Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran (Portobello Books, 2005).

Civil society held at gunpoint

Here we go again. As Iran becomes increasingly isolated and under pressure from both Western powers and its Arab neighbours in the region, the battle lines are drawn. For many Iranians the signs are both ominous and all too familiar. On 22 September 1980, Iraq attacked western Iran, launching what would become the longest conventional war of the twentieth century.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were used as cannon fodder in "human-wave" attacks on Iraqi artillery positions. Yet one need only walk through the Muslim, Armenian, Assyrian and Jewish cemeteries of Iran and read the gravestones of the young men who died defending their country to grasp the degree of patriotism towards a homeland and a heritage that goes back thousands of years. Some may view such national attitudes as yet another sign of our extremist position. Be that as it may, Europeans need not look further than the patriotism that sustained the great war of 1914–18, or the war after that.

Unlike most countries in the Middle East, Iran's borders are not lines in the sand drawn on the impulse of 19th- and 20th-century European colonialists. So-called American think tanks can think themselves blue in the face, but Iran will not be balkanized.

Seymour Hersh has recently drawn our attention to a so-called "redirection" of the US Middle East strategy. Or what others have called the Henry Kissinger model of negotiating with Iran from a position of strength by pitting Sunni Arab regimes and Israel against Shia Iran. Blaming Shia Iran for a predominately Sunni uprising in Iraq, and capitalizing on the fears of countries such as Saudi Arabia of the regional ascendance of Iran, may be proving lucrative to arms dealers. But these divide-and-conquer tactics also refuel the poisonous sectarian war in Iraq, and will prove equally catastrophic if they help spread such intensifying hostilities – unprecedented since the 17th century – throughout the Middle East.

For the US in particular, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has proved an ideal bogeyman. Yet despite his puffed-up persona in the West, only eighteen months into power (December 2006) Ahmadinejad was dealt an embarrassing blow in Iran's twin votes for local councils and the Assembly of Experts. Voters showed their disillusionment over the Iranian president's unfulfilled economic promises and his aggressive policies abroad. Allies of the president failed to win control of any local council.

Corruption and cronyism were the vein of popular anger into which Ahmadinejad tapped. He had appealed to the minds and hearts of jobless youths and underpaid workers, promising food and housing subsidies for the poor. Yet his defiant isolationist policies have rapidly undermined his electoral promises. Ahmadinejad comes from and is endorsed by the hardline core of the regime that has ultimately controlled power in Iran since the revolution. His inability to keep his campaign promises is a critical challenge to the heart of Iran's radical élite.

Ahmadinejad had become the mayor of Tehran in 2003 after a 12% turnout. During his tenure the man who had famously donned street a sweeper's uniform in camaraderie with the workers also backed many labour unions. He even used them to attack the reformist parliamentarians during the President Khatami era (1997–2005) with accusations that the government was pandering to irrelevant civil society ideals and ignoring the real problems of ordinary workers.

Yet since his election labour disputes and protests have been on the rise. In recent months Iran has seen large protest rallies by teachers' union groups outside the Iranian parliament. On 14 March the government clamped down on a gathering of around 10,000 demonstrators and hundreds of teachers were arrested. Amongst the detained were many prominent union leaders who not so long ago Ahmadinejad had championed. Iran is struggling with rising unemployment and surging inflation that is felt most severely by the poor, who are among his most important constituency.

Ahmadinejad has attracted other opponents who are starting to feel the regressive impact of his presidency. In policies reminiscent of the paksazi (cleansing) adopted during the early days of the 1979 revolution, he has tried to replace longstanding veterans throughout state institutions with inexperienced ideological allies; and in the process has left countless well-connected enemies in his tracks.

In a state strategy referred to by student activists as a "second cultural revolution", numerous academic staff have been sacked or forced into early retirement, and student activists summoned to court, expelled or arrested. Student publications have been closed down, long-established student groups banned and student election results nullified.

But these plans are not working out. Iran's largest student union Tahkim Vahdat (Office to Foster Unity) was set up by Ayatollah Khomeini at the dawn of the revolution. It gradually acquired legitimacy through free elections and the vote of the nationwide student population, and has evolved into an independent pro-democracy union. A generation after the revolution, no hardline Islamic student group is (or has been) able to gain control of any Iranian campus in the land through elections. As hard as they try, the ruling élite cannot just wish away the burgeoning children of their own revolution by suddenly banning elections.

Yet it is foolish to even imagine that Iran's youth are longing to be bombed into democracy. In the period before war with Iraq, it was not uncommon to see tens of thousands of people of various different currents on the march against the then-dawning theocracy. Under the blackout of war, the protests disappeared overnight. Most political groups were effectively gagged by being labelled as traitors. Many others recognized that their country faced a greater external enemy, and voluntarily took an oath of silence for the sake of unity. The reaction in Iran today will be the same: an armed attack involving strategic air-strikes by the United States will not provoke a popular uprising.

In December 2006, despite the government's crackdown, an extraordinary crowd of students participated in protests in many major universities around the country called "university is alive". A speech of a student leader at Tehran University was met with
rapturous applause as he said: "Our struggle is twofold, fighting against internal oppression and external foreign threats"; a sentiment that is echoed much in Iran these days.

Iranian Student Mehrad Vaezinejad recently wrote of a sense of being betrayed by Iranian leaders "and bullied, of course, by yours". Writing of childhood memories that are marked by war, he asks: "How, on this bloodstained earth, did I arrive at this troubling scenery yet again? Who authorized these warmongering fanatics in Tehran and Washington to test one another's nerves with a gun pointed at my head?"

In an open letter marking International Women's Day a group of prominent women's rights activists inside Iran recently wrote that: "On one side – with the absence of a democratic structure – we witness decisions being made on our behalf without our presence or the presence of our legitimate leaders. While at the other end we feel the circle of the siege around us increasingly tighten as we are threatened with sanctions and the nightmare of war." Yet adding that "despite all the pressures and obstacles the Iranian women's movement is now within its most enduring and active period in recent history."

Those who lived through the Iranian revolution of 1979 are now a minority. In the post-war baby-boom, Iran's population has more than doubled to almost 70 million, of whom nearly two-thirds are under 30 years old. At the same time, literacy is well over 90%, even in rural areas; more than 60% of university graduates, a third of all doctors, 60% of civil servants and 80% of all teachers in Iran are women. Ali Reza Alavitabar, publisher of several influential newspapers that were shut down in recent years, has said of Iran's new generation that "they deny all the previous generations; as if they are the first intelligent generation in recent Iranian history".

Ahmadinejad cannot turn back the clock. Some of the youth of Iran's Arab neighbours may dream of replacing the dictatorships they live under with Islamic states; the Iranians have been there, done that, got the apparel – and suffered the drawbacks.

Radical Iran survives in isolation and conflict. But while the gap between the rulers and the ruled widens, fanatics have raised the volume of their hardline rhetoric, desperately trying to reassert Iran's radical credentials. Today, even if war with Iran is not being actively planned, the war of words and the extensive military build-up in the area form an accident waiting to happen.

Throughout the 20th century baby boomers in the West have had enormous impact, driving change across the Western world; Iran's up-and-coming youth might well prove as significant and influential for their society. But that's a big might. As things stand, the countdown to confrontation between the West and Iran may yet lead to the destruction of another Iranian generation.



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