Smoldering in Tehran
Part 1 of 12
Right after the election an unusually hot summer descended on Tehran. After the long, cool spring, the heat wave was a particular shock. “42º C,” “45º,” “46º,” -- people greeted each other with disbelief. Stuck in traffic inside the mostly un-air conditioned, sub-standard cars that make up the taxis in Tehran was like having your head stuffed inside an exhaust pipe. “We deserve this,” said one angry cab driver. “We deserve every catastrophe that befalls us.”
November 2, 2005
The most recent catastrophe, apart from the heat, was the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new president. “We deserve this ape,” said the cabby as his old car wailed with a downshift. A campaign ditty for Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the runner up in the presidential elections, widely forwarded on email and cell phone messages, ran something like this: “Hand in hand we vote for Akbar/Better than turning over the country to the antar” -- the ape, and the epithet had stuck. Countering the Rafsanjani campaign ditty, the general opposition came up with: Na Rahbar, na Akbar, na Antar -- “neither the Leader (i.e. Khamenei), nor Akbar, nor the ape.”
My trip to Iran was a personal one. It was short and heavily booked with seeing family and friends I had not seen since my last visit there, thirteen years ago. My contact with people outside my personal circle would be limited to chance encounters and random conversations. I had no plans to interview anyone or engage in political discussions, the way we used to in the early years of the revolution. But one can no sooner get away from politics than avoid the exhaust fumes in Tehran. Politics permeates everything from family life to random encounters. Observations are acute.
On my ride from the airport the first night, the taxi driver passed on to me two widely spread rumors. The first was that Ahmadinejad used to shoot final shots into executed prisoners at the notorious Evin Prison. The second was the speculation that he is prime assassination material. “Rafsanjani is going to do away with him,” the driver said with a knowing nod. (Rafsanjani’s role in the assassination of Kurdish dissidents in Germany, for one, is well documented.) When I asked him whom he voted for the driver gave a laugh. “I didn’t vote,” he said. “How do you choose between a murderer and an executioner?”
The driving force behind the elections this year was severe dislike. People who voted for Rafsanjani detested Ahmadinejad, while Ahmadinejad supporters hated Rafsanjani with a passion. Of the two, of course, Rafsanjani, a former president, was the better known quantity. As his spectacular defeat in the parliamentary elections of 2000 showed, Rafsanjani’s extreme wealth and the entrenched power of his family are deeply resented. He personifies the class that has enriched itself immeasurably while subjecting the rest of the population to violence and poverty.
After the election what had remained of Rafsanjani’s campaign were occasional “Hashemi 2005” bumper stickers -- in English, interestingly enough -- on SUVs and other upscale cars. (The wide use of “Hashemi” made many wonder if by using this name Rafsanjani wanted to distance himself from his past.) In the month before the election, local campaign headquarters had popped up in private homes in affluent neighborhoods. People who were clearly no supporters of the Islamic Republic had voluntarily opened their houses to serve as campaign setads, where food and drink flowed and pop music blared.
Posters and bumper stickers were distributed. Campaign strategy was discussed. Young women in clingy overdresses and skimpy head scarves emanated from these houses on roller blades. One approaching a car stopped in traffic stuck a “Hashemi 2005” flyer under the windshield wiper and said, “Vote for Shadmehr Aqili” -- a forbidden pop singer -- “This is all bullshit.” A father of two teenagers remarked, “Our young people get to enjoy freedom once every four years, at election time.”
The best thing I heard anyone say of Rafsanjani was: “Four years of Rafsanjani led to eight years of Khatami.” To which another replied with irony: “And eight years of Khatami led to Ahmadinejad... ”
“Tell your American friends,” a friend of my father’s told me regarding Ahmadinejad’s election, “that this is what happens when a ‘moderate’ is succeeded by a ‘reformist’.” He was referring to the labels for Rafsanjani and Khatami that were made popular by American media.
