Memorandum submitted by Karim Sadjadpour
Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
It goes without saying that it is difficult
to make broad generalisations about a socially diverse population
of 70 million people. Yet I do believe there are some important
thoughts and trends among Iranians which transcend age, gender,
religiosity, and socio-economic class distinctions. Based largely
on my experience living and travelling throughout Iran intermittently
from 200105, I would like to outline briefly a number of important
factors and their implications for UK policy.
1. Discontent in Iran is deeply felt, widespread,
and largely economic, but factors such as the Iraq war have tempered
Iranian desire for abrupt change
Throughout the country Iranians' sense of alienation
vis-a"-vis their leaders is palpable and transcends socio-economic
class, age, ethnicity, and religiosity. No matter where you go
or with whom you speak, it is rare to find anyone who will say:
"I am happy with the state of the country. The mullahs are
doing a decent job".
The state of the economy is the greatest source
of outrage. Despite the record oil windfall, Iranians are experiencing
increased inflation and unemployment (both are unofficially over
20%). Underemployment is rampant. On a daily basis in Tehran and
other large cities one encounters dozens of young men with professional
degrees in fields such as architecture and engineering driving
taxis and making pizzas due to a paucity of employment prospects.
Despite these socio-economic discontents, people
have become increasingly disillusioned with politics. In 1997,
2000, and 2001 they went to the polls in overwhelming numbers,
twice to elect reformist President Khatami and once to elect a
reform-minded parliament, yet saw insufficient returns on their
civic investments. As a Tehran-based intellectual once told me,
"People's disengagement from politics is understandable.
It's like exercising every day for six years and not seeing any
results. Soon you are going to stop going to the gym".
What's more, without a clear alternative model
or alternative leadership, this deep-seated desire for economic,
political, and social reform among many Iranians is tempered by
a strong aversion to unrest, uncertainty, and insecurity. Having
already experienced one tumultuous revolution (or in the case
of Iran's youth, the aftermath of one tumultuous revolution) and
a brutal eight-year war with Iraq, Iranians have few concrete
ideas as to how change should take place other than it ought to
occur bedun-e khoonrizi"without bloodshed".
The post-war carnage and tumult in next-door
neighbor Iraq has made Iranians even warier about the prospects
of a quick-fix solution. As opposed to the aftermath of the U.S.
removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, when some Iranians could
be heard romanticizing about the prospects of an equally swift
U.S. intervention in Tehran, today no Iranians point to Iraq as
a paradigm for change. As one middle-class, middle-aged Tehran
resident once told me, "When we look at what's going on in
Iraq, it seems our real choice is not one between democracy and
authoritarianism, but between stability and unrest. People are
not happy in Iran, but no one wants unrest".
Nonetheless, despite concerns about Ahmadinejad
and his team's desires to return to the early days of the revolution,
societal reform in Iran is a train that has left the tracks. While
it may be slowed down at times, and will certainly face delays
and obstacles, it is process that will be very difficult to reverse
for sheer demographic reasons: Two-thirds of Iranians are under
33-years-old; they increasingly are connected to the outside world
via satellite television and the internet; and they have no special
affinity for a revolution they did not experience and a revolutionary
government which has not been able to meet their economic expectations.
2. Tehran is not a microcosm of Iran
One reason why Ahmadinejad's 2005 election took
analysts and observers by surprise is the fact that Tehran is
not a microcosm of Iran. Similar to urbanites around the world,
Tehran's population is generally more progressive, more informed,
and more politicized than the rest of the country.
Rather than rely on official state television
as its sole news source, Tehran boasts much higher rates of Internet
penetration, satellite television viewership, and newspaper readership.
Moreover, political discontent in the capital is exacerbated by
exhausting traffic, suffocating air pollution, and high inflation.
This sense of alienation was apparent in the 2005 presidential
election, as first-round voter turnout in Tehran was only 33%
(as opposed to 62% nationwide).
Outside of Tehran, Iranians are similarly dissatisfied
with the status quo, but they are far less politicised. Political
discussion is usually centered on the lack of viable employment
or the high cost of "meat and onions" rather than a
lack of political and social freedoms. This presents a growing
dilemma for journalists and analysts covering Iran.
Though Tehran is the country's political heart
and soul (where the 1979 Revolution took place) and deserves the
lion's share of the focus, national elections are increasingly
being decided outside of Tehran, given the capital's low voter
turnout. While the seeming gulf between middle-class north Tehran
and working-class south Tehran was emphasized during the elections,
more difficult to reconcile for Iran watchers is the gulf between
Tehran and the rest of the country.
3. Ahmadinejad has failed to deliver on campaign
promises, but his fate is uncertain
Ahmadinejad has failed to deliver on his lofty
electoral pledges, namely that he would "put the oil money
on people's dinner tables". On the contrary, since his inauguration
in August 2005 the country has experienced massive capital flight,
a precipitous drop in foreign investment, rampant inflation, and
There are clear signs that his popularity is
fading. In last December's municipal elections the president's
political allies were trounced by more moderate and pragmatic
politicians. Absent any drastic occurrence (ie a military attack
on Iran), this is a trend that should likely continue in the March
2008 parliamentary elections, as well as the June of 2009 presidential
elections, when Ahmadinejad is up for re-election.
