Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Shirin Ebadi's Troubled History

Vali Nasr, The New Republic:
Since the Nobel Prize committee recognized Shirin Ebadi's tireless efforts on behalf of Iranian women, children, and political dissidents, she has become the international face of Iran's struggle for democracy. A judge during the Shah's time, Ebadi found herself, like many other women of her generation, pushed to the margins by the revolution's turbaned rulers. She became a lawyer and a human rights activist, building a career solely devoted to unmasking the absurdities of Iran's theocracy and fighting its archaic laws, violations of women's rights, and mistreatment of dissidents. All this is chronicled in her memoir. The book is a powerful condemnation of the dictatorship of the ayatollahs, at its best when it recounts the suffering of those whom Ebadi represented. The gross injustices and the everyday cruelties of the Islamist regime in Iran would be comical were they not so tragic.

But the narrative loses its poignancy when it shifts to the writer herself. As commendable as her efforts on the part of the victims of injustice in Iran have been, Ebadi's confused rendition of Iranian history, which vacillates between celebrating the revolution and condemning its consequences, makes it difficult to regard her as a symbol of democracy. Still, it is possible to look beyond her perplexing tentativeness and regard her story as emblematic of the paradox of a revolution that mobilized, educated, and ultimately frustrated Iranian women. Revolutionary fervor promised to break down traditional patriarchy, but in its place there appeared new discriminations. Ebadi hopes that the unfulfilled promises of revolution will finally bring a fury down upon the Islamic Republic and fracture its pious edifice. But this hope, however fond, is a distant one--more distant than Ebadi seems to understand. READ MORE

To point out that the Islamic Republic falls grossly short of Iranians' expectations is to belabor the obvious. To a moderately informed reader, the tales of woe in Ebadi's book will seem nearly as predictable as they are horrid. Less obvious is a deeply troubling question that lurks in the background. What led Ebadi and her generation of educated Westernized professionals to get themselves into this bind, to be "hypnotized" by the ayatollah's revolution? Why were their rights and their freedoms so cheap in their eyes that they so hastily traded them for the will-o'-the-wisp promise of a revolutionary utopia? "I'd rather be a free Iranian than an enslaved attorney," she cavalierly told a baffled judge who reminded her that the revolution she was championing would destroy her career. What accounts for the tragic mistake of her generation, for the grand delusion that subjected the Iranian people to the ignominy of discrimination and tyranny?

Even now, some twenty-seven years after the Iranian revolution, Ebadi displays more acrimony toward the regime that recognized her rights and made her a judge, I mean the Shah's regime, than for the one that has stripped her of those rights, ended her career on the bench, executed her brother-in-law, and put her in prison. "I had reclaimed a dignity," she fondly recalls about her euphoria on the day of the revolution, one that she "had not even realized [she] had lost." She condemns theocracy, to be sure; but she remains enamored of the revolution that brought it into being. She shows empathy for its makers, even for violent terror groups such as the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization, whose history is soaked in blood. How can those who speak for democracy also continue to idealize an anti-democratic revolution? Perhaps this is part of the Iranian problem.

Reading Ebadi's story, one wants to think of Mandela or Havel, except that there is no happy democratic ending to her tale. Three-quarters of the way through the book, she notes plaintively: "I am often asked, Why do Iranian young people simply not rise up? If their discontent is so deep, their alienation so irreversible, if they are 70 percent of Iranian society, what explains their complacency?" It is a good question. Indeed, it is now the question on everyone's mind. Why have the youth, not to say the broader freedom-loving population, not charged the barricades in Tehran? And in the time since Ebadi wrote her memoir, such a charge has become even less likely. In the presidential election in 2005, which was supposed to have energized pro-democracy voices and isolated the clerical regime, a clear majority of Iranians voted for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a favorite son of the fanatical paramilitaries. Stepping beyond Ebadi's message of hope, then, it is fair to ask whether her tale of woe and horror, of courage and youthful rebellion against tyranny, really explains Iran today.

