SUMMARY AND INTRODUCTION: Recent conversations with a variety of people in southern Iran have revealed considerable unanimity as regards [to] dislike for the regime headed by the Shah but little unity on other issues including the place of Islam.
Department of State
Message reference No.: A-23
To: Department of State
Info: AMCONSULS Isfahan and Tabriz (via internal pouch)
From: AMCONSUL Shiraz Date: 9/23/78
Drafted by: Political Officer Victor L. Tomseth
Subject: Political attitudes in southern Iran
The discontent is undoubtedly profound, but aside from students of the radical left who advocate overthrow of the Shah and establishment of a republic, few people can agree on a constructive alternative to the government as it has been practiced for the last 15 years.
Calls for early elections free from manipulation are heard fairly frequently. However, thoughtful Iranians, even those whose dislike for the present regime is intense concede that in the absence of constraints on who can run and under what conditions, elections are likely to produce a Majles whose members will be incapable of uniting on any issue other than their grievances with the past government.
Under such circumstances, it seems inevitable that despite lack of enthusiasm for his leadership, the Shah will continue as Iran's ultimate political arbitrator. END SUMMARY AND INTRODUCTION.
It has been extremely difficult to find anyone in southern Iran with a good word for the Shah in recent days. Iran's population profile gives some indication why.
Almost half of all Iranians have been born since 1963, the last time the country faced an economic or political crisis of significance. Almost two thirds have been born since 1953, the last time an alternative to the Shah's rule was a serious possibility.
Few people among this group are impressed with comparisons of then and now, comparisons that have profound meaning for someone who has seen Iran transformed from a poverty-stricken country whose sovereignty was ignored by the great powers to one of the world's wealthier and more influential nations and who played a key role in that transformation. The post-1953 generation has been promised the millennium and its comparisons are made by that standard.
Even those old enough to remember the old days of 1953 and earlier have their grievances with the regime. These range from the secularization of the state to the arrogance of high government officials to the collapse of the real estate market to corruption to continuing (and often growing) inequities in Iranian society.
The Shah and his advisors have not been unaware of sources of discontent such as those enumerated above, and have usually reacted to them.
However, sometimes actions taken to alleviate pressures building in one area (e.g., controls on real estate speculation designed to curtail the number of overnight millionaires and close the gap between rich and poor) have created new pockets of unhappiness (i.e., among land owners, not all of whom by any means count their holdings in numbers of villages, who hoped to sell their properties for enough money to send their children off to college or for a retirement nest egg).
Other times, the determination to modernize Iran has led to decisions (e.g., giving women the vote) which were known would be opposed (i.e., by religious conservatives).
Change always poses a threat to vested interests, but it does not follow that the changes the Shah has wrought in Iran were foreordained to produce a degree of opposition to his rule which is now so manifest among the Iranian populace.
Rather it would appear that the manner in which these changes were effected has often been a more fundamental factor in the reaction to them than the changes themselves. Iranians seem overwhelming to resent having been excluded from virtually all political decisions of the last 15 years.
As one middle-aged Iranian, who says he remembers what it was like during Mossadeq's time, put it, "It bothered me less that the government decided to impose exit tax on Iranians leaving the country than it did to have (former Minister of Information Darioush) Homayoun announce the decision without going to the trouble of consulting the Majles whose members in accordance with the constitutions are supposed to represent the interests in government."
Another, a businessman, referring to government interference in the hours shops can be open, said: "We Persians for the most part retain a 'hand-to-mouth mentality,' the heritage of the time when Iran was still a poor country. Small shopkeepers are thus inclined to maintain hours convenient to housewives whose habits are conditioned by the memory of a former day when they might not have known at noon when buying bread for lunch where the money would come from to buy the ingredients for dinner.
"In practice, we may not work more than the forty-hour week common in the West, but we do not like to be told by Harvard-educated bureaucrats who think they know better than we what is best for us [and] how and when to work it."
Aside form their commonly shared unhappiness with their government, however, Iranians in southern Iran are deeply divided on most other issues. Rural people, for example, while they may be deeply religious, are generally uninterested in the agitation for the return of Ayatollah Khomeini which has taken place in many urban areas.
They are inclined to view the issue as irrelevant to their major concerns -- the weather, the availability of water, the price of wheat, etc. Recent arrivals from the countryside in cities where religious agitation has taken place, on the other hand and notwithstanding the attitudes of their rural relatives, have often figured prominently in such activities.
The explanation for this seeming contradiction appears to lie in the trauma they experience in trying to adjust to urban life. Frequently, their religion is the only institution familiar to them in their new surroundings, and they are thus highly susceptible to the religious emotionalism that surrounds a cause such as Khomeini's.
The business community, too, is divided on the religious issue. The more fervent among its members have willingly closed their shops in protest against the government and in mourning for fallen martyrs, often at great financial loss.
Others have usually closed as well, but often more in fear of retaliation for not closing than in sympathy for the causes espoused by the ulema. They may take their religion seriously and dislike the regime every bit as much as the fanatics, but they are also concerned about their businesses and they resent the disruptions frequent closures bring.
Contempt for the Islamic fundamentalists is perhaps even more profound than opposition to the regime among many members of the modernist element of society in southern Iran.
An Ahvaz banker characterized those who had participated in religious demonstrations (and numerous bank trashings) in that city as "illiterate Arabs who had taken leave of their senses under the influence of religious leaders hardly less ignorant than themselves."
A senior military officer in Shiraz described the clergy in general as the worst of Iranian society, lazy louts who entered religious schools for no more noble reason than to avoid conscription.
An American-trained engineer at Shiraz's Iran Electronics Industries in comparing Reza Shah (whom he admires) to Ataturk concluded that the latter was a greater leader because he had gotten rid of all of Turkey's ulema whereas Reza Shah had made the mistake of leaving some alive. His mastery of historical fact might have been shaky, but he left no doubt where he stood on the religious issue.
Lack of unanimity on the place of Islam is paralleled on secular political issues as well. Aside from those who have demanded the Shah's ouster and the establishment of a republic (a view which still seems to be confined to relatively small minorities on the extreme left and right in southern Iran), few Iranians seem to have considered alternatives to the kind of leadership he has provided.
Critiques are usually limited to where he has failed with little consideration given to how past deficiencies might be rectified. There does seem to be a consensus that the present Majles and all those who have served in governments during the past 15 years are discredited. Accordingly, early elections free from government manipulation are frequently advocated.
Thoughtful Iranians, however, recognize that there is as yet little of the discipline required for orderly elections present in their country. Most of the parties and political groupings which have emerged in recent weeks are held together by no more reliable glue than the personalities of their leaders.
Under the circumstances, these Iranians concede that elections without limitations on who can run and the size of parties which can field candidates are likely to produce a Majles whose membership would be an assemblage of mini-parties incapable of uniting on any issue other than the inadequacy of past governments, hardly a viable alternative to the Shah.
In sum, Iran is confronted with a difficult dilemma. Many Iranians, if southern Iran can be taken as representative of the rest of the country, are dissatisfied with the character of the leadership they want in its place.
Further, short of violent revolution and the imposition of a regime which in all likelihood would be every bit as autocratic as the Shah's, the Iranian people do not appear at this time to possess the self-discipline to find a way out of their predicament.
Thus, it seems that by default, the Shah will continue as the ultimate arbitrator of Iran's political future.