The revolution that brought to power a new regime and a new polity also left its profound imprint on Iran’s society, economy, and culture. By the end of the first decade of the revolution, the privileged upper and middle classes of the Pahlavi era had been forced out of the political process and gradually replaced in the economic sector as well. Hundreds of thousands of people were purged from the workforce or retired early or lost access to sources of power and capital. Even those who remained relatively untouched by the first wave of the revolution had to refashion their economic resources and lifestyle and try, often unsuccessfully, to renegotiate with the regime control over their wealth and businesses. They were admittedly a thin layer in Iranian society of the 1970s and 1980s but vital because of their predominance in the educational, economic, and technocratic structures of the Pahlavi era. Hundreds of thousands immigrated to North America, Western Europe, and Australia to start new lives.
In place of the old elite, the new regime relied primarily on “traditional” middle and lower-middle classes loyal to the revolution. They were mostly from families of religious orientation (mazhabi) with clerical or bazaar backgrounds, especially small retailers, and first- and second-generation rural migrants in Tehran and the provincial centers. Gradually, more were recruited or rose in the ranks from smaller towns and villages or from urban working classes or low-income government families. They were educated in state schools, including a large number of the middle-aged clergy (who had modern schooling before entering the madrasa or concurrent with their howzeh education). Some members of the older middle classes survived as government employees and carried on with their official duties but never at the helm. There was also a smaller group of “born-again” Islamists, who remained in government service, though were never fully trusted by the regime or given sensitive posts, at least not public ones. The extensive purges and the climate of terror throughout the 1980s put many member of the middle classes out of government employment and drove them to the private sector.
The new state elite in the main belonged to a network that Khomeini and his associates had managed to foster in the 1960s and 1970s while he was in exile. Crucial to their rise was the agility of the new social classes that propelled them forward, their rapid learning curve, and their sense of group solidarity, soon rewarded with high offices and in due course economic privileges. At the pinnacle of the new hierarchy were the Khomeinist clergy and the laymen close to them. Though a relatively tiny and often quarrelling group, they were conscious of their power and determined to preserve it. They held high offices such as speaker of the Majles, head of the judiciary, head of the security, judges in the revolutionary courts, Imam Jum’as of the major provincial centers, clerical members of the Guardian Council, representatives of Khomeini in the military and security forces, in economic and educational institutions and various lucrative subsidiaries of the state-run foundations. The lower ranks of the hierarchical structure, manned by a mix of trusted laymen and clergy, held technocratic and bureaucratic posts, including oversight of second-tier ministries, banks and financial institutions, and provincial governorships, and army officers and Revolutionary Guard chiefs heading the armed forces. The deputies of the Islamic Majles constituted a category of their own. Some deputies had formerly served in government, in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and in government-owned concerns. Others were Islamic activists from lower-income neighborhoods in larger cities or from small towns who had climbed up the political ladder because of their credentials as war veterans or as clients of an influential Khomeinist in their constituency.
A privileged group in the new elite, though often behind-the-curtain, included the children and close relatives of the ayatollahs, who, as ultimate “insiders,” stood to reap vast political and economic benefits. Referred to, somewhat sarcastically, as aqazadehs (offspring of [clerical] masters), these were characteristically laymen with modicum of education who came to overseeing the “house” (bayt; i.e., the bureau) of their fathers or fathers-in-law; a role equivalent, perhaps, to a chief of staff. Management, predictably, involved a wide and often lucrative range of activities from facilitating deals, lobbying, and influence peddling to investment and financial management of religious texts, endowments, and acquired wealth and properties (more likely confiscated); activities that their direct supervision were incongruent with an ayatollah’s public image as man of God detached from worldly affairs. The monopoly of important offices by some clergy, as if they had lifetime appointments, further empowered aqazadehs as the aging ayatollahs heavily relied on their advice and influence.
Competing with the aqazadeh elite for privilege and power were the newcomers who earned their insider status through revolutionary credentials. Mostly from urban working classes and rural origins, they were veterans of the Iraq-Iran War who often served as commanders of Revolutionary Guard and basij units, or revolutionaries in the formative years of the revolution who proved their radical merits and their loyalty to the regime. It was this class of war veterans, former revolutionaries, and family of the martyrs that provided a human reservoir for the Islamic Republic’s expanding bureaucracy and, to lesser extent, to replenish its leadership ranks. To be a successful candidate, one had to, above all, display Islamic “commitment” (ta‘ahud): zealous loyalty to the leadership and its political objectives. Only a smaller percentage from this group felt obliged to acquire a level of “expertise” (takhassos), as the postrevolutionary jargon had it, through some form of university education. From the late 1980s, the Islamic Republic established quotas for the higher education of the war veterans, which in practice allowed them, and relatives of the martyrs, to enter universities with academic aptitude significantly less than accepted standards. Even postrevolutionary Iranian society remained deferential toward university titles, which in turn heightened the urge for doctoral and engineering degrees, at times irrespective of any rigorous training.
Yet despite the regime’s success in building a new elite with an exclusionary mind-set, it was not as successful in creating a totalitarian state on the classical model. In part, one may attribute this to the inherent complexity of the new elite, particularly the political maneuverability of the clergy, their shifting bonds, and their skills in rhetorical juxtaposition, all of which they honed in the madrasas of Qom, with its complex pedagogic practices and clerical politics. They projected this “Qomified” political culture into the higher echelons of the state machinery and with predictable outcomes—a sustained internal rivalry, even chaos, within the inner circles and between offices over tutelage, while also professing loyalty to the guardian jurists and the core ideologies of the regime. The dangerous challenges to the very survival of the Islamic Republic during the formative years of the revolution no doubt helped solidify bonds of loyalty and means of defiance. The inner complexity of the regime, and its drive toward hegemony, required more time beyond Khomeini’s era. Decades after his demise the regime witnessed tension, primarily within its own ranks, between the hard-liners, steadfast in their support for the Supreme Leader, ‘Ali Khamenei, and the “reformists,” hopeful to introduce a more inclusive outlook.
The composition of the new elite and its hierarchy clearly demonstrated the Islamic Republic’s reluctance to broaden the political spectrum through free and popular representation and by means of uncontrolled democratic institutions. Contrary to the promises of the revolution, political leadership by most standards remained oligarchic; a relatively coherent structure that vetted admission to the system by such institutional means as the Guardian Council (shura-ye negahban). Even though ideological and factional tensions within the ruling elite at times have brought about surprising results, by and large the insider versus outsider divide has remained intact. Compared to the Pahlavi era, it can be argued, the polity of the Islamic Republic is more exclusive and more doctrinaire, even though it is closer to its grass roots and at times even more outspoken.
A DEMOGRAPHIC REVOLUTION
Beyond the emerging political order, but not unrelated to it, the first decade after the revolution witnessed demographic explosion with lasting consequences. As the latest stage in Iran’s rapid population growth that began in the 1960s, and as part of a pattern throughout the Middle East in the late twentieth century, the country’s total population between 1976 and 1986 grew from 33.7 million to 49.4 million, an annual increase of 9.3 percent, the largest in recent Iranian history. At the turn of the twentieth century, Iran’s estimated population was 8 million, and by 1956 it had reached 18.9 million. Remarkably, by the beginning of the twenty-first century it exceeded 68 million, a more than eleven-fold increase throughout the twentieth century. In 2010 the birthrate officially stood at 1.8 percent, far below the 1980s rate of 4.2 percent.
Between 1975 and 1985 Iranians younger than twenty years of age constituted more than 50 percent of the total population, one of the youngest in the region, a pattern that continued for another decade before dropping to below 35 percent by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Equally noteworthy, in 1966, at the height of the White Revolution and the land reform, 37 percent of the population was urban, a major increase from the mid-1950s, when less than 25 percent of the population was urban. By 1976, just before the start of the Islamic Revolution, the urban population rose to 46 percent, a decade later had reached 54 percent, and it has continued to increase ever since. By 2012, of a total population of 78 million, 71 percent were urban, of which 30 percent lived in five major cities (18 percent in greater Tehran and another 12 percent in four major provincial centers). Urbanization inevitably increased literacy rates while pushing down birthrates. In 1976 only 44 percent of the population older than six years of age was literate; by 1986 the literacy rate had reached 54 percent, and by 2015 as many as 97 percent of young adults were literate. This is far higher than the 65 percent for the remaining Middle East.
