Despite its arid climate, Iran’s capital city is green. It enjoys an abundance of spacious parks flowing with fountains and verdant landscaping lining its highways. Optimistic eyes could see Tehran as an enormous garden, but skeptics are likely to view it more as an overgrown prison yard. One can scarcely drive for 20 minutes without seeing armed guards on the watchtowers of army bases and Revolutionary Guard centers, with their “No Photo” warnings in bilingual signage.
Men in olive drab uniforms carry automatic weapons as they scan the ubiquitous picnickers at Park-e Mellat, a leisure complex near the foot of the Alborz Mountains. The state television broadcaster Seda va Sima, an ostensible source of public information, sits high on a rocky hill, behind a barbed wire fence. The walls of Evin prison — an active remnant of the shah’s regime — climb high into the mountains for all to see. Having returned to Iran for the first time since 2008, I am chilled by the heightened police-state atmosphere that now pervades. But aesthetically, Tehran is much the same as it was before 2009.
Two years after the nationwide protests dubbed the “Green Revolution,” a chasm has opened in Iranian public life, between the public’s prosaic pursuits of pleasure and routine, and the government’s neurotic displays of force. Ecstatic splashes of green paint can still be seen high on the walls of apartment buildings and office blocks, but at ground level, pro-government graffiti artists have transformed defiant green Vs into occultish black triangles. The green inscriptions of “Death to the Dictator” have been effaced by black admonitions of “Death to the traitor.”
Most normal political activity has disappeared. Many Iranians are filled with regret — regret that the Green Movement fell short of securing them a say in Iran’s future and regret that neighboring Arabs seem to be racing ahead of them in opening new possibilities.
On the eve of June 12 — the second anniversary of the 2009 presidential election likely rigged by hard-liners in favor of the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a taxi driver, a bearded man in his 50s, told me he had seen security forces gathering all over the city in preparation for the following day.
“People are exhausted,” he said. “If not for those already martyred and the people sitting in prison, everyone would have given up by now.”
“Nothing,” he added, “has hurt Islam more than 32 years of this government.” He accused Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, of betraying the (apparently worthwhile) legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But moments later, he offered a theory whereby Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic and its first supreme leader, had intentionally provoked war with Iraq in the 1980s in order to rid himself of a generation of young Iranians who would have opposed his post-revolutionary policies.
Such malleable attitudes toward Khomeini’s legacy — as well as the temptation to indulge in conspiracy theories and speculative counterfactual history — are characteristic of the political fog in which Iranians unhappy with the status quo still struggle to orientate themselves.
His mention of the regime’s show of force was no fantasy, however. The security in Tehran on the afternoon of June 12 was extravagant. The atmosphere in city parks was tense, with numerous bands of police roaming in groups of five or 10, often with cudgels in hand. The main roads were lined with police, revolutionary forces, and paramilitary Basij in what appeared to be government-issued riot gear. Riding low in the back seat of a friend’s car — he had advised me, plausibly, that as a foreigner I’d be arrested if I was seen anywhere near demonstrations — I could see the various security organs massed in rank and file in the city’s major roundabouts: Valiasr, Ferdowsi, Hafte Tir. Opposition groups had announced a “silent protest” for that day, but though major news outlets reported some clashes and arrests, I failed to catch sight of any protesters.
The Green Movement may well be spent. The last substantial street protests in Tehran — which drew impetus from the regional elation associated with the Arab Spring — took place on Feb. 14. Later the same month, the government imprisoned Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the diffuse movement’s symbolic leaders, along with their wives, in their homes, and they haven’t been heard from since. There are no signs that anyone is willing to replace them.
Meanwhile, the government has launched offensives on numerous fronts. It has executed, on average, two prisoners a day in 2011, some on the charge of “warring against God,” a euphemism for opposing the regime. Its attempts to create a censored “halal” Internet in Iran have been so thoroughgoing that it is impossible to access a Gmail account or most English-language news sites without special software. A reactionary clergyman has that “blood should be shed” in order to preserve Islamic dress codes for women. to segregate universities by gender are ongoing.
Among Iran’s would-be revolutionaries, a period of pained reflection, if not outright despair, has set in.
“The Green Movement? Ha! It would have become a red movement from all the bloodshed if it had gone on any longer! It would have been worse than Syria!” a contentious 80-something veteran of the shah’s army told me once over tea. His son Ali, a soon-to-be married engineer in his 30s who had enjoyed hurling stones at riot police in 2009, weighed in frankly: “I think the Arabs are much braver than Iranians, especially in Syria.”
“In 2009, many people didn’t know why and for what they were fighting,” he continued. “They only came into the streets because they wanted freedom. But Iranians are concerned about their safety. They are afraid of blood and violence.”
