Caught between Nikes and Nukes Is Iran on the Brink of Change?

Iranians go to the polls Friday to elect a new president after an unusually heated election campaign. But even if reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi beats the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will it make any difference to the country's nuclear ambitions?
Von Dieter Bednarz und Erich Follath

If the Israeli Air Force were to bomb Iran, it's a safe bet that the top-secret Iranian nuclear facility near Isfahan would be at the top of its list of targets.

The complex, less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Isfahan, a city of 1.5 million people, is buried in a dramatic desert landscape. A launching pad for anti-aircraft missiles juts into the sky on one of the hills surrounding the valley. Behind the pad, a series of fences and armed guards protect the center of the facility, which includes a uranium conversion plant, a zirconium processing plant and the new nuclear fuel processing plant.

On this day in April, the new plant is to be dedicated by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 52, in the company of a few handpicked journalists, who are being allowed entry into the inner sanctum of Iran's nuclear program.

The tunnel entrances to underground production facilities are vaguely visible in the distance. The country now has an estimated 7,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment up and running, a number that grows each week. They have placed Iran in a position to produce sufficient material to quickly build a nuclear weapon, which would abruptly transform its nuclear program from peaceful to military use -- if that is indeed what the Iranians want. The Islamic Republic is probably already a virtual nuclear power today.

In addition to the heavy water reactor near Arak, which could be placed into service in the next few years, and the Natanz uranium enrichment plant, experts are extremely concerned about what is happening in Isfahan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline government are already believed to have decided to attack Iran. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu plans to give the new US government's efforts to achieve a negotiated solution until the end of the year to produce results. If they are unsuccessful, the paper writes, the Israelis will strike -- even without Washington's approval, if necessary.

Mohammed ElBaradei , winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has warned that such an attack could ignite a catastrophic conflagration throughout the Middle East. US expert David Albright believes that it will be virtually impossible to wipe out Iran's nuclear program militarily. The Israelis would have to bomb Iran for weeks, and yet would still not have eliminated a large number of facilities, according to Albright. Instead, he says, such attacks would only achieve one thing: They would unite Iranians behind their leadership and convince them, once and for all, of the need to build the bomb.

Officials in the West are clinging to the remote hope that Holocaust denier and Israel-hater Ahmadinejad will be voted out of office in Friday's presidential election. Nevertheless, the differences among the four candidates running for president are minimal when it comes to the nuclear issue. The speeches Ahmadinejad has been giving recently, in which he calls upon US President Barack Obama to "finally" follow his friendly words with "actions" and passionately defends Iran's "inalienable" right to uranium enrichment, seem aggressive and disturbing. He makes no mention of all the subterfuge, tricks and deception on the nuclear question, with which Iran, in the view of members of the United Nations Security Council, has forfeited its right to nuclear energy, at least temporarily.

Only Half the Truth

The West sees Iran as a nightmarish country home to a terrifying combination of sophisticated weapon technology and religious ideology based on 1,400-year-old martyr legends that emphasize suffering, a country that is not even deterred by the prospect of a mutually destructive apocalypse. This view of Iran portrays it as isolated and unpredictable, a wounded civilization whose leaders are determined to exact revenge on the West by backing radical groups, from Hamas to Hezbollah -- in short, a monolithic realm of evil.

But this portrayal reflects only half the truth, if that. Iran is a country of internal contradictions and diverging centers of power. It is everything but one-dimensional, a place where astonishing processes take place simultaneously -- and sometimes at cross purposes. Iran is best imagined as a sort of Vatican with elements of a parliamentary democracy and bits of North Korea.

The religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 69, is the country's supreme authority. Although he remains largely above the fray of ordinary politics, he was suddenly sharply critical of his protégé Ahmadinejad's economic policy. Last Wednesday's televised debate between the president and his most promising challenger, reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, 67, became a brutally open exchange. "You are driving Iran into dictatorship with your methods," the challenger jabbed at the incumbent. "Since you were elected, Iranians have been humiliated around the world by your extremist foreign policy."

