Public Comment

Commentary: A Brief Update on Iran

By Sally Williams
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 10:02:00 AM

Ralph Stone knows his 20th century Iranian history (“Reflections of the Iranian Election,” June 25), but we discovered some new concerns from Iranians when we went there this past April. We expected Iranians to dislike Americans because of our involvement in the coup that Stone described that put the Shah back into power in 1953 and caused the take-over of the American Embassy in 1979. We found that Iranians like Americans and have concerns about the American government just as we like Iranians and have concerns about their government.  

Since we were a small group of 10 that included young Australians and British, we sometimes stayed with very hospitable local families in rural and urban areas. (There is always room in homes for guests because it is fairly common to eat and sleep on the floor.) Everywhere we went while touring we were approached by Iranians of all ages wishing to talk with us and take photos with their cell phones. (The teaching of English begins in elementary school. Cell phones are ubiquitous.)  

We learned that young Iranians have heard about the Shah and the hostage-taking in history books, but they were more concerned about the Iraqi invasion of Iran and the eight-year war (1980-1988) that took the lives of 500,000 Iranian men. They also were aware that the Americans supported Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran and used poison gas on the population. As a consequence of the Iraq/Iran war, 70 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30 and, upon completion of school, young men are subject to the draft for the regular Army. Because so many educated Iranians have left Iran, young men cannot get a passport, even to study abroad, until they complete their service. Iranians are proud patriots and. from their point of view, the proximity of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the fact that many countries surrounding Iran have nuclear power, puts Iran in harms way. These facts intensify their concerns about the military draft because most families would rather not have more family members becoming martyrs.  

Another of the many interesting things we learned was that the source of power of the clerics is not limited to the interpretation of the Koran or their control of the government, but includes the clerics control of funds. Most of the wealth from the Shah’s era went into bonyads: tax-exempt state-religious foundations contolled by the clerics. Religious Muslims make annual donations to the clerics and rival clerics compete for control of the large donations made to shrines during pilgrimages. Thus the foundations continue to grow in wealth and power. Banks are expanding, but since Sharia law disallows charging interest, the foundations are very important in this oil-rich economy that is able to withstand most sanctions. There are other major financial systems including a private money exchange, revenues from drug smuggling and bribery. According to Tranparency International, foreign companies in Iran are particularly guilty of bribery.  

A severe drought is changing rural Iran and how Iran feeds itself. Now 68 percent of Iranians live in urban areas and the unemployment rate is high. An Iran elite lives in cities and there are many minorities that live in poverty. The government, even though hand-picked by clerics, is divided and Ahmadinejad likes to express opposition to wealthy clerics. Iranians are very proud of the diverse ethnic, regional or religous communities that represents their family. This includes the Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian communities. Farsi is the language of the Persian group and widely used in Iran. An Arab minority speaks Arabic. Muslim Iranians use Arabic when reciting the Koran. The Azaris of northern Iran speak Turkish and Farsi. The Nomads speak Farsi and several dialects and there is a large population of Farsi speaking Kurds in the north.  

Iran also has been coping with approximately two million refugees: Kurds from Iraq and Afghans escaping the Taliban. Some local laborers are concerned that the refugees are taking their jobs. Iranian youth are very intelligent, cultured, caring, poetic and, as some youth have recently demonstrated, very clever and technically savvy. Sixty percent of the university students are women and 77 percent of the population is literate. There are active women’s groups. We have great hope that the youth will soon will be in a position to have a positive influence on the 21st century development of Iran. Age and education is on their side. 


Sally Williams is a Berkeley resident.