On the Road to Natanz.
If the unthinkable happens, that the US and Israel decide to bomb Iran, you can bet the farm that this highway and nearby developed region in and around Natanz would be no more. Gone forever. Boom.
But who here remembers that thousands of Iranians held spontaneous public candlelight vigils honoring our dead and dying 9/11 victims when news of the New York and Washington attacks reached Tehran? How many other capitals in this world did anything remotely similar?
Recently I found myself on the modern highway system in the Islamic Republic of Iran, taking a road trip from the northern capital Tehran to the southern cultural and industrial metropolis of Shiraz. We stayed overnight in the mesmerizing ancient and modern crossroads of Esfahan located about halfway between the two.
On the approach to Esfahan, I saw a road sign that made me immediately ask my driver to pull over. There was an overhead sign, among others, in both Farsi and English indicating the road to Natanz. "Oh man. I have to get that picture."
I knelt down on the highway shoulder sporting a Cubs cap and Lebron James sneakers with an outstretched hand like I was thumbing a ride. I've traveled to a number of conflict zones in my life - Nicaragua during the Contra war, East bloc Hungary before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Sinai just after the Gulf War, among others - and I wanted to record this moment just in case it all got blown away.
Of course, Natanz is one of the foremost Iranian uranium enrichment facilities and therefore a prime Western military target in the event the current nuclear arms talks fail. If the unthinkable happens, that the US and Israel decide to bomb Iran, you can bet the farm that this highway and nearby developed region in and around my picture would be no more. Gone forever. Boom.
As you might expect, I got some pretty strong reactions from people when I mentioned heading off to Iran.
"I'll probably be over there in a few weeks."
"What?! Like with the 182nd Airborne or something?!"
"Nooo," I answered dismissively. "Just to visit. I always have a good time in Iran. Looking forward to it."
And that was from a reasonable enough guy in his 30′s who had taught at the college level: disbelief and an automatic assumption that I could only be connected with our country's worst tendencies toward the Middle East.
Can't say that I blame him, based on the modern American interventions, invasions, and internecine misadventures throughout the region. But I definitely was not expecting to be called out as just another gringo mercenary looking to spill a little blood and make a few bucks for Uncle Sam.
Despite all the foreign inspired pain, this all-too-white Portland resident and proud third-generation son of the Illinois prairie is always greeted warmly in Iran. To this day, the people of Iran generally hold little animosity toward Americans, despite our government's major role in the 1953 coup d'état that installed the Shah while deposing the elected Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, head of "the only democratic government Iran ever had," according to Stephen Kinzer, author of All The Shah's Men.
Despite our role in supporting Iraq's Saddam Hussein following his invasion of Iran in 1980 (the Iran-Contra affair notwithstanding) that led to a horrific eight-year WWI-style meat grinder of a war resulting in more than a million Iranian casualties, and cementing the current regime's hold on power.
Despite the US Navy's shoot-down of an Iranian civilian jetliner in Iranian airspace with 290 souls aboard on July 3, 1988. The US eventually paid compensation to the victims, expressed regret but is said to have never issued a formal apology.
Despite the constant menacing threat of at least two, some reports say three, Navy carrier groups patrolling in and around the Persia Gulf.
They say the Middle East is like a riddle wrapped within an enigma. How about this one: who here remembers that thousands of Iranians held spontaneous public candlelight vigils honoring our dead and dying 9/11 victims when news of the New York and Washington attacks reached Tehran? How many other capitals in this world did anything remotely similar?
Whenever I travel abroad, I always affirm my US citizenship. That wasn't a very popular stance during the George W. Bush years when untold numbers of my fellow Americans cowardly decided to conveniently claim Canadian and other English-language nationalities as the rising tide of disgust for Washington crested worldwide.
I am a proud American, for better and worse. I simply make sure to let people know that myself and others are fighting the good fight, peacefully but forcefully, at home against US-sponsored terror and injustice. Portland protests (which motivated the George H. W. Bush administration to dub our Cascadian capital "Little Beirut") take a back seat to no one, not Seattle or San Francisco or Chicago or Boston or New York, when it comes to speaking truth to power. We gave W. loud holy hell less than a year after 9/11 when he ambled into town for a GOP benefit. Dozens of us peaceful protesters were attacked by riot clad police looking to prove themselves against women, children, students, and seniors, among others.
Back in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is a so-called developing nation with a modern subway system in the capital, a literacy rate of at least 85% (compared to about 40% before the 1979 revolution that deposed the US-backed regime of Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī), women accounting for about 63% of its university students (US 57%), an infant mortality rate that's been reportedly halved since the revolution, average life expectancy of 78.2 years (US at 80.1 [2009 World Bank]), and a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
But forget all that. What really concerned me was people warning strongly not to wear shorts, even though the thick, dense air of Tehran was already roasting in the high 90s and bad humidity. "The basij religious police can arrest you for wearing shorts, Lawrence!" Not wanting to experience the charms of a theocratic detention facility based on a fashion faux pas, I decided against testing the limits of my host nation's toleration of foreign excess for the time being.
And you thought the women's mandatory hajib hair cover and figure-hiding coat jackets were a big deal.
Israeli and American uber-hawks have convinced themselves and too many others that we must, soon, bomb the land of Cyrus the Great (storied liberator of the enslaved Jews of Babylon who also gave money to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem), the land of the fabled remains of Persepolis, the land of the glorious art and architecture of Isfahan, the home of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and the fantastically enduring poetry of Rumi, as well as the land of one or more of the legendary three magi who reportedly bore magnificent gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus.
Remember, too, that any serious student of the issue will agree that Iran will not directly attack its adversaries first. That still means something in this world. The only existential threat in the region emanates exclusively from Tel Aviv.
Several years ago, I was told in Iran that you can pretty much do anything you want, except to directly challenge the government. And I clearly remember the chilling images of election-fraud protesters on the streets of 2009 Tehran as they were attacked, beaten and arrested by plain-clothes government thugs.
And I clearly remember the chilling images of Occupy Wall Street protesters on the streets of 2011 New York, the NATO protesters on the streets of Chicago in 2012, African Americans fighting their oppression in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014 and in Baltimore this year as they were attacked, beaten and arrested by uniformed city police.
The people of Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, and Natanz deserve the opportunity to reconnect with the wider world when and if the nuclear deal is finally consummated in the coming days. Iran deserves to be reconnected to the developed world and assume its full rightful place as an economic, political, military, and cultural power in the Middle East and beyond.
I want to return to Natanz in a few years and see that things have at least remained the same, if not gotten a whole lot better. The alternative will mean disaster for everyone.
Lawrence J. Maushard is a journalist in Portland. More of his work at www.maushard.wordpress.com
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