I traveled to hyperinflationary Iran for The Atlantic.
Originally appeared in The National.
Death to the Dictator!: A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran’s 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price
Sara Crichton Books
“Afsaneh”, the pseudonym taken by the author of Death to the Dictator!, means “fairy tale” in Persian. Aptly, her book starts out like one. In Iran, against the backdrop of last year’s Green Revolution, for a moment anything seems possible. A generation disenchanted by its ageing political leaders discovers, in a rage-fuelled protest against a rigged election, that its season of liberation is at hand, and that its intifada against its elders might succeed so rapidly as to seem almost magical.
Thirty Ramadans after V.S. Naipaul’s visit to Qom, I visited for the Atlantic, in search of the part of Iran not gripped yet by democratic fervor. A truncated version of this piece appears here.
News of this enfilade of Turkic vibes arrived just as Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) was holding a Washington hearing on the status of Iran’s Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Arabs, and Baluchis. All these minorities have some grievances against the ayatollahs, but only the Azerbaijanis have yet to resist Tehran in any meaningful way. Not coincidentally, they’re also the largest and most powerful minority in Iran: they make up a third of the country’s population, and they are the only ethnic minority that could bring down the Islamic Republic. Unfortunately for the U.S., the Azeris really like Iran’s current government. Azerbaijanis are more religious than average (Tabriz is a city of mosques), disproportionately approve of theocratic rule, and wield enough clout that other more secular groups — such as the Kurds — have complained that Iran is ruled by a “Turkish government.”
The Atlantic, May 2007. With a map by Ryan Morris.
With time, Arab Iraq is looking less and less like a country, and Kurdish Iraq is looking more and more like one. Since 2003, Kurdish negotiators have quietly compelled Baghdad to acknowledge the Kurdish parliament, ministries, and 100,000-strong peshmerga army—in effect, to let the Kurds be Kurds first and Iraqis second, if at all.
02138, May/June 2007
On the day I crossed the Iran-Iraq border in February 2004, you could get through immigration twice as fast if you were a Shiite zealot. Thousands of Iranian pilgrims were surging into Iraq to observe the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom in Karbala. Saddam had barred them from Ashura for more than 25 years, but now the dictator was on the lam, and Iranian triumphalists flooded in to inaugurate a new period of Shiite dominance. On the Iranian side, I glommed onto a pilgrimage group and told the immigration officer I was Karbala-bound. He let me through without a hitch.
The Atlantic, December 2006. With a map by Ryan Morris.
Iran’s ethnic minorities are not at all happy with their Persian-dominated central government—not, at least, if you go by the number of riots incited, state buildings bombed, and Iranian soldiers slain over the past two years. Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as president in 2005, Iranian Turks have rioted in the northwest, Baluchis have kidnapped and beheaded government officials in the southeast, Arabs have blown up oil pipelines in the southwest, and Kurdish guerrillas have sniped continually at Iranian soldiers in the mountains bordering Iraq and Turkey.
Feature profile of PJAK, the Iranian branch of the PKK, in Jane’s Intelligence Review.