050915 - Day Two in Iran:
Day Two in Iran: A Meeting with Rafsanjani's Son •
Day Three in Iran: Meeting with the Grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini •
Day Four in Iran: Women Rights Rally Turns Ugly •
Day Five in Iran: The Journey Home after a Pre-Election Bombing •
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Day One in Iran: Culture in Conflict
By Sean Penn
The San Francisco Chronicle
Monday 22 August 2005
In June, Sean Penn and two friends traveled to Tehran. It was Penn's first trip to the country. What he found was a culture in conflict. Although the nation is ruled by a very conservative, tradition-bound government, Penn talked to many younger Iranians who have a strong interest in Western culture and want their own country to liberalize its policies on individual rights. Beginning today, The Chronicle will publish a five-day series of his reports from Iran:
It's the week preceding presidential elections. Candidates attack one another's credibility. Activists push to boycott the vote. Traffic and pollution choke the cities. Leftists support a no-win idealist. Preachers guide their flocks toward political starboard. The media have fallen under the grip of standing power, and should they defy it, they're imprisoned. University students promote human rights, while fundamentalists deny them. It is a culture in love with cinema. With Brad Pitt. Angelina Jolie. And anything Steven Spielberg. It is a nation of nuclear power, where the lobbies of the religious right effectively blur the lines between church and state. But it is also a country of good and hospitable people. And when the local team wins a big match, there is dancing, kissing, drinking and drugs in the streets. Women are graduating the campuses in higher and higher numbers, occupying government in higher and higher numbers. Sound familiar? But wait. The women. Look at the women. All is not well. I'm thinking about the women. This is Iran.
It had been six weeks since my friend, author Norman Solomon, and I sat around in my living room deciding to travel to Iran and called journalist Reese Erlich to join us. Reese immediately began applications for visas. Over the month and a half that followed, he slogged through U.N. attaches and the cultural and foreign ministries of the Islamic Republic of Iran and swam doggedly upriver through the multiple bureaucracies that lead to a journalist's visa. This process led to continual rescheduling and revised itineraries.
When the visas were finally approved, two days beyond our latest planned departure, I was in England visiting my wife who was working there. On the afternoon of June 8, I watched the Iranian World Cup team dominate Bahrain on the television of the Iranian Consulate in London. Iran's victory gave me further reason to mourn our most recent travel delay, because it meant I would miss the jubilance that would surely explode in the streets of Tehran.
The next morning, I left London at 6 a.m. to rendezvous with Norman and Reese in Munich. While I waited in the Munich airport for their flight from San Francisco, I did some money changing, magazine buying and snacking. I travel better where English is not spoken. But English is spoken at German airports, so I remained restless until their arrival.
At 3:30 p.m. Munich-time, Norman, Reese and I boarded Lufthansa Flight 602 to Tehran. The other passengers were about 95 percent Iranian and a few Europeans. Last year, including journalists, fewer than 500 non-Iranian Americans visited Iran. I looked around the plane, full of modern men and women in Western garb, returning from vacations, family visits and business. Alcoholic beverages were served on the plane. But no alcohol sold for duty- free purchase. Iran is an Islamic state and a dry one. Nonetheless, many of these travelers were happy to get in their last swill before landing.
Four hours and 10 minutes later and a time change that would have us land at 10:30 p.m. Tehran-time, came a P.A. announcement as we went into approach: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very important announcement to make. For all our female passengers, by decree of the government of Iran, all female visitors are required to keep their heads covered. In your own interest, therefore, we ask you to put on a scarf before leaving the aircraft in Tehran. Thank you." With that, women clamored for the lavatory. One at a time as they exited, hundreds of years of transformation had occurred. All of these modern women, who would've looked quite at home dancing in a Paris nightclub, were now covered head to toe in black chadors, makeup scrubbed from their faces, cleavages and midriffs a memory.
