Iran’s political winds are shifting


In late December, I received a New Year’s e-mail from a former Iranian diplomat. The contact surprised me. I had known the man when I lived in Tehran from 2004 to ‘07, but I hadn’t heard from him in more than two years. In 2007, as the Ahmadinejad administration began tarring its ideological enemies as foreign stooges, he cut relations with me.

I hadn’t become less of a liability in the interim. In 2009, during the postelection unrest, I was arrested at Tehran’s airport as I was boarding a flight and transferred to Evin Prison. Though the Greek government intervened to obtain my prompt release, others were less fortunate. A government-issued indictment accused many green movement sympathizers of being pawns of America, Israel or Britain and seeking to execute a velvet revolution. Most were sentenced to long prison terms or execution.

Things were so bad, I doubted I would be hearing from my estranged friend, particularly because the government had stepped up its monitoring of electronic communications. But then his season’s greeting arrived, and I wasn’t the only recipient. Some even more radioactive addressees were openly listed in the e-mail. One of them was a high-profile prisoner in Evin Prison, tried and found guilty on a charge of espionage. Another was an American academic whose name came up in a show-trial indictment as an intelligence agent.


Why would my diplomat friend make a seemingly suicidal gesture at a time when the Islamic Republic’s television cameras are showcasing pro-regime crowds and sympathetic ayatollahs denouncing the opposition? One possibility is that he senses the impending collapse of the government.

“The current regime has broken the social bonds that tie it to the public and thus is eventually due to fall,” Bill Beeman, a Persian-speaking professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota and former president of the Middle East section of the American Anthropological Assn., told me recently. “Iran is a hierarchical society. Folks in the superior position must care for those in the inferior position or they will be toppled. The folks in the lower position will cease to support them -- in fact will work to undermine them. “

There is a Persian concept that translates as the “party of the wind.” It refers to the tendency of Iranians to bend politically whichever way the ideological winds blow. The oversubscribed classes of civil servants are some of the Islamic Republic’s most invested supporters, but they are not necessarily true believers. Their loyalty is likely to last only as long as the monthly checks and the subsidized cars, plasma-screen televisions and pilgrimages to Damascus and Mecca. One of the reasons that Iran’s 1979 revolution was relatively bloodless was the smooth, almost instant shift in the loyalties of thousands of bureaucrats and military men from Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi to the opposition.

The last Sunday of 2009 was the first time that anti-government demonstrators turned on the security forces, shattering seven months of passivity in a wave of violence. They discovered that the Islamic Republic’s demoralized riot police no longer had much fight left in them. They often turned tail and ran. Videos emerging from Iran showed angry crowds surrounding trapped, often bloodied, police and plainclothes religious loyalists.

“What grabbed me was the look in the eyes of the soldiers standing in the streets,” one witness told me on the phone from Tehran. “You could easily notice grief, guilt and fear in most of them.”

In the shocked silence that followed, there was a feeling that the center of gravity had shifted. Another friend wrote from Tehran: “It is getting really exciting. . . . These people are fearless, brave and amazing. Nothing can stop them.”


The movement has continued to pick up speed since then. This month, a diplomat at an Iranian embassy in Europe openly told me that the time of “justice and freedom” is coming. His time scale was “the next few months.” This would have been an extraordinary statement for a loyal servant of the Islamic Republic to make anywhere, much less in an embassy reception hall, which is probably bugged.

“The disillusionment within the regime is sometimes stronger than the disillusionment of the ordinary people, because these are people who had traveled outside Iran, to Europe, and knew a different level of life,” a high-ranking official in the Islamic Republic told me in 2007, after news broke that a former deputy defense minister probably had defected to Turkey. Iranian officials -- not least the Islamic Republic’s diplomats -- are canny strategists.

There was nothing random about my friend’s electronic glasnost. When I wrote back asking what he had done while I was in jail, I got back a one-line plea to allow him “an opportunity” in the future to explain. Perhaps this opportunity is now not too far off.

Iason Athanasiadis, a 2008 Nieman fellow, is a writer based in Istanbul, Turkey.