Extracted from his critically acclaimed book Nuclear Iran, David Patrikarakos recalls the episodes that compelled him to put pen to paper.
Under watchful eyes, a crowd chanted slogans on the street outside my Tehran window. Late morning; early August 2005. I was in the University dormitory on Kargar Avenue, the city’s carotid artery that runs from the down-at-heel Rah Ahan Square in the south up into the affluent vistas of the capital’s northern reaches, once home to the Western-educated elite that gathered around Sa’dabad, the Shah’s old palace.
Barring the University entrance, two wary guards studied a crowd of tieless men and veiled women, while assorted university types – my language teacher, some clerical staff, the trio of depressed African students I vaguely knew – passed through the gates. The crowd’s roars became louder and more aggressive. It wasn’t a demonstration as such, but about 40 people had gathered to ‘celebrate’ Iran’s decision, announced that day, to resume uranium enrichment after two years of suspension. Iranian flags were waved. A few of the more vocal participants held up pictures of Iran’s recently elected President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as they shouted about nuclear power and the Great Satan; there was a lot of anger for a celebration. I recognized references to the Iran–Iraq war and the long-overthrown Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.
I had come to Iran from Oxford University to study Persian and, only three days into my trip, I hadn’t yet spoken to many Iranians. I lived down a corridor in the Tehran University dormitory with two French friends, a Syrian (with whom I had reverently shared a single can of illegally procured Heineken) as well as a German and a Kazakh. Two European engineers lived on the first floor while the rest of the building was populated with Kurds from Iran’s Kermanshah province. Iranian students were housed separately, and encouraged not to mix. But everywhere I went I encountered the nuclear programme – only two days earlier a taxi driver had lectured me on the subject at considerable (and tedious) length. A nuclear programme, he had informed me, was the country’s ‘right’ (peaceful nuclear power was the key to economic growth), as was the ‘nuclear fuel cycle’, a term he kept repeating, but I suspected he didn’t fully understand.
He told me that Iran didn’t want nuclear weapons; that it was an advanced country and, as the nuclear programme showed the world, one of the ‘great nations’. The problem, he added disapprovingly, was the West, mainly my country Britain and of course the USA, which wanted to ‘kill’ the programme. The 1953 coup that had overthrown Mohammad Mossadegh, Amrika’s ‘enslavement’ of the Shah, and now the endless Western accusations against the nuclear programme were all part of (to paraphrase) a broader scheme of Western oppression that had created a world he decried in a single geopolitical aphorism: ‘England: the grandfather; America: the son; Israel: the grandson’. If simplistic, his analysis had the virtue of certainty.
Iranians love talking to Westerners, even if their government does not. Over the coming weeks I was lectured on the nuclear programme by two more taxi drivers, my language teacher (she thought it was all a lot of nonsense), a waiter, the man that owned the local internet café and, most incredibly of all, a gaggle of pre-teen children that accosted me on a side street just off Naqsh-e Jahan square in Isfahan. Nuclear power, it seemed, was a national aspiration, and it was about more than just reactors and centrifuges. It was clearly bound up with perceptions of Iranian history and it clearly mobilized the people through an ability to generate intense emotion by tapping into universal registers of meanings for Iranians. The crowd I saw in the street that day was jubilant but angry, and its anger had more to do with Iran’s relationship with the West than with uranium enrichment. It was as if the regime had somehow managed to create a causal link between Iran’s perceived historical injustices and the rather more prosaic question of its adherence to international law.
Meanwhile, the country seemed to be retreating back into the womb of the early Islamic Republic. On the streets, the Islamist militia, the Basij, were already an increasing presence; as if Ahmadinejad’s recent election had unchained them from bonds against which, if their fastidiousness indicated, they had so clearly chafed under his predecessor Mohammad Khatami. Female friends were roughly accosted in the street for imperfect veils and ‘unsuitable’ trousers. One day I ducked into a basement restaurant in the Amirabad district of North Tehran to eat my favoured chelo kabab (a lamb and rice dish). ‘You have to understand who we are’, said the owner grandly, as a flunky served me another cup of saccharin tea. There was a clatter of cutlery and the cup joined several others on the table. ‘We are the children of Cyrus the Great, the man who gave the world its first human rights act. This is true’, he added with satisfaction. ‘The West does not understand this, which is bad. But perhaps it will soon. Inshallah.’
The Iranians are great storytellers; they revere the epic tales of their national poets Ferdowsi and Hafez. The people I met variously complained, boasted and expounded conspiracy theories of often bewilderingly imaginative content, but in one form or another, they all told me stories of Iran’s problematic relationship with the modern world, which centred on the even more problematic question of Iranian identity. It is fitting that Manichaeism was born in Iran: Iranians are caught between Cyrus the Great and Allah; between democracy and dictatorship; between East and West; and between the future and the past. On my last morning in Iran I went present shopping in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar and met a bazaari who told me that Iran was ‘pure’, untainted by Western civilization, as he tried to sell me fake Diesel jeans. Back in the dormitory that evening, a student asked me to teach him to speak English with an American accent.
Over the last century Iran has experienced two revolutions, two world wars (and a resulting occupation), a coup d’état, the end of a centuries-old tradition of monarchy, the arrival of an Islamic Republic, a devastating war with Iraq, a rupture with the world’s last remaining superpower, seemingly endless sanctions and international isolation. The country has emerged into the twenty-first century unsure of itself and of its place in the world and the Iranian consciousness is accordingly sundered: a strong sense of Iran’s importance combines with the insecurity of a ‘fallen’ nation. Iranian political rhetoric is filled with pronouncements about national greatness mixed with status anxiety and xenophobia. The nuclear programme clearly straddled both these impulses for the Iranians I met: an example of their country’s collective accomplishment and, in the international opposition it faced, of yet more ‘victimization’ by the West.
I returned to Oxford where the nuclear crisis filled the newspapers and my inbox with stories of a rogue Iran set on a path towards nuclear Armageddon. Two narratives were clearly at work, and if the answers were to be found in Iran’s history that is where I would start. I wanted to tell this story, and the way to do it, I now understood, was to tell it ab initio – from the beginning. ■
Image courtesy of Phillip Stearns.
David Patrikarakos‘ new book, Nuclear Iran: the Birth of an Atomic State – of which this is an extract – is out now. A writer and journalist, he has written for the New Statesman, the Financial Times, the London Review of Books, Prospect and the Guardian.