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Strange Brew


11 Sep 2010 15:3310 Comments
2097897414_2517ea7427.jpg[ comment ] My grandmother used to cook a traditional Persian soup called aash shole ghalam kar. It stewed for days like a witch's brew as she continually added ingredients. It was not particularly favored by us kids, perhaps because of its unusual ability to remain flavorless despite its languid simmer and varied ingredient base of legumes and vegetables. Tehran, and in many ways Iran, now resembles such a concoction. The pot constantly replenishes with similar but varied ingredients. But rather than enhancing the flavor, the trimmings simply turn it murkier.

As I speak to people in Iran, I notice a particular type of resignation and powerlessness. It produces a tacit anger in how people deal with each other, a tension in the air that is hard to ignore. Tehran has always been a vibrant and lively city. Activity commences at almost every street corner, traffic and pedestrians jamming even the smallest neighborhood alleys. People chatter at the bread lines and markets, in subways and parks, but they don't mention their deepest frustration. Instead, they complain of rising food costs and expenses that sap their resources, basic services no longer provided, escalating fees. They secretly commiserate over the removal of subsidies to which they feel entitled.

Beneath the surface of Iranian society, discontentment hums like a trapped bee. But no one offers suggestions to improve the situation, rare in a town once steeped with the highly opinionated. Or when solutions do emerge, they carry a desperate hint of the absurd. Just last week a cab driver told me that they should charge 900 tomans (about 85 cents) per liter of gas for all the imported cars and let him and other drivers of domestically made cars pay only 100 tomans per liter, thereby providing a subsidy to gasoline costs for guys like himself.

Resignation is, simply put, a gesture void of recommendations or reactions that could alter a situation. It is the opposite of radical. It is the act of the un-radical. If I am resigned to my circumstances it means that I cannot foresee an ability to alter them. I see my situation as un-actionable.

Unfortunately, this doomed state of powerlessness has swept Iran, even in the form of religious faith. What was once the catalyst for radical change has become the great excuse of the powerless as we tread lightly along hoping that God will do something in his desultory fashion, or may be the Mahdi will, when he finally arrives. It is my understanding that the Jews in Germany thought pretty much the same way during the early Nazi years. Resign yourself to the situation and with God's will, you eventually emerge. A worthy idea, and understandable under oppression and violent shows of force when few options exist. But it didn't serve them well. Even Ahmadinejad seems resigned to this theory, reiterating it every chance he gets. His impotency is demonstrated through his earnest calling for the Mahdi to save him from further disgrace.

Many have learned to ignore Ahmadinejad, as he embodies the role of propaganda agent and servant of the mullahs. Those I speak to on the subject wear the pained smile of someone whose laxative isn't quite working. They shake remorseful heads when they hear of his threats and megalomaniacal dreams of managing global affairs, or when he proclaims victory over sanctions. He, too, tries to overcome his own fear of obsolescence as he constantly proclaims the achievements of his presidency.

A long walk around Tehran reveals the machinations of a system designed to induce a state of resignation. This is by no means a conspiracy theory, for this regime, like many other fascist regimes before it, has a clear and identifiable multipronged approach. Some of its aspects are too obvious to ignore:

Through massive bombardment of the public via all media, bombastic claims of its so-called accomplishments are made, including infrastructure projects -- beyond legitimate verification -- accompanied by nationalistic songs during almost every TV program. These mini infomercials are played ad nauseum.

A barrage of misleading and blatantly false news broadcasts and newspaper stories report only positive domestic news and as many negatives as they can collect regarding events in the rest of the world, especially the United States and Europe. The regime knows well that most Iranians obtain information through alternative news sources (BBC, VOA, Radio Farda, and a host of Internet news sites). So why carry on this charade except to wear down the populace to that state of un-radicalized resignation?

Slogans and aphorisms splash walls, banners, and massive billboards. The Don Drapers of Madison Avenue should be scribbling notes (don't leave any walls bare or poles hanging empty) from the Ershad (Guidance) Ministry. For truth is woven from repetition. If a false premise is repeated enough, it becomes the reference point of fact for the masses, much like any effective propaganda effort from Nazism to Stalinism, or a cigarette marketing campaign that manages to sell something deadly as status and pleasure. Any oppressive regime or corporate entity relies on robust and effectual mass marketing.

Redundancy in policy and procedures is the tool of the ineffective, a wise management professor once told me. Since many in the Ershad Ministry are U.S. and European educated, they must have taken this axiom to heart. Lie, plus repeated lie, plus repeated lie, equals the undeniable truth. The head of the central bank disclosed that foreign reserves have doubled since sanctions were imposed, but no further information was provided. It was splashed over front pages of most major newspapers in the capital. "Could it be that they can't buy or import as much these days because of sanctions?" my good bazaari friend asked, sorrowfully shaking his head. He added, "They must think we don't know how to count!"

In the social fabric of Iran, slogans guide one to heaven through righteous deeds, good words, and pious thoughts borne of reciting the Qu'ran and reflecting upon the holy words of the Prophet and imams. Slogans admonish respect for one's parents. Some proclaim the source of the wealth of the domain to be its elders. Beautifully written on walls and barriers are recommendations on consulting others and believing in the guidance of God.

