<http://www.ips.uiuc.edu/ilint/mt/iir/online/2006/11/words_worries_and_wants_a_glim.html> Illinois International Review, Fall 2006 Words, Worries and Wants: A Glimpse into Life in Iran
Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Assistant Professor of History and Sociology, UI
This past summer, after twenty-one years, I returned to Iran. Before my trip, whenever I told my colleagues and friends about my upcoming travel they immediately asked, "Do you think it is safe to go back now?" Their emphasis on "now" was so conspicuous that every time I heard the word I wondered again about the prudence of my decision. My friends' concern over my safety seemed to be based on the mass media's representation of life under the Islamic Republic. After all, President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and a host of other American politicians and commentators have repeatedly singled out Iran as the "single biggest threat to world peace and security."
I did not heed these concerns, because I knew, from my own scholarly work on the Iranian revolution and its postrevolutionary situation, that the media depiction of Iran, both domestically and internationally, as a totalitarian "republic of fear," had no merit. The varieties of political parties with competing social and economic agendas in Iran never allowed the Islamic Republic to solidify into a monolithic regime. Although I knew the nuances of the political circumstances in Iran, as well as its global manifestations, I wondered how the Iranian people experience this state of affairs in their everyday lives.
Tehran has changed tremendously in the last two decades. The Tehran I remembered from 1985 was a crowded and densely populated city. Now, while the size of the city is not quite doubled, its population has grown from six to more than twelve million. When I asked an urban planner how Tehran was able to cope with this large army of newcomers, he pointed to the rows of unending high-rises and exclaimed, "By expanding to the sky!" This form of intensified influx, which occurs often in nations with sizeable rural populations, often cripples large cities with the rapid growth of slums and shantytowns. Tehran proved to be a remarkable exception. Although the elaborate labyrinth of newly constructed highways connecting the prosperous north side of Tehran would impress any visitors, I decided to spend some time in the southern parts of the city. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the slums of yesteryear have been replaced by decent neighborhoods, which were clean and livable. The main streets have been widened, trees have been planted, and green areas have been designated in neighborhoods that I recalled had lacked basic access to services such as power, running water, sewage, and sidewalks.
Tehran, which stretches downward on the southern slopes of the Alborz Mountains, is tightly connected with a reliable public transportation system with readily available taxis, convenient bus lines, and a metro with north-south and east-west lines. Despite major cuts in social services, and the growing rate of poverty, the Iranian government continues to provide generous subsidies for public services and basic goods such as gas and wheat. A metro ride, for example, from the tip of the north line to the south terminal, more than a twenty-mile trip, costs a mere seven cents, while a bus ride costs only a flat two-and-a-half cents.
Taking a cab or a bus is the best way one can gain an impression of ordinary people's lives in Tehran. It is remarkable that one does not sense that people are stricken by any fear of speaking their mind in public places. Seldom did I encounter people who were satisfied with their life circumstances or who were afraid of voicing their discontent uninhibitedly. Unemployment, which officially stands at 12%, inflation, officially at 14%, and other forms of economic hardship, top everybody's list of grievances. While I was in Iran, the government raised the minimum wage to $220 a month. But only a few weeks later, thousands of workers were laid off, and many manufacturing plants put a freeze on new hiring. The government had to revisit the issue and allow exceptions to the new minimum wage law in order to prevent a new flood of unemployed workers. The issue of rights and civil liberties, which attracts the exclusive attention of Iranian expatriates and the western media, does not appear to be a pressing concern for Iranians of different ethnic and class background. However, it is the central predicament of the Iranian intelligentsia, a sizable community of public intellectuals, whose significance in shaping the divergent political processes in the country ought to be taken seriously.
There is no place better than the newsstands in Tehran for seeing the unremitting struggle between different political factions and their intellectual supporters over defining and defending the general principles of the Republic. Twenty-five different daily newspapers are published in Tehran alone. These newspapers represent the voices of different factions and cover a wide range of political views within the frame of the existing constitution. The Iranian revolution is twenty-seven years old, but there still exists a passionate struggle over its meaning and objectives. The ambiguities of the constitution, together with the failure of any single faction to monopolize state power, has allowed a certain degree of latitude for intellectuals to articulate dissenting views in the public sphere. One can also observe Iran's vibrant intellectual scene on the streets across from the main gates of Tehran University. This six-city-block area, hosting more than a hundred bookstores, is clogged with impenetrable foot traffic of book-buyers. When I was in Tehran in May, the city hosted its Nineteenth International Book Fair. More than two million people visited this exhibition. Contrary to general perceptions in the U.S., remarkable numbers and ranges of western fiction, philosophy, history, and sociology are translated into Farsi and are available at relatively affordable prices. Since its inauguration, however, President Ahmadinejad's administration has launched a campaign against freedom of the press and has imposed new restrictions on publishers of books and journals.
