THE NEW YORKER
November 8 1999
The extraordinary changing voices of Iran's revolution.
BY ROBIN WRIGHT
TEHRAN is a busy place on Thursday nights, the eve of the Muslim Sabbath, On Africa Boulevard, a street lined with boutiques and fast-food joints, teen-agers and twenty-somethings in colorful Japanese and Korean compacts drive slowly back and Barth for hours. Car radios blare the Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin, and a rhapsodic Iranian version of New Age. A young man in a Nissan sport-utility vehicle entertains two male passengers by repeatedly gunning the engine, only to squeal to a halt after a few feet, because of bumper-to-bumper traffic. And everyone seems to be talking, if not to other passengers, then on cell phones, and often—to judge by sonic of the glances exchanged across the lanes—to other motorists cruising the strip. Around the city, ads for Cartier watches and Nokia mobile phones flank billboards heralding the hundredth birthday of Ayatollah Khomeini. In movie theatres, boys dare to put their arms around their girlfriends. "Bay-watch" and American soap operas come in over illegal satellite. Chicago Bulls T-shirts are a commonplace. Leonardo DiCaprio is a heartthrob.
IBRAHLM ASGHARZADEH is, at forty-four, a man with a sense of style—something rare since the 1979 revolution covered women from head to toe in mournful black, condemned the neck-- tie as a symbol of Western cultural dominance, and, because centuries ago some clerics discouraged shaving, made beards a statement of support for the world's only modern theocracy. At a recent dinner party, given by husband-and-wife professors at Teheran University, Asgharzadeh was discordantly fashionable. Fie wore a blue checked shirt, a sports coat of muted cream‑and-brown checks, and deep-brown trousers and deep-brown socks. (Shoes had been left at the door—the practice in traditional Iranian homes.) His thick silver hair was impeccably cut, and his designer eyeglasses shone like crystal. He didn't wear a tie—only doctors, and waiters at certain new restaurants, wear ties—but he was clean-shaven.
I'd wanted to meet Asgharzadeh since 1981, when I stood on the tarmac of the Algiers international airport and watched fifty-two exhausted American hostages disembark from an Air Al-Ole plane. Throughout the hostage crisis—which lasted more than four hundred days, introduced the yellow ribbon as a national symbol, cost eight American lives in a failed rescue attempt, ostracized one of the world's largest oil producers, redefined both diplomacy and terrorism, ended an American Presidency, and gave us "Nightline"—Asgharzadeh had been the primary spokesman for Students Following the Imam's Line. Twenty years ago, the once obscure group became the world's most famous student body when four hundred of its young members scrambled over a brick wall and stormed the American Embassy in Teheran. At the time, Asgharzadeh was a scruffy student of industrial engineering at Iran's top technical university--his most distinguishing feature was a heavy beard—and he was full of fury. "This takeover is not a game!" he told reporters massed outside the Embassy on the day of the takeover. "This is a den of spies." The term stuck. For years, the American Embassy was popularly known as the "den of spies."
A couple of Iranian papers once hinted that it was Asgharzadeh who had actually conceived the notion of taking over the Embassy, so at the dinner I asked him if it was true that he was the mastermind. He paused, and confessed that he’d been on of three students, all engineering majors at Teheran universi• ties, who'd originally made the decision to attack the Embassy. "But we promised each other that we'd never publicly disclose which one of us first proposed it," he said. "Probably it's better not to say too much." Then a smile broke across his face.
Asgharzadeh did admit to coining the name Students Following the Imam's Line. "We were trying to catch the Imam's attention," he explained, referring to Ayatollah Khomeini, the religious leader who guided the revolution. Asgharzadeh was also candid about the planning. "The critical phase was getting three pieces of information," he recalled. "The most important was an inside plan of the Embassy. Two student apartments were across the street, so we used different rooms to draw maps."