There are reminders by the municipality to keep the city clean. Citizens are also admonished to welcome Ramadan with fasting and prayer, and then break bread at the table of God. Meanwhile pictures of past and present Supreme Leaders either frowning or smiling -- one a cynical form of the other -- warn all to be on guard against saboteurs of the Revolution. More pictures and slogans exist declaring the commitment to free Jerusalem and the Palestinians than you would ever want to see.

I spoke to a Basiji about all the slogans and their proclamations, and he appeared perplexed as to why I found them insulting. I asked him if his father, every day, had declared himself to be a good man, would that convince him that his father was a good man? He said no. I then asked if he would consider his father to be a good man because of his actions and he agreed he would.

But I believe the essential truth of that point eluded him. He continued to ponder it as I left him. It is hard not to sound like an intellectual sometimes, and in Tehran I despise the intellectual talk. But I know the slogan soup is working when I realize it is becoming more difficult to think.

As the soup pot of the regime depletes into an unsavory stew, a few other ingredients are added to make it more palatable. Leaders provide the illusion of freedom by publicizing the infighting of the powerful within the regime. Ahmadinejad and the speaker of the parliament, Larijani, accuse each other of breaking the law, while chief of staff Mashaei and the supreme commander of the Sepah engage in ad hominem attacks. The debate continues over rapprochement with the Green leaders, or about their prosecution over accepting "$1billion from the West and waiting for an additional promised $50 billion," or so they claim. Meanwhile, the Supreme Leader insists that everyone unite (behind him, of course).

Mashaei is the exception. Everyone I speak with loves the way he is sticking his fingers into the hornet's nest with his new and (for the Islamic Republic) radical interpretations of the role of prophets from Noah to Jesus. The parliament is up in arms, the mullahs are demanding retractions and his resignation, and Ahmadinejad insists that he does not understand what all the fuss is about since Mashaei is just stating the government's positions, only with different "literature" (syntax, he means).

The Iran soup is a distasteful mix of ingredients that fail to complement each other in terms of bouquet, taste, or texture. It fits well with the old tradition of serving soup to the needy as a ritual of paying alms.

And if resignation is the aash of Iran, everyone here has a full belly.

Photos via Flickr and Hamsare_Mosafer blog.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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I disagree with your assessment of Iran. I great nation with a great leader. Mahdi - joke all you want but the signs are there. Under Iranian leadership we are now a power to be reconed with in the gulf and in the world.

Power to Iran!

Power to our Leaders!

Radical_Guy / September 11, 2010 7:10 PM

Yet another invocation of Godwin's Law, I'm sorry to say.


"Correspondent in Tehran," try again with this one.

Pirouz / September 11, 2010 8:14 PM

Thank you. This was an interesting piece. Everytime I ask someone living in Iran or who is back from visiting it to describe the public mood I get responses eerily close to this. Sometimes I can't help but think that describing the state of the opposition in Iran today as a movement is sadly not very realistic. Most people I've spoken to seem to think Iranian society today is more like a pressure cooker that is about to explode. All of the ideas of the opposition are there, but the intensity of the repression -in every sense of the word- doesn't allow the slightest of movements towards an improvement in the state of the country.

Cy / September 12, 2010 9:42 AM

@radical guy

You revealed your identity in an instant when you called Persian Gulf "gulf" with lower cap of course. Nice try yaa akhee.

Aryajet / September 12, 2010 11:11 PM

Pirouz, nice attempt at showing off your irrelevant knowledge of Godwins Law...but to take one word out of a hundreds in order to ridicule an interesting article is surely childish....try again!

Bahman / September 13, 2010 11:20 PM

Godwin's Law doesn't even apply here since it was explicitly formulated with respect to long debates on online forums rather than a reference made in an article.

Cy / September 14, 2010 3:23 AM

Radical guy ,

You very nicely presented a great example of IR rediculous propaganda... Thanks for making the point for the author.

"Under Iranian leadership we are now a power to be reconed with in the gulf and in the world."

really? In what universe?
May be your version of 'Mahdi' can also bring down some Leprikons for our amusement.

Anonymous / September 14, 2010 3:27 AM

re: Anonymous / September 14, 2010 3:27 AM

No, I wasnt hiding from the hidden imam. I just forgot to write my name. Sorry.

ahvaz / September 14, 2010 7:43 AM


Godwin's Law??!!!

Yours is only the 2nd comment and you brough up Godwin's Law? It doesnt even apply! You even included the link yourself!!!!didnt you read it? what the ----!

Are you possibly that stupid or are they paying you really really well?

Ahvaz / September 14, 2010 10:56 AM

Yes, Radical/Ahvaz. We are a powerful nation; we always have been. We have resources and a long history. But chest-thumping, being a loud-mouth, and 'kaseyeh daghtar az ash' (bowl hotter than the soup) is not a good kind of power, long term. It is ugly. And I know this will make no difference in your faith (in Mahdi) but I feel sorry for you, and your magical thinking. You will suffer from it.

Kaveh / September 20, 2010 2:56 PM