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Tom’s Journal

June 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, “Tom’s Journal,” our occasional series with New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman. He has just returned from an eight-day trip to Iran. Welcome back, Tom.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Good to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: I’ll bet. Now it’s been, I gather, six years since you were last in Iran. Just give us a sense first of all of how much it’s changed and how it’s changed.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I was really struck, Margaret, because it’s changed both physically and politically. It’s changed physically. You know, when I was there six years ago I stayed in a hotel – the Homa Hotel — in downtown Tehran. And the thing that struck me was over the front door in the inside of the lobby was a sign that said, “Down With USA” when I stayed there six years ago. It wasn’t graffiti. It wasn’t spray painted. It was tiled into the wall, okay? It wasn’t coming down right away.

I went back to the Homa this time right when I got there and I looked and it had been white plastered over. That was really just part of the change that I saw. Physically women were pushing their head scarves much farther back showing their hair. They’re wearing multi-colored robes covering them now, much, much shorter. A revolution that started with painting the toenails have clearly moved right up the leg. These are small things and seem silly to us but very important to them. I was walking to my hotel one night. I saw a woman wearing a pink, a bright pink head scarf and carrying a Yamaha guitar.

And speaking of guitars, I had a friend who I visited when I was there six years ago who was at home. He was a real punk rocker. And the only place he could play his guitar was in his bedroom because pop music was banned then. He’s now giving concerts — male and female audience sitting separately – and cutting CDs. So it’s definitely at one level a much looser place internally.

MARGARET WARNER: Now describe to us who really wields the power though because that’s kind of a confusing picture.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: It is a confusing picture and it’s a confusing picture to Iranians because basically you have a democracy, an elected parliament, overlaid by a theocracy. And what this theocracy does is basically vet who can run for office, who can become president, what papers can open and what papers can close. And that creates a kind of crazy politics because you have people who run for office. They say critical things of the government. They demand reforms. They get arrested. They get thrown in jail. From jail they write books that get published that name names of people in the government. They get out of jail. They run for office again. They start a newspaper. They get arrested again. And nobody quite knows, you know, where the lines are.

The lines are constantly moving between this theocracy up here and this democracy down here. Definitely though one thing — the vast majority of Iranians are with that democracy down here.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the theocracy though controls, does it not, the security apparatus — I mean the intelligence, revolutionary guards?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: They control definitely all of the key levers of power. They control the army. They control all the instruments of coercion: The army, the revolutionary guards, the security services and the Basige, which are a kind of shock troops for the regime. And the people who are, you know, really doing the evil stuff for which Iran won the, you know, the axis of evil from President Bush, is somewhere embedded in that group. I kind of see three groups there.

There’s the Iran-e, the Iran evil, which is sort of the heart of the beast of that theocracy up there. Then there are just the conservatives and then there’s this reformist movement there, which is a vast majority of the young people and the silent majority. I think the key to Iranian politics, Margaret, is going to be where that middle group, those conservatives who are part of the theocracy but may one day conclude the only way they’re going to survive is if they align themselves with the majority.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, one column you wrote while you were there talked about what you called the third generation, that you said you thought would be the key or another key anyway to, I don’t have your exact words here, but will change the face of Iran. Who are they?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, basically think of Iran. This was a country — when the Shah was deposed 23 years ago — it had 30 million people. It has 66 million people today. So the population has doubled in 23, more than doubled in 23 years. The first generation were the people who made the revolution. The second generation were those who went through the Iran-Iraq war, which came basically ’79, throughout the 1980s really wiped out a generation if not physically at least politically. The third generation are their kids.

They’re now ages 15 to 30. There’s about 18 million of them, and they’re coming of age. They’re wired. They’ve got access to the Internet. There’s a million Internet users there now growing exponentially all the time. They’re tied in to satellite dishes around the world. They see the good life out there. They want the good life. They want the good jobs. They want to be religious. I mean they accept that Islam has to have a role in their life but they do not want to be fundamentalists.

They don’t want to be extreme anything because they’ve lived in a society where they’ve had kind of extremism pushed down their throat now for 23 years.

MARGARET WARNER: So what is their attitude about these clerics, these conservative clerics that are still running the show in so many ways?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Many of them – and you saw this in – there was a little mini-Tiananmen Square there in July 1999, which we really didn’t follow here, where there was a student uprising. And it really said what they think of this clerical regime, which is that these are people who have had enough democracy now, Margaret, to know they want more of it. And they’ve had enough theocracy now to know they want less of it.

You now find clerics, I have a friend who is telling me she has a cleric friend who comes up from Kum sometimes to Tehran. He takes off his turban and he takes off his clerical robes when he goes into certain neighborhoods because people will be really hostile. These clerics now stop women sometimes on the streets and yell at them for something they’re wearing or not wearing. These women now yell right back. It’s quite interesting. One thing that –

MARGARET WARNER: Without fear?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Without fear. One thing the Islamic revolutionaries did — God bless them — was they extended education to everyone in Iran. Iran is an enormously educated population, much more than in the Arab world. 60 percent of university students now in Iran are women.

