After spending several months in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Michael Rubin originally published this article under the pseudonym "Fred S. Eldin", in order to write candidly about his experiences there without jeopardizing future access to the country.
How fares the Islamic revolution in Iran? A recent extended stay suggests it is doing poorly. The citizenry struggles to adjust to an ever-more difficult situation as the economy declines and crime rises, culture is constricted, and power struggles play themselves out in the government and on the street. Now that Iranians have experienced eighteen years of fundamentalist Islam in power, many long for a way to go "back to the future," though few see real hope of change.
The high-profile debate over U.S. sanctions might lead one to expect gray shops with row after row of empty shelves. That is not the case; the stores are bursting with merchandise. Actually, this is not as good news for Iranian businesses as appears at first glance, for it points to the inability of customers to afford the merchandise. And store-owners, rather than lower the price to attract customers, use their stock as insurance against inflation. One Shiraz merchant explained to me that the cost of replacing stock cancels any profit on sales of old merchandise.
The great majority of Iranians are desperate to get hard currency; a foreigner in Iran finds himself constantly approached by store-owners, post office clerks, even bank employees, who ask if he would like to change money. Foreigners are warned about the secret police among the money changers, but only those on the street might be undercover.1 But when making sales, merchants were very cautious with currency. Not only are old (pre-1993) or crumpled American bills suspect as counterfeit, but many shopkeepers also gave a special look at the 5,000 and 10,000 denominations of the local currency, the rial, to check for fakes.
The hunger for foreign money is easy to understand, for the rial does not hold its value. Just before the revolution, a dollar equalled 70 rials; officially, it is now 3,000 rials, but that number reaches about 4,900 on the black market.2 One Iranian told me about a relative who had a new Mercedes two decades ago. After the revolution, the car attracted the unwelcome attention of the authorities, so she sold it for 4,000,000 rials, which was then worth about $45,000, deposited the money in an Iranian bank, and moved to Europe. When she recently decided to change the 4,000,000 rials back into dollars, she found it had evaporated; the rials were not worth less than $1,000.
Rampant inflation has now left most Iranian families unable to afford even the locally produced Paykan cars once their old ones break down. Most foreign cars date from well before the revolution; only the very rich in northern Tehran can afford the $100,000 price tag of a new Mercedes or BMW. Instead, motorcycles are increasingly the vehicle of choice in Iran. Utility costs have sky-rocketed; telephone bills have increased so much that some Iranians are trying to get around the high cost of long-distance calls by switching to the flat-fee Internet.
A growing discrepancy between the small number of haves and the much larger number of have-nots probably contributes to the soaring crime rate. A university professor in Isfahan (Iran's third largest city after Tehran and Mashhad, its most popular tourist destination, and a particularly pious place) apologized for being late to an appointment: "I had to take the ignition wire out of my car. If I leave it in, maybe no more car." A lawyer in Shiraz explained that car theft is attractive because it is so easy to get away with. Since cars are seldom stopped for traffic violations, there is little risk of being caught. And, to compound the owner's problems, unless the car is proven stolen (which generally can only happen after recovery), insurance companies do not pay out.
Public safety now takes precedent even over traditional Islamic values. Islamic culture considers dogs dirty and Iranians have rarely kept them as pets, but veterinarians in Isfahan, Shiraz, and Tehran say dog ownership is increasing as a protection against burglars. The religiously conservative bazaar merchants also are worried: in June 1996, someone put a gun to the head of a courier transferring gold from the Isfahan bazaar to a bank in Tehran and stole fifteen kilograms of gold (worth about $200,000). Though the talk of Isfahan, the theft was not reported in the newspapers.3
This points to a major credibility gap in Iranian society, for other problems, such as the drug trade, get similar short shrift. I saw policemen trying to wake a middle-aged homeless man lying on a street near Tehran's central Revolution Square, but he was dead. An Iranian passing by explained that he probably died of heroin overdose: "It happens all the time now."4
Scattered throughout Persian-language newspapers such as Ettala`at and Kayhan, one finds every day three or four pictures of missing children and young adults. Inquiries to Iranians revealed that these were cases of kidnapping or hit-and-run accidents. Both explanations confirm the general anxiety about crime.
While crime is nowhere near the level that affects America and Europe, Iranians are alarmed, all the more so since media silence to them signals government inaction and inability. Iranians identified Shiraz especially as the center of a new drug trade.
Removable ignition wires and a new penchant for dogs are just a few examples of the Iranians' ability to adjust and make the best of a bad situation. Every week, thousands of Tehran residents attend the Friday prayers5 -- with their customary anti-American sermons -- but more prefer to picnic in the beautifully landscaped parks and gardens that dot all of Iran's major cities. Or they hike in the mountains, watch American movies or MTV (via illegal satellite dishes), or chat with friends while drinking arak -- the homemade brew locals fondly call "rocket fuel." In some Armenian-owned restaurants, customers are asked if they prefer Coca-Cola or "Special Coca-Cola," with arak mixed right into the bottle.
