Thursday, November 17, 2005
The Young Iranians (NewYorker.com)For the original story at New Yorker click here!Issue of 2005-11-21
This week in the magazine, Laura Secor writes about Iran’s new generation of dissidents and the collapse of the nation’s reformist movement. Here, with Matt Dellinger, she discusses the situation and her travels in Iran.
MATT DELLINGER: In your article, you write about how young Iranians are dealing with the collapse of the reformist movement in Iran. What brought it to an end?
LAURA SECOR: President Mohammad Khatami and the reformists accomplished a lot by working to change the system from within. The social codes loosened; the price for political dissidence is still high, but not as high as it used to be; and, perhaps most important, Iranians were emboldened to demand a more transparent and accountable government. But, ultimately, the reformists weren’t able to deliver all they had promised. They were blocked by the upper clerical establishment, which controlled the most important levers of state, and which acted to crush a lot of reformist legislation, to close about a hundred reformist newspapers, and to violently suppress student activism. So a lot of people concluded either that the elected leadership was powerless or that the reformists were weak and unreliable. That’s why very few people who’d voted for Khatami in the past voted for Mustafa Moin, his heir apparent, in June. The question that a lot of activists are now debating is whether they should focus on electoral politics, as they’ve done in the past, or whether they should withdraw from that area and concentrate instead on building networks and civic organizations outside government. The movement for democratic change in Iran is far from dead, but it has undergone a crushing setback, and it is now casting about for new methods and strategies.
You spent a lot of time with a journalist named Roozbeh Mirebrahimi. What did you learn from him?
Mirebrahimi is a young reformist blogger. Because he dared to cross a particularly dangerous and powerful figure in the judiciary, he was recently imprisoned in solitary confinement, tortured, and, after he was released, subjected to threats and harassment by the authorities. His story told me a lot about the complexity of the Iranian system, parts of which have acted to persecute him, and parts of which have acted to protect him. That’s the gritty and complicated backstory of the reform movement: it may not have produced the sweeping changes that many Iranians desired, but it created pressure points within the regime, a sort of variegation that allowed for the possibility that, when things were blackest, there was some responsible person to whom you might turn. Mirebrahimi turned to Khatami. In the short term, this brought him some peace, but Mirebrahimi’s court file is still open and he remains extremely vulnerable. Many times, I saw him defend Khatami to anyone who dared to say that the reformists had accomplished nothing. But in his own musings, both to me and on his blog, he also seemed deeply ambivalent about the outgoing President and his legacy.
How important is the Internet to political life in Iran? And is it an open medium, or is it censored?
It’s really important. There are tens of thousands of blogs in Iran. Most of them aren’t political in the conventional sense; but writing frankly about private life in Iran is necessarily political, and many of the bloggers do that. The regime is scrambling to censor the Internet, but it can’t quite keep up. The authorities do block a lot of Web sites by using filtering technology—they seem to be most successful in blocking pornography, though they filter political sites, too—but many Iranian bloggers have found ways to keep their sites up.
You also spoke with Mirebrahimi’s wife. She is a journalist in her own right and openly defies tradition—she proposed to him, for instance. She certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of draped, suppressed Iranian women that many Americans still have. Did you meet many women like her?
I met a lot of women who defied tradition in Iran, though they didn’t all do it in the same ways. Interestingly, by the way, Iranian universities graduate more women than men, and there are women in nearly all the professions. Iranian laws may be discriminatory, but the country has a large population of educated, sophisticated women who are far from passive or compliant.
The security forces in Iran are controlled by religious authorities rather than by elected officials. Where does the balance of power lie? With the politicians or with the mullahs?
Well, to be fair, some politicians are mullahs and some mullahs are politicians, so that’s not a real distinction. But there are two governments—one elected, the other appointed by a clerical overseer. The elected government, as one reformist cleric put it to me, probably holds about ten per cent of the government’s power. The rest belongs to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the bodies that answer to him.
What do the dissidents want? To overthrow the government? Or are there specific, more modest reforms that they seek?
