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Turmoil and Transformation in Iran

Speech before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on February 15, 2000:

Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times Correspondent
 and Author, The Last Great Revolution

 "Turmoil and Transformation in Iran"

Thank you very much.

Thereís a special irony in that here I am, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and Iíve been to the city four times, twice to speak to this group. I actually know downtown Tehran far better than I know downtown Los Angeles.

For the past twenty years many of my friends have thought I was just slightly nuts to actually want to go to Iran. I, however, think Iím the luckiest person I know because Iíve had the extraordinary privilege of witnessing one of the most interesting and, arguably, one of the most important events of my lifetime, half a century. Iíve also witnessed the most important revolution of the past half century: Iranís revolution was the seminal turning point of the twentieth century. In the Middle East only two events have had comparable importance. One was the creation of the state of Israel and the other was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which paved the way for the creation of the modern Arab world. But for the rest of the world, Iranís revolution also had extraordinary importance in terms of its influence on oil prices and, perhaps more in our minds, for its influences on the pattern of modern warfare--specifically terrorism and the broader use of religion in politics.

As Diane [Glazer] said [in her introduction], I was a young reporter when I first went to Iran in 1973. At that time, the fourth Middle East war had just broken out, and fury engulfed the region. Iran, in contrast, was a place then that made a lot of sense. In a region that was filled with hatred and rivalry Americans were welcomed. Indeed, we were everywhere, advising government officials, helping them develop their oil industry, teaching in their schools, and peddling our cars, language, fashion, industrial products and perhaps most of all, our culture. Iran even did business with Israel back then, selling Israel the oil that the Arab world wouldnít. For the U.S., Iran and Israel were the two pillars of U.S. policy.

My memories of that first visit are still very strong. I stayed at what was then a new Hilton Hotel at a time that the Miss Iran pageant was picking a candidate for Miss Universe. I swam in the pool, I played tennis on the courts and I had a drink in the bar, with a man. I also spent a day wandering the dusty labyrinthine alleys of what I think is the worldís greatest bazaar, in Tehran, and I remember seeing two enormous silk carpets hanging from the vaulted rafters, one of the Shah and the other of John Kennedy. I drove down boulevards named after Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth, all of whom had made visits to Iran.

It was somewhat of an illusion, looking back. Through a political sleight of hand that was at times masterful and at other times clumsy, autocratic monarchy controlled the environment, and anyone who disagreed politically or culturally paid a price. Some Iranians were actually expelled from the land of their birth. Foreigners like me often felt better about Iran than Iranians did, partly because of a superficial cultural imprint from the West, but mostly because we often saw what we wanted to see. An Iranian journalist explained to me a decade after the revolution what had happened. He said: "You thought you understood Iran because the Shah spoke English and because his cabinet had read Shakespeare. You thought he was good, because you could see a reflection of yourself in him, but he understood Iran as little as you did and thatís why you both failed." I have to admit I never intended to make Iran a specialty, but then the revolution happened and what foreign correspondent can resist the best story in the world?

The images after I went back were starkly different. The streets had been renamed for martyrs in the revolution and other foreign people with whom the revolution sympathized, such as Bobby Sands, the former IRA prisoner who starved in jail. Queen Elizabeth Boulevard became Bobby Sands Avenue, Los Angeles Avenue was renamed Hijab Street, a pointed jab because hijab is the name for the modest Islamic dress that women are required to wear. When I went through immigration they tore up a deck of cards that I had brought with me, and they confiscated a chess game because the pieces were from the monarchy and because the game was often a source of betting. Most painful of all to my vanity, I had to put ten bandaids over my nail polish because nail polish was banned.

I then covered the hostage crisis, and I stood at the foot of the steps of the plane in Algiers in 1981 when fifty-two Americans were freed after 444 days in captivity. And then I moved to Beirut, totally hooked, and of course Iran was a frequent stop. Even after I moved back to the United States, however, I couldnít resist the lure of the place, and so Iíve been going back once or twice every year.

