LONG READ: Power, Politics and Pride in Iran

*This article was originally published January 23, 2018*

Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy spent a week in Iran late last year, before the latest street protests, to attend a media conference. Even from within a semi-official itinerary, the social and economic tensions were obvious.

This news feature is the first of two articles. Tomorrow: “Nose Jobs, Non-beer beer and Instagram”.

The Imam Khomeini Mosalla, Tehran’s grand mosque, is filled with gaudy commercial exhibition booths selling anything and everything ‘media’.

Its ornate vastness, observed internationally in television coverage of Friday prayers, is obscured by the mastheads, logos, screens and noise of Iranian media companies touting their services.

Throngs of people – everywhere in Tehran, a metropolitan area of 15 million in the foothills of the Alborz mountains, there are throngs – fill their goodie bags with giveaways, watch interviews being conducted or queue for their chance to do radio voice tests with top-rating DJs.

Mullahs, including the black turbanned descendants of the Prophet and lesser clerics wearing white versions, mix with businesspeople, students, a massive local celebrity who was once J Lo’s bodyguard, official women fully clad in black (like nuns) and unofficial women showing as much hair and make-up as possible under their scarves and coats.

In one corner of the mosque, an environmental website promoting water quality has erected a big whiteboard for passersby to share suitably green messages.

What looks like a controlled exercise in graffiti rapidly becomes uncontrolled.

Among the marker pen messages, young Tehranis begin venting. To New Zealand eyes, the messages in Persian seem mild and abstract.

But to Iranians they are bold. Scrawled in blue was “Don’t lie too much”, a little further down “Women are equal. We are all equal” and “We need a secular government” – to which someone else had added “Because most of the successful governments of the world do not have religion in government.”

A website organiser deletes subversiveness at the International Press Exhibition in Tehran. Photo: Tim Murphy

Sure, there were “Down with the US” scrawls and some clean water advocacy. But also one saying “They should be free”. They, it was obvious to all readers, referred to a past Prime Minister and reformist presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi and his wife and another cleric Mehdi Karroubi, who are under house arrest since the 2009 ‘green’ protest movement which disputed that year’s election result.

As the board fills up, a man from the environmental website begins to hover. Shortly afterwards he takes over the wall, rubbing out the reformist messaging with his fingers or scribbling over the words.

Anonymous subversiveness is not a good look, apparently, in the grand mosque and with a crowd of the great and good of the Islamic Republic.

Tellingly, those who wrote the messages did so openly in front of other members of the public and with little compunction.

There were no men in plain clothes appearing out of the crowd to rough up and rub out the silent protest, as might be expected from a country with keen censorship and a sorry record for imprisoning journalists.

It is a big, independent, proudly contrarian and modern state with a people who, if they are united on anything in casual conversation it is suspicion of the actions and intentions of the United States.

On the face of it, the 23rd International Press Exhibition was a festival of media and journalism, a vibrant display of the 7500 media titles in Iran. Reformist papers from non-reform cities stood across from populist websites marking the date of the first revolutionary uprisings in the holy city of Qom in 1978 or honouring the eight-year war against Iraq.

On one corner of the huge, square praying area a state news agency extols its virtues while a start-up news service calling itself “the Supreme Council of cyberspace” holds a panel discussion.

But below the surface the event is an impressive display of relative freedom among the un-free.

Iran is a country of 81 million, around the size of Germany or Turkey and bigger than the UK, France or Italy. A vast number of its people are under the age of 25.

It is a theocracy, where Shia Muslim clerics have ruled with all the trappings of authoritarian regimes since the Iranian revolution of 1979. It is almost 40 years since the last Shah was deposed, the US embassy stormed, hostages taken and Iran’s emergence in US and western eyes as a modern pariah state.

War with Iraq in the 1980s (called ‘The Imposed War’ and blamed on America) and rounds of international sanctions first linked to its support for terrorism and most recently focused on Iran’s development of nuclear weapon capability have hampered an oil-rich country’s economic development.

Unemployment is high, officially 12 percent but widely believed to be far higher, particularly among that big cohort of young Iranians. Inflation soared to around 40 percent in the early days of the current President Hassan Rouhani’s first term and was said to have fallen to a still high 8-10 percent last year.