The sprawling American compound, occupying twenty-seven acres of prime property on Taleghani Street, in downtown Teheran, included an imposing brick diplomatic chancery, a separate consulate to process the thousands of visas that were issued to Iranians each year, the Ambassador's residence, several staff homes, and a massive warehouse, whose dark, windowless cellar was later nicknamed the Mushroom Inn by hostages who were confined there. The Embassy symbolized not only the American presence but also Iran's importance to the United States—as a buffer to the Soviet Union, a pillar of Mideast policy, a frontier on both Turkey and turbulent South Asia, and the longest coast on the Persian Gulf, through which forty per cent of the West's oil was shipped.
"We also had to find out about the staff, so we kept a log on the personnel," Asgharzadeh continued. "Students were posted around the clock to watch how many there were and who went in and out. We wanted all the Americans inside when we took it.
"Finally, we had to know the security situation inside. We had to do this all ourselves, and we were just students. But, in the end, we had really good information on the Marine guards."
Looking back, Asgharzadeh recalled that little had gone as the students had expected. "We didn't intend to keep the Americans for a long time—maybe three to five days," he told me. "We went inside the compound just as a protest. Then we did get the Imam's attention—and his blessing. The masses demanded that we continue, something we didn't anticipate. It became a very complicated situation, one that was out of our hands."
The impact of the Embassy takeover was, in fact, more profound on Iran than on the United States, for it forced a denouement in a debate over the revolution's future; namely; the role of the clergy. The first provisional government that had been set up after the Shah fled was led by secular technocrats who favored a strong President as the ultimate power, the revolutionary, mullahs wanted a religious Supreme Leader. Angered by the clergy's endorsement of the takeover, the members of the provisional government resigned, and the clerics took their place and engineered a constitution that created a theocracy. Today, all branches of the Islamic Republic of Iran's government are shadowed, and sometimes superseded, by religious institutions. The two-hundred-and-seventy-person Parliament is shadowed by the twelve-man Council of Guardians, which has veto power over legislation and over political. candidates. The civil and criminal courts are shadowed by Revolutionary Courts, which can summon any person or institution for "un-Islamic activities," and which hold in-camera trials and admit no appeal. And the President is shadowed by the Supreme Leader, who is commander-in-chief, and who appoints the three critical chiefs—of intelligence, the judiciary, and the military and has the last word on any subject. Khomeini was Iran's first unchallenged Supreme Leader. Since his death, in 1989, the job has been held by Ali Khamenei, a staunch traditionalist who lacks Khomeini's stature and influence. The President is limited to two four-year terms, but the Supreme Leader, who is chosen by an assembly of clerics, rules for life.
The dual power structure has lately led to increasingly raucous political turmoil. It pits a new generation of democratic reformers, who want elected officials to have primary power, against the theocrats, who want the clerics to remain guardians of the state—and, in some cases, above the state. This fall, that rivalry is playing out over issues ranging from the closure of four newspapers to the fate of thirteen Iranian Jews charged with espionage, and, especially, over the question of who will be allowed to run in next February's Parliamentary elections—a contest that will he pivotal in determining the outcome of the power struggle.
Asgharzadeh is now making something of a political comeback. Earlier this year, Iran held its first city-council elections. The first four Presidents had never got around to them, despite a constitutional mandate, because the clerics and the conservative elite objected. But the upset election of President Mohammad Khatami, in 1997, opened a new chapter in Iran’s political life. Khatami wewars the black turban of descendants of the Prophet, and he is the son and grandson of ayatollahs, but he is a reformer. He was named Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in 1982, but resigned a decade later, after being acused of “negligence” and “liberalism.” In 1997, he ran as a dark horse, and the conservative theocrats who controlled the main levers of power openly opposed him, but seventy percent of the voters endorsed his agenda of reform. Since Khatami took office, the local elections have been his biggest accomplishment – again in defiance of the theocrats. Overnight, Iran went from having fewer than four hundred elected officials, all concentrated in the capital, to having almost two hundred thousand, dispersed throughout the country. Asgharzadeh won a seat on Teheran’s fifteen-member city council. Conservatives fought to have him disqualified, for “unrevolutionary behavior.” At a rally last year at the American Embassy, which has been used as a vocational school for the Revolutionary Guards since the hostages were freed, Asgharzadeh told the crowd, “Our dealings with the hostages were not directed against the American people, and not even against the hostages themselves. Today, we invite all the hostages to return to Iran, as our guests. We have a new language for the the new world. We defend human rights. And we’ll try to make Islam such that it won’t contradict democracy.”
