As a strategically important country in the Middle East, the course Iran would take will have profound consequences for the entire region. But given its history and recent developments, the future looks dark and dangerous for both Iran and its enemies.
The recent years had seen a gradual but definite change in Iran’s social conditions. The fundamentalist mullahs have not been as strict in interfering with people’s life-style choices, probably due to the economic advantages presented by a consumerist culture. Considering that two thirds of Iran’s population is under the age of 30, this was seen as a tactical move by the Iranian administrators. For the outside observers this may give the impression of a free society. But the uncolored truth is that this apparent freedom of choice in a supermarket is not encouraged at the more significant political levels. The Iranian youth are deceived into accepting freedoms that are superficial and insignificant. This loosening of the noose on certain aspects of life in Iran had benefited the regimes that deployed such tactics – for it kept the public opinion favorable to the administrators and distracted people away from political activism. This developing consumerist culture in Iran is a real problem confronting Iran. But unless the majority of the youth see through the illusion, no meaningful change is to be expected.
Dissident intellectuals, who had been once vocal and active, have been either mellowed down or absorbed into the Establishment. The present generation of Iranian youth has come to believe that enough livelihoods have been destroyed and lives lost in the name of political reform. They tend to play it safe now-a-days by toeing the Establishment line than putting their future in jeopardy. Those who aspire for greater freedoms endeavor to emigrate to the United States or Europe – they don’t seem to think that pressing for reforms in their country of birth is worthwhile. This augurs poorly for the coming years. With no substantial dissident movement and organization progress is quite far away.
Iranian women’s dress codes have been a source of much controversy. As recent as a decade ago the Iranian women without exception wore the all-covering black chador. They were required to wear a head scarf and a veil – to cover up hair and face respectively. Such strictures seem to have existed a long time back. The women of today are seen to display a dress sense similar to that of western women – they had always had such an inclination. What made it easier for Iranian women of today in expressing themselves freely is the surprising aloofness of law-enforcement officials. Some western intellectuals have asserted that such trends are not due to a realization of progressive values by the wielders of power but mere cosmetic changes to temporarily appease the public. If such is indeed the truth, then the Iranian woman is a long way from being emancipated. And when one half of the population is forced to live a medieval life-style, what hope does it hold for the country as a whole?
Iran is beset by issues pertaining to human rights. A survey conducted in 2001 by Freedom House, a human-rights watchdog, found the Iranian government practicing “arbitrary detention, torture, disappearance, summary trial and execution” of its people. Recently, reformer Abbas Abdi, the founder of a neutral polling institute, was arrested. Under relentless torture and heavy political pressure, he succumbed and offered a recantation. The media, which plays a vital role in many advanced societies, is heavily censored. Those media organizations that don’t bow to the government dictates pay a heavy penalty. For example, in the year 2000 alone, tens of newspaper offices were closed down and hundreds of journalists arrested. Some activists and reformist ministers were also put in jail the same year. The reasons given for these measures were, of course, spurious – “inciting public opinion or endangering the state”. A group of progressive intellectuals who returned from a conference in Germany were sent straight to prison. All these human rights violations happened in a span of 12 months. Given that the year 2000 was not so untypical in Iran, we get a dark and distressing picture of life in Iran.
An issue of grave concern is the diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States of America. The relations between the two nations had always been turbulent. Iran and Iraq have always been of strategic importance for western powers. And the last half of the twentieth century saw an escalation of western interference in the middle-east. The hard-line clerics who hold much power in Iran are open and vocal in their loathing of America and American values. -they are known to indoctrinate school children with such slogans as “Death to America”. Although the election was seen as fair and valid by international observers, the rise to power of fundamentalist leader in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had added to the American ire. So much so, that the event was instrumental in Iran finding a place in the Bush Administration’s list of “evil” nations. Paradoxically enough, a recent public opinion poll found that most Iranians admire the American way of life, with as many as 200,000 Iranian students graduating from American universities. It then seems that there are differences only at the highest political level. With an attack on Iran by the United States a likely possibility in the near future, an immediate accord between the two countries becomes imperative. With Iran equipped with nuclear capabilities, a war could prove catastrophic for both sides.
The political institutions in Iran are much criticized by foreign observers. Although, democratic structures are present, the theocratic hold on the society is indisputable. And theocracy breeds fundamentalism. Ever since the overthrow of the Shah couple of decades back, the country has embraced theocracy more than progress and democracy. Many western diplomats have openly expressed their lack of faith in the Iranian democracy. For example, the most recent general elections in Iran were perceived in some quarters as rigged and hence the result invalid. Although, most Iranians prefer a separation of religion and politics, the ever present danger of a military confrontation with America and its allies has made it possible for hard-liners and fundamentalist clerics to thrive.
Iran’s access to nuclear technology has caused much anxiety among its enemies. The protracted war with Iraq during the 1980’s, which cost Iran a million of its citizens, had pushed it into strengthening its defenses. Iran’s antagonism with Israel has quite a history. The present Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is compared to Hitler by some analysts. Israel being a nuclear power itself, a major confrontation between the two nations could wipe out middle-east as we know it. The International Atomic Energy Agency is not amused by Iran’s recent breach of yet another forbidden line, if only supposedly for research purposes. If Iran were to march in this direction, it would be within an arms length of developing its own nuclear weapons. Iran’s persistence in developing nuclear weapons will also pursue its neighbors – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria – to follow suit. When such build up of arsenal were fired, if only by accident, would cause destruction in a massive scale.
Many human rights groups have cried foul over Iran’s treatment of its minorities. Azeri Turks were subject to insults and derogatory treatment at the political and social levels. Iran’s Azeri’s essentially belong to the majority – the Shia sub sect. Yet, they were being discriminated against due to their different ethnicity. The plight of other minorities such as the Sunnis is also an area of concern. *Kurds are another minority under the spell of mistreatment by the native Shia majority. For all these different minority community’s life is made difficult right from the level of the local bureaucracy to the upper echelons of officialdom. They have disproportionately low representation in government offices. They also have to work around laws that are constructed to benefit the Shia majority. Their community newspapers are heavily censored and dissident opinion in one of them could lead to a close down. Some of the local radio and TV stations run by and for minorities are frequently under the spell of vandalism and sabotage. It is to the credit of these minorities that they have persisted and succeeded in voicing their point of view. More reformist and tolerant policies need be framed by the powers that be. Given the fundamentalist nature of the present government, the immediate future looks very bleak indeed for the minorities.
Hence, reforms at all levels of Iranian society are called for. Given the strong political influence of the fundamentalist clerics, the task is not going to be easy. The fact that the public opinion in Iran is in favor of reform and progress is a source of hope. Iran had seen quite a few revolutions and overhauls in its past. Perhaps, it is time for another.
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