Aware that he lacks support among the urban
middle and upper classes, however, Ahmadinejad has courted economically
disenfranchised Iranians in far-off provinces, promising loans
and debt relief. Cognisant of the fact that he lacks favour among
the country's elitetechnocrats, business mangers, journalists,
academics and even senior clericshe has aimed to curry
favour with the country's paramilitary groups, such as the bassij,
and attempted to co-opt the country's top military force, the
Revolutionary Guards, by granting them lucrative construction
and development projects.
So while popular opinion in Tehran and other
urban areas is not sympathetic to Ahmadinejad, the electoral behaviour
of the bassij and the IRGC, as well as the opinions of those residing
outside the capital, will play an important but unpredictable
role in deciding his fate.
4. The degree of popular support for the nuclear
issue has been exaggerated
Despite the tremendous effort made by the country's
ruling elite to appeal to Iranians' keen sense of nationalismpointing
out Western double standards, extolling the virtues of nuclear
energy, and praising the country's scientistspopular opinion
regarding the nuclear issue is more nuanced than what the Iranian
government would like the world to believe.
Certainly many Iranians, even those unsympathetic
to the regime, have been vocally supportive of their government's
nuclear ambitions for a variety of reasons: Iran needs to prepare
for life after oil; Western double standards permit India, Pakistan,
and Israel to have nuclear programs; Iran lives in a dangerous
neighbourhood and thus need not only a nuclear energy program
but also a nuclear weapon.
What's debatable is how deep, informed, and
widespread that sentiment is. As the former Economist correspondent
in Tehran best put it, "It would be quite remarkable if a
populace increasingly disengaged from politics were suddenly energised
by something as arcane as nuclear fuel and its byproducts".
Even many among Iran's political elite have conceded that nuclear
pride has been manufactured. In the words of Mohammed Atrianfar,
a close advisor to former President Hashemi Rafsanjani,
"People have been hearing these things about
having the right to have or to possess this [nuclear] capability.
And, naturally, if you ask an Iranian whether [they] want this
right or not, they would say they do want it. But if you ask,
though, `What is nuclear energy?' they might not be able to tell
you what it is".
What's more, few Iranians romanticise the idea
of conflict or militarisation in the aftermath of an eight-year
war with Iraq that produced 500,000 Iranian casualties. In a strikingly
candid opinion piece in the Financial Times in May 2006,
former Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Maleki dismissed
the notion that the nuclear program is driven by popular demand:
"Reports suggest that Tehran's official
joy over the nuclear breakthrough is shared by a large segment
of Iranian society. Such reports should not be taken as evidence
that the Iranian people share their government's views, and should
not be used as a pretext for using force against Iran's population
... The general public does not consider the nuclear issue to
be of vital importance. Nuclear technology will do little for
the average Iranian; it cannot create more jobs for a country
that needs one million jobs annually, it cannot change the chronic
low efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness of the economy
and management, and it will do nothing to improve Iran's commercial
ties with the rest of the world".
5. The Iranian public has little impact on
the country's foreign policy
There exists little correlation between Iranian
popular sentiment and Iranian foreign policy. At a time when the
majority of Iran's young population aspires to have normal relations
with the U.S. and reintegrate into the international community,
Ahmadinejad's conduct is leading Iran down a path of confrontation
with the United States and further international isolation.
Yet, an inability to influence their government's
foreign policy is not high on Iranians' long list of grievances,
given their more immediate economic and social concerns. Although
popular grumblings may exist that Iranian money, much needed at
home, is being used to support Hezbollah and Hamas or being defiantly
poured into a nuclear program with uncertain benefits, neither
issue in isolation is animus enough for Iranians to agitate.
This will likely remain the case as long as
Iranians continue to perceive corruption and mismanagementnot
an isolation-inducing foreign policyto be the primary cause
of domestic economic malaise. If and when domestic economic conditions
deteriorate to such a degree that has a drastic impact on people's
daily lives, however, the regime, in particular Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Khamenei, may decide to alter course on foreign policy.
Regime survival, not ideology, is paramount for the country's
1. In the current climate, U.S. democracy
promotion efforts have been unconstructive and counterproductive
Although prior to the Iraq war Iranian democratic
activists often expressed appreciation for U.S. moral support,
today it is important to ask what, if any, have been the benefits
of the current administration's public efforts to promote democracy
in Iran. Though Iran was neither free nor democratic prior to
U.S. democracy promotion efforts, Iran is certainly less free
and less democratic in the aftermath of U.S. democracy promotion
The repercussions of U.S. efforts to promote
democracy in Iran have been various:
The regime has clamped down on domestic
opposition and criticism under the pretext of "protecting
Democratic agitators, civil society
activists, and scholars (including several Iranian Americans)
have been intimidated, silenced, and imprisoned.