Asgharzadch has paid a price for his change in rhetoric. Throughout his speech, a vigilante group of young conservatives calling themselves the Helpers of the Party of God taunted him by shouting "Mary beer Amrika," or "Death to America," the slogan that he had shouted twenty years before. Last December, he was so badly beaten that he was hospitalized.
Because of his new position, Asgharzadeh thinks the Council of Guardians will disqualify him from numing in the February Parliamentary elections. With another coy smile, however, he told me that he still hoped to have influence. His wife, Tahereh Rezazadeh, who is also a reformer, will run instead. The couple met during the hostage crisis. She was one of the female students who stormed the Embassy.
“Asgharzadeh looks quite Presidential, doesn't he?" Hadi Semati, an American-educated political-science professor, remarked to me at the dinner party "You know, it could he. Someday,. Strange things happen here."
Since his election to the city council, though, the former revolutionary has been preoccupied with other matters. Over dinner, he dutifully recounted the hostage history as a courtesy to a curious guest, but he became animated only when the conversation turned to his recent municipal duties, which he attends to with the diligence of a burgher. "The first issue that attracted me was traffic," he said. "This city put a lot of money into highways, but they didn't turn out to be all that helpful, because most people don't use them. For example, when young couples want to get married, there's a tradition that they have two candelabra and a mirror. Well, people believe they have to go to the bazaar downtown to get them, even though candelabras and mirrors are now available all over the city. The new chain stores haven't solved this problem—simply because of habit. Iran is full of traditions like this. So we have to understand and deal with these traditions in order to make people change. Another example—the military barracks!"
Asgharzadeh was clearly excited, and his fists punched the air for emphasis. "The Shah thought he'd protect himself by putting the barracks all around him. But the barracks are in the city center and in the way of construction. Plus, they don't pay taxes! One of my campaign slogans was to get rid of them and put them outside the city. I'm now more worried about the impact of high-rises that might replace them, which would bring more traffic and more pollution to the city."
Both are already almost unmanageable. Pollution produced by traffic and local industries has recently forced the government to close schools and urge old people and the ailing to leave the capital, for days at a time. As a public service, new billboards around Teheran provide hourly readings on six different pollutant gases.
"Traffic, pollution, sewage—ninety-five per cent of my time is now spent trying to solve the issues of ordinary people's lives," Asgharzadeh said. "I've learned that people's world view is changed more by dealing with the small problems of life—the issues they care about. And, unfortunately, ideology can't solve them."
IN the revolution's early years, the clerics called on Iranian women to breed an Islamic generation. They did. The theocracy's decision, early on, to lower the age of maturity for females, from fifteen to nine, contributed mightily. Between 1980 and 1985, the average Iranian woman had more than six pregnancies. By 1999, Iran's population had soared to seventy million--more than double the thirty-four million at the time of the revolution.
Eventually, however, the mullahs recognized the staggering costs of their dictates, and in the early nineties they launched one of the most extensive birth-control programs in the world.
Today, no one can get a marriage license in Iran without passing a family-planning course, and everything from condoms to Norplant to vasectomies is free—no questions asked about marital status.
Yet Iran is stuck with a massive demographic bulge: sixty per cent of the population is under twenty-five. With the voting age at fifteen, the revolution's second generation is transforming Iranian society—in potentially more dramatic ways than the impact of the first generation. The youth vote was the biggest single factor in President Khatami's election, and in the birth of a reform movement. Within a decade, voters under thirty will be the majority.
