Terror and Tehran
Original airdate: May 2, 2002
Produced and directed by
ANNOUNCER: For almost two decades, Iran was the face of Islamic terror in the United States. But within Iran, there has been enormous change.
MASSOUMEH EBTEKHAR, VP, Islamic Republic of Iran: We have a very sophisticated political system now in Iran, well established.
EXPERT: People get elected who seemingly want openings.
ANNOUNCER: The true face of Iran still remains elusive.
JAMES WOOLSEY, CIA Director 1993-'94: The mullahs will thwart the efforts of the good Iranian reformers because they need an enemy. And their favored and chosen enemy is us.
ANNOUNCER: Now President Bush has placed Iran alongside Iraq and North Korea in the "axis of evil."
ANNOUNCER: Turning up the pressure on an already weakening Iranian reform movement and leaving the U.S. and Iran back where they started.
FARIBORZ RAISDANA, Economist: The American intervention is not in favor of the freedom-lovers.
ELAINE SCIOLINO, "The New York Times": I like to call Iran the "Bermuda Triangle" of American foreign policy.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight FRONTLINE investigates how the war on terror led to Tehran and where both nations go from here.
LINDEN MacINTYRE, Correspondent: [voice-over] Tehran, capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country locked in a cold war with the United States and a growing number of its own people.
Once a week, Mahin Pourzand visits the apartment where her brother, Siamak, lived until six months ago. On a Saturday night in late November, he told her strange men had been trailing him for two days. That night he disappeared.
In the 23-year history of the Islamic Republic, Pourzand's story is not unusual. Two years before he went missing, his eldest daughter, Lily, a law student, fled the country and now lives in Canada, a world away from her aging father.
LILY POURZAND: He's 71 years old, and he's not in a good physical and emotional health. I know that. And he was taking medication for long, long time now, for maybe 10 years now. And I don't know really what will happen to him.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: His wife, Mehrangiz Kar, is a prominent lawyer and political activist in Iran. Two years ago, she was arrested and jailed without charges over public comments that were considered to be critical of the Islamic regime. Eventually released on bail, she was in the United States undergoing treatment for cancer when her husband disappeared.
MEHRANGIZ KAR, Exiled Lawyer and Activist: They arrested many writers and many intellectuals. Even they arrested many religious activists who thinks different. Andy cannot say, as a lawyer, that my husband is arrested. I can say that my husband is disappeared. And maybe according very bad torture, they could get anything they needed that against himself, against me, against reformist people.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Tehran, a chaotic city of more than 12 million people. Siamak Pourzand could be in any one of scores of police stations and jails in this ancient, sprawling place. He worked here, in Iran's first privately operated cultural center. Today his office is empty because he ran afoul of a Byzantine legal system, where basic human rights are defined by rigid religious rules.
The birth of modern Iran in February, 1979, had almost biblical overtones: the triumphant return of a messianic religious leader who had become a powerful political figure, the Ayatollah Khomeini, a stern conservative on whom the people pinned high hopes for freedom. After decades of dictatorship, they were ready for democracy.
Khomeini didn't believe in democracy. Instead he offered them an "Islamic republic." Nobody knew for sure what he meant, but any change in the status quo seemed like an improvement.
Twenty-three years later, the improvements are hard to find. Iran has become a political paradox- a young, sophisticated society, curious about the outside world and hungry for the advantages of modernity, caught in a struggle the West resolved centuries ago, a clash between democracy and religious authority.
This was once the U.S. embassy in Tehran. A dramatic showdown here stamped the new Iran with a radical religious character and set a course of confrontation with the country that had once been its closest ally. November 4th, 1979, militant Islamic students invaded the embassy and took its 63 employees hostage.
The hostage-taking held the world's attention, but it also caused a deep political split within Iran. The public was behind the students, but moderate politicians thought they went too far. Conservative clerics seized the opportunity to sideline the secular moderates.
The hostage crisis lasted 444 days. One of the first American reporters to cover it was Elaine Sciolino. Writing for Newsweek and later The New York Times, she's followed the unfolding struggle ever since.
ELAINE SCIOLINO, "The New York Times": You have a battle raging not for control over territory but for the soul of a nation. And it's between these two impulses: belief and democracy. And belief doesn't allow for democracy.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: In Iran, Sciolino found a complex nation with a 2,500-year history as a regional superpower called Persia, a history she described in her book, Persian Mirrors.
