Iran’s Presidential Charade: Another Slap Coming?

FILE PHOTO: Iran's President Hassan Rouhani gestures as he registers to run for a second four-year term in the May election, in Tehran, Iran

In old Hollywood, the word “chestnut” denoted a formula which though lacking originality could still provide the kernel for a moderately successful B-movie.

Anyone following the latest presidential election campaign in the Islamic Republic in Iran is bound to notice stark similarities between this Islamicized chestnut and those of old Hollywood.

Every four years, Iranians and others interested in Iranian affairs are invited to participate in or at least observe what is presented as a dramatic quest for power by rival factions defending sharply different programs. Thus a few weeks of excitement are created out of thin air to give the impression that the peculiar system created by the late Ayatollah Khomeini is an Islamic version of the cursed democracy promoted by the “Infidel”. The show is also used to blame all that is wrong in the country on the president in charge for the past four years and, almost always, end up re-electing him for four more years.

The “chestnut” script provides for the presence in the election of at least three candidates representing “the bad”, “the worse” and “the worst”.

This is important for confusing not only Iranians but also foreign powers interested in or bothered by Iran.

In 1997, quite a few Iranians fell for the fiction that Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, represented “the bad” option against Ali-Akbar Nateq Nuri, another mid-ranking mullah, who was cast as representative of “the worst”. Khatami won and Iran ended up with eight years of a presidency that witnessed the chain-killing of intellectuals, mass arrests of regime critics, strict censorship, increased support for terrorist groups and, finally, the massive expansion of Iran’s clandestine nuclear project.

In the 2005 presidential campaign, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, branded “the worst” candidate, emerged victorious. Paradoxically, in some important cases, he turned out not to be as bad as Khatami. He overlooked corruption that was spread like wildfire, but toned down the crackdown organized against critics and dissidents. His clownish performance amused some and revolted many more but it did not translate into a substantial increase in the Islamist regime’s repressive measures.

Four years ago, US President Barack Obama bent backward to help Hassan Rouhani, then believed to represent “the bad” for fear that Saeed Jalili, identified as “the worst”, might become Iran’s president. Rouhani’s four-year stint has been even worse than that of Khatami’s first term. Iran is now the world’s number one in executions, number two in political prisoners and on top of the list of states sponsoring international terrorism.

To add more spice to the mix, the regime and its lobbyists in the West also urge support for the candidate supposed to be farther from the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. That was supposedly the case with Khatami, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani.

This year, the candidate supposed to represent “the worst” while being closest to Khamenei is Ibrahim Rais al-Sadat, alias Raisi, a mid-ranking mullah who was recently appointed as head of the Imam Reza Foundation in Mash’had, perhaps the most lucrative post in the Islamic Republic.

Barring a last minute surprise, Rouhani will remain in the race as “the bad” candidate, wearing his trademark smile and waving the cardboard key that symbolizes his promise to “open all doors”.

Not surprisingly the old chestnut themes are back.

Tehran lobbyists in the West are going around demanding support for Rouhani who is supposed to be determined to do in the next four years what he couldn’t or didn’t want to do in the last.
One US-based apologist, Abdul-Karim Sorush, alias “The Martin Luther of Islam”, invites Iranians to choose “the bad”, which he dubs “Aslah” (the most qualified), meaning Rouhani.

Others have identified Raisi as the candidate closest to Khamenei and thus deserving a thrashing from an angry electorate. The list of candidates this time may also include the same old Jalili, “the worst” of four years ago who, presumably will be only “the worse” this time.

However, the fact is that in 1997 Nateq-Nuri was not Khamenei’s favored candidate just as in 2005 “The Supreme Guide” did not particularly favored Ahmadinejad. The only time that Khamenei has indicated a personal opinion about any presidential candidate was when, in 2005, he made it clear he did not want his old friend and new foe Hashemi Rafsanjani to regain the presidency.

For Khamenei, the presidential election is nothing but a four-year endorsement of the Khomeinist system, a kind of referendum on the regime’s legitimacy rather than a choice of an individual president. In the current election, too, I doubt that Khamenei is particularly keen on seeing Raisi become president. True, Raisi is an old protégé of Khamenei, hailing from his native Mash’had and holding the same narrow view of things as the “Supreme Guide”. However, Khamenei won’t mind if Rouhani wins again or if any of the other candidates whom he has pre-approved end up victorious.

Though a protégé of the late Rafsanjani, Rouhani has a 30-year record of service to the security services controlled by Khamenei. He is also close to powerful elements in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard who provide the backbone of domestic support for the regime.

The only factor that might have concerned Khamenei as far as Rouhani is concerned would have been the latter’s tentative attempts at easing tension with the United States. However, with President Barack Obama no longer around to do the pas-de-deux, Rouhani, has quickly switched to Khamenei’s “looking East” strategy of alliance with Russia. In fact, Rouhani launched his presidential campaign with a flash visit to Moscow and a photo-op with Vladimir Putin.

Four years ago Rouhani, like Khatami before him, promised reform. Now, however, it is once again clear that the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed. In his time, Ahmadinejad promised to end corruption, discrimination, and poverty, exactly as Raisi did today. Eight years later, Iran ended with more poverty, discrimination, and corruption.

The problem is not about who plays the role of president in a charade of pseudo-democracy. The problem is about an atrophied system in which all paths to reform, development and progress are rundown.

Thus the question Iranians face is not about which of the various puppets is “aslah”. The real issue is whether they wish this broken system to continue. If they have no interest in taking part in this charade. Four years ago, the presidential election scored the lowest rate of voter participation and Rouhani won with the smallest margin in Islamic Republic’s history.

In its limited way, the last election was a slap in the face for the Khomeinists. Will we see another such slap this time, too?

Opinion: The Ayatollah dreamed it, Obama delivers it

The late Ayatollah Khomeini dreamed it; President Barack Obama is trying to deliver it: the end of Pax Americana.

The topic was at the center of a daylong seminar in Tehran last week attended by ambassadors from Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, plus a number of Islamic Iranian officials and scholars.

The five Latin American nations with left-wing regimes represent one of the “clusters” that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to organize as points of anti-American “resistance” across the globe. Another “cluster” consisted of Lebanon, controlled through the local branch of Hezbollah, Syria, under Bashar Al-Assad, and parts of Iraq dominated by pro-Tehran armed groups. The plan was to set up another “cluster” by breaking up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc through the Finlandization of some of its members while seizing control of Yemen through local Trojan outfits.

Next month, Tehran is scheduled to host the fifth annual “End of America” conference with a number of professional anti-American figures from Europe and the US itself also expected.

However, the timing of the exercise is puzzling. For the first time in almost a decade, the presidency, and part of the government including the foreign ministry seem to be controlled by the so-called Rafsanjani faction that has been trying to make a deal with the Americans since the late 1980s.

Many in Tehran now wonder whether this year’s “End of America” will take place at all. A number of “Afro-American families of victims of US police brutality” have already been invited along with European religious leaders and scholars opposed to the “Great Satan.”

Some pro-Rafsanjani commentators in Tehran, including a few in the entourage of President Hassan Rouhani, argue against the holding of another “End of America” conference as unnecessary at best and wanton provocation at worst.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif argues that the US has shown its goodwill by bending backward to satisfy Iran’s demands in the nuclear negotiations. It would be foolish to provoke the US at a time that Tehran needs Washington’s support to destroy the edifice of sanctions and kick the whole nuclear saga into the long grass.

More than 30 years ago, Khomeini’s intransigence led to the destruction of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, depriving Iran of a friend in Washington. It would be foolish to repeat the same mistake by humiliating Obama and, through him the Democrat Party, thus helping the return to power of the Republicans who are committed to making life difficult for the Khomeinist regime.

