Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Remembering a conversation with an Iranian

I was thinking this morning about Reza.

I met him nearly a year ago in a train compartment that smelled like an old shoe. Most of the sleeping berths on the Azerbaijani trains have this smell. It's not so bad. The ones next to the lavatory smell like ... the lavatory.

Reza was drunk, not obnoxiously drunk. Just happy drunk. He entered the compartment minutes before the train was scheduled to depart, and then sat next to the window, waving to his friends and sharing some last words with them. He also opened a final beer for the long night ride to Lenkoran.

This train ride, in fact, was just the first part of the journey home for Reza. He was going back to Iran, regretfully. He was able to communicate this to me in broken English. I do not speak Farsi and Reza spoke no Russian. I think we exchanged a few words in German and Azerbaijani, but mostly we managed with English.

He was very eager to talk with me, and to share his dissatisfaction with the ruling regime in Iran. His complaints were varied - but generally he was very unhappy about the lack of freedom there. One reason he liked coming to Azerbaijan was to drink and go to discos, for example. I think his dissatisfaction, however, was deeper than that. Reza worked as some sort of small businessman. I forget the details. The regime also made it difficult for his business.

At the time, George W. Bush was still the president of the United States, and we talked about U.S. politics. I lamented the course that foreign policy had taken under Bush, and also regretted that relations were not better between the United States and Iran. He agreed, and we toasted to international friendship, Reza drinking his beer while I drank my bottle of mineral water.

I had met Iranians before, but only emigrants and exiles. For me, it was quite educational to talk with someone who was currently living in the country. Some people in the United States pride themselves on the country's "free press," but in fact there are gaping holes in the press coverage provided to U.S residents. Iran is one of those subjects that is covered quite poorly by the U.S. press.

As I was thinking about Iran this morning, I was also thinking about history and historical cycles. There is a theory in political science that politics in the United States exhibits periodicity. The conventional understanding of these cycles is roughly 30 years. It's interesting to think back to the tumultuous period of the Iranian revolution. The revolution occurred nearly simultaneously with the ascendency of President Ronald Reagan and the conservative revolution he led. (Some people would argue that this was not a mere coincidence.) Both Reagan and the Mullahs led socially conservative forces. Perhaps we are seeing the natural end of that cycle? I don't mean that the current uprisings in Iran will lead to a re-vote, but the authorities have clearly seen their power and legitimacy compromised. Do they really think that they can force this genie back in the bottle? And what effect will the uprisings in Iran have on the Muslim world in general - if the quintessential Islamic republic is shown to disregard both morality and the will of its people?