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Opinion: Sean Penn in Iran

11 June 2005

Friends in Iran report to me the carnival-like atmosphere of the elections with several campaign headquarters playing techno music to attract young voters and striking young women in brightly colored headscarves and fashionably coiffed young men in blue jeans slapping Hashamei Rafsanjani stickers on passing cars. Add to that Iran's World Cup qualifying 1-0 victory over Bahrain, sparking off massive street celebrations, with dancing late into the night and Tehran, it seems, has become a big party. And what would a big party be without a Hollywood star? Enter Sean Penn. The brooding actor and anti-Bushie has landed in Tehran on assignment for the San Fransisco Chronicle.

Like any self-respecting parachuting journalist into Tehran, his first visit was an obvious one: Friday prayers at Tehran University. When I was based in Iran, I always found the Western journalist's fascination with Friday prayers and Qom intriguing. Obviously, they are trying to capture something of the Iranian zeitgeist, the pulse, the mood, and they earnestly make their way to Friday prayers where they watch fiery mullahs denounce America before aging worshippers, or to Qom where they listen to esoteric theological abstractions that few Iranians pay heed to.

The honest parachuting journalists quickly realize that Friday prayers are a passé backdrop, that Qom is not the story, that Iranians have been in a post-Islamist phase for several years, that most Iranians do not hate America (in fact, as my friend Karim Sadjadpour, the very astute ICG analyst in Tehran puts it, "Iranians are the least anti-American populace in the region"), that the real story is how the Islamic Republic of Iran will contend with a largely young, frustrated, restive, post-revolution population hungry for more political and social freedoms and economic deliverance, and little enamored with the revolutionary slogans of their parents' generation.

I wonder how Sean Penn will see things. Will he honestly portray what he sees? Or will he be blinded by his hatred of President George W. Bush to fall into the trap many a good leftist falls into: defending the Islamic Republic to take a jab at Bush. Progressives in America consistently fail to side with the forces for democracy in Iran because it might just seem too, well, Wolfowitzian or, worse, Rumsfeldian.

It's time the left and progressive forces in America woke up from their anti-Bush stupor to see things for what they are, rather than using countries like Iran as a backdrop to score domestic political points against their opponents. I'm glad Sean Penn is in Iran. I hope he reports things as he sees them, in all their multi-colored and even multi-hued complexity, rather than taking shots at Bush by defending the Islamic Republic of Iran. His presence ensures that many more Americans will learn about Iran. That's a good thing. He has a heavy responsibility on his shoulders. Indeed, simply reporting truthfully on Iran as it is today, with a young, largely pro-American, post-Islamist population, hungry for democratic change, is actually a better tool against neoconservative visions of war than manning the barricades with some of the unsavory figures of the IRI.

I know far too many Iranian leftists who have gone neo-con as a result of their feeling of abandonment by the American and European left. I wish they had not gone that route. I'm not in the business of divining personal motivations, but I'm guessing that many of the neoconservatives who shed crocodile tears for Iran don't really care too much about the future well-being of the Iranian people.

Sean Penn has an extraordinary opportunity here: to simply tell it as he sees it. That would be enough. But, then again, maybe I shouldn't be glad Sean Penn is in Iran. The last time he visited a Middle East country in an act of solidarity was in 2003. That country? Iraq. Shortly after he left, the bombing began.

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