Population growth and urbanization were vital forces in the shaping of the Islamic Revolution and how it evolved in its first decade of consolidation. The multitudes that rallied against the shah and later for the Islamic Republic (as well as the rank and file of the radical left who opposed the Islamic regime) were mostly younger than twenty-five years of age. Most of the army conscripts, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Basij volunteers who fought during the Iraq-Iran War, too, were predominantly from the same under-twenty-five age group. At the outset of the revolution, the youthful age of the population proved an indispensible boon because of their agility, ideological commitment, and demands for greater political agency and equity in distribution of wealth and privileges. Ideals such as these were barely fulfilled for the Iranian population at large, but they benefited a small sector that remained adamantly loyal to the regime’s leadership.
On a broader scope, it is important to note that at no time in Iran’s past half millennium had there been more favorable demographics for a revolutionary change: a reservoir of a vigorous urban population ready to rise for a cause. Neither in sixteenth-century Tabriz of Isma‘il’s era, nor in Tehran and Tabriz of the Constitutional era or in Tehran and other provincial centers during the National Movement of the early 1950s did such a demographic concentration with a thirst for political participation exist. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s a vast number of immigrants who came from the countryside and smaller cities to Tehran and to provincial centers brought with them a culture of multiple births and life in large, often extended, families. These factors may explain the rapid growth of the cities in the 1970s and beyond. It took a generation, at least, for this new urbanized population to adopt the nuclear family model, with fewer children, mostly reliant on the income of one parent and somewhat independent of the multigenerational families of their grandparents. Still, from a long-term point of view, it is remarkable how swiftly the emerging middle classes under the Islamic Republic cast off the traditional familial patterns in favor of new values and a new lifestyle, but with their own demands and dynamics.
The Islamic regime relied heavily on the youthful generations and their aspirations to succeed, yet it also denied them their political agency in no small measure. It failed to meet their yearning for a pluralistic, and socially tolerant, society. Islamification, as an ideologically driven course, endorsed and implemented by the revolutionary elite—with a diametrically different lifestyle and life experience—held a distinct perspective and had a different set of priorities. To the extent the new regime attempted to address leisure and social freedoms, as well as gender equality, religious toleration, and other nonpolitical needs of Iran’s new society—education, health, employment, and housing—its long-term record was at best mixed and more often abysmal.
AFTER KHOMEINI’S DEMISE
At the outset, the Islamic Republic’s development plan proved a relative success, despite international isolation and a repressive civic record. During the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989–1997) the state engaged in an impressive set of infrastructural, urban, educational, and industrial projects. In the postwar period, known as the Construction Era (dowran-e sazandegi), Iran witnessed the building of large-scale road and communication networks, new airports, dams, irrigation, power plants and energy-harnessing projects, heavy and light industry, automobile manufacturing, and food and chemicals production. These enterprises were largely owned and operated by the state, in an increasingly public-sector economy, though less ambitious projects were undertaken in the private sector. Some were incomplete projects from the previous regime and others were on the model, and used the blueprint, of Pahlavi development plans. Yet others were precipitous, and impulsive, initiatives. The country’s overall workforce grew rapidly, especially in the industrial, semi-industrial, and service sectors.
In June 1979 creation of the Jihad-e Sazandegi (or the Construction Crusade), a revolutionary organization that intended to utilize engineering and technological expertise among the university faculty and students, engaged in an ambitious number of developmental and public construction projects in remote, often impoverished, towns and villages of Iran. The Crusade, somewhat inspired by the White Revolution of the Pahlavi era but with a thin luster of idealism perhaps borrowed from Maoist ideology, engaged in a heroic campaign that was barely backed with thorough planning and use of resources. Yet it soon found itself during the Iraq-Iran War on the war front answering the urgent military engineering needs. The prolonged experience of the war gradually changed the mission and the structure of the Crusade and in due course allowed it in the postwar era to be incorporated into the state bureaucracy—a clear example of transient top-down revolutionary development model captivated with the vision of modernization. As it turned out, the Construction Crusade, by building roads and enhancing communications, virtually paved the way for the faster movement of population from countryside to cities.
Increasingly, urban development, new housing projects, and better urban amenities made Iranian cities oases of greater prosperity, absorbing people with higher education who were unwilling and unable to work in smaller and less developed towns. Agricultural output grew in the mid-1990s, bringing Iran to the verge of self-sufficiency in wheat and other major cereals and fulfilling, briefly, one of the revolution’s promises. Food production methods improved, and agriculture became almost fully mechanized, hence driving the larger surplus village population to cities.
The state’s near monopoly on resources, and revenues from oil and natural gas in particular, combined with its centralized economy, heavily bureaucratized government structure, and poor policy making, were all reminiscent of planned economies of the 1950s and 1960s. The Islamic Republic in effect augmented manifold the malaise of the Pahlavi state and its economy. Despite industrialization, the Iranian economy became even more dependent on oil income, which further increased the concentration of capital and decision making in the hands of the state and its agencies. With the increase in oil prices in international markets from 1980s on, an unprecedented treasure trove of unearned income poured into state coffers. Public projects funded by state capital became channels of favoritism, corruption, and amassing wealth that trickled down a chain of nepotism and network connections. This was true under Rafsanjani’s presidency, which brought massive financial benefits to a network of his relatives, allies, and cronies.
The election of Mohammad Khatami (b. 1943) to the presidency in June 1997 and his promises of civil society, rule of law, tolerance, and sociocultural openness was in effect a response to the wishes of younger Iranians who were disillusioned with the rhetoric and realities of the Islamic leadership. His victory was a huge upset to the regime’s insider candidate, who had been anointed by the Supreme Leader, ‘Ali Khamenei. Many who campaigned for Khatami—and came to be identified as Dovvom-e Khordadi (in reference to the election day, June 23, 1997, which corresponds in the Iranian solar calendar to the second of Khordad 1376)—typically were sobered revolutionaries. They were bruised by the excesses of the regime and discontent with the plutocracy associated with the Rafsanjani clique.
Enjoying the momentum, these “religious reformers,” as they generally defined themselves, were revisionists who believed that the Islamic Republic could be a more tolerant and pluralistic space answerable to law, social freedoms, and sounder governance. A surprise by-product of the revolution, they were symptoms of a crisis within the revolutionary ranks. Often from religious backgrounds and themselves active in the revolution, they developed new interests and engaged in intellectual and cultural trends beyond the barren ideological confines. In Khatami they searched for a bridge connecting the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, as they experienced it, and the realities of a more pluralistic modernity. Khatami’s intellectual makeup and amicable personality were a far cry from the frowning tedium of the clerical oligarchy. In domestic affairs he seemed to be breaking new ground, moving away from the menacing vagaries of earlier years. In foreign policy, too, he inclined toward an end to isolation and antagonism. His program of reform, though vague and indecisive, was enough to momentarily mobilize vast support for him. It was a breath of fresh air, especially during the first year or so of his first term when the conservatives were in temporary retreat and Khatami was more attuned to the hopes of his constituency. In 1997 in an election that brought 80 percent of the eligible voters to the voting stations, Khatami was elected to office with 70 percent of the votes. His impressive performance, even in conservative constituencies such as the city of Qom, ushered a new political era.
