By Swapan Dasgupta
There is a natural romance associated with the fight for freedom and democracy. When that struggle blends with the lure of a mysterious Orient, its long-distance fascination is even more compelling. The disgust against saffron-robed Buddhist monks being thrashed by the authorities in Burma and Tibet have mobilised an army of the well-meaning-from Hollywood stars to Harvard professors. When that outrage merges into righteousness, usually fuelled by the symbolic presence of a Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, the brew is even headier. Confronted by the halo surrounding Aung San Suu-Kyi and the Dalai Lama, the junta in Yangon and the Politburo in Beijing look like incarnations of Darth Vader.
The street protests in Tehran against a ''stolen election'' have grabbed a lot of media space. Yet, the absence of a face which captures the disquiet has also meant that the stir hasn't made the same impression on the western imagination as, say, Slumdog Millionaire did. The comparison may seem facetious but it is worth remembering that, self-interest apart, what really drives ''international opinion'' is a happy hour of concern and condescension. The West loves to feel superior.
Iran, unfortunately, doesn't fit the stereotype. Despite the forthright indictment of the election process by some European leaders and American opinion-makers, the protests in Tehran aren't likely to set both sides of the Atlantic ablaze in righteous indignation.
The defeated Mir Hossein Mousavi was the nominal alternative to the scruffily combative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, there were always doubts over how much reformism could flow from someone who was prime minister under Ayatollah Khomeini. Mousavi's candidature was, after all, vetted by the all-powerful theologians who call the shots. The choice before voters was not one of good versus evil but between 'Evildee and Evildum'. The hiccups over over-zealous election management are symptomatic of a factional struggle within the ruling establishment.
It is possible the angry young men and well-dressed women in Victoria Beckham sunglasses in Tehran - the only place where Mousavi outpolled Ahmadinejad - have different ideas. While Ahmadinejad supporters tend to be poor and socially conservative - more black chadors are seen at his rallies - Mousavi becomes a rallying point for all those who feel weighed down by the social illiberalism of the Ayatollahs. There is an emerging Facebook and Twitter generation in Iran which rues the curtailment of personal freedoms and yearns for the relatively more exciting lives enjoyed by their non-resident cousins. The fierce allergy of the theologians to the intermingling of the sexes is a particular irritation and there is exasperation that fun has been driven underground.
Why, goes a joke doing the rounds in Iran, does Ahmadinejad have a middle parting? Answer: because he can separate the male and female lice.
The experiences of 21-year-old British-Iranian woman who spent a month in Tehran may not be typical but is certainly indicative of how much a global, westernised culture has seeped into Iran. "By day," she wrote in Daily Telegraph, "I dutifully donned a shawl and an overcoat, in public playing the part - like all Iranian girls my age - of the respectful and obedient woman. But at night, the shawls were off. The same girls - with their brothers and cousins - joined me in underground raves, fuelled by smuggled alcohol and copious amounts of cannabis."
This description of the 'other' Iran captures the impulses behind the protests and also explains why they are unlikely to lead to a dramatic regime change.
The abrupt politicisation of this Twitter generation - to the extent that some are questioning the authority of the spiritual leader Ayatollah Khameini - has titillated the West. From Obama downwards, policy makers are exploring the potential of internet social networking becoming a handle in the fight for change in Iran. Yet, in embracing the modernists so enthusiastically, the West has prepared the ground for a conservative retaliation. The backlash may not necessarily take the form of a Tiananmen Square-type massacre but in days to come the Twitter-bugs are certain to be subjected to two charges. They will, predictably, be accused of being un-Islamic and morally degenerate. But far more damaging will be the charge of colluding with the West against Iranian nationalism.
It's a charge they may find difficult to counter. In its 20 years of existence as an Islamic Republic, Iran has acquired a siege mentality. This stems contradictory impulses: a fierce desire to protect its civilisational vitality and the realisation that cultural purity is impossible in a shrinking world. Indifferent economic progress has driven Iran towards populist adventurism which, however flawed, enjoys mass endorsement.
The Twitter-bugs of Tehran want to push Iran into acknowledging a national failure. Unfortunately, they haven't factored the biggest hurdle to Iran's return to the modern world: national pride.