When God Still Lives: A Portrait of Post-Revolutionary Iran
In the back of a restaurant in a Vancouver suburb, I drink with a group of Marxist Iranian dissidents. One of them, Parsa—flushed, stumbling, and portly in the way of a drunk from a Russian novel—asks if I have a right hand. I tell him I do, before he hits me over the head, pours me a shot, and declares I’m only ever allowed a “left” hand and an “ultra-left” hand.
Some of these men came of age during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, some during the Iran-Iraq War, and some directly after. Yet each one risked everything to make Iran secular, socialist, and democratic—before fleeing to the West from imprisonment, torture, and state-enforced disenfranchisement.
Above us are lights that toss a deep purple and, just beyond the bar, a vacant space—for when these middle-aged men decide to dance (and they will dance). But for now they laugh through their throats and trade stories of their years spent defying and denouncing, paving ground for a revolution which they hoped—and still hope—will someday come.
I grew up around these people, with their caustic passion and bluster. They became my family’s closest friends after we left Iran for Canada. Yet lately this group and I have grown apart, and disagree on how to undo the despotism of Iran’s government, the Islamic Republic. These men either opposed the Iran nuclear deal, kept silent, or nodded cautiously—while I cheered it on. They think international isolation can suffocate the regime until it changes. I think we’ve seen that tactic under U.S. policy for decades without success.
I say trade and diplomacy can empower Iran’s reformists to change the regime from within. They reply—as Parsa slides me another shot, muttering that “sharing is caring”—that it would give billions to the mullahs. They’ll buy Ferraris for themselves, they say, and guns to shoot everyone else.
“What do you know that we don’t?” I feel them asking when we debate Iran. “What have you really seen?” Not much. And I wonder what I would learn if I did.
“We wanted to change the world,” Hossein told me. Once a Marxist guerilla, he’s now a spiritualist film-maker; the type who mainlines vitamin D for its health benefits. The Leftists who helped create Iran’s 1979 revolution, he insists, viewed themselves first as soldiers in a global struggle against neo-colonial Empire, and second as Iranians.
“I knew about Nicaragua,” he said. “I knew about El Salvador, I knew about Reagan, I knew about Thatcher, I knew about what was going on in the Soviet Union, I knew about what was going on in the Far-East—it was never national, it was never local. Iran is part of this chain that had to be broken.”
“When you think in those terms,” he said, “everything you do—you know, breathing, eating, walking, exercising, fucking— everything becomes part of the same story.”
And it’s a story that once spread across the developing world, when the U.S. would back the regimes that Soviet-funded Leftists opposed. In Iran, those Leftist heroes were the Tudeh, Fedai and Mojaheddin parties, and the villain the U.S.-backed Pahlavi dynasty. The former would slay the latter, so the story went, and socialism in Iran would help usher in socialism elsewhere.
But that’s not what happened. Every Marxist revolution needs an industrial working-class and, in the 1970s, Iran’s was neither large enough nor willing to comply. Instead the clerics weaponized the religious fervour of the underclass to hijack the 1979 revolution and replace the Shah’s regime, not with a secular socialist state, but a brutal Islamic Republic.
So the story collapsed upon itself. And Iran’s Leftists— the urban, educated children of the middle class—couldn’t stomach that their proletariat was wooed by a gaggle of “backwards” mullahs.
“They lost bad,” Hossein said. “Bad, bad, bad. Trumpian bad, you know what I’m saying?” After the Revolution, the clergy didn’t have to vie for power with the military, which had been weakened by Leftist guerrilla wars in the north. And the clerics learned their foreign-policy vocabulary—of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, and anti-Americanism—from their Marxists cellmates in the Pahlavi prisons.
“The dish is a deep sense of betrayal,” Hossein said. “The spices—paranoia, water and salt, excessive pride. What do you get when you cook it?” A fierce hatred for the clerics who hijacked their utopia and a rage stoked after decades spent dwelling on—and living within—a catastrophic historical irony.
We leave the restaurant and head to a hookah bar. My dad laughs as he takes his seat.
“We used to translate Hegel with a German to Persian dictionary,” he calls out.
“Baba,” Parsa replies, “I didn’t even know what the bourgeoisie was. I just knew it was really bad—so I’d go out and slip notes with socialist radio frequencies into people’s houses.” Parsa took a job in the regime’s literacy program to radicalize the peasantry. “By the end of the school-year I had those sons-of-bitches reading pamphlets,” he says. “I was a vanguard of one!”
Later activists, I’m told, also lacked political mentors.
“I believe my generation tried to actually create the wheel again,” says Alireza, an impressively charming real-estate developer who also leads two NGOs in Vancouver and works for the Democratic Party in Colorado. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Alireza was a student leader for Mohammad Khatami’s successful presidential campaign. Khatami promised to uphold free speech, ease social restrictions, and open a dialogue with the United States. He uplifted millions of exhausted Iranians with his buoyant promise of change.
