How do you describe Iranian society

The Iranian population in Switzerland is divided

There is no Iranian community in this country. But with the aircraft being shot down by the regime, hope for more solidarity rises.

Reza Kakooee enters a mosque in Switzerland for the first time in the second week of January. In the Shiite religious house in Schlieren, he takes part in the funeral service for the Iranian couple from Dübendorf. They lost their lives in the plane crash in Tehran the day before.

Kakooee has been working on his doctoral thesis on artificial intelligence at ETH Zurich since 2018. At the university he campaigns for the concerns of Iranian students. If they have nothing to do with religion and politics, he emphasizes. Nevertheless, he came to the mosque to "show the deceased couple respect and compassion in this hour of pain," he says. The deceased Iranian was also a doctoral student at ETH. However, Kakooee did not know him personally.

Like the 35-year-old, many other Iranians felt the same way: Almost half of the approximately 70 mourners present were students, says Reza Khiabani, head of the mosque. Usually they only come for marriages and divorces.

The funeral service in Schlieren was all the more extraordinary. Almost 700 Iranians study at Swiss universities. As some of them report, the downing of the plane by the regime brought Iranian society in Switzerland closer together for the first time in a long time. Anyone who speaks to Iranians realizes that Iranian society in Switzerland is deeply divided. It is a reflection of the situation in Iran. There is no community among Iranians that other nationalities cultivate despite political tensions in the diaspora. It's not just about whether an Iranian is for or against the religious regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The differences are much bigger and deeper.

There is fear and distrust

A total of 5500 Iranians live in Switzerland. Many of them are sad and angry - regardless of whether they are for or against the regime. Some of them feel unable to provide information. Anger has risen after the Iranian government admitted it accidentally shot down the Ukrainian passenger plane, despite allegations to the contrary. On January 17, religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a public Friday sermon in Tehran for the first time in eight years. The plane crash was a "bitter tragedy," he said. But Khamenei did not announce any reforms, as many hoped, but spoke of the conflict with the archenemy USA. That disappointed many Iranians: "Even the criticism from previous supporters of the regime is increasing," says one Iranian, who has now discovered this in his predominantly religious family environment.

So far everyone has clenched their fists in their own pocket. This also applies to Iranian students at Swiss universities. You don't talk about politics, says ETH doctoral student Reza Kakooee. It is better that way. He describes the solidarity among Iranian students as “very superficial”. Help yourself especially when changing money. Because of the sanctions, you cannot change rials for francs at the bank. As other Iranians report in conversation, most of them wanted nothing to do with their compatriots. They are afraid of exposing their opinions to the wrong people. If that happened, they would endanger their lives and their families in Iran.

"Fear has eaten its way deep into Iranian society in recent decades with Islamization."

There are also two Iranian student organizations at ETH. One is religious, the other is not. All other 21 countries represented at ETH have only one student organization. The late doctoral student from Dübendorf was president of the religious organization IRSAZ. The 28-year-old had been active in the mosque for two years. There he organized the Koran lessons and events that brought science and religion together.

The religious community is also dismayed by the recent events, says mosque director Khiabani. The facility, called the “Iranian House of Culture”, is financed by the Iranian state. On the walls there are pictures of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a red rose adorns the portrait of General Kassem Soleimani, who was killed by the USA. The situation in Iran is worrying, says Khiabani. "It was the USA that threw the first stone into the water, which now draws concentric circles," says the man who has lived in Switzerland for over thirty years. The international community must help prevent war.

At the ETH, the late 28-year-old doctoral student is described as reserved, friendly and hard-working. Some say he could have appeared differently. After all, he comes from a very religious and influential family from Isfahan - who are close to the regime and remain loyal to the leadership despite their loss. The deceased's parents recently announced this on Iranian television.

How can you be so deluded? Many Iranians who came to Switzerland to escape the regime are wondering this. But they are not free here either. Nobody wants to comment publicly on the situation in Iran. The fear is too great. This has eaten deep into Iranian society in recent decades with Islamization.

The totalitarian course includes denunciations in the immediate environment because of statements against the regime, arrests, kidnappings, torture and killings. State surveillance now extends beyond social networks all over the world. That has increased the fear even more in the past few years. During the talks, numerous cases were reported in which returnees were arrested at the airport in Tehran for posting critical messages on Twitter or Facebook. Many Iranians therefore no longer travel home. There have long been places in Turkey, Armenia or Georgia where Iranian families meet.

Solidarity put to the test

Another reason for the deep rift in Iranian society is the lack of hope. When Mahmud Ahmadinejad won the presidential election again in 2009, he was accused of electoral fraud. Thousands of Iranians took to the streets and called for new elections. “At that time, Iranians protested together in front of the UN in Geneva,” one of them recalls. That has not been possible for a long time. Like him, many would have believed in the reform power of his successor, Hassan Rohani, at first. But President Rouhani has turned out to be another fundamentalist who supports the regime.

Despite the deep gulf, ETH doctoral student Reza Kakooee wants to bring the Iranian students closer together. There are so many interests in legal matters, health care and migration issues that unite all Iranians here, he says. In October, Kakooee launched a call for a direct flight from Zurich to Tehran. The airline Swiss has not operated the route since 2003. It only took a few days to mobilize almost a hundred people for the initiative. First discussions with the airlines of both countries took place. But with the current situation in Iran, the project has been put on hold.

Some of the respondents, like PhD student Kakooee, hope that the collective suffering will bring the Iranians in Switzerland closer together. Others consider Kakooee to be naive. The wounds of the people are too deep and the arbitrariness of the regime is too great to be able to overcome the distrust, the fear and the social divide, they oppose Kakooee. One of them said he was very sad after the plane crash. But after hearing that the deceased belonged to a family close to the regime, he did not attend the funeral service. «Such families support the ideology of the regime. It essentially consists of killing the people who do not share your opinion. "