Khomeini's revolution: the fervor is fading
Tehran, Iran — * "1979 -- the year of the victory of ignorance over injustice." -- banner at Tehran University, promptly torn down by Muslim militants.m * "I said from the start that this revolution was like having a first child. The parents are ready and anxious for the birth, but there are bound to be a lot of sleepless nights afterward." -- Ibrahim Yazdi, aide to Ayatollah Khomeini and former foreign minister.m
* "They're still up on the rooftops shouting praise to Allah, and I'm driving a cab." -- former translator at a foreign company in Tehran, during a recent demonstration.m
Snow blankets much of Iran in the revolution's first winter of discontent. Millions are cold, hungry, bitter, or just plain tired of politics.
The flower of one of the century's great popular upheavals is wilting. As in George Orwell's "Animal Farm," new autocrats have replaced old -- new corruption , new grievances, new violence.
Mr. Yazdi argues that problems are inevitable. This is, after all, a revolution. "It is not easy," he told the Monitor, "to transform a society from absolute dictatorship to a more diffused kind of organization."
He says he is "not happy" with every aspect of that transformation. "But I am a pragmatist."
If the revolution still thrives, and for the time being it does, this is due more than anything to the white-bearded Muslim who guided it. Millions have voiced anger or disillusionment with the new regime by fighting, shouting, or simply by abstaining in the successive national polls since the ouster of the Shah 11 months ago.
Yet almost no one openly attacks Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He carries the aura of Allah. He mirrors his compatriots' simplicity and their latent nationalism. And he still is credited with a distinctly secular "miracle" -- the toppling of a seemingly impregnable dictatorship, one that many Iranians regard as having been backed by the United States.
It is the people around Ayatollah Khomeini, so the popular wisdom goes, who have soured the Iranian revolution. People such as the provincial mullahs (Muslim teachers) and pro-Khomeini "committeemen" who have gained money and power under him. And people such as Hajitolislam Sadeq Khalkhali, who as chief revolutionary judge sent hundreds to the firing squad on charges ranging from treachery to homosexuality.
Some Iranians argue that every revolution needs a Khalkhali. Yet he also has become a prime target of Iranian gallows humor. Ayatollah Attila, some call him. Asked by one interviewer how many people he had sentenced to death, Hajitolislam Khalkhali said that, frankly, he had forgotten. "But it's at least four times as many as all the other revolutionary judges together," he added.
Ayatollah Khomeini himself seems to suspect his charisma cannot power a revolution forever. He has replaced Ayatollah Khalkhali. He has tried to compromise with Kurdish separatists, in the vanguard of growing provincial unrest. He has acknowledged that many Iranians are simply paying lip service to his regime, as they did to the deposed Shah, while actually "waiting to see which way the wind blows."
For the immediate future, most diplomats here feel, Ayatollah Khomeini is safe. Iranians are used to poverty and disillusionment. With barely a bat of the eye, many seem resigned to greasing a new set of palms, playing a new black market, accepting a new government line. Those Tehranis who bridle under the Islamic interdictions of the new regime still manage to eat, drink, and be merry in their own diverse (if necessarily discreet) fashion.
Militant opponents of the new regime often seem divided among themselves, and they still are outgunned and outnumbered by Khomeini supporters. More articulate civil libertarians, such as former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, seem no immediate match for the steely, single-minded Ayatollah Khomeini.
They are a little like America's Eugene McCarthys and Wayne Morses in the early days of opposition to the Vietnam war.
The United States eventually pulled out of Vietnam. Ayatollah Khomeini may eventually fall, or soften. But the most useful bit of punditry in this regard may come from one unemployed Tehrani who hails from a village in the northwest province of Azerbaijan:
"Yesterday, Shah good," he says. "Today, Ayatollah good . . . . Tomorrow, who knows?"
Iran's major problems are obvious. Their final effect seems less so.
* The economy is saddled by unemployment, underproductivity, and inflation. Some 2.5 million Iranians are jobless, officials say. This is about 20 percent of the work force. An equal number are estimated to be "underemployed," hawking , begging on street corners, or idling about stalled Tehrani factories.
Some industrial concerns, particularly those owned or supplied by foreigners under the Shah, have shut down. In many others, workers do more politicking than producing. They still get paid at least part of their salaries; the government sees to that. But overtime and other valued bonuses are gone now.
