They’re Wearing Green in Dubai
How the Iranian diaspora is gearing up for Feb. 11.
Dubai may be possibly the closest thing to being in Iran itself. In five days here I’ve met with nearly three dozen Iranians from different walks of life to try to get a better impression of what’s happening inside the country.
Part of the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is the city-state that until recently glittered as the Middle East’s pre-eminent financial center and served as a mecca for European sunbirds desperate for a warm break from bleak northern winters. The economy has ground to a standstill, Dubai having proven no more resistant to the global recession than anyplace else. The sun still blazes, of course — a toasty 80-plus degrees Fahrenheit most January afternoons. The Disney-style hotels, skyscrapers, and over-the-top shopping malls — one of them boasts an indoor ski slope — reminds one of Las Vegas. And no matter where you go, Dubai retains a strong, distinctly Iranian flavor.
Estimates put the size of the Iranian expat community at 400,000, nearly a third of a 1.3 million population. Iranians work everywhere in Dubai: in the financial sector and in the construction, transportation, and hospitality industries. Daily flights connect Tehran and Dubai (it’s an hour and 40 minutes flying time), with 200 weekly flights between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, most of them to Dubai. According to Iran’s Consulate, a million Iranians pass through Dubai each year. Some come for business. Regime members and well-heeled loyalists are said to maintain luxurious weekend homes here. Young people come to let their hair down, the women literally. Roughly 60 percent of Iran’s population is under 30. Not surprisingly, Dubai’s bling offers a seductive break from the dreary and increasingly repressive life afforded under the Islamic Republic.
What do the Iranians I’ve met think about current developments in their country? The first part of the answer is easy. Those I’ve met here loathe and despise the regime. I couldn’t find an exception. A mother visiting from Isfahan and her daughter who now resides here recounted for me how the two quarreled last summer before the June 12 election. In the face of her daughter’s objections, the mother had contemplated casting her vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but not because she favors the current Iranian president. On the contrary. Her reasoning was: Vote for the thug; the situation has to become worse before it can become better.
By all accounts, the regime has made two big mistakes. First, there was the fraud — or at least the widespread presumption of mass fraud — in June’s election. The regime’s steadfast refusal to deal with public concern quickly led to public outrage. I’ve heard, time and again here, that the regime’s brazen lying is an "insult," an unforgivable "humiliation." Second, the viciousness with which the regime has cracked down on dissent has shocked people, including those who thought they could no longer be shocked.
The Iranians I’ve met include a retired high school teacher, a musician, an engineer, several business executives, journalists, students, a lawyer, a dissident cleric, representatives from the travel and entertainment industries, two activists in the opposition "green movement," a church pastor, and an architect. In virtually every conversation I’ve had, the given is that Iran is ruled by lunatics. That’s the simple part.
The other pieces of a rather complicated mosaic then start to fall into place. A young miniskirt-clad woman from Tehran tells me her grandmother, a deeply religious woman, fears for the end of the regime. As violent and corrupt as it is, she reasons, what comes after might not be Islamic, and that could be only worse. Parts of Iran remain religious, traditional, and conservative. How strong are these segments of Iranian society today? How would they respond to an attempt to transform Iranian theocracy to a Western-style democracy, if that is indeed what happens? It’s not surprising that so many of the Iranians I’ve spoken to — educated, professional, largely from urban centers — concede they’re concerned by the prospect of another bloody revolution or a post-clerical moment that could lead to civil war. As one young businessman told me, it’s one thing to reject the regime, but no one wants Iran to look like Lebanon. Cooperation between moderate secularists and religious Iranians is important now and will be crucial once the current regime eventually expires.
Religion is surely still a powerful factor in Iranian politics and society. It’s a force to reckon with. So is nationalism. It’s closely related to the ambivalence many Iranians feel about the United States.
Another 20-something woman from the Iranian capital, contemptuous in her views of the regime, was equally agitated about a potentially more assertive U.S. policy. Dressed in fashionable jeans with long wavy hair and high heels, she wanted to know why the Americans always feel obliged to meddle. "This is a matter between the Iranian government and the Iranian people," she kept telling me, adding that if the United States attacked Iran, she would be proud to see her husband fight the invaders. She may sound like a cliché, but one cannot escape the feeling that she represents something real and important.
Likewise, a gentleman in his 40s, a professional from Shiraz who’s no fan of the regime either, sees America as a menacing military-industrial complex, interested in arms sales and oil but certainly not democracy for Iran.
Others — the clear majority I’ve spoken with, in fact — have professed enthusiasm for the United States. Many have been to the States; some have plans to study or live there. Whenever it comes to the question of whether the United States should support Iran’s democracy movement, though, even the pro-Americans tend to agree on two opposing propositions: first, that U.S. assistance would be problematic, if not outright counterproductive; second, that Iran’s opposition won’t make it without outside support, notably from the United States.
History has made its mark. The 1953 coup d’état engineered by Dwight Eisenhower’s administration, which unseated an elected Iranian prime minister, and subsequent U.S. support for the shah created distrust that many Iranians have never been able to shake.
Today, it’s hard to gauge precisely just how the mood inside the country is really evolving. It’s true the men in power have the guns and money. The opposition movement still lacks a real leader. Everyone confirms there’s a dreadful lack of coordination, tactics, and strategy. And the green movement has become a catchall for a variety of groups. Some are desperate for political freedom. Others are infuriated over the regime’s mismanagement of the economy. Still others think the ruling clerics have betrayed the revolution’s religious values. This movement’s diversity is its challenge, its charm and potential strength.
Here in Dubai, there’s no sign that the green movement is fading. At the airport, one of my first impressions was a family coming through the arrivals hall. The mother wore a bright green veil, the father a solid green T-shirt, their teenage son a green wristband. At a Persian restaurant in central Dubai, I listened to a female singer who donned a bright green dress. Our young Lebanese waiter volunteered: It’s probably her "call for freedom." Iranians here gather on beaches to talk politics, sometimes lighting candles. The groups, often of 20 to 30 people, are invariably broken up by authorities or, even more troublingly, videotaped by Dubai’s police and security services. Still, these Iranians persist.
Predicting political change, let alone revolutions, is tricky business. The United States got it spectacularly wrong in 1979. If you’re looking for guideposts, the next big date to watch should be Feb. 11, the revolution’s anniversary. Both sides are busy preparing. The opposition promises a strong show of support in the streets, while Ahmadinejad has vowed to strike a harsh blow against "global arrogance" (his term for the United States). Meanwhile, his government is adding even more flights to Dubai. The logic? Better to occupy the rabble-rousers with shopping across the gulf than to have them at home, crowding the streets with their slogans and shouts of discontent. Eastern European communists tried similar techniques, pushing troublemakers into Western Europe. It worked. For a while.