Something ominous is going on in Iran right now – and it has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. The ruling clerics – and their pet poodle, Ahmadinejad – are striking back. One fact that America and the West have perhaps not grasped fully is that the Iranian hard liners are so conservative, they make George Bush and the Republicans look like bleeding heart liberals. When they feel threatened, they are going to hit back with a vengeance – and they are not going to bother about niceties like fundamental rights and due process of law. I know this first hand, because I have lived through Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.
And why are Ahmadinejad and his black-robed masters worried? Because Iran’s economy is in a mess. This is particularly inexcusable, since Iran is not one of those basket-case Islamic countries, like Sudan or Aden. Iran is literally sitting on a sea of oil. The country’s oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia and far greater than those of Iraq. Like the cash rich Saudis, Iranians should be awash in petrodollars. Ordinary Saudi citizens have most basic services provided free of cost by their government; and most of them do not even pay income tax. Ordinary Iranians, on the other hand, are seeing a steady downward curve in their standard of living. Before the Islamic Revolution, one US dollar would fetch you 70 Iranian Rials; now it will get you more than 9000. Not surprisingly, inflation is going through the roof. Ahmadinejad’s government had promised economic prosperity for the people; not an unrealistic goal considering that Iran is the world’s second largest oil producer and oil prices are going up all the time. However, it has failed to deliver on almost all fronts. The supreme irony is that Iran is now seriously considering rationing gasoline.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This is the government that got rid of the corrupt and blasphemous Shah, to usher in a pure Islamic state – even if it was a millennium behind the times. This is the government that got rid of godless Western evils like dating and dancing and movies that promoted debauchery and demeaned women. This is the government that ‘saved’ women and kept them pure, by covering them up and forbidding social interaction with the opposite sex; unless chaperoned and sanctioned by the husbands. This is the government that promoted jihad against the ‘enemies’ of Mohammed and Allah. In fact, everything they did was in the name of Allah. In all fairness, Allah should have gratefully blessed them and their nation with riches and other bounties.
Only Allah did not. And this is what really terrifies Iran’s ruling clergy, including the Supreme Leader. If the glorious Islamic Revolution is perceived to be a failure – and many ordinary Iranians are starting to wonder if it was all worth it – their authority would be seriously undermined. I have a hunch, that one reason that Iran is acting so belligerent over the nuclear processing issue, is that it is almost trying to goad the West into imposing economic sanctions. Then they can blame the Great Satan and his allies for their country’s woes. As it is, Iran has been using American support for a change in government as well as a possible military attack, as a pretext to hound its opposition and its sympathizers. Saddam Hussein used the sanctions to good effect; making sure ordinary Iraqis were so busy despising the West, that they almost had no energy left to hate Saddam. George Bush – and Europe – did not get it in Iraq; and they are not getting it now.
The current crackdown is focusing on labor leaders, universities, the press, women's rights advocates and Iranian-Americans, three of whom have been in prison for more than six weeks. But this is just the beginning. I have personally witnessed what the Islamic republic of Iran is capable of. This was soon after Khomeini arrived in Iran in 1979. Hundreds, who did not support the revolution, were tried in kangaroo courts, convicted in one day, after a farcical ‘trial’ and executed the very next morning. Women who did not completely cover their hair had their heads shaved; and those that were caught with make up and lipstick had their lips slashed with a razor blade.
Of course, the government may not be able to get away with such brutality this time. Back in 1979, the majority of the population backed the Ayatollahs. Even educated Iranians, who were secretly horrified at the excesses committed, kept silent. Perhaps, it was the price to be paid to usher in a pure Islamic state. And if everyday life was hard, many were content to wait for the 72 virgins till they reached paradise.
However, the present generation of Iranians – having waited almost 30 years for a grateful Allah to transform their land into a Garden of Eden – are not so patient; or forgiving. They have endured their incomes steadily decline, in real terms; their individual freedoms curtailed; and the ignominy of witnessing the Great Satan growing ever more prosperous, while they sink deeper into an economic quagmire.
