June 13, 2010

I'LL JOIN AFTER YOU WIN:

'Even the Regime Hates the Regime': Don't be fooled by Tehran's show of strength. The revolutionary rot runs deep. (KARIM SADJADPOUR, JUNE 11, 2010, Foreign Policy)

In meetings, especially with Western officials, Iranian officials would parrot the party line. But in private conversations, out of earshot of their bosses, a different narrative could often be heard. A former Iranian ambassador in Asia once confided to me over dinner in Paris that as "naive" young revolutionaries, he and his friends had grossly underestimated how difficult it would be to govern Iran and satisfy its fickle population. "We didn't appreciate at the time," I was surprised to hear him say, "the enormous challenges the shah had to deal with."

I used to recount these tales to a friend of mine, a devout, American-educated professor of political science at Tehran University who ran in government circles. He would smile and recount for me his own stories. "Everyone hates the regime," he told me once, only half-jokingly. "Even the regime hates the regime."

The revolutionary slogans that once inspired a generation of Iranians have become banal background noise for a population born predominantly after the revolution. Amid the bustle of a Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran several years back, I saw a rumpled, 50-something man furiously pumping his fist up and down and chanting something unintelligible. No one seemed to pay any attention to him. As he passed me, his words became clearer:

"Marg bar Amrika peechgooshtee sadt toman! Marg bar Amrika peechgooshtee sadt toman!"

"Death-to-America screwdrivers, 100 toman! Death-to-America screwdrivers, 100 toman!"

I was curious to check out his merchandise -- cheaply priced, anti-imperialist household tools -- so I flagged him down. Sensing his first sale, his eyes lit up.

"How many do you want?" he asked enthusiastically. He had a basket of at least 30. I grabbed one and took a closer look. Turning the screwdriver in my hand, I searched in vain for the words "Death to America."

"Where is the 'Death to America'?" I asked.

He shot me a puzzled look. "You want one with 'Death to America' written on it?"

"Isn't that what you said?"

"That was just an advertisement!" he explained to me with a wave of the hand, incredulous at my naiveté. "I said, 'Death to America! Screwdrivers for 100 toman!'" Two altogether separate sentences, he argued. The small crowd we had attracted shared his incredulity and verified that there indeed had been a pause between the two phrases.

"Come back next week," he said. "Perhaps I'll have some for you then." (Sharia has not yet replaced the laws of supply and demand in Iran.)

Many close observers of Iran confess to being baffled at the country's complex politics, its internal contradictions, its cultural nuances. How is it, many wonder, that a system that has profoundly underperformed for three decades could remain in power?

The leaders of the opposition Green Movement are no doubt pondering this question today. At the height of last year's unrest, they had hoped to recruit Iran's disaffected officialdom and traditional classes. Some joined last summer, but many watched, and continue to watch, from the sidelines. "They wanted to see the Green Movement succeed," said my friend, the university professor. "But they won't make a move until things are really on the verge of change. They're afraid."

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 13, 2010 6:03 PM
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