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Life and liberty
Political culture and regime change in Iran


Masoud Kazemzadeh and Shahla Azizi
April 25, 2005

One of the most vexing questions animating observers and analysts of Iranian politics is: why despite being extremely unpopular and incompetent, are the fundamentalists still in power? One factor that may provide a partial explanation is the huge change of the dominant ethos among large sectors of the population.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the dominant ethos among large sectors of the Iranian people was idealistic, altruistic, and celebrated sacrifice for the greater good. Today, on the contrary, the predominant ethos have become excessive selfishness, acquisitiveness, cynicism, and lack of willingness to make the smallest sacrifice to protect the common good. This pendulum-like swing from one extreme to the other has a deleterious impact on the outcome of political struggles in Iran. If this observation is correct, although the overwhelming majority of Iranians are opposed to the ruling Islamic fundamentalist regime, the vast majority are unwilling to pay the price of replacing it.

Anecdotal and statistical evidence of the alienation of the youth from the fundamentalist regime are overwhelming. For example, a government conducted survey revealed that 86 percent of the youth say that they do not perform the obligatory daily Islamic prayer. In early 2003 a large Internet poll of students of the Amir Kabir University (the second most prestigious university in Iran) was conducted. Only 6 percent of the students said that they support the hardliners, while another 4 percent said they support the reformists within the regime. A mere 5 percent said they support the return of the former monarchy. Most significantly, 85 percent of the students said that they would support the establishment of a secular and democratic republic. Why then out of two million students at institutions of higher education, would only a few thousand participate in pro-democracy sit-ins and protests?

In a large survey of 15 to 29 year-olds published in January of this year, some interesting data have been released. The survey entitled “The Values and Opinions of the 15-29 Year Old Youth,” revealed that 59 percent of male and 57 percent of female respondents said “each person should think only of oneself.” To the question on “are people honest and forthright in public,” 79 percent of males and 82 percent of females responded “no.” And 50.4 percent of males and 39 percent of females said that they “would welcome the opportunity to emigrate abroad.”

This is the generation that was petrified under the rains of scud missiles and aerial bombardment during the eight-year war with Iraq, and survived Khomeini’s reign of terror where possession of banned materials resulted in summary trials and mass executions, and humiliated and lashed for infractions of the fundamentalists’ puritanical dictates. Monopolization of all levers of power by fundamentalist clerics, incredible financial corruption by clerical officials and their children, brutal suppression of dissents, cultural suffocation, severe economic difficulties, astronomical rise in crime, addiction, and prostitution have undermined the sense of common purpose and common good.

For the overwhelming majority in this generation, personal survival trumps any notion of personal sacrifice for the common good. Thus in just one generation cynicism has replaced idealism among vast majority of the population. Economic hardships and lack of freedom have resulted in a mixture of materialism and individualism -- of coveting a Western life-style as seen on satellite television and of believing that it can be achieved only on a personal rather a societal level. It is easier to imagine that you can move to the West and dress like Brittany Spears than it is to believe that everyone can one day be like her here in Iran.

The rise of Khatami and reformist fundamentalists raised expectations that were quickly dashed, thus dramatically increasing both frustration and hopelessness. The inability of the once-popular President Khatami to implement any real change has greatly disillusioned the more than seventy percent of the electorate who voted for him. Today, his promise to create a more open and secular society is perceived to have been nothing but a ploy to prolong the fundamentalist theocrats in power. He is seen by many in Iran at best as a powerless and incompetent idealist and at worst as a sweet talking cleric propped up to deceive the malcontent inside and critics abroad. The failure of the reformist faction of the fundamentalists to maintain their hold onto Majles in February 2004 elections, underlined their inability to be regarded in public opinion as viable vehicle for change.

The fundamentalist regime has lost its ideological hegemony and political legitimacy, but not its ability to coerce and intimidate into submission. In addition, due to the enormous revenues from the sale of oil and natural gas, the regime is able not only to keep its small social base content but also to co-opt a few non-fundamentalists. While a few brave pro-democracy activists and students continue to struggle against the regime, for now at least, the overwhelming majority of the population sits on the sidelines wishing them well but is unwilling to risk life and liberty to replace the incumbent tyranny with a secular and democratic republic that they obviously desire. Many so infected with bizarre conspiracy theories, argue that the British have put the clerics on power and only the American can take them down. This renders any active participation superfluous because it is not the actions of Iranians themselves that changes regimes but rather James-Bond-like schemes behind the scenes.

Has apathy become a feature of Iranian political culture for the foreseeable future or is there a revolution brewing? The answer is not clear but we see several possibilities. One possibility is that Iranians have lost the will to confront their oppressors and instead wish to engage purely in self-improvements devoid of any broader considerations. The incredible brutality of the regime combined with the now-prevailing ethos have reduced the possibilities of nonviolent transition to democracy as have occurred recently in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Another possibility is that while apathy may be the outward appearance, there is a cumulation of repressed anger, which may explode by a trigger. A potential trigger may be an outrageous act by regime elements as occurred in Lebanon by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Another trigger may be American military attacks on fundamentalist coercive apparatuses such as Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Basij corps, Ansar-e Hezbollah vigilantes, Ministry of Intelligence headquarters, and the like.

We do not believe that any military strikes on the nuclear facilities would serve as a trigger for mass uprising as some have argued in Washington. The reasons being that with coercive apparatuses being intact, they have not only the power to crush any uprising, but also the added motivation and anger to do so. Iranians are angry at the coercive apparatuses for having oppressed and repressed them for so long but not at any inanimate nuclear facility.

Another trigger may be UN Security Council economic sanctions, which may lead to runs on the banks, food stores, events that would put the masses in confrontation with the coercive apparatuses. If the coercive apparatuses did not open fire on the masses, then that would encourage more valiant rioting and burning of government autos and buildings cascading out of control. If the coercive apparatuses did open fire on the masses, then that may increase responses by the masses on such a scale that the regime would not be able to control and contain. The UN Security Council international sanctions modeled after those imposed on the Apartheid regime in South Africa and Burmese dictatorship may be the least violent way to replace the ruling fundamentalists with a secular and democratic republic that Iranians so wish.

Iran’s future looks grim in all of these possibilities. Time will tell which one would be the actual history.

Masoud Kazemzadeh is Associate Professor of Political Science at Utah Valley State College. He is the author of Islamic Fundamentalism, Feminism, and Gender Inequality in Iran Under Khomeini (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002), and The Bush Doctrine and Iran: Alternative Scenarios and Consequences (forthcoming). Shahla Azizi is the pen name of an essayist and pro-democracy activist. She lives in Tehran. 

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