ELAINE SCIOLINO: Iranians think of themselves as the center of the universe. And when they talk about projecting power, they want to be the regional power in the Persian Gulf. So when they see a country like the United States projecting power, and in their view, putting them down or repressing them, they react viscerally.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Before the hostages went free, radical clerics would seize undisputed control of the country. In those crucial days, one student emerged as the voice of the radicals. Her name, Massoumeh Ebtekhar. Today she's one of Iran's vice presidents. She typifies the Iranian political paradox, democracy struggling for space inside a theocracy.
[on camera] Could you single out the one great achievement that you believe remains from 1979?
MASSOUMEH EBTEKHAR, VP, Islamic Republic of Iran: You are beginning the interview, right?
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Yes.
MASSOUMEH EBTEKHAR: OK. In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful. I think the greatest achievement is the independence of a nation and also to create a new experience on the basis of a religious democracy.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [voice-over] Religious democracy, an ideal that in Iran translates into a repressive political reality. Iranians get to pick their governments in open elections, but public policy must conform to strict religious principles, rules of law and personal behavior defined by powerful clerics, like the current Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, successor to the Ayatollah Khomeini, autocrats with little tolerance for dissent.
[on camera] Too often we hear stories about the use of repression, the use of censorship, newspapers being closed down, intellectuals put in jail.
MASSOUMEH EBTEKHAR: Well, many newspapers have closed down. Many other newspapers now have springed up, and they're working. They're speaking out and they're talking about these issues and debates. And many of these issues are being tolerated now, and there's been a genuine change in the approach.
We have a very sophisticated political system now in Iran, well established and very well supported by the people. We've had elections practically every year.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [voice-over] But the clerics also control the elections. Political candidates need the approval of a powerful committee of clerics and Islamic legal experts called the Guardian Council.
Economist Fariborz Raisdana was part of a reform group whose members tried to run in parliamentary elections two years ago.
FARIBORZ RAISDANA, Economist: We had a coalition called National Religious Coalition. Many leaders are in jail now. The Guardian Council, they rejected me and all of them. Just one was accepted because that time, Guardian Council didn't know enough about that gentleman because he was very young and very clever. And he was elected. And after election, they said that, "You are not accepted"- after election. And he spent some times in jail, as well.
[www.pbs.org: More on Irans political system]
LINDEN MacINTYRE: By Western standards, Raisdana would be considered uncontroversial, but he, too, has spent time in jail just for questioning the legitimacy of a political process that is dominated by a powerful elite made up of conservative clerics.
FARIBORZ RAISDANA: The problem arise because some minority that believes that they are real representative of God and the Islam are in power, and they do not accept the competition, the innovation of the people, the participation of people, democracy, social justice and civil society. They do not accept it.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [on camera] How dangerous is it for people like you to speak like this in Iran today? There's obviously a high risk.
FARIBORZ RAISDANA: It is little bit dangerous. Not little bit, more than little bit dangerous because you are- you are walking on a sword. But anyway, some people have accepted the responsibility, and they are ready to accept the danger and the risk.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [voice-over] In spite of the apparent risks, he continues to agitate for reforms. His most recent arrest was two years ago, after a conference on Iran's reform movement held in Berlin. One prominent reformer there was the lawyer, Mehrangiz Kar, whose husband, Siamak Pourzand, has been missing since last November. On her return from Berlin, she was jailed for two months. She and her youngest daughter, Asedeh, now live in exile in Washington, D.C.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Even before Berlin conference, I'd been in danger, like many intellectual and secular activists in Iran. During that time, even some list published, and on that list, about- I think about 200 names that they said these activists must be killed.
[on camera] And were you on the list?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Yes, in every list.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [voice-over] Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar also ended up on the hit list. They, too, were outspoken critics of the Islamic republic. They openly called for a secular democracy.
They were early supporters of the Khomeini revolution in 1979. He was a member of a transitional government, one of the moderate secular politicians who resigned when they saw where the mullahs were leading the country. On the night of November 22nd, 1998, agents from a government intelligence service ransacked this office, then turned this chair to face Mecca, sat the politician down and stabbed him to death. Then they went upstairs and murdered his wife.