For close to a decade now, Iran has been tantalizing and baffling the West. No other country in the region is so close to and so far from democracy. With its youthful, literate, and Web-happy population, with thousands of activist NGOs, with more women in universities than men, and with a measure of cultural dynamism that is unique in the Middle East, Iranian society has stood in sharp contrast to the clerical leadership that is suppressing it. Persian is today, after English and Mandarin Chinese, the third most popular language online, where one can surf tens of thousands of Iranian blogs. Offline, hundreds of widely read newspapers, magazines, and periodicals host thinly disguised intellectual and political debates. Iranians also get their news and views from a myriad of international sources. The BBC's Persian website at one point received 450,000 hits a day. On satellite television, Iranians watch everything from CNN to The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

There are lively discussions about Western thought. Full-page debates over postmodernism often adorn the pages of popular dailies, while seminars and lectures regularly discuss Western thinkers from Hegel to Samuel P. Huntington. Iran's spirited book market has for many years now dwarfed the oft-repeated statistics showing the paltry quantity of translations in the far larger Arab world. Foreign tomes that seem as if they might be helpful in prying open Islamic orthodoxy are particularly popular. There have been more translations of Kant into Persian in the past decade than into any other language, and these have gone into multiple printings. (One is by the current conservative speaker of the Iranian parliament.) In some areas of mathematics and physics, such as string theory, Iranian research centers rank among the best in the world. Iranian cinema has in recent years become a powerful force at home and abroad.

What this dynamism signals is that the revolution is over. Such a conclusion is inescapable. But it is not all that one needs to know. It does not follow that this new cultural energy will lead to a new political energy. The expectation that a democratic opening must follow this cultural revival has turned to disappointment. Iran's youthful cultural dynamism has not only failed to produce democracy; it has failed even to produce a credible pro-democracy movement.

In truth, Iran has been an improbable candidate for a flowering of democracy. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 created the only Islamist state to result from a successful Islamic-fundamentalist drive for power. An idealized Islamic order enforced by an all-powerful state was the point of this revolution. Democracy had nothing to do with it, not even rhetorically. Still, in the quarter-century since Khomeini came to power there has been significant progress toward democracy, permitted (and manipulated) by a regime hungry for legitimacy as revolutionary zeal has drained away like water from a cracked pool. Iranians have embraced many democratic practices, participated in elections at local and national levels, and believed that their votes affect political outcomes. In 1997 a reformist cleric, Mohammad Khatami, won the election in a landslide after the unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei openly endorsed Khatami's conservative opponent. Iran is the only country in the Middle East where two heads of state have stepped down after the ends of regular terms and retired undisturbed to their homes.

Since the Shah fell in 1979, there have been nine presidential elections and seven parliamentary elections. While clerical rulers vet candidates strictly and shut out thousands of them, citizens take the campaigning and the voting seriously. The voting age is fifteen. An entire generation has now grown up with ballots and promises from politicians, with the lofty ideals of democracy as well as its more mundane mechanics. It is not uncommon for far-flung villages to have elected councils. The deep flaws in the process have not prevented Iranians from learning about democratic practices and internalizing democracy-friendly values.

Ironically, this tendency is strongest among the poor and pious masses, who form the clerical regime's broadest base of support. These plain folk have always taken elections seriously, rallied and voted enthusiastically, and accepted the legitimacy of their results without question. So Iran is not saddled with the problem of democratic practices hitting the impenetrable rock of traditional values. The Iranian constitution vests sovereignty in God, but Iranian politicians look to the people for their mandate. Even the conservative wave that recently swept the hard-line Ahmadinejad to power relied on the ballot box. The problem is not with the embrace of democratic practices, but with their full and effective enshrinement in politics.

Iran had a democratic opening of sorts with Khatami's first election, by a 70 percent majority, in 1997. People expected that their electoral rejection of the dour senior clerics and their war with the world would make civil society, people power, and cultural opening the hallmarks of the future. Khatami, with his talk of "the dialogue of civilizations," the rule of law, and the status of women, seemed to be the man for the hour. After all, citizens had been able to vote for a reform candidate against the wishes of the top clerics--and the result had stood. This emboldened the forces of Iranian civil society to demand fundamental changes. And this led to a short-lived "Tehran Spring," as Ebadi puts it, during which the language and the style of politics began to change. By 1998, there were 740 newspapers in circulation, and political debate became rampant, and revolutionary dogma was openly challenged by calls for intellectual and artistic freedoms. The demand for change even extended to clerics such as Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini's onetime heir apparent, and to his student Mohsen Kadivar, who openly criticized the Islamic Republic's authoritarianism and spoke of reconciling Islam with democracy.

But Khatami failed to live up to expectations. He spoke of democracy, but he did little to implement it. His emphasis on the rule of law in the absence of constitutional reforms had the effect of tightening the grip of the country's unelected clerical rulers, who used the judiciary and the appointed Guardian Council--as well as allies in the media, parliament, and various government agencies--to stiff-arm reform. The ineffectual Khatami repeatedly lost ground on press freedom, the rule of law, individual rights, and other matters. During his eight disappointing years in office, the Guardian Council blocked fully one-third of Khatami's legislative agenda.