If Iranians are reluctant to risk their lives, it may be because they no longer feel comfortable drawing moral impetus from religion. There is a distinct secularizing trend sweeping Iran, especially among young people. When I asked Ali how many of his friends who shouted Allahu akbar from the rooftops as part of post-election protests in 2009 were religious, he scoffed: “None.”
The mainstream core of the Green Movement never directly challenged Iran’s clerical system; leaders like Mousavi and Karroubi sought only to change it from within. But more are now contemplating the need for radical change. Laleh, a mother of two in her late 50s who honed her activist skills in demonstrations against the Pahlavi regime in the 1970s and who attended nearly every Green Movement protest after 2009, said that the reticence to challenge clerical rule has been one of the “blind spots” of Iran’s democracy movement.
“When you set priorities like human rights, certain things get pushed back, like the problem of Khomeini and the velayat-e faqih,” she said, referring to “the guardianship of the jurist,” Khomeini’s principle of Islamic governance whereby Iran’s supreme leader has ultimate political authority. “But we should have addressed these things first because you can’t bring democracy and the velayat-e faqih together,” she added. “The velayat-e faqih is a dead end that has to open.”
Yet though it is very common to encounter resolute opposition to the velayat-e faqih among the opposition, I never heard anyone speak of initiating revolutionary action against the regime.
There is an implicit assumption among members of the Iranian opposition that there are simply two types of bad regime in the Middle East: those susceptible to pressure from the international community, like Tunisia, Egypt, or Iran’s old Pahlavi monarchy; and those beyond its reach, like Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, and the ayatollah’s Islamic Republic. When I asked Laleh whether she thought Iran’s regime was capable of the kind of violence employed against civilians in Libya and Syria, she said, “Most Iranians have not got to such a desperate point that they’re willing to risk their lives. But if things get to that point, our government will, absolutely, kill even more people than those regimes.”
In today’s Middle East, it would seem, violence works, populations can be cowed, and the less-bad guys are always the first to get booted from power.
“I’m against protests because I don’t think they work,” Marjan, a design student in her 20s who voted for Karroubi in 2009, told me. “People just get hurt.… Iranians are scared, and they should be scared. Sometimes people say, ‘Even if I’m dead, something good will happen after that.’ But what if you get killed for nothing? I’d rather have slow change than a revolution.”
What about Egypt?
“Egypt was different,” she reasoned. “When [Egyptians] came out, they didn’t go home. But the army was with them, and our army is not with us. And [former President Hosni Mubarak] stepped aside before too many people got killed. But now look at Syria: It’s so violent there, more violent than Iran. We never thought Assad would do that. And if there’s a revolution in Syria, there could be bad consequences here because our two governments are chained together in so many things and they back each other up.”
It is somewhat surprising, then, that a sense that the future is on its way is unmistakably the dominant current in contemporary Tehran. It’s easy to find critics of the ruling order who view the state’s onslaughts as temporary inconveniences, and even as the dying reflexes of an illegitimate authority. The feeling among many is that something will soon change, not because there is any immediately achievable alternative, but rather because the status quo is unsustainable.
“Do not think that just because you can’t find people demonstrating in the streets, that nothing is happening,” insisted Sohrab, a retired engineer and former political prisoner in his 60s, when I told him I thought the opposition was clearly on its back foot. “Iran is going through a period of fermentation now. Ideas and values are evolving rapidly, and the regime is rotting. We can see it all around us.”
The fermentation of values he described is palpable: Apart from increasing secularization, encounters with Islamic Iran in 2011 can prove surprising for anyone for whom the irascible Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei, his successor, remain its notional representatives. The freethinking that abounds among Iranian Muslims must be the Islamic Republic’s best-kept secret.
When I visited the remote mountain fortress of Alamut in Iran’s north, once famous as the stronghold of members of the Shiite minority Ismaili sect, one of the caretakers, a local villager, reported that the site had recently had some Ismaili visitors. “But you can’t admit you’re an Ismaili in Iran, or they’ll kill you,” a visitor from Tehran joked. The caretaker waved his hand. “What’s the difference between us and [the Ismailis]? They believe in six imams and we believe in 12. But what have we done with 12 that’s so great they can’t do it with six?” There were giggles all around.
At a large shrine complex in the southern city of Shiraz, in a section allotted for marriage counseling, a soft-spoken young woman in a chador approached me and said, in practiced English, as if delivering a prepared speech, “Men and women have a lot of trouble over money in Iran because the government keeps our country poor and doesn’t let men and women be equal. This is not because of Islam. If you read the Quran, you will see that it gives women a very high place. Excuse my English, but if they hear what I am saying” — she said, indicating some of the shrine’s male staff with her eyes, “they will kill me.”
“Well, they probably won’t kill you,” a friend interrupted, wary that I might take her literally, “but I understand they might make trouble for you.”