There are no separate queues for Iranian and foreign passport holders at customs, and, as my pals and I had traveled in the rear coach seats, we found ourselves somewhere three-quarters back in the line. I was anxious to get out into the street, to smell the city and its traffic, to arrive at the hotel, check in with home. Our cell phones would not work in Tehran, so I hoped that the international phone lines wouldn't be difficult to get. I noticed that many Iranians were freely smoking cigarettes in line, certainly no signs prohibiting it, and immediately joined them. I was quickly singled out by a uniformed customs agent who instructed me to put out my cigarette. Only me. Not the Iranian passengers.
Eventually, Norman, Reese and I went forward to the customs booth and presented our three American passports. We were told to "wait," rather abruptly. With that, the young Iranian customs official left his booth with our passports, taking them to another office, out of our line of sight.
The official returned, but without our passports or any explanation. We stood dumbly by, as the remaining Iranian passengers were stamped and passed us.
Over an hour later, we were still waiting in a now-empty customs hall. I sat on the floor. Reese paced. And Norman, Zen as always, stood in place. Suddenly, four uniformed customs officials appeared and hurried us into a small office, where one by one, we were fingerprinted and directed in Farsi. It wasn't clear whether the fingerprinting was leading to our being permitted into the country, or if our passports alone were the reason we were being detained.
What does he want?
The agent whose large hands had rolled my black-inked fingers and palms over several printing forms barked at me to follow him with a wave of his hand. He led me to a men's room, where he swung open the door and indicated I should go in ahead of him. It was a bit of a ratty hole. Water closets, open. Worn, reflectionless mirrors. Where our standard toilets might sit, these are simply holes in the floor, with dark glimmering puddles beneath, and fluorescent light above. He just stared at me. Neither threateningly, nor warmly. Seconds went by as I stared back. Neither threatened, nor comfortable. "Now what?" I said. He raised his hands and wiped his palms over one another. Yes, he wanted me to have the opportunity to wash my hands, rather than to walk, black-handed, into the Persian night.
So I turned to the sink, there were the last bubbles in a soap dispenser and I tried to pump it. The water came on automatically, nice modern touch, but it was cold. I rubbed my hands together under it with a bubble or two of soap, to at least a graying effect. When I looked for some sort of towel to dry them, there wasn't one. So, I took a deep breath and slid past my 6-foot-3- inch minder into one of the water closets, grabbed some toilet paper, and dried my dull gray hands.
There was, it turned out, a contrivance in the tone of all this. The language of the Iranian Parliament in the decree for fingerprinting makes no attempt to disguise the retaliatory impetus of the fingerprinting policy: Americans do it to Iranians. Iranians do it to us. When I thanked the agent for his help, I was as much thanking him for not putting my head in the water closet hole as for facilitating our clean-handed entrance into his country. When we got to the baggage area, our driver was dutifully waiting, as were our bags. We jumped in the car and headed for the hotel.
The streets of Tehran at night are reminiscent of Baghdad or Mexico City. Jousting, yelling, horn honking and warm thickly polluted air, mud-splattered motorcycles, winding through human traffic at death-bound speeds. This was the week before the Iranian presidential election and the city was papered with campaign posters. Dominant were those of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. I knew it would be an eventful week. I did not know we were headed into the most violent week in Iran in more than a decade.
The Hotel Laleh had once been the InterContinental. Its modern conveniences intact, we pulled our luggage through the lobby, greeted by bellmen, ever so warm and happy to relieve us of our bags. At check-in, it is required to surrender one's passport and identify what type of visa one travels under. The legality of my presence was based on my technical position as "journalist." Hence, I checked in as such, went up to my room, called home, then got some sleep.
I got up with the morning light, opened the curtains and could just make out the sparsely snow-spotted peaks above through the polluted haze. Tehran lies at the foot of the Elburz Mountains. In some directions, it doesn't look unlike Los Angeles at the foot of the San Gabriels. Staring into my room from the boulevard below was a banner with the visage of Ayatollah Khomeini. Our first scheduled event was the Friday morning prayer service. But that would not begin for several hours. I went downstairs, out the door, and walked into the Tehran morning.
