The Changing Face of Iran
Sydney Morning Herald:
The mullahs rule the streets but behind closed doors Iran's well-heeled toke on pot and pass the bootleg vodka. Paul McGeough looks at an authoritarian state at war with itself.
On A sultry afternoon at the crossroads of life in Tehran, a mother in her 40s wistfully recalls the excitement of the revolution - how almost three decades ago she ran into the streets of the capital as raw people power knocked the despised Shah of Iran from his gilded throne. "Today, our children attack some of us for being so stupid," says the woman, grinding the end of her cigarette into a glass ashtray.
She's a little ashamed a few friends try to save face with their children - denying they had even been in the streets. She hesitates over another cigarette. And then she makes a pained admission: "I went to the Shah's grave in Cairo and I told him it was all a big mistake." READ MORE
In Tehran worlds collide - stock images of ayatollahs and turbans are not the whole story. By nature, Iranians are pleasure-seekers, forever exploring the void between what the state declares lawful and what they can get away with. Young women in particular find themselves at an extraordinary fork in the revolution's road.
Some offer to put their lives on the line. Hundreds dress as suicide bombers for stage-managed parades that provide a backdrop for the rhetorical salvos in Tehran's war with the world. Masked and menacing, they hitch their bomber's vests as they turn to Lebanon and Palestine. They raise a fist defiantly at the enemy: Washington.
Another army of women is bandaged and bruised. There is no regime choreography, but they wear their wounds with much the same badge-of-honour determination.
Numbering thousands, they emerge from the waiting rooms of Tehran's plastic surgeons and rush to their favourite coffee shops to show off a new symbol of Western decadence in Iran: their reshaped noses.
Both armies are a product of a propaganda war that intensifies as Iran flaunts its nuclear ambition and flexes its muscles as an emerging regional power, a status brought on by the US-led defeat of enemies that previously hemmed in Tehran: to the west, Saddam Hussein; to the east, the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The suicide squads are easily identified as a regime creation. But the obsession that has made Tehran one of the nose-job capitals of the world - by some estimates up to 100,000 procedures are done each year - is a surprising byproduct of a propaganda campaign that emanates from distant California.
A battery of pirate satellite TV stations run by Iranian exiles in Beverly Hills and the San Fernando Valley bombards their homeland with anti-regime propaganda. Despite claims by the pirates that their calls to action have instigated spontaneous street protests in Tehran, Iranians from all walks of life - the regime, academia, the media and in the streets - tend to dismiss their rallying as the out-of-touch ravings of "armchair" counter-revolutionaries. And while many young Iranians tune in, a good portion of them ignore the propaganda. Instead, they lap up the entertainment that comes through the ether.
The Tehran regime has only limited success in jamming the signals from Los Angeles and, despite several campaigns, it has failed to shut down a thriving black market in satellite dishes. This week it had police teams back on the rooftops in the capital and in three of the provinces, ripping out dishes in a futile attempt to control the flow of information.
That it worries so much is revealing because many young Iranians are believed to have opted out of all politics and propaganda. Instead, they immerse themselves in a make-believe world of Hollywood films and MTV.
The cosmetic surgery craze is a surprise amid the straitlaced fervour of the mullahs. But Bahareh Ahmade, a 22-year-old student, proudly tells the Herald that her new nose was designed from a very up-to-the-minute magazine tear-out of the singer Michael Jackson's nose. Bailed up on the curb in leafy north Tehran, she says: "My life is a bubble - I have absolutely no interest in politics. I study and I worry about getting a job; I hang out in coffee shops, I swim in the pool or go to parties with my friends." Does she watch satellite TV? "Just the movies and the entertainment," she says.
The award-winning Iranian filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei was so perplexed that he made a film on the nose phenomenon - Noses Iranian Style. He asks: "Is this a whole lost generation? In the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, young Iranians lost whole limbs and parts of their faces for their country; now they line up five-abreast in operating theatres to give up a part of their faces. What has happened to their values? How did they become so distracted from real issues in such a short span of time?"
The fixation of young women, in particular, with westernising the only visible feature on their well-covered bodies has come to symbolise the thinning ranks of foot soldiers in a gloomy internal review of the Iranian reformist movement's failure to win and hold sufficient political power or to demonstrate that it is possible to change the grinding reality of life under the successors of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Herald's observations of life in Tehran confirm a foreign diplomat's snapshot of the state of play 27 years after the overthrow of the shah: "The mullahs have firm control. The top end of business relies on corrupt government deals and permits, so they're not too upset; professionals and the middle class who have not joined the brain drain stay indoors and get smashed on homemade vodka; and the poor masses are too hungry and too desperate to think of reform or revolt."
