POLITICS-IRAN: "The Government Suffers From Delusions"
(This piece was published in IPS News Agency and reprinted in Asia Times, Antiwar.com)
BERKELEY, California, Mar 17 (IPS) - If your grandfather was the founder of the first Islamic Republic of Iran, you would probably expect to have a very comfortable life in the land of Ayatollahs, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is president and Khomeini's successor has absolute power. But you would be wrong."No recreation is available to us. Arrests are the order of the day. Students are secretly arrested and imprisoned in droves," the granddaughter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Zahra Eshraghi, told IPS in a telephone interview from Tehran.
In 1979, Eshraghi's grandfather sent shock waves around the world by leading the last great revolution of the 20th century. Nearly 30 years later, she feels that Iran is in peril.
"The whole country is under pressured silence, begging to ask questions, but, unfortunately, no one in the regime is protesting," she said. "It may take many years for a person to destroy a country, but [hardliners] have managed to accomplish this in a just a few."
On a sunny day back in the spring of 2004, she invited this reporter to her office to discuss a blog she was hoping to create. At that time, blogging was a new phenomenon in Iran, and government officials were exploring it as a way to reach out to the youth in a country where 69 percent of the population is under 29. The blog run by Mohammad Abtahi, a cleric and former vice president, was becoming extremely popular, and many, like Eshraghi, were eager to jump on the bandwagon.
Eshraghi was then an advisor to the deputy minister of the interior, Ashraf Boroojerdi. Her husband, Reza Khatami, was the deputy parliamentary spokesman, and her brother-in-law was the president himself, the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami.
Unlike most religious women in Iran, who are uncomfortable speaking with a man one-on-one, she welcomed the visitor with a warm smile. Eshraghi, now 44, was fashionably dressed, reminding me that she had once lived in London while her husband was studying dentistry.
Today, her situation is very different. Her husband has been disqualified from running a reelection campaign; her brother-in law is out of power; and she has been asked by her family, who she says fear her forthright opinions, to refrain from speaking to the media.
Her last interview, with New York Times correspondent Elaine Sciolino in April 2003, sparked controversy when she was quoted as saying that she felt trapped by her family history and hated wearing the black veil known as the chador. Eshraghi, responding to protests initiated in the Iranian religious centre of Qom, later denied making the remarks. Her family also advised her not to pick fights with conservative hardliners, and she has put aside the idea of creating a blog.
She granted this interview shortly after the Ministry of the Interior announced the disqualification of most of the reformist hopefuls for the Mar. 14 parliamentary elections, in which conservatives won about three-quarters of the 290 seats in parliament. This sweeping disqualification even included current members of parliament, prompting the European Union to criticise the polls as "not fair or free".
Since coming into office in 2005, Ahmadinejad has used the prospect of foreign threats --including the so-called "regime change" policy which has been pursued by the George W. Bush administration -- as a pretext to suppress his opponents and critics. This has been done through arrests of journalists, activists, and students. In addition, Iran's Guardian Council has halted Ahmadinejad's potential rivals from running for office by hand-picking the candidates.
The Guardian Council is comprised of influential hardliner clerics and lawmakers. Half of its members are appointed by the Supreme Leader and the other half by the Parliament, both of which are conservative.
Ahmadinejad has also tried to portray himself as a man with a personal connection to higher powers. This, Eshraghi says, is a "delusion".
"The government suffers from delusions, believing that it can eliminate everyone, [believing that] uniform thinking and restricting choices for voters can help it confront foreign threats, should they emerge," she said.
Ahmadinejad's claims about his connection to God first surfaced after he addressed the U.N. General Assembly in September 2005. He said that someone present in the audience told him that a light surrounded him while he was delivering his speech. He added that he, too, had sensed it.
Eshraghi believes Ahmadinejad is losing support from his base. She believes this is due to his "delusion of receiving messages from above, and his delusion that the people support hardliners fully and will appreciate any opinions they may have." She, on the other hand, thinks the cabinet no longer enjoys the same support it did at the time of the presidential elections in 2005.
"The current situation is highly undesirable both from a security and a foreign relations viewpoint," Eshraghi said. She believes that the U.N. Security Council's multiple sanctions against Iran have harmed the economy and the lives of ordinary people.
"Sanctions on Iran have already started showing their effects, putting Iran in an extremely precarious position. There are signs of these effects today, but by next summer the effects will be devastating ... do we need more problems?" she asked.
On Feb. 22, Ahmadinejad responded to the possibility of a new sanctions resolution in an interview with state television, stating that the U.N. Security Council "could spend 100 years passing resolutions, but it wouldn't change anything."
Ahmadinejad's foreign policy is now the focus of his opponents' criticism. His stance on Iran's nuclear programme, coupled with his unprecedented statements on Israel and his challenging of the accuracy of Holocaust, has led to three rounds of sanction resolutions by the U.N. Security Council.
To illustrate how the hardliner government has also failed to do its job domestically, Eshraghi cited the fuel shortages that have plagued the Iranian people this winter, in a country that has the second largest gas reserves in the world after Russia. "With the modest snowfall, the country was shut down. The government is not sufficiently well-connected to the people to see what they want," she said.
During the past two and a half years, more than 50 economists and academics have sent joint letters to Ahmadinejad criticising his populist economic policies, which have raised inflation to 18 percent, the highest rate since 1990.
But does this dire situation affect the family of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran like it does ordinary people?
Yes, says Khomeini's granddaughter. "This situation affects everyone. Many might believe us to belong to more comfortable classes, but [it is hard] even for us. I know of many workers -- and even many of my relatives and friends around me -- who voted for Mr. Ahmadinejad, but they regret it now and say that their economic situation has worsened a lot."
*Omid Memarian is a peace fellow at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch's highest honour in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award. His blog can be read at http://omidmemarian.blogspot.com. Photo by Arash Ashoorinia, Kosoof.com