The Shattered Illusions of the Revolution

The political system in Iran remains ossified even after 25 years of the revolution. As Ali Sadrzadeh reports, it is not only young Iranians who do not believe that any real reforms will be made under the guardianship of the jurisconsult.

The political system in Iran remains ossified even after 25 years of the revolution. As Ali Sadrzadeh reports, it is not only young Iranians who do not believe that any real reforms will be made under the guardianship of the jurisconsult, some members of the clergy don't either.

photo: AP
Alone with the deceased leader of the revolution: Ayatollah Khamenei

​​"In one sense, these 25 years have done something for the Iranian people: they have taught them that this fire does not have enough heat to boil any water. By that I mean that an ideal society cannot be achieved with political Islam. This experience is hugely valuable. It is, if you like, the real achievement of the Islamic revolution …!"

If these were the words of an exiled Iranian, or those of a "westernised" academic from an affluent district of northern Teheran, they would be put down to the wishful thinking and exaggerations that are all too often voiced in such circles. However, the real explosiveness of this statement only becomes apparent when one learns that it was spoken by a mullah from the holy city of Ghom, the stronghold of the ultraconservative clergy.

A religious authority who is still considered young at the age of 50

These words were spoken by Ahmad Ghabel. Here, authority comes with age. And even though Ghabel is still considered young at 50, he is a recognised authority in the city's theological school ("Househ"). Ghabel and other like-minded people publish a monthly magazine that deals mainly with topical philosophical, theological and political issues.

He is not one to mince his words and is well-known for expressing his opinions freely. As a result, he has a reputation of being a sort of "hot tip" for foreign journalists who want to find out what Iran's clergy is thinking.

Iran has the emptiest mosques in the Islamic world

You don't need to be a theologian or a politician to realise how right Ahmad Ghabel is. Nowhere else in the Islamic world are the mosques as empty as they are in the Islamic Republic. And nowhere is the longing for a western style of living as great as it is in Iran.

In the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001, America wanted to find out why it is the object of such hate among Muslims. The famous opinion poll institute Gallup set about answering this question and surveyed Muslims from the Sudan to Indonesia. The findings showed that Iran is the most America-friendly country in the Islamic world.

photo: AP
Khomeini returning from exile in 1979

​​This is an irony of history in the truest sense of the word, because all the revolutionaries who took up the cause of toppling the Shah 25 years ago were nationalists, left-wingers or Islamists, and all of them wanted to achieve one thing above all else: the elimination of all things American and all things Western from the soul of the people. When viewed in this light, all of the revolutionaries from that era - and above all the clergy - failed in their undertaking.

But this failure has an even deeper significance. As a result of this failed revolution, Iran has degenerated into a "fatherless society". Today, two-thirds of all Iranians are the same age as, or younger than, the revolution, and they hold their fathers responsible for the current situation.

Official propaganda is no longer effective

Most young people do nothing more than sneer at the official propaganda of the Islamic Republic. Nor have today's Iranian youths any time for the justifications voiced by their fathers (we wanted a better society, but the mullahs prevented it). Moreover, thanks to the Internet and satellite television, they are much better informed than their fathers were.

The younger generation does not want to let itself be exploited. Recently, for example, a group of reformers in the Iranian parliament staged a sit-in and hunger strike lasting several weeks to protest against the conservative Guardian Council's decision to prevent certain candidates from standing in upcoming parliamentary elections.

It was a spectacular step and met with positive feedback in the foreign media. Young Iranians, however, who swept the reformers to power seven years ago, were not moved in the slightest.

"We should have put up some resistance sooner"

photo: AP
Parliamentarians at the recent sit-down strike

​​Ahmad Dasseh, member of parliament for Iranian Kurdistan, can understand this disappointment only too well: "It is easy to see why people are very disappointed with the parliamentarians. After all, every one of this parliament's decisions that sought to benefit the population has been rejected by the Guardian Council," says Dasseh.

"We should have put up resistance right from the very beginning. We should have supported the protesting students. And I ask myself why we didn't organise a sit-in when our laws to ban torture and to promote equality between men and women were rejected."

Dasseh is convinced that Iranians should have raised their voices at that time: "We remained silent and this is why I think the population are right to simply ignore our sit-in. To be quite honest, we are no longer credible!"

The manoeuvring, which is now such a source of annoyance to Dasseh, has always been a trademark of the policy of the so-called reformers. President Khatami himself is considered the "incarnation of manoeuvring and tactics".

Worthless votes? Election turnouts of less than 15 per cent

His seven years in office have also shown that it is not possible to reform the Islamic Republic, because the Islamic Republic is in itself a contradiction. The republicans have always had to back down when the ultraconservatives have insisted on their Islam. This is why those who voted for Khatami have long since realised how worthless their votes were.

The last elections to be held were those to the district councils this time last year. Disappointment was so great that only 15 per cent of those in the capital who were entitled to vote actually went to the polls.

The principle of the "guardianship of the jurisconsult" (Welayat-e Faghih) is so deeply entrenched in the constitution of the Islamic Republic that calls for a referendum to change the constitution are growing louder and louder.

But another phenomenon is even more interesting: unlike the previous generation, the majority of the current population, which basically wants a different system to the one currently in place and whose day-to-day life is incredibly difficult - two or even three jobs are the norm and almost half of all young Iranians are unemployed - is not revolutionary.

Opposition to the mullahs is not enough

They don't want a violent overthrow; not only because they fear the brutality of the regime, but because they see no alternative. In other words, not everyone who opposes the mullahs is acceptable to them. And therein lies the main difference between the atmosphere in 2004 and the atmosphere 25 years ago.

Few are as naive as their fathers were, and this is why they do not place their faith blindly in any group or person that claims to be the "saviour of the people". This is surely a sign of maturity. Viewed in this light, there is good reason to be optimistic.

A generation of sceptics is growing

The generation of revolutionaries has had its day; the future belongs to Iran's sceptical young people, and it is high time that Europe, which is currently intensifying its relations with the regime in Iran, understood this fact.

photo: Markus Kirchgessner
Alienated froom the revolution: Iranian youths

​​The pragmatic mullahs will accept anything that Europe requires them to accept in order to cement their rule: co-operating with the West on Iraq and Afghanistan, signing the protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and willingly handing over al-Qaida terrorists.

However, when their power hangs in the balance, they will return to their old methods. In other words, a final integration of the Islamic Republic into the world community is doomed to failure while the ruling class feels threatened by its own population. This is why a normalization of relations with Iran is unthinkable in the long term unless the interests of the young generation are taken into account.

Ali Sadrzadeh
© 2004

Ali Sadrzadeh is Iranian and read political science and German studies at the Universities of Kiel and Frankfurt am Main. He now works as a radio editor for Hessische Rundfunk in Germany and is the ARD's correspondent for northern Africa.

Further articles on Iran:
The Lost Children of the Revolution, by Bahman Nirumand
Iran Rattled by Political Unrest, by Katajun Amirpur
A Bearer of Hope for Democratic Change, by Faraj Sarkohi

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