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Leaving Iran - taking the gloves off

by - September 2 2010

Some of you may have noticed that my blog posts from Iran have been quite soft on the Iranian government. This isn't because I think they are cuddly misunderstood people, but because it's probably a bad idea to publicly criticise an oppressive government while you are still inside their country. Fortunately I'm now in Israel and so I can take the gloves off a little.

Firstly, it's quite clear that the Ayatollah Khomeini was what the Americans like to call "a major league arsehole". For everything bad America did to Iran, Khomeini at least matched it. The US government overthrew a liberal Iranian government, but so did Khomeini. The "Islamic revolution" is more accurately described as a secular democratic revolution (while Khomeini wasn't even in the country) followed by a violent Islamic coup (during which Khomeini's virtuous mobsters killed many of those who led the original revolution). America amplified the Iran-Iraq war by helping Iraq, but Khomeini could had ended the war early once it was clear Iran was stronger than Iraq, but chose to push on with the aim of taking territory from Iraq to expand his personal empire. America inflicted catastrophic sanctions on Iran, but Khomeini made them necessary by pouring money into terrorist groups, against the wishes of the Iranian people and the rest of the Iranian government. America supported the Shah in torturing people, but Khomeini's torturing was reportedly worse than the Shah's.

Islam supposedly forbids the creation of images of people and the worshiping of such images, but that rule apparently doesn't apply to Khomeini. Every building is semi-officially required to show a framed photo of Khomeini (it's not legally required, but you might get beaten up as a suspected non-patriot if you don't). When entering a building it can be fun to play a game of "where's Khomeini" and see if you can spot where he is. Similarly, when walking outside, stop at random and see how many Khomeini's you can see.

Showing that he had no desire no desire to depart from the classic "how to be an evil dictator" routine, Khomeini also renamed every significant civic object after himself, including the main square in most cities. Khomeini's face is also on every one of the Iranian bank notes.

Khomeini's variant of Shia Islam seemed to be very convenient for maintaining power. On every government building there are placards displaying quotes from the Quran. These quotes are invariably about the importance of doing what you are told, keeping your head down, and submitting yourself entirely to God. Funnily enough, it just so happens that God always agreed with Khomeini. Indeed it's not clear that they are even different people.

More generally, the Islamic hierarchy in Iran seems to have more in common with a mafia gang or the cronies of a corrupt dictator than the leaders of a moral religion. Stories of gross corruption amongst the clerics are easy to come by. Power corrupts and the clerics have a lot of power.

During my blog I've generally avoided talking about people who hate the government of Iran, largely to protect them, but a lot of people truly loath their government. Amongst the young in particular, people hate the way that the government has tried to prevent anything that might be pleasurable. Alcohol is banned. Music is barely legal (definitely no public concerts). Restaurants and cafes get shut down of they get too popular. The ministry for the prevention of fun and promotion of virtue have done everything in their power to ensure that there is nothing to distract the people from the important work of raising babies who can become cannon fodder for Khomeini's righteous army.

Media censorship in Iran is extreme. The local news is so biased as to be comical. All foreign news channels and web sites are banned. Even facebook and YouTube are blocked and Iran layers it's own filters over sites like google to prevent people seeing inappropriate results. Khomeini is of course dead now, but there is a sense in which he is still leader. It is his image that dominates, and when they replaced him it seems that, rather than prop him up with dark glasses on, they replaced him with someone with a similar name and beard and hoped nobody would notice.

When talking to people in Iran, there is often the worry of "is it safe to talk here", "is it safe to say this to you". There is always the inescapable atmosphere of oppression. There is also a pronounced lack of ambition in Iran. Many people will tell you that they don't it is realistic for them to hope for much in life and the most they should aim for is it do what they are told, keep their head down, don't be too obviously successful, and hope the government leaves them alone. It was really interesting being in Iran, and I'm really pleased I went, but I've never been so relieved to get out of a country.


Now a brief summary of other stuff:

On my last night in Iran I was invited by some Iranians to break the Ramadan fast at their mosque. The scene was chaos as all the people who don't normally attend the mosque were there for the food.

While wandering Shiraz I was stopped by some soldiers (there are soldiers *everywhere*) who asked me where is was going. They then proceeded to give me advice on fun places to visit in Shiraz and pointed out places on my map.

On the way to the airport the taxi driver mistakenly took me to a military air force base rather than the civilian airport.

I flew to Jordan via Bahrain. Bahrain has a strange mix of conspicuous wealth and conspicuous incompetence. It feels like a country run by a six year old who somehow found his father's credit card, or, more accurately, by a group of desert nomads who somehow found a load of oil.

Since then I've been to Amman, seen Petra, been scuba diving on a coral reef in the red sea, and seen a bit of Jerusalem. I'll blog about all that later.