Letter from Iran - 2003
by Afshin Molavi
The Nation magazine, October
The hard-line Islamic vigilantes circled
us. Wearing their trademark beards, untucked long-sleeve shirts
and green headbands, they chanted progovernment slogans, occasionally
crying out "Allah Akbar" (God is Great) or "Death
to the foreign mercenaries," as they circled and scowled.
Our unaffiliated group, standing near
a shuttered corner market in Tehran University just after 8 PM
on July 9, shuffled nervously. Most had come to see what might
happen on this night-the highly anticipated fourth anniversary
of Iran's prodemocracy student protests, which rocked the country.
Few were political activists, students or organized protesters,
let alone "foreign mercenaries"; they were housewives,
middle-class professionals, a few students, some disaffected,
unemployed young men and an elderly couple that I instinctively
wanted to protect.
The "vigilantes," as they are
commonly called by the Western media, are affiliated, paid for
and organized by hard-liners in Iran's government, which makes
them more accurately "thugs for hire." Members of the
group, known as Ansar-e Hezbollah, have committed some of the
most violent acts against student protesters in the past four
years. In one instance, they entered a student dormitory brandishing
clubs and lashing students with chains. In another, they threw
a student out a window to his death. They have also been linked
to the killings of some eighty dissidents and writers, dating
back to 1988.
The Ansar-e Hezbollah, though a small
part of the vast security apparatus controlled by Iran's conservative
ruling clergy, play an increasingly important role: intimidating
protesters, thinning crowds, carrying out mafia-style "hits"
(like the 2000 assassination attempt on reformist strategist Said
Hajjarian by an Ansar leader) and delivering harsh reminders of
who is in control. In fact, crowd control and "dissent management,"
as one Iranian Official put it, has become an increasingly important
part of statecraft in today's Islamic Republic as Iranians, seething
with a wide range of economic, political and social discontents,
erupt in protest with some regularity.
As I watched the government's display
of force playing out before my eyes that evening-including helicopters
circling overhead, elite units of antiriot police standing ready,
and plainclothes Intelligence Ministry agents buzzing around on
motorbikes, I remembered what Morad Saghafi, a leading Iranian
prodemocracy intellectual, told me: "Politics is dying. Now,
everything comes down to force."
The crowd of some 5,000 to 10,000 residents
who made it to the university area was largely leaderless, frustrated
and afraid. "I came to see what might happen, to see what
the students will do," Mohsen, a middle-aged engineer told
me. "I've lost hope in the politics of reform." He added,
"They can't get anything done," echoing widely heard
sentiments as the country's reformist movement withers under a
conservative assault. Laleh, a 33-year-old housewife, said: "I'm
not sure what will happen tonight. I am hoping for something big.
I'm waiting for the students, but I find all of this intimidating."
Neither Mohsen nor Laleh had heard that
the planned student protests had been canceled for fear of a harsh
crackdown. They didn't know that earlier in the day, three prodemocracy
student leaders had been detained at gunpoint by plainclothes
security officers and shoved into cars in full view of the press.
They knew nothing of the letter the student group had written
to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, seeking assistance in their
struggle for freedom. Mohsen said the signal of the Los Angeles-based
opposition satellite stations-an increasingly important, if erratic,
news source for middle-class Iranians-had been successfully jammed
by the authorities. The relatively vibrant reformist press had
been muzzled through a series of gag orders by the hard-line judiciary.
When a bearded, squat, squarejawed hard-liner
approached our group, swinging his stick in the air, Mohsen had
"I'm getting out of here," he
said. "This is not what I expected." Laleh and many
others followed soon thereafter.
By midnight, the university area was empty.
At an ice cream store in central Tehran, a young man, Ali, explained
why he and most of his friends avoid protests. "They are
too dangerous. You either end the night beaten up or in jail."
