Middle East

Middle East

All for Iran or Iran for All?

Iranian election posters in Qom
An Iranian cleric looks at election posters in the holy city of Qom, Feb. 17, 2004 (Photo: Henghameh Fahimi/AFP-Getty Images).

Predictably, the streets of Tehran echoed with chants of “Death to the United States! Death to Israel!” as Iranians celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution on Feb. 11. Just as predictably, news photographers focused on pictures of burning effigies of Uncle Sam and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In reality, the celebrations were more subdued. Tehran’s streets had been filled with colored lanterns and enormous portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. At 9 a.m., crowds started converging on the center of the city. At noon, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami made a speech. By 2 p.m., the crowds had dispersed and the area was full of street-sweepers dressed in orange.

“We are definitely not a part of the procession,” a librarian walking downtown with her husband told World Press Review. “We were both part of the revolution 25 years ago. We thought things would improve. Khomeini was an honest and sincere person,” she remembered. “But now it’s hopeless. Everything is more expensive, and those who make the decisions don’t listen to the people at all. We’ve only come out today to buy flowers, and then we’ll go home again. The only people out marching today are those who must: employees of the state and the basiji [pro-government vigilantes].”

Freedom with God
Mullah Wali-Allah Bayat went of his own free will. As he returned from the demonstration with his wife and young daughter, Bayat acknowledged that Iran has many problems today, high unemployment and the increasing difficulty young people are having getting married high among them. “The reason for this is very simple,” he explained in a mild and friendly tone. “We have a huge generation of young people who grew up after the revolution. Some of them need to be helped so they can find the Islamic way. They have the right to freedom, and that freedom is with God.”

It appears likely that many Iranians will use that freedom to abstain from voting in the legislative elections on Feb. 20. Since the Guardian Council, a 12-member panel charged with protecting the Islamic character of the government, disqualified half of the candidates from running, the Iranian government has been in a state of crisis. Dozens of high-level officials, including 16 Cabinet members, have tendered their resignations to Khatami in protest. Khatami rejected the resignations, but the message was clear. The largest student group in the country has called for a public boycott of the polls. More than 500 independent candidates have also announced they will not run. Precious few candidates but those in the conservative clerics’ camp will be running.

When asked whether he will vote, Bayat appeared taken aback. “Of course I will,” he answered. “You shouldn’t believe all those lies that some of our newspapers unfortunately circulate. My very conservative estimate predicts that at least 60 percent will go out and vote, but the numbers will surely be much higher than that.”

Temporal Loops
Reports on Iran’s government television stations showed millions of Iranians all over the country celebrating the revolution’s anniversary. Streets everywhere, it seemed, were filled with demonstrators.

But following the lackluster celebrations in Tehran, Said, a 24-year-old student, was skeptical of the reports from around the country. “It’s impossible to tell whether the pictures are from today or from last year,” he said. “When they show scenes of Friday prayers in the capital, the area is always full of people, but if you go down there yourself, as a rule you’ll only see a few thousand. They re-use the same picture—it’s a simple cut-and-paste job.”

Iran, the young man said, is caught in a similar temporal loop. Indeed, many of the people at the rally praised Khomeini but criticized the country’s current leadership. Iran’s current religious leaders have found it difficult to emerge from Khomeini’s shadow. The country’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is frequently portrayed next to Khomeini.

Khatami, who rode to office—if not power—on a reformist platform seven years ago, has lost his luster since. Perhaps the Guardian Council’s summary dismissal of reformist legislators extinguished any hopes reformists still had for him. Unlike in past years, the BBC reported, not many Iranians clapped after Khatami’s Feb. 11 speech in Tehran.

“I voted in the [legislative] elections four years ago, but it was in vain,” said Reza, an engineering student at Tehran University. “There’s no reason to vote.”

His friend Afsin agreed: “This is absurd. The Guardian Council has basically nullified the election, even though they say they’ve made it easier for us. Instead of choosing between 50 candidates in every district they’ve trimmed the choices down to 20. So, in reality, they’ve done us all a great service. This is not about Islam, but about power. Lately, for example, the discussion has been about the length of mandatory military service. Some politicians want to shorten if from the current 21 months. A conservative immediately came forth contending that reducing the service time would be violating the Islamic faith. That is just laughable.”

When Khatami campaigned for re-election in 2001, his slogan was “Iran for all Iranians.” On state television newscasts in Iran, a clock counts down the days to the Feb. 20 polls. In the evenings, a second icon joins it. “Everyone for Iran,” it reads, in an inversion of Khatami’s slogan. It is a small, grammatical change, but one that represents the fundamental tension in the country.

The results of the election appear to be a foregone conclusion. But after the polls have closed, the question will remain: Will Iran’s philosophy going forward be “All for Iran” or “Iran for all Iranians?”

—Leif Kongsgaard, a journalist with the Danish newspaper Information, reported from Tehran. Jacob Wheeler contributed from Minneapolis. The names of all sources quoted have been changed to protect their identities.

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