Iran: Ides of Moharram



In other years you would have been hard pressed to find a westerner living in Iran who knew or cared much about the Shia Moslems' mourning month of Moharram. Today even the newest arrival knows its significance for both himself and the Shah. The talk is of little else. Many foreign companies are prudently sending staff and families home for an early Christmas break, to avoid a month that all expect will be torrid. Some 5,000 foreigners have left Iran since August, and that figure would be higher were it not for the strike in the finance ministry that is blocking exit clearance documents.
Moharram begins on December 2nd, with yet another national strike. From Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini has called on his millions of followers within Iran to renew their efforts against the monarchy, through acts of civil disobedience (such as the non-payment of taxes) as well as public-sector strikes and the blocking of oil exports.
Ashura, the blackest day in the orthodox believer's calen4ar, falls this year on December 11th. It is the highest hurdle General Gholam Reza Azhari's government will have to clear. The marching of mourning groups will be "absolutely prohibited", says the government. The message to the local religious leaders in the country's 5,400 mosques was clear: if they overstep the mark the army is ready to crack down hard. With that bitter medicine came a most unexpected sweetener: all non-Islamic laws would be revised in accordance with religious principles and the clergy would be invited to help.
Meanwhile middle-class anti-Shah activists with little time for religion also see this moment as their chance. They talk openly of "the revolution" and "the final stage". The high casualty toll in recent clashes, they claim, means that the military government is still not in control.
The Shah himself has remained silent since his television broadcast to the nation installing the generals on November 6th. There was a flurry of excitement in Teheran this week over an allegedly imminent and acceptable coalition government. But what civilian would command public respect and be acceptable to the Shah? Least unacceptable to the court would be the 73-year-old former prime minister, Mr. Ali Amini, who has been working hard to maintain a middle ground between the monarch and his outright opponents. But the National Front has said it will not work under him and he is often still said to be in the west's pocket. The front's leader, Mr. Karim Sanjabi is still in jail (though there are strong rumors he may be let out soon) but Mr. Shahpour Bakhtiar, who is close to him, might be prepared to take the risk of being damned by the Paris no-compromisers and work with the Shah. A third prospect is Mr. Nasrullah Entezam, whose father was a minister in the previous Qajar dynasty.
Above all this, everybody-from the Shah and his army western diplomats and militant university lecturers to the bazaar merchant who grumbles at his loss of business during strikes-is waiting to see how Moharram will turn out.

Economist Tehran Correspondent,
The Economist, December 2, 1978



 
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