[Book Review] Subtitled, “The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran,” the book reads more like fiction than autobiography. I have no idea how much … polishing … the author did to make the story and dialog flow, but the end result is a fascinating book that reminded me of my time in Iran, my guide there, and similar experiences in other restrictive, totalitarian states.
The tension in the book brings home life in nations infected with ideologues, police, and intelligence agencies run amuck. After an impressive, thoroughly readable history of the Iranian revolution, the book turns darker as the zealots gain power and remove their rivals.
A Time to Betray is a ‘just one more page’ book that will keep you up well into the next morning. I can’t vouch for its accuracy or authenticity, but I can vouch for its readability. Enjoy.
Interesting article in today’s Foreign Policy on the current power struggle in Iran between President Ahmadinejad (representing the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian nationalism) and Supreme Leader Khamenei (representing the clerical hierarchy and Iranian revolutionary Islam). While I disagree that, “Khamenei’s survival and that of the clerical system is in the West’s interest,” (mainly because I see an isolated Ahmadinejad, stripped of support from the bazaaris and with a weakened clerical establishment, as a far easier target for domestic reformers) the author delivers a clear overview of the two dogs in the fight.
Definitely worth the five minutes it’ll take to read.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman from North Korea announced the North’s takeaway from the situation in Libya: never give up your nuke program. “The present Libyan crisis teaches the international community a serious lesson. It was fully exposed before the world that ‘Libya′s nuclear dismantlement’ much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former […] to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force. It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one′s own strength [i.e. a nuclear weapons program].” Quoted from the North’s official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) website; click here for the full report (the KCNA website is normally blocked in South Korea, so the link will likely not work if you are accessing the site from the South).
The KCNA story has the rare virtue of making a good point: one of the side-effects of the current decision to
give the Navy something to do launch attacks on Libya (whether you believe they are justified or not), combined with Qaddafi’s previous decision to abandon his nuclear program, is going to be strengthening the resolve of countries like North Korea to develop and maintain their own nuclear programs. I would be surprised if Iranian leaders in Tehran and Qom are not drawing similar conclusions.
The State Department, of course, has a decidedly different take. Saying (in a 22 March press briefing) that U.S. involvement in Libya, “has absolutely no connection with them [Libya] renouncing their nuclear program and nuclear weapons.” Later continuing with, “The international community – not the United States, not the IAEA, not the P-5+1 – the international community came together to take action to stop that humanitarian disaster. For me to say that that’s some kind of retribution for giving up nuclear weapons is – I don’t see how the argument holds.”
An artful attempt at spin, in case anyone on the planet actually thinks the attacks are retribution for the Libyans giving up their nuclear program, rather than simply made easier by Qaddafi’s previous decision to abandon his program, but one doubts Pyongyang and Tehran/Qom are so easily fooled. Somewhere Kim Jong-il, who has presided over a humanitarian disaster easily as bad as anything in Libya, is hugging his nuclear scientists. It’s a sad day when the KCNA makes more sense than the State Department.
On a separate note, for a decidedly positive view of the intervention, see Kristof’s Hugs from Libyans column in today’s NY Times.
[Book Review] Early Japanese bullet trains, travel across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian, the old Orient Express, Theroux’s book (originally written in the mid-70s, but reissued in the version here) is a classic of travel and railway literature.
Especially suitable for reading on a cold day somewhere in eastern Russia on the Trans-Siberian, but enjoyable on any train. Beware, it can make for an expensive read as it lures you in to making your own trip.
Theroux retraced the journey 30 years later and wrote about it in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, also worth a read.
Iran – Khomeini – Hostages – Evil
For Americans of a certain age these four words are inextricably linked. The Iran hostage crisis forever burned Iran and Khomeini into our minds as emblems of danger and evil. Nearly 30 years have passed since then but stories of nukes, kooky mullahs, and oppressed women have done little to improve Iran’s image.
In December 2005 I walked into an Iranian embassy, saw a picture of Khomeini frowning down, and all of those early memories came flooding back. As the trip approached my foreboding increased – by the day of the flight I was much more worked up about Iran than I had ever been with North Korea or Iraq.
It didn’t help that I’d decided to fly Iran Air. At first it seemed like an interesting airline to try, plus it offered a convenient connection from where I was staying in Seoul. The problem was that the flight would be on an old Boeing bought before Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979. U.S. economic sanctions have since prevented Iran Air from doing much upkeep and modernization – meaning the most dangerous part of the trip could well be the flight in.
First Day in Tehran
Morning brought a better look at the hotel. My room was tiny and the bathroom miniscule. I practically had to stand with one foot in the toilet to take a shower. But at least there was a shower, hot water, and a couple of international channels on the TV. As I got dressed I caught a BBC News report on Iran suddenly banning the sale of Western movies and music CDs.
A couple of hours later I met up with Professor. Day One was set aside mainly for us to get acquainted, and for me to get a taste of Tehran, before leaving on our tour around the country early the next morning. I’d bought a 20-day trip, the longest the agency offered, in the hopes of seeing as much of the country as possible. We would first head west toward Iraq, then south toward the Persian Gulf, east toward Afghanistan, then back to the center and Tehran. Basically, we’d be taking a long counter-clockwise look at most of the country.
