Paradox and power in Iran

Share via
Aslan is the author of "No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam" and the forthcoming "How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terrror."

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

The Paradox of Modern Iran

Hooman Majd

Doubleday: 288 pp., $24.95

Not long ago, while visiting family in Tehran, I found myself in an elevator with an elderly Iranian man. When the doors opened at our floor, we both instinctively took a step back and beckoned the other forward. Thus was launched that uniquely Iranian social ritual of exaggerated politesse called ta’arouf -- a self-deprecation contest to see who can subordinate himself more.

“After you,” the man said, gesturing toward the open door.

“No,” I said, stepping farther back into the elevator. “After you.”

“I insist,” the man replied.

“I cannot,” I responded.

“I am your servant,” he said.

“I am your slave,” I answered, my back now pressed against the elevator wall.

The ritualized back-and-forth continued for a few more seconds, each of us staking out a position at opposite corners of the elevator, until the doors shut and the elevator continued to the next floor.

I have never figured out how to explain this absurd yet quintessentially Iranian custom to my non-Iranian friends. Ta’arouf is more than a mere social ritual, it is a cultural imperative, one most Iranians are born with and most Americans find incomprehensible.


So much of Iran is an enigma. It is not just the baroque social customs or the hyperbolic nationalism; it is the inherent paradox of a country at once modern and ancient, Persian and Islamic, morally lax in private yet utterly puritanical in public -- a country in which condoms are passed out for free and sex education is taught to young girls, but where an adult man and woman can be thrown in jail for holding hands on the street.

Hooman Majd’s “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran” is perhaps the best book yet written on the contradictions of contemporary Iran. The son of an Iranian diplomat, and the grandson of an eminent ayatollah, Majd grew up mostly in England and the U.S., but he frequently travels to Iran and has served as a translator and unofficial advisor to both the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his predecessor, the reformist cleric Muhammad Khatami.

Majd’s dual background, not to mention his unprecedented access over the last decade to two of Iran’s most prominent politicians, provides him with a deeply informed perspective on the religion, politics and culture of Iran. Part memoir, part travelogue, part cultural criticism, “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ” captures like no book in recent memory the ethos of the country, in elegant and precise prose.

Majd’s exploration of modern Iran begins with a simple yet profoundly consequential statement. “For almost thirty years now,” he writes, “whatever can be said about Iran, it cannot be said that it is subservient to any greater power.” It is this fact, which forms the very core of Iran’s national identity, that more than anything explains the astonishing resilience of the Islamic Republic in the face of almost total international isolation, widespread popular discontent and imminent economic collapse.

According to Majd, most Iranians suffer from a superiority/inferiority complex (another Iranian paradox), in which immense pride in Iran’s history and culture is tempered by a sense of shame at the country’s third-world status and anger at its treatment by foreign powers. Hence, the refusal of even the most secular, pro-Western segments of Iranian society to bend to the will of the West and abandon the country’s nuclear program.

These days, the chant heard most often across Iran is not “Death to America!” but “Nuclear power is our inalienable right!” In truth, though, the sentiment behind both chants is the same: After a century of foreign domination -- first by the Russians, then by the English and finally by the Americans -- Iran will never again be controlled by outsiders.


Majd’s most important insight is his recognition that despite the promises of the Iranian Revolution to do away with class, Iran remains a firmly class-based society, with two broad social groups in constant conflict with each other. First, there are the wealthy, sophisticated and mostly secular elite who tend to live in large urban centers like Tehran and Isfahan; these are the young and educated masses, “those whom foreign reporters come into contact with most, and who are quickest to tell anyone who cares to listen that the Islamic Republic’s days are numbered.” Then, there is the massive, rural, pious lower class that, along with the powerful Bazaari merchants, forms the backbone of the Islamic Republic and, more important, the bulk of the electorate.

The political genius of Ahmadinejad is that he has managed to transform this huge underclass into a loyal voting bloc by appealing to its fierce nationalism and deep piety. “[Ahmadinejad’s] style,” Majd writes, “the bad suits, the cheap windbreaker, the shoddy shoes, and the unstylish haircut . . . is a signal to the working class that he is still one of them.”

Indeed, he is the first Iranian president to give his speeches in colloquial Persian instead of the flowery, classical Persian in which all public addresses are traditionally given. That is why, despite the failure of his administration to fulfill any of his economic promises (both unemployment and inflation are at all-time highs), as well as an approval rating in Tehran that is lower than President Bush’s in America, Ahmadinejad remains a powerful force in Iranian politics and may well win reelection in 2009.

The Islamic Republic, Majd notes, relies for its very existence on the material, financial and educational privileges it provides Iran’s underclass -- privileges they have no interest in giving up. Majd puts to paper what many American foreign policy analysts are only now beginning to recognize: that the days of waiting for another popular revolution to overthrow the clerical regime are over. Majd writes convincingly of the contempt that young Iranians, 80% of whom were born after the revolution, have for those exiles who, from their Beverly Hills mansions or Washington think tanks, try to stir the Iranian population to rise up and overthrow their government.

Thanks mostly to the foreign policy mistakes of the Bush administration, Iran is now the new superpower in the Middle East. In Majd’s view, only by recognizing this can the U.S. begin to deal effectively with an Islamic Republic that, for better or worse, is here to stay.