This would turn out to be one of the few times I was able to be alone on the visit. But it was an important time for that. My unsure footing at the airport, the hustle of the city we drove into the night before, were by now, dreamlike and wary episodes of travel. But now I was just one more rested body and spirit walking down the Tehran street. What I had anticipated of this deeply Islamic city was some sort of post-chant, post-prayer gloominess, dark- eyed men with dark beards, eyeing me with suspicion, shrouded women not eyeing me at all. But that's not what I saw. And that's not what it felt like.
Of course one doesn't see a woman without a scarf, called a hijab, on her head at least, and a chador covering her body. It is unlawful to touch a woman in public unless you are her husband. Girlfriends and boyfriends are not permitted to hold hands. However, there are many smiles. There was laughter and very warm feelings in the eyes that fell on this American visitor. Surprised to encounter me in their city, some told me how much they liked the movie "21 Grams," a film in which sex and drug abuse are both seen in graphic detail. Over the next days, I would find that American movies are readily available and popular in Iran, viewed on black market DVDs. The DVD man goes house to house, like a milkman might.
The Back of the Bus
I walked slowly over about a 2-square-mile area. The image of Ayatollah Khomeini, as stern as an Orwellian leader, is omnipresent on the sides of buildings, walls, billboards and bus stops, watching my every move. As I studied one of those building sides, the searing eyes of their beloved Ayatollah, I stepped off a curb and was nearly flattened by a transit bus. I leaped backward onto the sidewalk. And there they were, staring down upon me, Iranian men, in the front of the bus. But as I regained my bearings, the last third of the bus passed me and it was there, where everything went into slow motion. Sliding by me was the rear of the bus, occupied only by women in black chadors. The back of the bus. I thought of Rosa Parks.
Back at the hotel, I went for coffee and scrambled eggs at the downstairs buffet. A canned, Muzak version of "I Will Always Love You" plays. The scene downstairs reminded me of similar scenes in Iraq, at Baghdad's Al Rashid and Palestine hotels. International journalists with that "What the f -- are you doing here, Mr. Penn?" look on their faces.
I grabbed a copy of the English version of Iran News. I read that the United States was considering the sale of commercial aircraft parts to Iran. The Muzak changed, and an instrumental of "Unchained Melody" took over. After breakfast, I swung by the front desk to inquire about exercise facilities, in or out of the hotel. There wasn't much available, but there were a couple of times I found myself running the emergency stairs twelve floors up and twelve floors down. And it got a bit musty.
I headed upstairs to get ready for a 10 a.m. meeting with the Iranian agency that represents visiting journalists. I loaded my camera, my tape recorder and changed into a more formal pair of shoes, as I didn't know what expectations of dress the prayer service required. My television was on and CNN World Report registered a viewer complaint that there were too many stories about China. Too few covering the Downing Street Memo revelation. I had put myself to sleep the night before with CNN World Report, special edition on China's sex museum.
After getting our official credentials, we headed off to Friday prayers. Security was very tight around the stadium of Tehran University where the faithful assemble for Namaze Jumeh or Friday Prayers. We surrendered all metallic objects after going through a series of metal detectors. I was subjected to an upper body search, triggered by a cash pouch around my waist. (The interest on credit cards is against Islamic doctrine and therefore, one carries and pays in cash.) Then we were escorted to the press balcony.
The stadium was hung with banners. One translated, "We shall always support the Palestinians." Another, "Resistance against the conspiracies of America and Israel will disappoint them to predominate over Iran's nation." This phrase is attributed to "the grand, great leader." Bit by bit, the stadium filled until 10,000 worshipers created a sea partially of white and black turbans (the black represents the Seyed or direct descendent of the prophet Mohammed) pale and dark shirts. Chanting echoed throughout the building. Government officials fill the front rows. Military arrived in groups, in the belief that their prayers will be answered in multiples. Many, as simple conscripts, seemed less focused on the proceedings. And behind them, the sea of the devout.
