WHAT IS HAPPENING in Iran today represents, in extreme form, a historical process taking place throughout the Third Word: a Revolution of Rising Anxieties. It is the result of a destruction of familiar lifestyles on a scale, and at a pace, that has no historical precedent. The pace of change reached dizzying speed in Iran because of the sudden influx of the oil boom's massive wealth. But that only makes more visible in Iran the earthquake shaking the fundations of societies throughout Asia, Africa and Latin america.
The current turmoil in Iran has already been diagnosed as an example of a Revolution of Rising Expectations. Even before the present boom began with a quadrupling of oil prices in 1973, a steadily improving standard of living generated pressures from previously quiescent classes for a share of the new wealth. The wealth brought by swollen oil revenues after 1973 seemed so great as to enable the regime to keep well ahead of such rising expectations, but because the regime itself suffered from inflated expectations it both exacerbated popular demands and mismanaged the economy. As a result, the gap between expectation and reality became unmanageable.
While such trends clearly have contributed to frustration in Iran, the temptation to explain events with this familiar model obscures a deeper and more powerful force. After all, it is not Marxists calling for class struggle who have brought the masses into the streets.
The revolutionaries who have finally succeeded in mobilizing mass discontent are religious leaders. These leaders do not neglect questions of social and economic justice, but the basis of their appeal is very different. They represent nostalgia for virtues that have been lost sight of in the scramble for modernity. The leader recognized as the chief symbol of opposition to the shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, sets the example of an ascetic lifestyle of simplicity and piety.
Iran's religious leaders have not always been held in such esteem. Deep-rooted traditions of cynicism and of mischievous humor have made mullahs, the bearded, turbaned clergy, stock figures of fun to many Iranians. That they should be taken so seriously now indicates a deeper discontent than could be generated by disappointment with economic opportunities. It is not so much rising expectations as rising anxieties that are shaking the foundations of Iranian society.
Deep Family Ties
MOST AMERICANS today are familiar, in themselves or in their friends, with the kinds of anxieties that can be generated by the changing roles of women in our society. The very stuff of everyday life -- the personal relations of marriage, child-rearing, work and love -- have been transformed, and the transmission has brought men and women not only liberation but also crises of doubt, hostility, guilt and insecurity. In Moslem Iran, the revolution in sexual roles is both much deeper and much faster.
From the veil to the miniskirt, from illiteracy to college education, from domestic seclusion to dating, from a servile legal status to positions of public prominence, from abashed deference to males to driving automobiles such changes, and the resulting thoughts and feelings toward marriage, child-rearing, work and love, have taken place not over centuries, but in one generation. Imagine then, if you can, the anxieties generated in the everyday lives of Iranians by such a change.
In addition to the personal insecurity brought by changing sexual stereotypes, the increased freedom of women is felt to threaten the primary source of social security in Iran -- the family. The extended family in Iran is an economic and political unit in a way that is difficult for Americans to imagine. Any threat to the strength of family ties, therefore, raises anxieties at many levels.
In a society whose rulers have not been inhibited by institutional checks and balances on their power, the cohesiveness of family ties has for centuries offered the best protection available against arbitrary government. Even among the most westernized of Iran's modern bureaucrats, an appeal to family loyalties carries great emotional and moral weight. While the result may be the awarding of a government contract to a cousin, it may also be the protection of a cousin from government injustice. While such family patriotism tends to perpetuate inequality among families (just as, in global society, national patriotism tends to perpetuate inequality among nations), it provides a measure of protection of civil liberties. Attempts to modernize the bureaucracy by eliminating nepotism thus weaken one of the most effective limitations on despotism. The failure to establish modern guarantees of human rights is especially destructive of personal and social security at a time when traditional sources of security are being "reformed" into impotences.
Economic security has also been associated for centuries with family ties. When it comes to finding jobs, forming partnerships, meeting financial difficulties, pursuing promotions and all the rest of economic behavior, Iranians instinctively turn first to relatives. In economics as in politics, the crucial element of trust is a scarce commodity in Iran, and the place where it is most likely to be found is among those bound by tradition and sentiment to support members of the extended family.