Three weeks from today we’d be back in Tehran and Professor would be dropping me off at the train station. The only time Americans are not required to have a guide in Iran is on the train, in or out. So I’d booked the longest train ride I could find – a four-day trip that’d take me from Tehran through northwestern Iran, across the mountainous border into the Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey, then all the way across Turkey to Istanbul.
After going over the tour and schedule we, thankfully, set out on foot for some of the downtown sites. There’s nothing like walking through a new city speaking English to gauge how people instinctively react to foreigners – incredulity and shock, hard stares and irritation, or pleasant surprise and looks of welcome. I was happy, and somewhat surprised, to see Iranians fall into the last category.
Road South along the Iraqi Border
(DAY 5) Almost a year to the day after I left Baghdad, today’s drive would take us within sight of the Iran-Iraq border. Traveling south along the low mountain chain that divides the two countries felt almost surreal. Here I was relaxing in a car, sipping tea with my guide while on the other side of those mountains a war raged.
Professor saw me staring at the mountains. I’d already told him about my ‘Axis of Evil tour’ and that I’d worked for the U.S. government in Iraq. Hell, I was sitting in his car wearing the desert boots Uncle Sam issued me.
Professor, and every other Iranian I mentioned it to, didn’t like the Axis of Evil thing; my tour or the original comment. “Comparing us to the North Koreans is just rude, man. We’ve got the Internet. We can talk about politics. We’re not a bunch of crazy assholes.”
He asked me about my time in Iraq. If I’d ever been shot at or anything. I told him about getting rocketed and mortared, plus the window-rattling car bomb blasts. He told me about the Iran-Iraq war when he’d guided a few Western journalists through some of these same areas for a tour of the frontlines. About artillery blasts, air attacks, and poison gas worries. About yelling at one of the TV journalists for hyping the dangers to make his report sound more exciting, “He was just standing there and lying, man. It pissed me off.”
Central Iran – Arrival in Esfahan
(DAY 12) Newspapers, websites, TV news – it seemed that every one of them had run a feature on Iran’s rejuvenated nuclear program in the days leading up to this part of my trip. In nearly every story Esfahan was listed as the major city closest to the program’s home. There were so many stories it actually felt like driving into a spotlight, like being back in Baghdad, knowing you were at the center of world attention.
Esfahan was the first large city we’d been in since Tehran. After all of the emptiness and countryside it felt cramped and confusing. I could tell it bothered Professor too – he was more at home in the country or around the tourist sites than driving in big city traffic.
Searching for our downtown hotel took forever in Esfahan’s confusing maze of one-way streets and wall-to-wall cars. We had to stop and ask for directions a half dozen times, though by now I could roll down the window and ask for directions myself. Seeing the surprised looks on people’s faces when a foreigner asked for directions, let alone in Farsi, got Professor and I laughing and helped break the tediousness of the search.
Home of the Mullahs – Qom
(Day 16) I’d been told by one Iranian that, “an American in Qom is like an Al Qaeda in the White House.” So I was a little nervous about this stop, and I could tell Professor was too. Qom (rhymes with ‘gnome’) is home to one of Iran’s (and Shia Islam’s) holiest sites. The city itself is a stronghold of the current conservative government and served as Khomeini’s base for the revolution in 1979. No liberals or opposition groups here; this is the center of mullah control over the government, culture, and politics of Iran. From this city spreads Iranian religious and political influence into Iraq, Lebanon and Hezbollah, Palestine and Hamas, and a host of other organizations and countries around the world. While most international attention focuses on the nuclear program down in Natanz, or the politicians in Tehran, it’s the clerics living in Qom that actually control the fate of Iran.
From guidebooks, media, and talks with people along the way I rolled into Qom with a sense of dread. The nervousness reminded me of how I felt boarding the plane into Iran a couple of weeks previous. Then the sense of the ominous was quickly displaced by the man on the plane doing his giant book of puzzles and mazes. Pulling into Qom, all darkness and seriousness, the spell was broken when the first thing I see from the exit is a giant Ferris wheel sticking out over a gaily-painted amusement park. I actually laughed out loud, getting a weird look from a still-nervous Professor, at the incongruity of my preconceptions and the happy little carnival.
After a fantastic three weeks traveling around Iran, it was finally time to turn towards home. As an American, the only way to obtain an Iranian visa had been to book a guided tour, and while the guide had been sage-like in his knowledge and helpfulness, I was looking forward to a little time on my own. Since the visa rules require a guide only inside the country, but not on the way in or out, I’d booked the longest outbound trip I could find, the Tehran-Istanbul train.
Everything started out fine. Professor [my guide] and his taxi-driving brother-in-law met me at the hotel for our short drive to Tehran’s train station. Standing inside the station, I was sad to say goodbye – Professor had become a friend during our intense three weeks together and I was going to miss him. After making sure my seat assignment and baggage were in order, and still somewhat surprised I was leaving by train instead of plane, he held out his hand and we said goodbye. Then, quickly and without another word, he disappeared out the station doors and I was suddenly alone.
The train was barely half full, with only one other person in my 4-bunk compartment. My roommate for the four-day journey was to be a young Afghani who spoke no Persian and whose only English was ‘ok’. Since that was more Afghani than I speak, we went with his English and a lot of miming. He was going to Istanbul to work and seemed spellbound by my maps of Iran and Turkey. Other than that he turned out to be a very quiet guy – perfect for a long train ride.
My train from Tehran to Istanbul