As the major powers, coming together in the so-called 5+1 group, prepare to open a new round of negotiations with the Islamic Republic, they would do well to pay attention to the underlying causes of a national malaise expressed through the current wave of mass dissent in Iran.
An Iran that is not at peace with itself cannot make peace with outsiders, let alone foreign powers cast in the role of evildoers and enemies.
It is a safe bet that even if last June’s elections had produced a different result we would still have witnessed a crisis within the present state structures.
For those familiar with Iran’s history this will not be a surprise.
This is not the first time that Iranian society has outgrown the political system that has defined it for more than a generation. It is as if the frame in which a painting is nested could no longer contain it.
This is what happened in 1905-06, when a resurgent Iranian society broke out of the limits imposed by a traditional system of absolutism.
Something similar happened in 1921 because state structures could no longer respond to new hopes, fears and aspirations.
The revolution of 1979, leading to the creation of the Islamic Republic, followed a similar pattern. A vibrant, recently urbanized society had to break out of constraints imposed by a political system that refused to change.
When the form is in conflict with the content, the result is tension, conflict and, at times, violent revolution.
In the years and months that led to the 1979 upheaval, some Iranian intellectuals did try to highlight the mismatch between a rapidly modernizing society and a traditional political system that was impervious to change. However, for reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, the strategy of reform from within never had a serious chance.
Though popular with segments of the elite at the time, the idea of gradual evolution towards a pluralist society remained a pious hope dressed as a slogan.
During the past century or so, Iran has had more than its share of violent change.
Of its six kings, one was murdered and four exiled. Only one died in Iran, more or less peacefully.
In the same period, four prime ministers were assassinated, one executed, one put under house arrest until the end of his life, and three forced into exile. The only one still alive and in Iran, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, is leading the opposition against the regime.
Of Iran’s six presidents of republic, one was assassinated, one fled into exile, and two have now joined the opposition.
In just 90 years, Iran has experienced two revolutions, a civil war, regime change three times, and chronic instability and violence for long periods. Almost a million Iranians have died in foreign wars and internal repression. Millions, holding “unauthorized views”, have passed through the prisons of successive regimes. Millions more have gone into exile, creating Iranian communities in more than 100 countries across the globe.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), over the past 30 years, Iran has produced the biggest “brain drain” in history.
One example: there are more Iranian doctors of medicine in Canada than inside Iran.
If one examines the Iranian malaise more closely, one is bound to uncover a number of fundamental causes that, unless removed, would produce the same effects under any system of government.
The first is the deficit of freedom from which the Iranian people have suffered ever since they discovered the modern concept of a distinct political space within which citizens could secure a share in public decision-making. Many Iranians felt that deficit in 1905 and 1979 and many more feel it with even greater intensity today.
The second cause is the ardent desire of most Iranians to find their proper place in the modern community of nations.
Handling the nation’s foreign relations was a crucial issue in 1905, 1921 and 1979, and is even more so today. Iranians see themselves as builders of civilization and crave a position of leadership in global affairs. Pushing them into a ghetto hurts their self-esteem.
The third cause is the necessity of building a modern economy that is capable of offering a majority of Iranians a decent living standard and the Iranian state the wherewithal for claiming a proper role in the international mainstream.
This was the challenge in 1905, 1921 and 1979, and remains the challenge today.
Despite its immense natural wealth and abundant manpower, Iran has failed to develop an economy that could sustain decent living standards for a majority of its people. The background to the current political crisis is a shattered economy dominated by Mafia-like interest groups bent on quick self-enrichment. In the past four years growth rates have halved, inflation rates have doubled and more than two million people have lost their jobs.
At every one of those historic junctions, Iran needed a strategy of inclusion, one that could produce an aggregate of the nation’s vital forces. Instead, it ended up with a strategy of exclusion with the inevitable result that broad segments of Iranian society were pushed into indifference or opposition to the system in place. When Iran needed a politics of healing and reconciliation, it was offered one of division and enmity.
No one knows how the current crisis might end.
The Iranian malaise has made a comeback on a spectacular scale.
It could end in another partial, not to say false, change, triggering mass repression, producing more refugees and a bigger brain drain. However, it could also end in genuine transformation based on a strategy of inclusion, economic revival, normalization of foreign relations, and effacing a deficit of freedom accumulated over centuries.
That Iran should experience realistic and peaceful change is in the best interests of its neighbors as well as major powers, among them the United States, the European Union, China and Russia.
A divided Iran, at war against itself, cannot offer anyone normal relations let alone genuine peace. Gripped by crisis, Iran would inevitably export its malaise to the rest of the Middle East and beyond.
On the other hand, a stable Iran, at peace with itself and engaged in building a modern economy and a people-based political system, could become an anchor of regional stability and peace.
The current crisis in Iran is fraught with risks and dangers. However, it also offers immense opportunities. By recognizing those dangers and risks, we could seize the opportunities that a twist of history has produced at a time few expected.