During a visit to Tehran in the spring of 2005, we were impressed by the degree of intellectual freedom Iranians had carved out within the Islamic Republic. The numerous bookstores on Enqelab Avenue across from Tehran University carried an array of newly translated books by Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, among others. A lecture on “Foucault and Feminism” at Alzahra Women’s University elicited enthusiastic responses, including one from a high university official clad from head to toe in a black chador. A visit to the literary editors of the country’s most prestigious newspaper, Shargh (daily circulation 100,000), led to a conversation that ranged easily from religion and politics to Continental philosophers like Foucault, Theodor Adorno and Giorgio Agamben.
Of course, this was not the whole picture. Books on contemporary politics continued to be heavily censored. On the streets, the morality police harassed women who violated the regime’s stringent dress codes, and Tehran University still maintained sex-segregated cafeterias. Those who fought for social and political freedoms lived under constant threat. A feminist activist told us in a matter-of-fact tone that she feared a return visit to “Hotel Evin”–the notorious Evin Prison, where she had been tortured.
We were in Iran during the last days of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who had been elected by a landslide in 1997 after promising to carry out democratic reforms and open Iran to the outside. Some of those promises were kept, but many were not, and the real power remained in the hands of more conservative clerics like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even in the spring of 2005, we felt a hint of a chill as we left the country. At the airport, one of us had to go through a security check, a requirement for any Iranian passport holder trying to leave the country. It was during precisely such a procedure that, a year later, reformist philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo–who had brought Jürgen Habermas, Antonio Negri and the late Richard Rorty to speak in Tehran–was arrested and forced to make a public “confession.” By then, conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been elected to the presidency. Ever since, Iran and the Western powers have clashed over Tehran’s nuclear program, leading to threats of military action from the United States and Israel and arrests of Iranian diplomats in Iraq.
At home, the Islamic Republic has cracked down hard on reformists, shutting down Shargh for six months and drastically tightening the enforcement of dress-code violations. Ahmadinejad’s initial Holocaust denials–which Shargh indirectly but courageously rebutted by running stories about the Nuremberg trials in late 2005–tarnished Iran’s reputation in the West. Khatami’s era of a “dialogue of civilizations” was over, at least as far as the state was concerned. As if to dispel any doubts about this, the regime arrested several Iranian-American intellectuals who had committed the “crime” of promoting cultural and scholarly dialogue between Iran and the West, among them Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the wife of Shaul Bakhash, a distinguished historian of Iran. (Esfandiari was in Iran visiting her mother when she was detained.) While the situation is not entirely bleak–Tehran’s bookstores continue to display their new titles, and Shargh has won the right to reopen–the cause of human rights and intellectual freedom has suffered a significant setback since 2005.
What went wrong? When reform-minded Iranians discuss this question, the conversation often turns to the 1906-11 Constitutional Revolution, widely seen as a missed opportunity for democratic modernization. This has been especially true in the past couple of years, as its centenary is celebrated by Iranians at home and abroad.