Iran – a young revolution with plenty of life?

July 7, 2008

khatami.jpgIn the late 1990s, not long after pro-reform politician Mohammad Khatami swept to a landslide victory in the Iranian presidential elections, some Western observers started wondering if this was the step that would herald a collapse of the Islamic Republic — rather like the Soviet Union tumbled on Mikhail Gorbachev’s watch a decade earlier.

It was early days for me observing Iran. But an acquaintance of mine offered some analysis. Iran is not communist Europe. It is still a young revolution, he told me (at a time when it was
turning 20). There are still plenty of Iranians willing to die for the cause. Don’t expect it to come crashing down, he said.

It turns out he was right. After Khatami’s two terms, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected to office in 2005. It is hard to think of a man more dedicated to Iran’s revolutionary cause. To be fair, it may have been his extravagant economic promises that played a bigger part in winning him the vote than his ideological credentials. But whatever the reason for swinging the election in his favour, the result is very much with us.

Why does this matter now? Well, there are people apparently working to try and drive the Islamic Republic into oblivion. According to Seymour Hersh writing in the New Yorker, those in the White House are at the top of the list.

So the question is: does what basij-militia.jpgmy acquaintance told me in the late 1990s hold true 10 years later? In a country where opinion polls are notoriously inaccurate — or simply don’t exist — judging popular opinion is a mug’s game. But an anecdote may give at least one aspect of the story.

Farhad Rahimi, in his 30s, is a member of the voluntary Basij militia. Speaking at a time when double-digit inflation was biting into his taxi driver’s salary, he was still a fervent supporter of Ahmadinejad’s policy of sharing out Iran’s oil wealth more fairly. He could list a few of what he said were the president’s mistakes.

But he’d seen transformations in villages, he told me, even if he and others in Tehran were seeing few of the benefits. He still lives with his mum and dad because he can’t afford a home of his own. Rahimi was not preaching to me. He was speaking calmly and cogently — and surprisingly openly — to a Western reporter.

The Basijis, like Rahimi, see themselves as the bastions of revolutionary values, the true loyalists. If young women’s Islamic veils are not properly covering their hair, a Basij
patrol may confront her. When Bam earthquake struck in 2003, Basijis were on the frontline digging out survivors — or, sadly, mostly corpses. Analysts say core Basij activists may number a million but some say total membership could be 12 million or more. That’s a lot of people voluntarily signing up in a country of 70 million or so.

Journalists are fond of anecdotes. All too many of them involve taxi drivers. Such vignettes never give the full picture. But colourful detail combined with the broader figures surely give pause for thought and, at least, are factors for careful discussion on where Iran is heading. I’m going to ask my acquaintance for his view.

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Iran is run by a bunch of harsh, ruthless, sexist (‘ists’ in every conceivable form) extremists.

The brutal way it holds down its people indicates an insecure authoritarian regime of outrageous human rights abuses.

That women have very few rights is an outrage and an affront to humanity.

It has no moral authority because it is championing the very worst of its religious edicts, and thereby cannot be taken seriously in the human rights department.

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