By Naveed Mansoori

The Islamic Republic of Iran lies on the proverbial axis of evil and wants to obliterate Israel. The nation is governed by religious extremists who think the term “women’s rights” is an oxymoron, that cutting down on fossil fuel use is a good excuse for the development of nuclear power, and administer draconian rule through the words of the Qur’an. The Islamic Republic of Iran hates America and needs to be reformed—or the world will be facing a third world war.

At least, that’s what the American government would have us believe.

When a few dozen students around UC Santa Cruz were asked what words were brought to mind when they heard “Iran,” the responses included oil, sand, burka, Muslim, war and revolution. But there is more to the country than the veil American media often places over it.

Alireza Ataei, president of the Iranian Student Network (ISN) at UCSC, moved from Iran to America when he was 16. He sees Iran misrepresented in American media on a daily basis.

“The American media is doing a horrible job in representing Iran,” Ataei said. “All we hear about is Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the [Iranian] president’s conservative views and policies. You never hear about Iran’s women’s rights movement, its fascinating history and culture, and the kids in [capitol city] Tehran who are in love with Western culture, its reform movements, etc.”

Ali, a journalist for Iranian media outlet Payvand.com, explained that he has seen a great divide between the Iran that American media manifests and the Iran that he knows.

“I honestly see a demonization of Iran still going on in a big part of the US press,” Ali told City on a Hill Press (CHP) in a phone interview.

“The people of Iran for the most part are against getting in conflicts or war,” Ali said.

Ali pointed to the ways that media portray Friday prayers to depict Muslims in Iran as fervently anti-American. Friday prayers are congregational prayers that have been implemented as both a rallying force and a political tool. Participants and prayer leaders chant anti-American slogans during the prayer.

“These things that you hear about Friday prayers is really such a small minority,” Ali said. “An overwhelming number of Iranians are 180-degrees thinking differently. It doesn’t get as much coverage as it should.”

A Precarious President		

The American government depicts Iran as a major threat to global safety because of some infamous statements attributed to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about a desire to wipe Israel off the map, a disbelief in the Holocaust, and development of nuclear power.

Ataei, however, says that the western media severely misquoted the president. In the actual transcript of President Ahmadinejad’s speech, he was quoting—or rather misquoting—a statement made by Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when the monarchy was overthrown and the theocratic republic took power.

“[Ahmadinejad] never said [Israel]; he used the term ‘Zionist regime,’” Ataei said. “Second, the Persian word for map wasn’t even in the original speech, nor was the term ‘wipe out.’ Yet we hear again and again that he threatened to ‘wipe Israel off the map.’”

In a word-for-word translation of Ahmadinejad’s statement, the following was said: “[Ayatollah Khomeini] said the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish.”

Ali, the journalist, stressed that the media has used Iran?s president as a tool and has underestimated the power of the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

“Actually, Ahmadinejad is truly just an excuse,” Ali said. “[America] worked with Iran to infiltrate Afghanistan, everybody admits that. But right after that, the United States came and said Iran is part of the ‘Axis of Evil.’”

Ali continued, “The rhetoric that Ahmadinejad uses is perfect—he comes and says something about Israel, we blow it out of proportion, try to muddy the water, and do what we do. The fact is that Iran is no threat, and has never been a threat to the United States.”

Ahmadinejad—who was mayor of Tehran before winning the 2005 presidential election—has less power than the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, according to Article 113 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. President Ahmadinejad is not the commander-in-chief of Iran’s armed forces and cannot wage war without the Supreme Leader’s consent.

The Iranian republic has executive, legislative and judicial branches, but above these three is the Supreme Leader. Besides the ability to wage war and mobilize the forces, he can appoint, dismiss, and accept the resignation of various governmental positions.

The Supreme Leader clearly has more clout than the president, yet the American media has its eyes focused on Ahmadinejad.

Ataei said that Ahmadinejad is truly doing “a horrible job” as president, domestically more so than internationally.

“Don’t forget the people who voted for him were mostly lower class people and Ahmadinejad came to power promising them a better economy,” Ataei said. “But so far he hasn’t really done anything to fulfill his promises.”

Ataei continued, “The economy is in bad shape. Seventy percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 30 and many of them are well educated. Many of these students believe that Ahmadinejad is ruining Iran’s image in the international community.”

The Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII) is, according to its mission statement, “an independent campaign organization with the purpose of opposing sanctions, foreign state interference and military intervention in Iran.”

Nader Sadeghi, a board member of CASMII, believes that Ahmadinejad’s statements against Israel were purposefully misconstrued by the American media.

Sadeghi’s opinion of Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric against Israel is that it can be “nothing more than want of a regime change [in Israel]” spurred by Israel’s demands in government. In 2003, Iran proposed a broad dialogue with the United States via a fax offering absolute cooperation concerning its nuclear programs, acceptance of Israel and the termination of Iranian support for Palestinian military groups.

