Foreign Policy | June 11, 2010
By Karim Sadjaipour
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.”