Now that we Iranians have begun breaking out of our three-decade antagonism with the West, it is time to initiate a long overdue reconciliation at home. For 35 years now, Iranian people have been categorized as insiders and outsiders by the state. To understand the structure of this division, the key lies in the narrative of the Iran-Iraq war.
Last month, even as the nuclear talks between Iran and the negotiators from six foreign powers were grinding toward the agreement, the remains of 175 combat divers killed during the Iran-Iraq war were buried in Iran. They died during a failed offensive in 1986, known as Operation Karbala, to capture Basra in southern Iraq. Their remains, which were returned in May, had been found in a mass grave. Still wearing their diving suits, some of them had their hands tied; the authorities said the men had apparently been buried alive.
Photographs of their corpses, bound and suffocated, proved compelling for Iran’s younger generation. They honored the divers on social media and, on June 16, attended the funeral procession through Tehran’s streets in unexpected numbers.
It was surprising for me to watch on social media, while here in London, the unprecedented outpouring of emotion across the spectrum of Iran’s population. For years, intellectuals and the middle classes in Iran had turned their backs on the war, because what began in 1980 as a defense of territory snatched from revolutionary Iran by Saddam Hussein soon turned into an elongated offensive that was mythologized along the same righteous path taken in the Karbala desert in the seventh century by Imam Hussein, a religious figure revered by Shiite Muslims. Before each major operation, a call to arms that heavily emphasized Shiite religious motivation alienated the secular even as it inspired the pious.
It didn’t take long for the war to become the property of the truly devout — meaning those truly devoted to the Islamic revolution. The war and its martyrs marked a line dividing Iranian citizenry that created its own lexicon: “Khodi” (insider) and “Gheir e khodi” (outsider).
Now something about the divers’ fate has broken the emotional distance from the war that secular Iranians had long assumed. They flocked respectfully to join a procession of mourners second only in size to the funeral of the Iranian revolution’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The reaction to the repatriation of the divers’ bodies suggests that Iranian society is finally ready to engage more openly with the legacy of the Iran-Iraq war, and to mourn, on their own terms, those who died.
Using the memory of martyrs to legitimize political platforms has been normal practice for Iran’s hard-liners. Even though families of war martyrs increasingly deplore the use of their dead for political propaganda, the hard-liners tried to turn the mourning procession into a political rally against the centrist administration of President Hassan Rouhani. They distributed placards and delivered speeches criticizing the continuing nuclear negotiations with the outside world as a break from the ideals for which the divers perished.
Thirty-five years after the revolution, Iran may look post-revolutionary in the fancy cars of its newly rich classes or in its attempts at rapprochement with the United States. But the country cannot truly say its revolution has come of age until it accepts that the war has marked the psyche of the whole nation — not just the devout, the underprivileged or the political insiders. The time has come for these insiders to recognize that what the country needs most is internal rapprochement.
This issue is particularly important now, because the nuclear negotiations have posed an existential threat to the powerful minority of hard-liners, who have created a social and financial ecosystem around the memory of the war and the portrayal of the United States as an archenemy. For them, watching these twin pillars of their revolution dismantled is unacceptable; they may not accept the outcome of the nuclear talks with grace.
Iranians have not forgotten the logistical and material support given to Iran’s adversary in the eight-year war by the United States and other countries who negotiated Iran’s nuclear rights in Vienna. In an article citing unclassified United States documents, Rajanews, a hard-liner website, claims that Karbala 4 would not have failed if American intelligence hadn’t helped Saddam Hussein — who also used gas against Iranians, leaving horrendous physical and psychological casualties.
But the persistent mentality of war that sees enemies in every corner, years after the end of the event, has exhausted many Iranians who now wish to look to the future. Some even harbor a romantic notion that making amends with the United States will end all the woes of their daily lives.
It would be naïve, of course, to think that a final agreement will immediately set us on the path to a freer society. In fact, our immediate chances of waking to find a Starbucks in our neighborhood are greater than finding freedom of speech or free elections. It is equally unrealistic to expect the hard-liners to abandon their isolationist stance overnight. Some Iranians fear that a final agreement would make life harder, because of the reaction it would provoke from this faction, who remain powerful, above the law, and unafraid of violence.
Our supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s doublespeak — at times supporting the negotiations and at other times setting red lines — has been interpreted in this newspaper and elsewhere in the West as an attempt to hedge his bets. His zigzagging may be better deciphered as a form of re-acclimating the hard-liners and the devout, who are used to a steady diet of anti-Western rhetoric, to a political sea change — one that is turning the early revolutionary goal of “neither East nor West” to “both East and West.” In other words, whatever assures the survival of the state and the security of the country.
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As the self-appointed guardians of the war’s narrative, the hard-liners need now to adapt their use of the memory of Iran’s sacrifices from a tool to oppress and estrange outsiders to one that helps the marginalized feel co-ownership of an event that helped build the identity of contemporary Iran.
Reaching a final nuclear agreement may turn out to have been as defining a moment in Iranian history as the revolution itself. Now we need to end the monopoly of a minority over interpreting Iran’s past and, through that privilege, designing its possible future.
We should all be allowed a legitimate share in the collective memory and grief of the war. That done, we can then move forward as a nation united, no Iranian more Iranian than the other, against a backdrop of increasing uncertainty in our region.
Haleh Anvari is an independent Iranian artist and writer and the founder of AKSbazi.com, a crowdsourcing site about Iran.