Interaction between U.S. and Iranian
scholars, NGOs, and analysts has dropped precipitously, further
limiting our understanding of Iran.
To be sure, it is unfair to place the onus of
the Iranian government's human rights abuses and stifling of democracy
primarily on U.S. policy. The Iranian government exhibited cruelty
toward its own population long before the Bush administration
came to office; the administration's public democracy promotion
efforts simply provided Tehran a convenient pretext to act with
It is precisely for this reason, however, that
Iran's most respected dissidents and democratic agitators have
asked the U.S. government to cease such democracy promotion efforts.
In the words of prominent dissident Akbar Ganji,
"Iranians are viewed as discredited when
they receive money from foreign governments. The Bush administration
may be striving to help Iranian democrats, but any Iranian who
seeks American dollars will not be recognised as a democrat by
his or her fellow citizens . . . Of course, Iran's democratic
movement and civil institutions need funding. But this must come
from independent Iranian sources. Iranians themselves must support
the transition to democracy; it cannot be presented like a gift
. . . So here is our request to Congress: To do away with any
misunderstanding, we hope lawmakers will approve a bill that bans
payment to individuals or groups opposing the Iranian government.
Iran's democratic movement does not need foreign handouts; it
needs the moral support of the international community and condemnation
of the Iranian regime for its systematic violation of human rights".
2. Objective, professional, Persian-language
news sources would be well-received in Iran
Professional and objective news broadcasts will
find an important audience in Iran. There is a dearth of quality
television news programming in the Persian language. Official
Iranian state television broadcasts are tightly controlled by
the government, and opposition satellite television networks broadcast
out of Los Angeles and elsewhere in the West are not viewed as
credible alternatives. The model should be the BBC World Service;
indeed the BBC intends to launch their Persian-language television
broadcast sometime in early 2008.
For the last year there has been a debate in
Washington regarding the content of Voice of America and RFE/RL's
Persian language service. Some have argued that these broadcasts
are not sufficiently supportive of the views of the U.S. government
and/or not sufficiently critical of the Iranian government.
Insisting that U.S. government-funded media
outlets espouse U.S. views ultimately undermines its ability to
attract a relevant audience. As one senior European diplomat pointed
out, "People around the world wake up in the morning to the
BBC World Service; I've never heard anyone say they start their
day by listening to Voice of America".
3. A sudden upheaval or abrupt political change
is unlikely to be for the better
John Limbert, the erudite Iran scholar and talented
former U.S. diplomat (taken hostage in Iran for 444 days) once
reflected on the 1979 Iranian revolution that his liberal-minded
Iranian friends "who could write penetrating analyses and
biting editorials" lacked the stomach to "throw acid,
break up meetings, beat up opponents, trash opposition newspapers,
and organize street gangs . . . and engage in the brutality that
Today we should be similarly sober about the
realities of a short-term upheaval in Iran. There currently exists
no credible, organised alternative to the status quo whether within
Iran or in the diaspora. And despite the fact that a seeming majority
of Iranians favour a more tolerant, democratic system, there is
little evidence to suggest that in the event of a sudden uprising
it would be Iranian democrats who come to power. The only groups
which are both armed and organised are the Revolutionary Guards
(numbering about 125,000) and the bassij (numbering around two
million). Any successful political reform would have to co-opt
these forces and make them feel they will have some position in
a changed Iran.
4. Both the U.S. and the UK should make it
clear that it has no intention of undermining Iran's territorial
Maintaining Iran's territorial integrity is
an issue which unites the vast majority of Iranians of all ethnic,
religious, and political persuasions. Iran is not a post-Ottoman
creation; it's a nation-state with over 2,000 years of history.
A sense of Iranian national identity, an attachment to the soil
of Iran, is very strong and transcends ethnic and religious affiliation.
To be sure, ethnic minorities in Iran have legitimate
grievances against the central authority. Kurds, Baluchis, and
Arabs are economically disenfranchised and feel that the central
government doesn't tend to them as it does to Persian Shiites.
The reality is that disenfranchisement is nearly universal in
Iran, and the Islamic Republic is an equal opportunity oppressor.
Far more Persian Shiites have been imprisoned in Iran over the
years than Kurds, Arabs, or Baluchis.
There is a concern among many Iraniansincluding
those opposed to the regimethat the U.S. is flirting with
a strategy of fomenting ethnic unrest in Iran. This would be a
disastrous step that would offer no strategic gain and only provoke
bloodshed among innocent civilians. Washington should do its utmost
to reassure the Iranian people that such concerns are unfounded.
5. Altering democracy promotion efforts does
not mean indifference to human rights abuses
The Iranian government's poor human rights record
has gotten decidedly worse since Ahmadinejad's inauguration. In
addition to the imprisonment of journalists, scholars, and activists,
Iran has reinstated draconian punishments such as public hangings
and the stoning to death of adulterers. Religious minorities and
homosexuals continue to be persecuted. The U.S. government should
be consistent in expressing its concern for human rights practices
21 December 2007