Their funerals turned into a massive pro-democracy demonstration. Murders like these, estimated to be in the hundreds during the past decade, sent a chilling message to reformers: The mullahs have long memories. And it came through loud and clear to the Forouhars' son and daughter, Aresh and Paristou, who were already living as exiles in Germany.
ARESH FOROUHAR: It was a message for all the ones who were spoken against the brutality, spoken against Islamic regime, that "We have no limit."
LINDEN MacINTYRE: The tomb of the Ayatollah Khomeini. It stands in conspicuous contrast to the austere piety of his life- more representative, critics say, of the extravagance of those who succeeded him. After he died in 1989, Iran's president, Ali Khamenei replaced him as the Supreme Leader, while the speaker in the parliament, the cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, became the president.
Below them, a hierarchy of clerics had taken control of entire sectors of the national economy, mostly through foundations that are managed as private fiefdoms without public oversight.
FARIBORZ RAISDANA: According to some estimations, nearly 30, 35 percent of GNP of Iran belongs to the foundations. They are not clear. They don't give any accounts to the people. They don't let any auditing. They don't pay any penny of taxes. They are not under control of the parliament.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [on camera] And nobody knows where the- where it goes.
FARIBORZ RAISDANA: No, nobody knows, but nobody has the account because nobody are allowed to go for auditing.
ELAINE SCIOLINO: I'm of 100 percent Sicilian descent, so I think the best way to explain it- it's like little Mafia families. They each have control over certain sectors. So just like, you know, in New Jersey, you might have one family that controls the port, why, you might have one clerical family that controls the port, the Foundation of the Oppressed, which has everything from the monopoly on Coca-Cola to chicken parts to, you know, shipping licenses.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [voice-over] The powerful cleric and former president, Rafsanjani, is reputedly one of the wealthiest men in Iran. His family-based business empire girds the world. It deals in an almost incalculable array of products, from oil and gas to baby food.
The homes of influential clerics in Iran's capital, rarely seen by outsiders. Even photography is dangerous in this neighborhood, for these are conspicuous reminders that once again, a wealthy elite has hijacked the national economy,
The Shah of Iran had powerful political friends in the United States and other Western democracies because he was seen as a stabilizing element in a volatile region. He didn't even try to conceal his corruption or his ostentatious wealth. He protected his throne with formidable security, including a terrifying intelligence service called SAVAK. And even when he briefly lost power in 1953, American and British agents helped overthrow a democratic government and restored him to his throne.
It was during the cold war. Washington was worried that leftist politicians were pro-communist. The British were worried about oil. The answer: a pro-Western dictator.
The Shah's military machine became the fourth largest in the world. By the '70s, half the military hardware exported from the United States ended up in Iran.
SHAH REZA PALAHVI: I have only two arms, but the strength comes because what I represent to my people, if they like it or not.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: But by 1979, he'd lost touch with his people again, and they rose up once again and drove him out of the country for good.
Under the Ayatollah Khomeini, there would be no turning back. It was time for a settling of old scores.
ELAINE SCIOLINO, "The New York Times": The notion of the United States as the "Great Satan" started with Ayatollah Khomeini because one of the pillars of the revolution was against the United States. And it was based on the historical reality that the United States in 1953 had overthrown the government in Iran and reinstated the monarchy, reinstated the shah.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Iran has a long history of grief inflicted by invaders. They are non-Arabs in the middle of the Arab world, an austere minority within Islam called Shi'ites. This is the martyrs' section of Iran's largest cemetery, Behesht e Zahra. Most of the dead buried here were killed in an eight-year war with Iraq during the '80s, a war that cost Iran 300,000 lives.
The Islamic Republic wasn't quite a year old. In 1980, Saddam Hussein, worried that it might inspire a Shi'ite uprising in Iraq, struck hard, armed with American support. James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA, says it shouldn't be surprising that America supported Iraq.
JAMES WOOLSEY, CIA Director (1993-'94): What happened, of course, back in the '80s was as a result of the Iranian hostage-taking, which was taken very personally by all Americans. The hatred for the Iranian government in this country was very, very strong. And well into the Iran-Iraq war, the United States did ah provide some assistance - intelligence mainly - to Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, I think that was a bad decision.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: June, 1982, Lebanon became the stage for another confrontation. Israel invaded to stop attacks on its northern communities by Muslim militia groups. Iran intervened to help the Shi'ite minority there.
