In 1979, literature professor Azar Nafisi returned from the United States to her native Iran. Earlier that year, Shah Reza Pahlavi had left the country forever and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had returned from France to lead the new Islamic Republic. Ms Nafisi was offered a teaching post in the English Department of the University of Tehran.
“I think that if Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge had offered me a job,” she says, “I would not have felt so nervous and so honored as when I went into the hallowed halls of the University of Tehran. The amount of time I spent just preparing myself for this first day is something that I’ll never forget.”
Professor Nafisi says she was eager to share her enthusiasm for literature with the next generation of Iranians. Their reaction was ambivalent. Some attacked her for teaching what they considered “western immorality” in classic novels. Others who liked the books were too intimidated by the fundamentalists to say so. Professor Nafisi says Islamist ideologues have targeted not only foreign literature, but also many Iranian authors.
“The main censor in Tehran for film was blind or nearly blind,” she says. “Before that, he was a censor for theater and after that he became the head of the new television channel that we had created. And they would say that he forced people to read their scripts without any emotion or drama into a tape and he would listen to it and his successor, who was not blind, would continue this tradition. Usually you use a metaphor to describe reality. Here reality becomes its own metaphor.”
Azar Nafisi says many works of fiction have been targeted because they seem more subversive in regard to post-revolutionary Iran than any political books. Her favorite example is Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita.
“At the center of Lolita is the idea of confiscation of another person’s life and imposing your own dream,” she says.
In Nabokov’s novel, seducer Humbert Humbert, obsessed with the memory of a childhood girlfriend, keeps his orphaned step-daughter Lolita captive in the hope of recreating a relationship from his past.
“Our ayatollahs were also seducers,” she says. “We are taken by them, they sort of formulate their lives for us: ‘Be the kind of image that I want you to be.’ And this is what they did with us. They imposed their own image. They wanted to turn us into their figment of imagination.”
For a while the clerics’ image of what Iran should be - a country ruled by ancient Islamic laws and traditions - was shared by many Iranians. Tired of the Shah’s repressive policies, his brutal secret police and rapid Westernization of the country, they were receptive to the message of exiled Islamic leaders. Recordings of their speeches smuggled into the country promised freedom, democracy and respect for traditional Islamic values.
In 1979, when a bloody revolt forced the Shah out of the country, the most respected of these Islamic leaders, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, returned from exile in France to a hero’s welcome. But barely two years later, Iran became a theocratic state governed by strict Islamic law that affected almost every aspect of everyday life. Many of the ayatollah’s liberal allies ended up in jail. Some were executed as enemies of the state, while others fled overseas or became invisible.
By the end of Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980’s, disillusion with the revolution was widespread, says Azar Nafisi. Close to one million Iranians were killed, maimed, injured or taken captive before a dubious pace was signed in 1988.
“One of the former war heroes at our university one morning came to the university and brought two cans of petrol, poured it over his head set fire to himself and started running down the hall saying: ‘Look what they’ve done to us.’ That moment for me was a turning point when I knew this revolution has failed,” she says.
After the eight-year war with Iraq, the economy did not recover as fast as it was hoped because oil prices were down, population had doubled and unemployment was up.
Said Arjomand, professor of Sociology at the State University of New York says the mullahs promoted education, but did not create enough jobs for the growing number of young people who were educated.
“Now that potential is largely frustrated because of the political situation,” he says, “because of the restrictions of the market, the strangling, we could say, of the economy by these various foundations, which are nationalized industries and other economic enterprises, which were confiscated and nationalized after the revolution. Now they are largely under clerical control. They are not even controlled by the state centrally.”
President Mohammad Khatami, who was elected in 1997 and re-elected in 2001, has pursued reforms to reduce the power of the theocratic minority, curb censorship and relax Iran’s tough stance toward the west. But he has been unable to surmount the strong opposition of clerical conservatives who control the legislature and judiciary. The presence of U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq does not seem to have cowed the clerical leaders. If anything says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security based in Washington, says they have become more belligerent.
“The Iranians are constructing an advanced nuclear program that would give them the ability to make nuclear explosive materials, in particular highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium,” he says. “With the facilities that Iran has, or will have, they’ll be able to be very close to being able to rapidly construct a pretty large nuclear weapons arsenal.”
Iran has started its nuclear program secretly and when discovered, claimed it is strictly for civilian purposes. Iran would export oil and gas, its rulers say, and use nuclear energy at home. However, David Albright notes if they change their mind, Iranians would have the ability to produce nuclear weapons within weeks. And he says in February, when the U.S. attack on Iraq seemed imminent, Iranian hard-liners used it as a veiled threat.
“And President Khatami gave a very important speech,” he says, “where he basically laid out most of their nuclear fuel cycle activities. And we think that one of the things that Iran did at that point deliberately was send out a signal that said: ‘Look, we are not that far from having nuclear weapons. So the U.S., we think you may attack Iraq, but we think our best defense is nuclear weapons, and so think twice about military strikes on us’.”
Recent demonstrations of Iranian students and intellectuals pressing for democratic reforms and freedom have not spread to all segments of Iranian population. But observers say they are a clear sign that the theocratic revolution has not fulfilled its promise. Azar Nafisi, who has returned to the United States, notes when she came to Iran in 1979, students were shouting “Death to the United States.” The new generation of students is shouting “Death to the Ayatollah.”