Azadeh Moaveni, the American-born child of Iranian parents who settled in the US following the 1979 revolution in Iran, first visited Iran in 1998. In 2000, she returned to Iran as a journalist reporting on the elections for Time Magazine, and remained in the country for two years before settling in Beirut, where she continued to report on issues in the Middle East, visiting Iran on many occasions. In 2005 she published a memoir, Lipstick Jihad, in which she wrote about her life as an Iranian in America, and an American in Iran.
Her latest memoir, Honeymoon in Tehran, begins in 2005. Mildly apprehensive about Iranian reaction to her book, she arrived in Tehran for a two-week stay to cover the state of mind of Iranian youth heading into the new elections. What she found was a mixture of cynicism and apathy toward the political system. Many of those she interviewed - not just youth, but all segments of Iranian society - had no plans to vote. They believed the election was "fixed" and that the outcome would be decided not by the people but by Iranian spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei.
Instead of politics, her young interview subjects were thinking about economic issues - finding decent jobs, earning enough money to get married and start lives of their own. Inflation, corruption and the theocratic government's attempt to police personal lives added to their feeling that nothing would, or could, change. Moaveni also found much private, even covert rebellion against the government's strict religious laws - underground parties, young couples secretly dating, a black market economy making Western videos, alcohol and other forbidden items readily available. Her story written, Moaveni left Tehran - but not before meeting a man, Aresh Zeini, towards whom she feels a certain element of attraction.
Following the unexpected election of fundamentalist ex-mayor of Tehran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Moaveni returned to Iran for an extended stay, intending to report on the new regime. During this time she pursued a relationship with Aresh, first dating and then living together - a choice nominally forbidden but engaged in by many young Iranians, with relatively little risk as long as they remained circumspect - and ultimately marrying.
In this memoir, Moaveni writes about her everyday life as a young woman in love, and also about her professional life as a journalist in the employ of a foreign news organisation - and her contacts with her government-appointed "minder," whom she calls Mr. X. Moaveni's account of her relationship, her social and family life, her pregnancy, marriage and birth preparations all give insight into the complex and changing culture of Iran. At the same time her references to the political climate in the country, highlighted by both her work and her changing relationship with Mr. X, who has the power to end her ability to work as a journalist, underscore the instability and slowly increasing repression of the Ahmadinejad regime. A turning point in the narrative comes when the American government announces a series of measures clearly designed to encourage resistance to the Ahmadinejad government among the Iranian people.
... the Bush administration had launched a $75 million program tacitly aimed at changing the Iranian regime. Although its planners did not discuss the program in such explicit language, preferring vague terms such as “advancement of democracy,” the end of the Islamic Republic (or its transformation into a moderate, normal state, which was pretty much the same thing) was quite clearly their goal. Promoted through an array of measures—expanded broadcasting into the country, funding for NGOs, and the promotion of cultural exchanges—the democracy fund was intended to foster resistance to the government. With such support for the opposition, it was hoped, the clerical regime would collapse from within, taking care of what had become one of America’s largest problems in the Middle East.
The response within Iran was predictable, marked by a level of paranoia that was, given the circumstances, well-justified. It had profound effects on Moaveni's ability to work as a journalist.
... by September, I was scarcely working anymore. I still reported news stories on the nuclear crisis and domestic political squabbles, but I had to avoid sensitive subjects and I dropped altogether the myriad of projects and professional relationships that had once filled my time. I avoided meeting activists, and many avoided meeting with me. As a result, I could no longer tell you, or report on, how Iranians were challenging their government. All the people who once supplied me with such information—student dissidents, bloggers, women’s movement leaders—had been branded by the United States as potential agents of “peaceful” change, and in consequence were identified as security threats. The fear that our meeting—a western journalist with an activist—would be considered a plot was mutual.
I stopped attending seminars and conferences in the United States, because the government had concluded that those were the venues where the velvet revolution was being planned. On my return, I would be forced to debrief Mr. X, and would need to mention that U.S. officials had been in the audience (the Iranian government might have had a watcher or an agent at such events, who could verify my account). I might as well have had a bull’s-eye painted on the back of my headscarf. I stopped appearing on western radio and television shows, because in the present climate I knew I would need to soften my analysis, and in that case I preferred to say nothing at all. I gave up meeting western diplomats, who were considered the local spy-masters. I used to help Iranian journalists who were applying to various fellowships or internship programs in the West, because I believed they would return to Iran and share such valuable experiences with their colleagues, bringing professionalism and global perspective to what was still a field full of propagandists. But no more. The minister of intelligence had recently accused the United States of exploiting Iranian journalists as part of its conspiracy, so editing someone’s application essay or tutoring in interview skills would be viewed as abetting espionage. Worst of all, perhaps, I had entirely given up advising the countless American individuals—documentary filmmakers, academics, aspiring journalists—who wanted to visit Iran and help change its bleak image in the United States. Cultural exchange broke down age-old misconceptions, but the practice was now being referred to as a Trojan horse.
Now married and advancing in her pregnancy, with her work limited to relatively innocuous topics, Moaveni began to encounter more restrictions in her personal life as well. During a prenatal appointment at a hospital, she experienced a panic attack, followed by a realisation about what would be, by necessity, the shape of her life if she and her husband remained in Iran.
... I felt suffocated. Was there no point where such conversations would end? Can my husband come in [during prenatal exams and the birth] or not, Can we pick this name or not, Can I wear this scarf or not, Can I enter this building or not? Of course, the fact was that there was no such point. That was the nature of totalitarian regimes. Previously, I had believed that this need not define my experience of life in Iran. This perspective was the key, I believed, to not living as a victim. But I was having difficulty maintaining it in the face of repeated violations. Perhaps under the moderate Khatami this attitude was progressive and empowering; under Ahmadinejad, it amounted to self-delusion.
By 2006, Moaveni could see the signs of growing resistance to Ahmadinejad's political and social agenda among the Iranian people.
In the eighteen months since he took office, the president had managed to weaken Iran’s frail economy, provoke U.N. Security Council sanctions, elicit the threat of American military attack, alienate members of his own party (who broke off and started a front against him), offend the ayatollahs of Qom, and trigger the first serious student protest since 1999. Fifty activists burned an effigy of the president during his visit to Amir Kabir University; they set off firecrackers and interrupted his speech with chants of “Death to the dictator!” Their outburst reflected the widespread frustration also displayed during that month’s city council elections. Millions turned out across the nation to vote against Ahmadinejad’s allies in what amounted to a major, unequivocal setback for the president and his policies.
Increasing crackdowns in Iran continued to affect both her personal and professional life. At one point Moaveni is threatened by Mr. X, who tells her that her work is bring assessed to see if she is guilty of dissemination anti-Iranian propaganda - a potentially serious charge. At the same time, the birth of her son leads to growing concerns over the long-term effects of raising a child in an environment so divided and unsettled, where a careless word from an innocent child about their parents' political views or practices inside the home could lead to major repercussions. Eventually, Moaveni and her husband decide to leave Iran for England. Leaving a country she had hoped to call her own, Moaveni reflects:
This was the second time I had moved to Iran as an adult with every intention of building a life here, and the second time that grand politics and the twists of Iranian-U.S. relations were undoing my purpose. Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and President Bush’s labeling of Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” I had been forced to leave when Mr. X made my reporting untenable by demanding to know the identities of my anonymous sources. I wondered whether most Americans had any idea how the actions of their government influenced the lives of those across the world. Iranians had a long, sophisticated tradition of conducting their own opposition to autocracy. When would Washington realize this, and allow Iranians to resist their tyrants in the manner of their own choosing?