|The Ayatollah has no Spokesman
by Samir Sanbar
While Elaine Sciolino was flying on an Air France jumbo jet to
cover the return of its leading passenger, Ayatollah Khomeini,
to Teheran, she was not aware of a proposal before her country's
National Security Adviser to shoot that plane down. "The United
States is not in the business of assassinating people", Zbigniew
Brzezinski reportedly said before adding, "The question that is
legitimate to ask is whether the United States is in the business
of preventing other people from assassinating their own countrymen".
Pretty scary talk indeed.
Clearly, the plane was left untouched, and the Iranian officer
who proposed it, Air Force General Amir Rabii, was later shot
among others on a rooftop of a makeshift revolutionary courtroom.
In fact, the question that is legitimate to ask is whether the
presence of Ms. Sciolino, Peter Jennings of ABC News and Carole
Jerome of the Wall Street Journal was a factor in the safe outcome.
If so, the Ayatollah seemed to be more media savvy than was initially
perceived. His enthusiastic journalists would certainly have given
Mr. Brzezinski and General Rabii cause to pause. Actually, Ms.
Sciolino was the only American citizen; the other two were Canadian.
But, think of the headlines - eh?
Even while still a somewhat reclusive exile in Paris, the Ayatollah
had a large sign on a garden tent announcing that he had no spokesman.
Yet, many of his energetic followers acted as such, always subject
to the above disclaimer. For example, Sadeg Ghotbzadeh, "son"
of the Imam, took charge of Mr. Jennings, Ms. Sciolino and Ms.
Jerome while Ibrahim Yazdi took care of others. Both became Foreign
Ministers. Both belonged to the lay "shirts" of the revolution,
who were later overwhelmed by the clerical "turbans". With the
ebb and flow of revolutionary and/or religious fervor, Elaine
Sciolino was the only international journalist to hang in there,
as determined, perceptive and enthusiastic as her first day on
"Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran" is only one outcome
of her ongoing quest which started with the Iranian revolution
of 1980. Obvious odds - like being an American, a woman and an
inquisitive journalist - were turned around through courage, a
sensitive understanding of human nature and outstanding journalistic
skill. Once you are convinced that she is a top notch reporter,
she somehow signals that she is also a social analyst with an
engaging sense of humor. She was the first American and first
woman to interview Ayatollah Khomeini while he was still in exile,
and she was the only one ever to enter the exclusive world of
"islamically elegant" female relatives of men in power. More importantly,
she bridged the cultural shock, or even tremors, by making a special
effort to understand another people's values without surrendering
her own. That took some persistence and was neither easy nor automatic.
Arriving with Khomeini in Teheran Airport, the young American
female journalist on her first major foreign assignment - "alone
in a crush of frenzied Iranian men" - was noting the highlights
of his speech when he uttered the words, "I beg God to cut off
the hand of foreigners". She stopped taking notes. Years later,
she was told that, in Iranian terminology, the expression meant
"preventing interference or blocking access". Similarly, when
asked in the airplane just before an uncertain landing in Teheran
after 14 years of Teheran exile what he was feeling, Khomeini,
who had slept on the floor throughout the flight, responded, "Hichi"
- "Nothing". Asked incredulously again, he elaborated "Hichi ehsesi
nadaram", that is, "I don't feel a thing". Ms. Sciolino notes
perceptively that, generations later, Iranians were still debating
what he actually meant. Was he, for example, covering up his true
feelings for a particular purpose?
Sprinkled with human interest stories, the book is at its best
when it explores the dynamics at three different, yet crucial,
sectors of the Iranian society: women in an uphill struggle while
living in a triple world - their own, their families and in public;
the press, whose heroic members find innovative ways of keeping
their spirits alive; and the ruling clergy, shuttling on the newly
built highway between Teheran and the holy city of Qum.
Iranians are passionate hosts and, as the author found, an American
is a welcome emissary. They may not have invented the game of
chess, but they are mostly excellent improvisers. After 20 years
of close observation, a set of rules was devised by the author.
For example, polite hospitality does not necessarily mean openness,
and being polite is often better than telling the facts. Iran
is in the Middle East but not entirely part of it. It is not just
an Islamic Republic; neither is it just Persia. The most indicative
observations are: Iran is "the Bermuda Triangle of American foreign
policy, so don't let your guard down"; and "A bomb is ticking
and it has nothing to do with explosives".
As she weaves her way through the faces and veils of current
Iranian life, examining cultural history and some limited yet
exquisite poetry, Ms. Sciolino is reminded of the mirrors she
saw at the old marble palace. "The glittering fragments, sometimes
set in angles to each other, like facets on a jewel, reflect light
and distort images at the same time…we could not look in the mirrors
and see our faces whole; we saw them shattered in pieces". That
is how she selected the title of her book 20 years after she started
her first journey.
It was during that time of mutual initiation that I met Elaine
Sciolino. On my first visit to Teheran on New Year's Day of 1981,
I waited at the airport for the arrival of the UN Secretary-General,
who was instructed by the Security Council to deal with the issue
of American hostages. Some of the Shah's portraits were still
hanging in small waiting rooms, the Protocol section in the Foreign
Ministry was still using Cadillac Sevilles, and a beautiful ground
hostess wearing a headscarf would, after some oriental flattery,
allow it to fall negligently to her shoulders. Coming from Beirut,
a laboratory for emerging revolutionary movements, I worked with
my New York colleagues and, weeks later, with a group of distinguished
legal internationalists, to explore available options. My task
was to speak on behalf of negotiators who did not want to say
anything. Elaine's was to find out what was really happening.
While Peter Jennings, for example, operated for ABC news under
cover of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Elaine was openly
American, in an open air revolutionary theatre. Somehow, her vulnerability
gave her extra strength and provided her with respectful affection.
She was an "honest to goodness" reporter looking for something
special to print under "Newsweek has learned". She later showed
similar qualities and added experience reporting for "The New
"Persian Mirrors" may not be limited to Persia. That could be
a seventh rule to add to the six given in the book on how to deal
with Iran. Whether as chess players or practical improvisers,
visions of Iranians are reflected in mirrors viewed by those dealing
with them. For example, the hostage crisis was a fragment of a
mirror viewed differently by different players - Americans, Iranians
or internationalists. It was a play within a play, a Russian doll
in an American blackjack bet, overwhelmed by serious religion.
One mirror would query the lack of any American action to save
the Shah in 1979 as in 1953; another would assume that the "bastion
of democracy" in the region got too big for his own good and sought
to be an equal partner in oil and strategy, rather than just an
accommodating partner. A third would suggest a slight slap on
the wrist by encouraging some revolutionary forces to take over
enough space to clip his wings and then bring in a third party
like former General Bakhtiar. A fourth would push a pendulum calculatingly
to one side. A fifth would find out that the pendulum had a different
perception of its role. In the sixth, those faraway strategists,
planning a baseball game, find out it is actually hardball. End
of game; beginning of crisis. Who lost what to whom? Could, for
example, certain public meetings (in Algiers) have been avoided
or other private meetings (in Paris or Geneva) initiated? Did
the freezing of assets in banks help or inflame already tense
relations with an emerging movement leading a new regime? Any
reflections on the dynamics of internal politics in Washington
The fascinating illusion of fragmented mirrors is that you never
know. The vision is in the eye of the beholder. Once you think
you see it - once.
Samir Sanbar is former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General
for Public Information and Communication