While reliance on family ties can be traced to economic and political conditions, it manifests itself in every aspect of Iranian oife. It is difficult for Americans to understand the depth of these ties. To illustrate:
In one of Iran's major provincial cities, two young doctors and their wives, all four educated in western universities, enjoyed one another enormously during their frequent encounters at parties given by Americans. In every way, they seemed made for each other. After more than a year of observing their friendship, an American learned, to his amazement, that they never saw each other except at American parties. But eventually the couples discovered that their families shared some remote relative. The barriers collapsed; after that, they were together constantly.
New Ties Thwarted
THE EMOTIONAL NEED for family ties continues, but the effectiveness of those ties is being undermined. Geographic mobility creates physical distances, and economic mobility creates social distances, among families which had long taken closeness for granted. New pressures for efficient bureaucracy, for large-scale economic enterprise, for a technological army, and for modern education all demand promotion on the basisof merit rather than family connection.
Modernizers lament the continuing power of family connections, but the challenge to that power is deeply felt. Even those most anxious to replace family ties with rational principles of organization feel ambivalent when their own family ties are in question. If, as is often the case, that ambivalence is unconscious, then the anxiety it generates is less manageable.
Of course Iranians are reaching out to form new ties, based on common interests and common goals rather than common blood. But these strivings, hesitant enough to start with, have been systematically thwarted by the regime.
Thus, when 12 agricultural workers together signed a letter requesting that farm machinery be released from years of storage, they were told the letter was highly improper; only one (God help him) should have signed. When young university professors decided to form their own faculty social club, the university administration made the proposal its own, then sidetracked it. When a reforming mullah in Shiraz established a Moslem social orgnization with an outpatient clinic, evening classes for working children and various home services, students who wanted to participate were warned away by Savak, the secret police.
Even the smallest, most innocent gropings toward voluntary association have been felt by the regime to be a threat to its monopoly on power. The only associations tolerated have been those sponsored by, and in all important matters controlled by, the government.
As a result, even those who most hate the regime cannot help but feel that there is some truth in a view propagated by it: that there is no alternative to the present government. Every viable alternative has been strangled in infancy.
And hopes of finding new ties to replace family connections have been strangled at the same time. Thus, while familiar sources of security are being undermined, new sources of security are being aborted. Intdeed, the regime has made its own security depend on feelings of insecurity among the population it rules. sources of security are being undermined, new sources of security are being aborted. Indeed, the regime has made its own security depend on feelings of insecurity among the population it rules.
The Temptation to Tyranny
AND YET, the shah has been a genuine revolutionary -- a social revolutionary. However marred his reforms may have been by inconsistency and corruption, they have led to changes of the most fundamental kind -- in relations between landlord and peasant, between male and female, between religion and science.
Indeed, it was precisely the depth and scale of the social revolution that seemed to demand political repression. Hile it is true that both Iranian tradition and the shah's personality lend themselves to autocratic government, a more powerful force pushing for a police state has been the fear that conflicts generated by social change would lead to anarchy.
Fear of anarchy has not been limited to those in power. While the erosion of family ties has weakened "the tyranny of the family" and brought younger generations a new sense of personal freedom, it has also brought insecurity. When such feelings of insecurity become too great, the temptation to replace family tyranny with a new tyranny is almost irresistible.
Moreover, the weakening of the hold of traditional values on thought and behavior prompts fears of inner anarchy in individuals not accustomed to choosing for themselves among conflicting values and impulses. Whether they support or oppose the shah, Iranians in many ways reveal their attraction to leaders who can impose order. Even protests against the regime often have a tantrum quality that seems to be "asking for" discipline, as if government and opposition are engaged in an unconscious collusion to preserve an authoritarian system.
