The dilemma of Iranian intellectuals

In the early 1970s thousands of Western- educated Iranians went back to Iran. I was one of those who went back in 1973. What drew us was not simply the promise of a good life for ourselves, for we already enjoyed that, but the lure of a miracle solution to the classical problem of backwardness. The problem involves the fearsome chain reaction of poverty, ignorance, and tyranny.

What we did about the third element in the fearsome chain, tyranny, goes to the core of the problem and explains not only the revolution but also the dilemma of Iranian intellectuals. We knew about corruption and repression; some even knew what was going on inside the jails. But here is how many educated Iranians looked at it: The third element in the chain, tyranny, can be dealt with by eliminating what it feels on -- poverty and ignorance. Thus politically we were mostly gradualists. By 1978, however, we were discovering that we had been wrong. Tyranny is not the square root of ignorance and poverty.

As a teacher and college administrator, I was in the center of the storm that was sweeping over the land. The revolutionary storm started from colleges and then spread to mosques, factories, and streets. One of the greatest experiences of my life was to observe what I had only read about in books: how the masses change, how the indifferent ones become inflamed with revolutionary fire, how movements become organized and, most importantly, how issues become simplified into good and evil.

And where did we Western-educated Iranians stand? Naturally with the majority, the masses. What else could people nurtured in the ideals of democracy do? If the majority demanded a basic change, then let there be change. First we cheered the protesters; later many of us joined them.

Were there no misgivings? There were alarming signs to be sure. Various communist groups, especially the Tudeh Party and the Marxist Fedayeen surfaced and intensified their usual tactic: inform, organize, subvert. Today they are the fastest growing and best organized groups in Iran.

The Islamic fundamentalists made one uncomfortable too. Their ideas on such matters as education, the West, women's rights, usury, and progress seemed bizarre. But people were willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Years of persecution, it was said op mistically, had crystallized their ideas into dogma. Let the revolution win, let them come to power and see how fast they would learn to tolerate, to broaden their views, and to share power.

Thus the revolution succeeded at least partly because the educated middle class supported it. But disillusionment came on the heel of success. Bands of quarreling workers took over the offices and factories; factious student groups dominated colleges and began dictating what should be taught and how. It was somewhat understandable when those with close ties with the former regime were eliminated.It was not so understandable, however, when this process of elimination was extended to others, not for what they had done, but what they were, what they believed.

So it was that a second wave, this time composed of doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, artists, and teachers, started leaving the country. The reaction of the theocrats was summed up by a mullah acquaintance of mine who exclaimed, shrugging: "Good riddance! LEt these West-Befuddled intellectuals go. We can manage without them."

In May of 1979, I left too. A question that has occurred to me is why I could tolerate the former regime and not the new one. Perhaps this was because tyranny, like poverty and ignorance, had kinds and degrees. Under the old regime there were severe limits on political freedom, but other areas of life were relatively free, and the country was progressing. Now there are fewer limits politically, but there are more severe limits on thought, on belief, even on what one wears, eats, and drinks. Earlier, censorship was used to guard against certain political doctrines; now censorship is used to impose particular religious and moral values.

One other factor makes the present form of tyranny more intolerable: The old regime was apologetic about injustices; it tried to conceal them. The new one is proud of them. Now people are tortured or executed not under a pall of secrecy and shame, but openly, self-righteously, gloatingly, almost benevolently. The Iranian theocrats are absolutely certain of the rightness of their own ideas and values. This certitude leads to intolerance; intolerance to tyranny and atrocity. How could Himmler or Ayatollah Khalkhali send so many to their deaths if they were not deaf to the last haunting question: "But what if you are wrong?"

That, in brief, is what made many of us leave. Now our dilemma is just where do we go from here? We cannot support the present regime not only because it is coercing our brother and sisters back into the dark ages and because so far the theocracy has failed miserably and brought us nothing but chaos, unemployment, inflation, hardship, internecine feud and hatred; but mainly because today there is little hope that it will ever work.

It will not work because the random plurality of power centers has made all leadership in Iran, including Khomeini's, effete. This is not to say that any theocratic princeling cannot order a demonstration, an attack on an embassy, hostage taking, wholesale arrests, and even executions. But these are negative acts, destructive acts. They do not need much coordination, planning, expertise -- they are easy. The real test is the ability to carry out positive, constructive undertakings. Iranian theocracy's failure to build a single factory or significant stretch of road, its failure even to bring back into operation what existed before the revolution, is ample evidence of the dismal incapacity of a regime whose survival is sustained by a shortsighted and vituperative cannibaliztion of the old regime's policy.

Our dream etches the vista of an Iran governed by an enlightened group dedicated to the principles of democracy; a group like the National Front; a group that would make Iran's natural resources together with her ethnic, national, religious, and cultural diversity into a freely interacting whole, an asset rather than a liability; a group that would give all a chance to mount another assault on poverty and ignorance. We have learned much from the past, and working together free of tyranny we can accomplish much.

But this is only a dream. The National Front and other democratic groups are today weaker and more divided than they were in the spring of 1979 when many of them compromised their principles by joining the mullahs' regime. They have little chance of making the dream come true and this is the final component of the dilemma facing every Iranian intellectual. So we agonize while across our beloved land "ignorant armies clash by night."

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