Iran, the Revolution and the Language of War

The Palestine Chronicle, 12 December, 2011

A few days ago, I revisited a lecture given by Fred Halliday, FBA, an intellectual giant among scholars of Middle East and Cold War history, at the London School of Economics in 2009. His topic was “The Islamic Republic of Iran After 30 Years.” For nearly a quarter century, Halliday was professor of International Relations at the LSE and recognized worldwide as a leading expert in the study of Islam, the Middle East and great power relations in the region.

He died just over a year ago, but for more than three decades before that he was also in great demand in media outlets, including the BBC World Service at Bush House, my professional base next door to the LSE. He often came to take part in World Service programs and I came to regard Fred as a friend. Watching him interpret the Iranian Revolution thirty years after was an enlightening experience once again.

An important lesson I have learned in my life is to engage the best when in doubt. For me, going back to Fred Halliday was prompted by a recent experience during an exchange about an article I had written on Iran. My exchange was with an editor. Young, bright and overbearing on this occasion, he thought I was giving Iran a mild treatment, otherwise widely denounced these days as a “dictatorship” representing dark ages and which threatens the world.

Needless to say, I am one of those who do not subscribe to this version of history, past or present. The world is much more complex. It is tempting and easy to grab a news agency copy and throw it at someone to prove our own view of events, based on a narrow interpretation of recent knowledge and conventional wisdom of the present time that is temporary by its nature. It is worse when the agency report thrown at the person contains claims made on a website by one side about casualties at the hands of the other, with no way of checking independently. Anyway, I moved on without rancor on my part.

To recognize, indeed to reflect with caveats, the significance of propaganda war is one thing. It is quite different to be blown away by a current political storm when the objective is to attempt a serious historical analysis.

Halliday had a remarkable capacity to interpret. He used to speak of similarities between the world’s major revolutions in the twentieth century: the Russian (1917), the Chinese (1949), the Cuban (1959), the Nicaraguan (1979) and the Iranian Revolution in the same year. It is a mistake to regard the point in time of a revolution as “Year Zero” and insist that all bad things follow. Neither the claim that “everything has changed” nor that “nothing has changed” is correct. The culture of a country that undergoes a revolution does not change at once.

The truth is very different. As Halliday would say, revolutions are extremely messy phenomena. They involve great chaos, cruelty and generosity. That chaos and cruelty precedes revolutionary upheaval, as well as follows. Revolutions represent dreams, hopes and disappointments. However, they occur because of the fragmentation of societies and exclusion of important sections of populations. There are both internal and external factors responsible for revolutions. Often, the outcome is a realignment of forces. Beneficiaries of the past become losers; victims, at least some of them, gain.

No revolution, as far as I know, has achieved all that it promised. A revolution is a response, rather than a solution, to the problems that triggered it.

In Iran’s case, there had been years of repression under an absolute monarch who was installed by external powers following an Anglo-Soviet invasion in 1941; an Anglo-American intelligence plot that overthrew an elected government in 1953; gradual fragmentation of a traditional society and exclusion of important sections thereof, the clergy and the traders in particular; severe restrictions and coercion directed at the opposition; the offense and the suffering caused by the Shah’s dreaded secret police SAVAK (1957–1979), establishment by the United States Central Intelligence Agency and Israel’s Mossad.

Suppression of liberals and others on the Left, like the Tudeh (party of the masses), had gone on under the monarchy in Iran. Tudeh supported the 1979 revolution while others on the Left opposed it. However, the alliance between the Tudeh Party and Iran’s emergent ruling clergy collapsed in the early 1980s. Then it was back to the past. For the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the United States was the “Great Satan,” and Iran had to follow a course that was neither East (meaning Russia) nor West. America was held responsible for what went wrong in Iran in the decades before the overthrow of the Shah. And the fact about the Soviets having invaded Iran could not be forgotten.

We are into the fourth decade since the founding of the Islamic Republic. It has been a long period of crisis between Iran and the West, with some notable exceptions: the Iran-Contra affair involving the Reagan administration flirting with the Iranian regime to facilitate arms sales to its military to fund Nicaragua’s rightwing Contra guerrillas in the 1980s while the United States was also supporting Iraq that had invaded Iran; during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and for a short period thereafter; and Iran’s acquiescence to getting Shia militias to cease fire in the Iraqi conflict. Each time, hopes of reconciliation between the two bitter enemies were dashed. We are now at a point where war clouds are looming.

Despite all that is said about the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, it was, in fact, a very modern revolution. It was a populist response to an unpopular ruler. Nothing illustrates it better than the way the Shah’s armed forces collapsed in the end. More than thirty years on, we see men and women mixing in Iranian society at the workplace and in the streets. Women learn and teach with men at co-educational institutions. Iranian scientists are engaged in research in medicine, other scientific and technological fields and, more controversially, in the nuclear program.