"The [revolutionary] committees run everything," gripes one worker in a can factory in south Tehran. "Three guys have been fired, just because the committee doesn't like them."
"We are short of material we need. . . . We can't work," another grumbles.
"I want my six-months' bonus," erupts a worker in a nearby sugar warehouse. "I want to feed my family, and for that you call me an antirevolutionary?"
Fellow workers calm him down and bundle him into the adjacent canteen for a hot cup of tea. A large man, a member of the local workers' committee, steps forward. "We did not make this revolution for money," he says quietly. "We made it for freedom." A half dozen nearby heads nod in accord.
For the time being, they seem to hold sway. If many Iranians are hungry, none seems to be starving because of the revolution. Iran's extended-family system helps. As long as one relative is bringing in some money, the others seem somehow to make ends meet.
Some poorer Tehranis have taken over land or property vacated by richer ones. A trickle of others is returning to villages in Iran, starting to reverse a trend that had placed about half of Iran's 35 million people in cities at the time of the revolution.
Tehran, it is true, has become a city of PhD cab drivers. Iran's collective brain is draining as some surgeons, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals move west to Europe or the US.
But thanks to exhortations from Ayatollah Khomeini and a generous rainfall, farm production is actually up since the revolution -- although Iran still has to import some $2 bilion worth of food per year.
Oil is still pumping. And if Iran's output is only about half of prerevolution levels, the country still reports an average of $2 billion a month from crude sales.
The government and the Muslim mosques are funneling millions of dollars to farmers and factory workers, setting up what amounts to an unofficial welfare state. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the French-educated Economics Minister, hints at making the arrangement permanent.
Portuguese socialist leader Mario Soares -- spokesman for a tamer 1974 revolution on another continent -- perhaps put the economic quandary best: "You can't eat or feed a family on revolutionary slogans," he is fond of saying. The open question here is what, if anything, Iranians may do about it.
* The second major problem is dissent from within the revolution, whether among urban leftists or provincial ethnic minorities clamoring for "autonomy" from the new regime. They do not so much oppose the revolution as argue that it did not go far enough.
"We have had our political revolution," says a young member of the Fedayeen Khalq group, an automatic rifle dangling from his shoulder. "Now we must have the social revolution."
Ethnic Turks and Kurds in the northwest, Baluchis in the southeast, and ethnic Arabs in the oil-producing province of Khuzestan feel it time for a "regional" revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini pledged freedom for Iran, they argue, and it is only fair that the provinces should get a little of their own.
In recent weeks and months, the conflict has exploded into violence in all four dissident areas -- set out like a pinwheel around a Persian heartland still loyal, or not openly disloyal, to Ayatollah Khomeini. In the province of Azerbaijan, ethnic Turks have gone so far as to take a few revolutionary guards hostage -- sparking indignant protests from officials that seemed a little misplaced, in some Western eyes, in light of the government-sanctioned hostage drama at the US Embassy in Tehran.
The "minority" question, perhaps a misnomer in that the ethnic community together accounts for nearly half the population, seems potentially every bit as dangerous to the new regime as its economic woes. But as with the economy, no one is quite sure how or when the crisis will end.
Ayatollah Khomeini, presumably realizing he could be in trouble, has softened his stand toward the Kurds and offered them a measure of autonomy. But that, even if accepted by hardened Kurdish guerrillas in Iran's northern hills, could encourage other provincial dissidents such as the Arabs, who dominate the key oil-producing area.
"The question," one senior diplomat says, "is to what extent the minorities will get together and mount a direct challenge to Ayatollah Khomeini." So far, the diplomat points out, no such move has occurred.
"No matter how furious the violence, it remains essentially provincial. . . . No one has yet grabbed control of the oil, and no one is marching on Qom."
There are at least two Irans -- Tehran, with the revolutionary leadership 120 miles south in the religious center of Qom, and the rest of the country. And there are at least two Tehrans.
Iran's capital city of 4 million is arranged like a slat of plywood tipped toward a crown of mountains at the top. The city's poor have, quite literally, tumbled to the bottom -- on the other side of the Iranian national railway tracks in south Tehran. There, increasingly, stomachs rumble. People grumble.
But when Ayatollah Khomeini calls for mass recitation of Allahu Akhbar -- Arabic for "Allah is greatest" -- thousands still flock to rooftops to comply.
