'I’m More Optimistic About Iran’s Future Than About Israel’s'

How Iranians differ from Israelis, and what's behind the recent protests in the Islamic Republic? A conversation with an Israeli activist who fled the Islamic Revolution as a child

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Orly Noy.
Orly Noy.Credit: Emil Salman
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Talking to: Orly Noy, 47, lives in Jerusalem; political activist, editor on the political website Local Call, translator. Where: A Tel Aviv caf. When: Monday, 10 A.M.

You left Iran with your family at the age of 9, but are still an Iranian citizen. In fact, Iranian citizenship cannot be relinquished.

From the standpoint of the authorities there, the fact that I left Iran doesn’t mean that I stopped being a citizen. I could also go back there, but it would be a one-way ticket. I wouldn’t be allowed to return to Israel.

You’re still connected to the events there, updated.

I follow what happens there closely, through the social networks, through my Iranian friends and through relatives who still live there. Israelis find it very peculiar that Jews live in Iran, but for them it’s peculiar to want to live in Israel. [My relatives'] economic situation is excellent, so they don’t have to cope with the tremendous difficulties the middle class in Iran is experiencing.

So they didn’t join the middle-class demonstrators. Tell me a little about the demonstrators’ situation.

A Jewish Iranian woman, center, prays along with Muslim women at the tomb of biblical prophet Daniel, in the city of Susa, some 450 miles ( 750 kilometers) southwest of Tehran, Iran, Feb. 16, 2012.Credit: AP

The cost of living in Iran is unbearable. Families in which both spouses work simply can’t get through the month. The middle class suffered the most difficult blow in the past decade, its condition deteriorated significantly, more than that of the upper and lower classes.

There’s an index of the price of eggs as an indicator of the cost of living.

When we left Iran, in 1979, one dollar was worth seven toman. That was always its value, and on one occasion, under the shah, when its value rose to nine toman, people took to the streets. At present, the exchange rate is 4,300 toman per dollar. That’s the scale of the inflation since the revolution. The price of eggs became a symbol of the erosion in purchasing power. A carton of eggs costs between $3 and $5. A clerk earns about $200 a month, so for poor people it’s not relevant. The rich can buy whatever they wish on the black market, the middle class has to leave eggs and many other items out of their menu. There are also a great many basic commodities that are simply missing. You can only get them with government coupons.

There are all kinds of conspiracy theories about the recent protests. Some claim it was actually a plot by the authorities.

From what I’ve heard and know, that’s total nonsense. The protest started in Mashhad, which is actually a religious city. It spread very rapidly and reached places like Qom and Khomeyn. Who would have imagined that there would be protests in Khomeyn – the city of Khomeini himself?

Did the previous wave of protests, in 2009, skip those cities?

Yes. The 2009 protest was completely different. It was a protest of the “bourgeois and secular,” as far as it can be defined like that. The current protest comes directly from below.

The cause of the previous protest was clear and political; the present one has quite a few causes.

I think that this protest genuinely represents a kind of general disgust with the situation. A large segment of the urban middle class espouses views and values that are very far from those of the government. They follow Western news and culture via the underground, and want greater openness to the world. They don’t want to live in a country where a man and a woman who live together [unmarried] can be arrested and get into serious trouble with the law. They want to be able to find a job after university, and not have to contend with the rampant unemployment that exists in Iran. That’s a pressure cooker, some of whose steam was released in the recent wave of demonstrations. Of course, there were additional triggers, such as the collapse of the pension funds. Think of people who busted their butts their entire lives, worked until age 60-plus, and find themselves facing catastrophe.

There’s also great anger at Iran’s involvement in wars outside its territory – in Yemen, Syria.

