Letter From Iran
Iranians, frustrated by nearly twenty-four years of economic mismanagement and social and political repression, are eager for change. Reformist failures coupled with a stagnant economy, high unemployment and a seemingly unending and unexplainable rise in prices have left them embittered. These feelings cut across all socioeconomic lines, and even religious ones. In fact, some of the most pugnacious regime opponents are religious-minded young men from poor neighborhoods, many of whom flock to student protests, chanting slogans against the ruling clergy. Many say things like, "The clergy have abused Islam for their own gain." Others from those same poor neighborhoods, who are less religious, also flock to the protests, eager for a fight with what they call "the Hezbollahi kids from our neighborhood"--the hard-line youth who swell the ranks of groups like the Ansar-e Hezbollah or the Basij militia. Unlike affluent North Tehran youth, who fear the "Hezbollahi" types, South Tehran's disgruntled youth display far less fear and a willingness to confront them.
But it's not clear how the changes Iranians are seeking will come about. Not long ago the reformist movement, which burst onto the scene in 1997 with the presidential election victory of reform-minded cleric Mohammad Khatami, engendered great hope. Iranians embraced the movement with vigor, flocking to the newsstands to buy reformist papers that wrote breathlessly of democracy, freedom, civil society and limits on the power of the conservative ruling clergy. They swooned before reformist politicians, treating them with rock star-like adoration, especially Khatami, whose public appearances turned into mob scenes. Today, however, it is not uncommon to hear people chant for his resignation in public protests.
Meanwhile, over the past year, Iran's conservatives have used unelected power centers such as the hard-line judiciary, the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who has virtual veto power over all matters of state) and the Guardian Council (an unelected body with "supervisory" responsibilities over Parliament), coupled with their control over security services, to veto key prodemocracy legislation in Parliament, jail leading dissidents and journalists with impunity, scrap presidential initiatives and intimidate protesters with violent crackdowns.
As a result, Iranians increasingly talk of "outside solutions." On many occasions, people expressed to me the hope that America would "do something." Just outside a government building a guard whispered, "Mr. Molavi, please tell the Americans to help us, to liberate us like they did the Iraqis and Afghans." Not an uncommon statement among frustrated middle-class Iranians, though when I probed further, I found that most Iranians feared an Iraq-style invasion. Instead, in traditionally Iranian conspiratorial fashion, they spoke of a posht-e-pardeh (literally, behind the curtain) solution, a covert action, so to speak, that would "liberate" them.
Though most Iranian intellectuals and elites vehemently oppose this idea, it is a measure of Iran's middle- and working-class desperation that more and more people in a proud, traditionally nationalist country with bitter memories of the last US posht-e-pardeh solution--the 1953 CIA-sponsored overthrow of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq--would even entertain such thoughts, even if they might be dismissed as frustrated posturing or, as one Iranian journalist put it, "something people say in frustration, but will retract as soon as bombs begin to fall on Tehran or a coup goes awry."
When Baghdad fell and CNN images of celebrating Iraqis beamed across the world, Iran's rulers must have shuddered. After all, Washington had included them in its "axis of evil" and, flush with the pride of an Iraq "victory," Washington neoconservatives hinted that Iran could be next. Today, when the rulers of the Islamic Republic turn on CNN, they must breathe a sigh of relief. As the postwar Iraq situation descends into chaos, fewer Iranians talk of a US "liberation." And with a presidential election looming, the prospect of a US invasion of Iran is, in the words of one American official, "not on anyone's radar screen."
That "radar screen," however, includes one bleeping red dot: Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. Washington and Tel Aviv fear Iranian acquisition of the bomb, which they say is proceeding at a brisk pace. Israel has made it clear that it will consider a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if Tehran refuses to comply with a new, more aggressive round of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
Iranian officials, when asked about their nuke program, generally deflect the question, often asking ones of their own: "What about Israel's nuclear weapons? And India's? And Pakistan's?" Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi regularly argues that Iran would like to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone--as long as Israel joins them. Still, Iranian analysts I spoke with often brought up the contrasting cases of North Korea and Iraq, noting that the lesson learned in Tehran is: Get nukes, avoid an invasion.
With the "outside solution" prospect dimming and the Iranian economy stagnating, talk of a strongman solution is emerging. Reza Shah, the first Pahlavi king, an ironfisted modernizer widely credited with laying the foundations for the creation of a large Iranian middle class, has enjoyed something of a renaissance among Iranians. Books about the former king and, indeed, about the Pahlavi dynasty sell briskly. Iranians prefer to remember his economic modernization, not his political repression.