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Iran, Living in the Mullahs’ Shadow

Lipstick Jihad

A person has to be totally foolhardy to get into Zoreh Vatankhah's car, in a country where the incidence of traffic accidents is the highest in the world. For, in northern Tehran's alleyways, this young woman champion rally driver, who has outdone her masculine colleagues in mixed races more than once, drives as though she were one of the competitors in the Paris-Dakar race she dreams of participating in. Making the pedestrians she comes across jump aside, she appropriates the Darakeh hills - today inexplicably deserted by cars - and recaptures her rights over a city under high surveillance that does not facilitate the efflorescence of youth.

Zoreh shrugs her shoulders, laughing, as her friend warns her that the red scarf that has long been sliding from her head no longer hides anything but her neck. A provocative young woman, she's gotten it into her head to find a cafè where we'll be allowed to smoke a bowl in spite of the fact we are not accompanied by a man. After several refusals, she finally finds an owner ready to risk having his establishment closed down who agrees to serve her a water pipe. While she takes long drags on her hookah under the surprised and charmed eyes of the cafè's other clients, she relates her passion for automobile racing, her fight to participate in this world reserved for men - some of whom broke her car's windows before the start of her last rally; she speaks of the letter, published by the newspapers, that she addressed to President Ahmadinejad when he decided to prohibit mixed races.

And yet, the champion detests politics. When she's not participating in competitions, she is a young woman like the others who puts her all her energy into surfing the red lines of the Islamic Republic's legal code. An all the more exhausting task in that the latter fluctuate. "For the hookah, for example, the rule is that a woman may not smoke in public unless she is accompanied by a man - except here and now as you may observe! That's Iran ..." she concludes, laughing. "A country where you can do everything, especially if you live in the fashionable neighborhoods of northern Tehran, but where, even there, the regime can do anything to you ..." Zoreh has over a hundred scarves: red ones, Libertys, leopard prints, that she unceasingly allows to slide off and then readjusts: the ultimate coquetry. But her outrageous make-up - her lips, the contours of which are enlarged by a darker penciled line, lacquered with pink; her nails ornamented with decals - has nothing to do with political manifestos. It's not the "lipstick jihad," the lipstick holy war, as it was gaily called by the gravediggers for the Islamic Republic under Khatami's presidency who thought they saw the sign of a regime that had lost its hold over youth in young women's new cosmetic and wardrobe audacity.

The only thing Zoreh demands when she's not at the steering wheel of a car is her right to frivolity. The right to live her youth far from the dictates of bassidjis or of the mullahs ... The right to smoke without a chaperon, to dance, and, above all, to not get married as most of her race-driver girlfriends have done, hanging up their overalls in the coat closet. Free to be young. A fantasy for the 60% of the Iranian population that is under 25 years old.

Nonetheless, over a year after Ahmadinejad's election, one does not see the much-expected signs of a hardening of repression of behavior in the Tehran streets. People were aware of the reputation for private parties in Tehran, the mini-skirts under the chador and the vodka flowing freely. In the mountain houses, golden youth still busts out in alcoves and gardens. But, increasingly, behavior is unbridled in the very streets of the capital, within the sight and hearing of everyone. One rubs one's eyes, incredulous, before the traffic jams provoked before the weekend by the cruising down the length of the Vali Sar or the Jordan, where youths with their slicked-up hair call out to young women with nose jobs, their eyes too blue and lips too pulpy to be true. In front of an ice cream parlor, a young woman, perhaps the daughter of an influential mullah, dressed in a tunic so tight it might as well have been a leotard, her blond curls escaping her HermËs scarf from all sides, parked her BMW convertible, which, with taxes, costs over $150,000 in Iran. In the Darband's mountains, couples cuddle in the shrubbery. At the tables of the Shouka Cafè or the Cafè de France, which, by virtue of a significant baksheesh are allowed to broadcast forbidden American music, young students dream of visas to the country of the Grand Satan ...