There’s tremendous anger and bitterness over the fact that, while the Iranian economy is sinking into the depths, the state is spending huge amounts abroad. Most of the slogans that were chanted in the protests were absolutely connected to that. For example, “Not Gaza and not Lebanon, my soul is bound only to Iran.” According to this view, the state is wasting money on Hezbollah and Hamas while its own citizens are suffocating. That’s a civil dialogue that also touches on the Iranians’ historical grudge against the Arab states. They say to themselves: Excuse me, but what do we have to do with those Arabs, anyway?

Let the Arabs kill one another.

My father told me that in 1967, when Israel was victorious in the Six-Day War, his customers brought him flowers and sweets, and congratulated him warmly. The Iranians were very pleased that the Israelis had succeeded in screwing the Arabs.

The signing of the nuclear agreement and the easing of sanctions was supposed to bring a better life. Those expectations were disappointed.

In this Dec. 30, 2017 photo made by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, a university student attends a protest inside Tehran University while a smokCredit: AP Photo, File

There has been a certain improvement – inflation is down and purchasing power is up, but the public expected much more The Iranians, somewhat like the Israelis, believe and feel that their country, too, is destined for greatness – that, in a certain sense, they are a chosen people and that their present low point is a deviation from the course of a country that should be and needs to be in the league of the world’s strong and great states. All the media coverage after the signing of the agreement dealt with the idea that Iran could now return to its rightful place and rehabilitate its economy – but that didn’t happen.

If I were in power, I would have seen that excitement in the wake of the agreement as the sparks of the next protest.

Absolutely. The expectations that were shattered and the continuing suppression are the two forces that generated the protest. Now, you have to understand that Iran has a kind of two-layer culture, a double life. Outwardly, people are obedient citizens of the regime, but internally, there’s a prevailing culture of hard-drug use, consumption of Western cultural content and also truly subversive stuff. Iran has a drug problem, which is one of its most serious social problems today. According to official state data, there are about two million “deep” drug addicts and another million users [among a population of 80 million]. The age of addiction is declining all the time, and more and more women are entering the hard-drug cycle, especially with opium and heroin. It’s also happening in the most affluent neighborhoods.

The authorities are trying to deal with it, but unsuccessfully. Now they’re talking about no longer executing people for drug offenses, which could save the lives of thousands of prisoners now in jail. Iranian authorities note that the high unemployment rate is the central cause of the drug problem, and is pressing for rehab programs and preventive education. There is also prostitution in Iran, and that phenomenon is spreading, too.

Really? Sounds totally off the wall.

Iran has the death penalty for prostitution, and in the past, women have been executed for it, and on charges of pimping and running a brothel. But the economic plight nourishes this situation, and teens and young girls are entering the prostitution cycle. Under Shi’ite religious law, there’s an institution known as “temporary marriage.” The male is allowed to marry as many temporary wives as he wishes on the basis of a contract that stipulates the duration of the bond. If the morality police detain a man and a woman who were caught cohabiting, they can present the temporary marriage document and stay out of trouble.

In practice, that’s a convenient outlet for the prostitution phenomenon, which has grown frighteningly in the past few decades. There is also “classic” prostitution, of course. Brothels are flourishing in Tehran throughout the underground world of clubs, sex and drugs. The industry of importing and exporting women for prostitution is also prospering – the export of young Iranian women for purposes of prostitution mainly to the Gulf states, and the import to Iran of other young women, mostly Afghans.

Awful. More optimistically, you often write about the role of women in propelling revolutions.

If there’s one population group that’s proving a challenge to the regime, and showing up its limitations systematically, it’s women. Women have always taken part in political developments in modern Iran, including the 1979 revolution, in part because of Khomeini’s promises of gender equality. I remember the women demonstrating alongside men in 1978, or the young woman with a head covering who burst into our house in the midst of the demonstrations and begged my mother to hide her, because the shah’s police were in hot pursuit of her.