For a moment it seemed as if the days of the hard-liners were numbered. Khatami’s success soon gave expression to a range of intellectual and cultural activities. Liberal dailies with a critical perspective appeared on the newsstands, books whose publications were long delayed or banned saw the light of the day, new films portraying social ills and implicitly critical of the revolution were produced and some screened, and the overall political climate improved noticeably. Yet Khatami’s victory proved a mirage. Alarmed by the contagious spirit of openness, the hard-liners, turbaned and unturbaned, rallied behind the Supreme Leader and archconservatives such as Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi (b. 1935). Soon winds of reaction were blowing full force. In a systematic move to restrain the restive public and quell its democratic demands, the Majles, under the control of the hard-liners, impeached Khatami’s minister of the interior, ‘Abdollah Nuri (b. 1950) and soon thereafter indicted him on charges of anti-Islamic offenses, sentencing him to five years in jail. Perhaps the most outspoken insider of the Islamic Republic, and earlier a close aide to Khomeini, Nuri, himself a cleric, had turned critical of clerical excesses, defended Montazeri, and criticized the suffocating lack of individual and political freedoms, as well as the seemingly unlimited authority of the guardian jurist. He even questioned Islam’s undisputed validity as the sole source of political order.
By the end of his second term in 2005, Khatami was largely isolated, his program of reforms was blocked, and his close aides and supporters had been checked. Although the eight years of his presidency were a respite of sorts from the social pressures imposed on Iranian society, he was constantly under attack from his opponents. Despite Khatami’s political integrity and intellectual sophistication, the end result of his presidency can be defined only as a setback of his initial objectives—a déjà vu, perhaps, of Banisadr’s presidency sixteen years earlier. This may be attributed to Khatami’s tactical hesitancy or lack of political acumen, which from the outset kept him from leveraging his huge popular mandate to check his hard-liner opponents. Obstacles on his way to implement the rule of law (qanun-mandi), his favorite catchphrase, and “institutionalize” respect for human and civil rights, however, can be attributed to the inherent superior powers of his opponents. While Khatami enjoyed a popular mandate, his was a soft power, and his presidency flaccid and amorphous. His conservative opponents, however, controlled most institutional levers except the presidency. Not only was Khamenei willing and able to exert his constitutional prerogative as Supreme Leader to cut the president to size or bypass him altogether; the Majles, and even more so the Guardian Council, and the judiciary remained in conservative hands. The leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, the media, the police, and the armed forces, and much of the clerical establishment, including leaders of Friday prayers, were also firmly in the conservative camp.
For most Iranians, and the middle classes in particular, the failure of the Khatami experiment, insofar as it could be assessed, was a major setback but not a crushing end. Modern Iranian history is littered with political upsets that led to long episodes of political silence. This time around under Khatami, the experiment proved to have far less finality than, for instance, the closure of the Majles in 1911, the coup of 1953, or the fall of the provisional government in 1979. Nevertheless, the election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad (b. 1956) to the presidency in August 2005, which aimed to reverse the liberalizing trends of the Khatami era, was deeply felt by the reformist milieu. It was a triumph for the new wave of hard-liners, whether through the ballot box or by marshaling their popular supporters or by way of intimidation and fraud. It was an outright reversal of the civil and political process under Khatami and his conciliatory course in foreign policy. In terms of personality, too, Ahmadinejad and his cohorts stood in sharp contrast to Khatami and his allies.
At least at the outset Ahmadinejad carried populist appeal, especially among the less privileged classes who were disappointed with the economic performance of the Khatami era. This is well evident in Ahmadinejad’s everyman demeanor, his frugal attire, sharp tongue, deceptive promises, maverick maneuvers, and reckless boasting on sensitive issues of foreign policy. Reclaiming the radical spirit of the revolution’s early days, he hoped to shift Iran’s political discourse toward radical lines and, in effect, return Iran to its great revolutionary days. His messianic yearning for the imminent advent of the Imam of the Age pointed at a demagogic mind-set. Coupled with a fiery rhetoric, his desire for a secure power base among lower-class youth paid off at least for a while.
Complementing his messianic aspirations were the wasteful, incompetent, and corrupt hordes who formed his administration. Under the guise of upholding “Islamic revolutionary justice,” Ahmadinejad and his cohorts squandered tens of billions of dollars of oil revenue, perhaps the largest amount ever in modern Iranian history, only to bring the economy to the brink of insolvency. With the full blessing of the “beloved Supreme Leader,” Ahmadinejad’s government made millions of Iranians more dependent on menial state-distributed cash handouts, known as yaraneh. Hooked to a miserable culture of dependency, even some sectors of the middle classes began to taste an unprecedented level of poverty and deprivation.
Along the same path, he reinstituted the largely inactive Basij militia as a paramilitary force. The indoctrinated youth, enthralled by weapons and a common hatred of domestic and foreign enemies, posed a new menace. Nearly three decades after the Islamic Revolution, the appeal of Islamic activism had not entirely ceased. At least until the 2009 presidential election, when obvious vote rigging reinstated Ahmadinejad to office, the Basij option continued to appeal to youth if not out of sheer conviction, at least for access to economic privilege. Numerically and doctrinally, though, the Basij had lost steam. Ahmadinejad’s antics and the ineptness of his government became apparent even to regime insiders.
Yet Khamenei’s support for Ahmadinejad, at least until 2010, when serious rift began to occur between them, may be viewed as a continuum of Ayatollah Khomeini’s strategy to opt for the most radical. By adopting a similar course since 1989, the Supreme Leader has exerted detrimental influence over the overall orientation of the Islamic Republic. This he did in the face of the Iranian public, who on more than one occasion rejected his advocacy for radicalism and isolation. And despite setbacks, such as after the first presidential election of Mohammad Khatami in June 1997, or during the Green Movement in June 2009, he doggedly fought to reassert his authority even by means of coercion and intrigue.
In pursuit of his hard-line course, Khamenei had to secure the loyalty of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the state-controlled media, the Guardian Council and the clerical establishment, and an assortment of hard-liners in the Islamic parliament. Through patronage and moral support he was able to acquire, at least temporarily, the allegiance of the madrasas in Qom and elsewhere, the Islamic propaganda organizations that mushroomed around the county, and editors of the hard-line press. They were the recipients of his institutional and personal blessing and financial largesse, in return for their advancement of his ideological line and political agenda. He has also acted as a shield, covering up enormous financial misappropriations and mismanagement of those close to his inner circle. The nouveau-riche plutocracy that emerged on Iran’s economic horizon, especially during the presidency of Ahmadinejad, continues to operate under his wing. Many cronies of the “leader’s house,” as his core headquarters is known, were among the beneficiaries of the financial boom that came with high oil prices and international sanctions.
The steady growth of the Revolutionary Guard Corps in areas of defense, security, and economic activities exemplifies Khamenei’s purposeful patronage. In 1989, in the postwar construction era, a new economic arm of the Revolutionary Guard, known as Qarargah-e Sazandegi-e Khatam al-Anbiya (the Khatam al-Anbiya construction military base), gradually took over the most lucrative state development projects. In the following decades Qarargah, an expanding economic conglomerate with numerous subsidiaries, acquired a near monopoly over major engineering, energy transmission, oil and gas, hydrological, and telecommunications projects. Being an integral part of the Revolutionary Guards’ command structure and operating on a military model, the Qarargah may be compared to similar military-economic conglomerates elsewhere in Egypt, Thailand, and Myanmar. In the Islamic Republic the reciprocal arrangement between the clerical wing of the leadership, headed by the Supreme Leader, and the Revolutionary Guards, as the military guarantor of the regime, cannot be missed. In exchange for noninterference in the political sphere, the Revolutionary Guard is granted extensive economic monopolies to assure its institutional wellbeing and welfare of its personnel.