A media interview in the grand mosque. Photo: Tim Murphy

Despite the external pressures, the country has managed to improve on its already high rates of literacy from when the Shah was deposed, and to cut child mortality steeply.

It is a proud, developed nation with modern infrastructure, a civilisation its people never tire of telling you stretches back 7000 years and a uniqueness even among its neighbours due to being non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim.

The capital is the second most populated city in the Middle East, after Cairo and ahead of Istanbul, which it resembles in gritty pace and intensity. It is a modern megapolis spread across long and wide inclines from the mountains to the north and adorned by murals to martyrs and historical mosaics

Almost half of Iran’s citizens have smartphones. In one of its many contradictions, satellite TV dishes are banned but widely used, Facebook and Twitter are banned but people use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access them, alcohol is forbidden but drinkers can find it if they know how, and cannabis and meth-use defy harsh judicial penalties.

In short, it is a big, independent, proudly contrarian and modern state with a people who, if they are united on anything in casual conversation it is suspicion of the actions and intentions of the regime(s) running the United States.

In 2015, international diplomacy endorsed by the Obama presidency led to a deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under which Iran agreed to stop development of nuclear weapons capability in return for an end to a swathe of western economic sanctions.

Hopes in Iran for tangible economic benefits from freer trade for Iranian oil and petrochemical products, foreign direct investment into that industry and tourism and access to international banking for exporters and importers have, however, foundered.

Even before Donald Trump’s presidency and its ideological bellicosity towards Iran, the US had been slow in easing banking sanctions, a key to any reopening for Iran to the world.

Without the ability to move money, traders remain locked into arcane arrangements under which subsidiary companies in the Gulf states are used to clear transactions. Much-needed foreign investors balk at the difficulties of moving and securing their money.

Trump views the JCPOA as a ‘bad deal’ and is intent on having the agreement revisited to rein in an Iran his administration sees promoting terror or militias or regimes opposed to its interests in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza among other Middle Eastern territories.

Iranian students at the University of Tehran protest against economic problems. Photo: Getty Images

The Iranian view, echoed by officials I spoke to, is that Iran has never been found to have conducted international terror attacks. Its proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah are too busy “fighting for their own survival” to be engaging in such acts, and that the bid to enhance its nuclear capability was all about guaranteeing power to a huge and growing nation. Non-nuclear missiles are the right of a sovereign nation to defend itself and Iran would not be constrained by its enemies.

Nonetheless, ordinary Iranians, who re-elected Rouhani last year in the hope of improved living standards and conditions, have seen little direct change.

This frustration, coupled with new measures in a December budget which tightened access to some welfare benefits and made public the cost of religious foundations — plus the direct hip-pocket effect of the price of eggs — contributed to this month’s street protests.

But the economic frustrations were just one factor in the demonstrations, which started in Iran’s second city Meshad, a conservative city known to be anti-reform. Meshad’s popular complaints were said to have been stoked by conservative clerics and politicians to undermine Rouhani’s government.

The protests, however, spread elsewhere and turned 180 degrees in sentiment, morphing into criticism of the very clerical authoritarianism favoured by those opponents of the president.

The protests were the biggest in Iran since 2009 when Moussavi was beaten to the presidency by Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in controversial circumstances.

One stunning aspect of these protests was the explicit call by some elements in the crowds for the end of the theocracy, the desecration of big posters of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and demands for civil freedoms.

Twenty-one people died and around 3700 were arrested. The disparate aims of the protests, the lack of nationwide leaders for the cause, the blocking of key social media platforms and the fact the capital Tehran was only mobilised in a minor way meant the protests subsided last week.

Even a short time spent in Iran reveals a society akin to Winston Churchill’s description of Russia – a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Little about the place is black and white. People talk about the ‘state’ as distinct from the ‘government’ – not in a way you might hear it in a federal system such as the United States.

In Tehran, they mean the ‘state’ as the system controlled by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – the religious powers, military, Revolutionary Guard, intelligence services, state television and culture police.

And the ‘government’ is Rouhani’s cabinet and the ministries he appoints and controls.

But then the constitution has a further three arms of power – the judiciary, legislature and Guardian Council. At all levels a mix of elected and unelected bodies influences appointments, policies and decisions.

