Iran is an immense country with a rich and convoluted history. Were this a Lonely Planet entry you would now be bored to death with the telling of countless invasions and empires. Basically, the important thing to remember is that Iranians consider their culture to be as ancient and influential as any other going.
After the Second World War the Americans became intensely interested in the Middle East, both to bolster their spheres of influence and also to buy cheap oil. With generous foreign aid and the military protection racket the Iranian ruler, the Shah, ended up nicely in their pockets.
The Shah himself was an autocratic tyrant who assumed the title of ‘shah’, meaning ‘king, as part of his pretensions to greatness. He hoped to drag Iran into the twentieth century much as Turkey had been. He outlawed, for example, the wearing of the chador in public. If a woman was seen outdoors in the long, black cloak police on horseback were empowered to tear it off.
Of course anything done by force meets with resistance. One Iranian put it to me this way:
“At school we were taught to become Americans and forget our traditions. Then we came home and out parents shouted at us for not being Islamic and forgetting out roots.”
When the endemic corruption became so apparent as to cause gaping fissures in the economy people began to speak out more and more against the Shah’s regime. He answered with brutality and his opponents found themselves swiftly ‘disappeared’.
During this time the Ayatollah Khomeini in exile in Paris began preaching of the need for a return to Islamic values and expelling the foreign culture. With the American support of such corruption it became very easy to identify all that was wrong with Iran as due to foreign influence. To many, Khomeini represented a national self-respect that they felt had long been sold out to Coca Cola and Exxon.
“It was as though Khomeini turned around to America and said ‘Fuck you! We have a culture and tradition of our own.” Someone once told me.
The Shah fled and Khomeini returned in triumph to meet the hysteric crowds of young men in the public squares. The Iranians have a tendency to get pretty worked up when they feel passionate about something and they’re still paying for that now. Khomeini took the revolution in his own hands and many Iranians say they never suspected it would become the police state of today.
Considerations of freedom and equal rights were hard to consider when Iraq declared war just months after the revolution. The conflict was bitter and cost hundreds of thousands of lives over the next eight years. In addition the war forced Iran into poverty as the world turned its back on them and they could only buy supplies from Turkey – at highly inflated prices.
The current president, Khattami, was elected by a landslide in 1997 but his hands are tied. The Ayatollahs above him control the secret police and have the power to imprison reformist politicians and activists – something that they never hesitate to do.
These days most people, particularly the young, would like things to open up but its dangerous to voice such sentiments.
Follow the link to understand more about Iranian politics and culture and the Middle East in general.