After the victory of the revolution, Iran really was a kind of open paradise, liberal and pluralistic to a point, for a few months. But it all faded soon afterward, when the government imposed a strict, conservative line. Since then, the women have been in a constant struggle to change the status quo. If you look at photos of Iran from 20 years ago, 10 years ago and now, you’ll see the makeup, the fingernail polish. Those sound like trivial matters, but they are the result of a persistent struggle. It’s not trivial to go out into the street wearing lipstick or sunglasses, when the morality guards are out there – at first they threw acid into the faces of women with makeup.

An Iranian woman adjusts her head scarf while crossing a street in downtown Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, April 26, 2016.Credit: Vahid Salemi/AP

Probably the image from those the recent protests that will remain burned into the consciousness is the one of the teenage girl waving her head covering in the face of policemen.

In the past few years, there were at least two viral campaigns about head coverings. One was “Our Secret Freedoms,” in which women in Iran photographed themselves bareheaded in all kinds of places and uploaded the images. The other was “White Wednesdays,” in which on every Wednesday women wore a white kerchief outside the home to protest the imposition of the hijab. The girl who flaunted the white kerchief was probably taking part in that campaign. Young women in Iran turned the country upside down to protest the ban against entering stadiums and watching sports events – especially when Iranian teams reached international tournaments, such as the soccer World Cup. Women have been making achievements in all these arenas, even if at a snail’s pace and not by revolution.

Women are also incarcerated as political prisoners.

There are quite a few female political prisoners in Iran, particularly in the notorious Evin Prison, in a separate wing, of course. Officially, Iran doesn’t execute political prisoners, but of course there have been numerous executions of that kind over the years. Two of the most famous female political prisoners have been the lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and has since left Iran, and Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer and human rights activist. She represented many of the detainees in the Green Wave of 2009, was arrested herself, launched a hunger strike in prison, and now that she is out, is continuing her political activity courageously.

Female political prisoners speak of a tough hand, humiliations, body searches, rape by male warders ... Beyond separation from their family and children, harsh sanctions are imposed on all members of the family: surveillance, detentions, interrogations and the like.

Everyone can find himself in prison, on any pretext.

The government’s courts are not accountable to anyone, they can lock people up for no reason. For an article in the paper you can get months or years, and also be executed, of course. Protectors of human rights in Iran have a website where you can see who’s been arrested, and why. For example, an educator couple who were sent to prison for launching an Arabic study group.


Because it’s considered subversive to teach Arabic, and apparently they were also alleged to have some kind of political agenda. Some of the poets whom I translate are constantly in and out of jail.

I read a protest poem you translated and posted on your Facebook page, and I asked myself whether the brave man who wrote it is in prison.

He certainly is. That specific poet, Mohammad Reza Ali Payam, wrote something that the authorities really disliked. He was warned that if he dared to recite the poem even once at a public event, he would be jailed. So he came to a poetry-reading evening with a packed bag, ready for prison, read out the poem and was of course arrested. In jail he wrote more poems. Almost all the young poets I translate were in prison at some stage.

That’s a courageous act. I don’t see anyone in Israel being ready to go to jail in order to read a poem.

That’s why I’m a lot more optimistic about the future of Iran than I am about the future of Israel. Because in Iran – and this is a generalization, of course – the public is engaged in a search for the right path, while in Israel, also this is a generalization, the public is engaged in justifying the path. In Iran they’re aware of their sorry state and are constantly occupied with how to improve it and how to extricate themselves from it. It really is a completely different type of civil consciousness.

It’s also interesting how Iran is perceived by Israelis. For example, many here think Iranians are Arabs.

Of course. The view of Iran is orientalist and instrumental. In the best case, it was seen as a rich kingdom, and in the worst, Iran was included in the Arab world. From the Israeli viewpoint, during the period of the shah it was a country to do business with and to train its secret police, but they showed no interest in the culture of the cradle of Eastern civilization.

Israel tends to show no curiosity about other cultures.

