which he emerged.
One of the current president's childhood friend's, Majid Karimi, told Slavin that Ahmadinejad "was a bookish overachiever who was so conscientious that he used to do homework in between pickup soccer games." He didn't drink, smoke or chase girls, was a diligent student who scored well on the state university entrance exam. But the president has also come under attack domestically for his bewildering rhetoric and mismanagement of Iran's economy.
Saeed Laylaz, a former deputy minister under Khatami, tells Slavin that the new chief executive "behaves like a rebel, not a president. Is it his job to say that Adolf Hitler was a clean guy? Is the Holocaust a real problem for the Iranian people? ...He will collapse this country in the long term."
Ahmadinejad is part of the Abadgaran, or "developers' coalition," a new political faction that attracted religious fundamentalists, including some members of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard unit and the Basij (mobilized ones).
In Slavin's book, even the Revolutionary Guards -- which are alleged to be a major terrorist sponsor throughout the region -- cannot not be reduced to a monolithic ideological force. There are many diverging views within the organization, and "the leadership tilts to the right while the rank and file are more moderate."
As Slavin writes, "in 1997, 70 percent of the Guards -- four percent more than the general electorate -- voted for Khatami."
Slavin's access to high-level Bush administration contacts provides the most lucid explanation of White House policy -- or lack thereof -- towards Iran. Throughout the book, she exposes the internal divisions in Bush's policy circle, with the hawkish Vice President Dick Cheney to one side, and more pragmatic policy-makers such as Richard Haass, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and others.
But it is the last three chapters that make this book a timely and essential read for those eager to clear the fog from what has been a highly charged and often misunderstood relationship between Iran and the United States. And Slavin provides an honest portrait of a twisted path the U.S. has taken towards confrontation and the opportunities it has missed along the way. Whether a grand bargain can be struck between the two countries remains to be seen, but increasingly appears unlikely.
In the final vignette, Slavin interviews Mojde Robabei, as she shops for buttons in an impoverished neighborhood of Tehran, and it is scenes such as this that underscore the ambivalence felt by most Iranians as the prepare to face the consequences of decision beyond their control.
"We have a special respect for Americans," says Robabei. "When my children watch TV they always say the people of the U.S. are very good but their government is bad... Bush and the U.S. should not force their ways on us...We don't want anything bad to happen. Pray for us. We always pray for you."
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Albion Monitor October
18, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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