There is no clear designator of conservatives (hardliners) and reformists or moderates. Rouhani was elected under the banner of a Moderation and Development Party and is widely regarded as sympathetic to reform. Yet foreign observers in Tehran view his clerical, military and authoritarian background (he spoke out strongly in favour of a crackdown on students protesting in 1999) as making him simply a moderate conservative.

The cult of celebrity is alive and well in Tehran. Photo: Tim Murphy

In Tehran, one media figure said of the urbane, educated and seemingly internationalist conservatives in positions of authority: “Some of them look and act like them [hardliners]. Some don’t look at all like them but still act like them.”

A black-hatted cleric, politician and editor of a ‘reformist’ newspaper turned his back at the sight of this infidel in a line of guests before one official function and left the auditorium as I was asked to speak.

He turned out to be a member of the wonderfully named Association of Combatant Clerics, a left-wing political force.

There are factions within factions.

The unspoken deal in such situations is that the public may tolerate restrictions on personal freedoms so long as the authorities deliver better living conditions, jobs, homes and security.

Despite the blurred political and religious distinctions, Iranians seem to be able to pick a civilian conservative at 20 paces. A black-shirted figure here, a disapproving frown there.

To some, it is just a feeling they pick up. Outside the national broadcaster IRIB’s university, which is a conservative training ground for media students, one guest said the place “has a bad atmosphere” which he couldn’t wait to get away from.

After these latest protests, political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam wrote in the Shargh newspaper that “many protesters not only have lost faith in the conservatives but in the reformers, too”.

The official reactions to the protests were revealing. Khamenei, Rouhani, the vice president Eshaq Jahangiri, clerics and others acknowledged the people’s rights to express legitimate grievances. All denounced violence and criminal vandalism. But all could see, from within their competing prisms, justification for the public voice to be heard.

There were the usual allegations against the US, Israel and UK for stimulating or abetting unrest. And, given Iran’s regional power plays against Saudi Arabia and gulf states, a Jordan Times columnist was explicit that "we are likely to see regional support for continued instability".

It would be naïve to think any or all of those forces were not at play during the unrest: Trump was brazenly egging on protesters and denouncing Iran’s regime via Twitter and analysts have noted the authorities’ crackdown on the protests gives him another reason to condemn Tehran in the campaign to dilute the nuclear deal.

Conversely, Iran’s leaders will use the foreign threat of exploiting divisions among their people as a rallying cry for nationalistic unity. Vice President Jahangiri has already told a conference in the capital the US wants to portray Iran as volatile and too risky for international business. “To counter such influences it is necessary to create a calm atmosphere within the country.”

Yet Iran is clearly a nation with internal divisions. Its multi-dimensional layers of control can be felt and seen as oppressive. The unspoken deal in such situations is that the public may tolerate restrictions on personal freedoms so long as the authorities deliver better living conditions, jobs, homes and security.

The Jameh mosque in Isfahan. Photo: Tim Murphy

The wealth of religious foundations controlled by the Supreme Leader’s ‘state’ was revealed in the government’s budget last month. The billions being deployed to these organisations were one factor in the protests.

Another was Iran’s funding of forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime, and of the Hezbollah and Hamas militias in Lebanon and Gaza. Protesters made it clear that money spent on foreign adventures should be better spent at home, on the people.

Prosperity, not authoritarian muscle, will be the key to achieving Jahangiri’s “calm atmosphere”.

To get an independent view on Iran’s economic prospects I went to see Alireza Bakhtiari, managing director of the Donya-e-eqtesad publishing group, which includes the English-language Financial Tribune.

Bakhtiari, a debonair executive running a private publisher with 360 journalists, says: “Actually, in Iran we have many advantages. Iran is pretty rich with fossil fuels and minerals and that is a big part of our income but we also have a lot of other resources such as steel products, petrochemical by-products, carpets and in farming, pistachios.”

He says most of Iran’s economy has been controlled by governments through its history and for the past 20 years there has been a need, and some progress, towards privatisation.

“Everybody is trying to make this happen and to empower the private sector.”

Foreign investment in some parts of the economy had begun, accelerated since the nuclear agreement but many announced plans were yet to become reality.

“It is possible that the image created of Iran [in the west] may not match what they actually see here.”

“Limitations” imposed by the sanctions had started to “fall down” and eight percent growth in GDP was anticipated for 2017-18, mainly from oil exports.