MARGARET WARNER: Now you also wrote a column then about this war of ideas that you said is being waged between those who still want this theocracy and those who want more of a democracy. Who is driving that?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, basically what’s happened is that a lot of the clerics have understood, some of the more sensible ones in Kum, which is the religious capital of Iran, some of the Shiite spiritual leaders said, my God, the country has been experiencing enormous problems now economically, political isolation, and we’re in charge.

You know, the guys with the turbans are in charge. And as a result it’s producing an anti-religious backlash. So you have all these young Iranians now becoming very hostile to religion. When you’re there, you feel you’re not in a religious country. I heard more muezzins singing in Jerusalem-

MARGARET WARNER: Call to prayer.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: — a call to prayer basically– than I did in Tehran. You almost never heard that when you were there. I was really struck by that. So on the one hand there are clerics who understand if they don’t start to take Islam a little bit out of people’s life and find a more balanced place for it, they’re going to lose a whole generation.

At the same time there are democrats who realize from the experience of the Shah that Islam is part of Iran’s identity and if you come with a kind of pure secularism, you’re never also going to capture a lot of young people and a lot of the country. So from both ends now you find people groping for a middle.

I don’t know whether they’re going to find it. But if they did, Margaret, if they were to find a kind of equilibrium between democracy and faith, they would be the first big Muslim country to do it. And that could have a huge –

MARGARET WARNER: To combine the two.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Exactly. I mean Iran threatens the Arab world much more today by its democracy and its democratic experiment and its potential to find that balance than it ever did with the Islamic revolution. There’s no way the Arab world is going to follow that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now how does the relationship with the U.S. play into this?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, basically what’s happened, there’s enormous longing there. I would say generally speaking for resumption of relations with the US and again particularly among young people. Part of that, I think, Margaret, is a reaction to the failed reforms of Khatami, President Mohammed Khatami. He was really elected to represent that base of reformers. He’s been kind of a bust for people.

He really hasn’t confronted that hard line, you know, those hard-line clerics. People hoped he would be Gorbachev. He turned out to be Khrushchev, if anything. But at the same time — so the failure of Khatami has really left a lot young Iranians very disappointed and looking for a kind of deus ex machina… something that will magically make all those reforms happen.

Many of them have seized on America or American relations as a thing that will reverse everything. The unemployment, the isolation, the over, you know, over, you know, the intense theocracy of the country. And so that’s what people are really longing for.

MARGARET WARNER: That makes them very different from the alienated young people in Saudi Arabia, all over the Middle East, doesn’t it, in terms of the attitudes toward the West. How do you explain that?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Saudi Arabia is a country getting younger, poorer, more Islamic, more anti-American. Iran is a country getting younger, poorer, less Islamic, more pro American, because young Saudis are reacting to a regime that they see as corrupt, irreligious and pro American, and because they see that regime in bed with America and they don’t like the regime, they’re reacting the other way. Iranians look at their regime as anti-American, overly religious and young Iranians are reacting just the opposite. And so it’s quite interesting. There’s a huge cohort there of potential support for America.

MARGARET WARNER: So how does Iran get from here to there in a peaceful way, non revolutionary way? I can’t imagine the clerics are going to give up power voluntarily.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: That is really the $64,000 question, one that they’re asking themselves. And we shouldn’t have any illusions. This regime is deeply entrenched in power. It has control of all the levers of coercion, and it has support among the Bizari [ph] merchants who benefit from the monopolies and all the kind of crony deals of the regime.

It’s a regime that is, you know, building a nuclear factory, that has supported some of the worst Palestinian terrorist groups, Palestine Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and been up to its neck in other things around the Middle East. They are deeply entrenched but at the same time there are clerics associated with the regime, I think, who can see the future and who do understand especially with the economy that their economy… let me just read you a paragraph from one Iranian paper that gives you a flavor of what’s in the paper.

The list of our problems today, crises and disasters facing our economy are too numerous to mention. But some of the graver and more prominent include lack of sufficient foreign investment, mismanagement, political isolation, atrocious unemployment. That gives you a sense of what’s on the ground.

Now you get that army of young people, that third generation of 18 million and the fourth generation of 23 million, marching toward a workplace where there are no jobs and sooner or later, if there isn’t an adjustment from the top, an adaptation from the top, there will be an explosion from the bottom.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the clerics see it?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: I think they see it; they definitely see it because the top leader, Hamani, has said we have to solve this unemployment problem. They know it but to solve it, they’ve got to take apart so many fundamental pieces of their own system of rule. And that’s what they haven’t figured out yet.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you find among the people in power, their attitude toward the U.S. and their attitude about Bush calling them part of the axis of evil?

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Certainly, you know, some of the really bad guys, they enjoy that. America calls them evil, that justifies their militarization of Iranian society. But for the decent people, they’re enormously frustrated. Look at it from Iran’s point of view. They helped the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

They encouraged the Northern Alliance to come with the United States. For that they got axis of evil in their face. They say wait a minute there are no Iranians in al-Qaida. We supported you in Afghanistan. Meanwhile Pakistan has a nuclear bomb. Al-Qaida is full of Pakistanis and Saudis and they get visits to the White House. So there’s a lot of frustration there too.

They’d like to reach out but they feel they’re kind of being kept… for understandable reasons — These guys up here at the top are not innocent, you know? But they’re going to have to sort that out between them.

MARGARET WARNER: A lot of ferment. Thanks, Tom.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Thank you.