Just getting around to reading bits of last Sunday's New York Times. This article on the bursting fault lines in Iranian society made a powerful impression on me (although its impact was vitiated when the Times carelessly misrepresented a photo of violent criminals being paraded in the streets as one of mere dress-code violators, and had to print an embarrassing retraction). Students, intellectuals, and women are seething, the economy is flailing -- the world's second largest oil exporter may soon have to ration gasoline domestically -- and Ahmadinejad is desperately trying to divert attention to the American moral and military menace.
In the only wryly funny bit, we see fundamentalists using the YouTube ethos to play moral "gotcha":
[A]ttention has been strategically focused on Mr. Ahmadinejad’s political enemies, like the former president, Mohammad Khatami, and the controversy over whether he violated Islamic morals by deliberately shaking hands with an unfamiliar woman after he gave a speech in Rome.
Mr. Khatami, the lost hope of Iran’s reform movement, felt compelled to rebut the accusation because such a handshake is religiously suspect, but contended that the crowd seeking to congratulate him for his speech was so tumultuous that he could not distinguish between the hands of men and women. Naturally a video clip emerged, showing the cleric in his typical gregarious style bounding over to the first woman who addressed him on the orderly sidewalk, shaking her hand and chatting amicably.
The rest of the article is pretty grim.
Some analysts describe it as a “cultural revolution,” an attempt to roll back the clock to the time of the 1979 revolution, when the newly formed Islamic Republic combined religious zeal and anti-imperialist rhetoric to try to assert itself as a regional leader. [...]
The country’s police chief boasted that 150,000 people — a number far larger than usual — were detained in the annual spring sweep against any clothing considered not Islamic. More than 30 women’s rights advocates were arrested in one day in March, according to Human Rights Watch, five of whom have since been sentenced to prison terms of up to four years. They were charged with endangering national security for organizing an Internet campaign to collect more than a million signatures supporting the removal of all laws that discriminate against women.
Eight student leaders at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University, the site of one of the few public protests against Mr. Ahmadinejad, disappeared into Evin Prison starting in early May. Student newspapers had published articles suggesting that no humans were infallible, including the Prophet Muhammad and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The National Security Council sent a stern three-page warning to all the country’s newspaper editors detailing banned topics, including the rise in gasoline prices or other economic woes like possible new international sanctions, negotiations with the United States over the future of Iraq, civil society movements and the Iranian-American arrests [...three ... have been in prison for more than six weeks].
As bad as the hard-liners' crackdown on dissent is, it has a sense of desperation and futility about it.
The entire campaign is “a strong message by Ahmadinejad’s government, security and intelligence forces that they are in control of the domestic situation,” said Hadi Ghaemi, an Iran analyst for Human Rights Watch. “But it’s really a sign of weakness and insecurity.”
The tide of commonsense modernity, borne on the tsunami wave of the Internet, is already swamping the dikes and levees of censorship and repression. Modernity has had excesses of its own, but it is already receding from them. Women's equality and freedom of religion, trade, and communication are the wave of the future. Barring catastrophe, they are irresistible.
Which is why Ahmadinejad, drawing power from his poor, unplugged rural constituency, is so dangerous right now. These are the real "Left Behind" of today. Their backs are against the wall, and their only hope of postponing the inevitable is to blow up the tracks of the bullet train that's bearing down on them.