Seen from Tehran the ideal outcome of next year’s presidential election in the United States would be the nomination and victory of either Vice President Joseph Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry. Both men have a history of decades of support for the Khomeinist revolution and the Islamic Republic and remain committed to promoting closer ties with Tehran under the mullahs.

Another four, or perhaps even eight years of Obama’s policies would nicely coincide with the duration of the Vienna nuke deal which envisages “a final closing of the dossier” by 2023 at the latest. Until then, Iran would be kept a year away from building a nuclear arsenal if it so decides. After that, Iran could do so within 60 days, again if it so wished.

More importantly, another eight years of Obama’s strategy would make it immensely difficult, if not impossible in practical terms, for any future US administration to revive the Pax Americana as a viable option. The Obama strategy is aimed at shrinking the American military footprint across the world. Dozens of bases are being closed down or reduced to merely symbolic proportions. Within what is left of Obama’s presidential term, the US army alone is scheduled to fire at least 40,000 of its soldiers. Under Obama the US has undergone the biggest cut in defense expenditure it has experienced since the heady days of post-Cold War and its “peace dividends”.

More importantly, perhaps, Obama has managed to sour, if not actually destroy, America’s old alliances in many parts of the world, notably the Middle East. Even an old and loyal ally such as Great Britain has publicly played the card of privileged ties with China, implicitly taking note of the American retreat.

Obama has changed the image of the US as “the winner” into the loser as borne out by a series of crises from the annexation of Georgian and Ukrainian territories by Moscow to the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan, not to mention Tehran’s heightened profile in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

Obama’s dramatic “red line” warning to Assad, followed by an equally dramatic consumption of humble pie, highlighted the United States’ new status as “the loser.”

The American global retreat has already led to a more emphatic assertion by China of its position as a great Asian power. It has also encouraged the nationalist trend in Japan to the point of seeking constitutional change to allow the nation to deploy troops abroad and, later perhaps, even develop a nuclear arsenal.

Latin America is divided into two rival blocs of left and right powers, with the US less and less regarded as a major player.

In Europe and central Asia, Russia is moving fast to regain part of lost influence and project power wherever it can. Many of the local conflicts mothballed thanks to US mediation are becoming active again, from Transcaucasia to the Indo-Pakistani Subcontinent.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is exploding in the void created by the total collapse of US-backed “peace talks.”

Ending Pax Americana may turn out to be good for the Americans in which case Obama could enter history as a wise visionary.

However, even if such is the case, the mullahs have every interest to encourage Obama in his present strategy and, within their modest means, to help the Obama line continue under Kerry or, even Hillary Clinton as the least bad option.

Many might see the “End of America” world as a far more dangerous place. The mullahs, however, would regard it as the fulfilment of Khomeini’s dream.

Between the Ayatollah and the Marquis

Khomeini, de Sade, and Me

By Abnousse Shalmani Grasset, 177 pages Paris, 2014

If we are to believe Abnousse Shalmani, being a woman is hard work even in Western democracies boasting of gender equality and human rights. It is even harder in contemporary Iran where a sectarian regime rejects the concept of individual freedom even for men let alone women.

Born in Tehran in 1977, two years before the Mullahs seized power, Ms. Shalmani was faced with “the precarious nature” of her existence when, aged seven, she was first sent to school.

She found the rite of passage terrifying.

Suddenly, she had to wear special clothes, cover her head, and wipe the smile off her face. She was advised to look grim and as ugly as possible. Looking in the mirror, she felt she now looked like a raven. On the way to school she began to notice that there were countless ravens, women wearing the dress imposed by Ruhollah Khomeini, the dour-faced octogenarian Ayatollah who marketed himself as the sole authority on right and wrong.

Abnousse Shalmani

So, one day, having suffered and cried in secret for weeks in and out of school, the seven-year-old Abnousse simply lost her nerve. She decided to cast away her Khomeinist clothes and run around the school courtyard naked.

You could imagine the scandal, and the dangers that such behavior posed for her parents. While her mother tried to reason with her, urging a secular form of taqiyah (dissimulation), Abnousse’s father decided that the only way to save her was for the whole family to leave the Islamic Republic. The Shalmanis ended up in the French capital in 1985 at a time when many in the West regarded the Khomeinist regime as the epitome of evil.

Abnousse’s mother tried to protect the family by claiming to their French neighbors that they were Armenians. Abnousse’s father, however, insisted on advertising their Iranian identity with the argument that it was Khomeini and his cohorts who had discarded Iranian-ness in favour of an invented Islamist–revolutionary identity.

Shalmani’s book is a mixture of autobiography, literary, and philosophical musings, and novelistic anecdotes narrated with passion and humor.

Once in Paris, Shalmani decided to devote her life to fighting Khomeinism.

In time, perhaps without being conscious of it at first, she started doing this by looking for those who represented the extreme opposite of Khomeini’s worldview. If Khomeini was obsessed with forbidding this and that, Shalmani looked for someone who allowed every excess in human behavior.

She found a point of entry in European, especially French, erotic literature. La Merteuil, the manipulative heroine of Les Liaisons dangereuses became a role model, while Pierre Louÿs’ femmes fatales offered glimpses into a world of freedom through defiance.

Interestingly, Shalmani does not know that Iran itself has a huge wealth of erotic literature, starting with the One Thousand and One Nights right up to Sadreddin Elahi’s novel of the 1950s Our City Blonde, in which a ruthless beauty plays with powerful men of the world like so many pathetic puppets.

French erotic literature is a slippery slope that leads Shalmani to the Marquis de Sade, the 19th-century aristocrat and novelist who died of syphilis in a lunatic asylum.

Shalmani adores de Sade because he forbids forbidding. For him whatever human beings do, including the worst deviations from moral and ethical norms such as incest, must be accepted.

Shalmani thinks that because he permits all, de Sade is the antithesis of Khomeini, who forbids everything. In reality, however, Khomeini and de Sade are two faces of the same coin. Khomeini likes to dissolve women into nothingness by dressing them beyond recognition. In contrast, de Sade transforms women into naked mannequins by undressing them. His heroines, Justine and Juliette in particular, are one-dimensional caricatures of women caught between sadism and masochism.

(Incidentally, Pierre Loti may have hit the point when he said: “Dressing up a woman could be more erotic than undressing her!”)

Unwittingly, Shalmani exposes the amazing sameness of de Sade and Khomeini.

Both men write passionate but ultimately empty prose. Khomeini hides too much, de Sade reveals more than is necessary for good taste. Both are too earnest, devoid of irony, and lacking a sense of humor. Their style could be described as heavy-handed lightness. Khomeini’s uses violence, even torture, to impose his version of virtue. De Sade uses the same methods to impose his version of vice.

For reasons that are hard to fathom, Shalmani thinks that European, especially French, literature and cinema treat women better than Iranian literature and Islamic culture in general. This is not always the case. Women get a poor deal on both sides of the divide, if only because literature reflects the abiding anti-woman prejudice built into the very DNA of most cultures.

Manon Lescaut, the heroine of Abbé Prévost’s novel, and the various mistresses of Diderot’s hero Jacques le Fataliste and Émile Zola’s Nana and L’Assommoir, all get a rough deal, not to mention François Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux. Kathleen Winsor’s Amber St. Clare (from Forever Amber) does assert her claim to a place in a male-dominated world but only after untold sufferings. John Cleland’s eponymous Fanny Hill is a resourceful whore but ends up more of a victim. Lola Montez has men dancing to her tune but only for as long as she is young and sexually attractive. And Mata Hari, another “strong, self-contained” woman, ends up in front of a firing squad.

In some Hollywood movies—Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce, for example—women take control of their destiny and succeed, up to a point, before being brought down and destroyed. In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s character is certainly a strong woman, but she is also a murderer.

Looking for “liberated women,” Shalmani goes on to admire the Japanese geishas, the medieval European courtesans, and even “hermaphrodite types” like Colette and Virginia Woolf.

