Fifty years ago I was also young, and a student in Tehran. Those days most student strikes and political demonstrations began at senior high school level, and then gathered momentum in the streets of the Capital. Iran’s population was somewhere around eighteen million, and Tehran, perhaps 500,000. The size of the entire student body at the University of Tehran, plus other campuses around the country, such as Jondi Shapoor, was less than 10,000.
In those times, when a flood of four or five hundred marching and shouting students poured out into the streets, it was quite a sight. When two hundred and fifty senior high school students, and often some of the teaching staff, left Alborz High Schools and joined in with a hundred from Firooz Bahram, and maybe another three hundred from Dar-el-Fonoon, Tehran’s high schools were literally shut down. We were out there demonstrating for democracy and in favor of the National Party of Dr. Mosaddegh, and against the dictatorship of the ruling regime.
To demonstrate the popular support for Dr. Mosaddegh, some of the more active students, such as myself, would go door to door to private homes, businesses and stores, to collect signatures, often in blood, on fifty or a hundred foot-long rolls of print paper, which we then took to the one and only radio station to be read on an almost daily basis. In the much smaller and less crowded Tehran, we were much more visible and quite obviously a lot more vulnerable to arrest and abuse.
Fifty years ago, the dictator returned, our champion faded away, and our fire subsided. Protest demonstrations, albeit futile, continued for a while, as my own bayonet scar where “the sun don’t shine!” attests.
Three years later, here in Los Angeles, California, I watched on a tiny television screen the proceedings of a Senate investigation into CIA activities. There I saw the accounts of the 1953 coup d’etat unfolding in front of my eyes, which, along with similar operations in Guatemala, were considered as great successes by the Agency.
The coup d’etat of 1953 in Iran was America’s first-ever peacetime interference in foreign affairs, even though it was masterminded by the sole regional manipulator, Great Britain, who remained the gatekeeper of the Middle East for another decade and a half. The Arab states of the region had not awakened as yet from their “inconsequential” status, and it would be some years before Israel, like a transplanted organ, would begin to require increasingly heavier doses of anti-rejection medication to survive. Oil was flowing, and the Soviet Union was effectively contained behind the borders of Middle East’s client states.
The mindset then was, as long as insisting on neutrality or remaining non-aligned was not a practical option in the strategic Middle East, why not join the camp of the rich and the powerful? After all, ideologies work best when you have food in your stomach, a roof over your head, and clothes on your back.
Well, in spite of all the undemocratic and repressive practices of the Pahlavi regime, characteristic of all totalitarian, corrupt governments, the nation’s economy and the standard of living did improve, reaching its explosive climax by the mid-seventies. Of course, much better use of our oil income could have been made under a less corrupt and self-serving management; and, yes, important aspects of a people’s cultural identity and heritage were almost totally neglected in the pursuit of superficialities and pseudo-modernity.
Nonetheless, as the population, particularly our youth, became better educated and more acquainted with the modern world, demand for a whole spectrum of much needed social reforms gradually increased to the point of insurrection. At the time, and in the absence of democracy, the only vehicle of expression that could best muster enough public support to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds was our historical common denominator, Islam. The cataclysmic flood of public sentiment that mowed down any resistance in its path, soon sidelined all the intellectual hopefuls who had joined the movement hoping to give it proper management and direction.
But, the aspiration for meaningful reforms toward democratization and broader global integration did not remain dormant for too long. Mismanagement from inside and economic and political pressures from the outside have continuously strengthened the hardliners’ stranglehold over the affairs of the nation, having now reached a breaking point not too dissimilar to the circumstances that brought them to power in the first place.
Today’s student demonstrators are different from those of us who engaged in similar activities a half century before. Today’s youth are much more knowledgeable, politically more sophisticated, and under a great deal more pressure than we were. To us, some fifty years ago, Mosaddegh represented a symbol, an idle. He was to us everything that His Majesty was not and couldn’t be. We weren’t sociologically educated enough to judge, or even cared, whether Dr. Mosaddegh’s chosen strategy could or would lead the nation to democracy and prosperity. Most scholars of sociology and economics have debated that for quite some time. That really didn’t matter at the time. People simply wanted relief from the dictatorial rule of a spineless, incompetent leadership, whose very existence was secured by its ability to ruthlessly crack down on voices of opposition and dissent. If it sounds familiar, it should.
What is different this time? For one thing, the world is a much more complex world now. There is also a much broader global awareness, thanks partly to access to the electronic media. There no longer exists a superpower stalemate that would keep the global designs by one or the other empire in check. Iran is now surrounded by unstable nations, some with nuclear and other catastrophic weapons. Little Israel is now rated as the world’s fourth largest nuclear power. Its intolerance against any opposition or resistance to its regional ambitions, on the one hand, and its unequivocal support by the world’s only superpower, on the other, have resulted in American Administration’s near paranoid posturing against Iran. From France to the United States, Marxist women “Mojaheds” in tennis shoes, and cocky young Royalist studs with the dreams of conquest at any cost to the suffering nation, threaten the integrity of the Motherland to its foundations.
The propaganda machines are also at work, providing guidance and advice from half-way around the world, giving encouragement and promising support to those who stand to suffer if the brave and cavalier advisors prove incompetent or worse.
These are extremely troubling odds against the dreams of success for an independent, strong, and democratic Iran. Fifty years ago we were just as dedicated to our cause and didn’t have to deal with so much complexity, and we still failed to bring the desired results. We old-timers clearly see that the same aspirations for social reforms, independence and democracy exist today, but this time in much better minds and capable hands. The time is ripe and the nation is ready. And, unlike fifty years ago, so is the vehicle that is able to traverse the obstacle course ahead. The infrastructure of reform does exist in Iran today. Unlike practically any other Islamic country in the world, Iran is a democracy in the making, struggling to break the shackles of the old, anachronistic hierarchy that is dominated by religious conservatism. This vehicle is not an import or dependent on imported parts; it is made in Iran by Iranians and for Iranians. The vehicle is stuck in the quagmire of outdated fanaticism and fear: it can and must be freed without any outside help, with relentless effort, prudence and intelligent diplomacy.
Let’s not blow it this time.
KAM ZARRABI lives in California and can be reached atl KZarrabi@aol.com.