The excesses and adventurism of Ahmadinejad era were serious enough to bring even Khamenei to his senses. His implicit consent with the Guardian Council to hold a relatively fair presidential election in 2013 that brought Hasan Rouhani (b. 1948), a middle-of-the-road insider, to power was one manifestation of Khamenei’s a conciliatory course, one motivated by expediency rather than radical ideology. Two years later his “heroic flexibility,” as he justified his consent for concluding a nuclear deal with the Five plus One (the permanent members of the Security Council plus the European Union) is another example. For Khamenei, condoning the terms of the agreement, signed on July 14, 2015, to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA; the Persian acronym is barjam), signaled a shift in direction, one that can be compared to Khomeini’s drinking from a “poisoned chalice.” The agreement imposed on Iran a highly restrictive and intrusive regime of inspections and verifications, one that Iran has never before experienced in the course of its long and eventful modern history. For a regime that for more than three decades made the cause of “combatting the intrusions of the universal arrogance” its existential crusade, accepting the terms of JCPOA was a particularly humiliating experience. Yet contrary to Khomeini, who at least accepted the humiliating terms of the 1988 cease-fire, Khamenei did not feel even obligated to acknowledge a complete reversal of the nuclear policy.
Yet to its credit, the Islamic Republic for nearly four decades since its inception, and despite all its domestic and international challenges, was able to provide Iran with security at its borders and a remarkable degree of internal stability. This at the time when the whole region stretching from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria and Palestine experienced domestic conflict, civil war, military invasions by superpowers, and prolonged and oppressive occupation. Despite all the hostile rhetoric that accused Iran of being the “threat to the security of the region” and “greatest sponsor of terrorism,” it is important to note that four decades after President Carter declared Iran an “island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” his words still bear some validity. Such stability, however, came at the price of domestic repression, social chasms, and boiling discontent that periodically has erupted and is likely to erupt again. But as the celebrated Iranian thinker Mohammad Ghazzali (1058–1111) put it nine centuries ago, “a hundred years of oppression is better than a day of chaos.”
A SOCIETY IN TRANSITION
With better roads and communications and with changes in the pattern of agriculture invariably came changes in the relationship between city and countryside. Village life began to transform—with even greater rapidity than before the revolution. The extensive network of villages, hamlets, and oases across the plains, deserts, mountain slopes, river valleys, forests, and costal regions of Iran diminished in both number and population. They were all part of a precious habitat that had survived several millennia of earthquakes, drought, military campaigns, and maltreatment by the state and absentee landlords. Yet they were vulnerable to the potent nemesis of modernization, first in the Pahlavi era and then under the Islamic Republic. With the slow demise of Iran’s basic rural social fabric, the idyllic village setting, with its distinctive architecture, also began to vanish gradually, giving way to mundane Western-inspired buildings with somewhat better construction and sanitation but often devoid of ecological or climatic rationales. Also vanishing were the qanats, the irrigation ponds, and the walled gardens indigenous to the Iranian landscape, the beasts of burden and cattle, species of plants and shrubs, even flocks of sheep and goats. Even more rapidly forgotten were village crafts and skills, regional dialects, folktales, ceremonies and rituals, and the diversity of clothing worn by people from different regions. With maddening speed Iran forged its path to uniformity, a path paved with fervor, damaging on its way much of the country’s natural resources, wildlife and diverse habitats, and idyllic beauty. This ironically happened under the watch of a revolutionary regime that had called for “authenticity” and the preservation of Iran’s unspoiled Islamic heritage.
At the edge of Iranian deserts, as remote villages were depopulated and their cultivation declined, soil erosion brought greater desertification. With the loss of their ancient function, many oases disappeared. They paid the price for the demise of the caravan trade and the end to the subsistence village economy, a process that had started decades earlier. Changes in old irrigation techniques, too, accelerated the villages’ demise. Most notably, new deep-well pumping, which came to be extensively used in mechanized agriculture in the central Iranian plains, increased agricultural output but at a high cost. Not only did deep wells dangerously lower the water tables in subterranean aquifers; they also hastened a water shortage into a national crisis. Villages and their agricultural hinterlands that were in the vicinity of the growing cities, in particular, were eaten up piecemeal by land speculators and developers. They became victims of shoddy housing projects, treeless and birdless, which provided housing for the urban migrants from towns and villages near and far.
With few exceptions major Iranian cities, even more than in the Pahlavi era, began to suffer from a process of modernization gone awry. They grew haphazardly, short on amenities, vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural and manmade disasters, and some suffered from extreme levels of air pollution. Ineffective environmental control, substantial loss of green spaces in and around cities, and above all an unbridled cult of the car contributed to the degradation of urban life. Cars and small trucks, in particular, intruded into all public spaces and most private spaces at the expense of individuals and their privacy, devouring even pedestrian pavements, the front yards of houses, most green dividers in streets and boulevards, and any pathway passible or potentially passible. For many, vehicles were not merely means of transportation but tools of empowerment when their individual liberties have been curbed or taken away altogether.
A pattern of social ills, rampant from the early 1990s, complemented the failure of the state’s social policies. Widespread drug addiction, prostitution networks, abused and abandoned children, teenagers escaping home, battered women and murdered spouses—all weakened society’s moral fabric. These were compounded by huge discrepancies in wealth, high unemployment, and health and environmental problems. The new generations of urban Iranians under the Islamic Republic, frustrated by a regime that deprived them of political and social liberties and tired of the Islamic Republic’s outmoded radicalism and incessant, almost maniacal, propaganda, adopted a double life of outward compliance and inward illicit leisure.
Drug addiction, in particular, became more widespread among the urban middle classes. While smoking opium was a declining recreational habit during the Pahlavi era, it gained a new lease of life under the Islamic Republic. More worrying, heroin addiction became dangerously rampant among youth. A ban on the cultivation of opium and the anti-addiction campaigns of the 1950s, one of the success stories of the Pahlavi era, had helped control opium addiction and drug abuse. With the rise of the Islamic Republic, however, it was as though the social stigma had been lifted and all moral barriers had crumbled. Even though the government of the Islamic Republic continued to enforce the ban on drugs and built up a substantial force to fight drug trafficking on its southeastern borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, opium and purified heroin continued to be smuggled across the Baluchistan border in large quantities, despite the Revolutionary Guards’ routine clashes with armed drug traffickers.
By the 1990s heroin, as a cheap and accessible drug, was available not only on the street but also in high schools and universities. Young victims from both sexes and every social class multiplied in large numbers, turning addiction into a major cause for the growth of underaged prostitution, both male and female, juvenile delinquency, and petty and organized crime. Addiction in Iran had deep historical roots, though perhaps not any more prevalent than in other societies exposed to rapid urban change. Yet addiction was emblematic of the failure of the revolutionary regime to fulfill its declared mission to eradicate “moral turpitude” through Islamic chastity and changes in the decadent lifestyles of the Pahlavi era.
The lure of illicit drugs was—and still is—that it allows for a temporary escape from the grim realities of life in postrevolutionary Iran. It was perhaps the most extreme manifestation of a subculture, confined and clandestine, that began to flourish in the 1980s among disillusioned and often cynical youth of the middle and lower-middle classes. Engrossed in Western-inspired fads, especially in larger cities and among the more affluent, it expressed itself in clothing and hairstyles, excessive partying, curious lingos, and a new middle-class cult of “child ingratiation” fostered by guilt-ridden parents anxious to make up for the state-imposed social and moral restrictions. The postrevolutionary youth of the 1990s and beyond even coined a term for this identity: the “burnt generation” (nasl-e sukhteh) summed up their unfulfilled aspirations and lost opportunities, audible in Iran’s underground music and the lyrics of Iranian rappers.
An even more pronounced feature of the silent rejection of the Islamic Republic’s dystopia was a contagious urge among many, and especially among the educated classes, to leave Iran and settle elsewhere. A sense of entrapment in their own country, coupled with an unrealistic, almost philistine, perception of the world beyond, was responsible for the departure from Iran of hundreds of thousands to uncertain futures. Iranian émigrés in increasing numbers were to be found wandering in low-income neighborhoods in Istanbul and Izmir awaiting entry visas to the United States and European countries, or in the shopping malls in Dubai and other UAE countries, in Greek port cities near the harbor preparing for crossing to other European destinations, in detention centers as far east as in Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and New Guinea, and as undocumented émigrés everywhere and many in detention centers and refugee camps. At no time in Iran’s recent history has there been such a desperate movement of the population. The closest, the immigrant workers to Baku oil fields in the early decades of the twentieth century or to Kuwait in the 1960s, were temporary guest workers in much smaller numbers and invariably limited to unskilled workers from the Iranian countryside.