At a very early stage I recognized that Iranís revolution was always about far more than simply getting rid of one weak or corrupt monarch, or even ending 2,500 years of monarchy. We, in the West, often view the revolution from our own prism as the emergence of a religious force that took a strategic cosmopolitan and wealthy country back thirteen centuries in time, but we were wrong. In fact, Iranís revolution was always a very modern revolution. It established a modern state with a constitution that borrowed heavily from France and Belgium, with checks and balances between the executive, judicial and legislative branches, with national and local elections with a limit of two terms for the presidency and with a vote for both males and females from the age of fifteen, and with seats for minorities, Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians--although the Bahaiís, in all fairness, have been banned and have been persecuted relentlessly.

But Iranís revolution was also very modern in tactics. Arms were not the main weapons in spreading the word of Islam and the Ayatollah Khomeini. The main weapons of the revolution were tape recorders and video cassettes and the telephone. The bottom line is that Iranís revolution was always about and part of a broader global trend that has been, arguably, the singular message of the twentieth century, the past five hundred years since the creation of the first nation state.

Iranís revolution was always about the same thing, and that is empowerment. What happened after the revolution is a different thing, but the goal of the many different groups that came together in 1979 to oust the Shah was always about freedom to participate and freedom to choose. Thatís where the title of my book comes from, because I think Iranís revolution completes the process that was launched earlier by other ideologies in the West. Since the English revolution in 1640 created a modern precedent, dozens of countries can claim revolutions in the name of empowerment, but only a handful can claim to be seminal turning points. They set the pace, they defined goals, and they provided a justification. Most important, they introduced new ideologies that were adopted or imitated later elsewhere.

Two revolutions particularly shook conventions. In toppling the Bourbons of France, the Jacobins of the eighteenth century introduced equality and civil liberty as the basis of modern democracy. In the early twentieth century, the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian Romanovs and created a system of classless egalitarianism. The ideas that emerged from those two revolutions helped topple monarchies and tyrannies worldwide and then defined the political spectrum that replaced them.

In the twentieth century, when you think about whatís happened, empowerment embodied in socialism and democracy inspired popular uprisings from China to Cuba in the Ď40s and Ď50s, independence movements from Algeria to Zambia in the Ď60s and Ď70s, and finally the penetration of democracy from the Soviet Union to South Africa in the Ď80s and Ď90s. The pattern of global change, however, has always had one large block that was not part of it, and thatís the Islamic world: more than fifty countries out of the 191 nations on earth that stretch from Indonesia on the Pacific to Morocco on the Atlantic, from Kazakhstan in Central Asia to Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf, from Somalia in drought-stricken East Africa to Nigeria in oil-rich West Africa, and from Lebanon on the Mediterranean to Yemen on the Red Sea. The Islamic block counts for one out of every five people on earth that have been excluded from the political process that has swept the rest of the world. The Islamic world today is also home to the last functioning monarchies in the largest number of authoritarian regimes. In this context, Iranís revolution is arguably the modern eraís last great revolution. It introduced a new idealogy to the worldís modern political spectrum. In a region where opposition has often been imprisoned or exiled and even executed, it established a precedent of using Islam to push for empowerment. It provided a formula, if not a precise format, for people in the last group of undemocratic countries to make the transition.

Now, before you think that Iím an apologist for this regime and the gross injustices and the horrendous terrorism and extremism that have occurred over the past two decades, let me hasten to add that Iranís revolution was very early on hijacked by a small minority of the clergy. The democratic veneer has always been that: a veneer. Indeed, in the end no country is ever likely to imitate Iranís revolution or its experience, because the excesses that diminished, that cost the regime and made it a pariah in the rest of the world, were simply too high. The fact that Iranís revolution is considered increasingly as one of the worldís great revolutions, again not in quality of being good, but in terms of impact, doesnít necessarily mean that the worldís only modern theocracy is going to succeed. Indeed, if you look at what happened to the French and the Russian revolutions, they eventually imploded, too.