Iranian culture was perceived as inferior, like all Eastern cultures. What’s really funny is that the Iranians themselves lord it so much over the Arabs. To this day, they consider the Arab conquest a barbarian takeover of their wonderful culture. When I first arrived in Israel, I was asked all the time whether I had lived in a real house, whether I’d ever seen an elevator, and this was in the 1970s, when Tehran was dozens of times more advanced than Israel.

What do you remember from Iran?

We were urban Jewish middle class. My father was a bank manager, my mother a homemaker. My brother and I attended a Jewish school. You’re very aware of your Jewishness, even though we were a secular family. My last memories are of the revolution, of course.

You left on the very eve of the revolution.

We left Iran on the evening the shah fled the country [in 1978]. Khomeni arrived about two weeks later. At the airport we saw the headlines in the papers: “The shah is gone.” The demonstrations started two months later. My parents had started to talk about it at home. As a child, you only take in a little, of course, but we felt that something was going on, that there was pressure. My parents sold our beautiful house and we moved to a rented apartment. That was just a month or two before we left. The schools were already closed. The streets were simply a walking black mass of demonstrators, with pictures of Khomeini.

One night it was said that his image would appear on the moon, and the next day, millions of people swore that they’d seen Khomeini’s picture on the full moon. I remember that one night we went out with my parents for a stroll. They bought us laboo, which is a kind of sweet beet dish, and we passed by the bank branch that my father managed. We saw demonstrators break into the bank, smash everything and then set it on fire. That was probably the moment that my father said to himself, ‘Fine, it’s over.’ We left from one day to the next.

Crude cut to the present. What do you hear now, after the protest movement has died down?

The protest has died down, but it hasn’t failed. I see it as another chapter in the ongoing negotiations that the Iranian nation has conducted with the government since the 1979 revolution. Some of the concrete demands were met, such as the matter of the pension funds, and things have been made easier for women in some ways in the public sphere. This wave wasn’t broad and deep enough to constitute the basis for a genuine revolution. It didn’t include sweeping general strikes, there was barely any real violence on the part of the demonstrators, and it didn’t arouse the many persecuted ethnic minorities in Iran.

We’re likely to see more waves like it in the years ahead, especially in connection with the next presidential election and the approval of the opposition’s candidates by the Guardian Council of the Constitution, and of course if the economic situation gets even worse. By the way, anyone who thinks that sanctions against the Iranian government in connection with the nuclear issue will spur the Iranian people to rise up against their government, should think again. Because, despite the deep criticism of the government, when it comes to the nuclear matter, there is sweeping consensus in Iran. The Iranians see it [having nuclear power] as their natural right, irrespective of the character of the regime.

Tell that to Benjamin Netanyahu, who expressed total support for the demonstrators.

I found what he said almost despicable.

It was certainly cynical.

Of course. After all, he understands very well that his support serves the government directly – the regime always claims that the protest was born in the wake of the involvement of anti-Iranian elements who want to fire up the people. You have to understand that the Iranians are always ready to believe that there’s external intervention in their domestic affairs.

They undoubtedly remember how intervention of that kind toppled the government.

In 1953, the United States toppled the [Mohammad] Mossadegh government – which was the great hope for reform and democracy in Iran – for political interests. That is totally fresh in the Iranians’ memory, so when [Ayatollah] Ali Khamenei and [President] Hassan Rohani talk to them about foreign intervention, it doesn’t fall on deaf ears. And then comes Netanyahu and supposedly supports the Iranian people, after trying in every way possible to torpedo the nuclear agreement that the Iranian public waited for so expectantly. What exactly is that support supposed to achieve? To strengthen the people?

Mainly to strengthen Netanyahu’s Facebook page.

The truth is that the Iranians take no notice of him. There was a lot of dialogue on the social networks about the declarations by [U.S. President] Donald Trump, but Netanyahu’s declaration stirred no interest. You’re talking about listening to a nation that’s taken to the streets? Maybe you should open the window and listen to your own people.

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