KlinKlin, 4 November 2022
For understandable reasons*, foreign discourse towards Iran is often reduced to the omnipotent role of religion in the country. Everything there is done in the name of Islam. Mandatory hijab – Islam. Arms supplies to Hezbollah – Islam. Arrests of critics – Islam.
It’s as if the lives of 80 million people are being instructed on a minute-by-minute basis by what the Prophet Mohammed would say about your breakfast muesli. Or Imam Ali’s opinion on the advantages of Iranian cars over Japanese ones.
This leads to absurd notions and questions – do they have indoor toilets in Iran? Do they allow women to study? Are Iranians Arabs? Are fizzy drinks and chocolates banned?
Specifically about the latter, even the locals themselves joke. Iranians don’t just consume Coca-Cola and Fanta – they produce them. And the reason for this is that Ayatollah Khamenei is a great admirer of the carbonated drink – a symbol of Western capitalism, the Iranians claim with a smile. It remains to be seen whether this is true, but it is a fact that 250 ml bottles of the refreshing American drinks are very popular everywhere in the country, as are their Iranian clones under the name ‘Zam-Zam’.
Religion as a shield
Mystification is a somewhat desired effect by the authorities, who prefer everything in the country to be done in the dark, away from the spotlight of international law and public opinion. It is even good for them that they are often underestimated culturally and economically as well as militarily.
In cases where they do have to justify their actions and decisions (both internally and externally) the authorities are more than happy to turn to religion or national security. And the two are intertwined since the Supreme Leader is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Guard.
For this, the protests have been officially branded as organized and sponsored by the West, which is trying to destroy the Islamic Republic as a state. Which in turn legitimises the use of extraordinary force, including lethal force, against civilians. Whether a protest is about water, food, money, electoral machinations or human rights, it is always labelled immoral and un-Muslim, and a threat to national security.
It is obvious to most Iranians, however, that the current protests are clearly unrelated to Washington and Tel Aviv, although they are welcome to both countries.
However, this has led Tehran to resort to more inventive measures. On 26 October, a terrorist attack was carried out at the Shah Cheragh mausoleum in Shiraz, killing 15 people. The attack was the work of a man armed with an assault rifle, who was captured alive by the police and personally declared himself to be a supporter of the Islamic State.
The government made a misguided attempt to link the protests to the attack, but the reaction of even its most hardened supporters was one of polite bemusement. The authorities quickly steeled themselves and tried to shift the public discourse in the direction of the tragedy, but without much success. What’s more, it all looks very suspicious…
I arrived in Shiraz the day after the attack and found a city where no small number of residents were convinced that it had either been orchestrated by the government or that the authorities had deliberately allowed it to happen.
Locals made a connection between the Shiraz attack and the 1994 bombing at the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad. Then the authorities again blamed an opponent (in this case an ethnic minority) and used the pretext to quell the riots with blood. In 1999, however, the country’s former interior minister, Abdolah Nouri, told the court that the attack was in fact staged by the government.
Although there is now no evidence of this, Tehran was quick to take advantage of the situation, and hours after the attack, rather professionally made posters were put up in many places in the capital and other major cities in tribute to the dead.
“When did they have time to react, do the graphic design, print them and put them up,” wondered one of my interlocutors. “But notice the more than 300 protesters killed by police – you won’t see a single poster. You won’t hear a word of regret. Not a single service will be organized,” fumed Bahar, 27, with whom I spoke at a café in the capital’s Tajrish Square.
The other question is how did the shooter get past the metal detector and the police at the temple? How come the perpetrator surrendered to the uniformed? When I visited the spot, a memorial service was being held for the dead. There were 5 bloodied chadors**, which the victims were wearing at the time of the shooting, spread between the pillars of the temple.
A complete lack of trust
The country’s authorities have so discredited themselves to their population that most of them do not believe a word uttered by the president or the ayatollah. And not a few people are even prepared to believe that their own government was behind the terrorist attack. After all, it has killed a far greater number of innocent people in recent weeks than those who died in the Shiraz attack.
The turnout proves the serious rift in society: a record low 49% of voters cast ballots in the 2021 presidential election. Of that, a full 13% was a protest vote. Again, a record in the country’s history. On top of that, there were more protest ballots than ballots for the candidate who came in second.
“Why vote? It doesn’t make sense. Candidates go through the approval of the senior clergy and the Ayatollah, who can directly ban someone from running for election on… religious grounds. We are then forced to vote in a completely rigged election with a foregone conclusion. It is absurd,” Bahar said.
