Iran’s image, JONATHON GATEHOUSE finds, is far different than its reality
IF THINGS HAD GONE as once planned, it would be his face staring out from the billboards, murals and banknotes. The Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, Object of Emulation, second-in-command of the Islamic revolution, author of Iran’s constitution, trusted adviser to Ayatollah Khomeini and almost Supreme Leader. A tiny man with thick brows, a white beard and owlish black-framed glasses. Now 81, and in declining health, he has a limp handshake and his left arm trembles against the side of his chair. But the opinions that led to his falling out with former colleagues and house arrest for the last six
years remain as dangerous as ever. Recently freed, he is unrepentant, and entirely ready to proclaim the new emperor as naked as the old one.
“It’s just as poisonous as it was under the Shah,” says Montazeri. “The people wanted three main things from the revolution: independence from the Americans, freedom to be able to say what they thought, and a democracy run by Islamic principles. But now, anybody who speaks out in opposition finds themselves in jail.” He talks in long torrents, like someone who is used to being listened to, not questioned. An aide crouches by his chair with a tape recorder. It’s not clear if he’s capturing the speech for posterity, or wiggle-room in case the authorities again come knocking. “This sort of government where one person acts as dictator can’t exist in this modem world. Wé have to consult the people,” says Montazeri. Warming to his sermon, the ayatollah checks off the current regime’s multitude of failings: a listless economy, sky-high unemployment, special religious courts never foreseen in the constitution, the closing of newspapers, the arrests of dissidents, executions, international isolation. “Politics should be pure, clean and honest,” he says. “Reform is just getting back to what we wanted from the revolution in the first place.”
It’s almost 25 years since Montazeri and his fellow clerics in Qom, two hours south of Tehran and Shia Islam’s theological capital, declared Iran the world’s first Islamic republic. Now he contemplates whether they made an error. “No, it wasn’t a mistake,” he says after a silence. “We had a revolution because people wanted something to change— it just hasn’t happened.”
Circumstances being what they are, Montazeri hasn’t been outside much lately. The view is changing. A couple of blocks away on Qom’s dusty main drag, seminarians in robes and turbans stride past a crudely painted mural of Mickey and Minnie Mouse that decorates a daycare centre. A nearby shopping mall features Western brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Boss. Three young women in black chadors stare longingly at the jeans-clad mannequins, fingering bandanas with the Farsi word for “death” printed in heavy-metal-style lettering. Iran’s revolution ended a long time ago. Its evolution is well underway.
“THE WOMAN in a hijab is like a pearl in a shell,” says the sign hanging above the food court in chic north Tehran. Like most government advertising, it appears to have negligible effect. The teenage girls are push-
ing things as far as they dare, slathered in makeup, wearing form-fitting smocks, their scarves perched on the crowns of their heads. The overly cologned boys competing for their attention are togged out in baggy jeans and leather coats—some even sport do-rags and Band-Aids under their eyes like hip-hop star Nelly. Sitting at a table outside Boof, Iran’s answer to McDonald’s, Negin and Nina, both 16, are clearing up some North American misconceptions. “We party four nights a week,” Negin says in flawless English. Once behind closed doors, the girls lose the chadors and hijabs and strut their stuff in short skirts and babydoll T-shirts. They dance to the latest music— Dido, Beyoncé, Creed and 50 Cent—courtesy of the Internet and satellite radio. “People drink, of course,” says Nina. “And everybody uses ecstasy.”
All of these activities are expressly forbidden by the Islamic republic, but neither of the girls seems to fear getting caught. They even have a message for teens on this side of the world. “Tell them we’re not the way Americans think we are,” says Negin. “We’re just like them.” Maybe even worse.
The excesses of the affluent districts of the capital aren’t representative of the life most Iranians lead, but things have liberalized considerably since President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist colleagues swept to victory in 1997. The grip of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah and Basij militias—the vigilantes who enforce standards of dress and behaviour—has loosened. Unmarried couples clasp hands on the street, and foreign music blasts out of cars stuck in Tehran’s perpetual gridlock. Bandages have become a status symbol as girls proudly advertise their just-completed nose jobs, and plastic surgeons also do a booming business in
Montazeri (opposite) Women in chadors (top) at an anti U.S. demonstration in Tehren; Neign (left) ans Nina: "We party four rights a week.
breast enhancement anci Botox injections.
