The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

For Nasser and Badri


I have based this book mostly on personal experience. In 2004 and 2005 I spent several weeks in Iran as a journalist, and in 2007 I spent almost two months living in Tehran, working on what was to become the manuscript. Both in Iran and in the United States, I have relied on my family, friends, and contacts as sources (as well as many other ordinary Iranians I have spoken to in Iran), some of whom I acknowledge in the text and others whose identities I have disguised for their own safety or who wish to remain anonymous. I have also served on a few occasions as an unpaid adviser to the Islamic Republic, bringing me into close contact with Presidents Khatami and Ahmadinejad and numerous members of their staffs, who have all contributed to my knowledge.

I am particularly grateful to President Mohammad Khatami, who took time out of his schedule, both during his presidency and afterward, to engage in long discussions with me and to answer my many questions, and to his brother (and chief of staff) Seyyed Ali Khatami, who spent even more time with me and who introduced me to many other influential Iranians, most of whom I continue to speak with on a regular basis. I learned more about the intricacies of the politics (and the history) of the Islamic Republic from Ali Khatami than I could have from reading dozens of books, and he gave me invaluable lessons on the personalities of the characters who make up the ruling elite of Iran.

I am deeply indebted to the former UN ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif for his keen insights (and his patience with me) and to the ambassadors Hossein Fereidoun, Sadeq Kharrazi, and Mehdi Danesh-Yazdi, all of whom contributed to my understanding of the politics of the Islamic Republic. I’m also grateful to Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki for the time he set aside to meet with me on his visits to New York.

In addition to those who are already named as characters in various chapters, I would like to thank the following persons in Iran, in no particular order, for their assistance and their contributions to my knowledge: Ali Ziaie, Mohammad Ziaie, Amir Khosro Etemadi, Seyyed Hossein Khatami, Maryam Majd, Mohammad Mir Ali Mohammadi, and Mehrdad Khajenouri.

Finally, I’d like to thank my editor, Kristine Puopolo, and my agent, Lindsay Edgecombe, and her colleague James Levine for their hard work in making this a readable book. And, of course, thanks to my father, Nasser Majd, and my mother, Mansoureh Assar, for what they’ve taught me; and to Karri Jinkins, Davitt Sigerson, Michael Zilkha, Selim Zilkha, Simon Van Booy, Daniel Feder, Eddie Stern, Michael Halsband, Paul Werner, Suzy Hansen, Roger Trilling, Glenn O’Brien, and Ken Browar.


“Yeki-bood; yeki-nabood.”
That’s how all Iranian stories, at least in the oral tradition, have begun, since as long as anyone remembers. “There was one; there wasn’t one,” as in “There was a person (once upon a time); but on the other hand, no, there was no one.” Often, the saying continues with
“Gheir az Khoda, heech-kee nabood,”
or “Other than God, there was no One,” a uniquely Persian obfuscation of the Muslim Arabic
“La’illa ha il’allah”
(There is no God but Allah), and which one might think makes much less sense than the original, but is in a way perfectly reasonable. Introduce a young mind to the paradoxes of life with a paradox, you see, which is what most of the Iranian folk stories are about in the first place. As a child, I heard those stories alongside English equivalents (which of course began with the seemingly far more sensible “Once upon a time”), but it never occurred to me then that the simple
“Yeki-bood; yeki-nabood”
said so much about the inherited culture that so deeply penetrated my otherwise Western life.

“Yeki-bood; yeki-nabood.”
Yes, we are about to hear a fantasy, but wait—is it a fantasy? While most Iranian stories that begin so are indeed fantasies, the fantastic Shia stories of early Islam are thought to be true history by the legions of believers in the faith, and if evoked,
wraps itself in religious significance as well as the Persian art of the epic. On one of my trips to Iran, to Qom to be precise, I picked up some CDs of
, Shia religious incantations, usually sung to huge crowds on religious holidays, that tell the stories of Shia saints and their martyrdom. One CD contained a rather mellifluous version of the story of Fatimeh Zahra and Ali (the daughter and son-in-law of the Prophet) that began with
“Yeki-bood; yeki-nabood”
and continued with
“zeer-e gonbad’e kabood,”
or “under the bruised [or dark] dome [or sky],” alluding not just to the Islamic roots of “There was one, there wasn’t one” but also to the Shia sense of the world as a dark and oppressive place. The singer claimed the tale to be one of “estrangement and woe,” central themes in Shiism. There is no God but God, there was one and there wasn’t one, other than God there was no One, and the world is under a perpetual dark cloud. Welcome to Shia Iran.

Iran is better known today by the outside world than at almost any time in its history, certainly since the fall of the Persian Empire, mostly because of the Islamic Revolution, which to many ushered in an era of successful but much-feared Islamic fundamentalism. As a child, I had to patiently explain to new friends in school where and exactly what Iran was, if they even bothered to inquire about my strange name; today I suspect that young Iranians have no such problems. When I look back now, both in my childhood and even as a young adult, I couldn’t have imagined my country as anything more than a second-rate Third World nation subservient to Western powers: had someone seriously suggested to me, or any other Iranian for that matter, that the United States would one day be proposing to build a missile defense system in Europe to guard against an attack by
(as the United States has, to the great consternation of the Russians), with
made missiles, I would have instantly labeled that person as stark raving mad. Despite the negative connotations of a perceptibly hostile Iran, Iranians of a certain age can be forgiven for feeling a tinge of pride in their nation’s rapid ascent to a position of being taken seriously by the world’s greatest superpower, and all in just a little over a quarter of a century. One might argue whether Iran and Iranians would have been better off without the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but it is indisputable that had it not happened, Iran today would likely not have much of a say in global affairs.

