Iran has just finished celebrating the 24th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution, which established the world's first 'theodemocracy' in 1979. It was an assortment 10 days of festivities – known as the “Ten Days of Dawn” – that mark the homecoming of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, the most prominent face Iran has exported worldwide since its revolution. But signs are surfacing that hint the 'Islamic republic' is slowly falling apart even before being fully established.
This year's celebrations were more a government jamboree than anything else. As helicopter sorties above showered blossoms on Khomeini's tomb, only a handful of followers showed up on ground to pay their respects. Iranians are clearly disheartened at their endless wait for the long promised reforms and rights.
Iran is at its most important crossroads. And the United States can help Iran, if it wants to choose the right path that would debouch Iran from its anachronistic policies and place it amongst the leading nations of the world.
Unfortunately, the reality is diametrically opposite. The Iranian economy is anaemic, plagued by a rising inflation rate; recent reports put it at around 15 percent. Worse, one in every five Iranians is unemployed.
Because Iran demographically is a very young nation – more than two thirds of Iranians are under the age of 25 – the high unemployment rate kicks the best brains out of the Persian Gulf. One in four Iranians with a college degree lives abroad and 20,000 youngsters left Iran last year alone. Those who stay back are overwhelmingly disheartened and disillusioned.
Politically, Iran too, finds itself in limbo. The fight between the unelected representatives of god and the elected representatives of the people has reached the end of its tether. Pressure is increasing on President Khatami to deliver on his promises of reform before his second and last presidential term ends in 2005. Like before, he has threatened to resign if the conservatives refuse to give him more leverage.
Iranian politics continues to be lorded over by the Guardian Council, a 12-member body appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini that determines whether all the laws passed by the majlis are compatible with the constitution and Islam.
Frictions between the conservatives and the reformists are not uncommon. Pro-reform newspapers are regularly shut down; over the past 18 months more than 50 journals were ordered to shut shop.
This schism made international headlines when Hashem Aghajari, a pro-reformist scholar, was sentenced to death for his remarks that Iranians should not 'follow their ayatollahs like monkeys.' Students immediately took to the streets voicing their rage against the decision. Khameini finally relented by ordering a review of the sentence.
More recently, the ageing Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a liberal cleric once designated as the Islamic republic's next spiritual leader, was released as the conservatives feared his death in captivity would lead to huge unrest on the streets.
It is hardly known to the world that the Iranian street compared to other Arab streets is more pro-American, less bothered about revolutionary ideals. The Iranian youth knows better than anyone else that without active US support they wouldn't make much headway practically in any field.
In a recent survey, 75 per cent favoured a dialogue with America and 65 per cent resuming diplomatic ties with the United States. Reports have emerged that Abbas Abdi, a leading reform strategist who had conducted that poll, has been sentenced to seven years in prison. It might be recalled that Abdi was one of the students who led the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
The US President George Bush made a passing mention of Iran in his recent State of the Union address where he said that America would continue to 'support' the Iranian struggle for democracy and reform'. Hopefully, it will turn out to be more than just lip service. Iran, with one of the world's richest civilisations, cannot be lost to a bunch of archaic and parochial mullahs.
Debarshi Dasgupta is a student at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, India.