Sunday, September 04, 2005

Iran's clerics keep wary eye on 'enemy'

The Mercury News:
Every year in early November, a crowd assembles outside the brick walls ringing the former U.S. Embassy. The script for the anniversary rarely varies.

They chant against America. Then come cheers for the now-graying radicals who seized the compound after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and paraded their blindfolded hostages for the world to see. And - as always in Iran - there are angry broadsides against other "enemies": Israel and a lesser cast of perceived Western foes.

Yet there's never a mention of the most direct threat to the world's only modern-made theocracy: Iran's expanding and restless middle class.


Nearly a decade of social and economic openings have allowed breathing room for a new type of quasi-dissident. They come in the guise of educated, ambitious and Western-friendly urban trend setters - from real estate speculators profiting off demands for high-rise living to cyber-pioneers satisfying Iran's ravenous Internet appetites. Their common bond is often a distaste for the all-pervasive controls of the rulings clerics.

But that's as far as it has gone.

Iran's middle class has remained on the sidelines during sporadic street protests since the late 1990s. They did not see upheaval in their interest - as long as the regime kept its hands off their bubble of consumerism and comfort that includes shopping trips abroad and four-wheel-drive behemoths fed by Iran's 38-cent-a-gallon gas.

Now, however, the middle class is nervous.

Iran's reformers were humiliated in June presidential elections, which produced a new hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He took office in August and put together a cabinet that even some conservatives fear will dry up freedoms and escalate confrontations with the West over Iran's nuclear program and its influence with majority Shiite factions in neighboring Iraq.

How Iran's middle class responds remains the big wild card and has far-reaching implications for religion, politics and economic relationships across the Muslim world and beyond.

"A new round and style of battles are ahead," said Iranian political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand, who has studied Iran's social trends. "Everyone feels it moving in this direction. But no one can predict whether it will be a big bang or a gentle evolution."

There are no serious cracks in the theocracy and none are seen on the immediate horizon.

What's at stake - at least for the moment - is the comfort level for the clerics and the awesome portfolio they control: an elite militia outside the normal armed forces, a nuclear program that rattles the West, missiles capable of reaching anywhere in the Middle East, unrivaled influence over Shiite Muslims in Iraq and the taps for OPEC's No. 2 oil producer.

Continued pressure from the middle class would act as an important counterweight. But that would require reformers to regroup and find new ways to make their voices heard now that the elected leadership - the presidency and parliament - are under the thumb of conservatives.

If reformers stay divided and rudderless, however, Iran's clerics will have their freest hands since before the election in 1997 of reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

"The middle class is the key in our fight for more democracy," said Saeed Hajjarian, who served as a top adviser to Khatami and was left partially paralyzed following an assassination attempt in March 2000. "If they are silent, the enemies of democracy can move ahead. If the middle class speaks out, they cannot be ignored. It's that simple."


But even to define Iran's current middle class is no easy task.

It runs from remnants of the pre-revolution elite who didn't join the exodus in the 1980s to new entrepreneurs cashing in on skyrocketing property values in Tehran and on looser import-export rules needed to fill Iran's technological gaps. For them, identity often revolves around status: apartments in leafy north Tehran, vacation villas on the Caspian Sea and parties where cocktails are served and women trade Islamic coverings for sleeveless tops and miniskirts.

Their children push even harder - lampooning hard-liners on blog sites and shrinking women's once-dowdy public outfits to figure-hugging tunics and colorful head scarves that show as much hair as they conceal.

It has become possible because the theocrats and their loyalists have been on strategic retreat for years.

They never gave up their limitless power, but the reformist momentum led by Khatami was too strong to stifle. The theocrats looked the other way as rules bent. Instead, the regime favored pinpoint strikes: closing many reformist newspapers and coming down hard on student demonstrations.

The balance began to tip back toward the conservatives last year. The clerics used one of their most potent weapons: the ability to decide who can run for elected office. Nearly all credible pro-reform candidates were blocked from the parliament race in February 2004.

The blackballed lawmakers broke taboos by directly criticizing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose supporters believe his authority comes directly from God. That opened the door for unprecedented Khamenei-bashing on the streets.

This year's presidential election followed the same pattern. More than 1,000 candidates sought a place on the ballot, but just eight were cleared - bringing denunciations of election-rigging by Washington and others. Later, some of the defeated candidates alleged the regime used its muscle, including the Revolutionary Guards and vigilantes, to manipulate voters and results in favor of Ahmadinejad.

The 49-year-old mayor of Tehran became a ready-made hero for the underdog. He promises "economic justice" in a country blessed with oil and gas riches but dragged down by deep pockets of poverty, unemployment that may exceed 30 percent, and an economy that serves to enrich and empower the so-called "mullahcrats."

"Here is a state that's been a theocracy for more than a generation. The ruling mullahs have a track record that they can be judged by," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, political and religious researcher at Syracuse University.

"In the rest of the Islamic world, militants and Islamists present a virgin alternative. They say, 'We can solve all the economic, social and political problems.' It's a seductive message that many people are listening to. In Iran, the mullahs are the establishment and can't hide behind these claims of being the saviors."

But he added: "Until the moment that the middle class is ready to take the risks and pour into the streets, nothing much will happen."

So will they?

If the past decade is a guide, the answer is probably not soon.

Many Iranians watched in awe as recent popular demonstrations took down leaders in Ukraine, drove out Syrian forces from Lebanon and stood up against Egypt's authoritarian government. But similar impulses for high-stakes confrontation remains largely buried among pro-reform Iranians.

The reasons often cited center on the potential risks, such as a bloody response from the military guardians of the Islamic establishment. Others believe Iran still hasn't recovered from the emotional toll of the revolution.

In 2003 - after another student-led protest flared and fizzled - one of the top activists complained the middle class failed to join their uprising or support it. He blamed a lack of leadership. "They speak of reforms and freedoms, but do little other than talk," said Mojtaba Najafi, a leader of the pro-reform Islamic Association at Allameh University in Tehran.

Fast-forward to the fallout after Ahmadinejad's victory. The complaints are the same.

"It's time for bravery from the middle classes," said Parastoo Dokouhaki, a women's rights activist whose blog is popular with Iran's young middle class. "They have the power to change this country."

But a former press officer in Khatami's administration believes Iran's middle class is still too dependent on contracts and largesse from the Islamic state.

"They don't have the kind of independence to behave like a real middle class," said Nader, who requested only his first name be published because he fears a crackdown by Ahmadinejad's hard-line supporters. "They are afraid of anarchy and the risk of losing their lifestyle."

At least one former wounded political figure is hoping to harness the middle class and change the character of the longest-running cold war in the Middle East.

Mahdi Karroubi, a former parliament speaker and adviser to the theocracy, said he planned to create a new pro-reform political movement, the National Trust, from the ruins of the election. Karroubi's combative style has already won him admirers - including many who were disillusioned by Khatami's cautious political manners.

Karroubi bitterly complained that he was a casualty of election abuses intended to boost Ahmadinejad. Karroubi took his grievance directly to the top - accusing Khamenei of condoning "coup-like" acts to fix the elections.

Elias Hazrati, a co-founder of Karroubi's party, said it's aiming squarely at the middle class and others outside the "elite" circles of intellectuals and full-time activists.

"Focusing just on the elite is a weak point of the Iranian political parties," he said.


Still, Ahmadinejad's rise showed that middle-class Iranians can be roused if they feel their livelihoods and Western-looking lifestyles are in danger.

"Down with religious fascism," protesters cried during the last days of the campaign. Some of the activists came directly from the office carrying briefcases and wearing neckties - a symbol of middle class disdain for hard-liners who consider ties part of Western cultural infiltration.

"I even put on a headband with words supporting (reforms)," said Shahriar Abbasi, a 35-year-old public relations executive. "When I came back I felt as an 18-year-old, not me."

"I do not believe in violence," he added. "But I think it's different when the violence is to protect your rights. And I am sure that in coming years I will be need to stand up and protect them."

Shareholders on the Tehran Stock Exchange also vowed to resist any changes to curb the small but growing capital markets. On the eve of the June election, a newspaper carried a message from 18 music companies. It paid homage to the Beatles with a double-entendre aimed at anyone trying to roll back reforms: "Let it be."

"After the Islamic Revolution, the leaders pushed everyone to be religious," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric who served as Khatami's vice president until last year. "Now the people are pushing the leaders to be democratic."

Some of the region's key showdowns hang in the balance.

Iran is the political polestar for Shiite Muslims, who broke from the majority Sunnis over disputes on leadership after the death of the Prophet Mohammad in 632 and now represent between 10 percent to 15 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. But numbers don't tell the full story. Iran has crucial influence in Iraq and, with it, newfound influence over the entire Islamic world.

Iraq's majority Shiites include elements favoring an Iranian-style system. But mainstream Shiite leaders have joined the U.S.-protected government to draft a post-Saddam Hussein political framework. A referendum on the proposed constitution is scheduled for Oct. 15, but the road to the ballot is complicated by Sunni opposition and clashes between Shiite factions.

The West, meanwhile, is pressing Iran to shed full light on its nuclear ambitions. Iran claims it seeks only power-producing reactors. Washington alleges that Iran also is pursuing a nuclear weapons program that could redraw the strategic landscape of the Middle East and could open dangerous nuclear channels to radical groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which have received Iranian help.

With oil prices up, Iran is soaking up huge profits and international markets are following Ahmadinejad's pledges to exert more oversight on the 4 million-barrel-a-day production.

"Ahmadinejad's voters are the poor and struggling. They couldn't care less about the color of a head scarf or Internet access or the other things that worry the middle class," said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "This is Iran's big divide."


It doesn't take much to see it.

The tour starts in Jamshidieh Park on the northern fringes of Tehran.

Here - amid green terraces cut into the mountainside - families unload picnic lunches from shiny SUVs. Lovers flirt and kiss in the shade of sweet-smelling pine and eucalyptus. Children race by on mountain bikes. Teenage girls listen to a mix of Persian music and Britney Spears.

The evening call to prayer begins across the city below. No one in the park pays much attention.

"The common values we had years ago as Iranians are fading," said university student Armin Salmasi, whose family lives in a middle class enclave in north Tehran. "People are angry at religion because authorities use it as a tool to control people."

A few miles away, a group of men are filing into the Al-Hossein mosque. The air is heavy with heat and smog. The men are mostly veterans of Iran's 1980-88 war with Saddam's Iraq, which was then backed by Washington.

The imam begins: "Are you ready to put down your lives for the Islamic Republic? The enemy is never far away."

On a boulevard nearby, billboards pitch imported watches and perfume. A few blocks away, a giant sign co-sponsored by the Tehran Municipal Council - which selected Ahmadinejad as mayor in 2003 - shows a woman cradling a baby in one arm and a gun in the another. "My children I love," the message says, "but I love martyrdom more."

"The polarization in Iran is clear and probably will grow," said Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who follows Middle Eastern affairs. "This is the kind of environment that can bring more tensions."