ROBERT BAER, CIA Agent (1976-'97): They simply do not believe that Israel invaded Lebanon without a green light from Washington.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Robert Baer, a former CIA agent, arrived in Lebanon in time to witness the beginning of a tragic spiral in misunderstanding and violence. He's the author of the book See No Evil.
ROBERT BAER: A seminal event had occurred about six months before I got there, and that was the kidnapping of three Iranian diplomats. They were murdered and they were buried in a Lebanese forces parking lot in a part of Beirut. What we didn't realize, as Americans, because we didn't understand Iran, is we were going to get blamed for that kidnapping.
The way it went down is the Iranians assumed, since the Lebanese Christian forces were our allies and the allies of Israel, that we had to be responsible for those kidnappings. So you have these two events. And Iran said, "All right, we're at war. Undeclared war, but nonetheless, we're at war."
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Israel, the enemy, and perceived by Iran as a proxy for the United States, would soon face a powerful new opponent. Out of the rubble of Lebanon would emerge a new Shi'ite movement, Hezbollah, inspired and funded by Iran's hard-line clerics, soon deployed against American targets.
April, 1983: the American embassy in Beirut, bombed, 63 dead. October, 1983: U.S. Marines in Lebanon as peacekeepers, attacked by a suicide bomber, 243 dead.
ROBERT BAER: We were peacekeepers in Lebanon. They don't look at it that way. Or as Americans, we say you can't kidnap innocent people, journalists, priests, people like that. It's wrong. They look at it differently. It's a war of civilizations for them. And it was very successful, frankly, and cheap.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: It worked in Lebanon, and in the year 2000, Israel finally withdrew. The Lebanese civil war was over.
Hezbollah in Lebanon had become a political party, but its fundamental militancy would continue, and tactics employed in Lebanon would become a template for armed resistance throughout the region.
ROBERT BAER: "This is the way you fight a war. This is how you defeat F-16s. This is how you defeat aircraft carriers. We beat the United States, we beat the Israelis in Lebanon, and we're going to beat them in Palestine."
[www.pbs.org: Read the interview]
LINDEN MacINTYRE: In Palestine, the war of civilizations became a war on civilians. Now Israel confronts the enemy on its own doorstep. The battlefront is now in Israel and the occupied territories, the cities and towns of the West Bank.
In January, when Israel intercepted a shipload of sophisticated weapons bound for Palestine from Iran, they called it support for terrorism. To Iran, this is a freedom struggle.
Dr. Seyed Mohammad Ali Mousavi, one of two Iranian diplomats in North America, is Iran's ambassador to Canada and the only government official we approached who would discuss terrorism.
[on camera] How do you justify the continuing support for organizations that have their fingerprints on acts of violence against civilians?
Dr. SEYED MOHAMMAD ALI MOUSAVI, Ambassador to Canada: Like?
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Dr. SEYED MOHAMMAD ALI MOUSAVI: We never have supported any groups which take act of terrorism. We have morally supported groups who are fighting for their independence or for their being out of occupations.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: More than morally.
Dr. SEYED MOHAMMAD ALI MOUSAVI: No.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Hundreds of millions of dollars.
Dr. SEYED MOHAMMAD ALI MOUSAVI: No. Give us evidence.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: It is widely reported that Hezbollah, up until recently, was being supplied by a $100 million a year from Iran, that the Revolutionary Guards were running training camps for Hezbollah fighters and Hamas fighters. And that's false?
Dr. SEYED MOHAMMAD ALI MOUSAVI: Yes. We deny that. Our support to Hezbollah has been a moral support. We continue to do that because, in our belief, a fight against occupation is not a terrorist fight, it is a legitimate fight. It is not terrorism.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [voice-over] It's a distinction that has been challenged legally in the United States before a federal court in a case involving a family who lives here, in West Orange, New Jersey, and a deadly bus ride in Israel seven years ago. Stephen Flatow, a real estate lawyer, used this video as evidence in a landmark court case on terrorism. It involved his daughter, Alisa, who was studying Judaism in a seminary in Jerusalem.
STEPHEN FLATOW: A few days before Passover, 1995, she decided she would take a vacation with two other girls and get a suntan and a little swimming.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Alisa Flatow and her friend boarded a bus like this one on the morning of April 19th, along with a group of Israeli soldiers.