The opening sermon was delivered by a low-level cleric, Ayatollah Mesbehi, and focused on economic morality. With every bow, and only backs showing, the bodies of worshipers created the illusion of an undulating Persian carpet. The women were sequestered in an entirely separate area, all but unseen from the press balcony. The hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati arrived to deliver his sermon. He leads the six-man Guardian Council, the controversial and largely considered fundamentalist body that governs state decisions over and above those made by the president or parliament (Majlis). In an apparently direct targeting of centrist candidate Rafsanjani, he preached against the dangers of nepotism in government. Rafsanjani was known to employ many of his relatives in his cabinets, and represented a power and following that directly threatened that of the Guardian Council.
As Jannati transitioned toward international policy, he reminded what was largely considered a reluctant voting public that every vote is a shout of death to America. He goaded the crowd to join the chanting calls for "Death to Israel!", "Death to America!" Ten thousand strong of voice. I was struck by the familiar: a cleric guiding his followers in their politics, and toward particular candidates away from others. It has been my observation that this kind of invective speech is common, not only in Iran but in the Arab states as well. According to many with whom I spoke, it had always been clear from the Iranian point of view, that the call is related to American foreign policy and does not intend to target the death of the American people. However, when the supposed purpose of a 10,000-person rally is in the prayer and scruples of Islam, I can say that as an American (a half Jew, by the way), the chant demeans both intent and any religion that aspires to a core of love and reduces it to a cheap political threat of violence.
As the service came to its end, hands released the prayer beads counted for pacing of prayer. In our case, we checked Reese's watch, which said it was time to beat the crowd and get back to the car. We went back through the multiple security checks like the first fleeing audience members of a rock concert..
Iran is not an unsophisticated country. These are not unrefined people. And many, even among the worshipers at the Friday prayer service, do not subscribe to a literal interpretation of the call for "Death to Israel" and "Death to America." However, in the mantra of chant, comes an adulated sense of horror. Why such anger at the United States? Where had Iran's traumatic experience with American power begun?
Just after the midpoint of the 20th century, Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadiq -- erudite, secular and committed to a democratic vision of Iran - cast a formidable shadow across the world stage. At home his popularity grew as he insisted on putting an end to Britain's long-standing plunder of Iranian oil. In April 1951, Mussadiq took decisive action, nationalizing the British oil firm that had enjoyed a sweetheart deal with Iran's government. Despite fury in London, he set up the National Iranian Oil Co.
British leaders got nowhere when they asked the Truman administration to use the U.S. government's more trusted position in Tehran to help overthrow Mussadiq. But as soon as President Eisenhower took office in early 1953, his foreign-policy team rolled up its spooky sleeves to get the job done. The regal Shah of Iran -- a faithful buddy of British oil executives -- was losing his power struggle with Mussadiq, and in August the Shah abruptly left the country and fled to Rome. The CIA, working as senior partner with Britain's MI6, quickly moved to subvert Iranian democracy.
CIA operative Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, labored feverishly in Tehran to coordinate a coup that brought down Mussadiq in August 1953 and quickly restored the Shah to the throne. Western oil companies were back in charge of Iran's oil, and the Shah initiated what turned out to be a quarter-century of political repression, torture, and killing.
Author Dilip Hiro wrote:
America -- a power that most secular nationalists had initially considered to be benevolently neutral to Iran in its dispute with the British -- had clandestinely allied with Britain to overthrow a government that represented popular nationalist interest. This reprehensible act of the United States left a deep scar on the minds of Iranians, implanting most of them with abiding animosity toward America."
With the 1979 revolution, came the flight of the Shah and the return of Iran's exiled spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini.
 Sean Penn