Our expatriate English correspondent Peter returns with an essay about Iran just before the turn of the millennium. He includes this introductory note:
This is an item I first wrote in 1998, which covers a two-week visit to Iran taking in Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz while I was en route from Delhi to Istanbul. I wrote it originally at the request of a friend who works for the BBC’s Farsi service, but the BBC decided not to use it or to pay me for the privilege of not using it. Apparently the views expressed were at variance with the BBC’s Middle Eastern policy, whatever that might have been.
The article is very much as it was when I wrote it, that is, my impression of Iran in 1998, but its relevance today is that when the inevitable violent revolution finally dislodges the governing theocracy, it will be seen that violence was the only possible way for the people to achieve the necessary change.
Iran: Strangled by a Gordian Knot
It was just after midnight as, in company with my fellow passengers, I finally stumbled into the bustling arrivals hall on Tehran airport, more than three hours after my flight from Delhi via Dubai had landed. The intervening time had been spent standing in a series of queues while a number of dishevelled hirsute men went through our baggage and other belongings minutely examining everything we had, presumably to ensure we were not bringing anything into their country that might in any way be considered improper, offensive, or undesirable. No sooner had we left one queue than we had to join another and yet another after that while different sets of plain-clothes ruffians rummaged through our things. After we had performed this particular ritual a sufficient number of times, the roughnecks who were detaining us must have decided that we didn’t have whatever it was they might have been looking for and allowed us to leave.
Although I was the only non-Iranian on the flight, I had not been treated any differently by the customs officials than had any of the other arrivals, although the same could not be said for passport control where I was removed from the queue by two more unkempt bruisers and escorted to the end of the line, clearly a discriminatory gesture but an understandable one since, unlike most EU countries, Iran was not burdened by a multi-billion-pound race industry.
It was another week before I saw Tehran in daylight. With its characterless, concrete buildings, some adorned with murals depicting the baleful visage of the late Ayatollah Khomeini or the more benign features of the current president Mohammed Khatami, I concluded that it had not been worth the wait. Indeed, Tehran appeared to be so devoid of any prominent landmarks that I had no idea how I would find my way around without getting lost, a misgiving I raised with my friends after the taxi had dropped me at their ground floor apartment.
Ali, his wife Soraya and their two daughters had been staying at the same hotel as me in Esfahan and they had adopted me to ensure I did not fall foul of any xenophobic activities in which some of the local inhabitants were known to indulge, or to prevent me from committing some outrageous though innocent blunder that might have brought me into contact with the Komite, a particularly virulent strain of religious police whose apparent role in Iranian society was to find out how ordinary people managed to enjoy themselves in this austere theocracy and instantly put a stop to it. Thanks to my new-found friends, I found out what most things cost, generally a lot less than they did in Western Europe, and that while the accepted currency was the Rial, worth about 1500 to the US dollar at the time, there was also something called a Toman worth ten Rials. There did not appear to be any denomination of banknotes denoting the Toman and I quickly decided that its only reason for existence was to make certain I paid ten times the going rate for any commodity I might need.
By the time I’d returned to Tehran, after spending four days in Esfahan and three more in Shiraz, I’d formed the opinion that Iran was a country that evoked many questions but offered few answers in return. For example, while I waited in baggage reclaim for my suitcase, I noticed a number of passengers from Kish Island, a duty-free resort in the Persian Gulf, removing articles from a carousel piled high with boxes containing the latest and most advanced Japanese technology and satellite equipment. Yet, in a country where communication with the outside world was actively discouraged by a Government, whose edicts were covertly policed by any number of sinister internal organisations, how could it be that people were openly unloading digital receivers and satellite dishes at a public airport without any apparent fear of detection or reprisal?
As I was being driven through the dusty streets of Tehran, I noticed bed linen hung out to air on every balcony, veranda or patio I passed, a futile gesture in this highly polluted environment but one in which everybody appeared to participate without exception. Ali revealed the answer to this particular conundrum when he showed me his garden and I noticed the edge of a huge satellite dish protruding from beneath the sheet festooning his balcony. He explained that everybody he knew had satellite dishes and as long as these remained concealed, nobody could report them to the authorities but anyone who neglected to hide their dishes could guarantee a visit from the Komite, whose heavy handed representatives had a well-earned reputation for physical abuse and malicious damage, not to mention arbitrary arrest and detention without trial.
This was not the only problem Ali was experiencing because of his family’s access to satellite television. He also felt that his fifteen year-old daughter, Shaida, spent more time watching MTV or the Indian Channel Zee than she did on her schoolwork, and this might ultimately undermine her efforts to secure a place at university when the time came. It was a familiar concern. In the early 1960’s, my parents had the same reservations about my relationship with Radio Luxemburg.
