Monday, June 22, 2009


Iran was my home for nearly two years.  I ran a training facility for young men and women employees of the Sarcheshmeh Copper Mining Company, a government-owned, Anaconda Corporation-operated strip mine in the mountains above Rafsanjan, where I lived with my wife, who also trained the same people.  At the time, the mine extracted not only copper, but gold.  Obviously, turquoise, which is related to copper, was also gathered there.  The mine has been in continuous operation since at least the time of the ancient Persian Empire, but now it is the source of not just copper, gold, and turquoise, but uranium.

It rained maybe three times during my stay in Rafsanjan, which is typical for that part of Iran that borders two deserts: the Dasht e Lut and the Dasht e Kavir.  Despite the dryness and the high temperatures (think Las Vegas without the nightlife), I have never had a better overseas experience, and I have had a few.  Since the mine was at nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, we wore coats there even in the summer, and in the winter a dry, powdery snow fell regularly there.  The daily commute was an exercise in climatic extremes. 

Back at the base of the mountains, in Rafsanjan, we rented a mud-brick house with a wall around it and several bedrooms.  Joe and his son Eric were co-tenants, and we were not only happy to have the company of Joe, but loved that Eric, who was nine years old when we moved in, climbed the walls and engaged in grape fights with us, picking his ammo directly from the grape arbors draped over the battlements.  We still know Eric, Joe, and a few of the other twenty or so teachers we worked with, plus some of the teachers who were there to teach Eric and the other children of the expats working at the mine.  That was 35 years ago.

Our students were mostly from Rafsanjan, and we would often see them on the weekends, with the exception of Ali, who we saw practically daily because he assumed the responsibility for hosting us.  Ali, like each and every one of our trainees, was warm and authentic, and quite willing to do whatever we asked him to do, which is why we did not ask him more often.  Ayatollah Rafsanjani, by all accounts an opportunist and a fake, was said to be his uncle.  At the time, however, Ayatollah Rafsanjani was not a name that registered as a name of any significance—Ali only mentioned it by way of telling us about his family.  Times have certainly changed, and Ayatollah Rafsanjani is not only a former president of Iran under the Islamic Republic, but is reputed to be Iran's richest man, and a kingmaker of sorts.

That small town 600 kilometers south of Tehran was the Iran I came to know.  We traveled to Tehran many times, and to Mashhad, Esfahan, Shiraz, and many other cities.  The country was beautiful, and the people were not judgmental of us as foreigners (farangi, for those who want to find the Indo-Aryan linguistic root of the Star Trek species who were permanent outsiders to all the other cultures of the series).  We adapted to the pace of life, my wife and I, and managed to learn enough Farsi to get around on the local economy.  We knew when it was time to leave, but we have longed to return and see who remains among our hosts.  That has not been very possible under the Islamic Republic, but we sincerely hope that it will be possible to go back soon, given today's counter-revolutionary movement following the mock elections ostensibly won by Ahmedinejad, a man so odd that he said four squirrels found near the Iraqi border in Iran were CIA spies.

I studied international affairs at the graduate level—despite my faculty disagreeing with practically each word of that statement, and won a coveted internship at Gulf Oil Corporation's International Studies Group.  That group was made up of a permanent team of five scholars and one intern, and I got the overflow work that the other analysts could not handle when a lot was happening in their geographical areas.  Hoyt, the Director, did Europe; John, the Manager, did sub-Saharan Africa; Dick handled the Middle East, Thelma handled Asia, and Mike handled Latin America.  I could not have asked for a more solid team to teach me and to collaborate with. 

At my interview lunch, I was asked by Hoyt and John what countries I knew best.  I said that I had lived for some time in India and Iran, and would consider them to be countries I could speak intelligently about.  They asked me for a current situation report and a snapshot of the next couple of years for both countries.  I responded that Indira Gandhi, then under house arrest, would be freed and would win election as prime minister of India again.  I also said that Iran under the Shah was like a thermos bottle full of soup—cool on the outside and hot on the inside.  I predicted that the Shah would fall from a coup from the right within five years.  They tolerated my comments, but were dismissive.  They gave me the internship anyway, which I performed adequately.  And, I was vindicated by history.  Both India and Iran did as I expected.

I do not mean to gloat.  All I am saying is that reading the world press and listening to high government officials, no matter where, can only take an analyst so far.  To read a country, one must have trodden the soil, lived among the people, and paid attention to what they were saying.  One should not have lived on a compound, or in an embassy, a military base, or in any sort of environment shielded from the affairs of everyday life.  It would have been a privilege to have been a diplomat or a colonel, but I would not be longing to return to Iran had that been my life.  It is my Persian trainees, most within five or ten years of my age, that I miss as sort of brothers and sisters, not institutions or bureaucrats.  I want to know who died in that eight year war with Iraq.  I want to know who has children and who has grandchildren.  I want my grown children to meet their grown children.  I want that relationship to continue.  Who can say that about an institution!

I am happy that Iranians are trying to take back their country today.  I am happy that the old white men there may soon be in the same position as the old white men here.  Frankly, I think the religious conservatives of every society are similar in their intractability, and their reliance on getting all their knowledge from a very small set of books.  Perhaps you can help me see things differently.  Is there a better comparison than between Christian conservatives and Muslim conservatives?  Aren't Americans and Iranians both trying to find a place for religion that does not interfere at every turn with what Rousseau called the Civil Religion?  Aren't we engaged in a struggle between those who see their countrymen as believers and those who see them as citizens?

The youth of Iran is teaching us that religion and politics is a poisonous mixture.  We do not need to lead them.  They need to lead us.

June 22, 2009


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