Iran's revolution at 25: out of gas

Wednesday's silver anniversary marks a peak of political disillusionment.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even flying into Tehran at night shows how Iran is ready to celebrate Wednesday - in unprecedented magnitude - the 25th anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

But the endless strings of bright lights and buildings aglow with the red, green, and white national colors celebrate a political vigor and hope that have now largely faded from Iran.

In 1979, the triumphant toppling of the reviled, US-supported shah changed the face of the Middle East, inspired Islamic militants around the world, and led to humiliation for American diplomats taken hostage for 444 days.

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Today, instead of reveling in the Islamic justice and democracy once promised by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iranians are racked with doubts. They question clerical rule, doubt the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and are disillusioned by unmet expectations.

"Behind closed doors, even the clergy is debating velayat-e-faqih [divine rule by clerics] and secularism, and their role in political power," says a Western diplomat. "They are asking: 'Is it so wise that we are running the state, that we are doing things against the will of the people, which is against Islam?' "

Many of the two-thirds of Iran's population who are under 30 - and have little more memory of the revolution than dire warnings from elders that the bloody upheaval must never be repeated - view Wednesday's silver jubilee with apathy.

The crisis between reformers and conservatives continued Tuesday, when the hard-line Guardian Council (a 12-man unelected body) released its official list for the Feb. 20 parliamentary vote - and confirmed the rejection of more than 2,000 candidates as "unfit" to stand.

Analysts say the conservative clerics are trying to retake control of the 290-seat parliament, which they lost to reformers in 2000. The hard-liners calculated that the rejection of candidates would draw only minor protest from a public that has grown disillusioned after seven years of failed democratic reform. They were right.

"After 25 years, we are at the end of attempts to legally reform the system, and there are real fears and worries," says a former revolutionary, whose skepticism is widely echoed.

Wednesday's celebrations are "nice to remind ourselves that we came from that very bloody fighting [of the revolution]," says the analyst, who asked not to be named. "But this is part of a dead end: If you don't want another revolution, and legal reform doesn't work, there is nothing left but a miracle."

In the early years of the revolution, Iran tried to forge a modern Islamic state after decades of repressive and undemocratic rule under Shah Reza Pahlavi, the last emperor during 2,500 years of Persian monarchy.

Ayatollah Khomeini himself warned against handing political power to clerics, and banned them from running in the first two post-revolution presidential races. But in the Shiite branch of Islam - to which nearly all Iranians adhere - political and religious rule has always been entwined.

It was the charismatic Khomeini who determined that final say in all matters should rest with the position of Velayat-e-faqih, the Guardian Theologian seen among Iranian believers as God's deputy on earth. Khomeini assumed that position. Since his death in 1989, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has filled the role.

"To supervise the state is Shia tradition, but to run the state itself is different, and was new with Khomeini," says the Western diplomat.

In recent years, the most radical reformers - including some senior dissident ayatollahs - have questioned the infallibility of the Supreme Leader, and have paid the price with house arrest and jail time. But they also cite his words as justifying for their efforts.

"The most important factor in distributing political power is the vote of the people - that is Khomeini's famous standard," says Morad Veisi, editor of the reformist Yas-e-No newspaper. "Those who don't believe in the people's vote are not correct in the theocratic system."

Reform-minded President Mohamad Khatami has warned that Iran is veering towards religious despotism and "dictatorship," though he also supports the Islamic system. Contrary to Iran's constitution, many other reformers are shifting toward a far more secular view - one likely reason many were disqualified from the upcoming vote.

Reformers have been left with little recourse. The main reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, lead by the president's own brother, has declared that it will boycott the Feb. 20 vote - a move that will almost certainly hand control of parliament to conservatives. But the president's smaller League of Combatant Clerics party told Reuters Tuesday that it will participate in the elections.

If voter turnout is less than 35 percent nationwide, conservatives will "have a real problem, because it will be clear that people are abandoning the system, and the legitimacy question will come into play," adds the diplomat. "It already exists in people's minds, but it will be on the table."