Even amid such despondency, maintaining state control still requires a campaign of intimidation. Journalists, lawyers and intellectuals are regularly rounded up and jailed on spurious charges. And street protests by women, by bus drivers and by minority Sufis have been busted in a harsh new police crackdown.
Exact figures are not available. But hundreds are said to be under detention without trial. And thousands more are harassed in a constant bid by the regime to wear down the will of would-be reformists, often threatening them with the loss of their jobs or cancelling their access to university studies.
UPHEAVAL in the region is creating a new balance of power. Shiite and Persian Iran is on one side. The US-backed Israelis are on the other. And fretting between them are all the Sunni-dominated Arab regimes who see their influence being eroded.
Previously isolated, Tehran is back in the business of attempting to export its Islamic revolution to the Muslim - and mainly Arab - masses of the region. It has its hand up the back of the Shiite leadership in Baghdad and the militias who own the chaotic streets of liberated Iraq. It is drawing in the new Afghan government. It still counts on Syria as its ambassador in the Arab world, and it sees Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Occupied Territories as its proxy pincers on Israel.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, US President George Bush locked Iran into his "axis of evil" depiction of the global threat faced by Washington. Top US officials, Bush included, have left open the option of military strikes as a response to Tehran's refusal to bow to Western demands to curb its uranium-enrichment program. But despite all its rhetoric, Team Bush seems for now, at least, to be opting for diplomacy over forced regime change.
The evidence that Tehran funds, supplies and guides Hezbollah in Lebanon appears to be much stronger than the Americans' fabricated weapons of mass destruction case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But despite his insistence on getting to "root causes", Bush subcontracted the war against the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah to the Israeli Defence Forces, who failed to deliver on the promises they made as they went to war in July.
And, uncharacteristically, Bush sits on his hands while European, Russian and Chinese diplomats make painful efforts to defuse the nuclear crisis. That issue comes to a head again at the UN Security Council in 12 days.
AT FIRST glance, it seems anything goes beneath the perpetual pollution haze that blankets Tehran. A visitor loses count of the shiny BMW and Lexus cars on jammed freeways. Giant billboards shriek Western indulgence - Pierre Cardin, Calvin Klein, Versace…
There are glitzy shopping strips and coffee shops. The florists' displays are exquisite. Monsoon restaurant, on the north's Ghandi Street, is so expensive it doesn't bother with a menu in Farsi.
Despite a state ban on alcohol, bootleggers do home deliveries of imported or home-brewed beers, wines and spirits. Party hosts offer pot to their guests as readily as they dispense their preferred analgesic - a local, paint-stripper-like variant of vodka. "Is it Danish?" the Herald asks a host who produced the distinctive aluminium flask in which Danzka Vodka is marketed. He replies: "The bottle is!"
But that's well-heeled North Tehran, where the bandaged noses of young women are like beacons of indifference in the pavement crowds and where pharmacists report a run on nose bandages by those who can't afford the surgery - but who want to look hip.
Across the city, the state does its billboards, featuring revered ayatollahs and the pitiable martyrs of the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War. The wall of a downtown high rise is given over to a huge depiction of the US flag - hung vertically, it has skulls for stars and each red stripe is the trajectory of a falling bomb marked: "Made in the USA."
Then there is the poverty of southern Tehran and the sprawling hinterland, powder kegs of resentment over economic hardship that are capable of erupting at any time.
Despite Iran's huge oil reserves, imported petrol is in short supply and becoming more expensive - there's talk of rationing. Inflation and unemployment are rampant. Meat and housing are priced beyond the means of most families who, on average, earn a quarter of what they were getting under the ousted shah. Prostitution and drug abuse are said to be widespread.
But Saddam's Baghdad it is not. In Tehran, regime control is a sophisticated blend of a crude but velveted glove that warns dissidents not to step beyond the bounds of what is tolerated.
Euphemistically referred to as "red lines", the bounds are delineated for the many by the hammer-fist treatment of the few who are prepared to speak out. Iranians are allowed to express raw opinion, but to have it published domestically can be fatal. Just to be interviewed by a foreign correspondent can lead to charges and time in the notorious Evin Prison.