The Islamic Republic remained altogether indifferent to this massive brain drain. Propelled by the growth in the numbers of university graduates and professional classes who were unable to find gainful employment at home or unwilling to bow to unwelcome social pressures, the by-products of Iran’s demographic revolution were to the regime more of a potential liability than a precious workforce necessary to build Iran’s future. It was as if the boundary lines between the self and the other in the Islamic Republic were drawn in such a fashion as to protect an elite minority, loyal to the regime but inferior in education and skills, at the expense of repelling a far larger segment of the population who was educated and skilled but ideologically uncommitted to the emerging Islamic order. “Commitment [ta’ahhod] over expertise [takhassos]” was a favorite slogan that cost the Iranian economy dearly.
POLICING GENDER ROLES
A major thrust of the Islamic Republic’s social and moral mission was to police gender roles. Despite paying lip service to women’s elevated status in the constitution and widespread rhetoric about “restoring women’s sublime motherly status,” the Islamic Republic essentially viewed women with a patriarchal eye and treated them accordingly, or at least tried to. The male-favoring standards of the enforced shari‘a, as interpreted by the regime and its jurists, consciously resisted gender equality. Uninformed and unaffected by the discourse of feminism, these standards came to determine not only women’s physical appearance but also their social and familial roles, legal status, and civil rights. The ultimate marker for the new Islamic gender, predictably, was the mandatory use of the hijab and the regime’s obsessive enforcement of chastity standards.
Threatened with the pain of humiliating arrests, detention, lashing, and monetary penalties, women, the younger generations in particular, were forced to abide by the redefined standards of Islamic modesty. Wearing the hijab, as murals and banners cautioned the public in the streets, stores, and restaurants, was “a religious duty upon which was erected the foundation of the Islamic Revolution.” Under the rubric of “restoring women’s dignity” and “rescuing them from the superficiality of Pahlavi pseudomodernity,” a set of frequently repeated clichés in the regime’s antimodernity rants aimed at associating secularized women with stereotypes of immodest attire, garish makeup and sexual laxity. In this fixated outlook, sexuality became the cornerstone of any male-female relationship. Any retreat of the headscarf showing a dash of women’s hair, any shrinking in the length of the “Islamic” overalls (rupush), a touch of bright color, any showing of the natural female contour, the use of cosmetics—even nail polish—all were seen as potent mediums for arousing uncontrollable male sexuality. Hence they were subject to strict policing.
All through the first two decades of the Republic, the morality police, the dreaded “Patrol of God’s Vengeance” (Gasht-e Sar-Allah), terrorized women in the capital and larger cities. They detailed a litany of moral transgressions that included the length of fingernails, the height of heels, and shades of hair highlighting. The never-ending chastity-enforcement campaigns not only revealed a fetishistic obsession with the female body but also an element of class warfare, for they set up poorer people with religious proclivities to inspect and correct the “vices” of a secularized middle class. A sense of empowerment was well evident in the conduct of the chastity police when encountering their terrified detainees. Nonconformity with the Islamic Republic’s morality code, nonetheless, persisted among many women and men. Undeterred by prospects of humiliation and punishment, they hailed passive resistance as an article of faith against absurd practices of the Islamic regime.
Obsession with the human body, especially the female body, had a deep history in the Shi‘i jurisprudence, for it served as the regulatory principle for enforcing hijab, gender segregation, and other controlling practices in the Islamic Republic and in its courts, schools, offices, and prisons. Shi‘i jurisprudence viewed the vagina (rahem) as primal unit for kinship and family loyalties and legal rights, and henceforth demanded from the male members of the family and clan that they safeguard it. The ayatollahs’ detailed descriptions in their books of “explication of problems” (tawdih al-masa’il), a dissertation-like requirement for acquiring marja‘iyat in the twentieth century, in part spelled out intricate rules conducive to such a defense. For the general public these were the most accessible juristic production coming out of madrasas of Qom and Najaf. Aimed to regulate the lives of the “followers,” they were unapologetic representations of male superiority formed in a male-only public environment. Among other means, these books of explication offered meticulous instructions about female reproductive organs, virginity, menstrual cycles, rules of sexual intercourse, manners of male penetration, ejaculation, and the handling of bodily fluids. They were also concerned with dress code and head covering for men and women, rules of intimacy, lawful interaction with the opposite sex, gender boundaries, segregation rules, and methods of sheltering women in residential confinement and outside. In all, the “explication” genre revealed deep anxieties about the human body and the dangers of allowing it to become undisciplined. The moral code it advanced was the guiding principle behind the Gasht-e Sar-Allah and similar shari‘a-inspired moral policing.
Beyond enforcing a shari‘a-prescribed bodily code, the essentially misogynistic clerical culture of Qom embarked on a systematic rewriting of women’s civil and legal rights in the Islamic Republic. It reversed much of the achievements of the late Pahlavi era. Marriage and family laws were drastically rewritten along old patriarchal lines. Uninhibited polygamy was reintroduced, the age of marriage for females was lowered according to the dictates of the shari‘a, under most circumstances divorce was redefined as the sole prerogative of the husband, and children’s custodianship was primarily granted to the husband and paternal relatives. Compliance (tamkin) with the husband’s sexual desires and abiding by his patriarchal superiority, rules that were endorsed by legislation and backed by the shari‘a, turned women, at least on the surface, into objects of control and instruments of pleasure.
Restrictions on the social life of women and men, severe though they were, soon were to be balanced by deeper currents in Iranian society and outbursts of generational energies. Most remarkable, perhaps, was the growth and greater democratization of higher education, an unexpected outcome, as far as the Islamic Republic was concerned, of the demographic shifts of the 1970s and 1980s. Building new universities, institutes of higher education, and medical and vocational schools were among the Islamic Republic’s priorities. Higher education, far more accessible than the Pahlavi era to both men and women, created a new college-educated generation, which, though energetic and ambitious, could not be absorbed promptly into the workforce. Despite restrictions on choice of professional field, women excelled in higher education because, by contrast to men, who were expected to entered the job market and support their family, women were able to continue their education, at times despite pressures to marry at an early age. The rapid growth of the universities, whether public, semiprivate, or private, increased the available opportunities. The Azad University system, a private institution with the state’s informal backing, championed the new trend. Branching out in large cities and small towns throughout the country, its often small campuses had low budgets and were ill equipped, but they enabled, for a fee, hundreds of thousands of students to receive higher education who otherwise would have had little chance of entering more established universities. With flexible curricula and makeshift staffing, these private universities brought unprecedented geographical and, in effect, social mobility.
Young women and men enrolled in universities far away, moved out of their homes and hometowns, and learned to live independently along with cohorts from other towns and provinces. The separation from family and late absorption into the workforce facilitated a break from what had become provincial cocoons and, for women in particular, an escape from patriarchal bonds. The widening of intellectual horizons created new lifestyles and new expectations for careers and marriage. In larger cities, while the marriage age gradually rose as birthrates declined, the new middle classes felt even more starkly the absence of employment and career opportunities. By 1986 only about 6 percent of women were employed outside the home, and women’s literacy rate stood at 65 percent, a discrepancy more pronounced in the mid-1990s, when the percentage of women in Iranian universities surpassed 50 percent of the total student body (and afterward steadily grew). More visible and more confident, younger women of postrevolutionary generations constituted a voiceless but palpable source of social discontent, at odds with the male-dominated elite of the Islamic Republic and their desire to keep women on the margins of, if not entirely outside, the public space. In some respects the societal dynamics of the postrevolutionary era gave younger women far greater agency than today’s clerical elite ever anticipated.
