[inset_left]Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic
By Michael Axworthy
Published by: Allen Lane
From the first pages of this book, Michael Axworthy, a former diplomat who headed the British Foreign Office’s Iran Desk for two years, establishes himself as passionate about all things Iranian. His admiration, including for the way Iranians cook rice, provides thematic filigree throughout the book. In a sense, the book could be regarded as a long love letter to Iranians, including some of the least loveable ones among the country’s current rulers.
That aside, the book is of great interest for two reasons. To start with, it is a detailed, well-researched and informative account of the key events of the past three decades since the mullahs seized power and created their Islamic Republic.
In that context, Axworthy makes ample use of Iranian sources. Thanks to a working knowledge of Persian and his familiarity with political and cultural trends in the country, on many issues he is able to understand the Iranian point of view, a rare virtue among Western narrators of the saga of Iran. As the author of two other books on Iran, including the highly enjoyable Empire of the Mind, Axworthy is able to tackle his subject with sympathy.
Having narrated the main events of the past 34 years, Axworthy also provides a fairly accurate account of the Islamic Republic’s principal structures, the Iranian economy, social undercurrents in the country and aspects of Iranian foreign policy.
However, the second reason why this book is of interest is the light it sheds on how an important segment of the Western intelligentsia sees its own civilization and its relationship with the rest of the world. In other words, this book is, perhaps, more about a certain Western vision of the world than Iran under the Khomeinist regime.
Axworthy rejects the established idea in the West that all humanity aspires or should aspire to the Western model of liberal democracy and free market economics. In that sense, Axworthy is at the antipode to Francis Fukuyama and his prediction of the “end of history” and the triumph of the Western democratic model.
Axworthy writes: “Since the rise of the Iranian revolution, European and Western attitudes to the rest of the world have been forced to change. Previously, we tended still to think in terms of linear development in the Middle East and elsewhere towards a Western economic and social model, a Western idea of modernity, away from the traditional patterns of life of those countries which were perceived as backward and outdated.”
Axworthy hammers in his message by forecasting possible “predominance” for “other models,” including the Chinese and the Indian in a globalized world.
“The Western model is no longer the only option,” he says, echoing a claim frequently made by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
In a highly revealing analysis, Axworthy compares the Khomeinist revolution with the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. He asserts that the French Revolution ultimately failed because of its radical secularist—not to say atheistic—ideology. What it offered was alien to the mass of French men and women who had remained faithful to their Christian culture and belief system. The Bolshevik Revolution failed for similar reasons. It, too, was out of tune with the Christian culture of the Russian people. The Khomeinist revolution, however, is in sync with the Iranian people’s Islamic traditions, and thus more likely to sustain the regime’s stability.
In that analysis, Axworthy echoes a lecture given by Muhammad Khatami, a former president of the Islamic Republic, at Florence University a decade ago. In it, Khatami argued that the Western model of development had failed because, under the influence of the Enlightenment, it had abandoned religious beliefs. “The Enlightenment led to endless wars and tragedies for humanity,” he said.
Even more intriguing is Axworthy’s assertion that it is easier to pose fundamental moral question in the Islamic Republic than it is in the West.
Axworthy recalls that as “Sartre once wrote that the French were never so free as they were under Nazi occupation, in the sense that moral choice and the seriousness of consequences were never so sharp as they were at the time. That too is true in Iran. In Western countries, for many of us, we have it easy and have become morally lazy, relativistic and cynical. In Iran, the essentials of right and wrong, freedom and repression have been everyday matters of discussion and choice.”
In other words, the estimated 150,000 highly educated Iranians who flee the country each year, creating the biggest “brain drain in history” according to the World Bank, do not know what a good thing they are leaving behind in Iran. (Let us also remember that under Nazi occupation, Sartre continued to live a comfortable life of philosophical meditation while thousands of French men and women took up arms to drive out the occupier.)