The revolution's successes have added to the challenge. Over the past twenty years, the Islamic Republic has produced the largest educated class of young people in Iranian history. Despite shortcomings, such as double-shift schools, literacy has shot up from fifty-eight per cent to eighty-two per cent, according to government statistics. The number of university graduates has soared from four hundred and thirty thousand to more than four million. All of them feel entitled to good jobs and material comforts.
The result is overwhelming the system. Eight hundred thousand young people are entering the job market every year—in an economy that can produce fewer than three hundred thousand jobs. This fall, a staggering seventy per cent of Iran's unemployed were between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. And those lucky enough to find employment face the prospect of a per-capita income that is only a quarter of what it was on the eve of the revolution. Not surprisingly, unrest among today's generation of students is growing.
The Office to Foster Islamic Unity, a coalition representing Iranian university students that is the descendant of Students Following the Imam's Line, has its headquarters in a rundown house on Shahid Rajab Begi Street. Shahid means "martyr," and, like everything front highways to health clinics in Iran, the street was named for a soldier killed in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, in which more than -a hundred thousand Iranian lives were lost. The office is furnished with desks, chairs, filing cabinets, and other equipment, all now somewhat worn, from the American Embassy.
"They're still quite serviceable," said Farhad, a slightly built, amiable student in his twenties who gave me a brief tour of the American inventory one afternoon this fall, and, like most students I spoke with, asked that I not use his surname. "The file cabinets are particularly good," he told me. The Embassy must have been well stocked, because the students are still using its stationery, with a bald-eagle watermark, in their copier.
The house was donated by Ayatollah Ali Fdlamenei, Khomeini's successor, in order to revive a student movement that had been dormant during the war years. In the nineties, the new Supreme Leader apparently viewed students as a way to widen his power base and keep the original vision of the revolution on course. He seems to have miscalculated.
"Students today are pressing hard for individual rights, an open press, freedom to form parties and run for office, and a civil society," Farhad explained. "We're now on the front line of the struggle for democracy These are critical times for Iran."
Last July, the worst unrest since the revolution erupted. Thousands of students, Farhad among them, started demonstrating at Teheran University after a Revolutionary Court banned a reformist newspaper, on charges of "attempting to create turmoil and instability." Over the next five days, the protests escalated into violent clashes with police and, more important to the theocrats, a humiliating public heckling of the system. "The demonstrations let people say things that they didn't dare say for twenty years," Farhad recalled, smiling with excitement. "And it was real democracy! No one was exempt from criticism."
The students even dared to taunt the Supreme Leader. An attempt to read a statement from his office was greeted by shouts of "Down with the religious dictator!" and "Commanderin-chief, resign!" By the time the trouble was over, students reported that five youths had been killed and hundreds injured. Police said that more than fourteen hundred had been arrested. Four have since been sentenced to death by Revolutionary Courts. Further trials are pending.
This fall, Iran had a bad case of the jitters when school resumed. But on the day that I visited the university's downtown campus the only rumblings were beneath the surface. Like the revolution's first generation of young activists, including many of the hostage-takers, the most politically engaged students today are engineers. They're also the most fashionable. A noticeable number at the Engineering College either were clean-shaven or had neatly trimmed mustaches and goatees.
"Everything in Iran is political," explained a senior named Mehdi, who wore a goatee and chuckled when I asked him why the young are shaving again. "Beards were the way of the revolution. Shaving is the way of the reformers. We're showing that we've moved on—and that we don't follow limitations imposed on society."
The new generation's challenge to the regime had a particular claim to legitimacy, because many of the protesters were the offspring of the original revolutionaries. Iran's higher-education system gives preference to applicants with Islamic credentials—the children of revolutionaries, civil servants, clerics, and the poor. These students don't necessarily want to abandon the Islamic system; they just want Iran to be more of a republic.