FRIEND: There was one bus earlier that day. There's, I think, two buses a day, and we were on the second. Alisa and I sat next to each other. We sat in the seats directly behind the driver. She sat on the left side, I sat on the right side. And I think we were sort of snoozing.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Suddenly, a car pulled alongside. It was a suicide bombing. A group called Palestinian Islamic Jihad would claim responsibility.
FRIEND: What I recall was that there was a man trying to get a plastic tube down her throat, and he couldn't get it to go down.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Paramedics worked to save her. Seven of the soldiers were killed. Three days later, Alisa died. She was 20 years old. Her father suspected that the blame extended far beyond the terrorist who did this.
STEPHEN FLATOW: We had a meeting with the State Department in 1996. And there were about 20 of us in the room, and they confirmed to us that Iran provides the funding to Islamic Jihad.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Alisa Flatow would become the silent plaintiff in a major court case. An aggressive counterterrorism law approved in 1996 let her father sue Iran. A judge awarded Flatow $225 million.
STEPHEN FLATOW: And $225 million in punitive damages, in his words, designed to put the Iranians out of the terrorism business.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: But Washington would become reluctant to enforce the full judgment. The complex relationship with Iran was changing, even as America mourned the victims of another terrorist attack, even as President Clinton sounded unequivocal.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: Anyone who attacks one American is attacking every American, and we protect and defend our own.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: The attack was in Saudi Arabia. Nineteen American servicemen died when a fuel truck loaded with explosives blew up outside a military residence called Khobar Towers. Investigators soon had a prime suspect, a Saudi offshoot of Hezbollah.
ROBERT BAER, CIA Agent (1976-'97): We know Iran was involved. We know Iran trained, gave alias passports, helped provide surveillance of American facilities in Saudi Arabia, and that Khamenei gave a fatwa to blow up Khobar.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: One of the victims was Mike Heiser, 35, from Florida. His mother, Fran Heiser, took President Clinton's assurances to heart. She expected someone to be held accountable. Today she's still reliving June 25th, 1996.
FRAN HEISER: There was such a blur in a day when, you know, something like that happens. And Mike was our only child, and we kind of walked around in a zombie state for a long time.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: The Heiser family were initially reassured because the investigation was being handled personally by the then director of the FBI, Louis Freeh.
FRAN HEISER: Every time he told us the same thing, that he was committed to seeing justice done, that he would stay with the case, would work the case. The FBI will stay with it, and he wants it solved. And then he would say, "I'm not a politician, I'm a policeman."
LINDEN MacINTYRE: But America's top policeman would retire in 2001, his most frustrating case unresolved not for a lack of evidence but for a lack of political will.
ROBERT BAER: Saudi Arabia didn't want to look too closely into it because, at that point, there was a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And they certainly didn't want to indict Iran. It was another terrorism attack that was passed over. It was overlooked because we didn't want to do anything against Iran.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: For President Clinton, the Khobar bombing would become a painful passage. He'd actually once met the victim, Mike Heiser, a 17-year veteran of the Air Force. But justice for the Heiser family would have to take a back seat to the imperatives of international politics. What the Heisers didn't know was that the assurances of the FBI and the president of the United states were all overshadowed by dramatic political events inside the country they held responsible for the tragedy in their family, Iran.
In 1997, the people of Iran sent a strong message to the world that they were weary of their hard-line religious government, that maybe it was time for a new revolution, this time through the ballot box. On May 23rd, they elected a new president, a dark-horse political reformer named Mohammad Khatami.
ELAINE SCIOLINO, "The New York Times": What happened in 1997 is that the Iranian people went to the polls in record numbers to elect a guy who wasn't supposed to become president. He was defeated by a little-known cleric who happened to have something called authenticity and charm.
Mohammad Khatami had run the national library. It would be as if the librarian of Congress decided to run for president. It sounds sort of trite or superficial, but he's a charming as Bill Clinton.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Previous administrations had tried to improve relations with Iran, but in Khatami the Clinton White House saw new potential for engagement.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Secretary of State: We must be willing to deal directly with each other as two proud and independent nations and address our mutual basis the issues that have been keeping us apart.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: The language was cautious because there were serious issues underlying the animosity that had bedeviled relations with Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
THOMAS R. PICKERING, Undersecretary of State 1997-'01: The problem of Iranian support for terrorist organizations, the problem of Iranian opposition to the Middle East peace process, and certainly to a peace process with Israel, and a deep sense of concern on the part of the United States about nuclear proliferation or weapons of mass destruction proliferation in Iran. Those are important problems, and those problems don't get solved by continued division. They don't get solved by not talking.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: But talking to Iran has never been easy for Westerners, especially Americans. Elaine Sciolino had followed decades of false starts in U.S.-Iranian relations.