Downtown, the walls of the former U.S. embassy—or Den of Espionage, as it is known—are still covered with anti-American paintings such as a death’s-head Statue of Liberty, but Westerners are treated warmly almost everywhere they go. Pirated DVDs of Hollywood films such as Daddy Day Care and Reservoir Dogs are sold openly. Tom and Jerry and The Pink Panther cartoons are something of a national obsession, and satellite dishes tuned to foreign stations are visible on almost every rooftop. Absence, it seems, does make the heart grow fonder.
For most Iranians, the austere theocracy that gelled into place after the chaos of the revolution and the bloody eight-year war with Iraq was unexpected and unwelcome. This was, and remains, a cosmopolitan, educated society. Nor is the country particularly devout compared to many of its Sunni Muslim neighbours—only 1.5 per cent of Iranians attend Friday services, and one cleric has estimated that almost three-quarters of the population neglect their daily prayers.
But reform is not a simple proposition. Khatami and his elected colleagues in the majlis, the parliament, wield limited power.
THE COUNTRY¡s not as devout as its Sunni Muslim neighbours-only 1.5 per cent of Iranians attend Friday services
Their laws, and even their candidacy for office, must be endorsed by the 12 senior clerics who sit on Iran’s Council of Guardians and control the police, army, judiciary, government appointments, and the press. Above them sits the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose word is law. Two other unelected groups of clerics—the Assembly of Experts, and the Council of Expediency—also have considerable influence. In Iran, it’s the guys in the turbans who now travel in chauffeur-driven Mercedes and live in plush highwalled compounds. Many have enriched themselves mightily since the early days of the revolution, with the fortunes of some powerful clans estimated to be in the billions.
Why then is the ruling class worried enough to compromise? Demographics. More than two-thirds of Iran’s 65 million people are
under the age of 30, most of them born after the revolution, and their frustration with the Islamic republic is palpable. The school system churns out two million highschool graduates every year, but only offers 150,000 spaces in college or university. Unemployment officially stands at 25 per cent, but is estimated to be as high as 85 per cent for the baby boomers.
Inflation is in the double digits, the currency is virtually worthless (it’s not uncommon to see Iranians doing their shopping clutching brick-sized stacks of rials), and despite Iran having 10 per cent of the world’s known oil reserves and more natural gas than any country except Russia, even less of the wealth trickles down to the population than it did under the corrupt and hated Shah. The infrastructure is crumbling, crime and prostitution are on the upswing, and the flood of cheap heroin from Afghanistan—two grams cost the equivalent of 95 cents—has created a growing drug problem.
The city ofTehran, sprawling and polluted, slopes down from the foothills of the snow-capped Alborz mountains. The further you travel from the neat gardens and villas on its heights, the poorer it gets. By the
time you get reach the Saleh Abad neighbourhood, within smelling distance of the main refinery, the roads are dirt, and chickens peck through the trash-filled ditches. After a quarter-century of Islamic rule, whatever hopes people here had for better lives have been abandoned. The recent changes count for nothing when you are struggling to feed your family.
It’s late in the afternoon, and workers at the local bakery are busy making flatbread. Jalal Azizi, 25, uses a 20-foot-long wood paddle to move browning pieces of dough around a giant gas-jet oven. His dad tends to the counter, his cousin works beside him. We talk about the next parliamentary elections scheduled for February, a vote moderates say they must win or the reform process will die. “I used to have lots of hopes,” Azizi says. “The first time Khatami was elected, I voted for him. But he’s just a puppet.” Politicians get elected, they become rich, and they forget the people, he rants. Doesn’t anybody try to make life better for the people in Saleh Abad? Azizi scowls. “There’s one guy from the Basij who claims he’s here to help us, but all he wants to do is screw the women.” Customers are lined up at the counter, and he goes back to the oven and turns up the heat.
THERE IS NO LOCK on the door ofMasoud Dhnamaki’s basement office. In fact, there isn’t even a handle. This may have to do
with the fact that anyone wanting to rob him would have to be insane. Crazier even than he is.
