If you have been tempted to buy into the portrayal of Iran as a reckless, terrifying country, please take the following quiz. Each item requires a Yes or No answer:
Yes or No, Iran has the most advanced stem cell research in the Mideast.
It has an active in vitro fertilization program.
The state subsidizes surgery for transsexuals.
Iran has a Jewish member of parliament and a Jewish hospital in downtown Tehran.
Iranian state television recently ran a 22-part series dramatizing the Holocaust, including the man known as Iran’s Schindler, because he saved 4,000 to 5,000 European Jews by giving them Iranian passports.
The answer is “Yes” to everything on this list. Which serves to remind us of the subtle power of brainwashing. Even if you call yourself left-liberal, it’s hard to resist the toxic media image of Iran. This image has been fed to us for thirty years, ever since the Iranian hostage crisis. Since then, the right wing has fueled it without letup while the mass media and even the left have passively acquiesced.
All the contrary facts on my list came from watching a refreshingly open segment on NBC’s Dateline news magazine. In the same program, one learns that two-thirds of Iran’s population consists of people under thirty. This massive baby boom is coming of age feeling the need to break the shackles of the old religious hardliners. As a group, their feelings toward the United States are decidedly positive. Going behind the scenes, the NBC crew found a leading filmmaker who is a woman, as well as the country’s foremost AIDS doctor and activist. The latter pushed through a program for training AIDS patients in new jobs and providing clean needles for drug addicts.
It’s a shock to learn all this, but also a huge relief. During the Cold War we were given a warped view of ordinary Russians, who in the end were the major force in bringing down the rigid Communist regime. That regime, like the theocrats in Iran, grew out of touch with ordinary life. Today Iran has a double identity. Ultimate power and the ability to punish resides with the mullahs and ayatollahs. Outside their reach is a modern, secular, Westward-looking society. Between the two forces there is no real contest if you take the long view. The mullahs aren’t going to win. As secular society rises, it will make sane choices for itself.
I think President Obama knows this, and he is backed by a new generation in this country that is sick of demonizing Iran. The bad things still exist. A demagogue like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can prosper in a state where “Death to America” is a regular part of mosque services. An Iranian nuclear weapon may be unstoppable. For all that, it’s good to keep a sane, optimistic view of a society that isn’t so far from Western values as the right wing wants us to believe. Let’s hope the forces for modernization win some key political and social battles soon. In the meantime, young lovers stroll hand in hand in the parks outside the capital, despite the mullahs who forbid them to show public affection. They may not dare to kiss in downtown Tehran, but that’s only for today. Tomorrow it will be different.