Hossein, a young newspaper vendor, is a revolutionary. I recently fell victim to his revolutionary subterfuge at his newsstand near Teheran’s Revolution Square, a choked and crowded downtown district where massive images of the late Ayatollah Khomeini mingle with billboards promoting the American film The Usual Suspects.
Hossein, you see, was distressed at my choice of newspaper: the hardline daily Resalat, which opposes Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s social and political reforms. So he struck, with great stealth, inserting the wildly popular pro-Khatami newspaper Neshat between the pages of my conservative daily.
As I walked away from the newsstand, the smuggled copy of Neshat, which promotes greater social and political freedom, fell to the ground–evidence of Hossein’s sabotage. Immediately, I sensed foul play and confronted him. He came clean. “You are a journalist,” he shrugged. “You write for foreign newspapers. You must not read that conservative garbage.” Smiling, his bright black eyes twinkling with pride, he added, “You should read Neshat. This is what the Iranian people are reading.”
The episode was vintage Khatami-era Iran. Iranians from all walks of life have pinned their future hopes on Khatami, a cleric with a sincere belief in freedom of expression and the rule of law, a philosophical affinity with John Stuart Mill and a taste for surfing the Net. Since his election just over two years ago, many Iranians agree that social and political freedoms have measurably improved and that the political discourse of the nation–with talk of civil society and freedom of expression–has radically changed. To be sure, Khatami faces formidable opposition from Iran’s conservatives, who still control the main levers of power, including the armed forces, internal security, the judiciary, the Parliament and, most important, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all matters. The Supreme Leader, whose office is a vestige of Iran’s 1979 Constitution, is chosen by the country’s top clerics and has veto power over all government actions, although he exercises it with caution.
In this battle for power, Iran’s conservatives have displayed rigid resistance to reform. Since Khatami’s election, they have impeached one of his ministers and threatened another, jailed a popular pro-Khatami mayor, closed down several moderate newspapers and blocked numerous reform proposals from the office of the president. As a result, Khatami–despite being president–is often seen by the people as a political outsider. Each time the conservative forces challenge him publicly, his already massive support grows.
Two decades after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution thundered onto the world stage, promising so much to so many, Iranians are wondering aloud what went wrong. Those heady days of revolution, when a brave coalition of secular and religious groups, led by Ayatollah Khomeini–the obstinate imam with the audacity to challenge the all-powerful Shah–inspired Iranians to dream of an equitable, free society, soon gave way to a more sobering reality: violent power struggles, the deadly 1980-88 war with Iraq, economic mismanagement and decline, continued social and political repression, international isolation.
“It all seemed so simple then, so right and true. We really believed that we were going to change Iran and change the world,” said Morteza, a 40-year-old engineer and former student activist, jailed for his anti-Shah activities. “Of course, things did not work out as we expected.” Like many Iranians critical of the revolution, Morteza prefers not to have his last name used in print.
For many Iranians, Khatami is seen as a new chance, a new hope for a society scarred by a revolution gone astray, the psychological wounds of a pariah state and a gradual but stunning fall from economic grace. By May 23, 1997, the day of Khatami’s election victory, Iran was debt-ridden, demonized, sanctioned, war-ravaged, frustrated and humiliated. The situation was ripe for a military man on a white horse, or a chest-thumping demagogue with a bagful of promises–common figures in modern Iranian history. This time, however, fate proved kinder to Iran, presenting the country with a moderate, smiling cleric who called for freedom of expression and tolerance, who was seen as a protest vote and a moderate, and who won the presidency in a landslide election.
“The election of Khatami was a silent revolution,” said Hamid Reza Jalaipour, publisher of Neshat. “It was a reflection of people’s frustrations with the existing state of things,” he said in an interview in the courtyard garden of the Teheran villa that houses his newspaper offices. The frustrations are still evident all over the country. Two years after the “silent revolution,” there is a distinct scent of unrest in the air. It is evident most acutely among Iran’s youth, who are daily waging a gallant and inspiring struggle for basic freedoms.
“I’m tired of high prices. I’m tired of all of this unemployment. I’m tired of someone telling me I can’t dance or can’t read this book or watch that movie. It’s gone too far, and I’m ready to fight back,” said Ali, a defiant 18-year-old with long, meticulously coifed black hair and blazing blue eyes. Ali, it should be noted, is from South Teheran, site of Iran’s teeming slums and the mostazafin (the oppressed), in whose name the revolution was fought.
In the early days of the revolution, someone of Ali’s class would have seen the revolution as empowering, a validation of his Islamic identity, a chance to share in the nation’s bounty, which the rich and “cultivated” North Teheranis were enjoying. But today, Ali and his South Teheran friends just want the right to dance. In a public park during a massive outdoor picnic celebrating a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian holiday, Ali and his friends sang banned Iranian pop songs from Los Angeles, widely available on the Teheran black market, and invited giggling girls to dance with them.
“O beautiful girl, like a flower, please come to my side,” Ali crooned, mimicking one of those songs, much to the delight of a large crowd that encircled him, clapping their hands to the beat. “One girl to dance with, that’s all we need,” Ali exhorted, continuing to push the bounds of “propriety” and, indeed, law, in the severe Islamic Republic of Iran, which punishes such public displays of gaiety.
