November 1, 2014

JUST WAITING ON A FRIEND:

The revolution is over : After decades of messianic fervour, Iran is becoming a more mature and modern country (Oliver August, Nov 1st 2014, The Economist)


The regime may remain suspicious of the West, and drone on about seeding revolutions in oppressor countries, but the revolutionary fervour and drab conformism have gone. Iran is desperate to trade with whomever will buy its oil. Globalisation trumps puritanism even here.

Revolution as a political lodestar has a limited shelf life. Adam Michnik, a historian who helped to overthrow the Soviets in Poland, once said: "Revolutions have two phases: first comes a struggle for freedom, then a struggle for power. The first makes the human spirit soar and brings out the best in people. The second unleashes the worst: envy, intrigue, greed, suspicion and the urge for revenge." Iran followed this pattern. First came courageous street protests during the 1979 revolution, then the infighting started. Thousands were executed, properties were seized, bread was short.

Arguably, there is a third phase to a revolution: the struggle for acceptance. Once power is secure, revolutionaries often seek recognition by strong outsiders. In a globalised world, that means engaging with the great trading countries. Children of Iranian revolutionaries have long followed this path. Privilege for them equals access to Western education and Asian consumer markets. Even hardliners allow their children to jet around the world. The offspring of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the revolution, have flocked to Instagram and embrace Western mores. Seven of his 15 grandchildren have openly criticised the regime. Many of the students who took American diplomats hostage 35 years ago have become reformists and wish to see closer ties with the West. Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who was one of their spokesmen and then served on Tehran's city council, now says: "I no longer take radical actions and I believe gradual reforms last longer than radical change." [...]

Hardliners have long railed against "Westoxification" (the title of a book by Jalal Al-e Ahmad, published in 1962), yet in their daily lives they are now surrounded by Western consumer goods, computer games, beauty ideals, gender roles and many other influences. Iranian culture has not disappeared, but the traditional society envisaged by the fathers of the revolution is receding ever further.

The most visible shift is in public infrastructure. Tehran, the capital, is a tangle of new tunnels, bridges, overpasses, elevated roads and pedestrian walkways. Shiny towers rise in large numbers, despite the sanctions. Screens at bus stops display schedules in real time. Jack Straw, a former British foreign minister and a regular visitor, says that "Tehran looks and feels these days more like Madrid and Athens than Mumbai or Cairo."

Smaller Iranian cities have changed even more. Tabriz, Shiraz and Isfahan are working on underground railways. Half the traditional bathhouses in Qazvin, an industrial town west of Tehran, have closed in recent years. In a basement with a domed ceiling built 350 years ago, the forlorn manager sweeps around two kittens and bemoans the loss of a 700-year-old competitor, musing that "people now have bathrooms with hot running water." In Yalayesh, a remote village near the Caspian sea, entertainment remains old-fashioned: a Kurdish strongman, Ismail the Hero, shows off a lion in a cage on the back of his blue truck. Still, two years ago the government finished piping natural gas into every house, making winters with temperatures of -20ÂșC "tolerable for the first time", says a spectator.

During the eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which ended in 2013, prosperity spread rapidly. Loans, handouts and social-housing programmes, however corrupt and ineptly run, showered billions of oil dollars on the poor. Many found white-collar jobs in government agencies. The middle class ballooned. Villagers streamed into Tehran to buy property as GDP per person rose from $4,400 in 1993 to $13,200 last year (at purchasing-power parity). Despite the sanctions, Iran does not look like beleaguered Cuba; people drive new sedans made locally, not 1950s Chevrolets. Life became harder when sanctions were tightened in 2011, but even now Iranians live much better than most of their neighbours.

Prosperity has inspired an obsession with technology that restrictions on internet access cannot dampen. 




Posted by at November 1, 2014 6:37 AM
  

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