While the Arab spring unfolds all round them, the citizens of Iran seem condemned to a lonely purgatory. Their 1979 revolution promised refuge from the Shah's roller-coaster rule, but the Islamic Republic that replaced it is beset by an equally secular malaise. A soaring murder rate (the country's top weightlifter was a recent victim), family breakdown and chronic levels of personal debt are standard topics of conversation in homes and on buses that ply the capital. The country's most accomplished filmmaker depicts a society that is built on deception and mired in strife. At a middle-class dinner party, a female guest talks casually of driving her car off a cliff.
The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, disapproves of all this Cassandraism. Under his guidance, he believes, Iran has become internationally respected — especially for its refusal to give up a controversial nuclear programme in the face of international sanctions. Khamenei demands an end to ‘negativist' statements from the country's officials, which breed ‘hopelessness'.
Iran's leaders put a stop to participatory politics when they rigged the 2009 presidential election in favour of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and crushed the opposition ‘green' movement that rose up in response. Its figureheads, Mir Hussain Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, were put under house arrest last winter. But the silencing of organised opposition has not brought peace to the country's decision-making elite, even if its members claim to be united behind the principle of clerical rule. On the contrary, in government, as in society, dangerous fissures have opened up.
Disunity is all the more remarkable in light of the harmony that prevailed after the flawed presidential poll. Back then, the country's conservative establishment, led by Khamenei and stiffened by Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, came together to save Ahmadinejad from a wave of unrest. That solidarity has now ended, poisoned by a cocktail of personal ambition and millenarian quackery.
Relations between Ahmadinejad and some of his former backers have deteriorated to such an extent that the president is now depicted as a maverick who has been ‘bewitched' by his own chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai. A former intelligence ministry official whose daughter is married to the president's son, Mashai is regarded as the source of what his rivals call a ‘current of deviancy' running through the government. Mashai is an unpredictable force in public life. He is an Iranian nationalist in a regime that stresses the universal values of Islam. Yet his approach to external relations — he has acted as the president's personal envoy, increasing the envy and suspicion of others — can be surprisingly emollient.
Khamenei is in a bind. Scores of parliamentarians now hope to impeach the president, but the supreme leader will probably not let them. It was he who put Ahmadinejad in power, and the two men know each other's secrets from the 2009 election and its grisly aftermath. Far better, the ayatollah may judge, to ride out the two years that remain before Ahmadinejad is constitutionally required to stand down.
Yet for all the pressure he is under, Ahmadinejad has assets of his own. A brilliant populist, he has showered enough attention and largesse on poor, pious Iranians to win a place in their hearts. As expected, inflation has risen (it is expected to peak at 22 per cent early next year) but a new monthly dole has softened the blow for many people. Other extravagant promises (a plot of land for every family, for instance) are derided by economists, but lapped up by the credulous.
Almost entirely reliant on oil receipts, unproductive and monopolistic, Iran's economy is not as strong as it should be. Entrepreneurship has been stymied by sanctions, while the Revolutionary Guards' commercial divisions take over ever larger bits of the economy in the absence of foreign investment. On the country's periphery, revolts by minorities such as the (mostly Sunni) Kurds and Balochis smoulder on. A dribble of assassinations of scientists associated with Iran's nuclear development (the most recent took place on July 23, though Iran denied that the victim was involved in the programme) serve to illustrate the determination of Iran's enemies to deny it the bomb. In such an environment, it is not surprising that existential angst in various forms, religious and secular, is now perceptible across Iranian society.