The United States rejected the proposal.

Women Unveiled

One image often seen as a dominant symbol in Iran is the ‘roosary,’ the garment that covers a woman’s hair in order to hide the hair’s sexual radiance. The roosary, many believe, symbolizes the patriarchy of a society that oppresses and subjugates its women. 	

A spokesman in President Ahmadinejad’s office, Mohammed, defended his country’s government in light of the belief that Iran oppresses its women.

“The way we live is the way of the people, and we are the people of [the 12th and final prophet]. We are governing this society so that when the last [prophet] comes, we are preserved and the other countries will perish,” Mohammed said in an interview with City on a Hill Press.

According to the Shi’ite sect of Islam, Imam al-Mahdi, or “Imam Zamaan,” is the 12th and final prophet. He has been granted prolonged life, hidden from the view of humans by Allah. When he reappears, according to Shi’ites, he will fill the world with justice and equity and instigate the apocalypse.

Mohammed, a Shi’ite Muslim, believes that Imam Zamaan will come. He asserted that the messages he was conveying were the messages of “the people of Iran, the president of Iran, the Supreme Leader of Iran, the Qur’an, the words of everybody.”

“If we wanted to be comfortable, we’d live sinfully. But we are persevering. We have learned from our mothers and fathers, we are going to stick with [the traditions and tenets of the Qu’ran], and Ahmadinejad will stick with it,” Mohammed said.

Journalist Ali said that gender equality is a very slow process. Women are attaining their rights in Iran “one nanometer at a time,” he said, explaining that women are showing their hair more and more with every passing day.

“The roosary has become a symbol more than anything else,” Ali said. “The pictures you see from Iran, [the roosary] is just barely hanging on.”

The year 2003 marked a milestone for Iranian women when the Nobel Peace Prize in Iran was awarded to Shirin Ebadi for her pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights.

According to the National Portal of Statistics, woman make up 62 percent of students who have obtained Bachelor’s degrees and 54 percent of students who have obtained professional doctorates in Iran.

“I went back to Iran and in my family all the girls were working, but the guys were not,” Ali said with a chuckle. “There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but I think that’s one area that is a global issue, not something unique to Iran.”

Fareedeh, a 25-year-old woman, lives in Tehran and has a Ph.D in biology. On hearing Ahmadinejad’s spokesman Mohammed’s statements about women’s rights, Fareedeh objected.

“I have gotten my Ph.D, and the government of Iran has given me money monthly to go get an education from anywhere in the world—even America—for finishing up my thesis, and they even give [graduate students] wages for our education,” she said. “The government of Iran doesn’t discriminate between males and females in this sense.”

Fareedeh explained that the status of modern Iranian women is not very restricted, as women have become deans, professors, lawyers, and even politicians.

She also disagreed with Mohammed’s assertion that women would never have the chance to become president.

“If a woman has enough inspiration, aspiration, and motivation, she can get aligned with a party, she can grow, she can become a mayor or representative, she can show she is able, then she can become president,” Fareedeh said.

In fact, 90—about 10 percent—of the candidates in Iran’s 2005 presidential election were women. As long as the candidates are approved by the Guardian Council, Iran’s version of the Supreme Court, they can run in the elections.

Fareedeh explained that she wears her roosary to maintain her “hijab,” or modesty, privacy, and morality as defined by the Qur’an.

Nader Sadeghi of CASMII explained that the image of the veil is exploited by American media as a form of propaganda depicting a false image of the country’s civil rights.

“One must be careful to not reduce women to how they are dressed up based on the unwarranted, useless and imposed dress code in Iran,” Sadeghi said. “Women gain power not through how they dress up, but through education and occupation of all kinds of jobs…that give economic power and economic independence within the family structure…The women voters of Iran are just as important as the men. And they are just as educated if not more [so] than men.”

Women currently comprise 30 percent of the work force in Iran, and even a larger segment of civil workers.

Fareedeh believes that the women’s rights debate is universal and should not be either restricted or limited to her country.

“Iran is not close to being ideal,” she said. “We have far to go. But to me, every society is like this. I was in Canada for six months, the women there were oppressed too, but their oppression had a different color.”

Life, Liberty, and Nuclear Energy

On July 1, 1968 Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act—which gives the “inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”—allowing Iran the right to nuclear energy.

But Iran’s nuclear ambitions have surged in the last year, and so has international skepticism of the country’s “peaceful” nuclear program. Iranian officials have stated repeatedly that they are developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, but the United States government, along with the United Nations, have their doubts.

Ahmadinejad’s spokesmen Mohammed pushed a grassroots response to the question of why Iran does not want nuclear technology.

“Iran has many atomic bombs, the atomic bombs are the people,” Mohammed said, alluding to the power of a unified people.

