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Vox pops on Tehran’s streets: ‘the government is aggressive’

Do Iranians believe their President when he says it’s western countries — not him — which are to blame for people’s suffering? Jack Davies took to the streets of Tehran to ask them.

The west is waging an “all-out, hidden, heavy war” on the Iranian people via economic sanctions, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared recently. But do the Iranian people buy his line that it’s western countries — and not his government — which are to blame for people’s suffering? This reporter took to the streets to find out.

The issue has been in the spotlight because of the recent summit for the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran. The summit was broadly hailed as a success by the clumsy Iranian propaganda apparatus: proof that Iran has friends, and that it won’t be intimidated by the US or Israel.

There’s no doubt life is tough for Iranians. Food prices have soared and some long-distance bus routes went up 20% in price in one month, while the Iranian rial devalued from roughly IRR20,000 to IRR27,000 for $US1. (The “official” rate remained steady at approximately IRR12,700. But as with many things in Iran, there is broad daylight between what is “official” and what is actually happening.)

When asked, the people of Iran, for the most part, blame their own government for the sanctions, although there is also a definite sense that the West has taken aim at the innocent Iranian population because of the policies of their leaders. All the following names have been changed due to the intelligence forces that operate completely beyond the law in Iran, and that aren’t as clumsy as the propagandists.

Vahid Ali, a structural engineer, says that the sanctions, aimed at curbing Iran’s perceived desire to develop nuclear weapons, are ultimately Iran’s own fault. “It is this government. It is the way our leaders act in the world. The government is aggressive, it says aggressive things and takes very aggressive stances,” he said.

When I put to Ali that there was, as yet, no proof that Iran was building a bomb or intent on creating the capacity to do so, he brushed me off: “Of course they want a bomb, maybe they already can make one. But the bomb is not the issue. It’s the big focus and it’s obvious why. But really, it is everything else the government says and does. Pakistan has a bomb.”

This seemed to get him started on other grievances he has with his government. ”We don’t know the figures, because they are not reliable, but our government gives a lot of money to foreign groups like Hizbullah when there are so many things that need to be done here,” he said. “That’s our taxes, our money.”

This kind of anti-government feeling is common in Iran, and it is not confined to sanctions. Many women wear their compulsory head scarves as far back on their heads as possible, a small token of defiance. And although alcohol is illegal, a black market thrives with wine and spirits fermented in warehouses and bedrooms, in some cases in emptied plastic Pepsi bottles, as well as what can be smuggled from Turkey and Iraq. This is to say nothing of the enormous drug trade that operates through the turbulent border with Afghanistan.

Tellingly, I witnessed the crowds at the government-authorised al-Quds demonstration, protesting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Or, in the words of posters plastered around Tehran for the event, it called for the destruction of “the Fascist Zionist Project”. Every year this protest is held on the last Friday of Ramadan.

All our planes have old Russian parts in them now. Do you think the government is flying in unsafe planes? Of course they’re not.”

But again, not all is as it seems. Mary ali-Khani, an American woman who married an Iranian and moved to Tehran 16 years ago, told me that many protesters were government workers coerced into attending. Some government schools are also obliged to organise their students to attend on their one full day-off.

Anyway”, she said, “there’s more people at most football games in Tehran. It really isn’t indicative of what people think. If you put a camera in amongst them, of course it looks big and angry and violent. But most people in Tehran have headed north for the holiday.”

Very likely, a central US goal of the sanctions is to foster anti-government sentiment in Iran and increase pressure on the people to reignite something like the Green Movement that followed the disputed election of Ahmadinejad in 2009. Though it seems that the majority of Iranians would prefer a different political system, the costs and risks of opposing the government are immense.

I met students who had dozens of friends who participated in the Green Movement and spent six months or more in jail as untried political prisoners. Some are still detained. To make matters worse, the internet is filtered and monitored closely — websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Google Search are inaccessible without proxy access via the US or Canada. And well-funded intelligence services operate throughout the country to monitor opposition activity.

However, if this is indeed the goal of the sanctions, it has backfired to some extent. There is also a common sentiment in Iran that the US and the West are attacking innocent people and not those in charge, not those who are to blame.

It is really unfair,” Mohsen, a student, told me. ”My father owns a carpet shop, and the price of chicken has gone up three times as much. It’s really hard.”

Behzad, a former tour guide (who had to seek other work because of the decline in international tourism), said there are other consequences of the sanctions that people don’t consider: domestic planes in Iran are becoming increasing unsafe because airlines are unable to procure necessary replacement parts and maintenance equipment from overseas.

All our planes have old Russian parts in them now. Do you think the government is flying in unsafe planes? Of course they’re not,” Behzad said.

Many in the international media have commented that the sanctions in Iran might actually have a galvanising effect on the population — that it gives the Iranian government an external target to blame for already poor economic conditions, and rampant corruption and mismanagement.

