Why Tehran Shut Down Its Coffee Shops
Because the Islamic Republic of Iran's biggest problem has always been its excessive freedoms, Iranian authorities found two more ways to crack down this weekend. Judging by the police actions, which can sometimes be a sort of informal declaration of a new restriction here, Iranians can no longer attend coffee shops or see chicken consumed on television. If those sound absurd, it's because they are, but they do make some sense within the internal logic of Iranian oppression. And, perhaps just as importantly, they are signs of how drastically Iranian society is suffering in the country's confrontation with the West.
Morality police stormed a staggering 87 coffee shops in a single district of Tehran on Saturday, shutting them down "for not following Islamic values," a police official announced, saying that this would be part of a larger campaign. The police also arrested some female customers for such gender-specific violations as smoking hookah, publicly socializing with men, and daring to sit quietly and sip coffee without a head scarf. It's not the same as a legally binding ban on coffee shops, of course, but if you are Iranian and considering attending one, perhaps you might decide to stay away, at least until the raids blow over. For now at least, although likely not forever (the cafes gradually filled back in after a much smaller 2007 crackdown), coffee shops are de facto forbidden.
But there may be another reason: coffee shops are frequented by young people, especially web-savvy young people who come for the wifi. Gatherings of caffeinated, web-savvy young people, in an environment typically associated with vibrancy and conversation, might make the Iranian government nervous, especially after the 2009 protests that shook Tehran. (For whatever it's worth, history David Andress' book on the revolutions of 1789 opens with a long section on coffee shops, to which he attributes a degree of the informal social networking and freer political discourse that contributed to the year's revolutionary movements.) And conservative Iranian leaders have decried coffee shops as a Western cultural imposition, implying that they are a threat to the Islamic Republic.
That same weekend, the chief of Iran's national police forces, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, publicly that the state-run TV channels should no longer air anything that shows people eating chicken. "They show chicken being eaten in movies while somebody might not be able to buy it. ... Films are now the windows of society and some people observing this class gap might say that we will take knives and take our rights from the rich,'" he said, perhaps borrowing a certain rhetorical flair from Glenn Beck.
It's not as silly as it sounds. Like many socialist states, the Iranian government sets a price for chicken. The idea is that everyone should be able to afford it. But the market price of chickens has nearly tripled in the last year alone, meaning that increasingly impoverished can't afford the market price. Special government distribution centers sell chicken at the cheaper, state-pegged price, but because they sell at a loss they can only provide so many. The state is now rationing this most basic food product (which is in even higher demand than usual as Ramadan approaches and consumers stock up), and shoppers are reportedly standing in the food lines for sometimes over 14 hours.
So perhaps you can see Moghadam's concern. People are furious that their economy is so bad that they often can't even buy chicken anymore, and seeing chicken on TV might remind them of this. Of course, while Moghadam is addressing this problem in one of the few ways he actually can, the real cause isn't culinary TV, it's the Iranian nuclear program and the crippling Western sanctions that it has drawn.
These two incidents, though bizarre, are a sign of the Iranian government's contortions as it attempts to maintain a stable society without giving up its nuclear program. Fearful of Western culture and of allowing Iranians to see how bad things have become - both of which it fears will encourage dissent -- the regime clamps down. It's taken these crackdowns to somewhat ridiculous lengths before, as in the summer of 2010's twin rulings against Western hairstyles and music in general. Neither ban really held, just as the cafe raids will likely not last, but the point was clear: Western culture, in all its forms, is the enemy.
Meanwhile, Western nations are cracking down on Iran in their own way, with sanctions that are increasingly devastating the economy and perhaps doing even more than that. Sanctions on Iran's central bank have made basic international banking nearly impossible, trade barriers have sent the prices of medicines skyrocketing, and everyone is paying more for the foods that they can still get.
As Western sanctions push them one way and Iranian efforts to maintain control push them another, somehow regular Iranians always seem to end up the losers in this conflict. Their world of what is possible shrinks and shrinks, hacked away at both ends.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.