Nor was the regime afraid to break heads. In 1999, in Iran's version of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the security forces, along with shadowy paramilitaries such as the Basij militia, brutally suppressed pro-democracy student demonstrations. During violent attacks on university dormitories and later on street marches, several students were killed and many more were injured. The attack was a turning point. Khatami faced a choice: he could call for an end to dictatorship and stand with his followers in the streets, like Boris Yeltsin atop a tank in Moscow in 1991, or he could back down. He chose the latter course, chastising the students for breaking the law and telling them to go home. Thus the march toward democracy became bogged down in a losing war of attrition with Iran's wily, ruthless, and stubborn clerical rulers.

Looking back on those years of hope giving way to despair, it is possible to conclude that perhaps most observers of Iran got it wrong. Reform was not the only game in Khatami's town, and an enthusiastic pro-democracy movement was not fated to take charge of Iran's future. In the end, the Khatami era proved to be less about democracy than about a surging wave of reaction. The ruling clergy read Khatami's victory as a warning that Iran was moving on a course which, left unchecked, would destroy the Islamic Republic. They launched an effective counter-mobilization, taking the battle to the reformists, beating them soundly, and emerging from the struggle stronger and more confident.

This is the Iranian regime that we are dealing with today. When, in 2003, students demonstrated to mark the anniversary of their 1999 rising, they found scant enthusiasm for taking on the regime and its brute force. A year later, when reformist parliamentarians protested the Guardian Council's banning of 3,600 candidates (including eighty incumbents) in advance of the parliamentary elections, hardly any demonstrators showed up. Few heeded the then-jailed dissident Akbar Ganji's call for a boycott of the presidential elections in 2005, and no more than a handful could be found holding a vigil outside the notorious Evin prison during Ganji's much-publicized hunger strike. Ganji's bold challenge to theocracy is popular, but few are willing to accept the risks of protesting for it. The undercurrent of desire for democracy remains strong, but the democracy movement is a fizzle.

A visitor to Tehran can easily find parties where alcohol (and drugs) flow freely, and where young men and women mix without regard for draconian morality laws. But fun-loving kids eager to explore the extremes of hedonism and social freedoms do not make heroes. They are a far cry from their elders, who a generation ago challenged the Shah with a brazen idealism gleaned from Mao's little red book. The youngsters who braved the Shah's army were revolutionaries in the true sense, willing to risk all for a utopian ideal. Iranians today seem to want regime change, but at no cost. They value freedom, but they value stability more.

More confusingly, freedom, of a sort and up to a point, is something that the regime is willing to grant them. As the election in 2005 drew near, leading conservative contenders began promising greater cultural freedom but no political reform. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the ex-president and billionaire oligarch, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the Revolutionary Guard general and student-suppressing police commander, re-invented themselves as moderate and pragmatic strongmen willing to tolerate a modest cultural opening while safeguarding social and political stability. These Putin-like figures adopted secular and youthful themes and ornamented their campaigns with pop music and stylish dress. Ghalibaf's transformation was particularly jarring. He traded his uniform for a suede jacket, hip glasses, and a beard trimmed down to Armani-style fuzz. Rafsanjani and Ghalibaf made headway into the reformist base of support, but they failed to win the big prize.
Iran's youth--30 percent of the country's population is between fifteen and twenty-nine years of age--is not a monolith. Not all are driven by the desire for looser mores. Vast numbers need jobs that an economy ravaged by revolution, war, and a crushingly bloated public sector cannot give them. Since Khomeini's death in 1989, Iran has tried to reform its economy by investing in infrastructure and pursuing privatization. Many among the elite, but also the middle class, have benefited from this change--but not so the legions of the poor and unemployed. Iran still has unemployment of close to 20 percent. The income per capita is a quarter of what it was in 1979, and on average Iranians eat less protein than they did before the revolution.

Greater room for entrepreneurship (and a measure of corruption) has energized the private sector. The newly rich, clerics and businessmen alike, quickly changed the dour face of revolutionary Iran with conspicuous consumption and an appetite for things Western. Khomeini-style austerity became a thing of the past. But beneath the glitz there remained the frustrations of the poor, by some accounts as many as 40 percent of the population. While the affluent may have turned their attention to political freedoms, those who felt left behind amid the economic reforms nursed resentment at the growing economic disparities, and also at the cultural freedoms that they associated with the wealth at the top. This anger would lend itself to the anti-reform backlash and decide the presidential elections of 2005.

