. And if relief, in the form of a comprehensive nuclear deal with the west and a consequent lifting of sanctions, does not come soon, the political and social consequences may be far-reaching. The unique system of Islamic governance created by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s éminence grise, may be tested to breaking point.
Which is why the current guardians of the system, including Khamenei, appear only too happy to let Rouhani play the role of frontman, scapegoat and potential fall-guy.
“In many ways Rouhani faces a similar situation to former president Mohammad Khatami [who was succeeded in 2005 by the hardline populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad],” a veteran Tehran journalist said.
“Rouhani is a traditionalist, a centrist, not a reformer like Khatami. But like Khatami, he is attempting to enforce change while surrounded by hostile forces – the principlists, the Guardian Council [which safeguards the Islamic constitution], the Revolutionary Guard, conservative media, people like Jannati, even Khamenei … These people don’t want a deal with the west. Like Khatami, Rouhani is doomed to fail.”
In Tehran – “a city that tempts you till it saps your soul” – even regime loyalists suffer, according to City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran, by Ramita Navai:
A repentant hanging judge stalks the adult child of two dissidents he sentenced to death in the late 1980s, desperate for forgiveness. Morteza, a young man from a poor neighborhood, joins the Basij paramilitary force and witnesses how those in authority use their power to terrorize the vulnerable. Most of Morteza’s fellow militiamen have joined for the perks, the free meals and low-interest loans, but after many nights of running checkpoints and dragging other poor young Tehranis to the police station for drinking or listening to western music, one of them resigns, not wanting to be “the arsehole that hassles people”.
The Basiji families who dissent, recoiling at the militia’s bullying and befriending families with less strict piety, hide their true feelings. As Navai writes, “any liberal outlooks that might have crept into their world were ferociously shielded from view”.
This habit of dissimulation makes Iranians virtually unknowable even to one another, and the question Navai grapples with is whether any of them feel real agency in their lives. It is only when a Tehrani is pushed to the edge that the truth erupts, as in a scene at a police station where the disabled husband of an arrested prostitute shouts from his wheelchair: “She sells her body for money because that’s the only way she can pay for my medicine. This is how the Islamic Republic treats its war veterans!”
“What Navai so deftly shows is that the values outsiders ascribe to fixed social categories – the traditional pious, the bazaari merchants, the Hezbollahi hardliners, the wealthy aristocrats, the pragmatic poor – overlap with great complexity,” writes Azadeh Moaveni. “That is why it is possible for many to revere the Shia imams and yet despise the mullahs and Supreme Leader, or to be atheistic critics of the regime and yet distrust the west.”