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The Tehran Syndrome

What happens when a mind is held hostage by the imams.

Nov 22, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 10 • By SOHRAB AHMARI
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Then again, faced with such political conundrums, Majd always has the concept of the “Ayatollahs’ democracy” to fall back on—though he pointedly never defines the term with precision. Instead he relies on a repetitive series of synonyms to describe Iran’s political system: “Islamic democracy,” “Islamic ‘democracy,’ ” “religious democracy,” “Shia Islamic democracy,” “Iranian democracy,” “Persian democracy”—and so on. The vagueness appears deliberate:

Islamic democracy .  .  . is possible because there are republican aspects of Islam and Islamic aspects of republicanism, such as respect for and protection of the rights of the people, and the ability of the people to choose their leaders. That’s far too vague to be a description of a political system, and one that melds theology with governance, but perhaps it’s that vagueness—and the anomalous nature of the Ayatollahs’ democracy—that has allowed its survival this long.

Or perhaps it is the brutal efficiency of Evin Prison. Fear, not opacity, has been the backbone of Iran’s dictatorship—or rather, the “Ayatollahs’ Persian-Shia-Islamic-Iranian democracy.”

Using these ethno-sectarian predicates allows Majd to pretend that Iran is a democracy even when the regime callously disregards the most basic democratic norms. Just as Persian culture demands slow Internet speeds, Persian democracy needs a robust dose of authoritarianism. The Ayatollahs’ Democracy thus feeds into an embarrassing Western intellectual tradition of fetishizing Khomeinism, dating back to Michel Foucault’s early embrace of the 1979 revolution. Today, romanticizing the Iranian regime as a culturally appropriate “democratic” order allows uncomfortable Western audiences to avoid confronting a dictatorial reality that spells injustice in any language.

And yet, because of the glaring inconsistency between its on-the-ground reportage and political analysis, The Ayatollahs’ Democracy invites esoteric reading. The book’s first section, which recounts the events of the 2009 election through the eyes of regime officials and Green leaders, is structured like a play in two acts with an entr’acte and listing of dramatis personae. Each scene in this play is punctuated by variations on the 11th-century Persian mystic Hassan-i
Sabbah’s enigmatic pronouncement (popularized by Nietzsche and William S. Burroughs) that “nothing is true; everything is permitted.” Perhaps Majd is asking his audience to read between the lines. After all, as an American-based journalist, he holds a visa from the ayatollahs’ bureaucrats that would be at risk should he draw the obvious conclusions.

Regardless of any ironic hidden message, Majd’s theatrical form ultimately comes off as a feeble attempt to add literary verve to trite apologetics, a style reinforced by a Warholesque dust jacket and the slang and vulgarity interlaced throughout the book (when it comes to foreign policy, Majd appreciates the fact that Ahmadinejad’s Iran has “balls”).

So why does an independent journalist and son of a Shah-era diplomat apologize for a system that so mercilessly victimizes Iranian dissidents? It is tempting to psychoanalyze Hooman Majd or to think him desperate to maintain his remarkable access to the regime’s establishment. But Majd has yet another escape hatch: Just as the regime practices a unique, culturally centered form of “democracy,” Majd has pioneered a unique form of independent journalism. Call it Ayatollahs’ Analysis.

Sohrab Ahmari has written about reform in the Muslim world for Commentary, the Boston Globe, and PBS|Frontline’s Tehran bureau.

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