And yet it still will rank as one of the last great revolutions because it paved the way for the use of Islam to empower, not only politically. Just as the Christian Reformation was critical both for the age of enlightenment and the birth of modern democracy in the West, so, too, have Iranian philosophers and thinkers begun to formulate an Islamic reformation that is arguably more important than the theocratic form of government and will probably have more of a lasting impact on the Islamic world. The Reformation is one of what I call the revolutions within the revolution, and thatís really where my focus on Iran is today. Iranians have often in defiance of the theocracy gone out and gotten for themselves what the revolution didnít give them. I thought it might be useful to give you three little snapshots of what Iím talking about to illustrate my point and Iíll begin with this Islamic reformation.

An Islamic movement has been struggling to reform for over a century, in countries stretching from Egypt to India, to reconcile the Islamic sense of identity and purpose and values with modernity. But for most of the past century ideas were limited to a small elite of thinkers--and then came Iranís revolution and an environment tremendously rich for Islamic philosophers and, to support them, an educated mass. One of the revolutionís real achievements was its level of education. It increased literacy from 58 percent to almost 90 percent, and this created a middle class that understood the sophistication of some of the ideas put forward.

The movement is personified by a man who may be the most important person Iíve met in my life--and Iíve met lots of the worldís great characters. His name is Soroush, and you may hear a lot more about him. He is one of those who reflects the change in Iran. He was originally one of the Ayatollah Khomeiniís followers. He met him when the Ayatollah was in exile. He was appointed to be part of the cultural revolution in the universities, but very early on he began to see the limits of the system, and he began to look at Khomeini as part of the transition rather than the goal of what Iran ultimately wanted to achieve. Many in Iran now compare him and call him the "Martin Luther of Islam." He has developed a series of very accessible ideas about freedom. He says, for example, that to be a true believer, whatever your faith, you must have come to it by free will, not because it was imposed or not because itís inherited, but because you voluntarily accept it and embrace it. Therefore, freedom precedes religion, and this is the kernel that he uses to justify all other freedoms. In the same vein, he says an Islamic state canít be imposed. It has to be embraced, accepted and voted on by the majority of the people. And, finally, he concludes that the use of religion in politics without all other freedoms is dangerous because it will lead to totalitarianism.

Now in context of the fact that ten years ago yesterday Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death edict against Salman Rushdie for his book, The Satanic Verses, itís extraordinary that a man can come out and say these kinds of truly revolutionary things. A couple of years ago during the anniversary of the American hostage taking, Ayatollah Khamenei, whoís now the supreme leader, spent more time condemning Soroush than he did condemning the United States. Heís no longer a lone voice. Even within the clergy there have been a growing group of voices within Iran who are challenging the system. Itís reflected in two trials that have taken place over the last 18 months, one involving a man named Nouri who was a Vice President of Iran and an Interior Minister. At his trial by his peers in the clergy for insulting Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, and Khomeini in the newspaper, he dared to challenge the use of religion in politics at all. He said he refused to accept the right of the religious court to try him, he demanded a secular trial, and he demanded a jury. When he was found guilty, he refused to appeal on the grounds that he never accepted. The bottom line of what he was pushing for was separation of mosque and state. Again, something that was critical when you think of that issue in the West in defining modern democracy.

Thereís another young cleric who is a charismatic figure, whose sister is one of the advisors to President Khatami, whose brother-in-law is the controversial Minister of Culture. His name is Kadivar and he is so charismatic that he has his own set of groupies in Iran who actually hold vigils outside the prison. He dared to compare the practices in Iran today with practices during the Shahís time. He also challenged the role of the Supreme Leader, which is as close as youíll come anywhere in the world to seeing a political papacy. He suggested that the Supreme Leader was not only not fallible or not infallible, but that he should be held accountable to the constitution, that perhaps he should also be elected. The extraordinary guts of many of Iranís thinkers and clergy today, really in getting the revolution back on its original course-- is one of the most important events and, again, one of the revolutions within the revolution.

The second revolution will, maybe, interest more of you who live in Southern California, and that is whatís happened within a cultural context, particularly the cinema. This is where the front line of Iranís future and its identity is playing out. Some of the earliest challenges came from artists and cinematographers who petitioned the government to end censorship and to stop interfering in everything from the distribution of raw stock for film to script lines. The 1990s generally saw a cultural counter-revolution. Films have increasingly become the cutting edge. Theyíre even making trouble for some of those who support change.

