Monday, June 22, 2009

Lessons for the U.S. As Iran Unravels

By Robin Wright

Monday, Jun. 22, 2009

Who would have thought that Iran, a country that has been the nemesis of the past five American Presidents, might actually become a model for what Washington wants to see happen politically in the Middle East?

Who would have thought that a Berlin Wall moment for the region might happen in the strict Islamic republic, where a revolution 30 years ago unleashed Islam as a modern political idiom and extremism as a tool to confront the West? (See pictures of violence used as intimidation in Iran.)

Unlikely as it seems, the rise of a popular movement relying on civil disobedience to confront authoritarian rule — in the last bloc of countries to hold out against the tide of change that has swept the rest of the world over the past quarter century — is almost a diplomatic dream for the Obama Administration.

I’m not talking about the regime's obstinate reaction or the brutality it unleashed on the streets of Tehran this past weekend. Even in his terse comments since the beginning of the electoral chaos in Iran, Barack Obama has made it clear the violence upsets him greatly. But in his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo on June 4, Obama spoke about the same principles that just eight days later galvanized millions of people throughout Iran to take to the streets.

"All people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose," Obama said. (Read "Dennis Ross, Iran Adviser, Moves to White House.")

With what now looks like uncanny prescience, he added, "There is no straight line to realize this promise ... Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away."

Yet in the midst of a debate over the U.S. role in Iran — recent past, present and future — Washington can take almost no credit for what is happening. The $400 million allocated by the Bush Administration for intelligence operations and the $75 million the State Department budgeted to promote democracy in Iran had little if any impact in changing the regime's ways or empowering Iranians. Many Iranian NGOs even publicly said they did not want, need or dare to be tainted by U.S. financial assistance.

This is a revolution that has been unraveling steadily over decades, beginning in its early years. Indeed, Iran's social transformation — educating, energizing and empowering a stronger and more demanding society, part of which has now turned on the regime — may offer Washington important lessons about what does lead to change in the Islamic world.

The symbol of Iran's uprising is a young woman named Neda Agha Soltan, reportedly a philosophy student whose death during the first clashes on June 20 was gruesomely captured on an already famous cell-phone video sent round the world on YouTube. A new generation of feisty women has been at the forefront of the protests. And the female factor is at the heart of Iran's reform movement. See TIME's Pictures of the Week.

But the ruling clerics probably did not understand how it happened until it was too late. During the monarchy, many traditional families were reluctant to send their girls beyond elementary school — or to school at all — for fear of exposure to miniskirts, makeup and westernizing ways during the Shah's rapid modernization programs.

But after the 1979 upheaval, traditional families began sending girls to school — and beyond. Today, the majority of university students in Iran are female — at Tehran University, they make up 65% of the student population — and they have places in virtually every profession. Iran has even had a female Vice President. And women want a bigger say still. (See pictures of people protesting the Iran election around the world.)

The other engine of change is the boomeranging of a policy by the revolutionary regime that in 1979 called on Iran's women to breed an Islamic generation. They complied. Within a decade, Iran's population almost doubled, from 34 million to 62 million.

The theocracy soon realized that it did not have the resources to feed, educate, provide social services for and eventually employ twice the population — and the next generation of children that it in turn would produce. It was the moment the government of God plummeted to earth — because all those young people would also have the vote.

As Iran's baby boomers have grown up, the government has gradually raised the voting age – from 15 to 16, and more recently to 18. Otherwise, the young would be the only sector of society that really counts in an election. Both better educated and savvier about the world, in large part because of access to technology, many young Iranians want something more than what the system has been willing to provide — politically, economically and socially. (Read "White House on Iran Election: A Diplomatic Plus.")

In an attempt to slow the swelling demographics, in the early 1990s the regime introduced a sweeping family-planning program. It dispatched 35,000 women door-to-door to preach the benefits of limiting the number of children to two or less. It provided widespread and often free access to birth control — the Pill, condoms, IUDs, Norplant, tubal ligation and vasectomies — and made the U.N.'s World Population Day a time for clerics to preach the benefits of small families.

An innovative program also required couples to attend a graphically descriptive sex-education and family-planning class before they could get a marriage license. (I attended one class with several couples — and learned a lot.) Iran has brought down the size of the average family from more than seven children to closer to two, winning a U.N. award for family planning in the process.

The overall impact, however, of each of these issues and many others has been to shift the focus from rigid religious ideology to earthly realities, with solutions based on 21st century ideas like sustainable development — and, gradually, even shades of greater democracy.
See TIME's Pictures of the Week.
See TIME's Iran Covers.

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