This summer’s pro-democracy protests in Iran took much of the West by surprise. It did so because we know so little of that country beyond its image as a terrorist state that sanctioned the taking of American hostages.
Its most recognizable images are anti-American demonstrators, androgynous, chador-shrouded women and grim-looking clerics — all seemingly trying to repeal the 20th century.
What most Americans don’t know is that most Iranians weren’t around for the Revolution of 1979. In fact, two thirds of its 64 million people are under age 25. Its youth, who can start voting at age 15, are the most educated generation in Iran’s history. From 1979 to 1999, literacy went from 58% to 82%. Not surprisingly, they want what most people want — a better life.
This generation knows the revolution unshackled Iranians from an authoritarian dynasty, and that Islam was the vehicle. What many of them also know is that the revolution against a dictatorship was hijacked by the most conservative clerics.
These reactionary mullahs, in turn, crafted a constitution delegating ultimate power to a supreme religious leader — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his 10-year successor, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei. Purges, opposition bashing and rigid social restrictions have followed.
When the opportunity came, however, to popularly elect a president in 1997, a mandate for the reformist Mohammad Khatami resulted. Khatami, who favored an opening to the West and democratic reforms at home, won 70% of the youth-skewed vote in a four-way contest. He’ll likely be re-elected next year as well.
While the students respect Khatami, they’ve grown restless for rapid results. They want more republic and less theocracy in the Islamic Republic. And that’s what Khatami, ever mindful that his hard-line opposition ultimately controls the police, the judiciary and the media, can’t deliver at more than a prudent pace. This uneasy state of discontent was shattered when police and vigilante-type activists stormed a Tehran University dormitory and set in motion a series of demonstrations and riotous behavior in a number of Iranian cities.
Journalist Joe O’Neill was traveling in Iran prior to the outbreaks, and he reports on a populace that, for all its recent history and alien Islamic ways, has more in common than conflict with Americans. He was also privy to some of the frustrations simmering among Iranian students.