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Friday, October 14, 2005


An Islamic Republic Resurgent

The flight back to Tehran from Greece was broken up by a 12-hour transit in Dubai: a welcome break from the violent culture shock that assaults anyone traveling from Athens’s Eleutherios Venizelos Airport to Tehran’s brand-new, Imam Khomeini terminal. Mind you, the Dubai stopover packs a culture-punch all its own as a wet towel of scorching humidity wraps itself around the traveler darting from the airport’s air-conditioned chill to an equally freezing taxi waiting outside. Sitting in the cab’s cool interior, a screen flickers at face-level, heralding the beginning of the image saturation that is daily life in Dubai. Throughout the ride to the hotel, a mix of film trailers and spots advertising Dubai’s attractions parades across the screen. Despite being just across the Persian Gulf from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the futuristic Gulf city of gleaming steel towers is as far away as possible from Tehran’s dour, gray apartment-blocks.

One 24-hour-layover later, a homogeneous, all-Iranian crowd took its seats on the flight to Tehran. Dubai is mostly a destination for those secularized and well-off Iranians with enough cash to burn in its malls and five-star hotels, or hoping to flee the Islamic republic by obtaining a rare United States visa. On the return to Tehran, however, there was a shockingly calm defiance in some female passengers’ refusal to put on the obligatory veil until the plane was airborne. Away from the restrictions imposed upon them in Iran, and having tasted a few days of freedom, Dubai-style, these women now made their way back to Tehran laden with rebelliousness and duty-free appliances.

At the time, their insubordination was even more noteworthy as it came a few days after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was sworn in as Iran’s new president. A veteran of the bloody Iran-Iraq war, Ahmadinejad is only the second non-cleric to lead Iran since the 1979 revolution; because of his return-to-the-roots, hardline policy, however, he scares secularized Iranians more than any other current politician. Representing the second generation of Islamic revolutionaries, he has surrounded himself mostly with the old companions alongside whom he matured intellectually on the battlefields of Iraqi-occupied Iran. Four months after his election, his record is mixed. His speech at the UN was a crowd-pleaser back home but triggered his country’s potential referral to the Security Council. More to the point, while few of the threatened social restrictions have yet materialized, there is increasing talk of a power-grab.

Fiercely nationalistic and imbued with the ardor of religious zealotry, Ahmadinejad, his cabinet, and their backers are said by some observers to have effected a silent coup in the June 2005 elections. Increasing numbers of revolutionary-guard commanders have taken sensitive posts in the day-to-day running of the country, including the governorships of restive, ethnically mixed provinces such as Khuzestan. Recently, Iran changed its defense dogma, moving its emphasis from defending its borders—a practically hopeless task for a country of Iran’s size surrounded on all sides by US troops—to fighting a potential enemy asymmetrically. Diplomatic sources confirm that Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Council (IRGC) is taking increased responsibility for policing the country’s borders while moving away from a joint-command structure with the regular army. The IRGC is a religiously inspired elite army corps that was formed in the aftermath of the revolution and became battle-hardened during the nine-year Iran-Iraq war. Today, it controls Iran’s most sensitive military programs even as its personnel move to assume positions of increased political power. Moreover, at a time of high tension between Iran and the US, many of the new government’s 21 new ministers hail either from the reactionary ranks of the revolutionary guards or the secret services, reputed to be the most efficient in the Middle East after Mossad. This most unreconstructed Iranian government to take power in two decades has been followed by a series of other conservative appointments.

The minister of intelligence is Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehyi, a cleric who, in his former capacity as a judge, persecuted moderate clerics. Minister of Interior Pour Mohammadi is a former deputy minister of intelligence implicated in the killings of pro-democracy intellectuals. Both alumni of the fundamentalist Haqqani theological seminary, they are thought to have once belonged to a shadowy brotherhood of Shi’a extremists called the Hojjatieh. Although the group flourished during the 1979 revolution, it was banned in 1983 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself, who objected both to its rejection of his doctrine of velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the jurist) and to its conviction that chaos must be created to hasten the coming of the Mahdi, or twelfth Shi’a imam, and, therefore, of the genuine Islamic republic.


Arriving in Tehran’s gleaming new terminal at midnight, I passed my bags through the scanner looking for Islamically prohibited alcohol. There were few differences in the city I had left behind me in the aftermath of Ahmadinejad’s victory, described by some liberal Iranians as the worst thing to happen to Iran since the Islamic revolution. Cruising up Tehran’s wide boulevards toward the foot of the al-Borz mountain range that halts the metropolis’s northward expansion, the standard vista flashed by of row upon row of grimy apartment buildings clustered together in a grid. The only color was provided by the occasional billboard or mural of a “martyr” killed in the war with Iraq. Unbeknownst to me, Tehran had been suffering from a cholera outbreak that had already claimed several lives. As I was to find out soon, however, most Iranians were more concerned about how the new government would affect their lives than about the epidemic.

At home, a foreign friend who has lived there for two years and speaks fluent Farsi informed me that Tehran was “depressed” following Ahmadinejad’s appointment of “a cabinet of hard-right-wing nobodies with no experience of government.” The next day, an Iranian friend whose father had served as an ambassador both under the shah and the revolutionary regime told me that neither she nor her father had any idea of who the new people were. “No one has heard of them, no one has worked with them before. They’re unknown,” she said. “Complete unknowns.” Further confirmation of that fact came from a producer for the Iranian state television network. When the new cabinet was announced, he told me, there was a scramble at national television for archival footage to run alongside the announcement of the proposed ministers. Nothing could be found for several of them, however: there was simply no visual trace of their political careers, or even of attendance at a mosque, hospital inauguration, or revolutionary or religious celebration.