ELAINE SCIOLINO: I like to call Iran the "Bermuda Triangle" of American foreign policy because Iran helped get Jimmy Carter defeated. Ronald Reagan had to deal with American hostages held in Lebanon by Iranian-supported groups. Actually, the one who did the best on Iran was Reagan's successor, George Bush, the father, because he came into his- into office, and in his first inaugural speech announced that good will begets good will, when it came to Iran. He really was searching for an opening to find some sort of areas of cooperation and maybe rapprochement.
JAMES WOOLSEY, CIA Director 1993-'94: The United States has tried covert and back-channel communications with Iran off and on for the last decade and a half, anyway. It hasn't come to anything positive because the mullahs always stop it. The reason the mullahs always stop it is they need us as an enemy. They need us as an enemy in order to keep a rationale for oppressing the Iranian people, and otherwise they're not in power anymore.
[www.pbs.org: Read the interview]
LINDEN MacINTYRE: This is one of the sources of the mullahs' power, the holy city of Qom, one of Iran's most important centers of Islamic learning. The mullahs' political influence has always been an extension of their spiritual authority. The Islamic republic transformed that authority into near dictatorial power, first for Ayatollah Khomeini, now his successor.
ELAINE SCIOLINO: Ayatollah Khamenei's power is vested in a concept known as Velayat-e-Faqih. It's hard to translate, but probably the "rule of the Islamic jurist." And it stems from the notion that there should be one arbiter of all Islamic law and of government. And indeed, in Ayatollah Khomeini's early writings, he did talk about this notion and this idea that there shouldn't be democracy. There has to be a single arbiter.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: But even in Qom, there are reform voices. Yusuf Sane'ei is one of only 10 grand ayatollahs in Iran. They're the country's most influential religious thinkers. His lectures at the seminary always draw large crowds. In recent years, he's shocked his followers by taking pro-democracy positions on controversial issues. We wanted to ask him about the most controversial issue of them all.
[on camera] To a Westerner, the institution of supreme leader, Velayat-e-Faqih, suggests a principle of infallibility, as the pope.
[voice-over] His immediate reaction was revealing: "Tell the interviewer that the question is too political, and I am too clever to answer it."
[on camera] I can see that very clearly!
[voice-over] There's a reason for caution. Across the street, a house so sensitive we had to secretly photograph it. The grand ayatollah Montazeri has been under house arrest for the past five years for offending the Supreme Leader.
Despite the risk, Sane'ei tries to address one of the most sensitive issues in Iran, claiming that Iran's constitution and Islamic law should make all voters - and their votes - equal.
He says, "Imam Khomeini was not infallible, let alone anyone else. In an Islamic system, everyone has one vote, from the Supreme Leader to the president and all the other authorities. The Supreme Leader has only one vote, and he should not be able to impose his ideas on anyone else. He is not infallible. He is capable of making mistakes, just like everyone else. To err is human."
That's the theory. But in practice, democracy calls for political toughness, a quality the popular President Khatami seems to lack.
ELAINE SCIOLINO, "The New York Times": Despite the fact that he's a charming politician, he's not a guerrilla in-fighter. He doesn't have the stomach for back-room politics. Instead, he has an alliance with the man who has even more power than he, Ayatollah Khamenei.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: With political power biased toward hard-line conservative clerics, Iranians are tired of religions politics and a political religion.
Two of every three Iranians are under the age of 25, but you'd never know it here. Friday prayers are increasingly attracting the one third of the population who can remember the Islamic revolution. In the mountains overlooking Tehran, high school students flee the pollution of the city and the eyes of the clerics who forbid even the most innocent intimacies between the sexes. Even holding hands is forbidden for the unmarried. But on the mountainside, they are like teenagers everywhere, still full of energy and humor and curiosity about the wider world.
The dream of many is to get away.
[on camera] Are you going to go to university?
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Yes?
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Have any trouble getting in?
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Mathematics?
LINDEN MacINTYRE: You're going to become engineers?