IN THE midst of all this stands the mercurial new Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose popularity is soaring in this time of twin crises - nuclear energy and Lebanon. Exploring Ahmadinejad's diatribes against Israel, a city lawyer takes time to consider whether his President is serious or merely indulging in crude diplomatic sport when he calls for Israel to be "wiped from the map". "He's not a stupid man, is he?" the Herald ventures. There was a pause before this reply: "We can't be sure."
But Amir Mohebian, a writer who claims to be a friend of the Iranian President, tells another reporter: "Wipe Israel off the map? Really? Israel has atomic warheads. Maybe we make irrational statements, but we're not mad by saying things like that, we know the US runs to help Israel - and that's expensive, we think."
Ahmadinejad is rated as the most fundamentalist president since the 1979 revolution. But he is also a deft populist - recently he blocked a police effort to codify women's dress.
But even he can overstep the mark. Before this year's World Cup football tournament in which Iran was knocked out early, he declared that the ban on women attending public sporting events should be lifted. He was overruled by the mullahs.
Promising justice, an end to endemic corruption and to put Iran's huge oil income "on the people's tables", Ahmadinejad came to power on a landslide vote last year. He holds onto that support with targeted cash handouts in the provinces and in his appeals to Iranian nationalism through his hectoring of Washington over Iran's right to go nuclear.
But the presidency is just one spoke in an Orwellian wheel in which the will of the people, the voice of the parliament and that of the executive are subservient to "divine" rule by a deeply corrupt and conservative clerical elite headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini's successor as the Supreme Leader of the Revolution.
Dissent is allowed but rigidly controlled. Support for reformist elements, like the Iran Participation party of the former president Mohammed Khatami, waxes and wanes according to the whim of an unelected religious leadership that retains all real political power for itself.
In what became known as the Tehran Spring, the reformists won control of Iran's elected parliament in 1997, but that did not mean control of the country - virtually every reform bill they passed in the following seven years was rejected or watered down by the overarching authority of the clergy.
The reformists lost credibility because, despite all the religious strictures, they acquiesced rather than confront the ayatollahs. There had to be a showdown, but they didn't bring it on.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi underscores the impotence of the reformists during the Tehran Spring when she says: "[When I was arrested in that period] the president said he was very sorry - he couldn't help. Now it's not much different, but the President doesn't apologise any more."
The reformists' hands were tied, too, because the religious authorities reserve the right to vet the Islamic and revolutionary credentials of all would-be parliamentary candidates.
Before the 2004 elections more than 3000 reformist candidates, including 87 sitting MPs, were disqualified by the religious authorities. Even the brother of then president Khatami and the granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini had no protection - they were swatted like flies. "Resignation and hopelessness forced many to stay away from the polls," says Tehran politics professor Hermidas Bavand.
Bavand admits to being one who turned his back on the reformists because of their submission to the will of the Supreme Leader. "People became indifferent and as a result of their non-participation, the hardliners emasculated the reformist movement," Bavand tells the Herald.
As the reformists attempt to pick up the pieces, they are confronted by a new hurdle - the nuclear and Lebanon crises have become the dominant prisms in all internal debate. Tehran's handling of both draws huge public support in a country where historic US interference has embedded a ferocious anger in the political psyche.
There is the possibility that Iran's overt support for Hezbollah in Lebanon could backfire: "Many Iranians don't see a vital interest for Iran in Lebanon, but we are paying a very high price [because] these military operations could become a kind of solution for Israel and the US [to regional problems]. The scenario is frightening," Bavand says.
But this week Ahmadinejad was triumphant. On the stump at Arbadil, in Iran's north-east, he taunted Washington on the failure by Israel to achieve its combat objectives: "God's promises have come true. On one side, [the] corrupt powers of the criminal US and Britain and the Zionists with modern bombs and planes. And on the other side is a group of pious youths relying on God."
Despite being on the back foot, the reformist movement does have a star player. But Shirin Ebadi defends the nuclear program, saying it is those in control of nuclear power who constitute a security threat, not the energy program itself.
She argues in a recent paper that the nuclear program is rooted in Washington's 1970s encouragement of the Shah of Iran to go nuclear: "[In power, the Iranian] reformists supported the program but wanted it to be in compliance with Iran's international obligations. But instead of backing Iran's fledgling democratic movement, which would have led to nuclear transparency, the US undercut it by demonising Iran."
