Burqas, blogs and bombs

My following article appears in today’s ABC Unleashed:

The 1979 Iranian Revolution continues to reverberate around the world.

Iranian-born professor of political science at Reed College, Darius Rejali, recently said that torture was a key “inspiration” for the revolution. “It pulled all the radicals to their side,” he said. “It was a revolution about human rights, not about religion. [Ayatollah] Khomeini rode that bandwagon into power.”

After decades of American meddling, many Iranians remain highly sceptical of Western interference in their internal affairs. It is a message I received constantly during my visit last year.

Even the so-called reformists, hailed in the West as an alternative to fundamentalist rule, believe in shunning contact with Israel, pursuing a nuclear program and maintaining a strictly Islamic nation.

The recent elections delivered a mild rebuke to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the elevation of former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. The unelected Guardian Council disqualified 1700 reformists, but many former Ahmadinejad supporters have also started to publicly criticise his economic plans that have led to skyrocketing inflation.

His inflammatory rhetoric against America and Israel has resulted in economic sanctions that hurt average citizens. His electoral base is starting to rebel. However, a recent poll by an organisation backed by Republican presidential nominee John McCain, found the opposite, with many Iranians still supportive of Ahmadinejad’s policies.

Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a former confidante of Ahmadinejad who now calls himself a “principalist”, says that he worries the President’s failed policies might leave people disappointed with religion. “The failure of the government would make the system pay the price, and society will move towards secularism,” he warned.

Many young voters expressed disillusionment with the election process. “What is the point of voting in an election when the result is known in advance?”, one man said in the south of Tehran. Women have suffered disproportionately under Ahmadinejad’s regime, at once determined to express their independence in public but forced to maintain a modicum of conservatism to appease the predominantly male clerics.

I saw house parties in Iran that revealed the hedonism familiar in the West. A hostess at an underground party told The Guardian her life was a constant juggling act. “The question of public and private is the only real issue of interest in Iran today,” she said. “For me the public space is surrounded by four walls. It is only here – in private – that I’m free.”

Despite risking arrest, hundreds of students protested at Shiraz University in early March against “gender apartheid”. Authorities had insisted on separating men and women in different classrooms.

Bloggers led the coverage after the event, highlighting the bravery of the students who chanted: “The university is not a military base.” International Women’s Day on March 8 was also an opportunity for bloggers to lament the freedoms they have lost since the 1979 Revolution.

The Iranian Culture Ministry continues to demonstrate its determination to transform Iran into a monochrome landscape. It recently shut down a handful of lifestyle magazines covering the life of “corrupt” foreign film stars. The ministry said its actions were against publications that used “photos of artists… as instruments (to arouse desire), publishing details about their decadent private lives, propagating medicines without authorisation, promoting superstitions.”

Ahmadinejad’s rise has mirrored the trajectory of America’s neo-conservatives. In a compelling new book, Iran and the Rise of the Neoconservatives, authors Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Mahjoob Zweiri argue that both groups eschew complexity for a simplistic perspective of “good” and “evil”. The results speak for themselves.

The fear of a military strike against the Islamic Republic, conducted by America or Israel, remains real but less likely in the short term. The unspoken truth about Iran’s consolidation of regional successes since the disastrous Iraq war is its challenge to the Jewish state’s hegemony. Washington refuses to tolerate such an offence.

I found Iran utterly removed from its belligerent image in the West. Extremism undoubtedly lives and breathes in the country, but a robust blogosphere, Western-friendly youth and rebellious art scene refuses easy classification.

A proud people deserve better than living under the threat of a permanent threat of war by the world’s only super-power and its Jewish client state.