A nation in turmoil

Iranians try to redefine their revolution

Fred Reed January 16 1989

A nation in turmoil

Iranians try to redefine their revolution

Fred Reed January 16 1989

Six months after grudgingly accepting a ceasefire that ended the brutal eight-year war with Iraq, Iran is still reeling from the conflict. As the country prepares to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution next month, Maclean’s Correspondent Fred Reed visited a nation in turmoil. His report:

Gone are the heaps of smouldering rubble that marked the sites of missile hits. Now only vacant lots are the silent reminders of devastating bombardments—the so-called war of the cities—between Tehran and Baghdad. Construction has begun again. New hotels inch their way skyward, and a subway system is being built to carry passengers from the traffic-choked city centre to the suburbs. But beneath those surface signs of a return to normalcy in Tehran lie unmistakable undercurrents of discontent. In one grocery store, well stocked with spaghetti, sugar and tea, the curly-haired owner recently listened to complaints about rampant inflation aired on Radio Tehran’s morning open-line show.

“Here the mullahs tell the faithful that television sets, carpets and cars are sinful luxuries,” said the owner, who asked that his name not be used. “But if you go to the mullah’s house, you will find them all. I don’t know how much longer we can put up with it.”

A decade after the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi on Jan. 16, Iran’s Islamic revolution has failed disastrously to live up to its often glowing promises. The bloody desert war with Iraq killed roughly 300,000 Iranians—and ended in a dismal stalemate. Iran remains politically and economically isolated from other countries, while internally it is torn by public dissatisfaction over social inequality, soaring prices and corruption. At the same time, with 87-year-old Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini apparently ill, there is a deepening power struggle between Hojatoleslam Hashemi Rafsanjani, the West-leaning parliament speaker, and other leaders who oppose foreign influences in Iranian affairs. Rafsanjani currently has the upper hand and he has already begun reaching out to the international community as he undertakes a much-needed economic reconstruction. “The government of Iran is facing political and financial bankruptcy,” said a high-ranking Iranian official. “Our survival is a miracle of the people’s faith in Islam.”

The government’s surprise decision to end the war with Iraq clearly shocked many of Iran’s devout Shiite Moslem citizens. But faced with death and destruction, economic ruin and growing international isolation, Iranian leaders—on July 18—finally accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 598, imposing a UN-supervised ceasefire. “The revolution created aspirations for a strong, prosperous, advanced Iran,” said deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Larijani. “But the war robbed us of this opportunity. We had to decide: 10 more years of war, or end the fighting and get on with rebuilding.” To do that, however, Iranian leaders first had to persuade an embittered Ayatollah Khomeini, who described the decision as “worse than drinking poison.” In effect, some analysts say, Iran’s acceptance of Resolution 598 signalled the end of Khomeini’s control of government policy. Said one Tehran-based Middle East diplomat: “Khomeini is only a figurehead now, albeit still an extremely potent symbol.”

The key figure in launching the peace initiative was Rafsanjani. The 53-year-old speaker represents the interests of the powerful merchant class, called bazaaris after Tehran’s sprawling bazaar that accounts for a significant portion of the country’s economic activity. Rafsanjani and the bazaaris, who control central government ministries, are attempting to rebuild the nation’s war-torn economy using the private sector as well as foreign investment. “We’re moving toward a free-market economy,” said Larijani. “Ideologically, we think the concept of Islam must be presented in a modern way, related to modern needs.”

But the bazaaris will face a critical challenge when presidential elections are held in May. A coalition led by Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moussavi has the backing of such powerful organizations as the 300,000-strong Revolutionary Guards and the Reconstruction Crusade, a civilian group that builds dams and roads. Moussavi opposes a widening role for the private sector and foreign investors, and he favors tighter state control of the economy.

Even more opposed to foreign involvement is a third political group, apparently led by Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami. Last month, Mohtashami—a longtime confidant of Khomeini and commander of the widely feared and heavily armed Islamic revolutionary committees—told a seminar of public officials that all political, economic and cultural dependence on the West should end.

For all the debate over economic policy, a social liberalization is already evident in Tehran. New regulations permit most music, which, like chess, had been banned under the strict Islamic standards of the revolution. Dress-code patrols, a feature of life in the capital city during the early days of the revolution, have vanished. The lobbies of major hotels are crowded with elegantly dressed women wearing high-fashion shoes and showing a daring extra five centimetres of hair between forehead and scarf.

