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Maryam Zar Headshot

Whitney Houston and a Mine Sweeper In Iran

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Whitney Houston was big in the 90's. So big that even young folk in Iran were listening to her music.

At the time, I was a correspondent in Iran and I had befriended a young man who worked in my mother's Central Tehran office. He was 24 years old when I met him. I was 22, and had come back to Iran after years of living abroad, armed with an American education and the benefit of an emancipated world view that left me uninhibited by the encumbrances of being a woman in Iran. Much to my parent's chagrin, I spent long hours with this young man, who though only two years older than me, already had a wife and two small children to provide for. He also, to my increasing horror, had already begun to experience the physical ailments resulting from his volunteer stint in the Iran-Iraq war, which would eventually debilitate him. I often listened to his tales of war, or growing up in poverty, and would think of my male counterparts in the States who lived in relative luxury and went to fantastic private universities where the promise of a job on the other side was a practical guarantee, and wondered what my Iranian friend could have become, given the same set of opportunities.

One afternoon, he showed up at my place of work waiting outside in his rickety, but freshly washed, car. I got in. He abruptly pushed a tape into the cassette player mounted to the dashboard of a 1970's domestic car, and glanced over at me with a broad grin. He was a burly man, with a dark beard and full moustache that belied the kind heart inside. He had small but piercing eyes, a big face and a winning smile. As his eyes started to light-up with the glimmer of tears Whitney Houston began crooning her Bodyguard movie theme song for us. "Have you seen this movie?" he asked. "No", though I had. "why?" I said. He recounted for me the story of the bodyguard and how he protected the heroine in the movie to his best ability, then finally had to let her go because their two worlds could never intermingle. "I am your bodyguard", he said. In hindsight, I sure needed one -- and he was surely resourceful enough to keep me away from IRI harm.

He had been a volunteer fighter in Iran's army, against the onslaught of Saddam's forces in the Iran-Iraq war. A young boy of 18 at the start of the war, my friend was a young man who had grown up in a pious, but pro-education family. His father had believed in the promise of the pre-revolutionary "Iranian dream", and had worked hard at a middle class teaching job to give his children a chance at an education. But the revolution of 1979 and its zealous underpinnings that gripped Iran's youth with promises of fairness and democratic change, rooted in the peaceful teachings of an ideal Islam, had swept young men like my friend into a revolutionary fervor that rode them right onto the battlefield.

There he had honed his fighting skills and gained confidence as a smart and quick tactician who could make split-second decisions and save the lives of friends and co-warriors with his quick thinking and coordination. He had great interpersonal skills and was good at networking. He saw himself rise in the ranks fast, and soon was hooked on the war and the sense of belonging it gave him. Once his required tour of duty was over, he came home to a family still living a quiet middle class life and a father who was less than enamored with the revolution. He chose to go back to the front-lines and didn't come back until the war was over. He became a mine sweeper, and realized that he had the steady nerves and the eagle eyes to keep himself and his company safe from harm. He was addicted to the adrenaline and the accolades, and kept sweeping mines even under the most trying circumstances. He spent prolonged months on the front lines and was exposed to chemical agents, which would later come back to haunt him. At the time, Saddam's chemical arsenal was a known commodity to U.S. tacticians, and they were only too happy to support him in using it against young Iranian fighters that came in droves.

When I asked him why he kept fighting, or why he volunteered for the single most dangerous position on the front lines, he would say, "because I believed."

Today the world is zeroing-in on Iran again, underestimating the variables that are inherent in the identity of a proud population that is steeped in faith. The U.S. administration and some of its global friends are tightening the proverbial screws on the regime, and ratcheting up the financial choke-hold on Tehran to abandon its quest for nuclear technology. The hope, some would say the strategy, is that Iran's state income will dry up as banking and the transfer of money become prohibitive. Iran, the logic is, will no longer be able to fund its nuclear program. That is the plan on the political front. On the human front, U.S. lawmakers have gone on record to proclaim that these unprecedentedly tough sanctions are designed to impact the ordinary people of a country that has never harmed ours, and in starving them, perhaps motivate them to rise up against the horrific regime that rules them. Unfortunately for the world, the strategy is no more than a hope, with not much evidence or precedent to support it.

Ordinary Iranians will feel increasingly cornered by a Western world that, in their view, consistently puts undue pressure on them -- siding more often with their enemies than with them. As a result, they will not shunt a government that presents itself as their divine protectors. More likely, they will consolidate around a nationalistic instinct that will motivate them more to defend their country, than to rise up against a regime that they may universally dislike, but know to be tenacious. Iran's masses showed the world their disdain for their current rulers in 2009 when they took to the streets in droves to protest not only an election they believed was rigged, but a system that they believe dis-serves them. They were met with very little tangible global support, and were ultimately brutally quelled by a regime that refuses to relinquish power. The Islamic government the West seeks to oust with the pressure of a starving populace, did not step aside when people shed their blood on the streets asking for change; they will surely not surrender if their population starves at the hands of what they will successfully frame, as "foreign aggressors".

Nuclear technology is a right that Iranians believe they have. Young and old, pious or otherwise, rich or poor, left leaning or right, Iranians believe they are a nation that can intellectually fuel their own nuclear science, and deserve the right to be treated as a responsible nation that can be trusted to manage it reliably.

The notion that the world will stop buying Iranian oil and the Iranians will fold is simply wrong. The idea that a strike against Iran will debilitate the Iranians to submissions is simply false. Believing minions like my unlikely friend and his many counterparts of this generation, motivated by either an unyielding faith in Islam and the protection of an Islamic state, or by the nationalistic conviction that patriotism is tantamount to defending one's nation regardless of underlying grievances, will stream to the defense of their home-land, and by extension their government. The net result will only be the strengthening of the grip, if not the hand, of the IRI.