December 1, 2006

Iranian Society Unique, N.Y. Times Reporter Says

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There’s more to Iranian society than meets the eye, New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer said yesterday through his talk about the Middle Eastern country and the role of the United States in the region.

Kinzer recounted his first experience in Iran, where he was unexpectedly sent to cover elections while working as a Times correspondent in Turkey. Although now an expert on Iran, all he had known at the time was that it must be one of the Middle East’s many “fake countries,” with little nationalism and arbitrary borders. However, Kinzer soon discovered the falsity of his assumption; Iranians are in close touch with their heritage and their imperial past, and the country’s long, rich history is crucial to understanding the current society.

In his talk, Kinzer emphasized that Iran is much more than a political theocracy; it has encountered cycles of democratic, monarchical and religious governments, and its long history of striving for democracy is unique to the countries of the Middle East.

According to Kinzer, despite the oppression by their current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranians “have the idea of democracy — a whole way of shaping life,” and if it were not for previous American interference in Iran, “we might have had a thriving democracy in the heart of the Middle East.”

Using anecdotes and vivid imagery, Kinzer tracked the evolution of Iran through the twentieth century and expressed his support and admiration of 1950s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who lost power in a CIA-orchestrated coup. While writing his 2003 book All the Shaw’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, , Kinzer sat beneath a framed picture of Mossadegh on the wall.

“Mossadegh in a sense was looking over my shoulder. I felt that he was saying, ‘tell my story,’” said Kinzer. Kinzer expressed his personal empathy with the man to highlight his greater theme, that “had we not overthrown Mossadegh’s government in 1953, this nuclear crisis — in fact this regime — would never have emerged.”

Not only did Kinzer criticize US intervention in Iran, but he emphasized our failure to consider long-term effects of its interference in countries, including Iraq. According to Kinzer, the Bush administration follows “the paradigm of the Western movie, in which one good man with a gun shows up” in a region of strife and saves the day.

Unfortunately, politics are not quite that simple. Now, Kinzer said, by knocking Iraq’s feet out from under it, we have virtually handed the power to the Iranian regime, and we need to try to negotiate with Iran to create “new security architecture in the Middle East.”

Iran is obviously much more than its politics — it is a home for people, young and old; a cultural haven; a land of tradition and budding modernity. Kinzer addressed Iran as a “dual society, with a repressive regime but bubbling civil society,” and “an effervescence within the frustration of many Iranians.”

This note poignantly struck students of the Iranian Students Organization, who brought Kinzer to campus for the lecture.

Sahar Raoofi ’10, who has visited her cousins several times in Iran, said, “I’ve been raised hearing the things Kinzer said, but no one believes me when I try to explain about Iran, because I’m Iranian. Hearing it from an outsider makes us hopeful that someone understands.”

Similarly, Cina Sasannejad ’09 was glad that Kinzer’s talk “show’s that there’s more to Iranian politics than we see now.”
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