By Zeenat Khan
24 December 2016
I met my best friend Maryam in the spring of 1980. We both attended the same university in Rhode Island. The very first conversation I had with her was about her primary reason for coming to the USA from Iran. After so many years, I still distinctly remember what she had said, "After the revolution, you can say that I was fleeing the hijab." She talked about growing up in beautiful Esfahan known for its intricate art and architecture around the world. She spoke in detail about their summer home in Shiraz with a splendid garden where the sweet smelling scent of roses, violets and jasmine filled the night air. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, many young people like Maryam moved to the West to escape an atmosphere of fear. One of the first decrees promulgated by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's Supreme Leader and the founder of Islamic Republic of Iran, was that women in Iran must wear the veil, whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Some of the rules were utterly incompatible with the way young and ambitious Iranian women saw themselves. They wanted no part in a society where women were going to be oppressed. They had felt they needed freedom, not compliance with outdated rules. Those who could afford fled to different western countries. But they never forgot their homeland.
Since travel ban was lifted for the Iranian Americans, every year, in mid-November Maryam goes home to Tehran to visit her sister. After the trip, in December, she sends me a belated birthday gift package filled with goodies (finest Persian saffron, different types of nuts, a locally made scarf or a wrap and handmade gifts) that she gets for me while in Tehran. Two days ago, after receiving the package, I called her to convey my thanks. During our long talk, she gave me a grimmer picture of Tehran since her last visit a year ago. This time she didn't complain much about the mandatory headscarf she has to wear before stepping out of the airplane. To lighten the mood, jokingly, I told her that her next visit home might be in one of the 80 newly purchased planes that Boeing has just sold to Iran's national carrier, Iran Air. To rub it in, I said since she travels business class, they might even give her a complimentary headscarf in case she forgot to pack some. She didn't seem amused as the visit is still very fresh in her mind. She told me that there is growing discontent among people and gave me a long list of how bad things are - air pollution, unemployment, corruption in the government, excessive price hike of all things, and devaluation of currency. A huge number of folks with money are buying things from the black market. People who protest against the regime are constantly being jailed. The regime routinely sends the accused to the gallows. Iran has one of the world's highest numbers of executions every year. When I asked if the nuclear deal signed in 2015 improved people's perception of America, the answer was a clear NO. Things are really bad in Iran, it seems. According to her, Iran has the worst kind of dictatorship in the modern era.
Over the years, the Iranians in the West (mostly those who came from privileged backgrounds) have yearned for an Iran that came out from the pages of the One Thousand and One Nights. They wanted Iran to go back to the glory days of the past. A lot of them still have difficulties accepting the change in the post-revolutionary Iran. They had worried non-stop about the government having access to nuclear technology to enrich uranium to make an atomic bomb. They had raised their voices against human rights violation, journalists jailed for writing the truth and women being robbed of their rights like wearing lipstick in public or attending a men's volleyball game. The expatriates hate the Islamic Republic of Iran.
When the nuclear deal was signed, they believed it can advance the cause of peace and stability. Since the signing of the historic nuclear deal between Iran and P5+1 group (USA, China, France, Russia, United Kingdom plus Germany) over seventeen months ago, things on paper look well for the Iranians. But after talking to my friend, it is obvious that things are not always black and white. The Iran situation has turned into a grey area. Even with the US and the EU slowly lifting the sanctions, Iran making new business deals with other nations and Boeing signing a $16.6-billion-dollar deal (the first such deal since 1979) in early December, Iranians continue to suffer under the Islamic rule. The hardliners want the western sanction to stay in place. Their great fear is that if in power, the moderates may turn Iran into a secular state by compromising the core values that they had tried to uphold since the Iranian revolution. Leading the moderates is President Hassan Rouhani, who has ended the country's isolation with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal.
Many in the US are not happy about the Boeing deal because US Treasury imposed sanctions on Iran Air for using "passenger and cargo planes to transport rockets and missiles to places like Syria, sometimes disguised as medicine or spare parts," reported Bloomberg News. However, those restrictions were lifted after the signing of the nuclear deal. Secretary of State John Kerry was severely criticised for pushing investment in Iran and many Middle East (ME) policy makers said, it was not his job to help Iran with businesses. During the election campaign, Donald Trump reminded the voters a zillion times how the Obama government is making things easy for the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran by letting businesses sign deals with them.
The International Atomic Energy (IAEA) in January verified that Iran met all conditions under the nuclear deal. But that is not enough for President-elect Donald Trump. Even after winning the presidency, he has continued with his tirade and harsh criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, Trump never misses an opportunity to remind everyone how he is going to repeal it once he takes office. On the Iran front, things are not looking very promising at the moment because Iran's relationship with the US and other European nations has not improved on other areas either.
According to the US Treasury Department, "Iran has opened more than 300 new bank accounts with foreign banks, negotiated billions of dollars of new lines of credit and has seen plans for direct investment increase by more than $3.0 billion." Iranian oil sales have increased and many European business leaders have announced mega deals with it. But Iran is generally unhappy that it is not getting the huge economic benefits it expected. The Iranian leaders became more irate when they saw the Gulf Arab states see Donald Trump as a potential friend. Their furies have increased greatly since retired general James Mattis (distrustful of Iran) was chosen by Trump to be the Defence Secretary. On top of that the Syrian War has become a conflict between the USA and its Middle Eastern allies against Russia and Iran. From all indications, Iran is thinking of a new game plan to fight the upcoming Trump administration and somehow retain a dominant role in the Middle East.
The power struggle between the hardliners and the reformists of Iran will continue unabated in the foreseeable future. Thirty-eight-years ago, as a young adult, Maryam saw that her beloved country Iran was turning into a place of oppression, devastation and violence that she no longer recognised. Her journey to the "land of the free and home of the brave" was mostly to fulfil her idea of freedom. But Donald J Trump with his ongoing anti-Muslim and anti-Iranian rhetoric has made it clear that in America, Muslims are going to be invisible. He has said one ugly thing after another and we all know the story. He has morphed all Muslim Americans into one category. Muslim Americans have yet to find out how to fight against an anti-Muslim bigot who is their president. By ignoring an entire religious group, how does Trump intend to preserve the idea of a pluralistic society? With the rise of hate crimes across America since Trump's triumph, as Muslims, are we going to continue to live in fear in the coming months and years? Are we going to find out that we do not have the same rights and protections like everyone else?
After January 20, 2017, is President Trump going to make my friend change her views of America where she found refuge so many years ago from the persecution in Iran? Is she now going to think America has become a precarious place and is as bad as Iran? On a personal note, I am wondering, will I be fearful to wear my birthday gift in public, the beautiful silk Pashmina shawl personalised with bold Persian writing? Will the ignorant Muslim haters mistake Persian letters for Arabic and think that I am carrying some sort of anti-American message? This reminds me of the September incident of a Muslim woman's clothing was set on fire while she was walking down New York City's Fifth Avenue in traditional garb. What can be more horrific than that?
Zeenat Khan is a fiction writer and columnist.