Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images
A woman walks past a mural painting depicting the late founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in Tehran, 2019Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Mullahs and Commoners

Two new books on Iran bring the lives of ordinary people and ruling ayatollahs into sharper relief

Peter Theroux
January 06, 2022
Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images
A woman walks past a mural painting depicting the late founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in Tehran, 2019Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

The past year brought us two works by Iranian Americans striving to explain modern Iran by humanizing the individual citizens of the Islamic Republic. In The Heartbeat of Iran: Real Voices of a Country and Its People, Tara Kangarlou offers us a gallery of 24 Iranians of diverse generations, ethnicities, religions, and societal positions. In The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy, and Political Rivalry Since 1979, Alex Vatanka boils the Persian puzzle down to just two ruthless people: Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, the two key survivors of the bloody power struggle that followed the death of Islamic Iran’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, whose machinations produced the distorted society that Kangarlou’s subjects inhabit.

For those who might judge a book by its back cover, Kangarlou’s comes with the endorsement of regime apologists Ben Rhodes and Hooman Majd, and with a foreword by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who served as the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights from 2014 to 2018. He extols the book and mentions that he has never visited Iran. (This pulls you off topic for a moment—how did the U.N.’s top human rights official avoid visiting one of the world’s worst human rights abusers, especially if it always fascinated him?) Vatanka’s book carries praise from ex-hostage Haleh Esfandiari, author and émigré Roya Hakakian, and Iran expert Kenneth Pollack. Both of these very different books excel within their genres, but if you suspect one of them is going to be less sentimental than the other, you’re right. (Even the most favorable reviewer of these very good books, it should be noted, has to lament the lack of decent editing, with several grammatical errors, omitted words, and small inaccuracies appearing in both.)

Kangarlou’s book is good enough that there is no need for her to overpromise (as she does in an introduction) by explaining that this is “a never before taken trip to Iran … for the first time ever, you will hear from ordinary Iranians in their own words.” The first time ever? Nonfiction aimed at disassociating the unfortunate citizens of the Islamic Republic from their government has been a cottage industry: The Soul of Iran, Persian Pilgrimages, Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes, Black on Black, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, Mirrors of the Unseen, The Iranian Labyrinth, Couchsurfing in Iran, Iran: Make Love not War, The Last Great Revolution, and City of Lies are only a few. To its credit, Heartbeat of Iran is deeper than most of these, offering an enthralling view of diverse Iranian lives. We meet a child bride grown old, a heroic airline pilot, a marine biologist couple, restaurateurs, an actor, a race car driver, a saffron farmer, a blind environmentalist, and many more. They are women and men, mostly Muslims, but we meet an atheist, two Jews, Zoroastrians, and Armenians. There is a gay man and a male-to-female transgender. A whole chapter is devoted to each.

Kangarlou is a skilled interviewer and a fluent Persian speaker who clearly revels in the details of the food, fashion, music, poetry, and sportsmanship of her subjects, as well as their immense kindness and humility, to say nothing of their courage in speaking openly to a Great Satanist. Her work is a strong corrective to anyone who has watched Shahs of Sunset or who thinks that Iranians chant “Death to America” all day. (There is no one in the latter category, by the way—more on that in a moment.)

There is a sad undercurrent to the resilient men and women Kangarlou shows us. The best portraits in the book are also the hardest to read. Three of the most poignant portrayals are Hooriyeh Zeibali, an elderly widow; Mina, a child bride; and Pedram Safarzadeh, whose tale of abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, imprisonment, and a mother’s suicide reaches depths of horror that take us well beyond understanding Iran to remind us of the common humanity that binds the fortunate among us to the most desperate. Hooriyah, 93, lives alone in Tehran with only one family member still in the country; engaged at 13 and a mother at 15, she lived to see her grandchildren’s grandchildren all leave Iran. Mina, a much more unhappy child bride, survived poverty and the horrors of caring for casualties in a frontline hospital during the Iran-Iraq war. She was 12 when she married; her husband was 30. “It’s murder when a child is forced into marriage. It’s as though you killed that girl,” she says. Pedram, who was imprisoned for dealing heroin, relates, “Seeing a 25-year-old raping a 70-year-old for just one cigarette, meeting a man who was imprisoned for raping his own daughter … How can you see these things and not break? How can these things even be?”

Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Abtahi served in President Mohammad Khatami’s administration, was the first cleric to start an online blog, and likes Woody Allen movies.

A couple of Kangarlou’s subjects, both clerics, have high profiles. Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Abtahi served in President Mohammad Khatami’s administration, was the first cleric to start an online blog, and likes Woody Allen movies. He quit politics on principle so he could devote time to his family and begin writing novels, which “have not been granted permission for publication by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance he once worked for.” He knocks Iran’s religious interference in people’s private lives: “One of the biggest problems of this regime has made it quite easy to be its enemy.” Needless to say, he has done prison time and is still getting therapy.

Her other high-profile subject is young Rabbi Yehuda Gerami, who cares for Tehran’s Jews from his “worn down” synagogue on Palestine Street. Gerami studied in both the United States and in Israel, returning to Iran in 2012 at age 25. He runs the synagogue, presides over weddings, tutors kids, and teaches night school classes. Unsurprisingly, he extols the happy lot of Iranian Jews, citing by contrast the synagogues he saw in Istanbul that require security guards, and is more than deferential toward the Islamic government. Gerami drew flak globally for presenting the Jewish community’s condolences after the killing of Qasem Soleimani and regularly debates the subject of Israel with Kangarlou. Iranians have “a political problem” with the “Israeli regime,” he says, adding that Jewish communities in Europe and the United States aren’t pro-Israel either. Both Gerami and Kangarlou recognize that they are on delicate ground; this is her only chapter that carries an author’s note offering somewhat defensive context (“This is the story of one man and his family.”) I myself would append a note of skepticism that “members of the [Iranian] Jewish community are free to take religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem,” as Kangarlou says. All Iranian passports are invalid for travel to “occupied Palestine.”

She wants us to get it, and we get it—Iranians come in all shapes and sizes, and are a generally delightful people. They have endured all kinds of suffering, not for years but for decades, and the warmth Kangarlou feels for them in no way extends to the regime: She repeatedly clarifies that they are making the best of a dreary, fanatical, and cruel reality imposed by a highly militarized theocracy. And yet this colorful and passionate book would have an added dimension of credibility if we met a bad apple or two, for balance. In the chapter on female race car driver Laleh Seddigh, for example, there is a passing reference to ultraluxurious cars like Lamborghinis—“the majority of these cars are bought by the ayatollahs’ kids” and regime insiders, Kangarlou writes. I would gladly swap out the portrait of the cheerful Mullah Abtahi for a look at the life of a punk whose father sentences gays to death while Junior tools around Tehran in a new Lambo.

The book also argues with too many strawmen. These include assumptions such as, “Despite the common belief in the West that there are no Sunni Muslims in the Shia majority country”; “Unlike the United States’s dominant narrative that Iran has a long-lasting feud with Sunnis throughout the world”; and “Despite what many in the West may believe, access to books is quite easy for kids in Iran.” Quite the contrary, I think the dominant narrative in the West is that Iran has loads of Sunni citizens living in Kurdistan and Sistan and Baluchistan, that Iran has no feud at all with Sunnis if they are members of Hamas, and that Iranian children own a few books.

The Islamic Republic’s bad actors might only lurk in the background of The Heartbeat of Iran, but they are the stars of Vatanka’s definitive history of modern Iran’s power struggles. His stated goal in The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran is to “put a human face on this labyrinth,” and he succeeds, because the human factor drove the Islamic Revolution in Iran and its next four-plus decades. Forget religion, ideology, and political dogma. “To begin with,” writes Vatanka, “[Rafsanjani’s and Khamenei’s] was not really an ideological difference, although Rafsanjani masqueraded as the moderate and Khamenei as the die-hard Islamist militant revolutionary. Rather, their dispute was always about power.”

Like the Hollywood noir classic Sunset Boulevard, this grim tale begins and ends with a corpse in a swimming pool. “At about six o’clock in the afternoon of January 8, 2017, the body of an 82-year-old man was found floating in a swimming pool in Saad Abad Palace in upscale north Tehran.” The dead man was Rafsanjani, who had been given a clean bill of health by his doctor only one week earlier.

By the time of his death, Rafsanjani’s political career had already steeply declined, with a great deal of help from Khamenei. Both men had thrived under Ruhollah Khomeini, but with Khomeini’s death their rivalry grew bitter. The famously shrewd Rafsanjani had given Khamenei’s political life an early boost, thinking he could always be a greater power behind the throne, but he repeatedly underestimated Khamenei’s ruthlessness. “Cutthroat labyrinth politics” became the rule.