For many in the United States, Iran is America's greatest enemy -- and yet the Iranians are probably the most pro-American population in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel. And when it comes to morals, the theocracy is not as monolithic as some claim. Although Iranian women are required to wear the headscarf, the country has produced some of the world's most creative fashion designers.

Iran is being tugged back and forth between Western consumerism and pride over its scientific advances. A country caught between Nikes and nukes, Iran wants state-of-the-art athletic shoes as much as it wants high-tech weapons. Anyone who hopes to understand this country must be, as the Iranians say, "posht-e parde," or "behind the veil." The Persian paradox consists of a blend of freedom and constraint, private frivolities and public discipline, professionalism and amateurism.

It is this odd mix that leads to significant surprises during this excursion into Iran's nuclear inner sanctum on a spring day, surprises which contradict the standard political rhetoric.

First-rate nuclear physicists work at the Isfahan complex. But immediately prior to the presidential visit, a technician is seen cursing as he searches for a wrench while repairing the roof of the high-tech plant. And the nuclear physicists out themselves as passionate gardeners: between buildings where the material for weapons of mass destruction is being produced, carefully tended flower beds are watered by automatic sprinklers.

Reading 'Lolita' in Iran

The great square in Isfahan, with its magnificent palaces and mosques, is one of those places where one feels a sense of pride in humanity. Isfahan's history is one of centuries of religious and cultural tolerance. Zoroastrian fire temples, Islamic houses of prayer and Christian churches, and their respective congregations, thrive and coexist peacefully here. There is also a particularly strong Jewish influence.

"Isfahan's paths begin on the Sabbath," writes the German-Iranian journalist Navid Kermani. More than 2,500 years ago, Persian King Cyrus II is believed to have liberated the Jews from their Babylonian exile. Searching for a new home, they traveled north and established, on the banks of a river, a city that satisfied their longing for Jerusalem: Isfahan. Beginning at the end of the 16th century, the Shiite Safavids began building the structures that still characterize the city today.

It is early in the morning on a Saturday. A sign on the square reads "Death to the Zionists." Less than a kilometer away, in a synagogue across from the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Palestine Square, several dozen Jews have congregated for prayers. Roughly 1,200 Jews live in Isfahan, and, despite an exodus after the revolution 30 years ago, there are still 25,000 Jews living in Iran as a whole -- a larger Jewish community than in any Arab country.

Unlike the members of the Bahai religious community, who are persecuted as heretics, the Jews in Iran can practice their faith undisturbed. In theory, they also enjoy the same political rights as Muslims in this Shiite theocracy. They are guaranteed one of the 290 seats in the parliament, the Majlis, and they are permitted to vote directly for their representative during elections. There is undoubtedly discrimination, but of a more subtle nature. Jewish Iranians have no prospects of obtaining civil service jobs, and they are barred from working in the judiciary. They are effectively second-class citizens.

But there is hardly any evidence of discrimination in the daily lives of bazaar merchants in Isfahan. "There is no fertile ground here for anti-Semitism," says Sulaiman Sedighpur, an antique dealer, after murmuring the last of his Hebrew prayer beneath a chandelier in the synagogue. "I haven't had any problems in my shop in 43 years. I have visited Israel, and when I see something like the Gaza war, I am on the side of the protestors here in Iran, and I feel like an Iranian." Sedighpur, like his Muslim colleagues, is more concerned about the country's economic situation.

Ahmadinejad's economic record is catastrophic. It includes inflation topping 25 percent, real unemployment above 20 percent, and empty stores and workshops, where men, looking almost desperate, hammer away at copper pitchers, or forge and chisel bracelets. The only sector that still flourishes today, thanks to international sanctions, is corruption. "The government's policy stands in the way of the private sector, which could create jobs," says Mehrzad Khalilian, the chairman of the Isfahan Chamber of Commerce, with surprising candidness.

As in all large cities, the young people here lead two lives: one in public and the other behind the walls of their houses. While young women wearing the mandatory headscarf in public can only attract attention by having a nose trimmed to the ideal proportions though cosmetic surgery, they wear the tiniest miniskirts at lavish parties in their private, parallel universe. They receive satellite programs from the United States and Europe through satellite dishes openly mounted on their roofs, and they secretly read banned literature -- a practice referred to generically as "reading Lolita."

Young men dash around the narrow streets on their mopeds, almost all them talking on mobile phones. Mobility and communication via the Internet are more important to this generation (60 percent of the population is under 30) than Western-style democracy. They scoff at the mullahs and see the Iranian power structure and the core of the constitution, the concept of "velayat-e-faqih" ("rule by Islamic clerics"), as inscrutable. Although revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini formally accepted institutions of parliamentarianism in 1979, he created for himself the office of ayatollah, or "religious leader," which outranks all elected bodies.

Today his successor Ali Khamenei can, in theory, dismiss the president without explanation. He controls the armed forces, the judiciary, the intelligence service, the media and religious foundations -- which shape a large segment of the national economy. In practice, however, even Khamenei is part of a system of distribution of power among various power centers. The system discourages political involvement, and given the opportunities to withdraw into the private sphere, there is little incentive to stage bloody uprisings.

The young people are no revolutionaries. Though interested in traveling to the West, they do not want to live there. They are proud of their culture, and of Iran's nuclear scientists. They believe that their country is being vilified unfairly, and they complain about "double standards." A student named Sadegh meets with applause from people standing nearby when he asks: "Why does the world allow Israel to have nuclear weapons while denying us access?"

Isfahan is, as enlightened local residents say, "Nesf-e Jahan," the more beautiful "half of the world." The other half, they say, includes the "backward people" living in rural areas, who make up close to a third of Iran's population, and their president, who wanders around aimlessly on the global stage and who many see as an embarrassment.

'The Americans Must Correct Their Mistakes'

Ahmadinejad's favorite place, according to his own remarks, is Jamkaran. This small village 5 kilometers (3 miles) outside Qom is home to his favorite mosque, which he has expanded, using government funds, into a huge pilgrimage site and provided with tall minarets. Despite budget shortfalls, the president plans a direct rail connection between Jamkaran and the capital Tehran, 300 kilometers (187 miles) away.

According to the teachings of the ultraconservative Hakkani school of Shiitism, the Mahdi once appeared in Jamkaran. The Mahdi was the 12th imam, who was hidden by God in the 9th century and whose return is longed for by the devout, because it signifies the end of the current world, salvation for the just and damnation for the infidels. Ahmadinejad is part of a particularly messianic branch of Shiitism, a sort of Islamic version of born-again Christianity.

He is a man with a clear image of the enemy, the demonic West, which he holds accountable for all Iran's hardships. Although he was personally charming in a two-hour interview with SPIEGEL  at his Tehran office in April, he also proved to be an uncompromising master of doling out criticism. "The Americans," he said, "must correct their mistakes."

This fundamental position has come to the fore once again during a wave of terror that currently overshadows the election campaign. In the past few weeks, a bomb was found on board an Iranian airliner and defused before it could cause any harm, shots were fired at one of the president's campaign officers, and 25 people died in the city of Zahedan, near the Afghan border, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a mosque. Even though a local Sunni terrorist group called Jundallah ("Army of God") claimed responsibility, Tehran announced that Washington was behind the attacks.

Is Iran's president an unrestrained ideologue who, as some Israeli politicians apparently believe, is prepared to risk nuclear apocalypse to provoke the return of the Mahdi? Is there a pragmatic man hiding behind his aggressive rhetoric? Is he incapable of understanding the West?

Ahmadinejad's rise to power, more than most other biographies, reflects the history of modern Iran. He is indisputably the polar opposite of his predecessor, the sophisticated religious scholar Mohammed Khatami. During his two terms in office, Khatami promised the country reforms, but failed miserably as a result of the perseverance of revolutionary fanatics in the intelligence services and judiciary.

Ahmadinejad entered the presidential race four years ago as an outsider. To the very end of the campaign, no one believed that the man in the beige windbreaker stood a chance of winning the runoff election against former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. After only a few weeks the Tehran daily Kayhan, an influential paper that promotes the views of conservatives, dismissed Ahmadinejad as a "political dwarf." There are some in Tehran who ascribe Ahmadinejad's election victory to the stark differences between the newcomer and Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani was regarded by many as powerful, pampered and even corrupt, while Ahmadinejad was seen as a flaming revolutionary, hardworking to the point of exhaustion and contemptuous of wealth.

Ahmadinejad does in fact come from modest means, but not as modest as he likes to imply. His father, described as a "simple blacksmith" in the official biography, actually owned a small metalworking shop and belonged to the Iranian middle class. Ahmadinejad is no "mostasaf," one of the millions of the disadvantaged, without whom the Islamic Republic probably would not exist, and for whom he has stylized himself as an Iranian Robin Hood.

It was these people, literally the "barefoot," who, infected by Ayatollah Khomeini's promises of justice, drove the supposed "US lackey" Shah Mohammed Reza out of the country in 1979. Hoping for a share of power, they fought against the shah's thugs in the streets of Tehran at first, and later suffered a high death toll defending the values of their revolution in the eight-year war with Iraq -- and were ultimately palmed off with meager rewards. Much like his role model Khomeini, Ahmadinejad feels a sense of obligation to this class of people, the ones who repeatedly found themselves on the losing end of the bargain.

The firebrand demonstrated his willingness to make sacrifices for the revolution as long ago as 1980, when he volunteered for the Revolutionary Guards after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked Iran. Khomeini had created the Revolutionary Guards, or Pasdaran, as an elite unit, because he deeply mistrusted the existing military, infiltrated as it was by supporters of the shah. The nine years he spent with the Pasdaran are among the darkest chapters in the president's life. He says he took part in combat missions in Iraq, but the exiled opposition accuses him of involvement in assassination attempts and torture.

Using his war veteran's bonus and his organizational talents, Ahmadinejad began his civil career after the end of the war. Despite the confusion of war, he had managed to obtain a PhD in transportation engineering. And because he had no objections to spending time in the country's remote northwest, where he worked as a self-appointed reconstruction helper, he rose to the position of provincial governor. Later he worked as a university lecturer.

When he was not teaching, Ahmadinejad played a key role in the development of the "Society of the Devotees of the Islamic Revolution," a melting pot for hardliners who wanted to get back at the reformers. The opportunity for revenge would come in 2003. In that year's municipal elections, the zealots saw Ahmadinejad as the lowest common denominator and made him their movement's leading candidate for Tehran. And because the reformers, frustrated by their leader Khatami, stayed away from the polls, the diminutive engineer won the mayoral race with only 12 percent of the vote -- and proceeded to immediately put his stamp on the city.

As a gesture to his voters, he sold his upscale official apartment and used the proceeds for the construction of low-income housing and to distribute hot meals in poor neighborhoods. He made symbolic gestures for the benefit of the millions of war invalids, including the placement of a memorial stone in front of the German Embassy, a rebuke to the Germans for their role in Iraqi poison gas production. And when he decided that a picture of David Beckham in shorts on a large billboard was indecent, he had the billboard removed.

Insiders, like Tehran journalist Amir Mohebbian, question whether the populist achieved very much for the city, which threatens to suffocate in traffic and garbage, during his two-year term. According to Mohebbian, the highways, overpasses and parks for which he claimed responsibility were in fact projects put into motion by his predecessor.