VOICES AND VISIONS OF DISSENT
A stable but repressive order did not remain free of voices of dissent. As a space of resistance, one can detect in the emerging culture of the postrevolutionary times a degree of continuity with the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the state’s stark intrusions through censorship, restrictions and manipulation—innocuously called Islamic guidance—culture and art remained bastions of Iranian individuality. Music, cinema, visual arts, poetry, and fiction not only survived waves of Islamification but almost miraculously thrived. They managed to bypass, often in a language of symbolism, the die-hard obscurantism and ideological hurdles of the state’s cultural bureaucracy and mirror, with subtlety, the untold sentiments of their eager audiences. The palpable vitality of this eventful era complemented the reformist aspirations that brought Khatami to powers but with deeper roots.
In the early days of the revolution, when high hopes for a new liberating space were not yet entirely lost, a large sector of younger Iranians, and some veterans of earlier political struggles, could rejoice in a momentary “dawn” of freedom. In October 1979 the Persian lyricist Hushang Ebtehaj (b. 1928), with the sobriquet “Sayeh” (shadow), composed a poignant ghazal entitled Sepideh (the dawn) to be recited in the joyous mahur mode by the master of Persian classical music Mohammad Reza Shajarian (b. 1940). Performed in a public concert attended by thousands, and soon distributed nationwide on cassette tapes, the lyrics and music captured the mood of the time. Just as he was achieving new heights in his amazingly long singing career, Shajarian, along with some of the best instrumentalists of the time, led by the composer and tar virtuoso Mohammad Reza Lotfi (1947–2014), conveyed Ebtehaj’s nostalgic message to a new generation (pl. 17.1). Underscoring continuity with the past, the poet stressed that the success of the revolution was indebted to the long and painful struggle of past generations:
Time has drawn your name in the new lot of Fortune,
Be Joyful! The world is now turning in your favor.
Oh, in this air how breaths are so full of fire, and yet joy!
For this is the fragrant incense of our hearts that fills your nostrils.
Remember the furnace of our burning breasts!
Where in the fire of our hearts your raw clay was baked.
The glow of one diamond from the treasure box of our hearts,
Is now the morning light dawning upon your rooftops.
It was through the mirror-like virtue of those who rise at dawn,
That the sun’s radiant visage was cast upon your night sky.
Time is now handing you the reins of Fortune,
For you are reined by the hands of wisdom.
The Bird of Fortune that was fleeing the earth,
Has landed and is pecking seeds in the safety of your net.
Saddle the horse of Fortune under your questing loins,
For you’ve tamed the heavens as you did the beast of the earth.
Revel now in freedom’s pleasure palace with Sayeh’s lyrics,
So that your cups may brim with the wine of joy!1
To the bitter disappointment of the poet’s audiences, for most Iranians there was little “wine of joy,” nor was there a “pleasure palace” of freedom, and certainly not any flight of the “Bird of Fortune.” The “mirror-like virtue of those who rise at dawn,” presumably a veiled reference to Khomeini and the religious message of the revolution, proved wishful thinking. Yet there were plenty of “burning breasts” within which to bake the “raw clay” of new generations of Iranians.
Modern Persian poetry, of which Ebtehaj offered some of the best in the neoclassical genre, however, was passed over as the predominant medium of artistic expression. Along with it was eclipsed a messianic yearning for a redemptive revolution. Modern poetry since Nima’s time, despite masterful refinement, seems to have reached its limits even if great poets of the 1960s generation such as Forugh, Akhavan-Sales, Shamlu, Sepehri, and Mohammad-Reza Shafi’i Kadkani (b. 1939) making great poetry. A long poem by Akhavan-Sales in the classic genre of qasideh, with the opening line “Of the absurdity of the world if anything I love. You, my old homeland, you I love!,” marked a new height in the neoclassical style. Composed in the postrevolutionary years, it illustrated the intricacies of Akhavan’s style, his masterful yet accessible language, and the richness of his nostalgia for his country’s past and for its fast-changing culture and natural environment, a poetic maturity that went beyond chauvinism and ideology. Whether modern or classic, however, it seemed as if a millennium-old tradition of Persian poetry were about to give way to a new medium of images. A verbal revolution of sorts had gradually dried up poetic creativity, even though appreciation of select modernist and classics such as Ferdowsi and Hafez remained strong.
Instead the growing fascination with cinematic imagery in the postrevolutionary era reflected a new artistic dynamism. Although Iran had a film industry since the 1930s, the new shift to cinematic language reflected a desire to move beyond words, whether poetry or prose. Fascination with cinema also reflected an earlier appeal of foreign films, ranging from Italian neorealism to highbrow cinemas of India and Japan and to Hollywood extravaganzas. Enthusiastic filmmakers and movie buffs, despite the severe ban on “corrupting” foreign films, turned to cinema as an effective means of cultural interconnectedness. The wider availability of videocassettes starting in the mid-1980s and a robust underground distribution network made this possible. The focus of Iranian art-house filmmakers, however, was somewhat different from contemporary currents outside Iran. A new sense of cultural confidence among younger filmmakers allowed for an endogenous cinematic language to grow. Iranian independent filmmakers exerted torturous effort to cope with the mandatory Islamic code for the performing arts and to pass the absurd censorship so as to get across their poignant message of social criticism or philosophical musings.
With a refreshing honesty that characterized much of Iranian cinema’s “new wave,” the filmmakers’ cameras subtly but unapologetically examined taboos that had barely been touched on in Iranian films or any other media. Issues such as the plight of women in a patriarchal society, children’s deprivation, violence and socioethnic biases, drug addiction, prostitution, and the underworld, as well as class divides and poverty, the dreariness of everyday life, double standards and muddled ethics, shades of religiosity, intellectual despair and the search for alternatives, and even clerical hypocrisy became powerful counterweights to the regime’s deceptive portrayal of the pious life in the paradise of the Islamic Republic.
By far neorealism ruled supreme among Iranian filmmakers of the 1980s and 1990s, even though they were mostly obliged to work within the genre of children’s films to secure funding and pass the censors. The film department of the Organization for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, one of the more successful institutions established in 1965 with the patronage of Queen Farah, had a lasting impact on filmmakers of the next generation. Bashu (1986, released in 1989) by the gifted playwright and filmmaker Bahram Bayzai (b. 1938) and produced by the Children and Young Adults Organizations, was one of the first in the postrevolutionary era to address the delicate issue of ethnic diversity and national integrity while the Iraq-Iran War was raging.
The main character, Bashu, “a little stranger” as the subtitle informs us, is a dark-skinned teenage Arab-Iranian refugee from the war-torn Persian Gulf provinces who, having lost his family in Iraqi raids, in distress climbs in the back of a passing truck that brings him the next day to a serene but alien village in the Caspian province of Gilan. Given shelter by a woman villager, Na’i, who takes pity on him, they bond in near silence, despite their own doubts and each other’s suspicions. Bashu does not understand the Gilaki dialect of northern Iran, nor does Na’i comprehend the Arabic dialect of the south. The drama reaches a climax when Na’i’s husband returns. He is a disabled war veteran (who apparently by dictate of the censor was portrayed as returning from a failed job search in the city), a male symbol who is absent throughout the story but appears at the end as a nuisance, resisting the true mother-child bond that has developed against all odds between one from the north and one from the south.
The thinly veiled patriotic message of the movie is devoid of any Islamic component and free of Tehran-centric sentiments, even though Persian is the only means of communication. The unifying message of the film: Iranians moving beyond ethnicity, language, and race (and presumably religion, if Bashu is to be considered a Sunni) may well be interpreted as Bayzai’s foresight about Iran’s emerging society, when the demographic melting pot of the postwar era dissolves regional barriers and removes hollowed and soulless, yet terrifying, symbols of authority. In the last scene, Bashu, along with other village boys, runs across the rice fields assailing a black scarecrow, which symbolizes throughout the film the intimidating male power of the state.
