I remember vividly the first time I ever voted in an Iranian election. It was a balmy summer day in June 2001, in the election that won the reformist president Mohammad Khatami a second term. The blue stamp was the first on the voting page of my identification card, and I felt a sharp, exhilarating pride.
That election is much on my mind now, as I watch the results of Friday’s voting with my family, disagreeing on what it might mean for the future.
Back in 2001, Iran was heading down an irrevocable path toward internal reform, a process untainted by any Western intrusion, with citizens and progressive-minded leaders showing the way. Those leaders seemed, at the time, as exciting as Vaclav Havel and the revolutionary cleric Musa al-Sadr rolled into one. Elections felt — unlike the vote this past weekend — full of consequence, a genuine chance to recast political power rather than an exercise in slightly recalibrating it.
Tehran then was a naïve young intellectual’s paradise. There were Islamist reformers and secular reformers, women’s rights campaigners who went door to door in villages, and urban activists working to save everything from the Iranian cheetah to the rapidly evaporating Lake Urmia. You could sit at the feet of an ayatollah in the morning and hear a Koran-backed strategy for gender equality; by afternoon, you could be with the radical student opposition in a decaying house in the center of the city, still strewn with shredded documents removed from the United States embassy during the 1979 hostage-taking. There were literary readings almost every night, and subversive theater that lampooned the system, using metaphors from baseball to Moliere.
The reformists in those days were punchy; they invoked Karl Popper, and said one day freedom would come to Iran, and we would all support the Palestinians and thumb our noses at the West and be a beacon of progress for the rest of the Middle East, which in those days was a political wasteland, the kind of place that “didn’t have politics.”
In Tehran, dissidents didn’t cower in the shadows as in Tunis or Cairo. They would write newspaper columns saying things like, “My family gave three martyrs to the war with Iraq; I’m the only son left, I support change, and have the right to speak.” People would throng newspaper kiosks and buy five papers each.
I reported on trials where feminist lawyers, representing the families of dissident students killed by paramilitary forces, raised their voices against turbaned judges. To be a part of all this as a journalist felt like some sort of heart-stopping privilege; I would lay awake at night thinking about the day’s conversations, and how it seemed that history was not made by charismatic leaders, but the daily decision of ordinary people not to be scared.
But the seasoned correspondents in the Western press corps, I recall, were distinctly unmoved by all this fizz. They asked pedantic questions about constitutional reform, unelected institutions and parallel security services. They were no fun at all, and seemed to me, at the time, calcified cynics, immune to the buoyancy of Iranian youth and the vitality of the Tehran intelligentsia. They were unaffected by the revolutionary songs the students used to sing, songs that would bring me to tears, and didn’t seem to appreciate how radical painting, avant-garde theater, and a highly sophisticated population, were reshaping Iran from below. A country was its people, I used to think.
Today, I am the cynic. When anyone under 25, or anyone compulsively protective of the Islamic Republic, writes passionately about the state reforming on its own terms, about the choice between “bad and worse,” I go cold. If the past 15 years have made anything clear, it is that meaningful, legislated change does not emerge out of grass-roots evolution. Iran has had it all: hadith-driven feminism, vibrant civil society, a culture of engagement with politics and a patience for slow, internal reform. If these were the key ingredients required for political change, Iran would have had it by now. The hard truth is that those things are not enough. A country is both its people and its leaders.
Iran had important elections this past Friday, for Parliament and a key state institution, the Assembly of Experts. Moderate candidates won resoundingly in Tehran and they topped the list for the Assembly of Experts, a small humiliation for the hard-liners. But outside the capital, initial results indicate that the showing was not so buoyant, and we must remember that Iran has had a pro-reform Parliament and a moderate president before; that synergy did little in the face of the overwhelming structural and economic advantages the system affords hard-liners and their institutions. And now, they have had to make electoral deals with pragmatists, diluting the very notion of “reformist” as a political category.
The reform-minded in Tehran are energized, but their strategists talk of making the economy a priority and taming the extreme hard-liners, rather than pursuing social or political liberalization. The reformists who used to shake their fists and claim that Islam was on their side now speak about the importance of moving slowly, grateful simply to be out of prison. Genuine reformism, as a relevant intellectual and political culture or strategy, is effectively stalled, waiting for some major shift of circumstance, or the much dreamed-for hard-line retrenchment, to make it viable again.
I often think back to the young journalist I once was, eyeing the veterans with dismay. I was willing to do anything, wear the head scarf cheerfully when dealing with Iranian officials outside the country, spar with American conservatives determined to paint Iran black, if it would make a difference to how Iran was regarded. I remember saying over and over again, I reject the victim narrative. We are not victims, not yet, because our thinking and our culture remains passionately independent; we are ruled by the Islamic Republic yet we are not of it.
But today, all those inspiring young people I sat in cafes with and wrote about aren’t so young anymore. They’re in their 40s, scattered across the world feeling dislocated and wasted, or stuck inside the country; they stopped believing they could change things, and became different people.
One of the first friends I made in Tehran was a young fellow Iranian-American named Siamak Namazi. We sparred a lot over politics. I used to praise the Islamic Republic for its literacy rates and the astonishingly high number of university-educated women. “Just look how far ahead of Egypt we are,” I would say, to his irritation. “Stop comparing us to Egypt, that’s no measure for Iran,” he would say. “We should be comparing ourselves to South Korea, or if anything, Turkey.”
He said this because like all those determined young Iranians, he aimed high. Like them, he believed in peaceful, incremental change. Today he sits in Evin prison on unknown charges. Last week the authorities arrested his 80-year-old father, a former provincial governor and Unicef official who worked on poverty eradication, an Iranian-American who most Iranian officials I ever met would tell you privately was unstintingly decent and a patriot.
Now that Iran has rehabilitated itself by signing a nuclear deal with the West, the unyielding media images of a death-cult totalitarian land that I used to push back against have given way to elegant fashion spreads, lists of Persian foods that blow your tastes buds away and features touting skiing in Iran over the Alps. There is too little outrage that Tehran is holding another American citizen and imprisoning his aged father.
Is the image of Iran that holds sway at any given moment tethered to any reality, or is it simply a projection of what we wish and require of it at the time? Many years ago, I was determined to see only the light in Iran, but now, perhaps like those before me who had friends imprisoned or had been watching long enough to know better, my gaze is drawn mostly to the shadows.
Azadeh Moaveni is a lecturer in journalism at Kingston University and the author, most recently, of Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran.