Is It Time to Bury the Hatchet with IRAN

Article excerpt

An eyewitness team finds most Iranians eager to resume ties with the United States.

FROM EVERY CORNER of Iran, a country that is three-and-a-half times larger than California, they came. It was a sweltering day in June, 1998. The devotees arrived in buses, trains, and private cars, but most, all men, were part of endless lines of footsore, heat-oppressed faithful. Many had tramped hundreds, even thousands of miles from all over Central Asia. The occasion was the ninth anniversary of the death of the Islamic Republic of Iran's founding father, Ayatollah Mohammed Khomeini. The day-long observance had the sobriety and reverence of a hajj (religious pilgrimage) to Mecca. The ritual also combined the histrionics--and media madness--of Princess Diana's funeral in London with the logistical sophistication (and impressive lack of litter) of the 1995 Million Man March on Washington.

It was a once-in-a lifetime experience for our three-man delegation of the World Affairs Council (the authors and Jerry Leach, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, whose last assignment was with the National Security Council), whom we believe to be the only Westerners ever to be present at the annual commemoration of a man who Iranians honor as a patriot saint. To get there, we hitched a ride on a bus marked "foreign V.I.P.s." At the mosque, we got through security by hanging onto the coattails of a turbaned Turkmenistani mullah who spoke no English. Once inside, we removed our shoes and were directed to squat, cross-legged for three hours, on an acre-sized V.I.P. section of Persian carpet. The sweltering, cramped posture was more than something of a trick for Sir Eldon's arthritic knees and Jim Nathan's prosthetic hip.

All around, the faithful wailed for the departed Ayatollah. Surrounded by monumental photos and images of the departed Imam, they beat their breasts. Lamentations were interrupted by chants led by what might be described as clerical cheerleaders. The crowd responded with clenched fists thrust straight up. Chanting of "Death to Zionists" was interspersed with the episodic imprecation, "Down with America." One of the Revolutionary Guards, whom Nathan at first thought was a boy scout, turned and asked him where he came from. When Nathan answered, "Alabama," the youth nodded somberly, smiled with satisfaction, then rejoined the heartfelt declamations. A few moments later, another youngster questioned if we were Muslim. At that point, verisimilitude vanished in favor of cowardice. Nathan nodded in the affirmative.

A succession of spellbinders worked the crowd. A dirge-singer joined the departed Khomeini's grandson in more cries of loss and "Death to America." The crowd, estimated at 1,500,000, raised a crescendo of lamentations and exhortations as the sound waves exploded around the mosque gardens. Thankfully, the canvas awnings stretched above us to keep out the sun that generated 100 [degrees] F heat.

We had overdressed, and several young mullahs took pity on us and sprayed us with the rose water they ferried about on backpacks in order to wet and cool the crowd. This form of "air-conditioning" worked. Nevertheless, some men inevitably succumbed to the heat and hurriedly were spirited out of the mosque on stretchers.

Hours passed. At the apogee of the sun came the main speech, which was delivered by Ayatollah Khomeini's successor. The new "Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Khameini, evidently was ill. Pleading "medical necessity," he sat while he delivered a mercifully short final remembrance (10 minutes), and then it was over. The bus whisked past the heat-oppressed pilgrims and past the parks and roads where by far the majority of Iranians took the day of remembrance as a holiday to be with family and friends and enjoy themselves as much as one can in a land where many pleasures have to be practiced furtively, and others only at great risk.

Our experiences at the Ayatollah's memorial service and the visit we paid to the shabby little house, now a shrine, where Khomeini lived and died in a village that has been subsumed into North Tehran were revealing and disconcerting. …