One steamy hot Tehran afternoon late this past spring, Ahmad Saei received a letter that struck him as especially odd. A professor of law and international relations at Tehran University, he was used to receiving a daily notice addressing mundane school matters–religious holidays, ceremonies, talks on campus. That day’s mail, however, was different. Written on behalf of the university administration, the note announced that the university would be sorry to lose four longtime professors to retirement as of the fall. He scanned down, surprised to see that the charismatic head of the faculty of law and political science–of which he was a member–was on the list. Just below that, he saw his own name–first, middle, last. He took a long sip of his black tea, shut off his computer and walked to his first lecture of the day.
Saei’s “retirement” took almost everyone by surprise. He had been a professor at Tehran University since the late 1970s, when this and other campuses throughout the country were caught up in heady political storms that ended in a revolution. He had long considered himself among the revolutionaries; like thousands of other young people of his generation, he had agitated for the overthrow of the US-backed Pahlavi monarchy. But something had changed. A self-described reformist, Saei does not seem to share the vision of the new set of men who have been running the country since last year’s presidential election. “They want to make the university yek dast [made of ‘one hand’],” he told me of the country’s leadership. “But it will take a second revolution to do that.”
One year into office, a second revolution may not be that far removed from what Iran’s new leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has in mind. A man of now famously humble origins who rose from simple foot soldier of the Revolutionary Guard to become mayor of Tehran, the president has made no secret of his plans to return his country to what he has obliquely referred to as “true Islam.” Ahmadinejad’s stance is anti-corruption, anti-decadence, vehemently anti-imperial. He fancies himself a rock star of the people (he has been known to dive into adoring crowds), a king of the photo-op, a sort of Gamal Abdel Nasser of the Iranian street. Speaking to a rapt group of university students during the first week of September, the new president blithely equated secular education with the evils of colonialism, continuing, “Students should shout at the president and ask why liberal and secular university lecturers are present in the universities.” Ahmadinejad’s comments may augur grim changes. Dozens of professors have already been sent packing. And as the new academic year begins, there are rumors that many more will soon follow.
At Tehran University, the dismissal of the professors inspired unrest. On the heels of the first set of retirements last spring, students organized a sit-in that devolved into two days of demonstrations, spilling out of the faculty of law and into the courtyard, and continuing into the night at the university dormitories some miles away. At the stark, military-style dorms, the demonstrators appropriated sundry causes beyond the fate of the professors–from the publication of a cartoon some weeks before that had offended Iran’s ethnic Azeris, a Turkic-speaking people who make up a quarter of the population, to living conditions in the university dorms and more general political gripes. There, students clashed with plainclothes security as well as police, ending in injuries and arrests. For some, this seemed an eerie throwback to 1999’s violent clashes at the same site over the closure of a number of reformist newspapers, in what were the most significant student protests in Iran’s recent history.
Elaheh, a student at the university, counts herself among a small group of self-proclaimed Marxists on campus. She brushed by me one day at the faculty of law, just one week after the biggest of the demonstrations. A busted, splintery door in the faculty’s main hall marked the site where rioting had poured out of this space. “The traditional culture of revolt here has been the left. Our parents were revolutionaries in 1979; now we’re carrying on the fight they started,” she explained.
For some students frustrated by the failure of the reformists and the rise of a president bent on turning back the clock, the left has a distinct appeal. The reformists spoke of human rights and democracy, quoted Habermas and Hegel, and had a committed following among the country’s intellectuals. Out of sync with most Iranians’ daily realities, their lofty talk didn’t resonate with people more concerned about making ends meet–hence the election of Ahmadinejad, a plain-speaking candidate whose motto was social justice.
The left has a significant history in this country–from the short-lived reign of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who dared to nationalize Iranian oil in 1951, thereby inspiring a coup backed by Iran’s US and British patrons, to Ali Shariati, one of the intellectual architects of the 1979 revolution who lent a socialist reading to Shiism. Come 2006, Che Guevara caps are fashionable in university halls, and (rough) translations of Adorno and Marx abound. Today’s fledgling left has its own publications, too; printed on inexpensive newsprint, their covers boast hammers, sickles, factory icons. Some of them have an explicit orientation targeting the working classes. The bolder among them were vocal last winter when a transportation strike climaxed in the closing of Tehran’s bus drivers’ syndicate. On International Workers’ Day this year, these student groups, along with a coalition of women’s rights activists, gathered in solidarity with the striking workers.
But these movements–students, advocates of workers’ rights, people agitating for women’s rights, even the reformist press–remain small, fractured, isolated. The students’ knowledge of the left’s origins and legacy is spotty. The bus drivers have not been able to mobilize since their syndicate was closed and their leader imprisoned. And little seems off-limits to the machinery of Ahmadinejad’s government; in August Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi sent a letter to the international community revealing that her organization, the Tehran-based Defenders of Human Rights Center, stood to be shut down by the Interior Ministry–purportedly for not having the proper permit. In early September, Shargh, perhaps the last reformist newspaper still standing, was forced to close its doors.
Amid modest bouts of activism, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the American foreign policy she orchestrates have all but called upon Iranians to rise up against their regime. A new Office of Iranian Affairs at the State Department has taken the place of the portentously named Office of Special Plans, while this past summer, in response to a request from Rice, Congress appropriated $66 million to bolster the prospects for democracy in Iran–expanding satellite broadcasts, aiding political dissidents as well as Iranian organizations inside the country and out. Seemingly harmless enough, the initiative has in fact made life even harder for some members of Iran’s embattled civil society.
