February 15, 2007


We are asking the wrong questions of Iran (Rageh Omaar, 19 February 2007, New Statesman)

Some facts: two-thirds of this population of 70 million are under 30 years old. Iran is one of the youngest countries on earth. It is also one of the oldest civilisations on earth. The Islamic revolution led by Khomeini is only 28 years old. This means that the overwhelming majority of Iranians have no recollection of what life was like under the shah. They cannot remember the rejection of that period by their parents' generation, and they have grown up knowing only the edicts of the Islamic Republic.

Like young people anywhere, they are restless, ambitious, unpredictable and often courageous in the face of authority. The ideas and grievances on which the revolution was built mean little to them. In the face of this, Iran's theocracy, more than any other regime in the Middle East - more even than pro-western states such as Jordan and Egypt - has been held up to scrutiny and challenge and has undergone incremental but profound change.

Some of the changes may have been unintentional, but they are irreversible. Most of Iran's university entrants are women and the country has a literacy rate comparable with Britain's. In the 1980s, the Islamic authorities wanted to bring the kind of university education enjoyed by urban elites to provincial communities. The effect was that the more conservative and traditional families suddenly felt more at ease with sending their daughters to all-female colleges. The effect has been dramatic, raising the visibility of women in the workplace.

Most foreign news coverage of Iran has focused on political and military developments. But delve deeper into society, and it is not hard to find myriad vivid snapshots of life. These give the lie to the stereotype of the dark, forbidding and hostile society. Consider: more plastic surgery operations are carried out in Tehran than in Los Angeles, and drug addiction is openly recognised (a taboo in other Middle Eastern Muslim countries). There are two million heroin addicts in Iran and a large number of independent drug rehab charities helping them. There is a similar story with HIV. Iran has one of the largest non-governmental networks of charities and aid agencies in the Middle East, working beyond state control on anything from child labour to girls' education.

Everyone recognizes now that Mahmoud's days are numbered, but it was revealing that even in the first flush of power he understood himself to be too weak to roll back the social liberation of the Khatami years.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 15, 2007 2:09 PM
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