Though Iran has repeatedly stated that it does not intend to become a nuclear power, journalist Ali defended Iran’s right to acquire nuclear technology by asking why Iran is under so much scrutiny for its nuclear program when Israel is thought to have the only nuclear arsenal in the middle-east due to a slip of the tongue by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on a German television station last December.

Reuters has since deleted the story, while the Associated Press did not write any stories pertaining to this incident.

“A country that has got some 200 nuclear weapons and never allows any inspection or questioning of its own program coming and speaking against Iran’s nuclear program is complete hypocrisy,” Ali said. “Israel is truly trying to get Iran into the military conflict, which could cost dearly for Iran. Israel has repeatedly threatened [to attack] Iran, and they have even spoke of using nuclear weapons.”

In 2005, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found Iran to be non-compliant with the NPT because it had failed to disclose information about its civilian uranium enrichment.

“It is not illegal to [not] report [information about nuclear facilities] until you reach the stage of enrichment,” Sadeghi said. “[Iranian officials] thought there would be no resistance. The also didn’t report their facilities because of Israel’s attack on Iraqi nuclear sites in the early 1980s. [The officials] thought that they should keep it secret until they were at a stage where they had to legally report it.”

For Iran, developing nuclear energy is a primarily motivated by a faltering economy that is dependent on a finite supply of oil.

Iran is the fourth largest exporter of crude oil, with 45 percent of its GDP coming from oil and gas revenue.

Rumor of Attack

The Economist, a British political newsmagazine, titled their February 10, 2007 issue “Next Stop Iran?” and objected, as an editorial position, to any hint of a war with Iran, fearing that such action would cause the Iranian people to stand closer to a government they have slowly yet consistently been edging away from.

“The idea for attacking another country for peace and democracy is simply absurd,” Ataei said. “Let’s not forget what happened in Iraq. You can’t attack another nation and expect the people to thank you for it.”

At one point in history, the Iranian government had established a democracy like those in the Western world, but the democracy did not last long after being thwarted by the United States government. During World War II, the USSR and Britain deposed of Reza Shah, king of Iran from 1925 to 1941, who they thought would ally Iran with the Axis powers. Reza Shah’s son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who was believed to be sympathetic to the West, then took power.

In 1953, the Shah faced an attempted revolution, fled the country, temporarily making Iran a democratic nation. Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was elected, nationalized Iran’s oil fields, and had command of the army. American and British intelligence agencies, in the form of the CIA and MI6 forces, conducted a coup d’etat, which removed Mossadegh and reinstated Pahlavi, shattering Iran’s chance for a democracy.

Ataei commented on the intentions of western countries that claim they want to bring peace to Iran.

“The governments of these countries that are supposed to bring us democracy don’t really give a damn about us,” Ataei said. “They are after their own interests, and to them, a democratic government is a government that listens to what they say. If there is to be democracy in Iran it’s up to the Iranian people, not the west.”

Ali explained that if Iran was to be attacked by the United States the people would defend their country without considering the politics. He compared the country’s increased sense of nationalism to the period during the Iran-Iraq War.

The Iran-Iraq War was caused by border disputes and Iran’s demand for the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The war lasted from 1980 to 1988.

“In the Iran-Iraq War, many people volunteered to go to war, but they didn’t support the government,” Ali said. “They saw Iran under attack and saw a need to defend their country—nationalism will pick up, they will face whatever country is going to try to attack Iran…If the U.S. attacks Iran, the people will make a decision. They’re not going to cheer for the invading forces.”

On hearing about assertions made that Iran is on the brink of revolution, Mohammed defended his country’s unity.

“This is unbelievable that the Iranian people are not behind their government,” Mohammed said. “Our people are fully behind our government, and this is what America and Israel fear. We are friends with the people of the United States, but if the government wants to bring our name down, we will not sit and let this happen.”

When Ashkahn Jahromi, a first-year student at UCSC and second-generation Iranian, was asked what he thinks of Iran, he spoke of Iran’s history and culture, two aspects of Iran that are rarely mentioned in the media.

To Jahromi, Iran was the Cyrus Cylinder, a Babylonian cuneiform dating back to 530 B.C. with an account of Cyrus, king of Persia from 539-530 B.C. engraved on it; Persepolis, the capital of the Iran’s second dynasty and the setting of the country’s 2,500 year celebration; Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet who authored the Rubaiyat; Mossadegh, Iran’s prime-minister in the early 1950’s who instilled democracy; and Chelow Kabob, a national dish of Iran consisting of rice and kabob.

“I’m sick of being asked, ‘What do kids do for fun in Iran?” Jahromi said. “They do the exact same things we do here, they play sports, they play video games. The similarities are rarely shown in the media because that would strike too close to home. People are much more willing to fight a country made up entirely of extremists.”

But Fareedeh said that Iran is not the only country with problems, and not the only country with people who want change.

“I don’t think any society is ideal for either men or women,” Fareedeh said. “There is much that needs to be changed, and I am sure that you want some things changed in your society too. The path is open in Iran, but passage is difficult.”