The clerical rulers grasped the social dynamics of the 1990s better than the reformists did. The regime understood that the multitude of Iranian poor wanted not freedoms but jobs. Economic reform, and not political reform, would therefore be the key. Senior officials began to talk of a Chinese model: economic restructuring to generate growth, but not political change. And so the Islamic Republic overnight became development-oriented. When the conservative establishment formed a political party to contest the parliamentary elections in 2004, it was called the Developers' Coalition. More astute elements in the regime saw development as a still-distant goal, one that would for a time widen rather than narrow the gap between rich and poor. They saw a quick fix in manipulating the anger of the poor against the rich, constructing a populist platform--much like those of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia--in order to garner the votes of the poor. With oil prices high, populism seemed more feasible than ever.

Enter Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is a fanatic, a throwback to the zealotry of the Khomeini years, who had plied his trade in the dreaded paramilitaries until he was recruited as the populist face of the conservative reaction. Throughout his campaign, Ahmadinejad traveled to poor provinces and promised to end social and economic disparities. He blamed economic problems on the private sector and its reformist supporters in government, and he promised to end privatization, protect state subsidies, alleviate poverty, invest in infrastructure, and create jobs. It hardly mattered that his harangues made little economic sense. They were precisely what those whom economic change had left behind wanted to hear. Ahmadinejad showcased his humble two-bedroom home in a poor neighborhood of Tehran while his supporters handed out CDs showing Rafsanjani's gilded lifestyle. Ahmadinejad wanted to be seen as one of the revolution's downtrodden masses, the so-called mostazafin, fighting the fat cats whose greed and corruption had betrayed the revolution's populist goals.

After he won, Ahmadinejad further cultivated the image of the humble outsider, refusing to travel in the presidential jet or with a motorcade. He once flew commercial to a provincial capital with his entourage of twenty, and then took a taxi to the governor's office. He promised to transfer wealth to the poor and to raise their standard of living. He threatened to scuttle Tehran's stock market, and he slashed interest rates--measures that he claimed favored the poor, but which led to devastating capital flight. Parliament blocked his idea for an extravagant "marriage fund" to help struggling young people form families, but his constituency cheered his effort. Most of his fiery speeches denouncing Israel, doubting the Holocaust, and confirming Iran's determination to plod ahead with its nuclear capability are given to cheering crowds in small towns in far-flung provinces.

This political provincialism is not necessarily a sign of naïveté. Ahmadinejad understands that Tehran's political significance has shrunk, that Iranian politics has become increasingly local. He knows retail-level electoral tactics--which probably mattered more than ideology for his victory--and that in the provinces bread-and-butter concerns dwarf the debate over democracy. Unlike the Eastern European communist rulers who had lost their peoples by the 1980s, Iran's hardliners know that they have a solid and zealous 18 to 20 percent base among die-hard elements drawn from war veterans, paramilitary cadres, and their families. Ghalibaf assembled focus groups to branch out from there by capturing the mood of the middle class and urban youth, but Ahmadinejad's skillful use of populism proved him the better strategist.

Since the 2004 and 2005 elections, conservatives have mostly left the middle classes and urban youth alone, so as to focus on appeals to the poor. Ahmadinejad even conceded to a reformist demand by declaring that women could attend soccer matches in stadiums (Iran's most prominent public places), thereby angering senior clerics. Many student leaders, as well as Ganji, Iran's leading dissident, have been released since Ahmadinejad's election, as if to say that the reformists simply do not concern him. (This may be changing, though: last month Ramin Jahanbegloo, a well-known intellectual, was jailed on a trumped-up charge of espionage, but more likely for having criticized the theocracy.)

Not all Iranian youth are secular. Many share the regime's values. The past decade has seen a resurgent folk piety, especially among the young, which deviates from Khomeini's puritanical, anti-ritualistic version of Islam. In recent years, major holidays such as Ashura have taken on the quality of youth festivals, sometimes mixing devotional practices with Westernized music, to the ire of purist clerics. Most notably, there has been a growing devotion to the Shia messiah, the twelfth imam or Mahdi, whom Shia Muslims believe was miraculously hidden from ordinary human perception one thousand years ago, to return at the end of time. Signs of devotion to the Mahdi are ubiquitous in Iran today--most noticeably among otherwise Westernized young people. Some years ago I visited the Jamkaran Mosque outside the clerical city of Qom. The mosque gained fame when Ahmadinejad, soon after his election, dedicated millions to its repair and sent an official to pledge the government's commitment to hastening the return of the Mahdi, who is said to have once appeared at Jamkaran. The faithful flock to the mosque from near and far, much like the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. During my recent visit, Jamkaran was teeming with young people, many in up-to-date Western clothes and hairstyles; and only Ahmadinejad seems to have grasped the political implications of this youthful religiosity.

