I have written before about the profound social changes taking place in Iran. Young people are thinking for themselves, and steadily rejecting the rules of the religious regime. Young women are claiming their rights and insisting on being heard.
And yet no credit for any of this goes to our reformist politicians, who are preoccupied with petty power struggles and lack the courage to confront our sclerotic theocratic leaders.
Take the case of the UNESCO Education Action Plan. It is a well-intentioned and benign document — no more than a global guide — that calls for “inclusive and equitable” education worldwide. President Hassan Rouhani’s Culture Ministry approved it in principle last year.
Then out of the blue, last week Supreme leader Ali Khamenei opened fire on it.
His official website reports that, on Teachers’ Day, May 7, in a speech to educators, Khamenei said: “We will not allow the implementation of the UNESCO Education Action Plan Agenda. We have our own cultural views, and it is unacceptable that a UN Body under the influence of global powers [by this he means the US and its allies] , should impose its views and lifestyle on us….”
The Supreme Leader announced he was going to overturn the decision of the government’s Culture Committee.
"I am dissatisfied with the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council because they caved in to UNESCO and I am left with no option but to interfere,” the Supreme Leader added.
So what is really going on here?
On the surface, it is UNESCO’s call for gender equality in education that has piqued the Supreme Leader.
He suffers from the same paranoia that afflicts all aging revolutionaries — that liberal Western values like gender equality are undermining the Islamic Republic.
But his intervention was also a political message to President Rouhani – whose views the Supreme Leader finds too liberal. Overruling the government’s adoption of the UNESCO guidelines was a warning shot across Rouhani’s bows as we enter the homestretch of this election.
The Supreme Leader has always believed that only a fierce rebuff of Western authority can protect Iran and preserve its dignity. In the same speech, he recalled a notorious incident by way of example.
Back in 1992, four Iranian Kurdish leaders were assassinated in Berlin’s Mykonos restaurant. A German court ruled that senior Iranian officials, including Khamenei himself, had known about the murder plot, and it called upon then-President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani to testify.
“Do you remember,” the Supreme Leader asked his audience, “when our president was summoned to court in what we thought was a friendly country …? We punched their faces. We supported our president and his government, and that country retreated. Yes. We must stand firm against the enemy."
So what has been the reformist politicians’ reaction to the leader’s imaginary war against UNESCO?
The reformists talk a good line on democracy. They are encouraging people to get out and vote this Friday, and condemn the whopping 42 to 45 percent of urban dwellers who probably won’t bother.
But they haven’t the courage to point out the flagrant hypocrisy of the Supreme Leader.
He and the Iranian regime know they need their membership to the United Nations — for international credibility and because the UN gives Iran an international forum, and a valuable office in New York.
And yet they constantly decry UN values and documents like the UNESCO Education Agenda or the Convention on Human rights.
If the reformists were honest, they’d take the bull by the horns and make an issue of this.
In the crucial field of education, truly brave reformists would confront the ideologues who run our seminaries and tell them the UNESCO education objectives are admirable and right. They’d point out that millions of young Iranians agree, and that it’s time to recognize people’s longing for a more secular modern system – both in schools and in life.
If they had any courage they’d highlight social changes in Iran as evidence that the Supreme Leader’s rejection of UNESCO’s education agenda is not only deluded, it’s pointless.
But they don’t.
As a result, this Friday Iran will go to the polls once again to ratify a dysfunctional two-faced status quo.