The north is plush Tehran. Many of its denizens have filtered abroad. Many others have stayed behind, chanting almost in chorus that "things will get better," while selling off an occasional Persian carpet to keep themselves solvent. They were the professionals, often conspicuously consumptive ones under the Shah. They lost a lot in the revolution and they are angry.
"This guy [Ayatollah Khomeini] is an uncouth reactionary who is turning us back centuries," says one Tehran University professor who is trying to get a job in the United States. "I didn't support the Shah," he said, "but I did not support a revolution in order to get a shah in mullah's clothing."
Many in north Tehran did, indeed, support the revolution.Some did so out of fear. Others, according to a soft-spoken accountant at a stalled government research project, did so out of genuine sympathy.
"My parents had a lot of money. They knew they had a lot to lose," says the woman, who is also trying to move west. "But they gave money to the revolutionaries. A lot of us did.
"There was this beautiful feeling that we were living through an insuppressible moment of history, an eruption of national conscience that we all somehow felt a part of. . . . You couldn't help it.
"We are disappointed. We did not expect a dictatorship of the mullahs."
Between the two Tehrans lie the city's universities. Muslim militants of the strain that seized the US Embassy Nov. 4 shout loudest and seem strongest. They may not be, according to many students and professors there.
"Many students have absorbed some basically Western values. They are not in favor of a return by the Shah. But they don't like the new regime," one professor says, trotting out her students' compositions as evidence. "Most, since they can't defy the militants, simply keep quiet."
Meanwhile, life goes on. Some prices are nearly double prerevolution level. But gas is still cheap -- about 35 cents a gallon -- and Tehran's traffic jam can still make even urban nightmares like Cairo seem mere country towns.
If shops are often short of detergent, car batteries, and other commodities, most items can be had for two to five times the normal price on a thriving black market. A bribe to a local revolutionary committee member often helps speed up supply.
And if thousands of guns remain in thousands of extragovernmental hands, the truculent teen-agers who patrolled the streets during the revolution seem largely to have moved indoors. Tehran lacks the armed roadlocks of Beirut, Lebanon. If you didn't know there had been a revolution here, only the occasional bullet-pocked building or burnt-out movie theater would clue you in.
The "other" Iran lives in mud-hut towns and villages sprinkled throughout a country larger than the state of Alaska. Most villagers cannot read. Most are nominally, though not militantly, pro-revolution. They look for a better world, but temper their dreams with the skepticism poverty breeds. Only those with explicit reason seem vehemently for or against the revolution.
Where Iran touches Iraq and the Soviet Union at the north, dozens of people in one village converged on a visiting reporter to decry the new regime. The men, formerly employed in nearby factories, now are idle. A water project begun under the Shah is stalled.
"We spent our last money for food," one old man said. "Mister, we are hungry. The local mullah has a car now, and almost never visits us. If we thought it would help, we would take everything we have and go to Qom. But it won't.
"The Shah or Khomeini, what does it matter? The Shah can come back."
In a hill village closer to Tehran, the story is different. The Shah used to hunt nearby, effectively closing off the villagers' best grazing land. The revolution deeded the hunting reserve to the villagers. Their sheep flocks are larger and healthier. Their apples, due mostly to a drop in imports from such places as Israel, are selling as fast as they fall from the tree. Ayatollah Khomeini, the villagers say, is great.
Perhaps more typical of village Iran is Hezarabad, nestled in the hills south of Qom. It is one of the relatively few villages to benefit from a Peace Corps-like program set up after the revolution, in which some of the youths occupying the US Embassy once participated.
With the help of government money and advice from a young social worker, the village has started on a communal bathroom and washhouse. The villagers are openly pro- Khomeini.
But they also point to problems. "What we need most is water for our crops," says Muhammad Reza Hassanpur, a member of the village revolutionary council set up on Qom's directive. The village cannot produce wheat or almonds to sell outside.
Meanwhile, he says, village men who used to spend winter working in the cities are finding it harder to get jobs. "We offer to work for less money now, so they hire us. But it is a problem."
The bittersweet perfume of burning dung cakes -- the traditional source of village heat -- wafts over the icy path between the village houses. Women in shawls peek from barely opened doors at the visiting foreign reporter.
The problem, the men say, will ease as the revolution progresses. And if not? Mr. Hassanpur pauses, and says, "We can only pray."