I was told by a carpenter in Esfahan that while he “hated these bastards” (referring to the government), he does like that Iran is one of the few countries that stands up to the US.

Nonetheless, public sentiment towards the US and even Israel (though perhaps to a lesser extent) is surprisingly positive. Public appearances from belligerent Iranian politicians and the inability of international media to access Iran gives a very distorted image of a country with thousands of years of Persian history and culture. It is a remarkably safe, friendly and hospitable country. But the pressure is certainly building, manifesting when Canada closed its embassy and cut its diplomatic ties with Iran.

I met many people who were making plans to leave Iran permanently for countries such as the US, Canada and Australia; this is not a viable option for most people.

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  • 1
    Harper Colin
    Posted Wednesday, 26 September 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Every country on earth has it’s internal economic issues, but your attempt, by interviewing a “select”non-representative half a dozen people ( if you really did )to demonise The Iranian govt smells like some kind of journalistic phsyop.

    ((((All the following names have been changed due to the intelligence forces that operate completely beyond the law)))

    Is this Iran or America?

    (((It is this government. It is the way our leaders act in the world. The government is aggressive, it says aggressive things and takes very aggressive stances,))))

    Yep! it’s America for sure. Nice try with the Z-onista propaganda.

  • 2
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 26 September 2012 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Persiflage rather than Persian.

  • 3
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Thursday, 27 September 2012 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    Well put Harper…more unsubstantiated dross re Iran.

    I’m sending this report to Media Lens for them to have a look into it.

    This report is the kind of story you see in Fairfax and the Oz re Iran

  • 4
    Davies Jack
    Posted Thursday, 27 September 2012 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    Harper Colin,

    Totally dig your criticism about me being unable to interview a truly representative cross-section of Iranian society. My Persian is no-where near good enough for that. These people really did say these things though, and there were many others I coudn’t include. I resent your insinuation that I have invented anything.

    The article I submitted to Crikey also had a paragraph on the lasting impacts of British and the US’ self-interested forgeign policies before the Islamic Revolution. Unfortunately, this was not published.

    In no way did I intend this article to be Zionist propaganda. Believe me. To criticise the Iranian government does not necessarily correlate to support for Israel or the US. If you want my opinion, I think the way Israel has been acting towards Iran lately is insane - and I think the US sanctions can be seen as a tool of war that is aimed at citizens.

    I wrote this piece because I was astounded by the opinions I came across every single day I spent in Iran, in several different cities and over the course of 30 days (unfortunately I could not extend my tourist visa beyond that).

    And as for the intelligence forces in Iran, there are dozens of student activists in jail, as well as foreign journalists. I met people who had been called in for questioning, had IDs confiscated (albeit temporarily), purely for talking to foreigners - and people do disappear. Jump on refworld (http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/refworld/rwmain) and read what HR groups have to say about it all if you don’t believe me: particularly stuff from Freedom House on press freedom in Iran and Amnesty and HRW.

    Whether you want to accept it or not, there are some very sinister aspects to the Iranian security apparatus - and it’s not Zionist propaganda to point it out.

    Love to hear your thoughts.

    Jack.

  • 5
    Harper Colin
    Posted Thursday, 27 September 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Jack

    I could go to every country and interview 20 people off the street and 18 of those 20 people would have an axe to grind about their government. It goes without saying that the Iranian govt would milk international tensions to divert some blame regarding it’s own economic problems, especially in consideration of genuine US conspired international sanctions.

    In the wake of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and now Syria, every middle eastern nation is just one ” Arab Spring ” away from being deposed from government and yet very few people are awake to US involvement in all these fake claytons inspired revolutions.

    I would never condone violence in any context, but in light of this and the constant specter of US and Is raeli military action, it is pretty hard to condemn Iran and their internal security forces for a healthy dose of paranoia. After all, is n’t paranoia when you are in possession of all the facts? Iran certainly is.

    The article I submitted to Crikey also had a paragraph on the lasting impacts of British and the US’ self-interested forgeign policies before the Islamic Revolution. Unfortunately, this was not published.

    That’s a great pity.

  • 6
    Davies Jack
    Posted Thursday, 27 September 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Harper,

    That’s a fair call about interviewing 20 people off the street. I think that we agree on many things - it’s just that my piece wasn’t about international relations. Although, I had tried to get a piece in on Morsi’s speech at NAM, the way the Iranians mis-translated his speech, and the hypocrisy (in the light of Bahrain) that the whole episode shed on the US in the region.

    It’s really quite amazing though, travelling through Iran. I went in thinking that everyone would (very) justifiably hate Israel and the US, but it really wasn’t the case - mostly. Daily, so many people express their discontent, but it almost always came back to their own government. Even people who didn’t have enough English (or me enough Persian) to get into proper political discussions, will say that their government is “bad”. Just walking into tea-shops, you wouldn’t believe what people would say. I can almost write the script for you. “You like Iran?”/”Of course, it’s a beautiful country.”/”Yes, people very nice, but government bad”.