He and millions of other Iranians dream of emigrating and never returning to their homeland. And that is one of the real problems facing Iran, and one that poses a real threat to national security. The brain drain.
According to Stanford, over 3.1 million Iranians have left the country in recent decades. It may not seem like much in a population of 80 million, but the key is in the type of people who leave. Due to the extreme difficulty in issuing visas, in 99% of cases it is the most highly qualified doctors, scientists, engineers.
By rough estimates, scientists of Iranian descent alone number over 110,000 worldwide, equivalent to over 1/3 of the number of people engaged in science in Iran itself. The damage to Iran’s economy, science and society from the brain drain is incalculable. If we talk only about money, they are measured in tens of billions of dollars.
However, the cities and the television stations are full of advertisements for companies that help with visas and resettlement in Canada or the States, less so in Europe.
The state as enemy
“Yes, I want to leave. This is just not tolerated. Do you realise how much the government is damaging my work and life and millions of other Iranians with every action,” angrily spoke Daria, 35, from Isfahan, who works in international trade and tourism.
“The downing of the Ukrainian airliner in 2020, the protests in the country, the terrorist attack, the international sanctions – all of this harms me and my work. No one wants to even set foot near us, let alone do business. Will anyone pay me for the lost opportunities and damage suffered as a result of the government’s actions? No!
Living here is like running in the woods in total darkness. You can’t see if there is a tree 2 or 200 metres away that you are going to hit. And this uncertainty is the worst of all. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, if you’re going to get arrested, if new protests are going to break out, a new war… That camera you’re carrying, let’s say it costs 1 million tuman*** today. In 2 weeks it might be worth 2 million. In another 3 weeks it might be half a million. How do you live like that? How do you make plans for the future?
Why can I have a higher standard of living in my home country than most people in India, for example, but be nothing outside my country? Our currency is worthless, our passport is worthless. And the government is to blame for all this. Why do I watch with envy on Instagram my friends from poorer countries and families travel the world – and I can’t? How am I inferior and undeserving?
I feel like I’m in a cage. And the name of the cage is Iran,” Daria cries.
Children of generals – abroad
This, however, applies only to the “commoners”. The children of wealthy Iranians, ayatollahs and generals of the army and Revolutionary Guards – travel and live abroad en masse.
“If Europe and America are your enemy – they should be your children’s enemy too,” Daria says indignantly, adding, “I turn to Western governments because mine doesn’t care at all. Please take the sanctions off. They only harm ordinary people. The people suffer while the elite live in luxury and are not affected in any way by the sanctions. Please take them down. I want to have a better life, I want to leave. Because here and now, I do not live. I just exist.”
Herein lies the answer to why Iranians are protesting so hard and the authorities are crushing demonstrations so violently. Because it is a matter of life and death. For one and for the other.
God wants me to be rich
According to unofficial figures, about 50% of the country’s economy is in the hands of the Revolutionary Guard. Tehran and other regional cities are filled with brand new luxury skyscrapers built with Guard money.
The oil and gas companies, with profits totalling more than $30 billion a year, are also under state control, as are most factories and industries, telecoms and large companies – with direct or indirect involvement of the Revolutionary Guards.
At the same time, millions of Iranians do not have access to drinking water and sometimes any water at all because of climate change. A problem that the government seems to be studiously ignoring. And which, within the next few years, is likely to lead to an unprecedented wave of protests that could actually lead to regime change. Let’s not forget that it was the drought and inadequate response of the Bashar al-Assad regime that played a major role in starting the Syrian civil war in 2011.
However, the enormous corruption reaching to the highest levels of power squeezes out any financial opportunity to improve the situation, crushing or expelling most talent because it knows that if the country lightens up, it will end up in jail. And from there the protests erupt: for human rights, for water, for economic inequality, for corruption, for violence, for equal opportunities.
This can best be understood in the lyrics of “Baraye Azadi,” the anthem of the protests that the authorities have banned from being sung in the street. That doesn’t stop thousands of men and women shouting it from their cars or playing it from their balconies every night.
Regardless of the government, Iranians are one of the world’s most intelligent, educated, cultured, peaceful, tolerant and fighting nations…
*Mostly lack of financial resources to maintain a stable international portfolio, but not only.
**Muslim female garment covering the entire body and hair. The word literally translates as “tent”.
***Touman is the national currency of Iran, although the rial is also an official currency. Due to hyper inflation and the desire to separate from the “Arabness” in the rial, the government introduced the tuman as an alternative currency, 1 million rials equals 100,000 tuman.
Photo: The Pink Mosque of Nasir-ol-Molk in Shiraz (source: KlinKlin)