Faced with such cagey hard-line rivals, the reformists fell into a long debate over whether to call for a voter boycott (as urged by the jailed Ganji). And by the time the reformists realized that they would have to take the election seriously, the conservatives had defined the race. The best-known reformist candidate, Mohammad Moin, was a reconstructed revolutionary with a checkered past but no charisma or imagination. Worse yet, reformists had no plan for rallying the diverse groups that should have voted for them. Too many candidates were chasing the same reformist voters, who also harkened to appeals from moderate conservatives such as Rafsanjani and Ghalibaf. And so more or less reform-friendly candidates arguably took sixteen million of the twenty-seven million first-round votes, but divided they fell. Moin, the top clear reformist in the race, finished fifth.

Beneath the reformists' tactical confusion lay strategic and philosophical confusion. Their pro-democracy message was an uncertain trumpet, as they wavered between calling for complete change and saying that reform of the Islamic Republic could suffice. Should theocracy be mended or ended? Reformists could not say. They held study groups on the constitution, but they split over what constitutional change should mean. Some, including professors and secular lawyers such as Shirin Ebadi, spoke of a new liberal and non-theocratic constitution. Others, such as the Ayatollah Montazeri, wanted to rescind only those post-Khomeini changes that had strengthened the position of the Supreme Leader. Some even looked back at Khomeini with nostalgia as an honest man of the people.

Ebadi's memoir is a palimpsest of reformist equivocations. In her view, democracy includes neither those who never supported the revolution nor the millions whom the revolution turned into refugees and forced into exile. Iranian expatriates--including, one would presume, her expatriate co-author, Azadeh Moaveni--stand outside her vision of Iran, as if they are traitors. "When someone leaves Iran," writes Ebadi, "it as though that person has died for me." In a chilling passage, she describes erasing the names of friends who fled Iran from her address book and never putting pen to paper to write them. Exile in Ebadi's eyes is a scarlet letter, forever excluding those who fled from the revolution that she celebrates. Her democracy movement is a meanly limited group of former revolutionaries whose folly brought Khomeini to power and who now want to move beyond his legacy.

The democracy debate in Iran has never concerned itself with lunch-pail issues. During the elections it was left to the obstreperous cleric Mehdi Karroubi--a relic of the early years of the revolution and an adviser to the Supreme Leader, who has lately gravitated toward reform--to put forward an economic argument. He promised that if elected, the government would give every Iranian the equivalent of $50 a month. That is hardly a substitute for a coherent economic policy; but the proposition was attractive to many voters in a society with rampant unemployment. Karroubi can be credited with bringing many more people than expected to the polls, and also for taking votes away from the main reformist candidates by presenting a reformist version of Ahmadinejad's populism.

Reformists were slow to realize that by the end of Khatami's term, democracy meant not prosperity, but gridlock and ineffectual government. A proreform businessman told me the sordid and paradigmatic story of the Imam Khomeini International Airport, supposedly a showcase and a gateway to world trade and tourism. Shortly after Khatami opened it in 2004, the Revolutionary Guards closed its runway, complaining (in a weird foreshadowing of the ill-fated Dubai ports deal in the United States) that the airport's Austro-Turkish management consortium had dealings with Israel, and that this posed a threat to Iran's national security. In reality, the Guards coveted the lucrative contract and wanted to run the new airport as they had the old one. The airport stayed closed for nearly a year as costs piled up, and an embarrassed Khatami had to cancel a state visit to Turkey, and the transport minister faced impeachment by a parliament where Revolutionary Guardsmen and veterans hold 30 percent of the seats. My interlocutor ended by observing that it might be good to have the Guards' commander as president, for then at least it would be clear who was running the show. Some even seem to think that the men at arms might be better managers: after all, they managed to build nuclear projects despite sanctions.

