Iran

LONGING FOR AMERICA

Suppressed by religious leaders, some Iranians would welcome a U.S. Invasion

ADNAN R. KHAN May 12 2003
Iran

LONGING FOR AMERICA

Suppressed by religious leaders, some Iranians would welcome a U.S. Invasion

ADNAN R. KHAN May 12 2003

LONGING FOR AMERICA

Suppressed by religious leaders, some Iranians would welcome a U.S. Invasion

Iran

ADNAN R. KHAN

THE 300 PEOPLE gathering in Baghdad last week represented nearly every faction and religious group in Iraq. Brought together by U.S. officials, they will meet again in about a month to decide whether their country will adopt a leadership council or single head of state. Among them were members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which wants to create a strict Muslim state similar to the one in neighbouring Iran. But as Maclean’s correspondent Adnan R. Khan criss-crossed Iran recently, he found a country desperate to overthrow the nation’s clerics, who came to power with the revolt against the Shah in 1979 and continue to rule with an iron fist. Many Iranians told Khan they would welcome American troops if they were sent in to remove the leadership. While that is unlikely, Iranians’ biggest ally may be a democratic Iraq in which religion and individual rights coexist, and from where tolerance and prosperity just might spread and bring the downfall of Iran’s religious regime. Khan’s report:

HELL IS A MATTER of perspective. For some in Iraq, the burning oil trenches and exploding cruise missiles that lit up Baghdad’s crumbling skyline were the definitive symbol of hell on earth. In neighbouring Iran, people have a different take on hell. Weaving through the congestion of Tabriz, a city of more than one million in the northwest of the country, Abbas, a taxi driver, says he lived in America for two years, then returned to Iran in 1997 following the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami. But democracy never materialized under Khatami, and Iran’s Muslim leaders continue to control virtually every facet of life. As it was in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, criticizing the leadership can lead to prison and execution. Now, Abbas hopes the American troops occupying Iraq will soon liberate Iran. “In America I learned the meaning of life,” says Abbas. “Then I came back to hell.”

Iranians are living in a frustrating, sometimes deadly, political gridlock. While Khatami remains in office and parliament is dom-

inated by reformers, real power rests with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has absolute authority and holds his position for life. He controls the judiciary, the Revolutionary Guards and the all-powerful Council of Guardians, whose members, as the selfstyled representatives of God on earth, can veto any legislation that does not fit with their strict interpretation of the Koran. Eighty democratic activists have been assassinated since 1990, and massive street protests demanding reforms have had little effect on the government.

With their faith in Khatami’s ability to overthrow the clerics at low ebb, Iran’s youth, over-educated and underemployed, are banking that America’s promise to bring democracy to Iraq will also include them. About 60 per cent of Iranians are under the age of 30. Many identify with the U.S. and

IF YOU want the truth, we’re happy about how the war in Iraq has turned out,’ one woman said. ‘I think America can help us now.’

see Iraq has a testing ground, a first step in their own emancipation. For them, the Great Satan is the Great Saviour. This is what they talk about in the safety of their homes and smoke-filled tea houses. It’s not only the young who are restless. “The revolution that overturned the Shah was never about the clergy,” says Hossein, a 55-year-old retired government employee in Tabriz. “We fought against the corruption of the Shah. The mullahs took that opportunity to seize power. We never wanted them.”

On the streets of Tabriz no one dares expose their true feelings. At the city’s Open University, Parisa Partovian, a 22-year-old English student, nervously scans the parking lot for any sign of government informants before driving to a secluded corner of the campus. “It’s very difficult for us to

talk to you,” she says, pulling her mandatory head scarf back to reveal jet-black hair. “If you want the truth, we’re happy about the way the war in Iraq has turned out. We’re relieved Saddam is gone and we look forward to what that means for Iran. I think America can help us now. We want more freedom. We want the freedom to speak our minds and we think America can bring this to us.”

But Partovian is adamant that Iran’s young people do not crave a Western lifestyle. “We can go to Turkey very easily to enjoy all those things—the dance clubs, the bars,” she says. The problem, according to her, is that people want to be able to express themselves. And she says the clerics have so mismanaged the economy that despite Iran’s oil wealth, average monthly income is hovering below $US200 and unemployment has risen to 12 per cent.

The situation is at its worst in the countryside. On the road to Kandovan, a village 50 km south of Tabriz, smooth asphalt gives way to pockmarked roads, and slums dominate the landscape. Many of the villagers still live in caves their ancestors dug out of volcanic rock centuries ago, and survive on meagre incomes derived from herding sheep or selling nuts and fruits. One villager, a father of two, says that 90 per cent of the people in Kandovan are looking forward to an American attack. “If it happens, we will not defend Iran,” he says, seated on the carpeted floor of his two-room cave, its lime-green walls casting pastel reflections from a single light. “We have given too many martyrs for this country,” he says. “For us, America is very good.” Most of his neighbours detest the ruling clergy. “No mullahs here,” says one herdsman wandering up the muddy alleyway to his own cave. “We don’t want them.”

The power of the clerics is most evident in Qom. This austere city, 125 km south of Tehran, is where the Ayatollah Khomeini grew up and from where the religious elite continues to rule. Sermons blare uninterrupted from loudspeakers. You wouldn’t want to be an American in this part of the

country. Looking westward from Qom, the clergy eagerly welcome a post-Saddam Iraq, but for very different reasons than their secular counterparts. In Iraqi cities like Karbala and An Najaf, Shia leaders are organizing. Some want to create an Islamic state. For more than 20 years, Iran financed Shia opposition groups in Iraq, and sheltered Shia clerics banned by Saddam. Now, a religious decree issued in Qom in April has urged Shias to return home and resist the “Great Satan.”

American officials insist they will never allow a theocracy to take root in Iraq, and have warned Iran’s militant clerics not to intervene. But many clerics in Qom believe the emergence of an Islamic state in Iraq would benefit them. “Iran is America’s main target—that’s what people in the religious community feel here,” says Sulayman Hassan, a 24-year-old student at the Imam Khomeini Madrassah, the largest religious school in the city. “That’s what Afghanistan and Iraq were about. Most of the religious leaders feel a Shia government in Iraq would thwart American intentions in the region.”

Like many in the religious establishment, Hassan, an American citizen from Buffalo who has been studying in Qom for six years, is dismissive of the unrest in Iran. He believes even America’s supporters in the country will rally behind the ruling clerics in the event of an attack. “The secularists might say, ‘We’d rather have America,’ ” says Hassan. “But when it comes down to it, they might not consider this government to be that much of an enemy or America that much of a friend.”

But if the United States is successful in rebuilding Iraq’s economy and creating a secular democracy, that could put fatal pressure on Qom. Khamenei’s regime is vulnerable, and if Iraq is successful in allowing Islam to flourish alongside democracy and economic growth, the regime’s failures may finally become too much, and may trigger a second revolution.

So far, the clergy have closed their ears to citizens’ demands. Most refuse to acknowledge the economic crisis—some even say the government is providing everything its citizens need. That suggestion brings an angry response. “If you’re going to photograph the mullahs,” says one photographer in Tabriz, “do it in black and white. That’s how they see the world.” Many Iranians hope that democracy in Iraq may make such a bleak picture considerably brighter, fifl