A couple of years ago I interviewed a wonderful man who is Iranís leading comedian. Itís amazing to think thereís more than one, isnít it? His movie was called The Snow Man and it had been in limbo for seven years. Itís a wonderfully funny tale of a man whoís desperate to get an American visa. He does everything he can and fails, so he ends up going to Turkey, where heís conned by every group that he comes into contact with. Finally he meets someone who suggests that he dress up as a woman and that he would then be introduced to an American [man] so he can marry the American and then he will qualify for a U.S. visa. Now the movie was in limbo, not because of the issue of the U.S. visa, but because a man plays a woman. When I interviewed him he said, "I am the Mrs. Doubtfire or the Toostie of Iran."

Movies in general are making or covering incredibly controversial issues and redefining the boundaries of what it is acceptable to write and think about. The White Balloon, which won at Cannes a couple of years ago, jabs at Iranís failure to address poverty, at racial bias, at child exploitation. A quartet of films by a wonderful man named Dariush Mehrjui, who is the father of modern Iranian cinema, focuses on the plight of women. In every one of his movies the woman either leaves her husband or heads out on her own to benefit and to improve her own life.

The transition in Iran is reflected by a wonderful family named Makhmalbaf, a father and daughter pair of cinematographers. The father made some of the original, really avidly religious and revolutionary films, but very soon, by the mid-í80s he was beginning to do things that had a secular theme and had other story lines. His seventh movie, called A Time to Love, was very controversial and ended up being held unreleased for a long time, several years. It was about a love affair that a married woman had with a younger man. What was controversial was not the theme of forbidden love, but the fact that it had three endings, from the perspective of the married woman, her younger lover, and her husband. The message was that perception varies and so does the truth. Therefore, there is no single truth, or as they say in Islam "no single path."

One of the most startling films came out last year by his daughter, named Samira, who was eighteen when she made the film, and itís called The Apple. Itís based on a true story that she saw on the news one night about an illiterate man who locked up his twin daughters from birth for fear that the gaze of strange men would taint them. He was eventually reported by neighbors. The movie centered around the gradual exposure of the girls. Samira convinced the authorities to let her film the real characters, and she went along. There was nothing staged, nothing pre-scripted, as these girls discovered the world, simple things like a comb and a piece of mirror. The title comes from their exposure to an apple owned by a neighbor boy which, of course, gets back to the Biblical tale. These girls were mute, unschooled and disabled. She said she wanted to make the point that all it takes to imprison women is one man. The amazing part of the movie is the way it shows how women who come into contact with society become more complete as human beings, which was a metaphor for all women in Iran. This is from an eighteen-year old. When the film opened last year in New York she came over and was interviewed by the American press and someone asked her: "Which is the status of women today? A society where a man can imprison his own girls, cut them off completely from society, or an eighteen-year old film maker who can make a movie like this?" And, of course, the answer is both. Iran is in the midst of a transition.

That brings me to the third revolution within a revolution, and thatís the womenís movement. It is the most energetic movement in Iran today. Because of the dress code-- and even I have to wear a scarf and a baggy coat when I go to Iran--we tend to think or equate women in Iran with their sisters in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. I think the differences couldnít be greater. Iranian women today are by far the most politically active in the Persian Gulf and among the most empowered in the Islamic world. They vote, as I said, from the age of fifteen, and they run for public office. There are going to be elections in Iran, Friday [February 18, 2000] and almost five hundred women are running for local office. Last year, 5,000 ran for municipal elections. Theyíve even run for president. There are more women today in Iranís parliament than there are in the U.S. Senate. More than 40 percent of university students are female, as are a third of all faculty members. There are 140 female publishers in Iran. Women are painters, sculptors, designers, movie stars and movie producers, and sculptors crafting what are called "anatomically correct figures" and what everyone else would call "nudes."

