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by Bruce K. Byers

The author, a frequent contributor to this journal, stresses the importance of cultural diplomacy and listening in order to engage a regime that represses its best and brightest.—The Editor

On March 8 Simin Behbahani, the “Lioness of Iran” and world-renowned poet, informed the BBC that she had been banned from leaving her native land. She was preparing to depart for Paris where she was to speak on behalf of Iranian women at an event in celebration of International Women’s Day. According to news reports, she was detained after passing through customs at Tehran’s international airport. Officials confiscated her passport and questioned her for hours. Then she was told to report to the Revolutionary Court. She was not arrested but joined the ranks of many Iranians who have been banned from leaving their country. In 1997 Ms. Bebahani was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and in 1999 she received the Carl von Ossietsky Medal for her poetry.

Simin Behbahani

Among her recent poems is one to Neda Soltani, the young woman shot to death near a demonstration in Tehran after the June 12, 2009 election. In a telephone interview with National Public Radio’s senior producer Davar Iran Ardalan on the June 26, 2009 program “Weekend Edition,” she recited a brief tribute to Neda Soltani, which in translation reads:

You are neither dead, nor will you die.
You will always remain alive.
You have an eternal existence.
You are the voice of the people of Iran.

Perhaps because of this and other poems about her native land and society, 82-year old Simin Behbahani was detained at the airport and subjected to interrogation. Her outspoken use of language in favor of the freedom of speech and human rights causes her enemies deep concern. They have increasing difficulties fighting the words and ideas of Iranians who love their country and speak up for the silent majority of their people who are afraid. They use blunt instruments to try to subdue the great poetic traditions of Iran but they succeed only in alienating increasing numbers of Iranians around the world. Their goal certainly cannot be improving the welfare of all Iranians, especially the increasing numbers of younger Iranians who are under educated and unemployed.

Shirin Ebadi

Their fear of words moved them to confiscate the Nobel Peace Prize and Diploma awarded to Shirin Ebadi in 2003 for her work in advancing human rights and the rights of women and children in Iran. On November 26, 2009 Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre expressed his government’s outrage at the actions of the Iranian government. He stated that it was the first time a Nobel Prize had been confiscated by national authorities.  Norwegian State Secretary Gry Larsen summoned Iran’s Chargé d’affaires to the Foreign Ministry and protested the confiscation of Dr. Ebadi’s Nobel Prize. She also expressed her government’s grave concern over the treatment of Shirin Ebadi’s husband who had allegedly been beaten and had his pension stopped and his bank account frozen. Foreign Minister Støre told the Iranian Chargé that the Norwegian government would continue “to engage in international efforts to protect human rights defenders, and will follow the situation in Iran closely.” (Norwegian Foreign Ministry press release dated November 26, 2009.)

After all of this Ahmadinejad’s government claimed that it had not confiscated Dr. Ebadi’s Nobel Prize. The pressure of international diplomacy and media scrutiny apparently surprised the Iranian government officials. Still, we do not know for sure whether their claim is true.

Neda Soltani, Shirin Ebadi, and Simin Behbahani demonstrate the power of conscience and the force of the human spirit in confronting evil. Neda’s murder and Simin’s detention reveal again just how obsessed the Revolutionary Guards are with any criticism, no matter how mild. The confiscation of Dr. Ebadi’s Nobel Prize adds to the evidence that fear of free speech and hubris is driving them to commit such acts. These acts reveal the deep weakness permeating the so-called defenders of the revolution as they confront social and political changes they can no longer completely control. Inexorable change, like the course of a great river, sweeps all in its path. Those with vested interests in protecting their power in the face of such change inevitably lose the struggle against the current.

Even though the United States and other countries have been trying to isolate Iran financially, economically and politically, the Iranian government seems bent upon isolating itself from much of the rest of the world. Its unprecedented confiscation of Dr. Ebadi’s Nobel Prize is evidence of such self isolation while at the same time it serves as further proof that those in power in Tehran and Qom are afraid of the ideas and values of their country’s own citizens. The revolutionaries must remain in isolation in order to survive.

The courageous actions of Soltani, Behbahani, and Ebadi demonstrate again the power of individual witnesses to truth and freedom in Iranian society. They confront an aging guard of men who have amassed personal wealth and power through their control of the symbols and the economic machinery of the Iranian revolution. Iran’s writers and poets are at a great disadvantage because the government can inflict pain and suffering upon them and members of their families, just as the Gestapo did in Nazi Germany.

Like many others in Iran and abroad, Ebadi and Behbahani continue to work for decency, civility, and freedom in the face of government efforts at mass persuasion through psychological intimidation, state-controlled media, physical violence, and unpredictable arrests. And always Iran’s government leaders must openly criticize the United States in their efforts to persuade Iranians that the U.S. is working for the destruction of Iran and the revolution. They need the “Great Satan” to defend their revolution and justify such policies as nuclear research and long-range missile development and testing.

Our speculations about what the U.S. government might do to stop Iran’s nuclear research play into the hands of the Revolutionary Guards and their supporters among hard-line clergy. The threat of a U.S. attack against Iran carries a great psychological and historical weight for many Iranians, especially those of the generations of Simin Behbahani and Grand Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei who are old enough to remember the successful U.S. and British efforts to topple the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. The Revolutionary Guards use this as a stick to keep political thought in line and to beat down any who would question their ideology and strategic thinking.

However, poets like Simin Behbahani have been alive long enough to have witnessed many political and social changes in Iran. She and others have an historical consciousness that is, in itself, a threat to the younger guardians of the revolution. For this and other reasons, the government of President Ahmadinejad tries to silence her and limit her international travel.