    And, like you say, that happens all over the world - but, in my experience, the Iranian people take it to a new leve, it’s like the ice-breaker in a conversation. I think it’s because freedoms are quite severely restricted there. In a country of 70-80million people, of course quite a decent number aren’t going to be strictly religious, and the laws are very strict. If you ask me, the Iranians in big cities are actually less religious than many of the communities I’v encountered in the Middle East. Technically, you’re not allowed to dance in the streets - though I saw a small-wedding celebration, cordoned off by cars, right in the middle of Tehran (unfortunately, when I asked, they preferred if I didn’t take any photos). And I met people making wine in their bedrooms from store-bought grapes haha, it was amazing.

    The Iranians are great people, seriously unique. From what I learned, there’s a fiercely independent streak and they hate being pushed around (I think we can agree that we’re seeing this at a govt level on the nuclear issue as well). I was told that recently fuel prices went up nearly 7times because the government was trying to reduce pollution in Tehran (really big problem by the way), and the next day, more people than ever were out filling up their cars.

    If you haven’t been, or if you ever get the chance, go there - it’s incredible. I used the couchsurfing network - never experienced anything like it. I sent out one or two invites and an open request, next day I would have more than 10 invitations - and in cities all over the country.

    And thanks for the criticisms and comments, I’m relatively new at all of this and it’s really helpful. Obviously, things get changed during the editing process. I’m not complaining, the guys at Crikey are really good with it (in most cases they improve a sentence or the flow of things), but I would have liked one or two things to have appeared a little differently.

    Cheers.

  • 7
    Mike R
    Posted Friday, 28 September 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    According to the usual suspects, everything that paints Iran in a bad light is ‘Zionist propaganda”. In this atmosphere the accusation that Jack Davies is a Zionist agent is unsurprising.

    Give me a break.
    The Green revolution (Zionist propoganda), Iran’s sponsorship of Holocaust revisionist conferences (Zionist propoganda), Iran’s development of a nuclear capability for a country that is sitting on a large proportion of the world’s reserves of oil and also sitting on a major earthquake zone (all for peaceful purposes - it’s just Zionist propoganda) . Media censorship and Internet censorship in Iran(more Zionist propoganda). The loyal opposition sitting in Evin prison ( agian more Zionist propoganda).

    In the mean time 30,000 have died in Syria in the past 18 months or so , dwarfing the death toll in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in past few decades. This war is between the Alawite/Shiites and the Sunnis (obviously The Zionists are behind this as they are such good friends with both parties). And you wonder why people question the motives of the usual suspects.

    Do you guys really believe this stuff is all the machinations of the International Zionist Conspiracy ? If you do, it displays more about your collective psyches than anything else significant.

    I expect the usual torrent of anti Israel invective to follow from the wolf pack . I am sure I will not be disappointed! If I had more time before I take my leave I I would design a pro-forma for you guys to add a selection of key words( Ultra, Fascist,Aggression, Crypto , Zionist, Apartheid, International, conspiracy, running dogs of imperialism (a Golden oldie)) etc. I can think of at least 10 keywords off the top of my head that will give you and the family hours of fun. Remember 10 keywords gives 10 factorial combinations (over 3 million combinations) so the fun is almost endless. I will be getting back in 3 weeks and I will having a look at your submissions then . The winner gets a free set of steak knives that can be used to defend oneself against any Zionist agents lurking around corners. Bonus points will be given for anyone who can manage to connect the triple scourge of modern society (Bed wetting , Baldness and Constipation) to a Zionist conspiracy. Also bonus points for those who are willing to, or inadvertently, reveal any underlying motivations for their diatribe. The winner will be revealed at the end Of October. No correspondence will entered into. In the event of a tie the winner will be decided on past record. On that basis Kevin and A.R. will be worthy winners.

    I am away for the next few weeks incommunicado, so you guys can go at it unburdened by any replies from myself. Have fun and Aloha!

  • 8
    Mike R
    Posted Friday, 28 September 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    p.s. I forgot to mention in the above the most important criterion for judging your performance. It is based on bullsh-t bingo. Ten points for ‘Fascist’,, nine for ‘Apartheid’ etc.. Kevin and A.R. should have no trouble as this.

  • 9
    U R Cutts
    Posted Friday, 28 September 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm.

    This is certainly an interesting piece. What other articles have you written Jack? Is it Jack Davies or Davies Jack? I can’t seem to find any other similar articles anywhere online or even in the MSM. Are you an intern Jack? You write with such maturity if you are. You know, been to Iran and all…Wow! what an experience!!! I think maybe you should pull the other leg, it plays jinglebells…Jack!

    U R Cutts

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