Shalmani is rightly angry at the Khomeinist belief that women should be “kept covered, controlled, and pregnant” so that they won’t cause mischief. But she fails to see an echo of that same mentality in the German dictum, “For women: children, kitchen, and church.”

Because of her hatred for Khomeini’s treatment of women, Shalmani even goes on to imply that the maternal instinct is an invention of men to keep women on a tight leash. Needless to say, that instinct and its corollary, paternal instinct, are easily observable in most human beings.

Shalmani’s adoration of some iconic figures of Western culture, Voltaire for example, is naïve, to say the least. To be sure, Voltaire was a major philosopher and a passable writer. But he was also full of disdain for women, and hatred for Muslims, Jews, and homosexuals. He was also on the payroll of Russian Empress Catherine the Great.

The point is that one’s dislike of a man like Khomeini should not make one forget that real life isn’t black or white but proceeds in the chiaroscuro of our cultural habitat at any given time.

Allowing one’s life to be dictated by hatred for Khomeini, or Hitler or Stalin or Saddam Hussein or any other monster, is to give them a victory they do not deserve.

It is possible to have a good love life without Khomeini or de Sade or erotic literature, or indeed any literature.

I also feel sorry that Shalmani’s experience under Khomeini has left her with deep bitterness about Iran itself. (She says she even hates pomegranate juice because it reminds her of Iran!) Well, that’s her choice: the bird chooses its tree; the tree never chooses its bird.

Anxious to put as much distance as possible between herself and Iran, Shalmani praises the French Revolution but condemns the Iranian one. However, the truth is that all revolutions are prompted by human failure leading to greater tragedies.

Shalmani’s narrative is at its best when she writes about the wretchedness of exile with its petty problems and big lies, and its false hopes and real disappointments.

Khomeini, de Sade, and Me has already been translated in Italian, Dutch, and German.

It merits being translated into other languages also.

Opinion: Iran and the Yemeni Hornet’s Nest

Until a few weeks ago, Yemen hardly featured in the Iranian political landscape.

Now, however, it gets top billing as the latest nation to embrace the Khomeinist ideology.

“The people of Yemen have joined Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in a common struggle for the glory of Islam,” said Ayatollah Ali Saeedi, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s religious commissar. Last Monday, Iran’s Kayhan newspaper, reflecting the views of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, reported that forces were being deployed to capture Aden and five southern Yemeni provinces.

Are we witnessing a new episode in centuries of Iranian interest in what was once known as Arabia Felix or Happy Arabia?

Iran’s first intervention came in the 6th century CE when Yemeni Prince Sayf Ibn Dhi-Yazan traveled to the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon (Mada’en to Arabs) for an audience with Khosrow Anushiravan, known to the Arabs as Kasra.

Sayf wanted help to dislodge the Aksumite dynasty in southern Yemen and beat off perennial Abyssinian incursions. Kasra obliged by sending an expeditionary force of around 600 men led by Vahraz, a bombastic general and a master of self-promotion, a bit like Gen. Qassem Suleimani today.

The project succeeded and Sayf was able to impose his Himyarite dynasty on most of the territory. Legend has it that an army of jinns joined the Persian expeditionary force to achieve victory. Sayf’s mother was supposed to have been a princess of the jinns.

However, developing grandiose ambitions, Vahraz refused to return home, and carved out a mini-kingdom for himself.

According to history mixed with legend, as is often the case in our region, the Persian colony in Yemen became a magnet for malcontents from other parts of the empire. Salman Al-Farsi, a Persian aristocrat from Kazeroun, who later converted to Islam and became a companion of the Prophet, is supposed to have been among them after leaving his post as governor of Ctesiphon as a result of royal court intrigues. However, within the first decades of the 7th century all traces of a Persian presence in Arabia Felix had disappeared, confirming the will-o’-the-wisp nature of imperial dreams.

The next time Yemen caught the attention of Iranians was in the 9th century.

By that time, Iran had largely converted to Islam and been drawn into the new religion’s endless schisms. While most Iranian converts were Sunnis, there were also small Shi’ite communities in several places, notably the Caspian littoral. Even then, Shi’ites were divided by dynastic and theological feuds.

One Iranian Shi’ite kingdom was that of Alavis, who regarded Zayd Ibn Ali, a grandson of Al-Husayn—who was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad—as Imam, while other Shi’ites followed another grandson, Muhammad. Located in Gilan, the first state created by Zaydis lasted from 864 to 900 in its initial form and from 914 to 928 in a smaller version.

As pressure from dynasties created by other Islamic sects grew, the Zaydis of Gilan dispatched missionaries to other Muslim lands in search of converts and, if possible, lands to rule. The enterprise succeeded in creating Zaydi states in central Arabia, North Africa, southern Spain, and more importantly, Yemen, which was to become the longest lasting home of Zaydism.

With Yemen falling under Ottoman domination—though it was never annexed—contacts with Iran dwindled. Then, the imposition of Twelver Shi’ism as state religion in Iran under the Safavids added a political dimension to theological differences. Zaydis were accused of being crypto-Mu’tazilites, preferring reason over faith.

Whenever sectarianism reached fever pitch in Twelver seminaries, Zaydis, along with other offshoots of Shi’ism such as Nizaris, were branded “deviants” or worse.

For almost 1,000 years there was little direct contact between Iran and Yemen.

Iranians knew Yemen largely as a concept—a shibboleth of myth and history. They remembered that King (or Prophet) Solomon had had an affair with Bilqis (the Queen of Sheba), and that Bahram, the Sassanid king, had a Yemeni concubine. But that was almost all they knew.

In the 1960s, when Iran, worried about Nasserist domination in Yemen, started raising its profile there, only one cleric in Qom, Ayatollah Wahid Khorasani, knew something about Zaydism.

Although Iran supported Imam Badr Ibn Ahmad in the Yemeni civil war and began to take fresh interest in that remote land, the Communists’ takeover in South Yemen persuaded Iranian policymakers to set up a Yemen Desk.

In the early 1970s, Iran’s involvement in crushing the Communist insurgency in Dhofar, Oman, further heightened Yemen’s profile because the insurgents—trained and armed by the USSR and its Cuban and East German allies—were based out of South Yemen.

At the time, Tehran was concerned about Soviets gaining a presence in the Gulf of Aden and thus being in a position to threaten the maritime shipping lanes used by oil tankers. The Soviet navy had flown its flag in the Iraqi port of Umm Qasar and the south Yemeni ports of Mukalla and Aden. Reports often concocted by the CIA also spoke of a Soviet aero-naval base on the Yemeni island of Socotra. Iranian strategists formulated possible responses to the Soviets seizing control of Ras Musandam, dominating the Gulf of Aden from Socotra and threatening the Bab El-Mandeb strait from Aden as well as the Ethiopian and Somali coasts.

Though often fabricated or widely exaggerated, those fears helped make Yemen an obsession in Tehran during this period. (In 2007, thanks to special permission from president Ali Abdullah Saleh, I visited the island of Socotra, where I ran into a herd of goats but found absolutely no trace of any Soviet base.)

By 1974 Iran had found a strong ally in Col. Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, who seized power in a coup with the help of future president Saleh.

As president, Hamdi visited Tehran and became the darling of the Iranian establishment.

A paragon of charm, he had ambitious plans for modernizing Yemen, and the Shah was more than willing to help, starting with an aid package worth an estimated 100 million US dollars. Over 2,000 Iranian technicians, operating under the label of the “Universal Welfare Legion,” were sent to Yemen to help build roads, clinics and schools. A military mission headed by Gen. Khorsand had the task of reforming the Yemeni army’s Soviet-style structure which was established during the period of Egyptian–Nasserist domination. Work also began on building mooring facilities for the Iranian navy in Al-Salif and Al-Hudaydah. Some mullahs of Qom and Mash’had were also reportedly bribed to issue fatwas formally acknowledging Zaydis as Shi’ites.