There is another dimension to Ahmadinejad’s repression: the growing fear that men can no longer impose their collective will on women and girls in Iran. Unlike some other Islamic states where Islamic law condemns women to be all but invisible and to stay out of public life, Iranian culture has a much older and different history that informs today’s younger Iranians. While gender segregation has existed at many levels in Iranian society, women have been able to express themselves more openly and have had access to higher education and greater freedom of movement outside the home. They, too, can listen to Iran’s great poets and writers and gain new hope and faith in a better society under a more open and democratic government.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei

We Americans should listen more closely to the voices of different Iranians. Poetry has a very deep and ancient tradition in Iranian culture. It is a treasury of history and moral values. It is a reservoir for cultural myths and symbols that are immediately recognizable to people from many different socio-economic levels of society. The government that emerged out of the early years of the Iranian revolution sought to manipulate cultural and political symbols by imposing harsh Islamic rules. These rules especially targeted women’s roles and activities in society, but the revolutionaries have been less successful in stifling cultural movements, personal relations, and social mores.

At this critical juncture in our foreign policy deliberations about Iran and its government, we should more closely examine the impact of changing social mores and seek in them harbingers of an emerging Iranian society that is not only tied to the 1979 revolution and to the dictates of the Revolutionary Guard.

We must look at Iranian society and ask who is allowed to speak and who isn’t and why. We must avoid imposing our own narrow ideological readings of events in Iran to see whether they can be measured on our scale of democratic values and security interests. Iranian society is much too complex for such speculative exercises among our foreign policy professionals. Currently, it seems, we see only A or B and not A and B or A, B, C and other possibilities. One way in which we can surely expand our understanding of the social and cultural forces that motivate so many Iranians in their homeland and abroad is to increase our person-to-person outreach through cultural diplomacy. The State Department has already been engaged in promoting exchanges and outreach programs.

It is prudent for us to remember that for more than fifty years we employed cultural diplomacy to gain direct and indirect access to and a better understanding of Russian society and politics during the era of the Soviet Union. Those efforts helped us expand our contacts not only with government officials and political elites but also with increasing numbers of people throughout the Soviet Union. Our exhibits and cultural presentations that toured Russian cities during the Cold War left lasting impressions on millions of younger Russians who have now assumed positions of responsibility in government, business, academia, and cultural institutions.

While we currently do not have official diplomatic relations with the Iranian government, this has not kept us from occasional talks with Iranian officials. Still, there may be cultural and social nuances that we miss when meeting with Iranians. We are a society that welcomes the firm handshake and a look into one another’s eyes, but this does not get us very far with Iranians. Theirs is a society of appearances that we don’t comprehend and nuances that we often don’t understand. In traditional diplomacy we tend to want representatives from other governments to talk straight and openly about bilateral and multilateral issues. Such frankness is not traditional in Iranian diplomacy or in Iran’s complex society. Trying to force it is counterproductive.

Instead, we must immerse ourselves in the many layers of conversation and negotiation that constitute problem solving techniques in Iranian society. We must look beyond the often outrageous statements President Ahmadinejad makes in public fora. We can begin by listening to what poets like Simin Behbahani are saying. We must ask ourselves who in Iran feels forgotten and left out and then strive to reach these people. Many of them may quietly occupy important posts in their government, economic and financial institutions, and military. Threatening sanctions and other measures pushes potential partners in dialogue into defensive corners and arouses increased passive aggression towards us.

In the end, we must ask ourselves what it is we want in a relationship with contemporary Iran. Are we out to undermine the current government as an older generation of American leaders once did in 1953? Are we quietly preparing for a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities? What would we gain from such a move and what would it cost us in political and diplomatic capital? Would this increase regional stability and trust in American leadership? Is there another way to convince Iranian government leaders to comply with the Non-proliferation Treaty their government signed?

Whatever policy President Obama chooses, his advisors should counsel him to examine closely Iranian social mores, traditions, and history. Iran is a country that has been invaded many times. British, American and Soviet military forces have occupied Iran at different times in the past century. For many Iranians there is just cause to be concerned about official statements from Washington. Not only the Republican Guards but most Iranians fear being enveloped again by American power. Such envelopment, whether psychological, political, or military, would increase Iranian resistance to any efforts for more open dialogue.

Remembering President Nixon’s opening to China, we might begin anew to make constructive gestures towards Iran’s leaders despite their public statements and often repressive actions. This would require that we move beyond taking such statements at face value. While we may not like dealing with Ahmadinejad and his government, we have dealt with worse and realized surprisingly positive outcomes. A first step would be to increase our efforts through cultural diplomacy to engage Iranian political, social, and cultural leaders. Perhaps an exchange of poets from each country would send a signal that we are willing to listen more profoundly to the different voices in the other’s society. Such an undertaking would lessen the accusatory posturing that has characterized much of what has passed for dialogue in recent years and increase mutual understanding of the values and traditions that people in each society hold dear. It would enable us to look beyond the current highly charged rhetoric that continues to block progress towards greater regional security.End.

Bruce Byers
Bruce Byers

Bruce Byers served as a cultural affairs officer in Iran from 1972 to 1974, living and working in Isfahan and Tehran. He was involved in cultural exchanges that brought Americans and Iranians together. Among the many Americans who visited Iran, the poet William Stafford toured different Iranian cities and met with local poets and literary societies and engaged Iranian youth in discussions about the meaning of words. Stafford and other American poets and writers listened well to what their Iranian hosts and audiences had to say and offered encouragement to the people with whom they met. Theirs was a lasting contribution to strengthening our cultural ties with Iran.

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