Iran is at once impressive yet offensive. I want to embrace it, but it keeps pushing me away through its own misdeeds. Iran is widely demonized in the United States, much of Europe, and throughout Arab official circles and pockets of Arab society; yet it is also lionized among other quarters in the Middle East and the world. It is difficult these days to hear a nuanced view of Iran, because of the crush of absolute verdicts that see it as either historically virtuous or criminally evil. I share this dilemma, admiring some aspects of Iranian policy while being disgusted by others. Is it possible – even ideologically permissible – to see both good and bad lurking in the same place? I think that in the case of Iran, we should make the effort. I am not an Iran expert and have never visited the country, so I speak from secondhand knowledge derived from much reading and speaking with Iranians and scholars of that land. Iran matters in the Middle East, and increasingly in the world. It matters because of its size, wealth, location, ideology, activist foreign policy, religious and ethnic links with its neighbors, and a continuing insistence on redressing historical grievances (especially Western coups and manipulation, and Arab mistreatment of Shias as well as of Iran itself). It has been a dramatic example of the modern legacy of Middle Eastern yo-yo nationalism – sovereign countries that alternate between being close allies and then fervent foes of the US, European powers and Israel. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran has been at the forefront of Middle Eastern resistance to Western power (and its Israeli adjunct),which has generated for it much popular support throughout the Arab world and further afield. Iran in this period also has been one of the most dynamic examples of a pluralistic and vibrant domestic culture, with a wide range of ideas, periodicals and popular movements that compete for public space and allegiance inside the country. Iran’s ideologically managed local and national elections have also been an endless source of national self-expression and surprises, including the two-time election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, or the surprise victory of current populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran has defied and challenged international double standards, and persists in building a full, allegedly non-military, nuclear industry on the basis of rights inherent in international conventions. There is much to admire in Iran and its people. At the same time, Iran has been a model of Third World police state excesses. The bad things that Iran does are really bad. The regime has murdered hundreds of opponents or dissidents, jailed thousands, and driven tens of thousands into exile. Its economic mismanagement blurs the line between comic ineptitude and criminal incompetence. It has been accused of exporting revolutionary zeal, and promoting and practicing terror against civilians in other countries. It has much to answer for. These days we witness another example of Iran at its most stupid or sinister, or simply crude and cruel. The regime has detained several Iranian-Americans and paraded them on television in an attempt to support accusations that they are fomenting revolution in Iran. Most prominent of the several detained people are Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. She and the other detainees, like many Iranians also detained in recent years, are accused of endangering Iran’s national security because of their work in the domain of civil society, which includes inviting lecturers, holding conferences, and promoting research. I stand with those who admire much about Iran but see these accusations as ludicrous and untenable. For unclear reasons, Iran goes through the charade of manufacturing threats based on long-standing and historically-anchored fears of Western coups against Iranian governments. We should not, however, confuse legitimate complaints against Washington with equally legitimate and honorable civil society and scholarly activities undertaken by individuals and institutes such as those that Iran now accuses of malicious intent. I can only speak from personal experience of Haleh Esfandiari and the Woodrow Wilson Center, from whom I accepted an invitation to speak on developments in the Middle East a few years ago. I would do so again with pleasure, not only because Esfandiari is an honest and honorable person, but mainly because for honest people to gather and analytically discuss the condition and direction of their world is a vital aspect of pluralistic, democratic societies. Iran has done this on and off throughout its modern history, but now is passing through an “off period. Iran’s detentions and accusations against Esfandiari and her colleagues are a juvenile and irresponsible act by an otherwise mature and impressive culture that insists now and then on showing its dark side. Rami G. Khouriis published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.