The Ayatollah has no Spokesman

12/01/2000
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 that assignment.

"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 York Times".

"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 or Teheran?

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.

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Samir Sanbar is former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Public Information and Communication