However, by 1977, when Tehran policymakers believed they had it all worked out in Yemen, Hamdi was dead, murdered in a coup which was, once again, engineered by Saleh. I was personally deeply saddened by this, if only because I had written that Yemen was my favorite Arab country and, having interviewed Hamdi, presented him as “a ray of hope in a world of darkness.”

In a state of panic, Tehran had to arrange for the speedy repatriation of Iranian military and civilian technicians sent to help Yemen become “modernized” as “Happy Arabia” entered an unhappy period that was to witness the murder of yet another president, Ahmad Al-Ghashmi, a series of massacres in Aden and Sana’a, two civil wars, a reunion and a break-up, to mention only a few incidents. The dream of an Imperial Iranian Navy policing the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden vanished like smoke.

I remember a remark by the then-foreign minister, Abbas Ali Khalatbari: “We didn’t know that Yemen was such a hornet’s nest.”

Indeed, we didn’t, and we still don’t.

Opinion: Iran must confront its past to move forwards

Over the past week the Iranian authorities have marked the 36th anniversary of the Khomeinist revolution by deploying the heaviest propaganda artillery at their disposal. The official narrative is that Iran, under its “Supreme Guide,” has the most perfect political and economic system known to mankind since the advent of Islam fifteen centuries ago. The only problem, official propaganda claims, is that “vicious powers” are trying to undermine the Islamic Republic by fomenting internal dissent combined with economic and diplomatic sanctions.

However, while cymbals of self-congratulation are crashed, voices could also be heard demanding a realistic assessment of the past decades. Nations that have experienced a revolution have often used the entry into the fourth decade of the new regime as a good point to take stock. In most cultures three decades is regarded as the lifespan of a generation, a vantage point from which a new generation can examine the record of the preceding one.

That self-examination, or self-criticism as Marxists have it, is not aimed at settling past scores with players who have either died or faded into oblivion. The aim is to achieve a better understanding of an experience that, because of its very nature, included tragic aspects. A revolution’s self-criticism does not always come in the same manner. Nor does it produce identical results.

In the case of the French Revolution the Thermidor episode just two years into the new era proved to be just a flash in the pan. France had to wait until the July Monarchy in 1830 to conduct the genuine self-criticism it needed. In Russia, the exercise took the shape of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1956, in which Nikita Khrushchev exposed Stalin’s “personality cult” and announced measures to undo some of the worst atrocities committed in the name of the revolution. Thanks to de-Stalinization millions of people, including whole nations such as Chechens and Crimean Tatars, were allowed to return home after years of exile in Central Asia and Siberia.

In Communist China, the break came in the plenum of the party’s Central Committee in July 1972. There, the blame for all that had gone wrong, including crimes committed in the name of revolution, was put on Lin Biao who had conveniently died, or been liquidated, in an air crash. By admitting the folly of such policies as the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the party opted for de-Maoization while keeping Mao Zedong, the chief architect of the tragedy nominally in place.

Cuba had a similar experience in 1980 when the ruling Communist Party conducted its own version of de-Stalinization without jettisoning Fidel Castro, the man most responsible for the tragic mistakes of the regime. However, the “correction” enabled Cuba to disentangle itself from wars “to export revolution” to Latin America, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It provided a slight opening of the political space by recognizing the right of other parties to exist, though not to govern. It also ended the wave of executions that had marked the new regime since 1959.

Does Iran need its version of de-Stalinization? Many Iranians, including some within the regime, say “yes,” at least in private. Instead of burying its head in the sand of self-delusion, Iran would do well to carry out a serious examination of the past three decades, a move that could be labelled de-Khomeinization.

A decade ago, some had hoped that newly-elected President Muhammad Khatami would trigger such a process. He did not. His successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad toyed with the idea but never went beyond rhetorical pirouettes. Both men lacked the courage to tackle the demons of the past. Though he lacks the stature and the charisma of Khatami and Ahmadinejad, the current president, Hassan Rouhani, faces the same challenge. If he leads a process of de-Khomeinization he might succeed. If he does not he will fail as his predecessors did.

In Iran, no-one can ignore the tragic record of the revolution. Over the past three decades some six million Iranians have fled their homeland. The Iran-Iraq war claimed almost a million lives on both sides. During the first four years of the Khomeinist regime alone 22,000 people were executed, according to Amnesty International. Since then, the number of executions has topped 80,000. More than five million people have spent some time in prison, often on trumped-up charges. In terms of purchasing power parity, the average Iranian today is poorer than he was before the revolution.

De-Khomeinization does not mean holding the late ayatollah solely responsible for all that Iran has suffered just as Robespierre, Stalin, Mao, and Fidel Castro shared the blame with others in their respective countries. However, there is ample evidence that Khomeini was the principal source of the key decisions that led to tragedy. He triggered the wave of executions with little or no trial, often in writing as testified by the late Ayatollahs Sadeq Khalkhali, the Iranian version of Fouquier-Tinville, France’s Judge Blood.

Khomeini’s erstwhile successor and later adversary, Ayatollah Montazeri, has also released documents showing that the self-styled Imam was responsible for triggering the eight-year war with Iraq and the seizure of American diplomats as hostages. It was also Khomeini who insisted that a draft constitution be re-written to enshrine absolute rule by a mullah, meaning himself.

Memoirs and interviews and articles by dozens of Khomeini’s former associates—including former Presidents Abol-Hassan Banisadr and Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Premier Mehdi Bazargan—make it clear that he was personally responsible for some of the new regime’s worst excesses. These include the disbanding of the national army, the repression of the traditional Shi’ite clergy, and the creation of an atmosphere of terror, with targeted assassinations at home and abroad.

Khomeini has become a symbol of what went wrong with Iran’s wayward revolution. De-Khomeinization might not spell the end of Iran’s miseries just as de-Stalinization and de-Maoization initially produced only minimal results. However, no nation can plan its future without coming to terms with its past.

Opinion: Karbala via Glasgow

Anxious to reach agreement with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program, President Hassan Rouhani is trying to mobilize support for his divisive policy. Last month, he tried to woo nationalists with a speech in which there was no mention of Islam, let alone the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. He talked of Iran as “the builder of civilization for thousands of years,” long before Islam, and as a great power that knew when to fight and when to negotiate.

Last week, with the start of the Shi’ite mourning month of Muharram—the first month of the Islamic calendar—Rouhani tried to use the story of Karbala and the martyrdom of Husayn, the third Imam of Twelver Shi’ites, to justify negotiations with the “infidel.”

Rouhani claimed that Husayn had negotiated with Omar Ibn Sa’ad, sent by Umayyad Caliph Yazid to persuade the Imam to abide by the truce made by his elder brother Hassan with the founder of the Umayyad dynasty Mu’awyiah, and return to Medina.

Husayn refused and engaged in the battle of Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, in which he and his 72 armed companions perished. Trying to portray Husayn as a man open to compromise and forgiveness, Rouhani also recalled that the would-be martyr had pardoned Hurr, an enemy officer, after he repented and joined the Imam’s companions.

Rouhani is right about both incidents but is wrong in his conclusions. Husayn did talk with Ibn Sa’ad before Ashura, but one could hardly describe the encounter as “negotiations.”

According to Abu-Mikhnaf in his Book of Husayn’s Slaying (Kitab Muqtal Al-Husayn), the oldest accounts of the tragedy, Ibn Sa’ad repeated Yazid’s demand that the Imam return to Medina and make no further trouble. Husayn refused, insisting he would not recognize Yazid as caliph. The session ended in acrimony. That could hardly be regarded as negotiations in any acceptable sense of the term. The method of the two sides was closer to “declamation,” known in Arabic as rajaz.

