ON FEB. 1, 1979, THE DAY A TRIUMPHANT AYATOLLAH RUHOLLAH Khomeini returned to Iran, ending almost 15 years of exile and more than two millennia of Persian monarchy, Ramin Kashani was a graduate student in engineering at USC. For months, the political turmoil engulfing the Pahlavi dynasty had fired the young Iranian's imagination.
"I could barely study for thinking about the revolution--and all the changes and opportunities it would produce," he recalled recently, a smile warming his handsome face. "For my generation, it was the most exciting time in our lives."
Khomeini's return, the climax of the revolution, was more than Kashani could take. Less than three weeks later, he abandoned his studies and returned to Iran. "At the end, I don't remember it involving much of a decision," Kashani told me in his comfortable Tehran apartment. "I knew I wanted to help rebuild my country after the end of a long dictatorship. I was willing to give up something important to work for something I believed in. Like most Iranians," he added, his eyes staring into the past, "I thought my future was in the revolution."
Indeed, Khomeini's tumultuous welcome has been compared to the ecstatic turnout for Charles de Gaulle when he returned to Paris at the end of World War II. With the exception of monarchists and others who had thrived politically, financially or socially during the half-century reign of the two Pahlavi shahs, millions of Iranians from all social classes initially had almost quixotic visions of their revolution.
I visited Kashani, now 35, married and a father, exactly 14 years after he made that decision. This meeting came during the anniversary commemoration called "Ten Days of Dawn," so named because the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's government, propped up by what was then the world's sixth-largest army, crumbled 10 days after Khomeini's return.
The anniversary converted Tehran, a lively but drab, polluted and overpopulated capital, nearing 12 million, into a festive city, at least for 10 days. The tree-lined boulevards were brilliantly lighted with imaginative arrangements--all green, red and white, the regime's tricolors. Bright pastel banners proclaimed the revolution's triumphs and intentions. "This is the beginning of God's government," one heralded.
Fourteen years after the birth of the modern world's first theocracy, Kashani, a self-selected pseudonym, represents the largest stratum of society, those most disillusioned. Unlike many of his Western-educated peers, he has remained in the Islamic Republic. Thousands have fled back to Southern California--which now has the largest population of Iranians outside their homeland--or to France, Canada, Britain and other Western countries. But within a year of his return, he quit the revolution. Today, he's in private business, and he doesn't bother to vote.
"The revolution was made for my generation. But we are the ones who've suffered the most," he said as we sipped cups of sweet tea. "The young have lost the most jobs in this mismanaged economy. We've lost the most lives during the war with Iraq. It's even hard to get married because there's no new housing."
I had similar conversations all over Tehran. Among merchants in the bazaar and university intellectuals, among the old as well as the young, in wealthy northern neighborhoods and among the \o7 hizbollahi\f7 --partisans of God--in the capital's poor southern suburbs, the revolution's errant course dominates public discourse.
The Islamic Republic has reached a precarious juncture, most of all because of disenchantment among its original supporters. The "Ten Days of Dawn" were often dismissed this year as the "Ten Days of Suffering." To mark the occasion, bakery sweets, medical exams and a host of other things were provided free. One old man boarding a Tehran bus, told he didn't have to pay the fare, grumbled, "They steal the whole country and give us back a 10-rial ride!"
Even the once-omnipotent mullahs are not exempt from public disdain. At a dinner party during the anniversary, a young hostess shared the latest gossip. "I've heard mullahs say taxis won't pick them up anymore," she related in astonishment. "So, imagine, they have to stand on the street and wait until one pulls over!" Nodding, her husband added, "The atmosphere is increasingly anti-clerical and getting worse." Both had been ardent early supporters of the revolution, as were most of their guests.
Iranians have always been grumblers; the art of complaining is surpassed only by the wealth of irreverent humor about politics and personalities. But by this year's anniversary, their disenchantment had begun to take on new dimensions--and to get a new spin. Using uniquely Persian logic, revisionist history in Tehran now separates the revolution from the theocracy it spawned.