Rightly or wrongly, the revolution and the path the nation took after its success have led to Iran’s prominence and repute, but of course at the time Iranians could hardly have known that their revolt would have such far-reaching consequences and effects. For two or three hundred years Iran had been, in all but name, a proxy of Western powers—specifically Britain and then the United States when it took over the mantle of empire after World War II. Iranians overthrew a twenty-five-hundred-year monarchy in 1979 to liberate themselves from an autocratic dictator as much as to liberate themselves from foreign domination (a factor that most in the West did not understand at the time and that was also partly the motivation for the takeover of the U.S. Embassy), and for almost thirty years now, whatever can be said about Iran, it cannot be said that it is subservient to any greater power.

In the early summer of 1979, only a few months after the Islamic Revolution had liberated me from having to explain to geographically and politically challenged fellow students where I was from, I found myself at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, shouting until I was hoarse. I had recently finished my college studies and was visiting friends and family in London, and as I stood on the lawn surrounded by a very emotional crowd of recent Iranian exiles—many of whom had been forced, at least so they thought, to flee in recent months—I vehemently defended the Islamic Republic. I surprised myself: as a secular and thoroughly Westernized Iranian (or
“West-toxified” in the revolutionary lexicon), the nascent Islamic Republic should hardly have been my cup of tea, but I didn’t find it hard, nor did I see any contradiction in it, to celebrate an Iran that, after years of subjugation to outside powers, finally had a political system it could call its own. That was certainly good enough for me. As a twenty-two-year-old who until recently had had very little idea of Iran’s place in the world, I’ll admit that my newfound political awareness of the country of my birth was heavily tinged with youthful idealism, mixed with a good measure of latent Persian pride. The English who looked on curiously at the screaming wogs (as I, along with anyone darker than ruddy, used to be called at my English public school, a school that boasted Milton as an alumnus) seemed bemused; a few shook their heads in disapproval. At least, I thought, now they know where Iran is, a country where
will no longer have a say.

I tell this anecdote because I often see Westerners react to Iran with a sense of bafflement. But that moment at Speakers’ Corner and the seeming absurdity of my brief defense of Khomeini’s Islamic Republic bring to light a paradox about Iran that is still conspicuous today. Many of my Iranian friends have had these moments, and perhaps the most surprising comes from my Jewish-Iranian friend Fuad. A few years after the revolution, in Los Angeles, I had dinner with Fuad and his wife, Nasreen, where he told me a story that called to mind my Speakers’ Corner experience of 1979. He had recently arrived in L.A. from Tel Aviv, where he first sought asylum after leaving Iran, and he was recounting the days preceding the revolution in Tehran. He told me that on one of the nights when millions of Tehran residents protested the Shah’s government by taking to rooftops on Khomeini’s instruction and shouting,
Fuad and his family found themselves up on their rooftop shouting the same words as forcefully as their Muslim compatriots. Even after leaving his homeland, after settling first in its archenemy Israel and then moving to Los Angeles, even while we were getting drunk on scotch and savoring Nasreen’s kosher cooking, neither he nor I saw any contradiction in either his initial sanguine view of an Islamic Revolution or his chanting, at the time, the most Islamic of Muslim sayings.

Fuad’s parents had fled Baghdad in the 1930s during a wave of pogroms and institutionalized anti-Semitism, when many Iraqi Jews made their way to neighboring Iran, settling in a country that had boasted a large and vibrant Persian Jewish community for millennia. But Fuad didn’t feel in the least Iraqi, and despite his extended stays in Israel (where he also attended college before the revolution and where he learned his fluent Hebrew), he didn’t feel Israeli; he felt
. And as an Iranian, he was with his countrymen when they rose up against the Shah. Islam, particularly Shia Islam, was as familiar to him as it was to his many Muslim friends; he understood that it formed their character as much as anything else did, and although he didn’t participate in the rites of Shiism, he and his family were comfortable with the culture that surrounded them, a culture that, although steeped in the Shia tradition (which has borrowed from Iran’s pre-Islamic culture), was as much theirs as their fellow Iranians’.

In order to understand Iran and Iranians today, one needs to understand what it meant to shout
in 1979. The expression has become known as a sort of Muslim fundamentalist battle cry, uttered in every Hollywood movie featuring terrorists and notorious as the famous last words of the 9/11 hijackers. But the “God is Great!” that Iranians shouted in 1979 predated the concepts we have of fundamentalism—there was no Hezbollah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad then, nor an Al Qaeda or a Taliban (and the PLO, the Middle East’s most prominent terrorists, was still famously secular, and very few in the West had even heard of the Muslim Brotherhood, let alone knew what it stood for)—and to the Shia people the words signified their fearlessness in confronting an unjust ruler.

When the revolution came, I greeted it with fascination. Only a few years earlier, I had believed that the Shah was all-powerful, and now he was improbably on his way out. I disagreed with other Iranian students in the United States, both monarchists and revolutionaries, who thought that Jimmy Carter was pulling all the strings in Iran; my American side liked Carter, who seemed to me a truly decent man in the White House, and I believed that he was caught unawares by the Khomeini-led movement, mainly because I believed in his naïveté. But Iranians hated him: the few remaining monarchists, because they felt the United States had intentionally abandoned the Shah; the revolutionaries, communists, Islamists, and everyone else, because he had not forcefully spoken out against the Shah (and had even toasted him at a New Year’s party in 1978 in Iran) and was perhaps even conspiring to reinstall him, much as Eisenhower had done in 1953.

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