Iran needs, Bakhtiari says, “to create almost one million jobs annually” to cope with its coming worker population.

The country has been squeezed economically not only by the international sanctions but by a severe multi-year drought. Iran has always been dry, but its current water issues profoundly affect city and country alike.

A TV studio at the press exhibition in the grand mosque. Photo: Tim Murphy 

The fate of the major river through the city of Isfahan, the Zayanderud, is perhaps the most emblematic of Iran’s waterless hinterland. A wide, shallow river, it is crossed by the internationally known Si-o-se-pol Bridge with its 33 arches dating from the 17th century Safavid era. The bridge now stands above caked hard mud in an empty riverbed. In the past fortnight locals have claimed it could be affected by subsidence, a claim disputed by heritage officials.

Of broader concern is the risk to millions of people who once relied on the river’s water from the Zagros mountains, with talk of many facing the need to move.

Bakhtiari says the country is “seriously planning” how to deal with the crisis.

Back at the Imam Khomeini Mosalla, the international press exhibition hosted Vice President Jahangiri as its keynote speaker.

Water and weapons featured alongside media freedom in his list of priorities for Rouhani’s second term (the 12th government as it is called, counting from the revolution).

A rugged-faced individual, he was made a great fuss of at the event as he was replacing Rouhani who sent a message: “All power to your elbow.”

The translation service had Jahangiri saying threats to Iran had included a “foodless” society due to the water crisis and a “weaponless” society if it kowtowed to international pressure but now it had to consider a "pressless” society.

He meant the commercial pressures shared by publishers everywhere, but Iran’s authorities see a greater risk in “unprofessional” media supplanting the existing professional and tightly-regulated news services.

Jahangiri promised greater private sector involvement, and the development of “a population-based media, not just an authority-based media. The connections between the media and the people will be stronger than before.”

Editors who heard the speech shrugged it off as “talk not walk”. But in one of the country’s many nuanced contradictions, Iranians certainly can see coverage of problem issues such as water, air pollution in Tehran, and in the first week of 2018, protests.

Amid the hubbub of the Mosalla, the political editor of the Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Mohammad Noorollahi, a competitor for the big state-run IRNA, steers away from extremes.

“The test of staying neutral is holding the truth up. If you believe that criticism is not tolerated I would not be sitting here after 18 years of criticising the government. That’s the evidence.”

Perhaps the man who wiped the whiteboard clear down the aisle at the press exhibition could have held his nerve.

A media booth at the exhibition. Photo: Tim Murphy

Dissent is no stranger in Iran. I went to the Majlis (Parliament), a building under high security after a terrorist attack by armed men claiming affiliation with al Qaeda in June last year killed 13. It was an astounding assault at the heart of Shia Iran by their Sunni adversaries. (So astounding some Iranians are sceptical about what really happened. They say only staff, not MPs, were targeted and wonder if it was somehow used as a lever to hit back internationally at Iran’s Sunni bete noir, Saudi Arabia.)

Inside, I stood in the press gallery and watched an MP berate a minister about employment conditions and the exploitation of workers. The MP would not relent, despite being surrounded by his colleagues, keen for him to stop. He kept at it, triggering a procedure meaning the minister would be hauled back to the cavernous debating chamber to face his accuser in front of 270 MPs.

Another viewer from the press gallery was dismissive. The man showed “vain passion” he said. “Besides, he is one of only six or seven of them down there who do not have a PhD.”

Iran prides itself on its scholarship, academic pride and multiple degrees.

The New Zealand Parliament would be lucky to muster six or seven doctorates.

We are there, though. And have been throughout, since the revolution. The New Zealand embassy stands on a pretty corner in the leafier northern suburbs high above the centre of Tehran.

The US, of course, has never been back. Britain abandoned its post after an attack by a mob in 2011, reopening in 2015. Canada is delicately working out how to return since departing Tehran in 2012 when it broke diplomatic relations over Tehran’s support for terrorism.

The absence of our Five Eyes partners at various times has accorded New Zealand a status — both within and beyond Tehran — above our usual station.

The latest round of protests, the grievances both economic and civil and the evident divisions within the regime, will have given our next Ambassador, Hamish MacMaster, much to review as he moves early this year from his post in Saudi Arabia.

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