Outside the Amirabad dormitories, where the July unrest began, I met a muscular third-year premed student named Mohammad, who was wearing jeans. "1 come from a traditional religious family," he told me. "My father demonstrated during the revolution, and he worked for the government, in the Agriculture Ministry, for many years. But students on this campus are familiar with George Orwell's 'Animal Farm,' and we know revolutions don't give you everything you want. So I demonstrated in July to demand reforms. So did all my friends."
The new generation sees the challenge not from beyond Iran's borders but from within. The previous generation attacked the American Embassy; as an outpost of the Great Satan; this one feels that it is a victim of its own system. Nowhere is that more conspicuous than at the Office to Foster Islamic Unity, where I asked the students how they felt about the United States and about its critics.
"These people abuse the anti-American slogans of the past," Behrooz, a twentyfive-year-old industrial-management major with an unusually square face and a short haircut, told me. "They're hypocrites. Most of them are like everyone else. They're ready for relations with America again. America may have created some of our problems in the past. But dealing with America again is one way to get out of our problems today On different terms than before, of course—this time as equals. But if a candidate says something against America, he won't get the students' voter
ADULKARLM SOROOSH is a diminutive, almost meek, man. He speaks in a slow, deliberate whisper, and in a land of raven-haired people his most distinguishing feature is a neat, soft-brown beard. Often, just before embarking on an important point, he pulls off his wire-rimmed glasses and cleans them with a handkerchief, or pushes them up on his forehead and rubs his eyes.
"I'm just a writer and a thinker," he told me five years ago, with a self-deprecating laugh. "I'm not such an important man." Soroosh has emerged, however, as Iran's boldest contemporary philosopher, a man increasingly described, by both supporters and critics, as the Martin Luther of Islam. I visited him this fall at the Serat Institute, an adjunct of the Institute for Epistemological Research, a think tank that Soroosh directs. The Serat occupies a few small whitewashed rooms near a dusty back alley not far from Teheran University; and it publishes most of his work.
For a long time, Soroosh was one of the revolution's own. lie was born Hossein Dabbagh, in 1945. A follower of Ayatollah Khomeini from childhood—since an uncle took him to see the Imam on the day of his release from the Shah's jail, in 1963—Soroosh was horn to the kind of family that formed the revolution's backbone. His mother, Batoul, who was named after one of the Prophet's daughters, never abandoned the chador, even when the monarchy banned it. His father, a grocer, refused to buy a radio to listen to the Shah's state-controlled news. Soroosh and his three siblings grew up in the old part of Teheran, where the mud-brick homes usually had one or two large rooms, little furniture, and no bathroom. Soroosh was the first in his family to go to the university and live in the West. When he was a student in London, he visited Khomeini in Paris during the last phase of the Ayatollah's exile. After the revolution, the Imam appointed him to the Committee of the Cultural Revolution, whose purpose was to make university curriculums consistent with the teachings of Islam. Soroosh still comes under bitter criticism today from exiles and others who were purged during those years. But in the late eighties Soroosh began to view the Imam as an instrument of transition rather than as the personification of the revolution's ultimate goal.
Of the many challenges Iran's theocrats face on the revolution's twentieth anniversary; Soroosh may well represent the most profound. At a critical juncture for Iran's unique political system, he has provided a philosophical framework for reconciling Islam with democracy. In the broader Islamic world, he has helped popularize an Islamic Reformation—with repercussions as sweeping as the Christian Reformation. Soroosh's achievements may be the Islamic Republic's most enduring legacies—far more so than its theocratic form of government, which is now struggling to survive.
"There are two pillars," Soroosh once explained to me. "First, in order to be a true believer one must be free. To become a believer under pressure or coercion isn't true belief. This basic freedom to believe is also the basis of democracy. It's the seed from which all other freedoms grow."
