Iran, 30 years after the Revolution
In February 1979, the regime of the Shah was overthrown by a Revolution, conducted at the time by numerous parties, going from the Liberals, the Marxists, and the Nationalists to the Islamists. The population participated massively in this revolution, the opposition led by Khomeyni insisted on cultural authenticity, political participation and social justice. This emphasis was accompanied by a rejection of Westernization, government authoritarianism, corruption and misdistribution of wealth. It was only a few months later that the Revolution became an Islamic Revolution as we usually call it. A referendum in March 1979 called for the replacement of the Monarchy to an Islamic Republic. A clerically dominated Assembly of Expert was elected to draft a new constitution, which was ratified by a popular referendum in November December 1979. The new Constitution was based upon Khomeyni’s concept of Islamic government(Vilayat I faquih, rule by the jurisconsult). Thus, it established the ultimate authority of the clerics in the management and the guidance of people, but it is important to note that the Constitution of the Islamic Republic is not the Islamic Sharia . The populist Revolution that in the first year of its existence enjoyed mass support increasingly saw its social base grow narrower. Iran is often described in the West as a rogue state supporting terrorism and as an authoritarian backward theocracy. What is the situation nowadays of Iran and of its society?
The Islamic Republic of Iran is now celebrating its 30 years of existence. During its 30 years, the country faced many threats, not without any difficulty, such as the eight years of war against Iraq, the American embargo and a series of International sanctions because of its controversial nuclear program. Despite all these challenges, Teheran nevertheless successfully imposed itself as a key player from Afghanistan to Iraq, passing through the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Bahrein and even Koweit. The political influence of Iran is far from being insignificant. Many external and internal factors contributed to the rise to power of Iran in the region. Iran is the fourth oil exporter in the world and is a rich country. It also enjoys a large popular support nationally and regionally, especially in comparison with other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt where the officials are much contested. This increasing popularity is due to the Islamic Republic’s support to the Palestinians and its hostility against Israel and the United States. Besides, we have often observed surveys from the Middle East where the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the most popular official in the region because of its opposition and hostility towards these two last countries. But the key element which drove Iran on the regional scene was without any doubt the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The collapse of the Iraqi army in 2003 effectively did put Iran in a situation free of any regional military rivals. The United States has in the past already acknowledged implicitly Iranian regional role in accepting the presence of Teheran, may be even contacts, during International or regional meetings over the Iraqi and the Afghanistan file, notably on security issues. Besides the new American President Barack Obama has already initiated a dialogue with Iran but discreetely through experts in nuclear proliferation of its transition team and he also called several times since the beginning of the year to open direct relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We have seen the importance taken politically by Iran through the years; now let’s have a look on Iranian society evolution since the Revolution.
We often believe in the West that since the Revolution, Iran’s society is backwards, immobile and totally crushed by the regime. It is clear that the political arena of the Islamic Republic has been Islamized in a number of respects. Religion enters prominently into political discourse and all those who stand for public office, primarily Majlis elections, have to demonstrate their “practical commitment to Islam and the Islamic government” . The election law requires a candidate to be a believer in God and a loyal supporter of the Islamic Regime, the Constitution and the leader . The Council of Guardians is entrusted with the task of vetting each candidate for these qualifications. But we will observe how the process of modernity in the socioeconomic and cultural fields, as well as in the government, subordinate and subvert Islamization. The officials are often compelled to adjust their policies and discourse to practical considerations, in covering it through religious rhetoric.
The changes imposed by the new government of the Islamic Republic modified profoundly the society, in producing key elements to develop critical thinking and a certain form of social opposition. From the beginning of the 1980’s, the government emphasized on alphabetisation and electrification of the country side, as well as on the development of a network of communication inside the country, which led to a fast and direct links between the villages and the towns. Development also concerned medical services, network of drinkable water, electricity, telephone and network of roads. Now in the countryside the birth-rate is around three children per woman, against ten before the Revolution. The villages were the principal beneficiaries of the social measures taken after the Revolution, and brought them closer to the towns. Iran has also registered a rise without any precedent of the urban population, accompanied by the apparition of a vast middle class in the country.
Iran is nevertheless still a developing country and the youth constitutes the great majority of the population, which suffers greatly from unemployment. Officially, the rate of unemployment is of 11%, more than the double according to international experts. The economy is nationalized up to 90% and subjected to a commercial embargo since the instauration of the Islamic Republic .
