x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

On the outside, looking in at a country in turmoil

Dr Jamshid Bakhtiar analyses Iran's post-election crisis in academic terms, but his views are rooted in deeply-felt personal experience: he lived through the tumult of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and its turbulent aftermath.

As a psychiatrist living in the United States, Dr Jamshid Bakhtiar analyses Iran's post-election crisis in academic terms, but his views are rooted in deeply-felt personal experience: he lived through the tumult of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and its turbulent aftermath. Once Iran's clergy took power, he says, it was assumed they would not oppress, having themselves been oppressed by the monarchy. But, Dr Bakhtiar says, those who have been oppressed often unconsciously identify with their former tormentors and "even though you think that you've gained your freedom, you act just like the oppressors that you wanted to get away from". Iran's rulers "treat the nation's adults as if they were children". Yet, Dr Bakhtiar, 75, is optimistic that the hunger for truth and freedom manifested in the huge demonstrations against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "stolen" re-election represents "a transformative opportunity for Iran". His optimism is shared by many Iranians living abroad who, while appalled by the regime's iron-fisted clampdown on pro-democracy protesters, believe Iran has reached a historic turning point where the genie cannot be thrust back into the bottle. Dr Bakhtiar's nephew, Jahanshah Javid, an Iranian-American of a younger generation, edits a popular community website that gives him a unique insight into the views of the Iranian diaspora. "Democracy is an idea whose time has come for Iranians. We may not see this regime fall apart in months or even years, but we have turned a corner," he says. Dr Bakhtiar, who lives in Charles Town, West Virginia, comes from a pioneering family with fascinating life stories. In 1957 he became the first Iranian to achieve the "All American" title for his record-breaking performance on the football field at the University of Virginia. The strapping, 93kg fullback was nicknamed the "Iranian Prince" and the "Iron Iranian". His father, Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar, was thought to be the first Iranian to train as a physician in the US: he left Iran to do so in 1919. Twelve years later, accompanied by his equally impressive American wife, Helen Jeffreys, a nurse, Abol Ghassem returned to Iran. The pair - one of the first Iranian-American couples - devoted their lives to public health work in Iran, where Helen is buried alongside her husband and has a mountain named in her honour. Inspired by his parents' selfless example, Dr Bakhtiar - known as Jim to his American friends - left a comfortable life in the US in 1974, taking his wife and family to Iran where he established the country's first modern psychiatry unit at the University of Isfahan. Within years, they were caught up in the Islamic Revolution. Islam embodies "wonderful ethical value systems", says Dr Bakhtiar, but he was always a firm believer in the separation of church - or mosque - and state. His uneasiness with the revolution grew as the authorities began to execute many from the old regime. "It became very bloody at times ? it became ugly and I knew something was wrong," he says. When war erupted with Iraq in 1980, his fears became personal. He was concerned that his 14-year-old son could fall prey to the febrile emotions of his young friends and end up on the front line where Iran was using human wave assaults to counter superior Iraqi firepower. Dr Bakhtiar tried to return to the US with his family, but was blocked. Revolutionary Guards burst into his home at 2am one night and he was held for 30 days. In June 1982, he fled Iran illegally, with his pregnant wife and three children. They rode on horseback at night through the northern Kurdish areas into Turkey, an exhausting and terrifying journey that took three days. He has never dared return to Iran, but follows news of the post-election crisis in Iran avidly, as do all Iranians, and those of Iranian descent, living outside the Islamic republic. Few are more plugged in than his nephew, Mr Javid, 47, who runs iranian.com, a website he founded in 1995. It covers issues of identity, culture, music, history and literature and carries blogs and readers' feedback as well as stories. "Almost no one has written in defence of Ahmadinejad or the Islamic republic," says Mr Javid. "There are those who are suspicious of the West exploiting the situation in Iran, but generally it feels like people - even the majority who stayed away from politics - are unanimously angry and disgusted at what has happened since the election." His website, which is blocked in Iran, has more than 150,000 "unique visitors" and about two million page views a month, with more than 60 per cent of its readers in North America and the rest mostly in Europe and Australia. The "stolen" election "sparked an incredible mental transition", Mr Javid says. "It seems something in the Iranian psyche has fundamentally changed. Fear of the regime has given way to anger and disdain. And I have never seen Iranians so united and inspired. The spontaneous growth of a non-violent movement for freedom and democracy is very real and heartfelt." Their counterparts in the diaspora are responding in kind. "I've never seen so many non-political Iranians getting involved in organising demonstrations and gathering petitions," says Mr Javid. The US is home to the world's biggest Iranian expatriate community, which according to the US census, numbers some 350,000, although experts believe the true figure is about one million. The Iranian-American community, like smaller ones in numerous other countries, encompasses a wide range of opinions on Iran. The majority, despite deep misgivings about the Iranian regime, opposes US sanctions on Iran and is vehemently against any US military attack on Iran over the nuclear dispute. "I think the US should avoid interference in Iran. Its reaction should be limited to condemnation of human rights abuses," says Mr Javid. "Most importantly, it should do everything it can to prevent an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations. Such an attack will kill the democratic movement, raise the Islamic republic from the dead and turn it into the martyr of the Islamic world." Instead, Mr Javid