Does Iran truly belong to an axis of evil? By this account, it’s not very rogue-statish, though perhaps not a lot of fun if you enjoy your Western-style vices.
In fact, journalist Hiro (Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm, 2003, etc.) suggests, it’s not so hard to find a drink in Tehran, surf the Net or catch a video, provided you know where to go—and this points to a division in Iranian society that the West seems only dimly aware of. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was guided by two very different forces: a pro-democracy, anti-Shah, leftist movement of the middle class, and an anti-Western, anti-Shah, rightist movement that appealed to workers and country people. They collided more than colluded, and for years it appeared that all hope of democratic reform had been quashed by the mullahs. Still, in the 1990s reformist movements began to press for political freedoms that would be decided by the parliament rather than by religious leaders or a religious court. They succeeded, to a degree, particularly in liberalizing the press and securing the rights of popular assembly. “On paper,” Hiro writes, “this was a vast improvement on what transpired during the Shah’s reign,” though self-censorship and periodic repression would remain problems. So it is a quarter-century after the revolution, after a ruinous war with Iraq in the 1980s and long treatment as a pariah state—all of which, Hiro argues, has helped the religious conservatives retain their hold. The Bush administration’s enrollment of Iran alongside Iraq and North Korea and subsequent sword-rattling—even in the face of Colin Powell’s reminder, while still serving as Bush’s secretary of state, “Remember that the President of Iran is freely elected”—have only strengthened the conservatives’ hand, though Hiro reckons that in future the theocratic right will loosen social and economic strictures so long as it does not have to give up political power.
Punctuated by people-on-the-street interviews that reveal a breadth of popular opinion in Iran, Hiro’s portrait makes for provocative reading.