For scholars from Iran, homeland is bittersweet

Posted: April 15, 2014

IT WASN'T exactly "When Harry Met Sally" when Haleh met Shaul.

Haleh Esfandiari and Shaul Bakhash are both Iranian, both highly and Western-educated, but Haleh is Muslim and Shaul is Jewish.

When they planned to marry almost 50 years ago, before the Iranian Revolution turned the clock back to the Bronze Age, their families were shocked, says Shaul, but they got over it, says Haleh, "when they realized how much we loved each other and what sensible people we were." They were married in a civil ceremony in Vienna in 1965.

I spoke to them Thursday after they (and another academic) spoke on "Progress and Change in Iran," as part of La Salle University's Diplomat-in-Residence program.

Iran is a bittersweet subject for them, as it might have been for French expatriates during the Occupation.

Iran is occupied by a theocracy.

Iran had a flowering civilization six centuries before the birth of Jesus and is the only Muslim country to be predominantly Shi'a, said the third academic, the Lebanese-born Mahmoud Ayoub, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard.

But today, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, everything from Western culture to women's rights to political freedom to freedom of speech has been throttled by the conservative clerics who rule, and the Revolutionary Guards who back them up with both arms and money. As in Egypt, the military controls large swaths of the nation's economy, now in tatters because of sanctions.

"They have worked," Esfandiari told me. That's why Iran agreed to nuclear negotiations.

I asked Bakhash if he believes that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon by, say, 2020.

"Yes, if there is an agreement" in the negotiations, he says. That opinion can't be disputed, because of the "if."

My opinion is that Iran will (try to) go nuclear, and the talks are a stalling tactic. While they talk, sanctions are eased, making life a little more bearable for Iranians who will be less likely to go all "Arab Spring" on their rulers. (Iranians are not Arabs, and in Iran's bid to become the No. 1 power in the Middle East, it threatens Arab neighbors.)

Yet Iran is very different from its Arab neighbors, Esfandiari says. In Iran, the populace - especially the multitudinous young - wants normal relations with America, while the government does not. In contrast, in the Arab world, most governments are friendly to the U.S., while the population is not.

This is one of the great paradoxes facing American foreign policy, which most of the time gets a "C" grade in the Stu-niversity.

The academics agreed that Iran wants into the "nuclear club" as a matter of national pride. Beside that, Esfandiari says, Iran took notes on what the world does about nuclear-armed North Korea (nothing), while the West came down hard on Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, who had abandoned his nuclear dreams.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is a retrogressive fundamentalist, but he is not a fool. He says Iran will never give up its nuclear program, although he's denied wanting the bomb. This is the same guy who sits still for Holocaust deniers, women being oppressed and gays being nonexistent in Iran, so he's not a font of knowledge and truth.

Optimists believe Iran can be held to within six months of nuclear "breakout." President Obama said he will not permit Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

But with an America in withdrawal mode, I don't believe him. And if I don't believe my President, why would Khamenei?

Esfandiari feels betrayed by the Revolution, which she says enjoyed great support from women from the start.

"The Revolution they loved did not love them back," she says. "Equality was not on the agenda." Overnight, rights that women had enjoyed for generations - including the right to dress as they pleased and to get an education - were withdrawn, and the age at which girls could be married off was lowered to 9. This embarrasses her, as it does you and me.

The ultimate betrayal came on Dec. 30, 2006, when she was "detained" by the regime. There were no formal charges, but she was interrogated over an eight-month period. She spent the last 105 days in solitary confinement.

They accused the 67-year-old grandmother of being a spy for the CIA and for Israel's Mossad.

" 'You have to pick one,' " she says she told her interrogators. " 'I can't be a spy for them both.' "

As she tells it, due to the efforts of Shaul, who rounded up support to help pressure and embarrass Iran, she was released.

She got home to Maryland safely, but this and other stains remain on the honor of her former homeland.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

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