A brief aside about Iranians would be appropriate at this stage. Many Westerners tend to club Iran together with the rest of the Muslim world. Iranians, however, are not Arabs; and would be highly offended if so addressed. Iran, after all, ruled over a vast empire stretching from Europe to India, even before the advent of Alexander the Great – at a time when Arabs were nomadic tribes, scrounging in the desert. Iranians pride themselves on their history and culture; and consider themselves infinitely more civilized than their Arab brethren. Even in today’s Islamic Iran, women – notwithstanding the restrictions on dress and social behavior – are far more equal to men than their counterparts in, say, Saudi Arabia.
Today’s generation, then, is fed up with its government, The ruling mullahs seem to be doing all right for themselves, but very little of the promised prosperity is trickling down. The people are questioning their leaders and asking for accountability. Which is the one thing they are not likely to get. Ahmadinejad and his gang are responding the only way they know how – with brute force.
Ideally, they would like to roll back the clock to 1979 and usher in a cultural revolution, when religious zeal and anti-imperialist sentiments carried the day; and helped cloak the shortcomings of the government. It is not likely to work this time. Most Iranians are still devout Muslims, but only the hoi polloi are still consumed with anti-imperialist fervor. Many of them are secretly envious of the West and would love to emulate that lifestyle.
Dissemination of ‘alien’ ideas is precisely what the government fears most. Satellite dishes have long been banned in Iran; and now the regime is censoring any news it deems detrimental – to itself, that is. That is why so little has been permitted to be discussed in the Iranian news media. Instead, attention has been strategically focused on Ahmadinejad's political enemies, like the former president, Mohammad Khatami. What was Khatami’s crime? He shook hands with an unfamiliar woman after he gave a speech in Rome. Khatami, the lost hope of Iran's reform movement, felt compelled to rebut the accusation because such a handshake is religiously suspect, but contended that the crowd seeking to congratulate him for his speech was so tumultuous that he could not distinguish between the hands of men and women.
The government is cracking down in other ways too. Young men wearing T-shirts deemed too tight, or haircuts seen as too Western, have been paraded bleeding through Tehran's streets by uniformed police officers. To add to their humiliation, they are forced to suck on plastic jerry cans, a toilet item Iranians use to wash their bottoms. The country's police chief has boasted that 150,000 people were detained in the annual spring sweep against any clothing considered not Islamic. More than 30 women's rights advocates were arrested in one day in March, five of whom have since been sentenced to prison terms of up to four years. They were charged with endangering national security for organizing an Internet campaign to collect more than a million signatures supporting the removal of all laws that discriminate against women. Eight student leaders at Tehran University, the site of one of the few public protests against Ahmadinejad, disappeared into Evin Prison starting in early May. Student newspapers had dared to publish articles suggesting that no humans were infallible, including the Prophet Muhammad and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A free and independent press is usually the first victim of this kind of ‘cultural revolution’ and Iran is no exception. The country's newspaper editors have been issued a ‘directive’, detailing banned topics, including the rise in gasoline prices; or other economic woes like possible new international sanctions, negotiations with the United States over the future of Iraq, civil society movements and the Iranian-American arrests. Professors have been warned against attending overseas conferences; or having any contact with foreign governments. The official government line is that they risk being recruited as spies. The Iranian-Americans are all being detained, basically on the grounds that they were either recruiting, or somehow abetting, an American attempt to achieve a "velvet revolution" in Iran.
On the face of it, the internal turmoil in Iran is a good thing for George Bush and his allies. If Iran is consumed by its own mess, maybe it will foster less mischief outside its boundaries. It would be unwise to become complacent, however. When things get too hot, the classic tactic employed by people like Ahmadinejad is to create a ‘diversion’. What that diversion may be is anybody’s guess. The only certainty is that it is something America and the West need to be wary about.