March 7, 2007


Iran in Books: Review Essay (Patrick Clawson, Spring 2007, Middle East Quarterly)

Perhaps the two best ways to get past the regime's controls are to look at the tens of thousands of Iranian blogs and to take advantage of the Iranian-American and Iranian-European community's greater access to ordinary people. Two recent, excellent books use these approaches to present insight about how Iranians view the world. Nasrin Alavi has edited a fascinating collection of translated Iranian blog entries in We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs. The contextual explanation she provides is useful, but she lets the blogs carry the weight of the story. Chapters cover women, culture--which she misleadingly labels "media"--reporting news, attitudes towards recent history such as the 1979 revolution and the 1980-88 war with Iraq, attitudes towards the regime's icons, and politics. The entries illustrate daily life under the Islamic Republic, and the picture is not pretty--social problems such as drugs and prostitution are rampant; people feel alienated; petty repression is common. The hatred for the current regime comes through strongly but so, too, does despair about the country's situation, personal circumstances, and prospects for change. Alavi, a strong supporter of the reform movement, interprets many messages to suggest both the inevitability of long-term change but also resigned acceptance of the immutability of circumstances in the near term. The bloggers describe individual resistance to the regime's social and cultural restrictions, but there are few entries calling for organization or action to bring about social change. Indeed, most of the bloggers project outright cynicism toward politicians and political action.

An excellent complement to We Are Iran is Afshin Molavi's The Soul of Iran, an updated version of his 2002 Persian Pilgrimages, which told the stories of the people he met journeying across Iran. Molavi, an Iranian-American who speaks Persian fluently, is a talented reporter who has worked for Reuters and The Washington Post, among media. He is smart enough to build on his journalistic skills by writing essays about the people he meets, rather than trying to reinvent himself as an academic who offers grand social theories or as a policymaker who proposes how to resolve U.S.-Iranian differences. That makes The Soul of Iran a refreshing change from some books by journalists who have covered Iran and then decided to write a "big think" book about Iranian politics, U.S.-Iranian relations, or both. Molavi has a good eye for the telling detail, be it the clerk pulling out fading receipts to show how good times were under the shah compared to now; the simple man in the slums of south Tehran who recounts how his grand hopes for the 1979 revolution have been dashed; or the generosity and kindness of the taxi driver he befriended in Mashhad who is utterly uninterested in politics but instinctively supports those protesting against the government. Molavi structures his account around his travels but weaves in episodes from the country's long history, especially from its rich literature, to illustrate the deep pride Iranians have in their civilization. And it is indeed their civilization they venerate--their love is in their culture more than in the power of the shahs. This is not nationalism that exalts conquests of arms; it is the glorification of great ideas and poetry. Against this background of pride in advanced thought, it is easier to understand how reform-minded intellectuals and students touch a deep cord in Iranian popular life.

Molavi's approach also brings to life how disappointed and discouraged Iranians are. They are sure theirs is a great civilization, but life is a bitter struggle for what Iranians assume should be theirs by right, namely, a standard of living roughly on a par with those in other great civilizations. The harshness of daily existence grinds people down--not that Iran is particularly poor by the standards of developing countries; it is a middle-income country roughly on par with Mexico or the Balkan states. This is not the group with which Iranians seek comparison, though. The shah told his countrymen that Iran would be the equal of Germany by now, and the revolution promised to do even better. While Persians believe themselves to be richer in culture and, frankly, intellect than Arabs across the Persian Gulf, the Arab emirates and sheikhdoms have soared ahead of Iran over the last quarter century, feeding the sense that had it not been for the Islamic Revolution, Iran, too, would now be as rich as its people feel it deserves to be. Adding insult to injury, the only social group whose income has risen dramatically under the Islamic Republic is that of the families of the politically well-connected. By bringing out the deep disappointment of ordinary Iranians, Molavi's account shows why the populist, anti-corruption 2005 presidential campaign of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad worked well. Not that this is Molavi's aim; indeed, he makes clear that he expects the economic discontent to add to the reformist camp and to work against the Islamist hard-liners.

The insight into the views of ordinary Iranians provided by Alavi and Molavi is the key to understanding the weaknesses as well as the strengths of democratic tendencies in Iran. Much less important is the high politics of elections and maneuverings by establishment politicians. In their Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty, Ali Gheissari, visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Brown University, and Vali Nasr, professor of Middle East politics and associate chair of research at the Naval Postgraduate School and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, rarely get beyond the stale and rarefied world of high politics. Democracy means more than elections and human rights; it can only flourish where there is a vibrant civil society, vigorous media and educational institutions, and openness to debate in which all points of view are tolerated. None of these issues are broached in Gheissari and Nasr's account. In their slim volume, they rehash the familiar ground of the shah's shortcomings before 1979, the revolution's turn towards Islamist absolutism rather than political openness, and the failure of reformers to build on their 1997 victory in the presidential elections--all stories told elsewhere with as much insight.

Disappointingly, Gheissari and Nasr provide none of the context inside Iran or around the region that has put democracy front and center on the Iranian agenda. In the end, they are much less successful at making the case that democracy is inevitable for Iran than is Iranian dissident Mohsen Sazegara, now at Harvard, in his short monograph, The Point of No Return: Iran's Path to Democracy. Sazegara points to the social changes, such as literacy and urbanization, that are often associated with democratization in other countries and that Iran has experienced. He also notes the changes in Iran's neighbors, with the consolidation of democracy in Turkey and the adoption of the democratic ideal nearly all around Iran--Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia--as well as around the world.


A pivotal power struggle is underway in Iran 's private sector. For the fist time in 27 years, independent entrepreneurs have an opportunity to gain control of Iran 's Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Mining, an organization that exerts considerable influences over the country's economic life. [...]

The chamber has long been tightly controlled by its chairman, Alinaghi Khamoushi, along with his two top aides, all of them hailing from Motalefeh. But after making a serious political miscalculation, Khamoushi now finds himself struggling to retain his control of the ICCIM.

The origins of Khamoushi's difficulties go back four years, to the ICCIM's previous leadership vote. At that time, former president Mohammad Khatami's reformist administration was still in power, and it forced Khamoushi to allow independent candidates from the private sector to compete for seats on ICCIM's 60-member board.

Surprisingly, the independents headed by a maverick businessman, Mohammad Reza Behzadian won the largest of votes in the 2003 election. Behzadian himself gained the important post of chairman of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce. The victory, however, proved short-lived. First, Khamoshi used his connections with the conservative-dominated parliament to engineer a cutoff of funds to the Tehran chamber. He also orchestrated Behzadian's ouster from the Tehran post, replacing him with a moderate-conservative businessman named Mohammad Nahavandian.

With the approach of this year's vote, Khamoushi attempted to disqualify all potential rivals for power, including Nahavandian. In doing so, he appears t ached. His infuriated opponents made use of their own political connection to secure a February 11 decision by the Supreme Supervisory Council overruling Khamoushi, and permit an open ICCIM vote. Nahavandian, for example, is a high-powered economic advisor to the country's National Security Council and is reportedly on friendly terms with both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country's other leading political figure, Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

In the February 21 election, Behzadian and other pro-reform independents won most of the votes in Tehran and in several provinces amid heavy turnout. The election results prompted jubilation in some entrepreneurial circles. Sarmayeh, a pro-business newspaper, called the vote a "huge milestone." Another pro-business paper, Eghtesad-e No, described the balloting as "among the most important events the business community has seen in over two decades."

According to an informed source in Tehran who backed Behzadian in the ICClM election, the reformists and independents are hoping to make significant changes in the chamber's structure and activities, including fostering greater transparency within the organization, as well as giving Iranian venture capitalists a greater say in its operations.

Behzadian and his allies also are interested in establishing a level playing field for the upcoming round of privatization, which was announced by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a February 19 policy address. In the speech, Ayatollah Khamenei complained that privatization directives were not being implemented by the government, according to a report distributed by the official IRNA news agency. The Supreme Leader went on to characterize privatization as needed to "make a breakthrough in the financial well-being of every individual."

Last summer, the Supreme Leader ordered the privatization of 80 percent of state-owned entities, not including firms connected with the energy, defense and security sectors.

The most immediate challenge facing the ICClM independents, however, concerns the Board of Directors' composition. Their ability to press a reform agenda will depend on the number of seats they can gain on the ICClM national board, as well as on the Tehran and various provincial boards.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2007 10:11 PM

Thanks for the pointer to The Soul of Iran. I am behind on my readng.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 8, 2007 12:47 PM