‘Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016), another filmmaker of the 1970s who started with children’s films, left his lasting mark on postrevolutionary cinema but also became a major cultural figure of the period. His poetic-philosophical approach to cinema, both in subject and in technique, offered an inward view. His existential soul-searching with a touch of humor, palpable even in his treatment of social themes, was followed by other filmmakers inspired by his enigmatic message. Creating a pictorial rendering of Persian mystical poetry, he portrayed with a stoic eye the rhythm of the ordinary lives of the people of towns and villages, which are fast disappearing. Theirs, he reminds his viewers, has a subtle existential endurance that is missing in the anguished lives of the sophisticated middle classes and agonized intellectuals.
Even in Close-Up (1990), where he makes a powerful statement about the younger generation’s fascination with cinema, we can detect threads of innocence gone astray. The leading character in the film, Hosain Sabzian, an impostor who plays himself in this reconstruction of a true story, is on trial for pretending to be the well-known film director of the time, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (b. 1957). An affable man of humble background, Sabzian has gone so far as to convince members of an affluent but naive middle class family, also playing themselves, to finance his next imaginary film project. He has also motivated the family’s young son, who is dreaming about becoming a filmmaker. In dissecting the narrative, Kiarostami carries viewers with him to share an insight into Sabzian’s mind. The impostor did not wish to be wealthy or powerful or even famous. Rather, he aspired to a cultural sophistication that would allow him to convey his vision through films much as his hero did. Sabzian’s quest was symbolic of a generation enamored of cinema because it is an escape from the harsh, almost surreal, realities of postrevolutionary times.
In The Circle (2000) by Ja‘far Panahi (b. 1960), the inescapabilty of the vicious cycle of everyday life becomes ever more apparent, especially for its younger victims of the society’s harsh and unfair realities. It juxtaposes the lives of six young women in Tehran of the 1990s and their struggles in the face of misogynistic mores, family tyranny and, above all, the long arm of the state. The film’s female characters represent a cross-section of crushed lives as these fellow travelers endure deprivation across a sea of fear and denial. This is an accidental sisterhood whose members understand one another’s unwanted and undeserved fates. What is remarkable is that they are not devoid of human agency and are not merely passive recipients of what society or authorities impose on them. Yet by escaping their homes in search of freer lives, they encounter severe desperation that drives them to prostitution, unavoidable abortion, abandonment of their children, and jail (repeatedly). Such is the outcome, as The Circle powerfully underscores, of three decades of morality police and the project of Islamification.
Equally poignantly, women directors dealt with the plight of women with a naked realism and palpable rage. Two Women (1999) by Tahmineh Milani (b. 1960), one of several movies she produced with feminist themes, narrates the lives of two young women over a period of fourteen years at the outset of the Revolution. Out of economic desperation and under family pressure, the talented but unprivileged character quits school during the Cultural Revolution and under pressure enters into a marriage that exposes her to her husband’s tyranny and abuse. The Islamic legal code is squarely in the husband’s favor, leading to a tragic ending for which Milani condemns male-dominated society and its failings. Yet similar to the characters of The Cycle, the women resist becoming objectified and passive—an aspiration rather than reality, perhaps, but emblematic nevertheless of the changing female awareness at all levels.
In Under the Skin of the City (2000) Rakhshan Bani Etemad (b. 1954), another talented woman director with an impressive cinematic record, portrays the sufferings of a humble textile worker, who besides the absence of an oppressive husband is subject to destructive forces beyond her control. Here, an unhappy daughter with an abusive husband, a dissident son on the run, another son who desires to leave Iran at any cost—even at the cost of ransoming the family house to loan sharks and later, in desperation, smuggling heroin—brings the mother to utter despair. Such a profusion of social troubles may seem rather forced if we overlook the urgency by which Bani Etemad brings her symbolic message home.
As much as the new wave of Iranian cinema reflected social ills and personal anguish, it also pointed at an emerging Iranian identity decidedly separate from the ideals of the state. The popular appeal of most of these movies beyond highbrow viewers and international festivals, where they received many awards and accolades, points to the public’s desire to see their reality unmasked and their agonies surface even if the censorship does not permit its full exposure. Such a collective wish elevated the role of cinema in Iran beyond entertainment and leisure into a powerful instrument of dissent, unmatched in its scope and impact by literary or other modes of cultural expression. The potency of this message of dissent played a major part in elevating Iranian cinema—as early as the 1960s but more poignantly since the Islamic Revolution—to internationally acknowledged standards. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) clearly relayed such a message to audiences at home and abroad.
A Separation is about the painful divorce of a young middle-class Tehran couple, Nader and Simin, whose daughter is involuntarily caught in their wrangling over custody. Simin wishes to leave Iran and settle abroad, whereas Nader does not wish to sever ties, emotional and familial, to his country. The couple’s motive for separation, to which Farhadi (b. 1971) clearly alludes, is more societal than personal; it is as if they have been left no choice but to part ways. To take care of his elderly father who suffers from dementia, Nader hires a caretaker. As much as the father’s situation is a very real human one, he is also a metaphor for the burden of a rapidly vanishing past. The caretaker is a working-class woman with an outlook shaped by the traditional Shi‘i code of conduct, one that is blessed by the Islamic Republic. The complex plot revolves around the suspicion of theft, for which the caretaker is subjected to an act of alleged violence by Nader. The ambiguity surrounding the event involves the caretaker’s husband, an unemployed worker with nervous demeanor who takes upon himself the mission of protecting his wife and preserving his honor. The story masterfully portrays generational, class, cultural, and gender tensions in today’s Iran while also depicting the multiplicity of reality and ambiguities surrounding human relationships. One of the most important features of the film is its ability to humanize the Iranian society’s dilemmas and tensions. The film’s enthusiastic reception worldwide (which included being awarded the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, a Golden Globe Award, and Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011) denoted its universal appeal, for it was able to present the Iranian couple not in an exceptional Iranian light but as a microcosm of a global phenomenon.
As much as cinema appealed to younger Iranians, classical Persian music and its remarkable revival in the postrevolutionary era projected the other side of the quest for cultural autonomy. Reclaiming the Persian musical tradition in the face of the Islamic state’s initial rejection was not only an act of defiance but also a window onto a fascinating world where the confluence of music and poetry brought back to the present centuries of collective memory. Persian lyrical poetry combined with songs of the constitutional and early Pahlavi eras and examples of Kurdish, Luri, and other pastoral melodies, served as a cultural ground for this recovered cultural past.
A number of musicians and composers with roots in the prerevolutionary era contributed to the flourishing musical scene. Great virtuosi of the Pahlavi era aside, among the younger artists, Hossein Alizadeh (b. 1951) followed a well-trodden path in Iran’s musical modernity by employing Persian melodies to compose brilliant ensemble music and film music. His work proved on par with the best of contemporary classical music worldwide. His 1983 Naynava, a concerto for the Persian nay (reed pipe) and string orchestra consisting of five interconnected pieces based on melodies (gushehs) in the Nava mode combined Persian and Western string instruments to deliver a melodically absorbing and technically intricate composition. Reminiscent of the famous opening passage of Rumi’s Masnavi, it is a melodic conversation between the string orchestra, representing the vibrating human vocal chords, and the sound of the nay, representing the inspired melody that, according to the Sufi thought, is divinely embedded in the human chest. The riveting finale, “Raqs o Sama’” (Dance and music) is inspired by the ecstatic dance and music of Sufi gatherings.
A prolific artist, Alizadeh also composed the 1989 Torkaman, a set of instrumental pieces for the Persian setar. In the fourteen improvised pieces that constitute Torkaman, Alizadeh employed the Persian radif system to capture melodies, sounds, and sceneries of Iran’s northeastern frontier of Torkaman Sahra. With a rare technical ability, he explores setar’s possibilities of producing a range of musical impressions, from galloping horses in the steppe to the wailing of Turkmen mourners. Alizadeh is versatile in utilizing folk melodies and local musical instruments from all over Iran, features that made his music daring and innovative. As in Bayzai’s Bashu or Kiarostami’s trilogy on Iranian village life, and Akhavan-Sales’s qasideh eulogizing Iran, many of Alizadeh’s compositions are tributes to Iran’s vanishing ethnic and regional diversity, a subconscious effort, perhaps, to withstand forces of cultural homogeneity.
