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What we talk about when we talk about Iran

It is hard to do justice to Iran. So much is left unsaid amid arcane disputes about the number of centrifuges spinning in a fortified bunker, or an assumed threat that may or may not one day endanger others. It is a country too often misunderstood and taken out of context.

Yet, digging deeper into its intriguing realities never disappoints. This week, Tehran was the scene of a familiar funeral procession held for the victims of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Whenever newly unearthed bodies are returned it brings back excruciating memories from some three decades ago.

Such events are always close to the heart of those families who have lost their loved ones in that futile, eight-year war. It is not so much for the general public, or the younger generation at least, who are wary of the state’s usual hijacking of these funerals for its own propagandistic purposes.

But something about this occasion was different: among the bodies paraded were those belonging to 175 Iranian divers who were captured by Saddam Hussein’s forces nearly 30 years ago and buried alive while handcuffed, according to Iranian officials.

The divers are believed to have been captured in 1986, after the failure of Iran’s secret offensive Karbala-4 – helped by US intelligence provided to the Iraqis. During the war, the US extended vital support to Saddam and later turned a blind eye to the Iraqi leader’s use of chemical weapons. Huge numbers of people in Iran, youth included, reacted with outrage in the past month to the 175 divers’ death and wrote extensively in their honour online.

It is easy to forget that the people who were in charge in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war are still at the helm. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, once served as the deputy military commander, even being involved in the secret Iran-Contra affair that created a huge scandal for the Reagan administration (when it emerged that the US was covertly shipping arms to Tehran to secure the release of hostages). Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, was then the country’s president. Mir Hossein Mousavi, now an opposition leader under house arrest, was the prime minister.

But those involved in the US in the 1980s are now part of history. Reagan is dead and Robert McFarlane, his national security adviser, has dropped out of the spotlight, while many of today’s big names in the US were barely known at the time of the war.

It is no surprise why a tragedy that took place three decades ago still fuels mistrust between Iran and the US. (Americans may be quick to cite the infamous hostage crisis in return.)

That was about this week, but around this time of the year six years ago, something totally different happened. In June 2009, as the results of what was widely believed to have been a stolen election were announced on TV, Mousavi, a dark horse presidential candidate, said: “I won’t yield to this dangerous foul scenario.” And he didn’t.

Today, unrepentant as ever, Mousavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard and another opposition leader, Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest in Tehran without being put on trial. Their supporters, many of whom are among those who expressed sympathy for the 175 divers this week and others who rallied behind Rouhani in 2013 elections, are still yearning for change. Mousavi and Karroubi have proved to be worthy opposition leaders, even though Rouhani, who was elected on promises of ending their house arrest, has not achieved much on the home front despite his achievements in the foreign domain.

Reform, not revolt, is what many believe is the answer. If a free election is held in Iran tomorrow, my bet would be on the likes of Mousavi or the former president Mohammad Khatami, who is facing immense restrictions and ban on using his name and picture in the local media.

So much has changed since those bloody days in 2009. A new president has put an end to the acrimonious years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Meanwhile, the former president’s close allies are being arrested and put on trial almost one by one. Ahmadineajd has become sidelined, though there are suggestions he is eyeing a comeback for next year’s parliamentary elections.

Good things have happened in between, bad things too. Despite improvements made by Rouhani, the country’s hardline judiciary has been deaf to the message Iranians sent by voting for a president who promised to open up the country and improve relations with the west. The country’s intelligence apparatus is carrying out a campaign of harassing and jailing anyone who dares to differ in public.

We are so overwhelmed that we are failing to keep up with violations in Iran. News of new activists receiving hefty jail sentence (read 8, 12 or 14 years) has become so normal that it barely registers as a news story.

As if domestic pressure was not enough, Iranians are constantly bombarded from abroad. Blanket sanctions imposed by the US and its European allies continue to disrupt life for ordinary people in Iran, from anything such as access to high-quality medicine to the ever-increasing prices of staple foods. Thanks to sanctions, the young, aspirational people of Iran – the most pro-western nation in the Middle East – are isolated from the outside world.

In the latest showdown over sanctions, the US is threatening to confiscate nine used but newly bought passenger planes Iran obtained after bypassing the punitive international measures to renew its old air fleet. So many innocent Iranians have died in recent years because of that ageing fleet, yet the US is trying to stop the new handful of planes. How disgraceful.

As Laura Secor once delicately put it in a New Yorker article in 2012: “Our options are bad, our objectives are ambiguous, and the Iranian people stand as hostages between their government and ours.”

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