A trip to a country with an authoritarian regime is rarely an exciting affair. The public display of religiosity leaves little scope for ‘fun’ in most Shariat-driven Muslim societies. So I expected little from my trip to Tehran. A land of fanatic mullahs, women covered in chador from head to toe and sweeping anti-American rhetoric and attitudes is what I expected when the plane landed at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. A few hours later, I had swiftly altered my impression. Sweeping six-lane dirtless roads, a maze of flyovers for the zipping traffic, skyscrapers as high as sixty storeys, lush green squares marked by beautiful mausoleums and towers, all lend an international air to Tehran.
The cleanliness around the city is unbelievable. You can’t find a scrap of waste paper even in the remotest parts of the city. Greenery is the essence of Iranian life, and parks with flowers in full bloom form an integral part of the city’s landscape.
The Iranian hijab is more a fashion statement than anything else. An increasing number of Iranian women are pursuing professional careers, not unlike the huge numbers of women working in India. Women smoke, drive and are equal partners in every walk of life. In the land of conservative ayatollahs, Iranian women enjoy lots of freedom though a section of them grumbles and demands much more freedom than the Iranian State is willing to grant.
The Islamic republic’s politics is governed by the Shariat (Islamic code). Ayatollahs are the ‘guardians and custodians’ of Imam Khomeini’s ‘Islamic Revolution’ that uprooted the Shah of Iran in 1979 and has, ever since, pitted Iran against the US administration. Iranian politics is, indeed, a multi-layered maze of mullahs with both radical and moderate outlooks. Ayatollah Syed Husain Khamenai is the supreme commander heading the shoor-e-nigehban — the body of Shia priests — that keeps Iranian politics in ‘consonance with Islam’. The second layer to Ayatollah Khameni’s ultimate authority is formed by the majlis-e-shoora, an elected body like our Parliament. Its head is the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad represent Iranian politics’ radical viewpoint.
But moderates like former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami too play an important role in Iranian politics.
Two major power centres — Qom and bazaar — respectively give shape to the radical and moderate strands of Iranian politics. Qom is the city of Shia seminaries. Since the overthrow of the Shah in the 1979 revolution, Qom has emerged as Iran’s major power centre. It is Qom where the radical Shi’ite clergy frames an anti-American slant to Iranian politics.
Hashimi Rafsanjani represents the moderate face of Iranian politics with its base in the bazaar, the market. More freedom to women is advocated and a lesser role for radical mullahs in politics is envisioned. Of course, it pushes a market-driven economy in the rigidly State-controlled economy of the country. Rafsanjani remains a force to reckon with in Iranian politics.
Iranians remain committed to the spirit of aazadi (freedom) and dignity. It is this spirit that is driving Iranians towards modernity and progress. Despite suffering for decades from strict economic sanctions, Iran has made great economic and technological progress. There are no power cuts in the 12-million-strong city of Tehran. Safe drinking water supply is a given. The beautiful flyovers and skyscrapers are built by Iranian engineers. Tehran has a strong scientific community and culture, and is one of the leaders in stem-cell research.
But somewhere behind the progress, things aren’t all wondrous. The price of petrol may be Rs. 15 per litre and a gasoline cylinder might cost an equivalent of Rs 5, but potatoes and tomatoes are selling at over Rs 20 a kilo in the main city centre. Inflation is becoming a big issue.
But the uniqueness of Iran lies in its being the only Islamic nation, besides Turkey, that is comfortable both with religion and modernity. Iran has resolved its dichotomy with modernity — something that other Muslim societies have failed to do. Its comfort with modernity adds to its progress, which is phenomenal given the odds Iran has been facing under economic sanctions. Iran may very well become the China of the Persian Gulf.
Zafar Agha is a freelance journalist.