Intrigued at how Ahmadinejad had appeared to keep his promise to purge Iranian politics by appointing technocrats, I dug deeper. An Iranian journalist described a prominent ideologue whose teachings had influenced several of the Islamic republic’s grandees. As he went down the list, this revolutionary mentor harrumphed at several intervals, and finally exclaimed: “My, my, these ones are really hardline!”

One reason why Ahmadinjad’s ministerial choices are obscure even to seasoned Iranian politicians is that several of the people with whom he has surrounded himself are his old comrades from the war. At an average age of 48, the present cabinet makes Iran’s senior politicians significantly younger. At the same time, ordinary Iranians report increased harassment on the streets by conservative militias after an eight-year moratorium under former president Mohammad Khatami. A few days before the head of security patrols for greater Tehran’s police announced a crackdown on “social corruption,” an Armenian Iranian in his thirties told me that more cars were being stopped and impounded for increasingly frivolous reasons: where once alcohol had to be found for a car to be taken away, for example, now the presence of a dog—an animal deemed to be unclean by the Qur’an—is reason enough. In addition, wearing the chador is now compulsory in the Islamic Azad University, although the edict does not apply to its Tehran branch.

The swift social changes that followed Ahmadinejad’s election in June further worried the already shaken liberal Iranian bourgeoisie who refused to abandon Iran after the revolution and have clung to their former lives behind the gates of their well-appointed villas and apartments. Such a group gathered in late June in the garden of an Iranian businessman and his foreign wife. It was the morning of the second round of voting in Iran’s presidential election and the tension was palpable among the select crowd of Westernized Iranians sipping tea or coffee and nibbling on dainty cakes. In a burble of Farsi, English, French, and German, they discussed the looming possibility of a political unknown with no international experience running their country. Rattled by the decisiveness with which Ahmadinejad claimed the second spot for himself in the first round, the wealthy crowd poured forth their fears to each other, punctuated by digressions about the European and North American destinations where they’d be spending their summer vacations. “You’ll see what will happen,” one middle-aged man working for a Western multinational predicted: “This demonization of Ahmadinejad is all a smart ploy by [rival candidate and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani to get himself elected. He’ll win by a landslide.” Beyond the walls surrounding the property, however, the citizens of Iran’s Islamic republic were in the process of overwhelmingly voting Ahmadinejad into power.

In the event, little has changed in Iran. The moral police are slightly more forbidding in cracking down on infringements of Islamic law, but Tehran’s private houses still vibrate with almost as many parties as before. Daily flights to Dubai remain just as full of partygoers heading over to catch an Iranian pop star in concert while, domestically, the tendency for Islamic female dress to get shorter and tighter is just as prevalent. (On another recent flight to Tehran from Dubai, there was such a run on the red wine over dinner by the mostly Iranian passengers that the stewardesses had to open extra stock. One lady covered her hair with a headscarf patterned on the Stars and Stripes, as provocative an act as is possible in today’s Iran.)

But popular perceptions of Islamic practice are changing among ordinary Iranians. Year after year, the ranks of devotees marching in the popular feast of Ashura, the commemoration of the death of Shi’a martyr Hossein, swell with hip, urban youth who come out to join what they call the “Hossein parties.” Fashionably dressed young men and women reinterpret the uniform of mourning by slipping on tight black clothes and chatting each other up, exchanging phone numbers, and even dancing in public to the disapproving stares of the more devout. “I’m not a believer but I find myself feeling sorry for Ali [the fourth caliph of Islam and inspirer of Shi’a] when his name is being chanted by girls wearing black lipstick, nail polish, and mascara,” said an Iranian woman in her forties, who remembers that only the devout would attend Ashura marches during the time of the shah.

Reflecting such feelings, many voters opted for Ahmadinejad, a sort of Islamic Robin Hood who, it was believed, would redistribute Iran’s wealth (currently estimated at $200 million of oil income gushing into the country everyday) and return the country to the early, purer years of the revolution. Iran’s disastrous economic plight has seen per-capita income plunge since the days of the shah to an average of $1,800, seven percent less in real terms than during the 1970s. While Iranian economists estimate that $3 billion of capital has fled to safe havens such as Dubai, the Iranian government counters by saying that the revolution’s true achievement has been the redistribution of wealth.

The victory of the ultra-conservatives temporarily ends the eight-year success enjoyed by the reformist movement under twice-elected former president Khatami. Despite enjoying unprecedented popular support, and winning back-to-back electoral landslides, the reformist movement lost the battle against Iran’s parallel power system, which consistently blocked reform. What Ahmadinejad has going for him, therefore—uniting all government institutions under a conservative banner—may also lead to his downfall. Obliged to push through reforms, and with supreme leader Ali Khamenei unlikely to block him, Ahmadinejad will live or die by his policies. Many anti-regime Iranians even cheered the election upset, arguing that the new government was sure to fail its voters and discredit the Islamic republic in the process. It is widely assumed that the 2009 elections will become a general referendum on the republic, with even more massive changes following in its wake.

Three months after the elections, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government has largely left Iranians to their own devices but moved decisively to bolster its claims to a nuclear program and a right to negotiate with the West on an equal footing. With Iran presently stronger than any of its neighbors and amassing record oil profits, the planeloads of Iranians heading to Dubai are not likely to thin out in the near future.

Iason Athanasiadis is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer currently based in Tehran. He has worked for a range of media, including the Financial Times, the BBC, and al-Jazeera.
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