Laura Secor: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran

Laura Secor
Discussion with Laura Secor
Photo: LAWAC member Josie Tong

Iran as a country looms large in Americans' imaginations, and yet very little is actually known about that country here - which is what drove Laura Secor to spend 10 years traveling back and forth to the country and writing about it for the New Yorker. "Iran, they say - you spend one day there and you fall in love with it - it is beautiful, rich, vibrant, so much is going on. And yet it is also very hard to fall in love with Iran - it is oppressive," said Secor at a Los Angeles World Affairs Council Global Café breakfast meeting on Wednesday, February 10th.

Secor, whose book Children of Paradise, The Struggle for the Soul of Iran has just been published, shows how from the very moment the Shah was overthrown in 1979, there were conflicting ideas of what the new "revolutionary" Iran should look like, and traces how those conflicts still bitterly divide the country today between various groups of hardline clerics and their allies on the one side, and reform-minded politicians and intellectuals and students on the other side. Torn between the absolutist views of the Marxist/existentialist/Islamist Ali Shariati and the more moderate, open-society views of Abdolkarim Sorroush - the two main revolutionary-era theoreticians cited by Secor - Iranian society is riven with divisions. Understanding the extent of these divisions is crucial for US policymakers trying to deal with Tehran.

Ayatollah Khomeini, who ruled Iran until his death in 1988, treated his subjects as infantile, prolonged the war with Iraq for an extra four years, and brooked no opposition as the Supreme Leader with divine authority. But as a self-proclaimed man of god, Khomeini had a chilling ruthless streak. Shortly before his death Khomeini ordered the execution of several thousand prisoners in what Secor calls a clear crime against humanity. They were hanged from cranes inside Evin Prison over a period of two months, even though many had not been sentenced to death. The leading theory about why he did this was to construct a "baptism of blood" which make all the other leadership figures complicit in the crime, and hence unable to abandon Khomeini's model of government after he died.

And yet again and again since 1979 reformist politicians and students have attempted to challenge and change the absolutist rule of the clerics - many of them paying for their opposition either with their lives, or with extended periods of imprisonment and torture. "Many people risked retribution to make their country a better place," said Secor. "I am in awe of a lot of the people I met and interviewed." Secor said that working as a journalist, particularly an American, in Iran was very frustrating, and she was constantly concerned that anyone she spoke with could be in danger. Many of the main characters profiled in her book no longer live in Iran. "A friend of mine in Iran said 'we have freedom of expression, we just don't have freedom after expression'."

Two presidents - Rafsanjani and Khatami, both tried to steer Iran towards the path of reform, but then in 2005 the former mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected president, and he re-imposed strict Islamic regulations on social behavior and women's dress, while outraging the world with his denial of the Holocaust. When he stood for reelection in 2009 and appeared to win only by rampant electoral fraud, the long-disenchanted students took to the streets in the so-called Green Movement, only to be beaten and shot by the regime's thuggish basij militias. "Most Americans thought the Green Movement was a sudden eruption from nowhere, a Twitter event - but in fact it had deep roots in the debate over the Iranian revolution." Secor acknowledges the criticisms of some who felt the US should have spoken out more forcibly on the side of the protesters, but thinks it would have been counter-productive, since it would have allowed the regime to paint the protesters as stooges of America. Iranians are fiercely proud, and will have to work their internal contradictions by themselves. Secor is under no illusions that this will be easy, nor quick in coming.

Secor profiled one young female journalist, Asieh Amini, who investigated the continuing practice of stoning women for adultery in rural parts of Iran, despite the practice being officially outlawed by the central government. "There were some judges in provincial areas who didn't believe they had to answer to the government, they thought they answered directly to god." And their version of god's law was that women who committed - or allegedly committed - adultery should be buried up to their chest in the ground and stoned to death. After documenting a number of stonings, Amini suffered a nervous breakdown.

The government stopped giving Secor visas to enter Iran in 2012, due to a conflict with some officials. Her relationship with the country is complex, and, one feels, not yet finished. "I felt like a stalker," she says. "I haven't been invited in and I'm unable to let the country go." So goes the pathology of the relationship between the US and Iran.