I also traveled outside Tehran to a number of rural areas as well as other big cities such as Isfahan and Mashad. The difference between Tehran's well-maintained infrastructure and the condition of other regions in the country is striking. Nevertheless, the government has blanketed most of the country with a safety net for the mostaz`afin or the disinherited to access basic necessities such as running water, natural gas, telephone, and roads. Not all areas enjoy this basic assistance, but the government seems to be fully aware that its legitimacy is largely wedded to the way it treats the downtrodden. This became more apparent last year with the unforeseen election of President Ahmadinejad. He won the race with a populist anti-corruption and social justice agenda. Ahmadinejad's victory came after the two-term reformist administrations of President Khatami failed to institutionalize his bona fide attempt to expand civil liberties and contain unlawful and arbitrary exercise of power by the competing sources of state authority. Although President Ahmadinejad's radical political discourse and his militant demeanor seem out of sync with a society that toils to put the revolutionary times behind it and longs for a period of calm, his popularity continues to rise mostly because he defies American threats and has remained unyielding on Iran's right to develop peaceful nuclear technology.
In the last few years, the European Union together with the United States has issued a number of ultimatums, questioning Iran's right of access to nuclear technology, including a full uranium enrichment cycle. Both the E.U. and the United States are concerned about the transparency of the Iranian nuclear activities and have demanded that Iran must prove the peaceful content of its program. In response, the Islamic Republic has argued that Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is willing to abide by all its requirements. As a sign of goodwill, in November 2004, Iranians signed an agreement in Paris with the representatives of France, Germany, and Britain to suspend their enrichment activities so long as the negotiations continued. In the agreement, the Islamic Republic pledged to allow permanent supervision and unannounced inspections of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Although after two years the IAEA has found no evidence of a military component in the Iranian nuclear activities, both the U.S. and the E.U. seem far from being persuaded that the Islamic Republic would not employ its nuclear know-how militarily. The Iranian side decided to resume its peaceful enrichment program in early spring 2006.
Although the uncertainty about Iran's long-term nuclear ambition has generated an imminent worldwide crisis, this feeling of urgency is absent on the streets of Tehran and other cities in Iran. Surprisingly, very few people I encountered believed that the U.S. would carry out any military action against Iran. They shook their heads and told me that we're safe so long as the American forces are already tied up in Iraq. Moreover, I detected a strong nationalistic thread in my conversations with people from all walks of life when they spoke about nuclear technology. The "great powers" benefited from keeping nations like Iran "weak and dependent," they all insisted.
Often I heard people comparing the current nuclear crisis to the nationalization of the oil industry in the early 1950s. At that time the CIA, with the help of the British intelligence services, toppled the democratic government of Mohammad Mosaddeq, who had been the primary engine of the nationalization movement. The U.S. re-instated the authoritarian regime of Mohammad Reza Shah in 1953 until he was overthrown in 1979. The Islamic Republic has successfully linked the issues of nuclear technology with the nationalization of oil, thereby deepening this widespread nationalism. Furthermore, most people did not object to the militarization of their nuclear technology. With the establishment of military bases in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and in Iraq, the American military presence in the region has been steadily growing since 1991. Two regional powers, Pakistan and Israel, already possess nuclear arsenals. The U.S.'s sophisticated arms and high-tech defense sales to the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia increases every year. Accordingly, no matter how provocative nuclear weapons might be, many Iranians feel justified in desiring a deterrent weapon. One should always pay attention to the wisdom of the masses: so long as there is a threat, there will be a desire to counter it.
In Tehran, one does not see the open hostility against the U.S. government that is so prevalent in other Middle Eastern cities such as Cairo, Damascus, or Amman. But that might change soon if the Bush Administration does not alter its policies towards Iran. As one cab driver told me so articulately, he, like many other Iranians, was unhappy and discontented with the situation in his country. "I am not crazy about Ahmadinejad," he confessed, "but somebody should stand up," he rattled his finger in the air, "against these superpowers' bullying." He raised his voice, "They are not our masters anymore -- they need to talk to us not at us… Our problem is not about this technology or that technology, it is about our dignity."