STUDENTS: Yes! Yes!
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Are you going to stay in Iran?
STUDENTS: No, no, no! [crosstalk] U.S.! U.S.!
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [unintelligible] USA?
[voice-over] Iran is oil-rich, but the economy, mismanaged by a corrupt elite, offers few incentives for the young to stay here.
FARIBORZ RAISDANA, Economist: How we can find job for them? We need money, investments. How we can collect the money? Outside of the country, they don't come here, because of the security. Inside of the country, the money and the wealth and the capital is in the hand of minority. And they don't want to give it- to give it up.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: This could be a preview of what lies ahead. July, 1999, a student protest turned into a demonstration for secular democracy. Young people are losing patience with a reform process that seems almost to be stalled. Out of the violence, one image caught the public imagination more than any other, the student Ahmed Batebi holding aloft the bloody T-shirt of a friend who'd been injured by the police. Batebi made the cover of the British newsmagazine The Economist and got a 15-year jail sentence for his moment of fame.
Just five years ago, the family of the missing Siamak Pourzand saw the election of a reform government as the start of a move toward a more open and modern system. So far, there isn't much to show for it. Pourzand's daughter, Asedeh, who turned 16 and became a voter last year, had high hopes.
ASEDEH POURZAND: Dear Mr. President: I am a 17-year-old Iranian girl-
LINDEN MacINTYRE: From her home in Washington, she has written to President Khatami to ask for help in finding her father, even though she knows the police and intelligence services are under the control of Iran's religious leaders.
ASEDEH POURZAND: I just wroted to Khatami, to Mr. Khatami, and just like a voter, I- now I demand all of my rights from him because he promised me in his slogans to do something. But none of them is- is [unintelligible].
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [on camera] And what- did you get an answer? What did the president say?
ASEDEH POURZAND: Nothing.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Nothing.
ASEDEH POURZAND: Nothing.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: No answer.
ASEDEH POURZAND: No answer.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [voice-over] At the end of last year, the first major war of the new millennium, a war on terrorism. As U.S. forces landed in Afghanistan, there was cautious but unqualified support from one surprising quarter. Iran offered the U.S. safe passage for humanitarian aid and even sanctuary for U.S. servicemen if they needed it.
[on camera] How important an opening was this?
THOMAS R. PICKERING, Undersecretary of State 1997-'01: Well, I considered it an important step forward. In a world of no progress, any millimeter ahead can still look like a mile. So in the comparative terms of the past, it was, I think, something that we welcomed. Secretary Powell was able to shake the hand of Foreign Minister Harazi, which was a forward step beyond what Secretary Albright was able to do in her time. So they're all senses that that was moving forward.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: Senator Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, feels there are strong strategic reasons for improved relations with Iran.
Sen. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE), Chmn, Foreign Relations Committee: One of the reasons why I think it would be beneficial for us to try to move beyond the old wounds and do what we can - even if it's indirect - to be agents of promoting democratic institutions and instincts in Iran, even if, once they're a democratic nation, God willing, they still don't like us- I'd rather deal with a democratic nation.
I mean, look, the French aren't crazy about us half the time. I'm not looking for an Iran that says, "God bless America." I'm looking for an Iran that doesn't support terror. I'm looking for an Iran who sees the mutuality of interest that we have relative to Iraq and other places.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: But for years the challenge has been to get past the hard-line elements who rule Iran, to engage the pro-democracy reformers who want normal relations with the West. It was a problem that surfaced again as the Bush administration prepared this year's State of the Union speech.
DAVID FRUM, Former Bush Speechwriter 2001-'02: A State of the Union is like a moon launch. It's a vast undertaking for the whole White House and even the whole executive branch.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: David Frum, then on the white House staff, worked on the president's speech.
DAVID FRUM: It is deeply considered. It is read again and again. Dozens of eyes go over it, question, challenge it.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: It became clear as the speech evolved that it would have to deal with terrorism and it would have to be consistent with a doctrine that the president defined last fall, that the nation was at war against terrorism and would henceforth know its friends by the quality of their support in that war.
DAVID FRUM: And the Bush doctrine on terrorism is a serious proposition, and it's going to define his presidency. It governs his conduct, and all governments in the world should know that and should act accordingly.