believes the Obama administration should start negotiations with whoever is in power in Iran. Like Dr Bakhtiar, Mr Javid had direct experience of revolutionary Iran in its infancy. Just four years after he arrived in the US to attend high school, he returned home to "join the revolution". He was 18. Many Iranians, particularly the well-off, were fleeing in the opposite direction. But the ideals of the fledgling Islamic republic exerted a magnetic pull on Mr Javid. He was not from a religious background: his parents "were as secular as you could get". But he found a strong appeal in revolutionary Islam, with its "promise of freedom and justice and social equality". He became religious and put all his faith into the republic, spending nearly a decade working as a translator and editor at the state news agency, Irna. "But as the brutal and repressive arm of the Islamic faction grew stronger, my faith and loyalty became weaker," Mr Javid says. Eventually, he disavowed the revolution and returned, disenchanted, to the US in 1990. Another man with his finger on the pulse of the Iranian-American community is Mr Trita Parsi, an author and president of the National Iranian American Council, which promotes dialogue between Tehran and Washington. "Overall, the general trend in the Iranian-American community is that Iranian-Americans want Iran to be a democracy that respects human rights and personal freedoms," Mr Parsi says. "They oppose war with and sanctions on Iran and they favour diplomacy - though most seem to favour putting diplomacy on hold for now until there is greater political clarity in Iran." Mr Parsi says there is a small minority of Iranian-Americans that has consistently favoured military action and sanctions against Iran but he doubts that their number has grown much following "the brutality of the Iranian government during the election protests". Meanwhile, a well-travelled diplomat from a European country who served for several years in Tehran said most Iranians abroad rarely described the exact form of government they would like to see in Iran. "They want the abuses to decline and everything associated with freedoms to move forward - and they want the mullahs to step backward," he said. Mr Javid knows precisely what he wants: "I would like to see a secular democracy in Iran. I used to think this was too idealistic ? but what I have seen and read in the past few weeks has convinced me that I am not alone." Most Iranians in the diaspora reject the Iraq model of trying to forge fringe exile groups into a new government. Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed shah, commands little more than nostalgia among Iranians in the US and Britain, analysts say. "Monarchists have a small following but their message of installing a hereditary royal figurehead has not been as appealing as pure and simple democracy within a secular republic," says Mr Javid. "The anti-Ahmadinejad sentiments have not given way to pro-Pahlavi ones in any significant way." The exiled People's Mujahideen, meanwhile, enjoys some support among American and British politicians but is reviled by most ordinary people in Iran and is regarded by many in the diaspora as an Islamic-Marxist cult. Iranians arrived in the US in several waves and have done well: their average incomes are much higher than the national average. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, large numbers came to study in the US and stayed on. Many more then left after the revolution and during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Smaller numbers followed in the 1990s, Mr Parsi says. The most sizeable and vibrant Iranian community in the US is in Los Angeles, nicknamed Tehrangeles. There are also Iranian communities in the greater Washington, DC, area, New York and in virtually every US state. The Iranian community in Britain is far smaller, estimated at between 55,000 and 60,000, and is much less politicised than its US counterpart. Even so, British Iranians have been glued to the television news and Facebook for reports from Iran where many have extended family that they often visit. Referring to reformist opposition's challenge to the regime in Tehran, Mohsen Alizadeh, 32, an Iranian born in London, said: "When you speak to the older generation, the one before me, they have been disillusioned so many times, that they're scared to get their hopes up again. But underlying that, there's a cautious optimism that this could really be the beginning of something." He adds: "Most people I speak to believe change has to come slowly, but say at least it would be wonderful if the country wasn't being run by a bunch of mullahs. Because we have such a rich and wealthy country, the mind boggles at how it's all been misspent." Like most Iranians abroad, Mr Alizadeh, who has a well paid job in London's financial quarter, is immensely proud of his Iranian heritage, even though he has never visited the country. His father emigrated to England in the early 1970s for business reasons. "I spoke mainly English at home, but my Farsi has improved since I married an Iranian three years ago - she came to England when she was five." Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at Durham University in England, says "by and large most Iranian Britons are apolitical". "Most are against the system [in Iran] but not actively so." Yet, in tune with the official results in Iran from last month's presidential elections, most Iranians who cast their ballots in England purportedly voted for Mr Ahmadinejad. It was an unlikely outcome, although Prof Ehteshami said: "I've heard that some voted for Ahmadinejad believing it would help accelerate the end of the Islamic republic." Some Iranians came as students to Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, but France was a preferred destination for further education. The first big wave of Iranian emigration to Britain dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most were students, others came for military training to learn how to use equipment sold to Iran by British defence contractors, Prof Ehteshami says. He arrived in Britain in 1974 to study and stayed on. The second big wave of Iranian arrivals followed the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In recent years, Iran has been losing many of its brightest young people to foreign countries mostly because of a lack of opportunities and unemployment at home. Analysts say that problem is likely to be exacerbated by the current post-election crisis. mtheodoulou@thenational.ae