The Nuclear Debate

The Iranian economy and the morality debate -- not the nuclear conflict that threatens world peace -- is at the center of the challengers' campaign platforms. The candidate from the right is Mohsen Rezaei, 54, commander of the Revolutionary Guard for many years. But his candidacy is seen as more of an effort on the part of conservatives to teach the president a lesson. In fact, many of Ahmadinejad's own supporters see him as unpredictable and stubborn.

Mehdi Karrubi, 71, a religious scholar and former parliamentary speaker, is vying for votes from the reform wing. His views resemble the Western concept of liberalism the most. The president of the American Iranian Council, Hooshang Amirahmadi, still raves about "how unconditionally and unselfconsciously" Karrubi met with leading representatives of Jewish organizations during a visit to New York many years ago.

Mousavi, a former prime minister, is believed to have the strongest chance against Ahmadinejad, who is known as a tough campaigner. He is the only candidate who can point to many years of experience in real-life crisis management. As prime minister during the years of the Iraq war, he managed the economy. Older Iranians still rave about his effective cost-cutting program, although critics note that the period of Mousavi's rule was marked by an unusually high rate of arrests and repression. He has not held public office in 20 years, and he is an unknown entity for younger voters.

Nevertheless, Mousavi understands the balance of power better than most. He is a member of the Expediency Discernment Council, which mediates in conflicts between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, a sort of Islamic constitutional court. And after bitter rivalries in the years of the revolution, he is now believed to be on good terms with Ayatollah Khamenei once again. The cultivated Mousavi would certainly be a better representative of his country on the international stage than Ahmadinejad, who, after his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2005, claimed that a mysterious "light" had appeared above him, causing the world body to fall silent.

Mousavi wants to abolish the religious police, which monitor public morality in the country. But the candidate is as unbending as the president on the nuclear conflict, saying that he has no plans to "cut back." In an interview with SPIEGEL  at the Iranian Academy of the Arts in Tehran, which Mousavi co-founded, he said: "Must there always be fundamental differences between two candidates on key national issues?"

But the incumbent has the advantage. He controls the political apparatus, which enables him to distribute gifts during campaign trips -- and he does so extensively. For example, he hands out potatoes by the bushel.

The handicapped, the blind and the childless are drawn to Ahmadinejad's pilgrimage site, Jamkaran, the way Catholics who believe in miracles are drawn to Lourdes. They picnic in the park, pray in the mega-mosque and toss their lists of wishes to the savior into the two holy fountains. One of the unanswered questions in the great Iranian puzzle is whether Ahmadinejad truly adheres to this folk religion, and perhaps even longs for the "holy" apocalypse, or is merely using words to provoke Israel.

The Dolphins who Need Jay-Z

If any place in Iran is a laboratory for the future of this country, a playground for the avant-garde, it is Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, a pearl in the turquoise-colored waters, and one of the world's most bizarre spots. Part Singapore, part Mallorca and part Disneyland, Kish, with its wide highways, lavish apartment buildings, duty-free shops and beach hotels, is an odd blend of different worlds. It is a preferred vacation destination for the rich, and the only place in Iran that Europeans can visit without a visa. Iran's resort island has the reputation of being relaxed and daring, about as sexy as a place can be in the Iranian theocracy, and an El Dorado for those seeking to test its limits.

Kish has an unofficial king, although he spends most of his time in Berlin, where he lives. His name is Hussein Sabet, and he has worked his way up to become a wealthy businessman in Germany. He is an energetic 72-year-old whose tanned face resembles leather and whose movements are dynamic despite his tight tailored shirt and riding pants. An engineer by trade, Sabet has worked as a carpet wholesaler, hotelier ("I was the first to develop the Canary Islands"), and a publisher who tried to save the Berlin newspaper Abend. Then Sabet rediscovered his native Iran, where he invested heavily in Tehran and on Kish Island. Today he owns six hotels and an amusement park on the island, and he has just established an airline.

