Iran: 'The Times They Are A-Changin'

People in the West tend to have a monolithic view of Iran. But there's a lot more to the country than the mullah-led theocracy, and it often gets ignored....
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks with commuters on a subway train on his way to his office in January. Hopes have increased for a final nuclear deal with the moderate leader.

The Persian Paradox: Iran Is Much More Modern Than You Think

Which government cabinet is home to more ministers with doctorates from American universities than Barack Obama’s administration? The correct answer is that of of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And, no, that list does not include President Hassan Rouhani. He got his doctorate at the University of Glasgow law school.

There are few countries in the world that are subjected to as much Western prejudice and misunderstanding as Iran. I have known the country since the era of the shahs and I have visited it more than a dozen times in the past four decades, including a recent visit.

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 15/2015 (April 4, 2015) of DER SPIEGEL.

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 15/2015 (April 4, 2015) of DER SPIEGEL.

By: Erich Follath, for Der Spiegel — I can remember sitting in a tea house in Shiraz at the grave of the great poet Hafez, who was greatly admired by Goethe, between comfortable pillows and smoking a water pipe, and jotting notes on how disastrously the shah had misjudged the people’s mood and how brutal his secret service, the Savak, was. And I recall how the masses greeted Ayatollah Khomenei as their savior when he returned from exile in 1979 and how they celebrated the Islamic Revolution. But I also observed how quickly those illusions were destroyed with the rise of a new and even bloodier dictatorship in the name of a theocracy waging battle against the “great Satan” (the United States) and the “little Satan” (Israel). I observed just how mercilessly the insurgency brought on in 2009 by the children of the revolution was stamped out. I recall how reckless former President Ahmadinejad was in his denial of the Holocaust. Then, in 2013, I watched as moderate President Rouhani got elected, increasing the possibility of rapprochement with the West.

Pro-West Sentiment

The Iran of today has changed dramatically. In more liberal cities like Shiraz and Isfahan, young entrepreneurs have opened small cafés and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin,” has become the favourite song. Young students hold hands in public and women pull their obligatory headscarves back to the point where their hair is visible (a forbidden act). Tourists are welcomed all over the place and are treated with overt hospitality.

With the exception of Israel, there is unlikely any other country in the Middle East where pro-Western sentiment is as pronounced as it is in Iran. Millions of young people attend university. And even though women are still discriminated against — laws limit their right to divorce and custody of their children and also stipulate that they can be subject to prosecution starting at the age of nine as opposed to 15 for boys — they live more freely here than in many other countries in the region. With the help of quick-to-install illegal satellite dishes that can be found everywhere, they also have access to Western news programs.

Only a few hundred kilometres west of here, fanatical Islamists have erected a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. In Iran, however, the role of religion is in decline. People here consider the mullahs to be corrupt and they are the objects of contempt. Friends tell me to avoid standing next to a cleric wearing a turban and robe when hailing a taxi. The drivers, they say, won’t stop. And while the many mosques may be empty, the country’s consumer cathedrals, its new shopping centres, are packed. Group-think today is scorned and individualism is in vogue.

The disillusionment, of course, isn’t new. Already back in 2003, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a former comrade-in-arms of Khomenei’s who would later be placed under house arrest as a member of the opposition, openly admitted this failure during a meeting we had in Qom. “We have lost the world’s respect through our excesses — and my dreams are dead,” he said. “The religious leader should limit his role to representative duties — and that is what will happen.”

But Montazeri was mistaken. There is no recognisable trend in Iran suggesting a move toward a constitutional monarchy let alone a Westminster democracy. Even today, Iran’s system of government, with Ali Khamenei in the highest position as a higher authority than the president and parliament, doesn’t appear to be seriously threatened. Following the crushing of the protests almost six years ago, few people continue to believe that politics can be changed through demonstrations. Instead, they take advantage of the small amount of freedom they are given in public parks and galleries. Inside their own homes, though, they party exuberantly in a parallel private life.

More Madrid than Havana

The cities suffer under constant traffic jams and, at least at first glance, it doesn’t look like people are living in want. Despite the sanctions, the standard of living and shopping opportunities are more comparable to Madrid than Havana. A remarkable number of new shopping centers are currently under construction, with names like Palladium or Mega Mall, and you can see Porsches parked out in front. The upper class doesn’t appear to be suffering much under the economic bottlenecks.

Many in the West have a monolithic image of Iran, but that is not the reality. Iran is a country with diverse centres of power that view each other suspiciously. The elected government often doesn’t even know what the Pasdaran, the powerful paramilitary organisation, is actually doing. And the Revolutionary Guard, which theocracy founder Khomenei once built up for his own protection, is today better armed than the army itself and has become something of a state within a state.

The Revolutionary Guard also finances many of the new shopping centres, and its economic power has become just as big a problem for the moderate president as its military prowess. The Revolutionary Guard symbolises the other, more threatening Iran. It controls exports as well as the country’s nuclear program. Using the Basij militia, which the Revolutionary Guard deploys as its unofficial police force, it goes after demonstrators. And it doesn’t shy away from terrorist acts abroad with its Quds Force. It is often hostile towards Rouhani, who sometimes retaliates. Recently, for example, he threatened to give the people their own voice in the form of a referendum — a provocation against the Revolutionary Guard, but also an affront to the religious leader.

In contrast to the highly networked Pasdaran, “normal” Iranians have been hit by the country’s economic decline. During 2012 and 2013, gross domestic product shrank considerably, the national currency, the rial, fell significantly in value against the dollar and inflation is high. In the longer term, the country, which is reliant on oil exports, is threatened with deep cuts to its social system. In order to cover the government’s budgetary needs, the price per barrel of oil would have to be $130, but in recent months it hasn’t even been half that. | Read More at Der Spiegel‘s Web Site…

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