Iran is very often criticized by the Western media in relation to the rights and obligation of women in the country. The Family law, under the Shah’s regime, was much more in favour of woman than after the Revolution. The Family Protection Law of 1967-75, which had restricted polygamy, was repealed . The government implemented strict enforcement of a dress code that required that all women wear the hijab and clothing that concealed everything but their hands and faces . But the paradox is that the introduction of the Islamic regime led to a juridical inequality between men and women on one side, to an increase homogenisation of their social and cultural condition on the other side. In towns, girls are quasi at parity with boys in the frequentation of schools institutions. In rural areas, the education rate is much higher than during the monarchy. In Universities, they are well over half of the students. The number of women graduating has overtaken the number of men, promising a change in the job market and with it a profound social change. In the applied Physics Department of Azad University, 70% of the graduates are women — a statistic which would make many universities in the West proud . Ten years ago, only 12.5% of Iranian medical students were women, and the government responded by setting a goal that half of new students would be female. Today, one-third of the 22,326 students in Iran’s 38 medical schools are women . But the regime’s policy of depriving female doctors of training in male hospital wards led to tensions. In 2001, students at the Fatimieh Female Medical School in Qom, one of Iran’s most religious cities, held a sit-in protest in Tehran. Movements in favour of women rights are numerous and they are very often equipped with newspapers such as Zan, Zanan, Hoghough é zanan, Djens e dowwom. The movements contributes to open the field for debates and to democratise the society in developing strong arguments in their favour. For the first time in Iran, a women movement constituted itself, which goes beyond intellectuals circles and takes into consideration important class of the society, going from the lower and middle one to the upper class. The field for democratic debates is therefore boosted. The arguments promoted by women jurists, such as Mehrangiz Kâr and Shirin Ebadi, underline some guaranteed forms of social injustice.
Iranian society has also become globalized. A recent blog census found that there are more than 700,000 weblogs written in Persian, compared with about 50 in neighbouring Iraq. Iranian bloggers include members of Hizbullah, teenagers in Tehran, retirees in Los Angeles, religious students in Qom, dissident journalists who left Iran a few years ago, exiles who left 30 years ago, current members of the Majlis (parliament), reformist politicians, a multitude of poets, and — quite famously — the President of Iran, among many others. This has allowed the Internet savvy Iranian youth to have access to a wide range of perspectives that criticize the Islamic Republic’s policy positions.
Publications have known important development, according to the ministry of Culture and Orientation, in 1971 1961 books were published in Iran from Iranian author, as for today the number of books published reach 41799 . Newspapers and reviews also increased considerably, drafts of daily liberals even attained few hundreds of thousands copies, far more than the conservative dailies . The liberal newspapers played an essential role in the election of the President Khatami in 1997, notably against the large official mass medias controlled by the authorities which supported the conservative candidate. The diversity of the Iranian press is significant and allows the public to be well informed, as well as different opinion to be heard.
Of course, everything is not idealistic in Iran and many of the persons who participated to the Revolution are disappointed with its outcome. The broad based coalition, from leftist to secular and islamist, etc…, that had brought about the revolution crumbled as religious authoritarianism replaced the Shah’s secular authoritarianism. Secular, Islamic, and leftist dissidents or rivals alike were silenced through execution, imprisonnement and exile. Support for the Islamic Republic is still the sine qua non for candidacy until today, as it was for key positions in government, education and other sectors of society. Nevertheless Parliamentary members representing different factions not only debates but also fight over varying policy agendas, and feel free to criticize and reject recommendations of senior governments officials. For example the current president has very often been criticized severely in Parliament for his economic policy which created enormous rate of inflation and more unemployment, as well as on its Foreign policy balance sheet.
In conclusion, The Islamic Republic does not represent what could be called a “liberal democracy”. The practice of the regime in number of areas is not in harmony with its own concepts of freedom and constitutional rights. However, Islamic government has proven to be far from being monolithic and its quasi democratic nature is clear. Iran has a functioning executive, legislative, and judicial branches. It has an elected President and parliament that engages is lively debates and within limits, feels free to disagree with its leadership. The West very often ignores the fact that Iran’s society is generally more open and more liberal than its counterparts in the Gulf. Plus in relation to the political systems and practices of the Gulf region, the high level of allowed popular participation is noteworthy. Iran’s society can claim to be one of the most dynamic of the region, and even may be the most prominent one.