Finally, one brave young girl, her brown scarf displaying dangerously large amounts of her chestnut-colored hair, accepted Ali’s exhortations and joined the circle of boys dancing. It was a defiant moment, its importance not underestimated by the crowd, who gave the girl a rousing cheer for her courage. After all, Iran’s morals police, the komiteh, could punish the offending dancers harshly for the sin of dancing in public and mixing with members of the opposite sex.
But these days, Iranians are displaying a resurgent sense of defiance. They are being led by the country’s youth (60 percent of the population is under 21), who are proving to be its harshest critics, and, most important, noted Teheran-based political analyst Siamak Namazi, they “have grown up with the language of the revolution and are adept at using that same language to counter conservative arguments.”
Take this missive, for example, from Pouya Kamalian, a 17-year-old student who wrote an open letter to the conservatives published in Neshat on April 6: “Do you think my generation is a handful of brainless people who will believe anything you say without any reason?… Don’t act in a way that people will resort to destruction again. Thirty years ago, if someone said the Shah would be overthrown, no one would believe him and he would be smacked in the mouth. Well, here are the mouths of me and my fellow youth.”
Or this from a university students’ association pamphlet in the southern city of Shiraz: “A society that has experienced freedom cannot be returned to a closed society by making use of physical threats, intimidation and punishment. If freedom is denied to such a society, the ideology will be turned into counterideology, and it will assume very dangerous forms.”
Protesting against the existing government is a traditional rite of passage in Iranian universities, but the current crop of student activists is different. They are protesting against one faction of the government–the ruling conservatives–while wholeheartedly, earnestly, exultantly supporting another. To be sure, there are still a small number of young supporters of the revolution, many of whom have shown a willingness to back that support with violence. It should also be said that big-city youth are waging this struggle more than their rural counterparts, but with mass rural migrations to the cities in the past twenty years, the gulf–both material and intellectual–between city and village has diminished.
“Neshat is selling well in rural areas,” Jalaipour said. “Our ideas are making it to the village.”
In Iran, unlike in any other Middle Eastern country save perhaps Egypt, those ideas are debated passionately, sometimes violently. When a group of writers, mostly secular and leftist, recently began speaking out vocally about the idea of freedom of expression–anathema to conservatives–three of them were found dead. In all, five dissidents were killed in a frightening period of assassinations late last year, the memory of which still chills Iranian writers and intellectuals.
A firestorm of protests ensued, intensifying when it became clear that hard-line Ministry of Information/Intelligence agents were involved in the killings. The minister, a staunch conservative, was forced to resign amid the controversy, and the agents were taken into custody. Although it may offer little solace to the families of the writers and dissidents who were fatally silenced, many analysts see a glimmer of hope in the admission of guilt and the resignation of the minister. “This is unprecedented in Iranian history for a government agency to admit killing citizens and to face punishment for it,” said Shirzad Bozorgmehr, editor of the English-language Iran News daily. “This served notice on the foot soldiers of the right that they can no longer act with total immunity, and this strengthened Khatami.”
Political analysts also point to the late-February nationwide municipal elections, which were won overwhelmingly by pro-Khatami candidates, as another important victory for the president. Khatami, the student of Mill, is also a student of Tip O’Neill. He knows, like the late House Speaker, that all politics is local, and he has used his presidential power to replace all provincial governors with his supporters and to institute municipal elections that would devolve some power from the federal to the local level. “These are the tools at Khatami’s disposal,” Bozorgmehr said. “He needs to build a bureaucratic power base, and the only way he can do it is by strengthening himself in the provinces in the hope of preparing for the next parliamentary elections.” The Parliament has effectively blocked many of Khatami’s reforms. There is one major obstacle to a pro-Khatami sweep of next year’s parliamentary elections: the Guardian Council, an influential conservative body that has the power to vet candidates, which it regularly does to the detriment of liberals and moderates.
To be sure, Iran’s conservatives are not a monolithic force, nor are Khatami’s moderate supporters. A handful of conservatives have embraced Khatami’s reform ideas, while some moderate political supporters of Khatami radically differ with the president on many issues–including the theocratic underpinnings of the state, which some Khatami supporters challenge. It would be a mistake to view Iran solely through the prism of the conservative-moderate struggle for power, despite the fact that this tends to dominate both local and international press coverage and constitutes a very real battle. A better paradigm would be to view the struggle in Iran as one of freedom versus repression–Khatami’s ideas of civil society and freedom of expression versus traditionalist views of patriarchy, hierarchy and authoritarianism. Within the context of this struggle, many of those who favor the latter are in positions of immense power and thus are able to halt Khatami’s reforms and the dissemination of his ideas.
While the political odds may be stacked against Khatami, Iran’s youth remain optimistic. “Khatami is our only hope,” said Nilufar, a female nursing student from the eastern city of Mashad. “We must support him fully. We must build a civil society. There must be government accountability and an end to monopolistic practices. Freedom is paramount. We are ready to fight for these beliefs. This is all we have now.” Nilufar uses language that Khatami has made familiar, a language that instills fear in the minds of conservatives, who view greater freedom and more open political participation as threats to their power.
A young political science graduate, Hamid, put it nicely: “Many in the West see this battle between conservatives and moderates as a struggle for the soul of Iran. But they are mistaken. The soul of Iran belongs firmly to Khatami and the moderates.” Said Hamid, a secretary in the office of an important Iranian official, “We are merely witnessing a struggle for temporal political power. The conservatives may be able to hang on for a few more years with desperate acts, but the May 23 revolution [the date of Khatami’s election] is irreversible.”