Mohammad Reza Lotfi and Parviz Meshkatian (1955–2009) also utilized rural and nomadic tunes to capture the revolutionary spirit of their time and compose some of the most memorable songs of the era. The tangible absence of female performers and vocalists, however, because of the Islamic Republic’s ban on women performing in public, exposed a major lacuna. Yet the ban did not deter women from excelling in Persian music in private. Vocalist Parisa was among the best of her generation in mastering classical radif and offering new renderings of the old Qajar songs. Some of her early concerts in the Shiraz Arts Festival adhered to the radif performance as pioneered a half a century earlier by Qamar al-Moluk Vaziri, who was among the first women to record Persian classical music in the 1920s and 1930s.
Perhaps the most distinguished figure of Persian musical revival since the 1970s, however, is Mohammad Reza Shajarian, a master vocalist of remarkable quality and range. His popularity over the years has given him an iconic position, free of state patronage and immune to its infringement. Born in 1931 in Mashhad to a religious family—his father was a teacher and professional reciter (qari) of the Qur’an—he grew up to be not only a marvelous reciter of the Qur’an, and for a while an elementary school teacher in villages of northern Khorasan, but also a serious student of Persian radif. Initially a self-taught vocalist, he listened to radio broadcasts and musical records made by former masters before receiving any systematic training. Overcoming the traditional stigma of becoming professional singer, he performed first in Radio Mashhad and from 1966 on Radio Iran’s celebrated Golha program, where he had his first national exposure. His career spanning more than forty years made him an undisputed master of Persian music and a symbol of artistic integrity. Having been able to perform in the prerevolutionary era, during the revolution, and later under an Islamic regime that frowned upon, if not outright banned, the production and performance of music outside its official domain. He gleaned from most of the masters of his time a vast repertoire of melodies and singing techniques, intricate details of tasnifs, diverse folk music of Iran (especially Khorasan), and music of the Shi‘i mourning rituals.
With a fine taste for selecting Persian poetry for his concerts and albums, Shajarian has conveyed with subtlety his messages in carefully composed performances. Refusing to perform on the Islamic Republic’s radio and television networks in protest to their miscasting of his music, in a 1982 concert he recited a well-known ghazal of Hafez. This concert, released on a 1986 album, was titled “Bidad” (Injustice), a play on a gusheh in the Homayun mode. Hafez’s ghazal, wistfully reminiscing an idyllic past, well fit the mood of Shajarian’s audiences discouraged by the strange turn of revolution’s fortune:
Friendship I see naught, what befallen to friends?
When affection came to pass? What happened to lovers? . . .
No jewel unearthed from the mine of camaraderie for years,
What happened to the heat of the sun, the might of the wind and the rain?
Ours was the land of companions [shahr-e yaran] and the soil of sun priests [mehr-banan],
When did camaraderie [mehrbani] end? Where are the princes of the realm [shahryaran]?
Hundreds of thousands of flowers bloomed and not a single bird sang,
What happened to the nightingales, where are the songsters? . . .
Silent O Hafez! No one knows mysteries of the providence,
From whom do you ask what befell at the turns of the Time?2
References to camaraderie lost, to his barren land that once belonged to sun priests—an allusion to the ancient Zoroastrians in Fars province, to perished princes of the realm (another allusion to a princely patron of the poet), to silent nightingales (probably the poet-singer himself), and finally to mysterious turns of fortune deeply resonated with audiences, who may have identified with Hafez’s allusions to “injustices” of their own time and misfortunes of the revolutionary course.
In his 1999 Ahang-e Vafa (Song of faithfulness) Shajarian included an old song with lyrics by Bahar, the poet of the Constitutional Revolution and composed by the celebrated Gholam-Hosain Darvish (1872–1926), possibly in 1915, when most of Iran had come under Russian and British occupation. The message resonated with Shajarian’s audiences eight decades later:
It is all gloom and doom,
Will a dawn to our night ever bloom?
Our homeland has no other cure,
But to wait and endure.
Poor Bahar stop moaning,
For there is no use in sobbing and sighing.
Shajarian had to add a note to the album’s leaflet, presumably at the request of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, stressing that the song “was composed at the end of the Qajar era and reflects conditions of that time.” He also dropped the final line in Bahar’s lyric:
From both directions they smack on her head [i.e., Iran],
She who doesn’t have a double-edged blade.3
A GREEN SEDITION
In June 2009 the Green Movement (jonbesh-e sabz) brought to the surface among the urban middle classes these undercurrents of discontent with the Islamic Republic and its devious ways. Triggered by the presidential election campaigns of two opposition candidates, Mir Hosein Musavi (b. 1942) and Mahdi Karrubi (b. 1937), who were running against the incumbent President Ahmadinejad, the Green Movement brought millions to the streets of the capital and provincial centers. They were the largest demonstrations that Iran has seen since the early days of the revolution three decades earlier. Both challenging candidates were among the regime’s insiders—Musavi being the former prime minister between 1981 and 1989, and Karrubi a ranking cleric who served a number of times as speaker of the Majles—they were hailed by the public and welcomed as realistic alternatives to Ahmadinejad’s presidency. What motivated the campaign rallies to transform into a mass protest movement, more than the relative credibility of the opposition candidates, was Ahmadinejad’s disastrous presidency, Khamenei’s flawed judgment, and the Islamic Republic’s fearful elite.
The vote rigging in favor of Ahmadinejad that reinstated him in office were followed in succeeding days by the Supreme Leader’s endorsement of the rigged election. His approval, coming after an equally flawed inquiry by the Guardian Council, confirmed the regime’s audacity to enforce a lie. The subsequent clampdown on the rallies, mass arrests of protesters, barbaric torture in detention centers, and secret murders of detainees further displayed a willingness to use whatever means were at the regime’s disposal to crush any voice of opposition. The mass trials in front of television cameras, when large numbers of “leaders of sedition” (saran-e fetneh) were tried and given heavy sentences, were reminiscent of the Soviet-style trials of the Stalin era. The Green Movement, named after the green color adopted by the protesters, above all demonstrated popular demand for liberalization, democracy, and accountability. It revealed to the Islamic regime, to the international community, and to the hundreds of thousands who gathered in Maydan Azadi in Tehran, in Maydan Naqsh-e Jahan in Isfahan, and elsewhere in Iran the existence of popular dissent among the predominantly young middle classes (pl. 17.2). After thirty years of the regime’s Islamification, failed economic policies, international isolation, and ethnic, religious, and cultural repression, people had not sunk into submission. Although the Green Movement was crushed, the hope for change is unabated: there is hope for a more open and more tolerant state that allows for its citizens to flourish, to emerge from deacades of isolation, and for the revolution to bear unspoiled fruits.
Soon after the authorities labeled the Green Movement as a fetneh (Arabic fitna, meaning “sedition”) so as to discredit it in the eye of the public as an act of rebellion against the just cause of the Islamic government. Yet seemingly unbeknownst to the regime, the concept of fetneh in Islamic history, and even with the greater resonance in Iran’s historical experience, carried an intricate subtext. As much as in the hand of the authorities fetneh could be used to denounce and to stamp out the dissent, fetneh also conveys a sense of rebellion against the unjust rule, a notion perhaps closest to the modern concept of a popular revolution. Even in Shi‘i apocalyptic prophecies the advent of the Mahdi, the Lord of the Time, is preceded by a fetneh—one that eventually topples the dark age of the antichrist, known as the Dajjal, and paves the way for the establishment of the Mahdi’s “just and equitable order.” It was as if three decades of resting in power had made the authorities in the Islamic Republic forget not only the fact that the 1979 revolution was a fetneh but also the very Shi‘i prophecies that they had studied, or ought to have studied, in the madrasas of Qom.