SCORES of reform newspapers have been shut down in recent years. Dozens of political prisoners languish in jail - some for simply publishing the results of an opinion poll that showed a majority of Iranians wanted to reestablish ties with the US.

But those who played roles in the first revolution say this second quest for change - under way far more quietly at the moment - has so far cost little.

"In the revolution, the price was so high: people died, not only in the revolution, but in the war with Iraq afterwards," which was cast as a "sacred" holy war by the ayatollahs, says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a political sociologist at Tehran University, and former editor of a number of closed reformist newspapers.

"The price so far today has been low," Mr. Jalaiepour says ticking them off: "Four intellectuals killed, [a chief reform strategist] wounded in an assassination attempt; 400 activists in prison; 4,000 students arrested and released.

"In terms of political structure, [reformists] couldn't pass a bill, or change anything," adds the editor. "But if you look at achievements in society, it is so high. When reformists won the presidency and majlis [the parliament], many avenues opened up."

The conservatives paid a high price, too, Jalaiepour says, "because their activity has made Iran become part of the 'axis of evil.' The US and other Western countries will not sit down with them. It's why they are so angry: They have no credibility among the people."

That credibility is perhaps lowest among Iranian students, who these days dole out almost equal opprobrium toward the failed reform camp. Student protests led to clashes with pro-regime militias and vigilante groups in July 1999. Further clashes shook parts of Tehran last June. Requests in recent weeks to stage protests against conservative control of the democratic process were refused.

"For years, they tried to push the religious stuff down [students'] throats, and it caused a reaction," says the revolutionary, noting a recent poll that reportedly found 45 percent had negative feelings toward religion. "Twenty years ago, is that reaction the leaders of Iran wanted? They wanted to train soldiers for Islam, and got exactly the opposite."

Even some senior clerics have been disturbed by political restrictions.

"Islam is the religion of peace, of rights, of justice, not tyranny, violence and prisons - let alone terrorism and killing people and torture in prisons, even if this torture is putting them in solitary confinement," said reformist Grand Ayatollah Yusef Saanei, in a recent interview.

"All of these things are against Islam," says Mr. Saanei, one of only a handful of grand ayatollahs in Shiite Islam. "In one word: What you would like for yourself, you must do for others. These are all the human rights and freedoms, which the Prophet calls justice."

Instead, vigilante groups still break up political meetings, and some human rights legislation is tied up by hard-liners, Saanei says: "I don't think Iran can be presented as an Islamic example."

That assessment is far from the vision ofa quarter century ago. The aim then was to "export the revolution," and for Iran to be a beacon for all Muslims.

"We thought we would get rid of the US, get a new government with a good leader, and all our problems would be over," says the former revolutionary. "Only in the last decade we began to think of what we missed - human rights, democracy. I wish I could blame the mullahs, but it's a much deeper problem all of us Iranians share."

Iran, then and now

1979: Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, pro-Western and close to the United States, is removed in a February uprising. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini establishes an Islamic theocracy. Nine months later, student militants seize the US Embassy.

2004: Hard-line religious leaders rule the Islamic republic, under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. President Mohammad Khatami and other democratic reformers are likely to lose control of parliament in Feb. 20 elections.

1979: Iran is at the height of its military and economic power, though many lived in poverty. Iran's GDP is estimated at $76.7 billion. Iran accounts for about 18 percent of total OPEC oil export revenues. Per capita income is $1,986.

2004: Iran agrees to bring its nuclear program under international scrutiny. Iran's population has doubled to nearly 70 million, and it is beset by high unemployment and inflation. But estimated GDP is $458 billion. Per capita income: $7,000. Iran accounts for about 10 percent of total OPEC net oil export revenues. The US economic embargo, enacted during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, is still in place.

1979: Half of Iranians are illiterate.

2004: Literacy is at about 80 percent.

1979: Miniskirts are the rage, and, though seen as offensive to some, sexy cinema posters are ubiquitous in Tehran. Alcohol is available.

2004: Women must cover themselves from head to foot in public, there are no racy advertisements, and alcohol consumption is prohibited.

Source: Associated Press, Energy Information Administration, The World Almanac 1980, Central Intelligence Agency

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