In his September 2010 address to the United Nations General Assembly, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opined that "some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the (9/11) attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order also to save the Zionist regime." Coming from a Holocaust denier and dedicated conspiracy theorist, these remarks were neither surprising nor worthy of serious reflection. They are, nevertheless, a useful starting point in understanding Iran's reaction to the U.S. military operation in Pakistan which resulted in the killing of Al Qaeda's terrorist-in-chief, Osama Bin Laden.
Iran's relationship with Bin Laden was always complicated. There were persistent rumors in the years following the 9/11 attacks that Bin Laden and those around him had taken refuge in Iran. In 2002, for example, the Christian Science Monitor interviewed a man described as Bin Laden's personal chef, who insisted that the Al Qaeda chief had crossed the porous border between Afghanistan and Iran.
Similar stories, impossible to confirm, emerged in 2009 and 2010. Whatever the truth of these specific claims, it is reasonable to conclude that Bin Laden would have spent time in Iran, given the Tehran regime's role, in the words of U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, as "a key facilitation hub" linking senior Al Qaeda leaders with regional affiliates and operatives.
Iran did not express regret at Bin Laden's demise, but it did use the occasion to attack the U.S. presence in the region. "We hope that this development will end war, conflict, unrest and the death of innocent people, and help to establish peace and tranquility in the region," foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said in a statement. He continued: "This development clearly shows that there is no need for a major military deployment to counter one individual."
Except that it was never about one individual. In Bin Laden's death, there is, as Jamie Kirchick puts it, "tremendous symbolic effect," but the war against the belief system he embodied is not over. And that belief system, defined by hatred of non-Muslims, hostility to rational thought and a penchant to explain the world in terms of hidden conspiracies, is very much alive in Iran, whatever the ideological and theological differences between the Mullahs and Bin Laden. Why else would Mehmanparast divert the response to Bin Laden's death into a barb against the "organized terrorism of the Zionist regime," a.k.a Israel? Why else would Iranian parliamentarian Alaeddin Boroujerdi usher in a new milestone in "troofer" paranoia by casting doubt upon whether Bin Laden really is dead?
On the ground, Bin Laden's death will make little difference to Iran's key regional allies. Syria will continue its brutal repression of domestic protests, Hezbollah will continue its military build-up in Lebanon and Hamas -- whose Gaza chief, Ismail Haniyeh, paid tribute to Bin Laden as an "Arab holy warrior" -- will continue to provoke Israel into a military response via renewed rockets attacks against Sderot and its environs.
As for the Iranian people, who can reasonably be credited with sparking off, in 2009, the democratic impulse which has now lighted the rest of the region, Bin Laden's death will doubtless provide some satisfaction, especially for those who bravely defied the regime to light memorial candles in public spaces in the days following the 9/11 atrocities. Sadly, it won't change the conditions of their struggle against a theocracy that seems as entrenched and as brutal as ever.
Which brings me to my central observation: a few hours before Bin Laden's death was announced, there was a far more tragic and barely noticed death in Tehran. Siamak Pourzand, one of Iran's great men of letters, took his own life. Once a leading Iranian journalist and critic, who contributed to the prestigious French journal Cahiers du Cinema, the years after 1979 saw Pourzand continually harassed by the Iranian regime. The degradations he faced included kidnapping by the security police and several years in the regime's notorious Evin Prison, an incarceration that catastrophically impacted his personal health. Somehow, he managed to evade the sentence of execution that is imposed with gruesome regularity -- three hundred in the last year alone -- upon the regime's domestic opponents, only to pass the death sentence on himself.
These two deaths, one of an Iranian liberal intellectual, the other of an Islamist fanatic, neatly encapsulate the grand political struggles in Iran and the wider region. Rightly, we draw satisfaction from Bin Laden's death. But if there is to be any hope, it will come from ensuring that Siamak Pourzand's suicide -- an act that took only his life, and not the lives of innocents who happened to be in the vicinity -- was not in vain.