Businessmen crave order, of course, and their potential regard for the man on horseback is hardly confined to Iran: witness the history of Latin America, or perhaps more to the point, the current situation in Pakistan, where a pro-business general enjoys Western allies. On the eve of elections, Iran seemed to be gripped with a Bonapartist fever. There were even veiled appeals to the legacy of Reza Shah, the autocratic modernizer who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in the early twentieth century and pulled the country by its bootstraps into the modern world. With the poor wanting jobs and business wanting effective governance, where was democracy? Conservative candidates boasted that they could work with the Supreme Leader and get things done. The reformists could guarantee no such thing. The pragmatic choice was to vote conservative.

Before he ran for president, Ahmadinejad had briefly served as mayor of Tehran, a position that he owed to his Revolutionary Guards backers. His stint in the mayor's office was an opportunity to re-package an inexperienced militant as an effective administrator. He fought public corruption, used the Guards' slush funds to give garbage collectors and bus drivers a raise, and built sports complexes and parks in poor neighborhoods. His patrons in the Guards helped him to ease Tehran's nightmarish traffic with new highways through previously restricted military zones. While Ahmadinejad has always been an ideological firebrand--through a career dedicated to doing the bully work of the Islamic Republic and following fringe radical groups and their extremist views--this is not what made him president. What mattered more were the signs that a president favored by the powers-that-be could succeed where Khatami had failed. And so Ahmadinejad transformed himself into the can-do, no-nonsense public executive.

The election results left the reformists devastated. Ahmadinejad finished second to Rafsanjani in the first round, but won the two-man runoff with a whopping 62 percent. And it was a high-turnout election, the kind in which the reform vote should have figured largely (Khatami's landslide in 1997 was the highest-turnout election in Iranian history). While evidence that clerics and Guards officials had illegally helped Ahmadinejad was plentiful, there were no big protests. It was also clear that, even allowing for the irregularities, Ahmadinejad had done better than expected, and won by a genuinely wide margin in the runoff. As Tehran resident Mohammad Ghouchani, the influential editor of the leading reformist paper Shargh, put it, in 2005 "reformism lost to democracy."

After the elections, things did not look good for the reformists. Their two main factions took nearly a year even to agree to meet, with the goal of crafting a common platform. Meanwhile, the slide toward marginality has continued as the conservatives ride high, confident in the knowledge that they have beaten the reformists at their own game. The reformists now find themselves shut out of all political institutions, their hopes of using the presidency to open the system in tatters. Purges have driven professionals with reformist leanings out of the government bureaucracy. Their replacements are dour, dyed-in-the-wool hard-liners who lack experience and competence but burn with ideological zeal and a desire to make a reformist comeback impossible. The new culture minister has been especially virulent, proudly embracing book censorship. The nuclear watchdogs of the International Atomic Energy Agency have felt the chill wind too, as faithful hard-liners have replaced the familiar diplomats managing the nuclear negotiations.

The reformists in Iran are simply unprepared, intellectually and organizationally, to confront a conservative regime that enjoys the legitimacy of popular election. Ahmadinejad's populist rhetoric will likely lose its charm as his inexperienced government fails to deliver, but high oil revenues and the rally-'round-the-flag effect of nuclear tensions with the United States may disguise and forestall the effects of that disillusionment for some time. Appeals for liberal-democratic change will have a hard time being heard in a time of national crisis, more so now that the United States has announced plans to spend $85 million to promote democracy in Iran.

What, then, of the search for democracy in Iran? It seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once. There is no other country in the region more suitable for the nurturing of the sapling of democracy. Iranians want democracy, and they cherish democratic practices. But there is no simple and straight path to democracy in Iran. The battle lines are unclear, and as the elections last year showed, open political contestation has favored populist authoritarianism over democracy, albeit through the ballot box. Talk of democracy in Iran is rife, especially in the West; but the reality is that Iran now has a stable authoritarian regime, and there is no obvious way to dislodge it.

It will be difficult to make up for the opportunity that was lost during the Khatami years. Building a viable movement for full and politically secular democracy will take time. It needs organization and coalition-building; but above all it needs a convincing and uncompromising message--one that breaks absolutely with the legacy of the revolution and the nostalgia for its promise, and rejects any half-hearted attempts at reforming the theocracy. (There is an Islamic case, as well as a secular one, for a complete break.) In this task Shirin Ebadi can offer no guidance. Hers is the perplexed voice of a hopelessly inbetween generation, torn between the intoxications of its youth and the realities of an ugly present. It will remain for others to see more clearly what she sees only through a glass darkly.

Vali Nasr is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.