Revolutionary rot

Don't be fooled by Tehran's show of strength


Revolutionary rot
by Karim Sadjadpour

Even before last year's post-election tumult, it was palpable to almost anyone who had spent serious time in Iran that revolutionary rot had set in long ago. While every country has its tales of corrupt clergymen, disillusioned government officials, drug-addicted youth, and rampant prostitution, in a theocracy that rules from a moral pedestal these stories have long served to highlight the government's hypocrisy and hollow legitimacy.

Although Iran's amateur cell-phone journalists did a heroic job chronicling scenes of extraordinary courage and harrowing government brutality -- a record that is "more important than all of the history of our cinema," acclaimed filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf graciously put it in a Wall Street Journal interview -- what is impossible to capture on video is the dismay of Iran's traditional classes who continue to believe strongly in Islam, but have lost their faith in the Islamic Republic.

Growing up in a household where my devoutly religious, veiled grandmother had an aversion to Shiite clergy, I learned from a young age that piety was not always, indeed not often, an indicator of support for theocracy. Two decades later, based in Tehran with the International Crisis Group, I came to learn through daily interaction with Iranian officials that they, too, had their doubts.

While jumping through bureaucratic hoops at the Iranian Foreign Ministry several years ago to retrieve my confiscated passport (a wrist slap compared with what many of my contemporaries later endured), I was taken aback to find that nearly every office I entered had BBC Persian or Rooz -- considered subversive, anti-government websites, which are now filtered -- on their computer screens.

In meetings, especially with Western officials, Iranian officials would parrot the party line. But in private conversations, out of earshot of their bosses, a different narrative could often be heard. A former Iranian ambassador in Asia once confided to me over dinner in Paris that as "naive" young revolutionaries, he and his friends had grossly underestimated how difficult it would be to govern Iran and satisfy its fickle population. "We didn't appreciate at the time," I was surprised to hear him say, "the enormous challenges the shah had to deal with."

I used to recount these tales to a friend of mine, a devout, American-educated professor of political science at Tehran University who ran in government circles. He would smile and recount for me his own stories. "Everyone hates the regime," he told me once, only half-jokingly. "Even the regime hates the regime."

The revolutionary slogans that once inspired a generation of Iranians have become banal background noise for a population born predominantly after the revolution. Amid the bustle of a Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran several years back, I saw a rumpled, 50-something man furiously pumping his fist up and down and chanting something unintelligible. No one seemed to pay any attention to him. As he passed me, his words became clearer:

"Marg bar Amrika peechgooshtee sadt toman! Marg bar Amrika peechgooshtee sadt toman!"

"Death-to-America screwdrivers, 100 toman! Death-to-America screwdrivers, 100 toman!"

I was curious to check out his merchandise -- cheaply priced, anti-imperialist household tools -- so I flagged him down. Sensing his first sale, his eyes lit up.

"How many do you want?" he asked enthusiastically. He had a basket of at least 30. I grabbed one and took a closer look. Turning the screwdriver in my hand, I searched in vain for the words "Death to America."

"Where is the 'Death to America'?" I asked.

He shot me a puzzled look. "You want one with 'Death to America' written on it?"

"Isn't that what you said?"

"That was just an advertisement!" he explained to me with a wave of the hand, incredulous at my naiveté. "I said, 'Death to America! Screwdrivers for 100 toman!'" Two altogether separate sentences, he argued. The small crowd we had attracted shared his incredulity and verified that there indeed had been a pause between the two phrases.

"Come back next week," he said. "Perhaps I'll have some for you then." (Sharia has not yet replaced the laws of supply and demand in Iran.)

Many close observers of Iran confess to being baffled at the country's complex politics, its internal contradictions, its cultural nuances. How is it, many wonder, that a system that has profoundly underperformed for three decades could remain in power?

The leaders of the opposition Green Movement are no doubt pondering this question today. At the height of last year's unrest, they had hoped to recruit Iran's disaffected officialdom and traditional classes. Some joined last summer, but many watched, and continue to watch, from the sidelines. "They wanted to see the Green Movement succeed," said my friend, the university professor. "But they won't make a move until things are really on the verge of change. They're afraid."

Too often we underestimate the sustainability of morally bankrupt regimes that have mastered the art of repression coupled with financial co-optation. In the cynical words of a scion of a powerful clerical family, who told me once: "When you have control over the oil revenue, you can run this country with a few million supporters and 20,000 people who are willing to kill and die for you." Maybe, though that formula did not work for the shah.

There is some wisdom in the old adage that Iran's largest political party is the hezb-e baad, the "party of the wind." Iranians have historically gravitated toward where the most powerful political winds are blowing. As anti-government demonstrations engulfed Tehran last summer, I thought of the sloganeering screwdriver salesman from Friday prayers.

"Death to the Dictator!" I pictured him saying, crying to the parched crowds. "Watermelon juice for 500 toman!"

That likely didn't happen. Not just yet. But maybe one day soon.

First published in


Karim Sadjadpour is an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


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Sargord Pirouz

Poor Karim. Now hopelessly

by Sargord Pirouz on

Poor Karim. Now hopelessly partisan, and producing utterly flawed analyses.


He copied " Party of wind" from Sattareh Farman Farmanian's

by obama on

book "Daughter of Persia. Copy rights violation! So, is that how he gets his brillian ideas from?

boom shakalaka

And you're supposed to be an Iran "expert," Karim?

by boom shakalaka on

Sonny Jesus! It's people like you who have tremendous access to western media and US officials, and yet, you make astoundingly marginal good use of it. You write these utterly fluff pieces that are not only inane and misleading, but lack any value in terms of original thought and contribution. I'm sorry to say this, but you and the Trita Parsis and the Hooman Majds of the world are mostly worthless, which is so ridiculously unfortunate for Iranians all over the world as you're privileged with enormous access. Let me just highlight your ineptitude with two references:

"How is it, many wonder, that a system that has profoundly underperformed for three decades could remain in power?... The leaders of the opposition Green Movement are no doubt pondering this question today."

The leaders of the Green Movement are pondering this question today??? Are you serious, mate? The leaders of the Greens were the very engineers of this regime just a few years back. Moussavi, Karoubi and Khatami are established capos ("made men") of the very mafia family who now want to take over the family. The only reason these people, the leaders of the Green Movement, have even been allowed to face off with the Ahmadi crowd is because they're made members of the very same criminal family, literally with blood ties and all. In fact, a huge part of IRI's incompetence and ineptitude can be laid at the doorstep of the leaders of the Green Movement. 

Secondly, you write: "When you have control over the oil revenue, you can run this country with a few million supporters and 20,000 people who are willing to kill and die for you." Maybe, though that formula did not work for the shah."

Guess what, genius, in reality, the Shah was NOT willing to kill innocent people on the streets, which, when you think about it in retrospect, is the reason he left Iran rather quickly vis-a-vis the revolution's time-line, and just as important, most of the former regime's followers were NOT willing to die for the Shah.

Do you hear me, mister so-called "expert?" The Shah even admitted as much in his New York hospital room when a former US embassador, Richard Helms, came to pay him a visit. His wife asked the Shah why he did not stay and fight for his crown. To which the Shah replied, " A dictator derives his power from his army. A monarch, on the other hand, gets his power from his people. What good is a crown that sits on the blood of his own people?"

Now you may foolishly think that the 1979 revolution was a massively bloody affair, but in truth, it was not. The western cameras sure sold the uprising as a bloody revolt, but that take had more in common with a hollywood production than a bloody rebellion. The main battles were instigated by Palestinian groups hired by the mullahs (Cinema Rex and Black Friday).

Even the SAVAK itself was a classic strawman (matarsak). The Shah's secret police were professionals after information, at the height of the cold war mind you, with well-funded Russian communist groups under the banner of the Tudeh Party, Mojahedin-e-Khalgh, Fedayoun-e-Islam, and other subversive groups up to no good all over the country. Today's IRI butchers actually enjoy torturing people. They're sadistic animals that literally take pleasure in delivering pain, which is the main reason they've survived the last 30 years (that and a vast pool of oil money to finance the oppression).

Just read tales of torture from prisoners of both the Shah's Evin and the IRI's Evin -- there are samples in New York Times reporter, Elaine Sciolino's book, Persian Mirrors, and she's no fan of the Pahlavis. The Shah's Evin is described as "Heaven" by former prisoners of both regimes, when compared to the IRI's Evin.

Seriously, what a truly disappointing article!

Iran is a prisoner of IRI 



profoundly underperformed for 3 decades could remain in power?

by Anonymouse on

By celebrating underperformance!  By making underperformance the requirement to be acknowledged.  Ehhh let the beard grow, no ties, wear slippers to work, don't use trash can, don't turn on the car's lights at night and the list goes on!

Many Iranians in Iran are now used to just not wanting to be bothered with much of anything.  Ehhh I don't feel like it, it's good enough, forget it, I'll fix it when it breaks, doesn't really need it, why bother!

On the other hand claim world class accomplishment over these underachievements!  No one can do it better!  We are self-sufficient with oil revenue!  We don't need international trade when we can buy things on black market.  We don't need to talk diplomatically when we can talk trash!  

Everything is sacred

hamsade ghadimi

excellent points karim.  i

by hamsade ghadimi on

excellent points karim.  i too have witnessed the disillusionment of those who are supposedly the backbone of the clerical regime.  the rampant drug use can easily be observed in streets of tehran, shiraz, anzali,....  that pichgooshti should be at least 1000 toman now.

bas ey khaghani az soodaaye faased, ke sheytan mikonad talghin sooda...