Some of these diversions show that it is not just criminals that routinely break the law in the Islamic Republic; so too do many otherwise upstanding citizens. Asked whether they feared that the authorities would catch up with them, satellite-owners and bootleggers told me they don't worry. The bureaucracy has become so large that virtually anyone wealthy enough to own a satellite has a friend, neighbor, or former classmate in government who can fix the problem. One bootlegger in Isfahan sounded a more cynical note: "Hizbullah? They're our best customers."
The komite, or religious morality police, were the terror of Iran in the years immediately following the revolution. Now incorporated into the regular police administration, in August 1996 they began a new crackdown on personal appearance, hauling off to the police station women showing too much hair and teenage boys wearing "decadent, Western-style" baseball caps or t-shirts. There the perpetrators had to write letters to the police authorities promising to behave more Islamically; in addition, many had to pay bribes to avoid further punishment.
While almost every Iranian has a favorite story about a run-in with the komite or komite corruption, few of the educated joke about the new "Islamization" drive in the universities. The press claims almost every day that the revolution's survival depends on making the universities bastions of (undefined) Islamic values and Islam-based education. In a country where the students complain that they are afraid even to look at students of the opposite sex in the university (most young people meet each other at parties in private houses), many wonder what the universities have been for the past eighteen years if not Islamic. For example, the University of Tehran has stopped lending out (even for in-library use) some English- and French-language texts (perhaps in part because, as one professor explained, Western-language books get stolen at a disproportionately high-rate).
Some senior professors label the situation a "cultural revolution" that will shortly force them out. They complain that recently graduated students who have never published original research have been promoted full professors and heads of departments solely on the basis of their religious qualifications. One professor joked that he can soon look forward to enjoying full-time his hobby of repairing watches. Other faculty members complain that constraints on their lectures are becoming so tight that they can no longer challenge their students to think beyond the official slogans. Students and professors expect the situation to worsen if hard-line Majlis (parliament) Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri replaces Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani as president in April 1997.
NO DRAMATIC CHANGES AHEAD
There is a lot of fondness, even nostalgia, for the good old days before the revolution of 1979. With more than half the population born or coming of age under the Islamic Republic, most people figure that things had to have been better before. One merchant in the Shiraz bazaar asked, "Where is my king?" when another passed hawking moldy bananas for a dollar a kilogram. He told me that as a child, he remembered bigger, yellower bananas "for only pennies." A taxi driver explained the crazy traffic situation in Tehran by telling me that "when we had our revolution, we figured why stop at the shah? That's why motorcycles drive the wrong way on the sidewalk." Blaming the revolution for the chaos of the capital might not be fair -- Iranian traffic was infamous under the shah, too -- but it fulfills a need to blame the current problems on someone.
One might think a deteriorating economy and a people alienated from their own government might augur drastic change, but not in this case. Iran is not headed for another revolution. If the people had their way it might be, but the fundamentalist dictatorship in place is not about to be removed.
Nor is there a viable opposition to the current government. Iranians hate the People's Mujahedin and the People's Fedayin, whom they see as terrorist groups no better than the current government. "Death to the Fedayin and Mujahedin" shares space with "Death to America and Israel" on walls and buildings. On learning that I am American, some Iranians asked me about Reza Pahlavi, the shah's thirty-five-year-old son living in the Washington, D.C. area. Many Iranians explain that they had one revolution to get rid of a dictator and a corrupt regime back in 1979; they expected democracy to follow but got another dictatorship -- and an eight-year war to boot. No one wants to risk upheaval for an uncertain fate.
Still, a potential for violence cannot be excluded. Soon after the newspapers in late June 1996 declared a six-week amnesty period for people possessing illegal weapons from the Iran-Iraq War period, one man showed me his illegal guns. Would he turn his in? "No way," he laughed. "I might need them in the next revolution."
Iranians do not agree with all policy and rhetoric coming out of Washington but they take great interest in America's policies affecting their state. In particular, the Kurdish problem of northern Iraq raises real anxieties. People from all walks of life express fear of a weak Iraq, this despite the hundreds of thousands dead from the "U.S.- and Iraq-imposed war." A decentralized Iraq could lead to a resurgent Kurdish movement that could spell big trouble for Iran. Should Iraq be dismantled, one lawyer explained, Iran would soon share the same fate, for it is as much an empire as a country. The Turks of the northwest, Kurds of the west, Arabs of Khuzistan, and Baluchis of the southeast could all clamor for autonomy.