On treelined Vali-Asr Avenue, men’s clothing stores no longer stock shirts with the stand-up collar fashionable after the overthrow of the Shah. “No one except mullahs wears those anymore,” remarked a sales clerk as he offered customers the locally made Yves Saint Laurent imitations. Still, some things in Iran have not changed. Alcohol is prohibited. And a minor scandal erupted when the respected daily newspaper Kayhan ran a front-page photograph of a foreign diplomatic delegation that featured a bareheaded woman attending an official government function.

At the same time, Tehran newspapers obliquely confirm instances of human rights abuses, although they are officially denied. A political analyst with ties to the administration of Tehran’s Evin prison confirmed reports of mass executions of members and sympathizers of the Iraqi-armed and financed opposition People’s Mujahedeen Organization. Members of the group were captured after they launched an offensive deep into Iranian territory in July.

Sources close to the government also told Maclean’s that as many as 12 people—including several mullahs and a former member of parliament—were executed after secret trials in late November. The victims may have been politically linked with Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s designated successor.

“Ayatollah Montazeri may be in danger,” said a middle-ranking government official. “He must certainly have a close look at who his friends and companions are.” A University of Tehran sociologist described the executions as the work of bazaari “reactionaries” intent on eliminating their adversaries. “We overthrew the Shah, kicked out the Americans and held off the Iraqis,” he said. “And now our revolution is being taken over by people who can only praise the virtues of the private sector.”

The political group that wins the current power struggle will face a formidable task in rebuilding postwar Iran’s economy. Since 1984, Iran’s oil revenue, undermined by Iraqi attacks on Iranian oil installations and the glut in the world market, has been cut nearly in half to an annual income of $19 billion. As well, deliberate daily power outages lasting as long as five hours have sharply cut industrial output. And economists claim that, although there are no published figures, inflation soared 80 to 90 per cent in the past year. There are disquieting signs that Tehran—the dusty, polluted capital of 12 million—is becoming an even more expensive city than it used to be. Using the official exchange rate, a modest breakfast can cost $25. About $50 will buy Iran’s national dish, chelo kebab—grilled meat and rice—served with salad and washed down with nonalcoholic Islamic beer. A majority of Iranians cannot even afford the Iranian-built Paykan car, which costs about $1,400. Said one store owner: “Speculators are making fortunes, while poor people are getting poorer.”

Despite that, Iran’s slum dwellers and peasants appear to support the current regime. A popular member of parliament, Said Rajai’e Khorassani, declared, “The lower strata, who bear the brunt of bitter experience, understand that most of our economic problems are not the result of mismanagement.” Khorassani, a former ambassador to the UN, blames Tehran’s troubles on the Western economic boycott of Iran initiated by the United States in 1979.

But with the Rafsanjani moderates in apparent control, several Western governments— including Canada, Britain and France—have recently hastened to restore diplomatic relations with Tehran. And while the Soviets have retained formal relations with Iran since the revolution, last week the two nations took another step toward ending a long-standing chill when Ayatollah Javadi-Amoli, a personal envoy of Khomeini, met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. Foreign businessmen have also increased contacts. Last August, Italy sent a large trade delegation to Tehran, and in November West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher led 120 businessmen to the Iranian capital.

At the newly reopened Canadian Embassy, chargé d’affaires Scott Mullin and commercial secretary Andrew Griffith have already reviewed trading contacts that had been dormant for nine years. Said Mullin: “Iran is important as a real and potential commercial partner and in the geopolitical sense.” Added Griffith: “Iran is definitely moving toward an increased role for the private sector. Larger Canadian companies should be here getting involved in premarketing.”

Already, major Canadian construction firms—including Toronto-based Acres International and Montreal-based SNC—have sent representatives to Iran. And according to Tehran businessman Hossein Amini, Canada’s prospects in Iran are improving. “I tell Canadians to take a position before the United States appears on the scene,” said Amini. “You can do very well in key sectors like petroleum, mining, agriculture, transportation and communications.” Other businessmen express skepticism that Iran is really opening its doors to the West. “Sure, you’ll see liberalization, but only at the grocery-store level,” said a Turkish industrial chemical importer. “We are looking at a directed economy, but one which will make it easier for buyers to contact suppliers.”

As Iran’s winter of discontent grips the nation, many Iranians, at last freed from the terrible clutches of war, see their country at a crossroads. At Tehran’s Shahid Mohammed Montazeri High School, Ahmad Asrar is trying to keep his unruly third-year English class in line as 50 students excitedly question a foreign reporter. One serious, bright-eyed boy politely asked what Canadians think of Iran. The reporter replied that its image could be better. As a murmur of indignation swept the classroom, the 16-year-old boy asked the reporter to make sure he tells Canadians that Iranians are peaceful people devoted to Islam. Still, his countrymen face an uphill battle in overcoming the ravages of eight years of brutal fighting and seemingly endless internal troubles.