Some signs of economic prosperity and political progress did appear in the Rafsanjani and Khatami years. A number of businesses flourished and a trickle of cash flowed down. Attempts were made to adjust government salaries to inflation and to hold in check the devaluation of the currency. Apart from a spurt of gruesome murders of writers and intellectuals, known as the “chain murders,” and the particularly barbaric suppression of student dissent, extremist violence was reduced. Censorship was relaxed periodically. There was more toleration of elementary civil liberties such as wearing make up and listening to popular music. Some attributed this toleration to Khatami’s efforts to implement the constitution and establish the rule of law.
But Ahmadinejad addressed urgent needs that were not touched by the tentative and cosmetic improvements of the past decade. While Rafsanjani banked on the vote of upscale youth hungry for civil liberties and disposable income, Ahmadinejad spoke to people living in unrelenting poverty. As even the middle class was forced to take on second and third jobs to afford skyrocketing rents and living expenses, anger against the status quo built up. Rafsanjani symbolized the corruption that stifled real economic growth. (Could he have forgotten that the charge of corruption against the Shah’s regime was their kiss of death?)
Ahmadinejad’s promises for fighting corruption, solving housing problems, creating new jobs, and bringing down prices appealed to a wide spectrum of the population. His concrete plans, however, were not known. Soon after the election he said that he was going to surprise everyone. Rumor had it that during his campaign he had promised to “staple” the slipping veils of young women to their foreheads. After the campaign he was said to have retracted: “There are other priorities... ”
As nobody hangs on anybody’s words in Iran, the general attitude was not to comb Ahmadinejad’s words for meaning but to wait and see. While people waited, large financial and business transactions were put on indefinite hold. The stock market barely functioned. At some point the new president said that he was going to replace 80 per cent of those in managerial positions in the government. This had a significant effect on the functioning of government officials. At the foreign ministry, more than once I overheard this piece of advice offered to people by the authorities: “Do it now while we’re here. There’s no telling what will happen in six months... ”
Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory discourse on restoring the values of the revolution, including violent measures against infringements of religious decree, had appeal for hardliners who, after all, would be the human resource for implementing his plans.
While the country waited, a great many people had misgivings about any plans that would be carried out by hardliners with free recourse to violence. People worried that implementing rent control, for instance, really meant confiscation of property. In the past, battling high prices had meant unleashing thugs on merchants and looting stores. A return to this brand of thuggery and lawlessness was dreaded -- not to mention that in the past this course of action had resulted in shopkeepers taking merchandise off their shelves and offering them under the table at jacked-up prices.
The disbelief and dread felt by Ahmadinejad’s opposition notwithstanding, it is undeniable that millions of people voted for him. Charges of coercion and cheating in the election process abound of course, but even if some of the charges are justified, in the end that is just quibbling. Ahmadinejad has considerable popular support. When I heard the result of the elections before going to Iran, I thought it was indicative of some kind of mass hysteria.
But in Iran, I heard some perfectly calm accounts of why he was elected.“Ahmadinejad is an honest man,” his supporters said. “He lives modestly.” “He doesn’t steal.” “He will stop corruption.” I would venture that he is focused and unflinching, with a certain degree of eloquence. When he was asked whether he thought he looked like a president, he answered that he’s satisfied to look like a servant of the country.
While many people voted for Rafsanjani out of fear of the hardliners but without any real love of their own candidate, most Ahmadinejad supporters not only hated Rafsanjani but liked their own candidate. What remained of Ahmadinejad’s campaign after the election were not slick posters and bumper stickers in English; they were handwritten scribbles on walls: “Dr. Ahmadinejad.”
While his antagonists gleefully repeated jokes about his looks, size, and advanced degree, his supporters found him “a man of the people.” A television clip showed a scruffy-looking little boy hurrying somewhere. “Where are you running to?” he was asked. “To congratulate my neighbor,” he said. “He was elected president.” >>> Part 2
Smoldering in Tehran: Index