Iran Seen Through Venezuelan Eyes

Iran and Venezuela have seemingly little in common. But the recent dissent over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election proves one strong similarity.

Iran and Venezuela could not be two more different countries. Pious Shiites, daily prayers, and no alcohol in one; boisterous Caribbean culture, salsa, and a lot of rum in the other. Chadors and string bikinis; an Islamic Republic and a Bolivarian one.

The Iranian supreme leader is a reticent cleric not prone to public speaking; the Venezuelan one never seems to stop talking. While Persian civilization is one of the oldest, the history of Venezuela is, shall we say, somewhat shorter. These two countries should have nothing in common.

Yet they do. So much so that the recent Venezuelan experience sheds some interesting light on where the Iranian crisis is headed.

The images of the opposition marches in Tehran (massive, mostly peaceful, with no clear hierarchy, and with people of all ages and social classes) are identical to those that used to take place in Caracas, before their ineffectiveness became clear and before the government repressed them. The desperation in the voices of the Iranian youngsters sounds much like that of the Venezuelan students who filled the political vacuum created by the incompetent opposition of their elders. To hear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying that those protesting against his victory are just "dust" is to hear Hugo Chávez referring dismissively to the "squalid opposition" whenever he talks about the millions of Venezuelans who don't vote for him. Watching the Basij, the Islamic militia, shooting at their fellow citizens marching peacefully is to see "Bolivarian militias" shoot and kill their unarmed opponents in the streets of Caracas. Like Neda, the young Iranian woman who bled to death on a street in Tehran after being shot by government thugs, innocent Venezuelans also lost their lives at the hands of goons on motorcycles.

The eerie parallels don't end there. The organization charged with guaranteeing the fairness of the Iranian election is an appendage of the government, while the head of that agency in Venezuela became the vice president of the government whose victory he'd certified as free and fair just a few days before. Ahmadinejad's campaign slogan? Ahmadinejad is love. In Venezuela: Chávez is love.

Both men rode to power as slayers of the corrupt elite that governed their countries, as fighters of injustice and inequality, and as champions of the poor. In both cases their promises came to naught: In Ahmadinejad's Iran and Chávez's Venezuela corruption runs rampant and top officials operate with impunity. Both have tolerated -- indeed facilitated -- the accumulation of immense, oil-fueled wealth in the hands of a new elite whose members are a who's who of the leaders' political allies, especially their comrades in arms (Ahmadinejad was a Basiji, and Chávez is a former lieutenant colonel).

As Ahmadinejad supports Hezbollah, Chávez supports the Colombian FARC. While Ahmadinejad tries to keep Lebanon under his influence, Chávez does the same with Bolivia. Both dream of presiding over a regional superpower. Ahmadinejad promises the demise of Israel and the fall of the Great Satan. In Venezuela, where anti-Semitism had been unknown, synagogues are now desecrated, and Chávez famously complained that the U.N. podium where he had to speak after George W. Bush still smelled of satanic sulfur.

Thanks to oil, both leaders have disguised the fact that their policies have brought their respective economies to their knees. Iran's and Venezuela's inflation rates are among the highest in the world, unemployment is rampant, and cash transfers from the government and unproductive public-sector employment are the only income that millions of families in both countries can hope to have.

Perhaps one of the most interesting similarities, though, is the extremes both regimes are willing to go to keep democratic appearances. They want the world to see them as democratic, pluralistic, and progressive. It's a public-relations gambit that is becoming increasingly hard for either man to pull off, as evidence mounts that their governments are authoritarian, corrupt, sectarian, and militaristic.

Fourteen of the 21 cabinet members in Iran are former members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or the Basij militia. Local governments, state-run enterprises, and most public agencies are run by Revolutionary Guards or members of the military and the militia. The same is true in Venezuela, where the militarization of the state is a key feature of Chávez's Bolivarian revolution and where family and former and current comrades in arms of Chávez and his entourage (almost all military men) fill the top posts of the public sector and the oil industry, as well as all state-owned enterprises and newly nationalized companies that are now run mostly to line the pockets of their presidentially appointed managers.