I asked Alireza whether he’d felt a link to the generations of activists who came before him. Their experiences had made them depressed, he said.
“They didn’t want to talk. So I didn’t know about their plight, I didn’t know about their challenges, I didn’t know how they tried to deal with the challenges,” he said.
“I was an actor in the middle of a storm not appreciating the nuances of what were surrounding me,” he said with a sigh. “It’s actually very sad when I look at it.”
Doctor Ahmadeyan—once part of Iran’s Marxist underground, now a professor at the University of Victoria—tried to explain this inter-generational amnesia. After the revolution, he said, the clerics “intentionally created a series of crises, both nationally and internationally,” to purge opposition. The civil war in Kurdistan, the attack on the U.S. embassy, and the prolonged war with Iraq all justified a constant state of emergency.
“It is documented that about 5000 to 7000 have been killed, all activists,” said Ahmadeyan, but “it is speculated that the actual number is around 25,000.” And that includes moderates within Khomeini’s own camp who, “because of their dedication,” the regime “sent to the war and got killed.”
I used to wonder how these generations of activists became so disconnected. The answer is that the first generation was almost wiped out. And those not wiped out were exiled.
“Probably 100,000 activists left the country,” unable to rebuild their lives after prison, Ahmadeyan said. “A complete generational vacuum.”
And so for a long time, Alireza said, the older generation believed their children had “internalized the values of the Islamic Republic of Iran” through its propaganda. The younger generation, they claim, don’t know “how dishonest the clerical establishment — all of them — could be.”
Now these men in the restaurant tell me too that reform in Iran is impossible, its supporters clueless, and the politicians who promise it powerless. But that prejudice against reform seems ill-founded: Khatami’s reforms, while brief, eased censorship — “even Karl Marx books got published,” Alireza said — and checked conservative factions like the Revolutionary Guard that grew immensely under the Ahmadinejad administration. Khatami’s reforms make the case for more, not fewer, attempts to change the regime from within.
“The history of Iran has had loads of ups and downs,” Alireza said, “but most people focus on the downs. After a while, they even start criticizing the ups.”
Yet these men don’t need proof for their prejudice, because it seems to fill an emotional need. If reform is impossible, then the only alternative is revolution. And if revolution topples the Islamic Republic, then the Left never really failed; the traitorous proletariat never really existed, and the regime never really had support within Iran. Beneath their prejudice is, in other words, a perverse hope that Iran’s history and demography might be repainted in colors more pleasing to the educated eye.
“That’s why we got defeated,” Hossein said. “I was ideological myself, but no longer. It’s about politics; you need to be a good tactician.”
“I don’t belong to that community [of ideologues] anymore. I avoid that community. To me, they’re fossils, they’re dinosaurs, they’re dead. They just,” he added, loudly, “carry their bodies around.”
My father picks up his pool cue, as Parsa trips over his own. Kaveh stands at a distance from their table in the shadow of a pillar; like part of the scenery. He’s been quiet all night, and his body is sunken and sallow in places one wouldn’t expect a body to be.
My father asks him to “teach [me] something about Iran.” And though he refuses— saying “Iran’s a shit show,” asking “why bother him?”— Parsa decides to bother me anyway.
Kaveh led the Iranian student protest movement of 1999, an uprising that resulted in a crackdown, with hundreds detained and many more disappeared. He was jailed sporadically for three years and tortured for days at a time. He developed two types of cancer, a phenomenon so common in Iranian prisons that a group of North American academics have begged Iran to address it. Now out of jail, but unwilling to endure more agony in Iran, Kaveh lives alone in a basement suite in some morbid backwater of Canadian suburbia. He comes from a wealthy Azeri Turk family, I’m told as we drop him off, and had four hundred million dollars in assets confiscated by the Islamic Republic. We all wonder aloud why he didn’t, just couldn’t, stay still.
Though the old Left was, and still is, blinded by hatred and consumed by ideology, their searing dedication should not be forgotten. Iran needs pragmatism, but it also needs people who can organize and motivate, who can revive the vigor with which the old Left once sought revolution.
“We failed, but we tried. A lot of us lost our lives because we tried,” Hossein said. “You guys, you don’t even try.”
I also spoke that night with my friend Kasra, who had just immigrated to Canada for college. Always studying, always grabbing every check, and always — somehow — wearing a tie, he is probably the sweetest person I know. So sweet that when I met him, I heard my father’s voice telling me he was a spy for the Islamic Republic. (I still hear it.) But he certainly has the pragmatism; he reads Machiavelli for pointers on how to crush political rivals and, when I asked him if he thought religion was good for anything, he replied: “Sending people to war.”
And while it seems that Iran’s newest generation is characterized by that pragmatism, I hope for Iran’s sake and my own that they’re half as ferocious as those who came before them.
At the restaurant they sing songs in Persian which they know by heart. And they quote poetry to me that I can’t understand. And they come to me with tears to ask, as Parsa does, that I not be “sentimental about Iran. All our words here,” he tells me, still stumbling, “just stand in for something else.”