It's precisely one of those Guardians of the Revolution who contributed to electing Ahmadinejad who gives us the explanation for this permissiveness that seems so incompatible with the impression one had about the new president's ideas. Amir Javad is twenty-eight years old, with piercing blue eyes and a thick black beard. He is a pasdaran, one of the pillars of the Islamic regime, who recruits and then trains young bassidjis, the regime's militiamen, in the handling of weapons. He's been to Lebanon twice to train Hezbollah soldiers near the Khiam prison. But he also makes his rounds in his neighborhood, to "broadcast the laws of Islam," as he says, and to report deviant behavior. He explains that they've received their orders, that "bad hijab" (poorly covered hair) repression is no longer a priority, that they must allow young people to breathe. According to Amir, to fight against the depression of unemployed young people, and against drug use - a veritable national plague in a country that, according to the authorities, counts over 2 million addicts and where a heroin fix costs the price of a pack of cigarettes - some concessions must be made. Moreover, it's Ahmadinejad who asked that women be allowed to come to soccer matches, a request they had formulated a long time ago (a decision that was, however, immediately annulled by Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei). The ultimate objective, according to Amir, is safe-guarding the regime. The rest is tactics. The soldier sums up the issue definitively: "Does wearing a checkered mini-veil because she feels pretty make a young woman more inclined to adhere to the values of our Revolution or does it make her an agent of the Americans in Iran? That's the question."

The Islamic Revolution's Red Lines

This evening, Ali, a young film producer, receives a few artist friends. In spite of the vodka that a delivery service specializing in illegal drinks brings, the little group is appalled. Ali is holding the newspaper and reading to his friends the latest decrees on the cinema that the Ahmadinejad government has just published. "It is forbidden, among other things, to promote the idea of divorce. To present having children out of wedlock as something natural. To film women singing. To describe the Islamic Revolution as contrary to women's rights, to address the Kurdish question or that of narcotics, or to make apologies for Sufism or other spiritualities."

"Overall, it is forbidden to address reality!" screeches Ali, who, like all artists, is nonetheless in the habit of butting up against the regime's red lines. His wife, one of Iran's most promising young actresses, has seen several of the films she's played in prohibited because the action took place in Kurdistan, the taboo subject par excellence. As for the question of marital break-ups, it's enough to stand at the exit of the southern Tehran divorce court, to see the uninterrupted line of women recounting their own living deaths: which explains why the question figures among those forbidden by the Islamic Republic ... (See the blog at

While Ali was reading, a woman musician from Tehran's Philharmonic Orchestra received a call on her cell phone. It was her director, who announced that he has been ordered to fire her. She was denounced for some lapse she committed, perhaps the glass of beer she drank during the tour in Germany, he was not too sure. Everyone tries to reassure the young virtuoso, who has collapsed into tears. Tomorrow, influential artists will telephone intercessors with the regime, pay the bribes necessary for her reinstatement.

So does everything finally come down to a question of corruption? "It's not, in any case, a matter of religion," Ali raps back. For him, the only benefit to come from the Islamic Republic will have been to disgust the majority of Iranians with religion. "Twenty-seven years of the mullahs' regime has vaccinated us against God. Here, most young people are secular!" "By avoiding defining its red lines, the government allows itself the possibility of punishing whomever it will, when it will," explains Badrassadat Mofidi, president of the Journalists' Association. Today, she is, once again, unemployed. She was the deputy editor in chief at Sharg ("The East"), which, with 120,000 copies sold every day, had become the voice for the reform elites. "Sharg is the eleventh newspaper I've worked for that has disappeared," she laughs. "It's a cartoon that provoked the paper's fall. On a chess board, a knight and a donkey surrounded by a halo of light confronted one another. The authorities saw it as a caricature of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, during a speech before the United Nations in New York, had asserted that he felt himself to be haloed in a divine 'luminous clarity.' The author of the drawing explained that the halo was a highlighting to make the piece stand out from the chess board. But the reform paper was closed for 'insult to a public figure.'" What is the true reason for this prohibition? The paper's 300 employees, now unemployed, are reduced to conjecture. "Yet," Badrassadat Mofidi admits, "like all Iranian journalists, we practiced self-censorship." According to her, if "Sharg was closed down, it's primarily because it was the premier private newspaper for ads and competed with the government's newspaper in that arena."