It is essential to understand that both in Iran and in Venezuela an election may not just mean swapping one president for another. An election can imply a fundamental regime change, and that is an intolerable outcome for those in power. That is why today Hugo Chávez is the longest- serving president in the Americas. And it's why mounting an effective political challenge to the oligarchs entrenched in power will be as difficult in Iran as it has been in Venezuela.



The 8 Books Ahmadinejad Doesn’t Want You to Read

And what they say about modern Iran

It is far too early to draw any hard conclusions about the ongoing uprising in Iran, but one thing seems clear enough: Once again, Iran has confounded the expectations and assumptions of many a Western Iran expert when it comes to what Iranians want, what they are prepared to do to get it, and how their leaders respond to unprecedented events. All the more reason then to encourage the study of Iran's politics, economy, society, history, and literature. Below, in no particular order, are a selection of books that will get you started in understanding the intriguing, elusive, and wondrous puzzle that is Iran:

1. Janet Afary, Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Afary does a spectacular job explaining, as well as detailing, sexual attitudes and practices from the 19th to the 21st century. Her account gives an excellent feel for how Iranian society works and how that has changed under the impact of modern times. Plus, her detailed research makes the account much more credible than some of the highly readable stories from Iranian-Americans about personal life in modern Iran.

2. Arang Keshavarzian, Bazaar and State in Iran: The Politics of the Tehran Marketplace (Cambridge University Press, 2007). Keshavarzian shows how the bazaar exercised its political and economic influence under the shah. He then lays out the paradox that the revolution in which the bazaar was so central brought in a government that has systematically weakened the bazaar to the point that the bazaar is no longer a significant political player. His style is at times a bit dense, but Keshavarzian is no obscurantist academic: He provides lots of colorful details.

3. Manucher Farmanfarmaian and Roxane Farmanfarmaian, Blood and Oil: Memoirs of a Persian Prince, (Random House, 1997). The Farmanfarmaians paint in rich detail how the Pahlavi dynasty changed Iran from a very traditional society into a complicated semimodern one. They use their family's story as a way to weave in the political and intellectual history of Iran from the 1940s through the 1970s.

4. Yonah Alexander and Milton Hoenig, The New Iranian Leadership: Ahmadinejad, Terrorism, Nuclear Ambition, and the Middle East (Praeger Security International, 2008). The prolific Alexander has edited some less-than-stellar books, but this volume is a first-rate reference manual for those wanting the dates, numbers, and other facts about Iran's nuclear, missile, chemical, and terrorist programs. No one in his right mind would read the book from page 1 to the end, but it's a great reference source.

5. Peter Chelkowski and Hamid Dabashi, Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran, (New York University Press, 1999). Perhaps the best book to give a feel of the 1979 Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, with hundreds of wonderful color reproductions of the propaganda -- from postage stamps to agitprop plays to the ubiquitous political posters. Great fun to flip through, and the text is well worth reading.

6. John Parker, Persian Dreams: Moscow and Tehran Since the Fall of the Shah, (Potomac Books, 2009). Admittedly a bit specialized topic, but a superb analysis of how Iran looks from Moscow. It provides rich detail of how Russian domestic politics shapes Moscow's interest in and perception of the Islamic Republic. Parker brings out how different are Western and Russian narratives about Iran: They have entirely varying reads on what have been the significant turning points and what matters most in Iran's foreign policy.

7. Richard Tapper, editor, The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, (I.B. Tauris, 2002). These 14 essays situate the fascinating Iranian film industry in its cultural, social, and political settings. The essay authors provide enough reviews of individual films to bring their points to life, but their focus is very definitely on the sociopolitical rather than artistic aspects of Iranian film.

8. And of course, for anyone who loves literature, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House, 2003) is a rewarding account of those who are so deeply committed to great books that they can overcome the tremendous obstacles to free intellectual life under the Islamic Republic.