The Hurr incident occurred on a trajectory different from the one Rouhani claims. Hurr, whose surname incidentally was riahi which means “weathervane” in Arabic, simply changed sides without obtaining any concessions.

Rouhani’s idiosyncratic reading of the Karbala story has provoked a polemical storm in Iran. Some critics have branded his account as “the Glasgow version of Karbala,” because Rouhani holds a PhD in Constitutional Law from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.

In a sermon, Ayatollah Adib Yazdi urged Rouhani “to re-learn the Qom version” of the Karbala story. Another theologian, Heshmatallah Qanbari, went further, describing Rouhani’s version as “a glaring error.” Husayn, Qanbari says, did not want to sign “additional protocols” with Yazid, a mocking reference to Rouhani’s efforts to sign something, anything, with the P5+1. “The exchange between Husayn and Ibn Sa’ad was not negotiations,” Qanbari says. “It was a warning [inzar] to Yazid’s envoy from the Imam.”

Another theologian, Ayatollah Muhammad Qa’em-maqami, insists that the key lesson of Karbala was “rejection of truce with the Infidel.” “Those who preach agreement at whatever price speak against the message of Ashura,” Qa’em-maqami said.

As for Ayatollah Javad Suleimani, Rouhani’s “Glasgow Version” ignores “the very foundation of the Shi’ite faith which is seeking martyrdom in the way of God.”

“Today, downtrodden people everywhere in the world are looking to our Islamic revolution and its message of combat and martyrdom,” Suelimani wrote this week. “So, how could we claim that one of the founders of our faith was trying to make a deal with an oppressor?”

Even theologians on government payroll have found it hard to endorse Rouhani’s interpretation. Ayatollah Muhammad-Qassem Wafa, a religious commissar with the army, says that even supposing that the Imam did hold as discussion with the enemy, “the final lesson of Karbala is struggle and martyrdom.”

Ayatollah Mehdi Tabataba’i, a pro-Rouhani mullah, suggests that Husayn decided to fight to the bitter end only after negotiations with Ibn Sa’ad had failed. “Reason dictates that we negotiate,” Tabataba’i says.

The trouble with the “Glasgow Version” is that it tries to re-write an epic as a picaresque novel. The Karbala incident has always been called a hamassah, which means “epic” in both Arabic and Persian. Thus Husayn is an epic hero and, as such, cannot develop, change , mutate, alter or even mature in the course of events. The epic hero arrives fully formed with all his potentials already realized. Nothing, not even martyrdom or victory, would alter his predestined fate (maktoub). He is the translation of the divinely decreed “let-there-be” into the actual “is”.

In a novel, however, the hero could—indeed must—change by becoming older, or thanks to an elixir of youth, even younger, better, worse, richer, poorer, in love, out of love, powerful, or powerless, as the case may be.

In Husayn’s case, there is no circumstance one could imagine in which he might have changed with changing circumstances.

Another problem is that if we assume that Husayn’s position might have changed through negotiations, even imagining his total victory with Yazid agreeing to step down and giving his rival the caliphate, we would empty the Karbala story of its central theme: martyrdom.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini was not a great theologian. However, even he understood that it was not up to individuals to choose martyrdom; some are chosen, most are not. Husayn was chosen to become “Lord of the Martyrs” (Sayyed Al-Shuhada).

Husayn was not faced with an a la carte choice that included a deal with Yazid, return to Medina, taqiyyeh (dissimulation) to save his life, or even redeployment to Lake Razzaza to have access to water. Had he done any of those things he would have become a picaresque character rather than an epic hero.

Rouhani also commits an error of categories when he claims that “reason” justifies negotiations. Faith involves belief in matters that “reason” might regard as unreasonable, even absurd. Vice-versa, faith probes into depths that reason does not pretend to reach.

The “Glasgow version” is an example of mixing religion and politics, an exercise that harms both. Rouhani is a politician and ought to argue his case in political terms. If he believes that making a deal with the P5+1 is good for Iran, he should try to sell the idea in political terms, not by having recourse to religious themes that, his Scottish PhD notwithstanding, he seems to misunderstand.

Opinion: Embers of Khomeini’s Fire

What is happening in Yemen represents as great a threat, if not more so, than what is happening in Iraq and Syria, at least in the eyes of the Gulf states and particularly Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis represent a greater strategic threat to Saudi Arabia and Arabs, particularly if we view them as part of a larger Iranian project that is threatening the region.

There is no hidden backer behind Al-Qaeda and its various franchises or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); there is no foreign state—with a state’s capabilities and strengths—backing either of these two groups. As for the Houthis, they are embers of the Persian Khomeinist fire.

Today, Houthis are fighting in the capital Sana’a and spreading chaos across Yemen, seeking to extort the Yemeni government and President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthis’ objective is clear, namely to impose their demands on the state. The Houthis are trying to hijack Yemen’s fate on the pretext of protesting the government’s fuel subsidy cut, but this is nothing more than opportunism.

UN Special Adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, recently left Saada, the Houthi stronghold, to return to Sana’a without reaching an agreement with the Houthis, who are now threatening the residents of the capital. According to media reports, the Houthis have a number of demands to end the violence, including full control of the port of Midi. This has been a longstanding target for the Houthis, and the reason behind this is clear, namely to create a statelet within Yemen, in the same manner that Hezbollah has sought to create a mini-state in Lebanon.

This Shi’ite emirate on the southern borders of Saudi Arabia represents an Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia, particularly after Tehran has lost its influence in Iraq, Syria and the Gaza Strip.

When we say that a Houthi gunman is akin to a solider in Khomeini’s army, we are saying this backed up by evidence. As for Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, he accused Saudi Arabia—in comments on June 12, 2008 to Yemen’s Al-Nida newspaper—of carrying out violence against Yemenis on American orders.

Zaydism, the form of Shi’ism practiced by the Houthis, has always been a subject of controversy. A Zaydi himself, scholar Mohamed Bin Ismail Al-Sanani said that Zaydism does not have a coherent doctrine that is committed to a specific ideology or its own history. He described Zaydism as a doctrine that is open to development and enrichment. Zaydism has been able to encompass Salafist scholar Imam Al-Shawkani, as well as Imam Abdullah Bin Hamzah (d. 1236 CE), who committed a massacre of some of his own followers simply because they said it was not required that the Imam of the group be a descendant of Al-Hasan and Al-Husayn, the Prophet’s grandsons.

Hussein Al-Houthi, the founder of the modern Houthi movement—an almost sacred figure to his followers, who was killed in 2004—went through a number of transformations, from the ruling General People’s Congress to the peripheries of the Khomeinist trend. His Khomeinist tendencies were brought to the fore in a book he wrote on Qur’anic exegesis. In the book, Houthi talks about Sunni defeats throughout history, which he traces to their refusal to pledge allegiance to the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali Ibn Abi Talib, adding that it would be “foolish for us [the Houthis] to follow them.” In the same section he devotes whole passages to the figure of Khomeini, extolling his “divine character and standards.”

Yemen doesn’t need eulogies; it needs us to call a spade a spade.

Did the BBC help overthrow the Shah?

[inset_left]Persian Service: The BBC and British Interests in Iran
By Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh
I.B.Tauris, 226 pages
London 2014[/inset_left]

“It’s all the work of the English!” Even when said in jest, for many Iranians this popular adage still has a special resonance. Dating back to the 19th century, it reflects the belief that Great Britain, known to Iranians as Engelestan (Land of the English), is the deus ex machina of international politics. “Even the sun does not rise without the say-so of Engelestan,” says Uncle Napoleon, one of the most popular comic figures in modern Persian literature.

Since the British Empire has faded into history, with Engelestan’s military machine no longer capable of exerting meaningful pressure on anybody, the question is: how could the old “Master of the World” impact events beyond its borders?