Dealing with Iran’s relations with the outside world, Axworthy dismisses claims by US and European governments that the Islamic Republic is a sponsor of international terrorism and a threat to its neighbors and beyond. Iran is badly misunderstood, Axworthy asserts, though it has helped create new proto-democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Iran’s nuclear program, Axworthy notes, is a cause for concern. And, yet, Axworthy assures us that Iran “will never use nuclear weapons against Israel or anyone in a first strike.” Iran, he continues, “wants a nuclear weapon as a deterrent.” How he could be sure of all that is not clear. Western powers, especially the United States, are to blame for poor relations with the Islamic Republic. In some cases, personal considerations by Western decision-makers helped create a negative approach to relations with Iran. For example, President George H. W. Bush rejected rapprochement with Iran because he did not want to “take a risk with foreign policy” before his re-election campaign. President Clinton’s secretary of state, Warren Christopher, was “especially hostile to Iran,” equally for personal reasons.
Axworthy has an even more interesting revelation regarding US policy on Iran. He writes: “After the fall of the Soviet Union there was an unemployment problem within the US state system: former Kremlinologists were looking for a job. Some found it in Iran policy; but unfortunately they carried over too much of their previous thinking too uncritically, slotting Iran into the role of the former Soviet Union and labeling the Islamic Republic therefore as totalitarian, expansionist and, of course, doomed; none of which was ever necessarily the case.”
This is exactly the analysis offered by a number of theoreticians in Tehran, including Hassan Abbasi, a lecturer on strategy at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard colleges.
Axworthy echoes the view of US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel that Iran is “a sort of democracy.” To be sure, Iranian democracy is not perfect, Axworthy admits. But the same could be said about British democracy. He writes: “For example, some said Britain was no longer a democracy since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, because large numbers demonstrated against the invasion, and opinion polls suggested a majority were opposed to it.”
Axworthy forgets that in a democracy, such as Britain, decisions are taken in an elected parliament, not by crowds marching in the streets or based on opinion polls. Even then, in Britain people are free to demonstrate against the government, something not allowed in the Islamic Republic. Also, in Britain, anyone could conduct opinion polls, while in the Islamic Republic people could go to prison for doing so.
Axworthy writes: “There are genuine reasons to dislike some of the consequences of the Western model—some of the outcomes of the Western idea of modernity. Drug abuse, family breakdown, the collapse of traditional moral values, the homogenization and stultification of international culture through consumerism…”
However, the fact that Axworthy could freely criticize the Western model without being tortured in prison and/or forced to flee into exile is itself a sign of the superiority of the Western model over the Khomeinist model, which deals with its critics the way all totalitarian regimes do. In the Western model, one is free to choose, but need not choose “drug abuse,” “family breakdown” or “consumerism.”
Reflecting a fashionable trend in the West, Axworthy expresses concern about freedom of choice. He writes of “the problem of liberalism and the ideal of political freedom generally, that affects us all: people may end up choosing things that they really ought not to choose, to the detriment of society.”
This is not new. All totalitarian ideologies use abstractions such as class, the nation, the community of the faithful, or society to set limits on personal freedom and choice. In Iran, the Khomeinist system tries to do that through the so-called velayat-e faqih (Custodianship of the Jurisprudent) under which, in the name of Islam, a mullah has the final word on all issues and is, theoretically at least, able to prevent people from abusing their freedoms in the way Axworthy is worried about.
In the Soviet Union, the Politburo and its strongman performed that function in the name of “the proletariat.” In Nazi Germany, the fuhrer prevented the abuse of personal freedoms in the name of the “Aryan” race. In Italy, Mussolini chose the concept of a mythical “Roman” nation for the same end.
I may be wrong but, unlike Axworthy, I believe there are quite a few Iranians who wish to have the freedoms available in the “corrupt and declining West”. They wish to be able to make their own choices, commit their own sins and pay for those sins. Under Khomeinism, they are forced to pay for the sins of their self-imposed rulers.