The second pillar, he said, is based on human imperfection. "The essence of religion will always be sacred, but its interpretation by fallible human beings is not sacred—and therefore it can be criticized, modified, refined, and redefined. What single person can say what God meant? Any fixed version would effectively smother religion. It would block the rich exploration of the sacred texts. Interpretations are also influenced by the age you live in, by the conditions and mores of the era, and by other branches of knowledge. So there's no single, inflexible, infallible, or absolute interpretation of Islam for all time.” In other words, it's O.K. to alter, or even abandon, practices that have prevailed for centuries.
"Islam is organic and dynamic, and can easily be adapted to present conditions," Soroosh said, with a trace of excitement in his voice. `And Islamic law is expandable. You can't imagine the extent of its flexibility! In an Islamic democracy, you can realize all its potential."
Soroosh had originally been something of a recluse, shying away from the press and allowing other intellectuals and clergymen sympathetic to his ideas to apply them to the specifics of Iran's labyrinthine political scene. Eventually, to protect his family from sporadic physical attacks and anonymous death threats, he permanently adopted a pseudonym that he once used only for writing poetry "Soroosh" means "angel of revelation."
Today, Soroosh has a huge following among Iran's students. When we first met, he taught at three universities, and he invited me to attend one of his classes. Students acted starstruck when he showed up for a seminar at Teheran University's School of Theology: they stood in the hallway just to watch him walk to class. The theocrats have since forced him out of all three posts, but his influence has only increased. This fall, students at the Office to Foster Islamic Unity told me that they looked to two leaders as their models—President Klatami and Soroosh. Many of the reformist newspapers and magazines are published or edited by Soroosh followers. Then-agers, businessmen, and housewives pack the Wednesday-evening lectures he now gives in a private home. And in the theological center of (.29m, an hour and a half's drive from Teheran, Soroosh's work is one of the hottest topics among young clerics. His influence, Iranians tell me, has only begun to be felt.
Since the mid-nineties, Iran's clerical establishment has made Soroosh a target. In 1995, during a speech commemorating the American Embassy seizure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned, "Interpreting religion isn't something that can be carried out by just anyone. If someone confronts the clergy, he gladdens the Zionists and the Americans more than anything else… because they’ve set their heart on destruction of the clergy. Well, the Islamic system will slap these people hard in the face!"
Over the past year, however, Soroosh has become bolder, as if he senses that the Islamic Republic has reached a precipice. "This is totalitarian rule," he said to me this fall. "And they are totalitarian rulers. That is a harsh thing to say, but it's the truth. The regime can't survive the way it is."
Soroosh paused. "You know," he said a moment later, "our revolution was a haphazard, chaotic, and theoryless revolution, in the sense that it really wasn't well thought out—not by the Leader, not by the people. For the Imam, Islam was everything. He wanted everyone to topple the Shah in order to apply Islam. But he didn't elaborate on any of these points. So now it's the intellectuals' job to provide a theory for the revolution, to rethink it and to offer a new logic for it. And the outcome will be not another revolution but reform. Because—two revolutions in one generation? Well, really! It's too much!" He laughed softly.
Soroosh's most recent views have a potentially far-reaching impact on. Iran's place in the world—even on its relations with the United States. Soroosh selected the name Serat for his institute because it means "path," and he believes that there is more than one path.
"Every day, Muslims recite a prayer ten times entreating God to guide us to the right path," he explained. "Some say the only right path is Islam, and the rest stray or are on a deviant path. But I argue that there are many right paths. I try to justify a pluralistic view of religions—the internal sects of Sunni, Shia, and others, and also the great religions, like Christianity, Judaism, and the rest.
"We think they go to Hell, and they think we go to Hell," he said, a smile crossing his face, as if the idea were amusing in its smallness. "But I'm trying to say that Christians and members of other religions are well guided and good servants of God. All are equally rightful in what they believe. To some, this sounds like heresy," he said, the smile widening. "But this, too, has found listening cars in our society."