To many Iranians, including the late Shah, the answer comes in three letters—BBC. In this context, the three letters do not refer to the BBC as seen and listened to by Brits in their own country. The BBC that arouses so much suspicion among so many Iranians is the World Service, a distinct section of the pubic media conglomerate.

Until recently, the World Service was directly financed by the UK government and fell under dual supervision of the Foreign Office and the Treasury. And since the secret services were also “supervised” by the Treasury, it was often assumed, though not always accurately, that British Intelligence also had a say in how the network operated.

PersianServiceIn this fascinating and well-researched book, Annabelle Sreberny and Massoumeh Torfeh try to shed light on the role played by the Persian language service of the BBC World Service in key events in Iran’s modern history. They divide their narrative into several historical segments. The first starts with the creation of the BBC Persian Service soon after the start of the Second World War. At the time Iran’s ruler, Reza Shah Pahlavi, was trying to keep the country out of the war by adopting a neutral profile. However, it was obvious that his sympathies lay with the Axis powers, especially Germany.

Reza Shah had worked his way up the ladder of power, as war minister and prime minister before becoming Shah, by easing out Sayyed Ziauddin Tabataba’i, the man London had backed as leader of a putsch against Qajar Ahmad Shah in 1921. A former commander of the Cossack Brigade, set up and equipped with Russian help, Reza Shah had always been disliked by the British. Their dislike intensified in the 1930s as Reza Shah played the “Aryan” card while refusing to expel some 4,000 German technicians, and possibly spies, from Iran.

Thus, as the book reveals, the key task of the new BBC Persian radio was to vilify Reza Shah, encourage opposition to his autocratic rule and, over time, prepare Iranians for an invasion of their country by Britain and its Soviet allies.

Sreberny and Torfeh implicitly admit that it is hard to gauge the actual impact of the BBC broadcasts. In those days, there were no more than a few thousand wireless sets in Iran and even fewer were able to receive shortwave signals beamed from India. So the fact that Reza Shah was toppled was more due to a full-scale Anglo–Soviet invasion than propaganda from the BBC.

Having defeated the Iranian army, the Anglo–Soviet alliance split over Iran’s future. The British forced Reza Shah to abdicate and tried to return the Crown to the Qajars who had been on the UK’s payroll for decades. The Soviets refused and insisted that the Pahlavis continue, with Crown Prince Muhammad Reza sworn in as the new king. Again, the BBC played a minimal role at best. In the Tehran Summit of 1943, then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to call on Iran’s new Shah. In contrast, Soviet leader Josef Stalin paid his respects to the young Shah.

Fast forward to the second segment in the BBC Persian Service saga, where Sreberny and Torfeh deal with the oil nationalization crisis. They show that the British government clearly used the BBC Persian Service as a propaganda tool against Muhammad Mossadeq, appointed by the Shah as prime minister with the mandate to implement the nationalization of Iranian oil. The Foreign Office instructed the BBC to portray Mossadeq as a demagogue and fanatic who was leading Iran to disaster. In the end Mossadeq fell from power, largely thanks to his own political mistakes rather than BBC propaganda.

The third segment deals with a long spell between 1954 and 1978, when the BBC Persian was almost forgotten. Because of the close ties between London and Tehran, the service was not needed to exert any pressure on Iranian leaders. The few Iranians who worked there were not allowed to produce any remotely political material on their own and were mainly used as translators of texts sent to them by the World Service in English. Once a year, on the Shah’s birthday, the Persian Service played the “Hymn to the Shahanshah” in homage to the Iranian monarch.

The fourth segment covers the period between September 1978 and the seizure of power by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1979. Initially, the Persian Service tried to hedge its bets in well-established BBC tradition of giving “all sides” a voice in the name of objective journalism. (Jean-Luc Goddard calls the practice a formula whereby both Hitler and the Jews get five minutes each when discussing the Holocaust.) Very quickly, however, the Persian Service adopted an increasingly sympathetic position towards the anti-Shah groups.

The authors say: “BBC Persian has probably never been as popular as it was in the year leading to the revolution. Yet it has also never been seen as so partial in its news reporting as it was during those years, at times even seen to be overstepping the line.”

As an example of “overstepping”, the authors quote at length a report written and read by journalist Baqer Moin, which is clearly favorable to Khomeini and his group. Moin tells the authors that he was sympathetic to “the revolution.” However, it might be unfair to imply that he acted as a rogue and against the policies of the BBC or the British government. That this was not the case was borne out later when Moin was promoted senior producer and eventually even head of the BBC Persian Service.

At the time, then-Foreign Secretary George Brown tried to fudge the issue by claiming that the BBC’s foreign-language programs, including Persian, reflected the view of those who worked there, not of the British government. Brown wrote that such programs were “staffed by émigrés, refugees from those countries who are hostile to the regime in the country, that is why they are émigrés in the first place.”

However, none of those working for the BBC Persian Service at the time were either émigrés or refugees. One staffer, the highly respected Lutf-Ali Khonjis tells the authors that he and 80 per cent of the Persian service Staff were sympathetic to the 1979 revolution. Andrew Whitley, the BBC chief correspondent in Tehran at the time, also tells the authors that he was sympathetic to the revolutionaries because “they had justice on their side.” He also claims that BBC broadcasts helped speed up the victory of the revolution, in other words the side he supported.

The authors quote Chris Rundle of the then-Foreign & Commonwealth Office Research Department [now Research Analysts] admitting that more time was given to opposition activities. They also show that attempts made by supporters of the Shah to put their side of the story led nowhere. None of the Shah’s supporters inside or outside Iran were interviewed. Even when the Shah’s then-finance minister visited London, he was interviewed by the privately owned ITV television but not by the BBC. Seyyed Hussein Nasr, a respected Shi’ite scholar and at the time head of Empress Farah Pahlavi’s office, tried to persuade the BBC to give the Shah’s supporters a chance to be heard, but failed.

Having established that the BBC was increasingly drawn to the anti-Shah camp, the authors said: “There does not seem to have been any intention on the part of the British government to destabilize the Shah.” They then say that the BBC Persian Service adopted the position for noble motives. David Perman of the BBC World Service, says: “Most of us did not know what an ayatollah was, could not even imagine he (Khomeini) would one day be leader of Iran. We wanted democracy for Iran.”

The authors show that the BBC staff could not have operated as loose cannons. Britain’s policy towards the Shah changed as it became clear he was no longer capable of keeping his power. Nicholas Barrington, the Foreign Office man in charge of supervising BBC external services at the time, advised against “short-term expediency” such as pleasing the Shah. The rationale behind foreign-language broadcasting was “to operate in the medium and long-term, influencing those who might one day form an alternative government,” he suggested. Barrington then asked: “Is there not some kind of national interest [in making Iranians] accustomed and sympathetic to Western democratic traditions, particularly when the opposition has no local voice?”

That Barrington was not speaking through his hat was soon demonstrated when he was knighted and given top ambassadorial assignments.

In the four or five crucial months of the revolutionary turmoil, the BBC Persian Service was able to play an important role for two reasons. The first was that it became virtually the only radio station to cover Iranian events in Persian. Iran’s own radio and TV networks were shut down as a result of anti-Shah strikes which also stopped almost all newspapers and magazines from being published. At the time, only three other foreign powers had radios broadcasting in Persian: the Soviet Union, Iraq and Egypt. But all three had adopted supportive positions vis-a-vis the Shah, reflecting the policy of their respective governments. The BBC Persian Service gave the Shah’s opponents a platform&8212;programs from Cairo, Baghdad and Moscow either ignored the anti-Shah groups or minimized their importance. The second reason why the BBC Persian Service achieved a special position was the common Iranian belief that “the English” knew how to shun losers and pick winners.

