Iran's human gold

The incident is related in Tehran that a couple, both of them physicians, were passing through the airport inspection to leave their country. After a careful search, the inspector pointed to the woman's watch. "That's gold," he said, "you can't take it out of Iran." The husband snatched the watch from his wife's wrist and trod it into the ground, saying, "We are the gold that Iran is losing."

Wherever this couple ended up, large numbers of people like them are in the United States today. Under our present policies, they are living with mounting anxiety that when their visitors' visas expire they will not be renewed. Our allies support this policy, so that when they are forced to leave the United States they are almost certain to be barred from Canada, Great Britain, and a number of other countries, and forced back to Iran.

Yet their presence in this country at this time is an indication that, whether or not they would be in actual danger in Iran, as many would be, they prefer the United States to the Islamic Republic. What happens to these people will affect the future of Iran and our relations with that country.

In the end, they arem Iran's gold, and important to the building of a positive future. However, different kinds of people can be effective in different ways, and now may not be the right time.

Only in brief moments of ferment or transition, when revolution or military defeat have destroyed the authoritarian structure in a place like Iran, do private citizens have a chance of bringing about a major change of direction by ordinary means. Many of the Iranians who supported Khomeini against the Shah in 1978, beguiled by the slogan of unity, are bitterly regretting it today. But the moment when they might have helped the revolution change direction is past, and for the present they have no possible leverage against firmly installed clerical rule.

A year ago, even six months ago, I was urging Iranian friends to stay in Iran. Although I was doubtful that they would have any great effect on government itself, I hoped that their presence would allow the survival of some of the viable institutions developed in previous years. During the years of the Shah's rule, those Iranians of good will who were not inclined to conspiracy or violence tended to give up politics completely, concentrating their patriotism or sense of responsibility on specifics -- schools, irrigation projects, clinics , research -- that would improve people's lives.

Whatever the structure at the top, a healthy society requires a great deal of complexity at this level, and before the revolution individuals had found niches for creativity and free expression, building institutions and communities whose survival is very important to Iran's future under any kind of government. Every school or factory that is closed means more unemployed workers or unoccupied students shouting in the streets, eliciting demogoguery. The more the social fabric is unraveled, the more scope there is for those awful simplications we call fascism.

Thus, it seemed until recently that thoughtful and educated people, even if they couldn't affect the overall trend, could continue serving their country's welfare in specific ways. Today, however, the social fabric seems to be unraveling to the point where such people cannot function.

Almost everyone who held a position of responsibility before the revolution -- a foreman, a manager, a dean -- has been subject to attacks and denunciations arising from accumulated grudges. Vast numbers of firms and institutions have been completely closed. Indeed we have begun to hear the ominous term, "cultural revolution." There is little point in saying, "At least I can stick to my job, keep my institution alive, and wait for the future."

As always, those who leave are concerned for their own welfare, knowing their livelihood -- or in the case of women, their emancipation -- is threatened. However, it no longer seems appropriate to urge that they make the sacrifices or take the risks of staying, for the ways in which such people are able to act are no longer effective.

Mounting chaos in Iran suggests that a moment of transition may come again. The best policy for this country is to give these people a welcome, renewing their visas as appropriate, and yet not encourage immigration and permanent settlement at this time. On the contrary, Iranians should feel that if they make the effort to go back and are forced to leave again, this country's doors will not be closed to them.

We should resist taking out on them our frustrations over dealing with the Tehran government. So many have already lost so much. We should treat individual cases with equity and compassion.

At the same time, anticipating the moment when they could return, we should not pressure individuals to make formal application for asylum, which might compromise their ability to go home and play an effective role at the appropriate moment. This is an expression of choice that we should not ask for from people who have already voted with their feet -- and their hopes and their savings.

We know they cannot contribute now. We would like them to be free to contribute later, when Iran will need the gold of their good sense.

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