Mementoes of Dhnamaki’s four years on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war, starting at age 16—mortar shells, a helmet, photos of dead comrades—are scattered about the room. Since returning home when the conflict ended in stalemate in 1988, Dhnamaki has devoted himself to keeping the memory of his friends, and the Islamic revolution they fought for, alive. He publishes magazines filled with pictures of war wounds and corpses, and articles preaching against any
accommodation with the West. “The Americans are trying to take power everywhere, and we’re trying to avoid it,” he says. Until recently, Dhnamaki was a leader of Ansar-e-Hezbollah, one of the thuggish militias hardline conservatives use to keep dissenting civilians in line. Members don’t wear
uniforms, but are readily identified by their beards, untucked shirts, large flesh-tearing signet rings, and indifference to soap and water. When student protests flare up, as they did in 1999, 2001 and this past June and July, it is the militias that eventually restore order with the aid of sticks, fists, and guns. “These things are natural in a politically energetic society,” Dhnamaki says, fixing me with a thousand-yard stare. “In the West your young people beat each other up for a ball. Here we do it for ideas. We are much, much further ahead.” In September, militia members expressed themselves by shooting out windows at the British embassy in four separate attacks.
Something is in the wind, however, and Iranian hard-liners are adjusting their tactics. Recent decisions to allow the International Atomic Energy Commission access to investigate whether Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, and to provide the UN with the names of some of the suspected al-Qaeda members the government has jailed or deported, suggest a new openness. Dhnamaki has abandoned thuggery for filmmaking (his first short is entitled Death to America) and may be considering a run for political office. “Every movement or organization should know the condition of the times. And the person who wants to fight has to know all the tools,” he says cryptically. Efforts to clarify are met with a curt “We want to kill George Bush” in English, and a teeth-baring smile. The changes are more subtle in some quarters than others.
It is difficult for a foreign journalist to find any mainstream conservative who won’t at least pay lip service to the need for further democratic reforms. “Nobody wants Iran to be isolated in the international arena again,” says Taha Hashemi, a cleric who runs the conservative Entekhab newspaper. “The Iranian people will find their way to democracy. They prefer to be part of the global society.” Incidents like the beating death of Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi are widely regarded as embarrassments, he says. “A lot of people in the ruling class aren’t comfortable with the hardliners in the judiciary. These people have to
find a way to get along with the reformers.” Hamid Reza Tarayhi, head of Motalef, a hardline conservative coalition, argues that politicians should spend more time concentrating on the economy. “Our priorities should be fighting corruption and unemployment,” he says. “Freedom of speech is already guaranteed in the constitution.” But Tarayhi says it would be counterproductive to start rolling back reforms at this point.
Iran’s quarter-century of international isolation has in some ways been beneficial for both sides. It’s given the West an “Axis of Evil” bogeyman to tilt at. And it has allowed Iran to perpetuate the fiction that its people wholeheartedly support the Islamic republic. While not even close to being friends, the U.S. and Iran have long maintained backchannel dialogues on a host of issues, and the ayatollahs agreed to stay out of the wars in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iraq. The problem for the West is knowing when it is being played. “Duplicity is official Iranian policy,” says one Tehran-based foreign diplomat. The carrot-and-stick approach suddenly seems to be yielding results, but there
are no guarantees that this new openness will continue. “Confrontation is really there, looming right behind the issues,” says the diplomat. “If the Iranians don’t see the concrete benefits of co-operating, things could go right back to the way they were.”
The most difficult question about Iran is whether the last six years have been some sort of soon-to-be-terminated Tehran Spring, or the prelude to another seismic shift in government. Mohammed Ali Abtahi, Iran’s vice-president and Khatami’s right-hand man, is a cheery, chubby man with a black turban, expensive gold watch and fine shoes. Sprawled on a leather couch in his office, he argues that real, irreversible change has already happened. In a cinema-mad country,
he chooses a film metaphor to make his point. “In the long shot, we’ve succeeded. Now we have to solve the close-up problems.” Foreigners and many Iranians, especially the young, are too impatient, he says. “The reforms in the West took 300 years and two world wars to set up. Here we have 2,500 years of kingdoms, and a long history to overcome.”
Outside in the streets, however, people aren’t necessarily willing to wait that long. In Tehran’s historic Vali-e Asr Square, young men squat against a brick wall. They are labourers, migrants from the rural parts of the country, waiting for work. Most say they are lucky to get a couple of days a month. “Our families can’t afford more than one meal with meat in a year,” says Mohammed Khamadi, a 25-year-old. “We sit here from six in the morning to six at night and get nothing, no jobs, no food. We have to feed our kids.” The hard-liners and the reformers would do well to pay attention. Revolutions have started for less. fTH
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