The fifth segment deals with Iran under the mullahs. After 1979, the BBC again faded into the background. It observed strict neutrality towards the Khomeinist regime and was in turn allowed to maintain an office in Tehran. Relations with the new regime remained cordial, if not especially warm, during the eight-year presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani whose faction succeeded in keeping the presidency under one of its members, Mohammad Khatami. The BBC Persian Service was clearly enthusiastic about Khatami and his promises of reform and liberalization. It was no mystery that during Khatami’s presidency, the BBC Persian Service reflected British government policy which was based on support for the “reformist” president. Tony Blair’s second Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, visited Tehran five times, more than any other capital, and publicly praised Khatami as a friend of the Western democracies.

With the advent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s new president, things changed again. After defeating the Rafsanjani faction, Ahmadinejad started dismantling the network of contacts that Straw had created over the years. Naturally, reflecting the British government’s dislike of Ahmadinejad, the BBC Persian Service adopted a critical tone towards the Islamic Republic. During the disputed presidential election of 2009, the BBC Persian Service strongly sided with the anti-Ahmadinejad faction and won a vast new audience among supporters of the so-called “Green Movement.”

London retaliated by setting up a BBC Persian television channel with an annual budget of 22 million US dollars and a staff of more than 150. Many new staffers were recruited from Iranian journalists close to the Rafsanjani-Khatami faction. As Ahmadinejad purged them, they came to Europe and North America, helping to create a network of support for the Rafsanjani-Khatami tandem abroad.

Several prominent members of the Rafsanjani faction became regular commentators and panelists at the BBC Persian Service, among them Khatami’s chief communications officer Ali-Asghar Ramazanpour and Rafsanjani’s presidential assistant for parliamentary affairs Ata-Allah Mohajerani.

Hassan Rouhani’s election as President last June has kindled new hopes for a revival of the UK’s network of influence in Tehran. Diplomatic relations, suspended under Ahmadinejad, have been restored and a UK parliamentary delegation has visited Tehran. The UK has strongly endorsed Rouhani’s attempt at easing tension with the major democracies, notably the United States.

That there is much sympathy towards Rouhani is indicated by the authors’ assertion that he had won the presidency “an astonishing first ballot victory.” However, the fact is that, with the exception of Ahmadinejad’s first electoral victory in the second round, all the six previous presidents of the Islamic Republic also won on the first ballot. (Ahmadinejad won his second presidential term in the first round.) Rouhani’s victory was, in fact, the weakest. He won with just 50.7 percent of the votes in an election with the lowest turnout.

Nevertheless, goodwill towards Rouhani has meant overlooking his record so far, including the dramatic rise in the number of executions, political arrests, closure of media outlets and distribution of posts among members of the Rafsanjani faction.

The authors say: “It is to be hoped that president Rouhani will open up the media environment in Iran” and allow the BBC to operate inside Iran as “just another useful media channel.” Sreberny and Torfeh assert that the BBC started as “state-orchestrated propaganda” but developed into “subtle advocacy of fair and balanced journalism as the best agent of British values and influence.”

If BBC staff helped the opposition against the Shah, and then against Ahmadinejad, it was because they were “on the side of democratization—not necessarily of the British.” Since it is hard to imagine the British spending money on propaganda against democracy, the inevitable conclusion is that BBC external services, including the Persian one, reflected and would continue to reflect the strategic goals of the British government.

Iran: A revolution of broken promises and forlorn hopes

An Iranian girl shows her hand painted with Iran's national flag during a ceremony marking the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, at the Azadi (Freedom) square in Tehran, Iran, 11 February 2014. (EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH)
An Iranian girl shows her hand painted with Iran’s national flag during a ceremony marking the 35th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution, at the Azadi (Freedom) square in Tehran, Iran, 11 February 2014. (EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH)
In 1978, as the turmoil in Iran rapidly developed into a mass movement for regime change, those who took part in the events were unable to agree on a word that would describe what was happening.

The Mussadeqist middle classes, who provided the façade of the movement, used the word “nehzat” (awakening, in Arabic an-nahda) which was the name of their principal organization. The mullahs, who were still anxious not to take personal risks, suggested the word “qiyam”(uprising) because it recalled the events of Karbala in 680 when Husayn, the third Imam, was martyred. The dozen or so leftist groups, some of them armed and trained in Cuba and the Palestinian camps, favored the word “shuresh khalq”: people’s rebellion.

Then one evening, the Shah, broken by a cancer that had been kept secret, appeared on television and, reading from a text, surprised everyone by saying: “I have heard the voice of your revolution.”

Suddenly, “revolution” was the word everyone claimed to have been looking for. Initially, the groups involved in the turmoil had not wanted to use it because the Shah had used it to describe his own reform package as the White Revolution.

Well, now the Shah was giving his beloved term of “revolution” to his opponents. Was not that a sign that he would soon also hand over his power on a silver plate? The answer came a few weeks later, when the Shah conducted secret talks to form a ramshackle interim government that would allow him and his family to fly out of Iran. He was not prepared to stand and fight because, he argued, a king is not a despot and cannot therefore kill his people in order to stay in power.

However, the adoption of the term “revolution” did not end the debate. The diverse groups involved in the anti-Shah movement had different, often contradictory, ideologies and agendas. Much of the Left wished to use the adjective “bourgeois–democratic” to describe the “revolution” in the hope that this would be the prelude to the real “proletarian revolution.” Leftist guerrilla groups dreamed of a Mao-style “people’s republic” and tried to label the events as “popular revolution” (enqelab khalq).

However, once the Shah was gone, the mullahs quickly moved to fill the gap left by his absence.

For more than four centuries only two rival, and at times complementary, narratives had dominated Iranian politics: the nationalist and the Islamist. The Shah had been the spokesman for the nationalist discourse, emphasizing Iran’s ancient history as an “Aryan” nation with Islam only one of many ingredients that formed the complex Iranian identity. In 1979, deprived of its chief standard-bearer, that discourse appeared to be on the losing side. The alternative discourse, the Islamist one, was left unchallenged. According to that narrative, all of Iran’s pre-Islamic history belonged to “The Age of Darkness “(Jahiliyah). It was now time for Iran to assert its exclusively Islamic identity, assume leadership of the Muslim world, and forge a new Islamic superpower to stand up to the two “infidel” super-powers of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Having imposed the Islamist narrative, the mullahs started capturing the centers of power one after another, getting rid of many of their allies, at times simply by having them assassinated. What the mullahs could not do was to wish away the fundamental contradiction of Iranian existence for the past 15 centuries. There is ample evidence in Iranian literature and history to show that while Iranians don’t want to abandon Islam they are, at the same time, uncomfortable with being Muslims. Under the nationalist discourse they were unhappy because they thought, perhaps wrongly, that they were being invited to jettison Islam. Under the Islamist discourse, they started to fear that the mullahs wished to deprive them of their Iranian-ness.

The regime had changed along with the discourse, but the Iranian schizophrenia was still very much in place. Thirty-five years after the mullahs seized power, that contradiction remains unresolved and is, in a sense, the root cause of the Khomeinist regime’s bizarre behavior at home and abroad. The new regime had to accommodate contradictory aspirations. It had to describe itself as a republic, although there is no such thing in any Islamic tradition. It also had to use the label Islamic, although that had never been used by any of the 300 or so Muslim dynasties that had ruled Iran for 14 centuries. Finally, it used the word Iran, although Islam is a universal faith cutting across national boundaries. This is why the “Supreme Guide” is described as leader of Muslims throughout the world, not just Iran.

The new Khomeinist regime established itself at a heavy cost in human lives. In the first decade of the regime, almost 150,000 people were executed or killed in armed clashes and violent suppression of local revolts. For its part, the eight-year Iran–Iraq War claimed almost a million lives on both sides. Since then, the regime has executed an average of 10 people each day. Almost 7 million Iranians, nearly 10 percent of the population, have been forced into exile, creating in part the “biggest brain-drain in history.” according to the World Bank. Over the past 35 years millions of Iranians have been imprisoned, often on spurious charges, and today Iran has the third-largest number of political prisoners: some 4,000 according to human rights organizations.

