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The view from Teheran

Thursday 15 March 2007, by Roksana Bahramitash

“We want them to invade”

A few nights after my arrival to Tehran last January, I was invited to an old friend’s house. After dinner we were having tea while her husband was watching “Voice of America” (VOA), a satellite station from the US with an extensive Iranian program. It was giving a report about the possibility of a military threat against Iran. My friend’s husband was happy about that and he praised the Bush administration for wanting to invade Iran. His comment sent a shiver down my spine and in pure outrage, I bit myself several times before asking him politely if he had ever thought that a military invasion would lead to the same result as it has been the case with Iraq. His response was that the Iranian regime will not fall any other way. In his opinion, it had to fall first before anything can improve. Later on I shared my rage with a few family members who informed me that he is not the only one who thinks this way. There are some Iranians who want their country to be invaded by the United States.


A few days later, it was tasoa ashore, the usual two days of national mourning in Iran, when Shi’a Muslim hold major gathering in streets. I spent days and nights traveling in different neighborhoods in Tehran. It was just as I remembered prior to the revolution. The wealthy neighborhoods were quiet while the low income and the traditional part of the city were vibrant with people mourning the occasion. There was little change in the spirit. The only difference was that for the first time I witnessed women without head to toe veil and some with make up joining street to mourn for moharam joining men.

Out on the streets

Later in February, I went to see for myself the demonstration in support of the revolution. I left home walking on the street trying to find out how and who attends the occasion. City buses all were heading toward Azadi (Freedom) Square. I took the metro looking to see if the crowds heading the square were organized groups. What I saw were families traveling. However, the crowd seemed to came from predominantly for the lower income neighbouhoods. The spirit of the demonstration reminded me of demonstrations I had taken part in Montreal against the war in Iraq. Here and there people chanted anti Bush slogans sometimes mingled with support for the Ayatollah. I was astonished by the sheer number of people, around three to four million. There were people of all walks of life and the number of women was huge. I kept asking people to which group or organization they belonged: the answer was they had come individually. There were on the other hand organized groups such as the basij (‘people’s mobilization’ which is a sot of civil-militia organization created by Khomeini shortly after the revolution).

Not afraid

The gathering seemed a referendum on Iran’s foreign policy regarding the nuclear program. Yes to Nuclear Peaceful Program" was the dominant message. From what people were chanting, it appeared that their presence was not necessarily in support of Ahmadinejad or Ayatollah Khameni, the dominant sentiment often seemed very nationalistic. Generally speaking, Iranians are not afraid. The feeling is that the US will not invade Iran because it knows that in the event of such an attack Iran will blow up the sea passages in the Gulf paralyzing the transportation of oil. And also because for sure, Iran will attack Israel along with other US allies in the region. The perception in Teheran is that the US is engaged in a propaganda and a psychological warfare to weaken Iran’s negotiating position vis-a-vie Iraq. The US will have to sit at a negotiating table with Iran over Iraq but it wants an Iran which is weakened and subdued.

National sovereignty

According to Professor Farhadi who works at the Sociology Department at Allameh Tabatabi University, Iranians are against the US policy in the region. “The left, the anti war activist and many nationalists all agree that Iran is not Iraq or Afghanistan. Iran will and should defend itself.” The issue of nuclear program appears to bring people from different views together. It is reminiscent of 1953 when the nationalist leader Mohammad Mossadeq nationalized the oil industry. Iranians are determined not to allow the US to decide for them again. Iranians view US foreign policy discriminatory. While Israel has the largest nuclear capability, Iran is being punished for attempting to have a nuclear program which started during the Shah with the help of France who now uses it as a source of energy. Iran is rich in uranium and seeks to process it inside the country as opposed to export it as raw material. This issue has become a national and nationalist matter behind which are prepared to stand and support their government.

Internal turmoil

While Iran’s foreign policy is consensual, Ahmadinejad’s internal policy is highly contested. He is in trouble for economic failure. Inflation is high and so is unemployment. Iran’s stock market has fallen sharply to the benefit of the housing market. The price of rentals and real estate has skyrocketed making it impossible for many low-income family to access descent housing. And this does not go unnoticed by those who voted to Ahmadinejad whose campaign was focused on social justice. These days, Iran’s politics is burning with the issue of privatization. Iran’s constitution principle 44 which was against privatization of state owned enterprises has been recently reinterpreted by Khameni in such a way that allows privatization except in key industries such as oil and gas. Yet there is no consensus as to how this is going to take place. Ahmadinejad wants privatization to give government-owned enterprises to cooperatives whose members are of low income. His opponents are divided into different camps. “Reformists” want to privatize while the state remains responsible for citizens’ welfare. “Conservatives” such as Rafsanjani want major straight-forward privatization. In the meantime, Ahmadinejad’s support among the people is declining as it was shown by his defeat in recent local elections.

Women take their place

Dissatisfaction on the internal policy is exacerbated by the recent economic sanctions imposed on Iran. Western powers have been successful in their policy of economic sanction to weaken the support for the current president. However, the burnt of sanctions are on the back of people from low-income families. Women and children in particular are paying the price. But at the same time, economic sanctions backfire, strengthening the regime, not weakening it. This is what happened on March 8 when Iranian feminists were prohibited to engage in celebration of international day for women. Some women were arrested for protesting in front of Islamic court. It is true that no street demonstration took place, but Iranian feminist have not given up. They are engaged in a huge nationwide campaign called One Million Signature to end discrimination against women in the legal code. It was announced by Tehran District authorities that a motion is being debated in the city to announce 8th of March as the international Day of dialogue between Iranian and women from the rest of the world for next year.

* Bahramitash is from Iran and lives in Montreal where she is a researcher with the Center for Developing Areas Studies at McGill University.