At Tehran’s Shohada Museum, which sits directly across from the former U.S. Embassy and houses “miraculous” relics associated with the Islamic regime’s official “martyrs,” the curator insisted on showing my Iranian companion an exhibit containing a school report card believed to have been signed by a child’s father after he had died in the Iran-Iraq War. “Do you believe in miracles?” the curator asked my companion. She hedged. “Are you a Muslim?” “Well, I grew up here,” she hedged again. “You know, many of my friends are atheists,” he said. “You can’t be an atheist here, or they’ll kill you!” she replied, a little alarmed. “That’s not true!” he insisted, as if offended.
In Iran, the idea that blood could be shed over matters of faith is coming to appear antiquated, even absurd. Assessing the zeitgeist, one secular youth in Tehran remarked to me in English, “Iran is still a very Islamic country; it’s just that most people aren’t hotheads about religion anymore.”
But absent religiously motivated hotheads willing to challenge the regime directly, Iran may have no choice but to settle for slower, and less certain, change. It is disconcerting to see how far the wishes of young Iranians — especially those in the educated middle classes — outpace their means to effect change. Many aspire to uncouple themselves from the Khomeinist project, yet their horror of violence keeps them counting on reform that has been forestalled indefinitely. They place their hopes in outside forces such as U.N. sanctions and Iran’s related economic crisis, which increase their own hardship.
“This regime will be crushed from inside by economic crisis,” Ali, the 30-something engineer, told me. “Sanctions are not good for the people, but they are the most powerful form of pressure.” Marjan, the design student, agreed: “The thing that is going to crack the government is the economy, not anything else.”
Others, without taking sides, put hopes in an apparent power struggle taking place between President Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader, which saw Ahmadinejad leave work for 11 days in April in protest over Khamenei’s veto of one of his ministerial appointments, as well as the government’s arrest of members of Ahmadinejad’s circle for employing witchcraft and summoning genies. In July, many speculated about the possibility of Ahmadinejad’s impeachment. “They are really stabbing each other!” one of my Iranian friends, a psychology student in her 20s, would exclaim with joy as she watched the internecine struggle unfold every evening on the illegal BBC Persian satellite TV service.
Ironically, it is the regime itself, with its growing paranoia and narrowing appeal, that has forced the issue of its own legitimacy. Whereas many reformists prior to 2009 regarded their country as a partial democracy with potential for improvement within the system, it is extremely difficult to imagine the Islamic Republic drawing enthusiastic voters to another set of regime-vetted candidates in 2013.
There has always existed the potential for totalitarianism within the framework of the Islamic Republic, but it has never been fully realized. Iran’s post-revolutionary Constitution contains articles that appear to embrace such democratic principles as freedom of association and of the press, albeit while subordinating them to Islam and therefore to whoever controls the religious narrative in Iran. Although reformists like former president and Islamic scholar Mohammad Khatami have tried to draw from these contradictions the prospect of an “Islamic democracy,” they have never looked more like Orwellian doublespeak than they do now.
When I met with a friend who had been detained by security officials in 2009 because of her friendships with foreign journalists, she told me that her interrogator — a fashionable young man she would never have imagined would work for the regime — confronted her with a fat file the intelligence agency had accumulated about her life. “They knew things they couldn’t know possibly know from listening to phone calls or reading emails,” she said. “They even knew about things that took place only between three or four close friends. I don’t even like to think about it.”
I myself was briefly detained, questioned, and searched at Tehran University during the regime-affiliated Friday prayers, just for walking-while-foreign on a quiet side street. A young man in his late 20s, wearing expensive-looking clothes and designer sunglasses, emerged abruptly and demanded in practiced English that my Iranian companion and I accompany him to the university campus for questioning. When my companion phoned home to inform her family of what was happening — because people detained in this way can disappear for days at a time in Iran — he threatened to have us arrested on the spot. Iran in 2011 is not a place where one bothers to ask, “But what for?”
One of the established modes of escape in Tehran is to take to high ground. The capital’s wild mountain parks offer political respite to those willing to hike, and it’s not unusual, especially at night, to see unveiled women climbers, and even people walking dogs, which are prohibited from public places. On my final night in Tehran, while climbing the mountain paths of Darakeh in the city’s northern reaches, my companion dropped her hijab around her shoulders after about 30 minutes of walking. An elderly man coming down the path stopped and warned her: “Be careful, my daughter; some of those are waiting for you.” Sure enough, 40 minutes later, up the quiet mountain path, two policemen stood in the shadows of a dark bend, waiting to enforce the aesthetics of 1979. Even this part of the garden, it would seem, had been fenced and contained. Nature, for the time being at least, appears to have been conquered.
First published in foreignpolicy.com.
Roland Elliott Brown is a writer living in London. Names and minor details have been changed to protect identities.