Probably anyone who has experienced the traffic in Tehran has felt in himself the yearning for a tyrant to straighten out the mess and force drivers to behave. But the traffic is only an obvious symptom of a universal malaise in Iran -- and many other countries.
A professor of Persian literature, a man steeped in the values of Iranian tradition, once told me that the automobile was the nemesis of civilization. To illustrate what he meant, he described how the uncle of one of our friends, a man of exceptional civility, was transformed into an angry madman as soon as he got behind the wheel of his new car.
For a long time, I dismissed this observation as merely quaint. But Iran simply has no traditions of civility for the kind of mobility represented by the automobile. Mobility of every kind now besets Iran: villgers moving to cities, students studying abroad, poor become rich, women choosing careers, illiterates watching Hollywood movies. In the midst of such fast-moving change it's not easy to preserve one of the great achievements of Iranian culture -- a lifestyle in which people always have time for each other.
"If only," an American Peace Corps volunteer once said, "they can somehow preserve the bases of concern in their culture." The sense that the bases of their concern for each other are threatened by rapid change is one of the deepest sources of anxiety in Iran. There are many other sources -- from changing patterns of social deference to ambivalent revolt against religious fatalism -- and their cumulative effect is explosive.
How Should We Respond?
ALTHOUGH it takes a different form in every culture, a similar Revolution of Rising Anxieties is building in most, if not all, the traditional societies of the Third World. How should the United States respond? Is there an approach to foreign policy that will anticipate these anxieties, and help to allay them? For example, can we develop a relationship with Mexico, where an oil boom is just beginnng, that will help our neighbor avoid the tensions that are now surfacing in Iran?
Usually, though not always, restraint is a wise policy in dealing with anxiety in others -- whether they are individuals or nations. Intervention usually intensifies anxieties -- especially when it is self-serving, as foreign policies usually are. Even compassionate intervention is liable to undermine a nation's faith in its capacity to solve its own problems, when such a faith may be that nation's deepest need.
Moreover, ignorance of foreign cultures makes it very difficult to anticipate all the consequences of American intervention. And whatever theconsequences, it is not Americans who will have to live with them. For all these reasons, efforts to promote human rights in foreign countries must be pursued with restraint.
But support of the rulers of a foreign people is just as much an intervention as support of the ruled. Selling weapons to a government is just as much an intervention in internal affairs as selling weapons to rioters. The United States has shown much less restraint in its support of governments than in its support of the people they govern.
Of all possible policies for dealing with a Revolution of Rising Anxieties, support of repressive regimes is unquestionably the worst. Whether in Iran or anywhere else, repression is one of the most common responses to rising anxiety. Just as an individual struggling with a need for personal change is tempted to repress his private internal conflicts into his unconscious, so a government faced by the disruption of traditional lifestyles is tempted to repress the nation's internal conflicts into silence. Sooner or later, the reflicts become crippling. These same conflicts can be a source of creativity -- if they are out in the open. But when they are hidden, they build up until they become unmanageable and burst into history as a destructive force.
Because such forces are now building throughout the Third World, the United States must evolve a foreign policy to deal with them. It won't be a simple policy with clear choices between black and white. But we can at least be clear about the spirit in which we will make difficult choices.
The Deeper Lessons
WE MUST BEGIN by overcoming our own national anxieties. Our fear of the Russians and our fear of a loss of oil supplies have driven us to support in Iran a regime that we would not tolerate for one minute at home. To what extent are these rational fears, and to what extent do they arise from anxieties generated by changes in our own society?
Of course we have experienced, briefly, the effect of a loss of Middle Eastern oil supplies on the economies of the industrial nations. But perhaps we have drawn too superficial a lesson from that experience.
Perhaps there is something fundamentally wrong with a civilization that has become so deeply dependent on a fossil fuel that it is willing to sell billions of dollars of arms to a repressive regime rather than risk its standard of living.
Perhaps those mullahs, with their beards and turbans and quaint ideas, have an accurate instince in their rebellion against the wholesale importation of the values of a culture that has made a god out of oil, and offers it human sacrifice.