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Tehran

It's the Jewish New Year, and this Friday night there are almost as many people in Tehran's great synagogue as at the Friday morning [mosque] prayer. About 1,000 Jews come together here, in the country where the elected president has made an aggressive revisionism his trademark. The women are veiled and separated from the men. People schmooze as in any synagogue in the world, and the rabbi raises his voice to call his congregants to order. Barely a few days before, the exposition of cartoons on the subject of the Holocaust (organized by the government in response to the Danish cartoons of Mohammed) had just concluded. This morning at the University, as on every Friday, people chanted - without much conviction, but nonetheless - the traditional "Death to Israel." But at the synagogue, there were no special security measures. Just a guard controlling the flow of arrivals.

Maurice Mohtamed, the Jewish community's representative in the Iranian Parliament, asserts that Iran is one of the most hospitable places for the Jewish community in the Middle East. During the war with Lebanon, two synagogues were attacked, but it was the authorities who calmed the situation down. Jews from here may visit their families in Israel, and, since the Shiraz arrests seven years ago, no one has since been accused of being a spy in Israel's pay. But how does the Jewish community live through the Holocaust cartoons' exposition and the president's diatribes? "You know, we Jews have seen this all before. As far as the exposition goes, I was able to protest it officially, which in itself is a good sign ..." For the moment, Mohtamed tries to concentrate on what he can do: for example, having Parliament change the inheritance law. For if a Jew converts to Islam in Iran, he's the one who inherits all his family's assets ... He's met with Ahmadinejad on several occasions, and the president has promised to unblock the sum intended for minorities. But his great man is President Khatami, who truly ameliorated the condition of Jews in Iran. And, as his decisions were ratified by the Supreme Guide, it's difficult to go back on them.

In Tehran's big bazaar, Amin, a Jewish jewelry merchant, asserts that he will never leave his country. "The president's declarations are like water that runs over stones. We, the inhabitants, Jews and Muslims, are this country's stones ..." Women in chadors and the bazaaris join in the conversation. They all support their Jewish "brother." "Ahmadinejad is a bogyman; it's very bad for business! It's a political game - with his incendiary speeches, he wants to force the Americans to talk, and then, all of that is the Arab's fault!"

Who Really Governs Iran?

Who has the last word in the Islamic Republic? Who determines nuclear policy? Does the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei encourage President Ahmadinejad to pronounce his revisionist speeches? Every Iranian who meets a foreigner is summoned to explain the hierarchy of power in Iran. But can he? In this opaque oligarchy, where neither political parties nor political programs exist, Iranians are reduced to deciphering the signals.

The Iranian regime functions more like a big company than a centralized state. The system has multiplied decision-making bodies. Between them, there is little coordination. "We are confronted with a patchwork of power centers, not a pyramidal hierarchy," explains a diplomat. "In a country where the telephone book is classified a defense secret, it's not easy to understand who decides what," a specialist in Iranian political life adds.

In principle, according to the Constitution, the president occupies second place after the Supreme Guide. But the way this power has been shared has been extremely variable from one president to another: "Rafsandjani's power came from institutions linked to the regime, but he had to bow to the will of the Parliament. Khatami's power came from his great popularity, but he had to endure the animosity of the Council of Guardians of the Constitution ..." explains Sadeh Zibakalam, one of the editorialists from the proscribed newspaper Sharg. As for Ahmadinejad, he's been able to federate all the power centers. "Because he's found a way to give the people of this unpopular regime the illusion that - thanks to his supposed popularity - he could restore the escutcheon of the Islamic republic, he enjoys exceptional powers," one analyst explains. As for the Supreme Guide, "his sole talent resides in his ability to maintain the system's cohesion." That's what explains why the regime considers its true enemies to be neither secular leftists nor human-rights militants - too distant from power to really threaten it - but rather the reforming ayatollahs of Qom.

In the Iranians' Vatican, 120 kilometers from the capital, resides Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri. The Grand Ayatollah, who had every chance of succeeding Khomeini, was supplanted to the benefit of Khamenei after he denounced the mullahs' vagaries and questioned the vilat al Faqih principle, the Supreme Guide's temporal power. He preaches a separation of powers that would sign the death warrant for the mullahs' regime. It's enough to visit his Koranic school, where he resides under surveillance, to try to speak with him while a security officer with a closed and brutal manner incessantly comes to interpose himself between the ayatollah and his interlocutors, to understand that, in spite of his advanced age, the old Marja (source of imitation), through his writings and his followers, still has the power to shake the foundations of the Islamic Republic.

Translation: Leslie Thatcher .

Sara Daniel

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.

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