Iran's revolutionary vanguard reduced to criticising chicken
Revolutions are inevitably ironic.
In their proclamation of a new society, their denunciation of the old order as corrupt and repressive, and promise of a political cleansing, they set the bar too high. They inevitably face the day when they, too, are corrupt and repressive, their politics are dirty and venal, and darkness obscures the new dawn.
The Islamic Republic of Iran embodies this revolutionary irony. In overthrowing the Shah of Iran in 1979, revolutionary forces toppled a powerful autocrat, promised change, declaimed a new politics and set about changing the world.
Those heady days of revolution quickly gave way to revenge killings, execution of dissidents and a silencing of government critics. Still, in those early years of the 1980s, there was a war with Iraq to fight, the glow of revolutionary euphoria to bask in and legions of true believers.
The "revolution" has long since ossified into a mafia of elite power players linked to the circles of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), repressing everyone else - including their former allies from 1979, former allies from a decade ago and former allies from last year.
True believers are a dying breed. Although revolutions hang on dearly to the slogans, what is left really are the guns and the force. And the power remains; the power that allows revolutionaries to become rich ministers, or rich friends of ministers, or rich sons of ministers or presidents or generals or, in Iran's case, clerics.
The revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s in the Arab world brought repudiation of the autocrats and kings, and promises of a new dawn. Until the new leaders, too, were tempted by the fruits of power. They grew mukhabarat states, ruled by men in dark glasses and generals with impressive tassels on their uniforms and even more impressive Swiss bank accounts.
This revolutionary trend is not unique to the Middle East. Witness Cuba, Russia, China, eastern Europe - the men who proclaimed new dawns visited nightmares upon their people, no better than the autocrats they deposed, and in most cases, much worse. This was also true of France for the first 50 years or so of its revolution.
What way the so-called "Arab spring" revolts will go remains to be seen, but there is hope that it will not follow the French, Russian or Iranian model: former political elites have not been rounded up en masse and killed, nor has a reign of terror has been imposed. This, of course, is a low bar, but there is thus far no comparison between Egypt's admittedly messy politics and the daily executions of Russia, Iran or France's revolutions.
But back to Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once famously dismissed an aide who spoke too much of inflation in the early days, saying: "This revolution was not about the price of watermelons."
But, in reality, the price of watermelons mattered in 1979. The general price spikes that hit the Iranian population wounded an aspiring middle class already disgruntled by their lack of political voice. Furthermore, Ayatollah Khomeini was masterful in mining class-based resentment and playing economic populism, promising free electricity and an end to corruption of the elite.
Today, as the world debates Iran's nuclear programme, Iranians debate the price of chicken. Prices have soared over the past few weeks. This has led to frustration, and even protests. In the north-east province Khorasan, demonstrators chanted "death to inflation" and demanded the resignation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran's "chicken crisis", however, went viral earlier this month when Iran's national police chief Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam told state television not to broadcast films showing people eating chicken. He feared that this could lead to jealousy and violence. He spoke of the "class gap between rich and poor" and fears that the poor would "grab a knife and think that they will get their share".
Iran is not a poor country. Its population is accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and chicken stews are served even in poor homes. But not anymore. It's too expensive. The price has tripled in the past three months - a victim of international sanctions and a declining rial.
Rather than find solutions, the police chief simply told state TV to censor chickens.
Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, a regime-affiliated cleric, offered a different "solution" to the public. "Many people complain about the high price of eating chicken," he said, "but it is not very important if they do not eat chicken. Most doctors have said that meat is not good for one's health."
Imagine if this chicken crisis took place in 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini would have pounced on it, proclaiming that the Shah and his cronies were so stuffed with chicken that they have none left for the rest of Iran.
Today, the elite of the Islamic Republic - once hungry and lean revolutionaries - are now stuffed with chicken and beef and other delicacies, while telling the rest of Iran to simply stop complaining.
The irony is as rich as a steaming plate of buttered rice and saffron-soaked chicken kebab.
Afshin Molavi is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and a senior adviser at Oxford Analytica
On Twitter: @AfshinMolavi
Updated: August 1, 2012 04:00 AM