Sabet, who drives a Lamborghini, loves risk. Iran is not a country for entrepreneurs with weak nerves. Many were dispossessed after the revolution, and in recent times the government has acted capriciously against private financiers, which has led to far more money being taken out of the country than investments coming in. Sabet has already learned a costly lesson, including the loss of $2 million (€1.4 million) in a failed horse racetrack project. Now he dreams of opening Iran's first nightclub on Kish Island.

He knows that his dream is still a long way off. For now, men and women are not even permitted to swim together in the pools at his hotels. To address the problem, he bought a small, fenced-off private beach.

But Sabet is no radical and he knows that he cannot put too much pressure on his good relationship with high-ranking politicians. The German-Iranian walks a narrow tightrope. He can quote Goethe's "West-Eastern Divan" as fluently in German as he can cite the classical poets Hafiz and Ferdowsi in Persian. "I see myself primarily as a patriot," he says. "I want to teach my fellow Iranians to be proud of their ancient culture once again. I want to rebuild the great Persepolis."

But even the ancient Persian city is controversial. Immediately following the revolution, a few fanatical mullahs wanted to purge anything "pre-Islamic," including the excellently preserved ruins of the royal palace near Shiraz, one of the shah's favorite places, which dates from the 6th century B.C.

Sabet decided to oppose the political trend and erect a special monument to the builder of the palace, Darius I, by building a hotel modeled after the ancient structure. And if the project sounds like something that was bound to fail, a kitschy replica or some Las Vegas-like monstrosity, it did not. Instead, the Dariush Grand Hotel became one of Iran's most impressive hotels.

Sabet hired the country's best sculptors and stonemasons to work with original materials from quarries near Shiraz, and to experiment with techniques that seemed long forgotten. The imposing entrance, with its 30-meter (98-foot) columns and guards sculpted in stone and marble, is modeled on the "Gate of All Nations" at Persepolis.

Various brands of non-alcoholic beer and Swiss chocolate can be had in Kish's modern department stores, which are open until late in the evening, and the island's duty-free status makes them less expensive than in Tehran. There are also subtle differences in clothing: tighter jeans, shorter headscarves. "The young people are not as daring under Ahmadinejad," says Sabet. But the difference in their attitude toward foreigners is clearly noticeable on Kish Island. "Are you having a good time?" asks a confident young Iranian woman in English, shaking her mane of dyed blonde hair.

Past the former shah's palace, which despite its broken windows looks as if it has just been abandoned by the shah, who often flew to Kish on his Concorde, is an amusement park which represents one vision of Kish's future. Like most developments here, it is one of the enterprising German-Iranian's projects, and at $20 (€14) a ticket, not exactly a bargain. But Sabat's little state-within-a-state offers quite a few diversions in return, including butterflies and alligators and, behind thick panes of glass, killer sharks. The high point of this Persian Disneyland is what the park advertises as the "Middle East's first dolphinarium."

The attraction consists of 12 dolphins imported from Southeast Asia that jump through tires, juggle balls while performing a group water ballet, and twist their massive bodies high into the air. The 1,200 seats in the auditorium where the talented animals perform are usually sold out.

Sabet also has another sensation in store for his visitors. The dolphinarium is the only place in Iran where Western music is allowed, and the auditorium is filled with the sounds of AC/DC, Jay-Z and Lady Gaga. When Sabet played the revolutionary music for the first time, the local mullahs told him that it was out of the question. Sabet explained that the animals need the music to perform, and that without it they become depressed. Reluctantly, the local clerics relented. Now they are avid fans of the dolphins and visit them to see whether they are doing well and getting enough of the pop tunes that supposedly keep them happy.

Playing Western music also seems to make the audience cheerful too. Young women in tight jeans and fashionably colorful headscarves dance uninhibitedly on the stage with their partners. Their good spirits and joie de vivre are infectious.

In effect, Sabet has already fulfilled his dream of building the first Iranian disco -- it's just that he can't tell anyone. He has done it in this country where megalomania and a feeling of rejection are so close together, where the thirst for recognition seems unquenchable, and where reality is creatively veiled. And where many things are not how they appear at first glance.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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