Women have certainly come a long way from the early days of the revolution and what I would call gender apartheid. In the early 1980s, a former female education minister was executed for promoting prostitution. The minimum age of marriage for women was lowered to nine. All women who had risen to power were fired and a new constitution removed critical womenís rights in divorce and child custody. In contrast, in the 1990s, women have successfully lobbied, protested and campaigned to change laws on employment and divorce and maternity leave. Women packed a court room a couple of years ago to protest child custody laws after the brutal death of an eight year old who died weighing only 35 pounds. She had a fractured skull, two broken arms and burn marks all over her body at the hands of her father, a drug addict with a criminal record and a history of abuse.

Islamic law allows a woman, a divorced woman, to keep the children from a marriage, a son until the age of two and a daughter until the age of seven, and after that they automatically revert to the father. This is not something that is restricted to Iran. Under pressure from women, Parliament revised the law in 1998, so a child could no longer be awarded to an unfit father, and it also redefined custody qualifications that often disqualify men.

They have also broken through the sports barrier, which, in my old sports writing days, is something near and dear to my heart. Theyíre even playing sports. Last year I went to a basketball game. There are eighty-five teams in Tehran alone playing in five different womenís leagues. There are two million women today playing soccer, basketball, swimming, tennis, judo, fencing, skiing, golf, karate, horseback riding, gymnastics and even water skiing in the most ridiculous uniforms youíve ever seen in your life--but they do it nonetheless. In 1996 a female led the Iranian team at the Olympics onto the field in Atlanta.

But the interesting thing about the womenís movement is that the new activists are as distinct as the political environment. The most outspoken are no longer the most Westernized or the upper class elites. Many come from traditional families, and some would probably opt today to continue to wear Islamic dress if given a choice. But they all dared to challenge Iran and the system on far more critical issues. Womenís publications particularly have become almost brazen. Thereís a magazine, or a newspaper named Zhan, which wrote editorials condemning stoning and did exposťs on the return of prostitution and even reported a message from the former Empress. Another intellectual womenís magazine writes big think pieces with titles that could come out of Ms. Magazine, like the "Rights of Women in Islam," "How to Proceed" and "The Long Way Ahead."

There is clearly a long way to go because some of the restrictions are today still bizarre. Women can vote equally in Parliament and be equal among the vice presidents, but her testimony in court carries only half the weight of a manís. She can head a university and publish a newspaper, but she canít leave Iran without written permission from her husband. She can act on the same stage and be the star over a man in the movies or in the theater, but she canít sing in public. She canít ski on the same slopes or ride in the same section of the bus. At the same time women are today so central and so acknowledged that they were one of the two forces that put the reformist president in office. He, in turn, brought more women in, including appointing the first female vice president, which I will say theyíre ahead of us on something.

All in all, Iran is a very different place today and my favorite anecdote to reflect the change involved an issue of family planning. In 1979, when the mullahs came to power they called on Iranian women to breed an Islamic generation and, boy, did they. Within a decade, Iranís population went from 34 million doubling to almost 62 million. But the government of God plummeted to earth when it realized that it couldnít afford the schools and the housing and the jobs for all of these people. So the mullahs reversed course completely, and they began issuing fatwas, religious edits, calling on women to breed only two children or less. They introduced a requirement that, to get married today in Iran, you have to pass a family planning class. One of the my favorite vignettes, itís in my book in fact, involves a couple who had met each other the day before. It was an arranged marriage, and they had to go sit through this very graphic planning class--in which I learned something. Everything in Iran today is free, condoms, IUDs, Norplant and vasectomy. In fact, the big water tower in Tehran advertises the location of the "no-scalpel vasectomy clinic."

Iran has gone through a lot of change and thatís my point, and it may go through further change because of elections this week. Your session today is actually very timely. Iranians are going to go to the polls to elect a new parliament and the stakes are far greater than just 290 seats. This is really a critical turning point for Iran.

Since the revolution, Iran has gone through three stages. The first period was the first decade, which coincided with the last decade of Ayatollah Khomeiniís life. This was the period of tremendous turmoil and the one which we in the West tend to be most stuck in terms of the images in our mind. It was a period of their extremism in their sponsorship of Shiíite militant groups all over the region, the period of the eight year war with Iraq, which was the bloodiest of all modern Middle East conflicts. It was a period of hostage taking and of the kind of internal tension that ended up with the deaths of a president, a prime minister, twenty-seven members of Parliament, and over a thousand officials.