Iran had a revolution pretty recently, followed by the traumas of war and dictatorship. As badly as many people want change, very few are inclined to put their lives and their country’s fundamental stability on the line for it. That said, there are dissidents who flatly say that the system has to go, and that it should be replaced by a constitution based not on Islamic law but on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A lot of people would probably agree with that as a long-term goal. The question is how to get there, in a country where even taking that position openly is exceedingly dangerous. There is a real distinction to be made between democracy activists and reformists. The reformists are dissidents who reject radical postures. They do not seek to overthrow the government. They are a loyal opposition that uses legal means, and the instruments of the constitution that is already in place, to improve the government bit by bit. They are attempting to move the country incrementally toward a more tolerant vision of Islamic law, more responsive government, and greater respect for rights and freedoms. Most of the country’s activists are proceeding in this way, even though now many are shifting their emphasis from the political sphere to nongovernmental organizations that support human rights and social justice. If the reformist project were eventually to succeed, Iran would become a real pathbreaker in the Islamic world.
When Arash, the young man you met at the Jaam-e Jam food court, in Tehran, heard that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the election, he told you, “Everything is finished.” Why was it such a blow to him?
Many Iranians have powerful memories of the era before Khatami’s Presidency. They remember being harassed on the streets by the Basij, the Islamic militia, which would stop cars and search for illegal music or pictures of uncovered women, or just for unrelated men and women fraternizing with one another. People were whipped or beaten for these and other “moral” crimes. Many Iranians, including Arash, really fear that under Ahmadinejad, who has roots in the Basij, these bad old days will return. So far, there has not been much sign of that. But Ahmadinejad’s victory has led many to worry that what little breathing room Iranians had under Khatami could now disappear at any moment. Arash also feared that the new President would further isolate Iran and make it even more uncomfortable for people like him either to travel abroad or to have contact with foreigners within Iran.
Who is more threatening to the government: the apolitical, culturally rebellious young person, like Arash, who rejects the entire political system, or someone like Mirebrahimi, who is more willing to engage it?
The regime has answered that question for us. Mirebrahimi dared to speak the truth when others around him were too intimidated to do so. His deepest commitment is to his country and its future. And the regime has gone to terrible lengths to silence him. The Islamic Republic does not hold that many political prisoners; instead it makes examples of a few people, like Mirebrahimi, in order to convince others that the price of courage is just too high. This is a regime that seems threatened by engagement, not by apathy.
You write that while you were interviewing one student activist in a café, the two of you were watched by men who made little effort to hide their purpose. What was it like to travel and report in Iran? How conscious were you of incidents like that?
I had only one other incident like that one, and that was at a cultural center in the south of Tehran, where I was interviewing conservative young women about the election. Someone tried to confiscate my notes. Iran is a difficult place to work. It’s hard for American journalists to get visas—the one I got expired every few days, and constantly renewing it became a real distraction. To supply the visa, translator, and accreditation, many journalists rely on agencies, and these agencies are required to file reports on our movements with the intelligence ministry. American passport-holders are of particular interest. I decided it was best, under those circumstances, to do everything openly. I met with a lot of former political prisoners and people who were under surveillance. The agency knew I was doing this—I sent them a list of interview subjects before I arrived in Tehran. Nobody stopped me. In Iran you can go for long stretches forgetting that you’re not in a free country. Many people spoke strongly and openly with me, even on the streets. And then every once in a while something unpleasant happens to remind you that people are being controlled and that the stakes are high. As a foreigner, the concern is not for one’s own safety—the terrible story of Zahra Kazemi notwithstanding, foreign journalists are not at particular risk in Iran—but for the privacy and safety of those you work with and speak with. I’m still worried about that.
In Iran today, there are elections, and protesters gather openly—the oppression there is real, but not total. One Iranian told you, “We have freedom of expression. We just don’t have freedom after expression.” Do you think that this contradiction can persist?
It has persisted for a long time already. And, in some respects, that contradiction has provided a sort of uncomfortable but durable equilibrium. The question now is whether Ahmadinejad’s government will upset that equilibrium, and, if so, how the people will react. If the few open spaces now close, the country could be greatly destabilized. That’s why a lot of analysts suspect that one of three things will happen. Perhaps Ahmadinejad won’t roll back the reformists’ gains in social and political freedom—he’ll just freeze the situation as it is. Or maybe he’ll clamp down on political freedoms, which affect activists far more than they do ordinary people, but either leave social freedoms alone or tighten the screws on them very slowly. The final possibility, which isn’t incompatible with the first two, is that even if Ahmadinejad tries to roll back the reforms, Khamenei, who is more pragmatic than he is, will stop him.