Unlike the rest of her family, Shaida was fluent in English, and during our frequent discussions, revealed an insatiable curiosity about life in England and an encyclopaedic knowledge of English boy bands. It was she who first revealed to me the widespread disillusionment with the Khatami Government that was sweeping the country only a year after he took 70% of the vote during the 1997 Presidential Election. Thousands of teenagers were reputed to have dragged their parents to the polling stations to ensure the selection of this popular reformist candidate. Now his good intentions appeared to be foundering on the self-serving intransigence of the conservative clerics, fuelling seething discontent amongst his erstwhile supporters who blamed him, unfairly, for failing to deliver on his manifesto.
In 1998 Iran was the fourth largest producer of crude oil in the world, possessing 9% of the global supply, yet, as Ali drove me through Tehran, there was little indication that any of the oil revenue had made it to street level. Most of the cars I saw were locally-built, like the antediluvian Paykan, a Hillman Hunter lookalike, and the ultra-bland Samand, while the foreign contingent was represented by a motley collection of unsightly euroboxes made by Renault, Peugeot and Citroen as well as the ubiquitous and universally despised Nissan Micra; in short, nothing that would cost a great deal of money to buy. It was the same with clothes, too. Most of the men looked almost comical in their ill-fitting, Chaplinesque jackets, cheap shoes and baggy trousers, while it was difficult to guess what the women might have been wearing under their coal black chadors, but I knew that the latter was only for outdoor wear as I’d spent a whole afternoon photographing Soraya and her daughters in their splendid collection of western-style dresses and tops.
But where did all the oil money go?
There were many opinions about this, and I must have heard most of them at a party I went to with Ali’s family in a fashionable part of Tehran. The armed forces, overseas Islamic groups and alternative energy sources were popular theories, as were hi-tech weaponry, health care and scientific research, but the consensus view was that a high proportion of the oil revenues had been misappropriated by the ruling clerics and salted away in their Swiss bank accounts. Corruption was rife in Tehran in 1998 and no one was above suspicion — especially those whose clerical robes provided as effective a shield against attack as any suit of armour.
There was much anger and frustration at the current political impasse, but the fault for this could not be laid at the door of Khatami. If anyone could be held accountable for this deplorable state of affairs, it was the late and unlamented Ayatollah Khomeini, as it was he and his acolytes who drew up the devious, Byzantine constitution that was proving so effective in stifling the president’s attempts at reform. While the president and Parliament could initiate legislation, their power was strictly circumscribed by clerics and a whole network of unelected bodies, the most prominent of which was the Council of Guardians, which could veto any law passed by Parliament. There was also the Expediency Council, set up by Khomeini to mediate disputes between Parliament and the Council of Guardians, but which invariably supported the latter and the Assembly of Experts, once compared to the Vatican’s College of Cardinals. In all it was a veritable Gordian Knot of checks and balances designed to suppress any proposal deemed to be counter-revolutionary or un-Islamic.
At the apex of this knot of vipers sits the all-powerful Supreme Leader, a senior cleric elected by the Assembly of Experts but accountable and subordinate to no one. It is the Supreme Leader who dictates domestic and foreign policy and has power to appoint and dismiss leaders of the judiciary, the state media networks and the Supreme Commander of the Revolutionary Guard. If the Iranian people elected Khatami to reform this structure or inject into it some aspect of secularism or meaningful accountability, then their aspirations were either set too high or they allowed themselves to be tragically misled. Either way, the people I met during my time in Iran were heartily sick of theocratic oppression and having their ambitions trodden into the dust by those who refused to acknowledge their right to a political will.
Leaving Iran proved to be just as difficult as entering the country. I had to queue for half an hour just to get into the airport terminal where I spent the rest of the morning either being searched or standing in a queue waiting to be searched. Everywhere I looked there were portraits of Khomeini, the Spiritual Leader and founder of the Iranian Islamic state. Even though he had been dead since 1989, his presence was all-pervading, the ever-present ghost of Christmas past, the eternal melancholic whose ultimate achievement was the creation of a harsh, oppressive regime which rivalled the Soviet Union in its tyranny. The people of Iran deserve better, but I predict only heartache for the immediate future.
For instance, a series of protests occurred following the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, an election that was heavily criticised amid multiple accusations of blatant fraud and electoral abuse. Despite the relatively peaceful nature of the protests, the police and government-sponsored paramilitary groups brutally suppressed the demonstrations by using clubs, chemical sprays, sticks and firearms with live ammunition.
Subsequently, thousands more were arrested and tortured in prisons around the country, with allegations of mass rape of men, women, and children being carried out by the Revolutionary Guard. 36 deaths were officially confirmed by the Iranian government during the protests although unconfirmed reports by opposition groups put the number at 72, possibly higher since relatives of the deceased have since been forced to sign documents claiming their loved ones had died of heart attacks or meningitis.
In the year 333 BC Alexander the Great severed the original Gordian knot with a single stroke of his blade. I fear the knot that binds the Iranian people will need to be dealt with in a similar manner.
Peter is an English expatriate who now lives in Thailand.
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