Iranians, frustrated by nearly twenty-four
years of economic mismanagement and social and political repression,
are eager for change. Reformist failures coupled with a stagnant
economy, high unemployment and a seemingly unending and unexplainable
rise in prices have left them embittered. These feelings cut across
all socioeconomic lines, and even religious ones. In fact, some
of the most pugnacious regime opponents are religious-minded young
men from poor neighborhoods, many of whom flock to student protests,
chanting slogans against the ruling clergy. Many say things like,
"The clergy have abused Islam for their own gain." Others
from those same poor neighborhoods, who are less religious, also
flock to the protests, eager for a fight with what they call "the
Hezbollahi kids from our neighborhood"-the hard-line youth
who swell-the ranks of groups like the Ansar-e Hezbollah or the
Basij militia. Unlike affluent North Tehran youth, who fear the
"Hezbollahi" types, South Tehran's disgruntled youth
display far less fear and a willingness to confront them.
But it's not clear how the changes Iranians
are seeking will come about. Not long ago the reformist movement,
which burst onto the scene in 1997 with the presidential election
victory of reform-minded cleric Mohammad Khatami, engendered great
hope. Iranians embraced the movement with vigor, flocking to the
newsstands to buy reformist papers that wrote breathlessly of
democracy, freedom, civil society and limits on the power of the
conservative ruling clergy. They swooned before reformist politicians,
treating them with rock star-like adoration, especially Khatami,
whose public appearances turned into mob scenes. Today, however,
it is not uncommon to hear people chant for his resignation in
Meanwhile, over the past year, Iran's
conservatives have used unelected power centers such as the hard-line
judiciary, the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
(who has virtual veto power over all matters of state) and the
Guardian Council (an unelected body with "supervisory"
responsibilities over Parliament), coupled with their control
over security services, to veto key prodemocracy legislation in
Parliament, jail leading dissidents and journalists with impunity,
scrap presidential initiatives and intimidate protesters with
As a result, Iranians increasingly talk
of "outside solutions." On many occasions, people expressed
to me the hope that America would "do something." Just
outside a government building a guard whispered) "Mr. Molavi,
please tell the Americans to help us, to liberate us like they
did the Iraqis and Afghans." Not an uncommon statement among
frustrated middle-class Iranians, though when I probed further,
I found that most Iranians feared an Iraq-style invasion. Instead,
in traditionally Iranian conspiratorial fashion, they spoke of
a posht-e-pardeh (literally, behind the curtain) solution, a covert
action, so to speak, that would "liberate" them.
Though most Iranian intellectuals and
elites vehemently oppose this idea, it is a measure of Iran's
middle- and working-class desperation that more and more people
in a proud, traditionally
nationalist country with bitter memories
of the last US posht-epardeh solution-the 1953 CIA-sponsored overthrow
of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq-would even entertain
such thoughts, even if they might be dismissed as frustrated posturing
or, as one Iranian journalist put it, "something people say
in frustration, but will retract as soon as bombs begin to fall
on Tehran or a coup goes awry."
When Baghdad fell and CNN images of celebrating
Iraqis beamed across the world, Iran's rulers must have shuddered.
After all, Washington had included them in its "axis of evil"
and, flush with the pride of an Iraq "victory," Washington
neoconservatives hinted that Iran could be next. Today, when the
rulers of the Islamic Republic turn on CNN, they must breathe
a sigh of relief. As the postwar Iraq situation descends into
chaos, fewer Iranians talk of a US "liberation." And
with a presidential election looming, the prospect of a US invasion
of Iran is, in the words of one American official, "not on
anyone's radar screen."
That "radar screen," however,
includes one bleeping red dot: Iran's alleged nuclear weapons
program. Washington and Tel Aviv fear Iranian acquisition of the
bomb, which they say is proceeding at a brisk pace. Israel has
made it clear that it will consider a strike on Iranian nuclear
facilities if Tehran refuses to comply with a new, more aggressive
round of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.
Iranian officials, when asked about their
nuke program, generally deflect the question, often asking ones
of their own: "What about Israel's nuclear weapons? And India's?
And Pakistan's?" Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi
regularly argues that Iran would like to make the Middle East
a nuclear-free zone-as long as Israel joins them. Still, Iranian
analysts I spoke with often brought up the contrasting cases of
North Korea and Iraq, noting that the lesson learned in Tehran
is: Get nukes, avoid an invasion.