Criticism of the nuclear program or the Supreme Leader is not tolerated. And any who dare to question Tehran's support for Hezbollah are pounced upon as "Zionists" by publications speaking for the regime.
Mohammad Atrianfar, publisher of the reformist newspaper Shargh, dared to publish an unsigned criticism and in an interview he tells an American reporter: "Officially, Iran is not aware of what Hezbollah does. [But] logically and unofficially, Iran is always aware. The reason is clear, because of all that Iran has done for Hezbollah. Hezbollah is Iran in Lebanon - when Iran looks at Hezbollah, it sees Iran."
Dubbed "the face of resistance", the journalist Akbar Gangi was jailed for six years after he publicly linked a series of dissident killings to senior figures in the regime. When he was released from Evin Prison this year, he was so gaunt after a three-month hunger strike that friends did not recognise him.
Gangi remains defiant, but he has fled to the US, from where he still attempts to co-ordinate protests against the regime.
ACROSS the city from Bobby Sands Street, 51 pairs of shoes at the door to a fourth-floor apartment suggest unusual activity. There are no banners or posters in the street, but the furtive coming and going of foreign TV and press crews confirm something is afoot.
By the standards set by the Irish Republican Army hunger striker, this assembly is small beer. But under the menacing eye of the Iranian security services the assembly is a small sign of courage in the face of such deep despondency about the political commitment of young Iranians.
The shoes' owners - student, political and women's rights activists - have responded to a call by Gangi for reformists in Iran and exiles around the world to pressure the regime with a three-day hunger-strike.
This is the third day and the air in the closed apartment is pungent. In the semi-darkness, Abdullah Momeni, 29, a student activist, says that none of the Tehran media shows an interest because the protest is too hot to handle. He has done 45 days in solitary and is awaiting the outcome of an appeal against a five-year jail sentence for his protest activities.
As his comrades loll on pillows and watch videos, they allow themselves only sweet tea and water. Meanwhile, pleased as Momeni is just to have a gang around him, he makes clear that it's not enough. "We have to show to human rights groups outside Iran that our efforts to win the release of political prisoners have hit a dead end."
Momeni's explanation for the small turnout goes to fear of the regime - but it also turns on young Tehran's plastic surgery obsession. "Young people became frustrated by the performance of the reformists in power. When they looked at their first few years, they could see that the fundamentalists and extremists were in control.
"The risk in joining a protest is huge, so they opt out and worry instead about the shape of their noses and the colour of their eye lenses. Anyone who protests gets kicked out of university and suspended from other community activities. You get threatened or you get sent to prison."
ISA SAHARKHIZ has been a prominent journalist in Tehran for 20 years. But, his lawyers say, in the coming days he will become an inmate of Evin because he dared to question the nature of what Iran likes to call its system of guided democracy.
Under the reformist rule of Khatami, the fortysomething Saharkhiz was the government overseer of the domestic press, but it was his subsequent writing and publishing that were his undoing.
"What am I guilty of? I printed articles against the state, Islam, the constitution, the revolutionary guard and, for good measure, the clergy," he says during an interview. "When I defended Gangi they closed my newspaper."
The Iranian reality, Saharkhiz says, is that there is no reality: "Genuine debate is impossible. Editors no longer tell the truth - they all live a lie. Key reformists are arrested; student offices are closed and activists jailed; people are not allowed to assemble; even political parties are not allowed to have annual conferences. And independent-minded clerics are barred from the mosques."
Like others who spoke to the Herald, Saharkhiz is hoping the regime will collide with its own economic failure. Inflation is getting worse, jobs are harder to find, and the brain-drain and the flight of capital will continue in such a lethal combination that even soaring oil process cannot save the regime, he says. He doesn't have a timeline, but he makes a blunt prediction: "It will be the poor, not the intelligentsia, who will revolt."
But for now the tea leaves that Tehran analysts and political players read are Lebanese - not Iranian. The regime seems emboldened by what it perceives as the success of a more confrontational foreign policy - especially its sponsorship of Hezbollah. They predict that the outcome in Lebanon - a stalemate that allows Hezbollah to claim victory as Israelis resort to infighting over what went wrong - will fire the regime's urge to crack down even more tightly on domestic dissent.
The film director Oskouei - frustrated that most of his work is banned in Iran - describes how, so far, he has sidestepped the authorities.
"Every day in the forest, the deer wakes up and runs to escape from the lion. The lion wakes up to chase the deer - it's an everyday activity and the one that runs faster is successful.
"I am the deer - this is my life."