The second phase of the Iranian revolution coincided with the two terms of President Rafsanjani. Most of us remember him because he was the man associated most often with the arms for hostage swap. Those of us in the press refer to him as the "Teflon Mullah," because he got away with it. He tried to move Iran beyond Khomeini-ism. He attempted to privatize and he even revived the Shahís stock market and introduced the lottery. He attempted to better relations with the outside world, which is what part of the Iran-Contra affair was about. He even attempted to relax restrictions on Iranian society. He did make some inroads, but basically he failed and by the end of his presidency in 1997, Iran was on the verge of imploding. Forty percent of Iranian society lived below the poverty line.

Politics was paralyzed by very deep internal divisions and society was fed up, and thatís when Iran began the current stage, the so-called "Third Republic." When President Khatami, as Diane [Glazer] outlined [in her introduction], won a stunning upset election in a four-way race, he was the dark horse. At this election, Iranians made clear that theyíd had enough, that they wanted reform. Since then President Khatami has made some initial and important steps in trying to restore the rule of law, in calling for the first real political parties, in allowing freedom of expression and dozens of new newspapers that run satirical stories about the regime, very sharp political cartoons and interviews with American officials. Itís astounding what you can read in the Iranian press today. He also instituted the local elections and distributed power. Before elections last year only three hundred, plus or minus, officials were elected. With local elections, he redistributed power to almost 200,000 throughout the country. This weekís elections pit reformers who follow President Khatami against the conservatives who embody the first republic. Whoever wins will determine a lot about what happens in Iran next. So, what is next?

Let me conclude by giving you a couple of my own predictions. If public sentiment prevails, Iranís revolution is not likely to survive in its current austere form. At the same time, however, Iranians are not interested in a counter-revolution. The internal turmoil of the past twenty years has just been too disconcerting. The costs have been too high. Iranians today want to be part of the world, and most of all, part of globalization. One of my favorite images is of a cleric when I went to Qom, the holy city, about an hourís drive from Tehran, and talked to the head of Gobligani Seminary, a wonderful old white-haired cleric with this turban who looks like he could have been there thirteen centuries ago. He couldnít type a decade ago, but today heís putting Islam on the net and he has a team of mullahs who sit in front of the computer all day long. Theyíve also put, interestingly enough, all the documents of religious script of both Christianity and Judaism, and officials from the Vatican have actually been there to see what heís done. Heís invited scholars from all three major religions so that they have an access to find out the commonalities and the differences between them.

My final issue is to answer the question some of you may have asked yourselves: "Why should we really care about Iran? Twenty years later weíve done pretty well without them." Needless to say, I think we should care. Iran is simply too valuable to ignore, at least for long. Its resources, its size, its geo-strategic location and its markets--its markets, the potential--have always made Iran one of the worldís prime properties. Dating back to the fourth century B.C., an array of historic figures have sought to conquer the land because itís a crossroad. Theyíve been enthralled with Iran, from Alexander the Great to Joseph Stalin. The armies of the Prophet Mohammad, Genghis Kahn, and Tamerlane. Modern Iran is just as pivotal, its land borders Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and three of the former Soviet Republics. It has by far the longest border on the Persian Gulf, hence the name, and a hop-skip-and-a-jump across the blue-green waters of the Persian Gulf are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Some of the worldís richest countries and some of the most vulnerable.

I also happen to think that Iranians are very special people. Iíve gone through an array of emotions about the government in Tehran--fury at its extremism, angered by the injustice at home, alienated by the arrogance, frustrated at the corruption and astonished at the inefficiency. Yet I have an enduring admiration for Iranians at the end of the day.

I will conclude with one simple observation. In all the talking I have done in Iran and in the United States, my overwhelming impression is that the time has come that both societies are willing and interested in serious rapprochement.

I thank you and I look forward to your questions.


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