The pro-American feeling of so many Iranians -- and even among some of the more religious folks, former supporters of the revolution who have now become disenchanted with the Islamic Republic -- gives the U.S. government openings to exploit. Simplest is to expand radio broadcasts on the Voice of America. Many Iranians regularly tune in, especially in western Iran (including Isfahan), where they pick up AM broadcasts from Kuwait. The "special English" program (in which announcers speak slowly and use a simplified vocabulary) has wide appeal. If Iranian youth crave American music, give it to them. If older Iranians crave news (and they do: two-year-old editions of Time or Newsweek, and months-old International Herald-Tribunes are still bought or traded), give them that. Providing Iranians with ample news about the United States, the Middle East, and Iran itself helps expose the distortions and the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime. Given the demand for hard news and the cynicism surrounding Iranian reports, money invested by the United States in expanding both English- and Persian-language news sources would be well spent.
Secondly, the government should encourage American academics to spend time in Iran, and vice versa. U.S. professors and students currently cannot use government-funded scholarships there. Their presence exposes more Iranians to Western values as students talk to students and professors to professors. This does great good, for Iranians hunger to know more about the real West, as opposed to what they hear in the government media, and they need to know more if they are to resist the Khomeiniist vision. On the other hand, any defections from Iranians on exchange to the United States can embarrass the regime, just as the Eastern Bloc was constantly red-faced over defections of their citizens.
Thirdly, Americans should take steps to get Tehran to let in more tourists, with their money and their Western values. This could begin with cultural or sports exchanges. Merchants in the bazaars of Isfahan and Tehran, once prominent backers of the Islamic Revolution, are now widely suffering from the absence of tourists, and especially so those merchants who deal with higher quality carpets, crafts, and antiques. One silk-carpet merchant in Shiraz, who had only two customers in the three months before I visited, said that Iranians tend to buy only cheaper carpets and admitted lacking the contacts to export. If merchants realize that the government is responsible for the lack of tourists, that might lead to changes that force the government to open the country. Iran not being a police state, the people do talk to foreigners.
Short of an upheaval in Tehran, however, not that many tourists will find their way to Iran. How many Americans will spend time so long as "Death to America" is spelled out in big brass letters on the luxury Homa hotel? Who will choose a ski holiday in the Alborz Mountains if women are going to have to ski with a chador on their heads? Nor will they visit in the summer, when women must wear this extra layer of clothing in 95º heat.
Lastly, American economic sanctions on Iran should stay in place, even without European cooperation, for they have a powerful symbolic role. In Isfahan, almost every merchant I talked to is opposed to the sanctions but showed great interest in them. While the sanctions do not appear to have stopped the major industries or much diminished the variety of merchandise available, they have a powerful symbolic effect. Though cars can be imported from Germany and clothes faked locally (the Tehran bazaar sells rolls of Adidas and Levis tags and stickers), Iranians crave American products and culture. Chicago Bulls t-shirts are omnipresent; many twentysomethings asked me about the latest American cars; "Metallica" graffiti shares space on a wall with faded "Death to America" graffiti. Denial of desired goods can create frustration, which can be channeled to America's benefit.
Also, when change comes, Americans will gratefully be remembered as standing up to the regime; Germans, French, and others will be seen as having appeased the dictators. The U.S. government can whittle away at the fundamentalist regime, retaining the moral highground that the Europeans have abdicated. American sanctions are an investment in the future, for what U.S. businesses might lose in the short term, they will gain in the long term. And, in the meantime, the absence of tourist dollars and genuine American products reminds Iranians of their deprivation.
1 The black market is not new but has flourished since the revolution took place in 1979. See David Menashri, Iran: A Decade of War and Revolution (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1990), pp. 197, 231, 277-78, 326-27, 357.
2 For a discussion of the breakdown of the economy after the revolution, see Robin Wright, In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade (New York: Touchstone, 1989), pp. 70-71, 105, 132-33. Anoushiravan Ehteshami also discusses more recent inflation in After Khomeini: The Iranian Second Republic (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 117.
3 On the Islamic regime's clamping down on the press, see Menashri, Iran, pp. 87-88.
4 The drug problem existed from the revolution's early days; see Shaul Bakhash, The Reign Of The Ayatollahs, Iran And The Islamic Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1984), pp. 110-12.
5 These take place at Tehran University, for, a Tehran University professor explained, spontaneous crowds gathered after the revolution at the campus to hear sermons, something that soon became institutionalized; for many years now, the university has hosted Iran's largest number of worshippers each Friday at about noon. This keeps alive the unrest of the early 1960s, when Tehran University became the scene for protests, some bloody; again in 1978, it became a lightning rod for protest.
6 Khomeini spoke out against the secularism of the universities in 1980: "Beloved students, do not follow the wrong path of university intellectuals who have no commitment to the people!" Imam Khomeini, Islam And Revolution, trans. Hamid Algar (London: KPI, 1985), p. 242. Kayhan and Ettala'at contain many references to this new Islamization drive from June 1996 onward.
7 The mujahedin was "the largest, the best disciplined, and the most heavily armed of all the opposition organizations" during the revolution, but it lost out in the ensuing power struggles when Khomeini took absolute power. In 1981, the mujahedin responded with its own retaliatory "reign of terror." Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mujahedin (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 1, 221.