February 12, 2016


Is the Iranian Regime Bound to Collapse? : The revolution's discontents. (Isaac Chotiner, 2/12/16, Slate)

Laura Secor had been traveling to Iran for almost a decade when, in 2012, she was harshly questioned and accused of being a spy while reporting for the New Yorker. After leaving the country, she was denied another visa. Her time there forms the basis of her new book, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran.

The book is notable for its focus on the country's reformers, many of them supporters of the 1979 upheaval that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power; they are now disappointed in the revolution and wish to live in a less authoritarian regime. Secor was there for the end of Mohammad Khatami's second term as president, which ended in 2005; he was succeeded by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose two terms overlapped (not entirely coincidentally) with a period of international isolation and the crushing of the country's Green Movement. [...]

Given that Ayatollah Khamenei, rather than the president, is the most powerful person in Iran, why do you think things changed so much under Ahmadinejad?

I think it's not something that's entirely clear even to people inside Iran. Khatami was reformist, and he had an agenda of opening up this space for civil society and for more freedoms of the press and expression and association, and he came up against really a pretty hard wall. In retrospect, that time looks freer because at least the conflict was in the open. You could see what was happening. There were student demonstrations that were put down. There were newspapers that opened that were then shut down. In a sense, the distance between the president and the security establishment created a kind of a space that was a little bit freer. In the end, the security establishment did prevail, and that was one of the reasons that the reform movement was stymied by 2004.

Ahmadinejad came in with a much more explicitly authoritarian agenda, and his Cabinet made that very clear. He had a lot of people in his Cabinet who were pretty deeply embedded in the security establishment. The president has his areas of authority in the domestic/political space and in the economy, which is where Ahmadinejad really made a big impression. I think a lot of people would say that to the extent there was any opening under Khatami, it wouldn't have happened if the supreme leader was 100 percent set against it, and to the extent that there was a total shutdown afterward, it wouldn't have happened if he wasn't in favor of it. He doesn't call every shot, but there's this kind of complicated system of pressure points and infractions, and the boundaries of that are set from above.

Did Hassan Rouhani's election in 2013 surprise you?

It was surprising to a lot of people. It was surprising to me. There were a few factors, and it's kind of hard to say what was definitive. Ahmadinejad's second term was really a very dark time for the Islamic Republic. You had very, very heavy security atmosphere in the country because of the uprising in 2009. That was really met with crushing repression.

Is that when you noticed it most as a journalist too?

Yeah, I was there in 2012, and it was a different country--it wasn't a different country, it was the same country, but it was a really radically different atmosphere. It has always been before, but with some degree of plausible deniability. This was very overt. So that was unsustainable to a degree. That was not a way Iranians were used to living.

My sense was that Rouhani's election was a foreign policy election for the first time in my knowledge of the country. The very first presidential debate turned on issues of foreign policy. All of the candidates practically were leaping on the one candidate who really supported Ahmadinejad's vision of foreign policy. There was a sense that the tide had really turned against that way of conducting Iran's affairs in the world, and there was an opening in the establishment toward a more modern course.

Posted by at February 12, 2016 9:15 AM