Is Iran under Rouhani a totalitarian state?

 A traveller’s impressions at Now Ruz

This is the question I decided to weave into my conversations with many of the people I met in this last month spent in Iran.In English, in French, in German even in tentative Persian aided by a Lonely Planet phrase book and reminiscences of what I have picked up across the years in Afghanistan

The proponents of the tedious Axis of Evil trope would have a quick answer to that one. fuelled by the country’s own selbstbdarstellung, where absurdity and arbitrary contradiction abound. But there is so much more to consider, especially as the new president Hassan Rouhani elected in June 2013 wants to be seen as a forward-looking moderate- even though the terms of his purported modernity remain to be defined.

35 years have elapsed since the revolution that ousted the Shah and put an authoritarian theocracy in place. But does this make it the equivalent of the USSR, 35 years after 1917, in 1952? It could be said that what started, in both cases as broadly based opposition to an absolutist monarchy which united a vast array of opponents (including part of the secular left in Iran, not forgetting philosopher Michel Foucault in France) rapidly turned into an autocratic power-grab, characterized by mass repression and censorship, legitimated by an orthodox creed that did not admit dissent.

In the same lapse of time, both countries went through a long and bloody war – something the West frequently underestimates when it comes to taking in account the Iran-Irak war which in a recent study has been compared to World War One in terms of impact on the Iranian society. 35 years on, the image of the leader was and remains omnipresent in urban imagery, Stalin with Lenin as his mentor beyond the grave, Khamenei flanked by the tutelary Khomenei appear on billboards, city walls as the officially ruling deities, much as bell towers of churches dot the European Western landscape, eliciting equal indifference from those driving by.

Militant dissension constitutes a crime which continues to land militants in jail in Iran where active security forces exert continuous pressure, if not NKVD/KGB style terror. Here, however, negotiation is often possible, in fact in every field, not according to any kind of obvious logic, but a cross between strategy, luck and a sense of morbid absurdity. Remember, the Persians are said to have invented chess. On a lighter note, both countries cultivate whole repertoires of political jokes, drink tea all day from samovars on the permanent boil and dream of a much idealized West and most important, do not buy the dominant propaganda. Religion has been woven into the fabric of society, much as socialist values once were part of Russian reality, but neither entail automatic acceptance of party politics. Even more than the Russians, the Iranians are the kindest, friendliest, most hospitable hosts you can ever dream of. And every single subject of conversation is up for debate….

And there is more. This is not the USSR, in many ways it is quite the opposite. For a start, gender equality has been enshrined in the Soviet constitution, just as gender inequality is at the foundation  of the Islamic republic’s ethos.  In Iran a peculiar brand of populism in lieu of efficient social (socialist) measures or job creation has always served to buy national consent, especially under Ahmadinejad, the previous and much contested leader. There are cash hand-outs, subsidies for goods such as bread and sugar designed to humour the poorest, who nevertheless are acutely experiencing the effects of spiralling inflation. Petrol continues to be incredibly cheap, and as a result Tehran has become one of the world’s most polluted cities, akin to Chinese cities, with bewildering consequences on urban health, affecting particularly children and the elderly. Urban camping, which hitherto has not attracted much attention, constitutes an emblematic example of maximal governmental short-sightedness which I was able to witness as I was in Iran for the great national holiday season, Now Ruz.

Holidays have been decreed a national—indeed natural—right. The Front Populaire in France instituted the same in 1936. Well and good, but nothing has been planned to facilitate this in the least. Hundreds of thousands tents sprout all over the country, invading hundreds of miles of pavements along highways, parking lots, parks, gardens, even atop national monuments. Imagine the Eiffel Tower with myriads of tents and washing hung on the lower rungs, with the ubiquitous smell of stew being cooked on portable camping gas in the midst of mounds of litter. There are little or no facilities, save a temporary mosque and an adjoining latrine in the best of cases. No municipal authorities intervene, the police is invisible, deeming that no-one is breaking any law, yet emergency rooms overflow. Half of the country is turned into a cross between a refugee camp and a giant favela. On the blissful island of Gheshm on the Persian Gulf, no-one seems to be particularly interested in the magnificent beaches, especially as women have to paddle fully dressed in manto and headscarf. (Note: the one thing you don’t need, as a female, is a swimsuit if you venture to the seaside in Iran) Here the attractions are the duty-free shopping malls which sell alluring American style goods (including much ioved Gap, in fact a Hong-Kong rip-off where only the bags with their white on blue logo bear a vague resemblance with the original).

In the last years of the Ahmadinejad regime and continuing until today, or so I am told, some kind of unbridled, anarchic capitalism seems to be guiding the national economy. According to those I spoke to, the much vaunted privatisation policies have turned into the discount-price sale of national resources and industry to a generation of potential oligarchs close to the government, including, informed rumour has it, its highest echelons. With sheer poverty and unemployement on the rise (especially for the new generation of highly educated young women) Rouhani will need a lot more to save the republic and the Islamic revolution from keeling over.

The lack of coherent economic and social policies is proving to be more irritating for the young generation attempting (often unsuccessfully) to enter the workplace than the repression which their elders who were students at the time of the revolution found so unbearable. As if deeply entrenched gender inequality, the horrific weight of the religion-based judiciary, not to mention the total lack of town planning, including nightmarish pollution had been naturalized. Imaginatively circumventing obstacles (rather than fully frontal confrontation) is a national sport. Thus the scarf may be mandatory, but as retaliation, in the cities, women pile on vast quantities of make-up, donning fierce eyebrows and dyeing their hair even in old age. The face has turned into politicised territory with its own codes, something I am presently exploring. These days, in Tehran at least, it seems that the special police brigade who used to  chide or arrest female ‘offenders’ against Islamic propriety have calmed down, compared to the previous era. After all, piling on foundation and powder are not the same as  storming the Baharestan…

The clamping down of internet and the ban on Facebook seem to be far more frustrating than any other restriction for the young, even though any 15 year old will show you how to install an anti-filter to help you get round these inconveniences. Has the much revered spiritual leader himself. Ali Khamenei resorted to the help of one of his own grandchildren to get himself on Facebook ? Because, believe it or not, the Supreme Guide has his own page there with only 936 “friends”. If these happen to be Iranians, they are breaking the law by « liking » their hero and could, theoretically, go to jail…

Amongst his election promises, Rouhani has vowed to liberalize access to the media, but the four million Iranians on Facebook (plus Twitter and Instagram) are not holding their breath, indifferent to the government’s views on such matters and considering them namely as a nuisance rather than an infringement of their rights, a very loose notion, in the best of cases. Therein lies part of the problem: the spread of middle-class apathy, same as the rest of the Western world, ready to accommodate with a system as long their own resources allow them to get the consumer goods they desire on which the embargo does not have the slightest effect. Be it Coca-Cola, made in Iran under license, burgers, pizzas,local version KFC, Starbucks  or everything else via Dubai, British TV show Downton Abbey, (courtesy ‘Manoto’ the BBC Persian programmes), Turkish serials or sexy video-clips via Voice of America. Not to mention alcohol which as available as it was during Prohibition in the US, minus Al Capone. I don’t know if anyone  ever watches the state channels, except for football, hotly debated in serious talk shows afterwards. This new access to the offerings of the global marketplace is rapidly dulling political conscience, especially amongst the young middle-classes .One person I know spends hours on not that she can order anything, but just to dream about what she would like to own. At a Now Ruz party, I met a 17 year old boy who told me that when he finished university he planned to sell second-hand American cars. When I commented on  the consequences on environment, he shrugged his shoulders, mumbling that there was nothing he could do about it anyway … I will not repeat here the lecture I promptly inflicted on the hapless youth, who I have to say, seemed pleased, at the end, to find out about biogas and other alternatives which he promptly looked up on his Smartphone…..

No indeed, the government has skilfully manœuvred to escape any accusation of totalitarianism by discreetly feeding the middle-class public what it appears to want, from practically free petrol to home-grown Pepsi. By pandering to the consumerist ethic, Rouhani is grooming himself to be the West’s best ally, closer to the US than he or anyone else may care to admit. But at the cost of the country’s future, in the terms of true growth, civil rights and  at the price of sacrificing the country’s spectacular natural and cultural environment.

PS. Having said all that, it has to be said that there is another side, not visible at the first glance. In this country which boasts an ancient and still vivid culture, poetry remains a popular art, poets get published (something which  rarely happens in the West), people know their Rumi, their Ferdozi by heart. Hafez’s tomb in Chiraz is a veritable shrine where I saw young women shrouded in black tchadors actually praying. The most hip young people are refusing pop media and are learning classical Iranian music, play the ney and the tar. These were the ones who went on mass demonstrations for civil rights and social justice and joined the green movement against the Ahmadinejad regime in 2009—or otherwise  are their younger siblings. Many were and remain jailed and Rouhani, from time to time, as a token gesture to the West, releases one of them. This thinking minority may no longer be as vocal as five years ago – for the moment – but the best future of that extraordinary country, if the West allows it to happen, rests with them….



5 Responses to “Is Iran under Rouhani a totalitarian state? A traveller’s impressions at Now Ruz”

  1. on 13 Avr 2014 at 1:45 Evelyne Accad

    Great piece dear Carol, what an experience!!
    I laughed about all the make-up the women put on their faces when they veil, it is interesting when you said it is kind of a revenge, and it is indeed cause many men in Lebanon tell me it adds to the seduction of women!!!
    I love all the contradictions and analysis you did and would like to post it on my Facebook page if I may!!

  2. on 14 Avr 2014 at 3:56 Tom Leighton

    Very interesting piece. I was surprised that I was not surprised. Funny how despite or in spite of the media, we can manage to get an idea of the reality on the ground. The make-up and crazy outfits of young Iranian women have hit The Guardian and other outlets. It’s easy to extrapolate from there. I also get the gay rights slant, which still remains nightmarish. I’m old enough though to remember when things in our societies were not so lovely either and being yourself was illegal (though never a capital crime: I ain’t THAT old). I can imagine there is a gay underground of home parties, etc. Now that I think of it: quite telling somehow how women and gays are the prime objects of repression in these totalitarian societies… I did, in my heart of heart, often think and feel that women’s rights and gay rights went hand in hand. Patriarchy as common enemy? Hmmm.

    Good to hear that the young are keen on preserving the ancient culture, despite lusting after faux KFC and worse. Every time, though, that I walk by a McDonalds here, I glance inside and try to imagine what sort of person it is who loves that junk. These places are always jumping. And yet I know no one of any age in my entourage who would ever eat in one.

    To me one of the startling elements in your piece was that infiltration of the faux Western. Not just how, but why? Why? There they are longing for a global society that we are now seeing as having been hijacked by a greedy pack of plutocrats and oligarchs. I suppose that factor is the last thing an Iranian thinks about.

  3. on 05 Mai 2014 at 3:27 naomi

    What a thoughtful post. And it’s consistent with what I saw and heard when I was in Iran last OCtober. Many thanks, Carol.

  4. on 12 Mai 2014 at 8:57 Zulema


    Carol Mann » Is Iran under Rouhani a totalitarian state? A traveller’s impressions at Now Ruz

  5. on 15 Mai 2014 at 10:51 jorge

    Hola Carol!
    Interesantes reflexiones de carácter político y social que describen la realidad de sociedades complejas, difíciles de comprender a través de preceptos occidentales, donde particularmente la mujer resulta estar muy a la zaga del hombre y donde la capacidad de reflexión colectiva resulta diametralmente distinta de la que poseemos nosotros.
    Te felicito por tu blog. En tu breve visita por Bs.As., advertí un espíritu muy inquieto (diría juvenil), impetuoso y por sobretodo caracterizado por una capacidad de observación fenomenal