The hard-line Islamic vigilantes circled us. Wearing their trademark beards, untucked long-sleeve shirts and green headbands, they chanted progovernment slogans, occasionally crying out “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) or “Death to the foreign mercenaries,” as they circled and scowled.
Our unaffiliated group, standing near a shuttered corner market in Tehran University just after 8 pm on July 9, shuffled nervously. Most had come to see what might happen on this night–the highly anticipated fourth anniversary of Iran’s pro-democracy student protests, which rocked the country. Few were political activists, students or organized protesters, let alone “foreign mercenaries”; they were housewives, middle-class professionals, a few students, some disaffected, unemployed young men and an elderly couple that I instinctively wanted to protect.
The “vigilantes,” as they are commonly called by the Western media, are affiliated, paid for and organized by hard-liners in Iran’s government, which makes them more accurately “thugs for hire.” Members of the group, known as Ansar-e Hezbollah, have committed some of the most violent acts against student protesters in the past four years. In one instance, they entered a student dormitory brandishing clubs and lashing students with chains. In another, they threw a student out a window to his death. They have also been linked to the killings of some eighty dissidents and writers, dating back to 1988.
The Ansar-e Hezbollah, though a small part of the vast security apparatus controlled by Iran’s conservative ruling clergy, play an increasingly important role: intimidating protesters, thinning crowds, carrying out mafia-style “hits” (like the 2000 assassination attempt on reformist strategist Said Hajjarian by an Ansar leader) and delivering harsh reminders of who is in control. In fact, crowd control and “dissent management,” as one Iranian official put it, has become an increasingly important part of statecraft in today’s Islamic Republic as Iranians, seething with a wide range of economic, political and social discontents, erupt in protest with some regularity.
As I watched the government’s display of force playing out before my eyes that evening–including helicopters circling overhead, elite units of antiriot police standing ready, and plainclothes Intelligence Ministry agents buzzing around on motorbikes, I remembered what Morad Saghafi, a leading Iranian prodemocracy intellectual, told me: “Politics is dying. Now, everything comes down to force.”
The crowd of some 5,000 to 10,000 residents who made it to the university area was largely leaderless, frustrated and afraid. “I came to see what might happen, to see what the students will do,” Mohsen, a middle-aged engineer told me. “I’ve lost hope in the politics of reform.” He added, “They can’t get anything done,” echoing widely heard sentiments as the country’s reformist movement withers under a conservative assault. Laleh, a 33-year-old housewife, said: “I’m not sure what will happen tonight. I am hoping for something big. I’m waiting for the students, but I find all of this intimidating.”
Neither Mohsen nor Laleh had heard that the planned student protests had been canceled for fear of a harsh crackdown. They didn’t know that earlier in the day, three prodemocracy student leaders had been detained at gunpoint by plainclothes security officers and shoved into cars in full view of the press. They knew nothing of the letter the student group had written to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, seeking assistance in their struggle for freedom. Mohsen said the signal of the Los Angeles-based opposition satellite stations–an increasingly important, if erratic, news source for middle-class Iranians–had been successfully jammed by the authorities. The relatively vibrant reformist press had been muzzled through a series of gag orders by the hard-line judiciary.
When a bearded, squat, square-jawed hard-liner approached our group, swinging his stick in the air, Mohsen had seen enough. “I’m getting out of here,” he said. “This is not what I expected.” Laleh and many others followed soon thereafter.
By midnight, the university area was empty. At an ice cream store in central Tehran, a young man, Ali, explained why he and most of his friends avoid protests. “They are too dangerous. You either end the night beaten up or in jail.”
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.
In fact, Iran’s conservatives, many analysts say, like the strongman idea and have studied closely the “China model”–political repression coupled with cultural and economic liberalization. Give Iranians jobs and more social freedoms, bolstering the middle class, the argument goes, and much of the dissent will vanish. Iran’s conservatives have already displayed limited aspects of the China model: They have begun reaching out to foreign investors and have allowed limited cultural openings in cinema, the arts and even pop music, and the harassment of women for “dress-code violations” is also dramatically down.
But while it may be true that an Iranian version of the China model could forestall unrest, the strengthening of Iran’s devastated middle class, weakened by twenty-four years of economic mismanagement, could sow the seeds for future revolt. After all, increasingly prosperous middle classes eventually seek a voice in their government–a lesson that the last Pahlavi king learned all too well.
It was not supposed to come to this: a bitter populace, a tottering reform movement, ascendant conservatives toying with the China model, middle-class romanticizing of past dictator-kings. After all, Iran at the time of Khatami’s election represented hope for the Middle East: a model of an indigenous democracy movement that emerged from below, from the ranks of former revolutionaries and Islamic intellectuals (and not a secular elite) who saw, in the end, that people did not want empty revolutionary slogans but a prosperous economy, social and political freedoms, and the dignity that comes with choosing your own destiny. Iran’s reformists would gradually, in an evolutionary process, lead the way to democracy, the reasoning went. While secular democrats were still out of the game, they cheered on the reformists, hoping it would eventually create spaces for them. All of this was backed by overwhelming election victories.
But as with all reform movements that emerge from within ideological autocracies, they must contend with the crushing weight of the status quo, vested interests, the legacy of the revolution and, crucially, lack of access to the instruments of coercive force. When Iran’s conservatives sensed trouble, they reminded Iranians who retains control.
In several conversations with leading reformists over the course of three weeks, I got a sense that the movement is like a disoriented prizefighter who has been knocked around for seven rounds and doesn’t know whether he should go back out again. In one extraordinary moment of bare honesty, a well-regarded prodemocracy professor and confidant of embattled reformist President Mohammad Khatami said: “I just don’t know what we can do. I am at loss.”
Two conversations stuck with me from my three weeks in Iran. The first was with a religious intellectual named Ali Reza Alavitabar, a leading reformist newspaper publisher and academic, who faces an array of trumped-up charges against him for his outspoken prodemocracy views. He has served hard jail time, and stands to serve more. Formerly he was an anti-Shah revolutionary and Khomeini supporter who, like many of today’s reformists, saw the need for change. He does not hail from Iran’s modern middle class of technocrats and professionals, who are often Western-educated and secular, but rather from the traditional middle class of clerks, bazaar merchants and clergymen–key backers of the 1979 revolution. Today, he views the mingling of religion and politics with suspicion, and while he won’t say so out loud, he and many others like him have morphed into secular democrats.
Alavitabar said he worries that the conservatives will become even more entrenched than they are already, as ordinary people give up on the possibility of peaceful change. The recent Tehran municipal elections offer a microcosm: Tehranis stayed away from the polls en masse, while the conservatives rallied their 20 percent base and won. “I understand that people are upset and frustrated,” he continued. “But we should not retreat. We need to continue writing, speaking and possibly taking it to the next level: nonviolent civil disobedience. We are on the verge of something important here. It should not be stopped.”
The other conversation, with a young man named Hamid, once a devoted follower of the reformists, reminded me of the deep angst felt by today’s Iranian youth and, in the end, might offer a more realistic, if troubling, scenario for the future. “I have lost hope,” Hamid said. “My friends have lost hope. We longer talk of changing Iran. Instead, we talk of leaving Iran.”