With the "outside solution"
prospect dimming and the Iranian economy stagnating, talk of a
strongman solution is emerging. Reza Shah, the first Pahlavi king,
an ironfisted modernizer widely credited with laying the foundations
for the creation of a large Iranian middle class, has enjoyed
something of a renaissance among Iranians. Books about the former
king and, indeed, about the Pahlavi dynasty sell briskly. Iranians
prefer to remember his economic modernization, not his political
In fact, Iran's conservatives, many analysts
say, like the strongman idea and have studied closely the "China
model"-political repression coupled with cultural and economic
liberalization. Give Iranians jobs and more social freedoms, bolstering
the middle class, the argument goes, and much of the dissent will
vanish. Iran's conservatives have already displayed limited aspects
of the China model: They have begun reaching out to foreign investors
and have allowed limited cultural openings in cinema, the arts
and even pop music, and the harassment of women for "dress-code
violations" is also dramatically down.
But while it may be true that an Iranian
version of the China model could forestall unrest, the strengthening
of Iran's devastated middle class, weakened by twenty-four years
of economic mismanagement, could sow the seeds for future revolt.
After all, increasingly prosperous middle classes eventually seek
a voice in their government-a lesson that the last Pahlavi king
learned all too well.
It was not supposed to come to this: a
bitter populace, a tottering reform movement, ascendant conservatives
toying with the China model, middle-class romanticizing of past
dictator-kings. After all, Iran at the time of Khatami's election
represented hope for the Middle East: a model of an indigenous
democracy movement that emerged from below, from the ranks of
former revolutionaries and Islamic intellectuals (and not a secular
elite) who saw, in the end, that people did not want empty revolutionary
slogans but a prosperous economy, social and political freedoms,
and the dignity that comes with choosing your own destiny. Iran's
reformists would gradually, in an evolutionary process, lead the
way to democracy, the reasoning went. While secular democrats
were still out of the game, they cheered on the reformists, hoping
it would eventually create spaces for them. All of this was backed
by overwhelming election victories.
But as with all reform movements that
emerge from within ideological autocracies, they must contend
with the crushing weight of the status quo, vested interests,
the legacy of the revolution and, crucially, lack of access to
the instruments of coercive force. When Iran's conservatives sensed
trouble, they reminded Iranians who retains control.
In several conversations with leading
reformists over the course of three weeks, I got a sense that
the movement is like a disoriented prizefighter who has been knocked
around for seven rounds and doesn't know whether he should go
back out again. In one extraordinary moment of bare honesty, a
well-regarded prodemocracy professor and confidant of embattled
reformist President Mohammad Khatami said: "T just don't
know what we can do. I am at loss."
Two conversations stuck with me from my
three weeks in Iran. The first was with a religious intellectual
named Ali Reza Alavitabar, a leading reformist newspaper publisher
and academic, who faces an array of trumped-up charges against
him for his outspoken prodemocracy views. He has served hard jail
time, and stands to serve more. Formerly he was an anti-Shah revolutionary
and Khomeini supporter who, like many of today's reformists, saw
the need for change. He does not hail from Iran's modern middle
class of technocrats and professionals, who are often Western-educated
and secular, but rather from the traditional middle class of clerks,
bazaar merchants and clergymen-key backers of the 1979 revolution.
Today, he views the mingling of religion and politics with suspicion,
and while he won't say so out loud, he and many others like him
have morphed into secular democrats.
Alavitabar said he worries that the conservatives
will become even more entrenched than they are already, as ordinary
people give up on the possibility of peaceful change. The recent
Tehran municipal elections offer a microcosm: Tehranis stayed
away from the polls en masse, while the conservatives rallied
their 20 percent base and won. "I understand that people
are upset and frustrated," he continued. "But we should
not retreat. We need to continue writing, speaking and possibly
taking it to the next level: nonviolent civil disobedience. We
are on the verge of something important here. It should not be
The other conversation, with a young man
named Hamid, once a devoted follower of the reformists, reminded
me of the deep angst felt by today's Iranian youth and, in the
end, might offer a more realistic, if troubling, scenario for
the future. "I have lost hope," Hamid said. "My
friends have lost hope. We longer talk of changing Iran. Instead,
we talk of leaving Iran."
Afshin Molavi, a freelance journalist,
is the author °f Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran