NEW HOPE FOR IRAN
by Michael Hammerschlag – June 97
Iran's overwhelming election -69% in an 88% turnout- of liberal cleric Khatami is a sign the era of the totalitarian Islamic extremists may be close to an end. It has been a costly tragic experiment for the long-suffering Iranians- Khomeini, despite his millions of supporters, was simply a monster- for 6 years after a settlement could have been reached in the 8 year war with Iraq, he sent hundreds of thousands of children into machine guns in human wave attacks for "the glory of Allah" (750,000 died). The Iranian obsession with death, sacrifice, and martyrdom; incomprehensible to Americans, stems from Shia worship of Caliph Ali and his son Hussein, who, opposing the corruption and immorality of the Damascus Caliph, was slaughtered with 72 women and children by thousands of Sunni troops in 680 AD in a town south of Baghdad; and the terrible butchery of the Mongols, who 3 times in the 1200's and 1300's annihilated 90+% of the Persian people- it took until 1950 before they regained the numbers they had in 1200.
From the beginning, Iranians, even the clerics were far more divided over the Islamic takeover than Americans were ever led to believe. A full scale 18 month civil war in 1981-2 saw 1000 government officials including president, prime minister, ayatollah, ministers, members of parliament, clerics, and police assassinated by bomb and gun. In the savage retribution, thousands were executed including spokesman Ghotbzadeh, Khomeini encouraging parents "to turn in children for execution". 98% of the Moslem clergy are not part of the Islamic government: deeply divided over the corrupting influence of a theocracy, they were only controlled by rebuke, ridicule, intimidation, censorship, and arrest by the extremists. Over 80 exiles in foreign countries, like former Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar, were murdered by Iranian hit squads. The Shah, portrayed only as an illegitimate American creation, was actually (with his father) the first real Persian king in 1300 years in the world's oldest monarchy (2500 years)- destroyed by the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Encouraging childbirth to provide soldiers for the worldwide Islamic revolution, Iran has exploded from 36 million in '79 to 65 million now- it is a country of children: 40% under 14, 50% under 18, and 70% under 25 (voting age is 15). They are sick of the religious and cultural oppression that swathes women from head to toe in black robes in searing desert heat, that sponsors vigilante groups to break into homes and arrest people for alcohol or foreign videos and obsessively prevents any male-female contact, that strictly segregates women from men in every part of society. Colleges, closed for 2 1/2 years to purge Western ideas and teachers, are Islamicly sterile. Candidates for office (only 4 out of 238 for President) must be "permitted" by the Council of Guardians. The Islamic Government has imprisoned and executed far more people than the Shah and SAVAK (over 100 executed in 1996), claimed former Khomeini heir Ayatollah Montazeri till he was disinherited.
Corruption is rampant- every government service requires bribes, and the immense wealth and property confiscated from the rich- $12 billion and 700 nationalized companies reside in the "Foundation for the Oppressed" for the exclusive pleasure of the government clergy and friends (run by Khomeini’s former chauffeur/bodyguard). Government friends can draw dollars from the Central Bank at a 50% discount off market rates. Defeated Nateq-Nouri owns 4 houses, Rafsanjani owns a Mitsubishi plant and controls the pistachio market, and Khomeini's late son Ahmed was reputed to be the richest man in the country. Such brazen wealth and corruption conflicts with the piety and simplicity of Shiaism and disgusts the non-connected clergy and populace. Meanwhile, personal incomes have dropped 45% since the Revolution, inflation is 30%/yr, and most Iranians must work 3 jobs to scrape by.
It's hard to see how the mild-mannered Khatami can accomplish liberalization that tough and crafty Rafsanjani couldn't, but Khatami has the legitimacy of being a major cleric and Shia Islam has always had a strong democratic tradition, the rulers, deriving their authority from their faithful, have followed as much as led their devotees. If the dictators honor this tradition, they will retreat after the overwhelming 3 to 1 rejection at the polls, although 70% of the conservative Majlis (parliament) supported Nateq-Nouri and Supreme Jurist Ali Khamenei has held firm in his hatred and rejection of America. In a bellwether test of strength, Khatami promises to limit the marginalization of women, maybe by appointing Rafsanjani's daughter to a high post.
For America, seared by the hostage travesty, horrified by worldwide émigré assassinations and the murders of hundreds of foreigners in Algeria and Egypt by Islamic Fundamentalists; enraged at the 350-odd bombing deaths of American diplomats and Marines in '83 and Army in '96, '93 World Trade Center bombing, '88 Pan Am 103 bombing; alarmed at Iranian missile, submarine, and nuclear plant purchases from China and Russia... no thaw is possible. For Khatami, it's also impossible for now- he must prove his toughness on America to hard-liners. Eventually it must come from Iran, perhaps in canceling Khomeini's $2 million murder contract on author Salman Rushdie. A 1995 total US embargo on Iran should be maintained, unless they give up their quest for nuclear weapons (thrilled by NATO expansion, Russia is going ahead with sale of a nuclear power plant to Iran)- they're still the only nation that might use them against us.
Iran has a magnificent history- ancient Persia spanned the civilized Western World for 220 years, the Parthians and Sassanians were the only empire (800 years long) to resist and defeat Roman Legions, and Zoroastrianism provided the basis for Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faiths- incorporating principles of justice and rule by consent of the ruled. This rich Persian culture and open, imitative character, denied and oppressed by the Islamic dictators, is likely to come bouncing back.
Michael Hammerschlag wrote for Moscow News, Tribune, + Guardian while in Russia from 1991-4, and previously for Providence Journal, Seattle Times, and Columbia Journalism Review.