“We’re not going to play host to colored revolutions here,” Habib, a student at Allameh Tabatabai University told me one day in reference to the transitions that have overtaken the likes of Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. “It will be our blood that spills red the second we are linked to the Americans.”
The mere prospect of being linked to foreigners, especially Americans, is an uncomfortable one. The April arrest of philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo on charges of colluding with the United States to carry out a “velvet revolution”–a reference to the Czechoslovakian experience of 1989–is a testament to the changed terrain. Jahanbegloo, while not politically active, had hosted such foreign intellectuals as Richard Rorty, Timothy Garton Ash and Antonio Negri in Tehran in recent years. The fact that he was once a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy certainly did not help his case.
Almost across the board, Iranians resist the prospect of being helped by “the American money.” The dangling cash has become a darkly comic subject as, for many, perhaps the only government they dislike more than their own is an American one they associate with double standards and overzealous meddling that goes back more than a century, reaching deep into their psyches. Complicating matters, a number of prominent American conservatives have become, you could say, unlikely champions for Iranian freedom–from columnist Andrew Sullivan, who has tried to bring attention to the fate of the country’s homosexuals, to the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Ledeen, who has lamented Iran’s treatment of its ethnic minorities. Both are vocal advocates of regime change.
Amin, a 50-something dealer in secondhand foreign-language books in Tehran, explained his sentiment: “Am I unhappy? Yes. But do I want American-style modernity? No. Their democracy is like fast food, parachuted in by people who know nothing about us,” he told me one day as students mined his cramped space for books in English.
This past spring, some signs indicated that the Bush Administration was in the midst of developing military plans to take out the Tehran regime, reported most prominently by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. And in recent weeks this magazine and Time have reported that a “prepare to deploy” order was issued to US warships, dispatching them to the Persian Gulf to hover just off Iran’s western coast.
But despite an endless stream of US admonishments and military muscle-flexing, Ahmadinejad and his camp have never seemed quite so smug. In September the Iranian president was in New York for the opening meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. There, he bemoaned the fate of occupied peoples the world over, warned of the dangers of using the UN as a tool for “threat and coercion” and finally defended his country’s right to develop nuclear energy. At the Council on Foreign Relations he worked a room packed with scholars and dignitaries, answering every question with one of his own, engaging in a dizzying game of circumlocution that left many in the audience exasperated. In just about all his public addresses, there is a distinct triumphalism in tone, an unnerving self-confidence. And why not? Iran holds all the right cards in neighboring Shiite-dominated Iraq, oil prices continue to soar, the Bush doctrine of magical transformation in the region is sputtering and the Tehran regime is basking in the gains of what has been roundly deemed a Hezbollah victory over Israel in Lebanon (Iran is Hezbollah’s greatest backer, though the extent and nature of that backing is a subject of contention). It thus comes as little surprise that Ahmadinejad denied the UN access to key sites in late August, after it demanded a freeze on the country’s uranium enrichment program. Though it seems likely that Iran will face some form of sanction, the Iranians, insisting that the enrichment is for peaceful purposes, seem hardly to care.
And so as Iran and the United States trade insults, and the press engages in a sort of nuclear fetishism, it is members of Iran’s civil society–women’s rights activists, educators, student leaders–who may have to pay the greatest cost. Hemmed in by their own state, they are also disenchanted by the anti-regime mantras of a largely Los Angeles-based opposition that spans everything from exiled leftists to monarchists to a humdrum former monarch’s son who has written a pocket guide to democracy (he announces that he will come back as king only if the people will it). Add the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq to the mix–a bizarre, cultlike socialist-Islamist outfit that is perhaps best known for inspiring self-immolation among some of its most devoted members–and you see that the alternatives are few. The government, in turn, announces that you are either on our team or theirs. In this picture, anything in between gets all but squeezed out.
In early June I walked into a raucous meeting of a women’s group in South Tehran. Seated around a tiny table, the women were mostly in their 20s. I had interrupted an argument in progress; they were in the midst of planning a demonstration to bring attention to the place of women in the country’s revolutionary Constitution of 1979, though they were not settled as to the exact form their demands would take. Some thought it was their duty to call for a referendum on the Constitution at large. Others seemed to find this unwise, unrealistic at best, and opted instead to focus on specific aspects of the Constitution that were unfriendly to women–such as laws governing custody or marriage. These were things, argued one of them, that women of all social classes could relate to.
I asked what was perhaps an obvious question–or at least the question everyone has tended to ask since the last election: Had their work changed at all in the past year? Bita, a young leftist among the assembled, answered me with an analogy:
“We are back to the time of the revolution. America is once again the devil. This is pounded into us. And so, like the early years after the revolution, being a feminist–what we do–is targeted as something foreign, American, not from here. Even working at an NGO means you are not loyal, that you’re working for foreigners and you are against your own country.”
Less than three months before, on March 8, International Women’s Day, this group was among hundreds roughed up in a downtown park. As one woman read the organizers’ manifesto, she and others encountered electric batons and tear gas wielded by Revolutionary Guards, members of the Basij (a paramilitary branch of the guards) and plainclothes vigilantes. Ahmadinejad’s second revolution seemed to be taking form.
“We weren’t surprised,” Leila, among the organizers of the Women’s Day event, told me about the attack. “And we’re prepared to take it again.”
Less than two weeks later, I woke to receive e-mails and text messages announcing that a downtown demonstration had been broken up even before it had the chance to begin. The young women I had just sat with were among at least seventy rounded up and held at various locations throughout the city. I thought of Leila’s marked nonchalance and wondered if I was in fact the only one taken aback by the news. They seemed to have known that for their generation, many of them too young to remember the revolution their parents once fought for, the battle has only just begun.