Alarm bells ringing
Images of the Iranian and Pakistani leaders opening a power line that will bring 100 megawatts of energy from the other side of the border to the port city of Gwadar in Balochistan brought back memories from 50 years ago.
In October 1971, after starting our trip in Pakistan, we drove through Afghanistan and into Iran. At the time, the country was having a big party to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the start of the Persian Empire.
The official celebrations may have been centred around Persepolis, near the tomb of Cyrus I, but since the Shah, who ruled like any despot would, said that the event would be the “greatest party on earth,” the whole country was decorated with bright, official decorations.
If you fly into a big city and leave by the same way, you don’t get a good sense of the country as a whole. On the other hand, road trips give you a very representative and well-rounded view of the country. During the trip, I turned 12, and even my young mind was shocked by how different things were.
Pakistan is in a mess because its power structure is so old that it can’t meet the people’s wants.
Tehran could stand up to any modern city in the developed world in terms of its facilities and amenities. It looked like a well-planned city with beautiful parks, well-paved and well-lit streets and roads, and shopping areas full of the best French designer labels. Men and women in the most expensive parts of the city were dressed in the best and most expensive clothes.
Some of the buildings, hotels, and restaurants in Tehran at that time were more like those in Europe than in our part of the world. The city gave the impression of great wealth and power. The children of my father’s friend Col. Barkat Ali, who was the military attaché at the Pakistan Embassy at the time, asked me to watch The Horsemen by Omar Sharif.
I don’t remember the name of the road it was on, but the movie theatre was in a high-end shopping area with nice stores. When the movie was over and we left, all the lights on the long street that went through the area suddenly turned green in one way.
My hosts told me that this meant that the Shah was out driving one of the very expensive Ferraris in his huge collection. I couldn’t believe it when, a minute later, three Ferraris flew by in a blur. I only noticed that the first car was bright red.
Later, someone said that the Shah liked to drive fast in Tehran and on a 100-kilometer stretch of a specially built motorway that connected the city to Karaj in the northwest. At that speed, his normal security team couldn’t keep up with him, so he had two bodyguards follow him in two fast cars.
A one-hour drive on either side of Tehran showed a completely different scene. Towns that were completely dark were a sharp contrast to the strings of blinking lights that lined the main road that went through them. All you had to do to hear the generator that ran the lights was roll down your car window.
During the day, poor people from the country would stop in a town for a meal or a cup of tea. They would come over to ask or beg for smokes, even though they were dirty and their clothes were worn out and had holes in them. When they found out we were from Pakistan, they would ask for K-2, which is a rough and cheap brand.
It didn’t take a social scientist to see that these differences would finally cause anger or even resentment. The Shah’s oppression and the fear of a midnight knock from his secret police Savak, which meant you went without a trace, made this situation even worse.
Since the CIA/MI6 put him back on the throne in 1954, after he was removed from power by an elected progressive government and then put back on the throne by the CIA/MI6, the Shah hunted and harassed leaders and activists of the Left. Someone or something went missing.
The mullahs took advantage of the left-wing Tudeh Party’s efforts to organise. Their leaders, including Ayatollah Khomeini, were at worst banished, but they did not face the same fate as the Left’s leaders. Inequalities and lack of money caused the uprising in 1979. We know the rest.
Since then, theological governments in Iran have denied basic rights and ignored the rights of women. Western sanctions, which were supposed to be because of worries about the country’s nuclear project and caused hardships for the country, helped the mullahs and gave them an excuse to keep the lid on harshly, if they needed one.
On the other hand, penalties may have slowed progress, but they couldn’t stop it completely. A lot has been done in the fields of health care, schooling, and public transport, with projects like the Tehran underground being examples.
Iran has oil and gas stockpiles that are among the biggest in the world. And despite the penalties, it has learned how to build power plants on its own. Since the 1970s, the amount of power it makes has grown by more than 15 times.
Even though it has a little more than a third of Pakistan’s population, it makes about two and a half times as much energy as we do, and the whole country has access to it 24/7. (All these numbers are open-sourced).
Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran, which was backed by the US after the Iranian Revolution, did not weaken the Iranian government as planned. It let the clerics use more and more of the regular armed forces from the Shah’s time as cannon fodder and weaken them to the point where they could no longer play a role or have power in political conflicts within Iran.
Pakistan is in a mess because its power structure, which is old and has all the signs of being taken over by the elite, can’t meet the wants and goals of its more than 246 million people, 65 percent of whom are under 30. Just under 40% of the people in Pakistan live in poverty.
If the people in charge don’t recognise that and change direction, events will overtake them and make them unimportant.