Rafsanjani thought that taking the U.S. diplomats hostage in 1979 was a disaster, and that perpetuating hostility toward the world’s premier power would only weaken and isolate Iran. Khamenei used a “manufactured taboo” to destroy any moderate societal trend. Rafsanjani bet on popular appeal, foreign policy, and economic opening to cultivate greater power while Khamenei co-opted the military and intelligence services, especially the newly formed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which became his base. Rafsanjani supported giving the IRGC an economic mandate, hoping to divert it from the pursuit of military power; alas, through conglomerates like Khatam ol-Anbia, it now controls, by some estimates, up to 40% of Iran’s economy. The creation of the position of supreme leader—an uncrowned kingship—was followed by the elimination of the office of the prime minister and the gutting of the presidency via the Guardians Council, which tightly controls who can run for office. This, Vatanka writes, marked the end of the farce of the Iranian “republic” as it became an “unrepentant theocracy.”

The game had not always been so binary. While Khomeini was quick to dispose of the nonradicals who had enabled his taking power, there remained a core of seven or eight powerful clerics vying to shape post-revolutionary Iran. Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari and Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani both opposed the idea of Supreme Leadership. (Both were also genuine ayatollahs—Khamenei’s and Rafsanjani’s claims to the title were hollow.) Khomeini never forgave Shariatmadari for calling for democracy and free speech, and subsequently destroyed his clerical career. “The irony was that back in 1963, Shariatmadari had personally mediated to have the shah spare Khomeini’s life,” Vatanka notes. To paraphrase Harry Truman, if you want a friend in Qom, get a dog.

The even bolder Taleghani called for democracy, a concept Khomeini had praised in his Parisian exile but denounced as soon as he arrived in Tehran. Taleghani, like so many others, would not escape Khomeini’s wrath, especially after he remained unintimidated by the IRGC’s kidnapping of two of his sons. He had a “suspicious death.”

“The night he died, the neighborhood where Taleghani lived had suddenly plunged into darkness. Not only electricity but the phone line went dead too. A few days earlier, Mehdi Olumi, Taleghani’s personal bodyguard, had been assaulted by an unknown gang … With his personal bodyguard out, Taleghani was alone … Taleghani had just prior to his death told [Ayatallah Mohammad] Beheshti, Rafsanjani, and Khamenei that he could not support the creation of the role of a supreme leader. After his death, when the family asked Beheshti for an autopsy, they were told that they will ‘all need autopsies if they persisted.’”

If Islamic justice was a joke, divine justice wasn’t. Beheshti died along with more than 100 other Khomeinists in the bombing of the Islamic Republic Party headquarters in Tehran in June 1981, and then-President Mohammed-Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Mohammad Bahonar died in another bombing in July. This horrific bloodletting was “a blessing in disguise for Rafsanjani and Khamenei,” as it thinned the ranks of competitors.

We see the Iran-Iraq War, the imposition of international sanctions, and the hapless presidencies of Mohammad Khatami and Hassan Rouhani through the lens of these surviving infighters. It turns out that the endlessly unpredictable Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the rivals as much heartburn as he gave the rest of the world, becoming anticlerical even in the face of a supreme leader who helped steal an election for him. This was “just good politics, since the Iranian public was sick to death of Islamism.” It was his election in 2009 and the resulting violence that finally scorched the earth between Khamenei and Rafsanjani. The latter wrote an angry letter to the supreme leader demanding an end to the violence and release of prisoners. The response was the arrest of many close to Rafsanjani, and while “Rafsanjani avoided that fate … slogans of ‘death to Rafsanjani’ were now aired on national television. His daughter, Faezeh, was assaulted in the street and taunted as a ‘whore’ by pro-Khamenei thugs.”

When Rafsanjani died, intelligence agents emptied his safe and the regime rejected the family’s requests to share the personal files, his will, or the surveillance tapes seized from the swimming pool hall. The family’s demand for an autopsy was denied.

For readers who have ever entertained the thought of traveling to Iran, Vatanka’s chronicles of Iranian justice should dissuade them. For anyone who remains interested, Kangarlou’s book is a safe substitute.

Peter Theroux is a translator and writer in suburban Los Angeles. After more than 20 years in the U.S. government, he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.