Economically, Iran has had a history of under-achievement, to say the least. In 1978, Iran was richer than South Korea and, in terms of income per head, was on the same level as Spain. Today, South Korea is number 13 and Spain number 15, while Iran has fallen to number 18 in terms of gross domestic product. In terms of annual growth rate, Iran, suffering from several years of negative growth, is number 208 in a list of 215 nations. The myth of “self-sufficiency” (khod-kafai) peddled by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, combined with the effects of crippling sanctions, have kept Iran in a technological limbo.

The Khomeinist regime had three sources of legitimacy. The first was that of a successful revolution. In history, the side that wins automatically acquires a measure of legitimacy. However, that source of legitimacy has been eroded over the years as the new regime has created a new ruling class and moved away from original revolutionary aspirations. The regime’s second source of legitimacy was its reference to the people in the form of a series of elections which, though not perfect, initially allowed a limited mechanism for debate and choice. That source has also been eroded as a result of increasingly “arranged” elections with pre-approved candidates and massaged results. This is why voter participation has been on the decline. In the last presidential election, for example, voter turnout was the lowest ever since the establishment of the Khomeinist regime, and Hassan Rouhani won with the lowest percentage of votes cast of any president.

The third source of legitimacy came from a promise of a better life for the poor. That, too, has been eroded with the growing inequality across the board. In last Friday’s Prayer in Tehran, Ayatollah Muwahhedi Kermani offered a grim portrayal of a society split between the haves and the have-nots. “Someone must think of those crushed by misery,” he appealed. That came a few days after the government tried to alleviate pressure on the poor by distributing five million package of food in a system of wartime rationing.

But has the Khomeinist revolution produced no positive results? The answer is that it has. No phenomenon in history is entirely positive or negative. The first positive result of the revolution is that it has politicized the Iranians. Before the revolution most people thought that politics concerned only a few thousand people in Tehran. Today, many Iranians, perhaps even a majority, have developed an acute political sense that, given time and space, could help them develop a more humane and democratic system of government. Today, it is much harder to deceive Iranians with promises of revolutionary miracles. Having been mugged, they have become street-wise. The second positive aspect is related to the above. Before the revolution we had a thin layer of high-quality leadership at the higher levels but little or nothing in the middle or below. Today, the reverse is true. Today, even in remote provincial towns, one could find leadership levels capable of understanding and explaining the situation. Our middle and lower leadership levels are of a much higher quality than the upper echelon, with people like Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani. Iran also has a vast reservoir of managerial talent that it did not have 35 years ago—at that time our media had a handful of star reporters and editors. Today we have many, many more, perhaps more than any other nation in the Middle East. Given a minimum of freedom and latitude they could do wonders.

Of course, part of these things might have happened anyway, with or without the revolution. But the fact is that they have happened during the revolutionary era. More importantly, perhaps, the tragedy of 1979 and its consequences have forced many Iranians, perhaps even a majority, to think seriously about the makeup of their identity. How much Iranian and how much Islamic? The answer to that question requires recognition of politics as a common public space for all citizens regardless of their individual and group specifics, including religion.

Recognizing that fact would give Iran the true revolution it has been dreaming of for 150 years, yet never attained despite many false dawns.

Opinion: Iran, the Revolution and “Iranian Modernism”

Iran's national flags are seen on a square in Tehran in this file photo taken on February 10, 2012, a day before the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. (REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/Files)

The relationship between Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and modernity is a controversial one. Views on the issue can be divided into three categories: progressive, regressive and post-modern.

From a progressive standpoint, the Iranian revolution is seen as a step towards modernity, despite some problems. A regressive standpoint compares Iran’s revolution with regressive or reactionary revolutions such as Nazism and Fascism. The post-modern view, initially promoted by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, sees this revolution as a movement beyond modernism, though Foucault later changed his mind on this.

In reality, the Iranian revolution occurred within the framework of the discourse of political Islam, but it can be considered as a transition to a specific type of modernism, called “Iranian modernism.”

This viewpoint is based on several hypotheses. The first one is that revolution is a means to political change in a situation where political change through other means is blocked. This is a fundamentally modern perspective. In Aristotle’s Politics, revolution is viewed negatively and is never considered an option for development and progress. In Islamic thought, except for the Mu’tazilah school and Zaidiyya Shi’ism, uprisings have always been opposed because of the chaos that accompanies them. Muslim scholars refer to a famous Hadith from Imam Ali that repression is better than upheaval.

In Iran, the idea of revolution began to be viewed positively for the first time in the “Constitutionalist” era at the start of the 20th century. Mirza Naini justified it in his work Tanbih al-Umma [Warning the Umma—the Islamic community of believers], with an approach rooted in religious jurisprudence.

The second hypothesis is that modernism can take non-Western forms. From this perspective, modernism is a kind of struggle in which the thoughts and interpretations of the past are challenged by modern thoughts, but in a specific local context.

As far as Iran is concerned, this challenge emerged in both religious and secular intellectual currents. This challenge first appeared in the Constitutionalist era and has waxed and waned since then. There is no doubt that it was influenced by Western ideas, but it should not be considered as being wholly foreign.

Based on these two hypotheses one can argue that Iran’s Islamic Revolution was a modernist phenomenon, despite some tensions between the forces it unleashed.

The Iranian revolution was realized within the framework of the discourse of political Islam. It was seeking to establish a system born out of Islamic teachings. Political Islam had demarcated itself from capitalism and communism, the two dominant ideologies of that time. It included three trends: leftist, moderate and jurisprudential. These three tendencies shared criticism of traditional interpretations of Islam.

Therefore, the ideology of the Islamic Revolution took shape in confrontation with conservatism and was based on religious fundamentalism. The leftist inclination was led by Ali Shariati and Mohammad Nakhshab; the moderate branch was led by Mehdi Bazargan, Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, Ayatollah Ali Taleqani and Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti; and the third branch by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri.

The conservatives promoted an authoritarian interpretation of political Islam following the victory of the revolution and established the rightist branch of political Islam, in conflict with Shariati, contrary to the recommendation of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Political Islam did not inherently oppose concepts such as freedom, democracy, republicanism, human rights and independence, and even sought to justify them. This convergence was reflected in the expression of the ideals and objectives of the revolution and the slogan, “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic.”

Ayatollah Khomeini also insisted on adherence to freedom, democracy and republicanism and maintained that these concepts must be interpreted as they are commonly in the world. Revolutionary forces also formed an alliance of traditional and modern forces, and this alliance was instrumental in the victory of the Islamic Revolution.

During the revolutionary upheaval, modernist forces were steering the movement and traditional entities, such as the clergy, and religious bases, such as mosques, were effective in mobilizing people. All this was under the leadership of the supreme leader.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership role was accepted by both traditionalists and modernists. Throughout the years leading up to the revolution, Khomeini always opposed the leadership of the clergy. That is why there was no reference to the principle of velayat-e faqih, the doctrine of clerical rule, in the draft constitution.

Modernist elements were more effective than traditionalists in expressing their ideology, ideals and objectives. This modernism was defined within the framework of religious teachings and thinking, and did not please conservatives.

For traditionalist conservatives, a revolution accompanied by violence was unjustifiable, and that is why they rejected revolutionary acts as unacceptable. They believed that establishing a religious government was impossible until the return of the last Shi’a imam. In contrast, the revolutionary forces wanted an Islamic government, but a forward-looking one based on spiritual revival and political reform, and not salafism. They did not seek a new Islamic caliphate, or to take society backwards. Instead, they sought a pure Islam that backed such values as freedom, equality, the rule of law and the sovereignty of people.

Therefore, the Islamic Revolution was a “modern” project, and the existence of modernist elements in the constitution and in the Islamic Republic were the two main achievements of the revolution.