ELAINE SCIOLINO: Once George Bush got up and said, "You're either with us or you're against us," the question was then, well, where do all these different countries fit in? And despite the efforts of Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and some of his team, to try to woo Iran and entice Iran, seduce Iran to become part of the "with us," it was impossible.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: As the president rehearsed the final draft, it was clear that relations with Iran will be defined - as have been relations with Iraq and North Korea - by outstanding grievances, America's concern about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: The speech to Congress raised a crucial question. Has Iran become a potential target for military action, a question we wanted to ask, but administration declined our requests for an interview. Even the speech writer David Frum, widely believed to have inspired the famous phrase "axis of evil," was at a loss for words.
[on camera] What is the "or else"? Obviously, there is an "or else" factor. What do you think it is?
DAVID FRUM: I think it's the universal rule of the American government that it does not- it does not make threats. It does not spell out to people what will happen if they continue. It- it doesn't- I think it's a univer- I think it's a rule of- it spells out doctrines. It spells out limits, and then- and then if people defy those limits, then there are consequences. I don't know that there is some plan in a drawer of a "what else."
ELAINE SCIOLINO: Well, putting Iran in the "axis of evil" is sort of a feel-good, one-day event. And the United States- President Bush makes clear to the American people Iran is our enemy. Then what? How do you then put that phrase into effect? Do you bomb Iran? Do you take out a military installation that you think may be the source of weapons that are going to Hezbollah in Lebanon? You know, what comes next?
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [voice-over] The nearest thing to a clue came soon after the speech, during a private conversation involving the president's security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has been advocating closer ties with Iran's moderate politicians.
Sen. JOSEPH BIDEN: Within a matter of two weeks, there was a- I won't call it backpedaling because that's pejorative, but I think there was a refinement of what they meant by it.
I made a speech not too long ago, but in this interim period, where I laid out some specific proposals and invited members of the Modulus, the elected representatives in Iran, to meet with us, members of the United States Congress.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [on camera] I'm intrigued by the response to those suggestions you got from the administration. I have to ask, do you think the administration wants to move in that direction?
Sen. JOSEPH BIDEN: I'm positive they do. And the reason I'm positive is not conjecture. I met with the administration and with Dr. Rice, the national security adviser. They would like to move in that direction.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: [voice-over] That might be more difficult now, at least in the short term. "Axis of evil" quickly reminded Iranian nationalists, like their former president, Rafsanjani, of old grudges.
At Friday prayers in Tehran, February the 8th, just before the 23rd anniversary of the revolution, a crowd of 5,000 cheered him as he denounced American policy. The "axis of evil" speech may inadvertently have backfired against Iran's reformers.
FARIBORZ RAISDANA, Economist: The American intervention is not in favor of the freedom-lovers, in favor of the people, in favor of the poor people, but in favor of the government, particularly the extremist right.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: The anti-American slogans are usually choreographed, but this year they seemed a little more spontaneous. When he spoke here in the past, President Khatami chided the crowd for shouting "Death to America," but not this year.
Each evening in the Holy city of Qom, the Grand Ayatollah Sane'ei holds court after prayers to discuss religion and politics. He found widespread shock and disappointment over the "axis of evil" comment.
He says that, "If supporters of democracy in Iran had been under pressure before, they will be even under more pressure in the future. And if they haven't been under pressure, they will be. And Mr. Bush has caused this situation and is responsible for it."
In Washington, one of Iran's most prominent reformers, whose husband has been missing since last fall, finally hears from him on her answering machine. He confirms her worst fears.
MEHRANGIZ KAR, Exiled Lawyer and Activist: You know, I came home, and Asedeh told me [unintelligible] "I have talk about something that is not good." And when I heard his voice, I was going to die.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: He told her, clearly under duress, to stop talking about him. Days later, a newspaper report in Tehran revealed that Siamak Pourzand has been charged with treason. Mehrangiz Kar has since spoken to her husband and told him she will not be silenced. She will continue speaking out, no matter what the cost.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: I wished if they killed me and Siamak, like they killed Dariush Forouhar and Parvaneh Forouhar and others, it was better than this.
LINDEN MacINTYRE: For Asedeh Pourzand and her mother, America is now a place of exile as she waits for news about her father's fate, which seems to parallel the fate of Iran's struggling democratic movement, a movement overshadowed by the power of Iran's religious leaders and by a new sense of isolation from the outside world.
TERROR AND TEHRAN
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