17 Jun 2009

Another Iranian Revolution?

Is the turbulent wheel of history revolving once more inside Iran? Maybe, just maybe. Are the people slicing through the heavy shackles and shaking off the leaden weights of oppression? Perhaps. Like two huge heavyweight boxers preparing to unleash into each other, both sides show little sign of backing down or being intimidated.

Iran is a country where you need to read between the lines. As we know it's not the voting, it's the counting, or rather the lack of it. There is no harm, in looking at something you are not altogether familiar with in a different way. We have always seen Iran through a narrow, faraway and blinkered perspective of inflated menace and exaggerated threat. As ever, truth and perception can be as distant as fact and fiction. And never more so than in a country like Iran.
Iran might have plenty to hide, (like its election votes for a start) but it also has plenty to reveal. Iran revealed itself to me in many surprising and extraordinary ways. Maybe not all of this remarkable country was revealed to me, but it yielded more than I could have hoped for.

Iran is a complex country and it is very easily misunderstood. It is often reported in very one-dminesional, cliched terms. It is brimming with passion, grace and pride. What we do know is that something momentous has occurred in an important country in a vital part of the world.
I remember a wonderful saying someone told me. Before the revolution, they said, we used to drink in public and pray in private. After the revolution we must pray in public but we have to drink in private. As current events evolve I imagine the need to both drink and pray might come in useful.
I've seen my fair share of nasty authoritarian regimes around the world and witnessed the intimate consequences of their excesses. I know people who have been coldly crushed, imprisoned, beaten, silenced for doing little more than daring, yes daring, to speak out openly and freely. Nothing more. The harder a regime tries to crack down, the more afraid it is of being exposed and weakened and sometimes the clumsier it becomes. It will do everything it can to avoid losing credibility, authority and what it believes to be its own legitimacy.
What we need to bare in mind is the obsessive, almost paranoid, desire for self-preservation embedded into authoriatarian regimes which keeps the moats which circle around their gilded towers of illegitimacy wide and deep. Will they back down or crack down? And if they crack down, at what cost both to their own authority and the people of Iran?
The rich irony of these elections is that it is not the Supreme Leader himself who has had any courage to submit himself to a popular ballot of his own people. Rather like Gordon Brown, perhaps he find himself above and beyond the need to determine if his own people actually want to give him popular legitimacy.

Intolerant, oppressive regimes don't much care if a few people dislike or even hate them. They dont much care if a few, or even a lot of, foreign governments don't like them either. Actually that helps to strengthen them in a funny kind of way, bolstering their perceptions of legitimacy.
And yet what is it that eventually or suddenly forces them to yield or adapt? Sometimes, because they are so out of touch with the people they suppress, these regimes badly miscalculate and they can be prone to panic. The awkward truth, which we should have learnt from past mistakes, is that there are limits to what can be achieved from the outside. However tempting the urge to intervene from the outside, we need to tread cautiously for fear of provoking the opposite of what our good intentions might desire.
Freedom is a powerful word. It is one my favourite words, along with openness, transparency and accountability. It is the single biggest weapon people have when they want to make their voices heard. Iran's young people are wired into the world of aspirational modernity, which as we know, celebrates consumption, individuality, self-expression and assertive identity.

Technology will change the world for the better because there is surely an ultimate limit to how much an authoritarian regime can comprehensively seal up every last ounce of inconvenient dissent or undesirable information. Control cannot always and forever be imposed on peoples lives from the centre when the tentacles of peoples lives stretch further and wriggle deeper away from that centre in the form of internet access and mobile phones. This is the direction that China will ultimately be travelling in, in spite of what many people might now think to the contrary.
The most effective things our governments can do is to encourage greater openness without playing into the hands of the hardlines with the polarising language of threats and force. They must not shut countries off or shut them down becasue by doing so, they shut down the voices of the ordinary people. And it is these people who are nearly always punished by ineffective and imperfect sanctions which can be easily sidestepped and avoided by those in the elite of the regime, like the generals in charge of Burma. In Iran the doctrines of sacrficie and martyrdom still permeate deeply through the identity of those in control. Don't give them an excuse to justify using violence.

Yet, with stylish ambiguity, Iran lives in two worlds, public and private. Two very different faces. It can be so civilised and so volotile. On the outside, people change from individuals to behaving as representatives of themselves. The emphasis is on the behaving. Behind the black exterior though, is a world of colour and embracing vivacity. It is a world that you do not see from the outside. You will only see it from the inside if you go there to taste it, breathe it, smell it, digest it. It leaves you wanting more.

Many Iranians are thoughtful, educated and perceptive people. They are so far from being the hate-filled one dimensional fanatics many of them are tacitly perceived to be from far away. Hostage taking had been part of my trip through Iran, but it was the type of hostage taking that doesn‘t make news headlines, invitations into people’s houses for food and conversation. Now these same wonderfully natured people might find life becoming very difficult.
The most desirable way forward, I believe, would be an Iranian evolution, which outsiders can assist, not by threatening or meddling, but by opening the country up. This, more than anything, would expose the dinosaurs in the elite of the ruling regime for what they are: extreme, unpopular,unrepresentative. And it would also expose the Iranian people for what they are: hospitable, civilised, generous. Shut the country off, keep threatening it and it might harden Iranians, making them more nationalistic.

Iran is a complex, multi-faceted country, of which an outsider can easily get the wrong impression and misread it. It is land of contrasts and contradictions. A place where curiosity can lead to suspicion and suspicion leads to kindness and generosity. Iran is just not what youthink it is, nothing is ever quite what is seems, a country of elusive shadows where so much operates in private.

Change in Iran might well have some very positive ripple effects from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Palestine. But we have to wait and see how things unfold. We don't have to meddle or lecture from the outside. To stand back is not easy. It requires smartness and intelligent calculation.
So, we don't know what it is yet, but Iran's people might just be on the cusp of something. The people of Iran have started something, but who will finish it and how? But as you follow on from faraway, spare a silent thought for the bravery and sacrifice of those who dare not to be intimidated, who dare to attempt to change their country.