Is Iran a dictatorship? Power certainly resides in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Guardian Council, the president, the Majlis (parliament) and institutions like the judiciary. It is more dispersed than we are led to believe. There are instances of strong-arm tactics against some opponents and publications regarded as “outside the system,” for instance during and after the 2009 presidential election. But other critics have a surprising degree of freedom to express dissent––more than in some neighboring countries in the region.

Have miscalculations and errors of judgment been made? Sure. The Carter administration’s support in the late 1970s until the very end of the Shah’s regime was one such error; and the American hostage crisis (November 1979–January 1981) at the U.S. embassy in Tehran was a miscalculation which sealed the fate of Carter’s presidency, ensuring the victory of Ronald Reagan and all that followed in the 1980s. Opportunities have presented themselves in the last thirty years for Iran and the West to improve relations, only to be lost.

Where is Iran’s nuclear program going? I do not know. Nor do in my view most other people who talk endlessly in the media about the Iranian threat and how to deal with it. Despite the amount of coverage, Iran’s nuclear program remains a subject of inference, speculation and conspiracy theories. The Iranians have before them examples of China, North Korea, India and Pakistan. They know realpolitik. A nuclear power has a greater sense of security and others look up to it. Given the past and the present, the idea of their country having nuclear weapons is popular among Iranians. If one were to make a guess, it would be that Iran would probably want to acquire the capacity to make the bomb, but would not actually go ahead unless it was felt in Tehran that external events warranted that step.

As the governments in London, Paris and Washington continue to play the game of brinkmanship, wiser heads have warned against the current dangerous path and have advised engagement with Iran. At a recent conference at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, former British ambassador and one of the foremost Iran experts, Sir Richard Dalton, was very critical of the West’s policy on Iran, in particular of the British foreign secretary William Hague. Lord (Norman) Lamont, former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, agreed. But in the light of escalating rhetoric and military maneuvers, the prospects of the situation taking a ruinous turn are real.

 [END]

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One thought on “Iran, the Revolution and the Language of War

  1. I should like to make several comments on your present article.

    1. With regard to the Shah being “installed by external powers following an Anglo-Soviet invasion in 1941″, with emphasise on “installed”, the situation is far more complex. There was a strong effort, by the likes of Mohammad-Ali Foroughi, to continue with the Pahlavis, and for very good reasons, foremost because Iran had no good alternatives (see later). In the post-revolutionary historiography of Iran, Foroughi is vilified, amongst others by suggesting that he were a British lackey (wrongly, to my best judgement – the code word used for conveying this accusation is that he was a Freemason, which he indeed was), essentially because of his role in having secured Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi’s position as Shah of Iran (Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced to resign as Shah of Iran by the invading allied forces during the WW II, but he signed his letter of resignation only after having extracted a firm promise from Foroughi that the latter would support Mohammad-Reza in becoming Iran’s Shah — Reza Shah might have decided to fight the invading armies from the north and the south, but the likes of Foroughi prevailed in convincing him that this would only lead to the total destruction of the country). Incidentally, at the time there was also the possibility of restoring the Qajars, and some advocated this, but the wise men at the helm decided that Iran had had enough of the Qajars and therefore had to continue with a Pahlavi.

    2. Tudeh Party was never very popular in Iran, and certainly not with the nationalists and ultra-nationalists; the perception has always been, and continues to be, that Tudeh Party (despite some of the positive things that they advanced and helped establish in the country – like labour laws, legalization of labour unions, etc.) had the interests of the Soviet Union / Russia at heart and not those of Iran and Iranians. At one time Tudeh Party was home to many “intellectuals” (I put this word between the quotation marks because I abhor this concept, as I do not know what it possibly signifies), including writers and poets. Ahmad Shamlou was one of them. He openly ridiculed the Iranian classical music (he even called it “sickening”), he described Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh as an inferior piece of Persian literature, etc. (Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh was viewed Marxistically.) It has been said that not a single piece of prose or poetry in praise of Iran or Iranians has ever been composed by a writer and poet associated with the Tudeh party (they were apparently too busy with their concerns for the world’s proletariat). Incidentally, this charge is not accurate, as evidenced by Siavash Kasrai’s very profound epic poem Arash Kamangir. What is interesting from the sociological perspective, is that many senior “intellectual” members of the Tudeh party came to serve the Shah in later life – they came to represent, as it were, the cultural and “intellectual” guild of Mohammad-Reza Shah’s reign — from the end of the 1960s, almost all people presenting highbrow cultural programmes on the Iranian radio and television were former members of the Tudeh party. At the time some considered them as traitors, whatever that may mean. Partly on account of these facts, what you call “the alliance between the Tudeh Party and Iran’s emergent ruling clergy” was never anything but a figment of imagination on the part of the members of Tudeh Party. I vividly remember that at the time many called them unprincipled opportunists, not least because despite their professed disregard for religion of any kind, they were seen at Friday prayers, actually praying! Noureddin Kianouri, General Secretary of Tudeh Party, was at the time dubbed as “Ayatollah Kianouri” by the detractors of Tudeh Party!

    3. Regarding “the Iran-Contra affair involving the Reagan administration flirting with the Iranian regime to facilitate arms sales to its military to fund Nicaragua’s rightwing Contra guerrillas in the 1980s”, this flirting (officially denied by Iran to this date) had a more serious and sinister side to it than merely facilitating arms sales to Nicaragua’s guerrillas; the latter was essentially a welcome spin-off of the undertaking named Iran-Contra Affair. The calculation behind the arms sales to Iran was that neither Iraq nor Iran had to win the war; they had to just go on and weaken each other for as long as possible.

    Regarding “the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001″, not long before this date Iran almost went to war with the Taliban in Afghanistan – after the massacre of the Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif by the Taliban; at the time Iran placed some half a million soldiers on her border with Afghanistan, ready to invade. Moreover, the Northern Alliance consisted of Tajiks, who are Iranians (this is in fact implicit in the word Tajik) and Shia. Last week’s terrorist carnage in Afghanistan was carried out on a group of Shia worshippers (consisting mainly of women and children).

    4. With regard to “Power certainly resides in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,”, this is not a very popular thing to say, but in my very considered opinion this is inevitable, at least for now and for a very foreseeable time in the future. This is related to the Iranian history, culture and, not least, temperament (Iranians are an emotional people – a fact that is most strongly reflected in the Iranian literature and arts, and are not good at collaborating when ideology is at stake – generally, Iranians cannot imagine a win-win situation: if one wins, the other must be the loser). In my considered opinion, it is not sufficiently realized that lack of a strong central power in Iran can easily lead to a military dictatorship and very possibly emergence of warlords and warlordism. This was certainly the case during the reign of the last Qajar king Ahmad Shah, as well as during Mohammad Shah’s reign before him (i.e. before Naser ad-Din Shah), when in virtually every major province someone had a claim to power. One should not forget that Iran is a vast country, very rich in oil, gas and minerals that are geographically not uniformly distributed, and consists of over sixty ethnic groups. Without a very powerful central institution, the country can easily be driven into chaos, and that is what the powers that be apparently wish for; it is cheaper than waging a war on a unitary Iran, and turning Iran into a collection of Bantustans (something that Bernard Lewis proposed some years ago) is certainly perceived as a very desirable option (a totally misguided view, as we witness the events unfolding in Afghanistan today).

    Perhaps I should add (and this is very likely also not a very popular thing to say) that shortage of freedom in Iran is largely attributable to the fact that the notion of ‘loyal opposition’ is not a very well-established notion in the minds of many Iranians. One needs to look at the number of former senior ministers and presidential candidates who at present are serving BBC Persian and Voice of America. Is it conceivable to have seen for instance Mr Al Gore serving on Press TV and asking the American people to go against the Bush Administration and the American Constitution? No, but a former Iranian Presidential candidate, whose name I shall not mention, was even openly instructing the Iranian youths on how to fire-bomb, amongst others, the Iranian electricity installations just a few days after the last Presidential election in Iran. We Iranians somehow fail to realize that so long as the notion of ‘loyal opposition’ has not become part of our political culture, no matter who rules Iran, any opposition will be viewed with suspicion (this was the case with the Qajars, the the Pahlavis and the present system, just to name three examples). Those who say otherwise, either do not know what they are talking about, or are disingenuous. For comparison, take Ms Arundhati Roy, who on an almost continuous basis criticises the State of India, but never questions or undermines it. We Iranians lack a comparable oppositional figure, who is both intellectually rigorous and knows the boundaries of what constitutes loyal opposition. The field of Iranian political opposition is closely packed with an almost endless number of vacuous political wannabes who oppose for the sake of opposing and never know where to stop, to everyone’s disadvantage.

    5. As for Iran’s nuclear programme, although I am 100% against nuclear weapons (under any circumstance – the idea that somehow civilians could be justifiably killed on a massive scale, amounts to a singularity in human perception, exactly as a black hole is in a gravitational field, where laws of physics are undefined), I am 100% in favour of Iran’s nuclear programme. In my very considered opinion, the two have unduly been identified as representing one and the same thing. First, Iran is a signatory to the NPT, so that Iran has all the right to do whatever is allowable under the NPT. Second, for Iran nuclear energy has been estimated to be some 8 to 10 times cheaper than the energy obtained from burning fossil fuel. There are some calculations that show that over time Iran’s internal energy needs would bring Iran’s export of oil and gas to a halt. At present, the two make for some 80% of Iran’s income of foreign currencies. Third, having a nuclear industry is of vital importance to Iran’s R&D. A country that aspires to become fully developed, cannot afford not to have a self-sufficient nuclear industry in place. When one talks with the Germans and the Dutch (in contrast to France, in Germany and the Netherlands nuclear energy is not the main source of energy, although Germany imports electricity from France – in the UK we may follow the French, which is certainly what the likes of George Monbiot advocate), one realizes that they consider having nuclear industries on their soils as being in their vital national interest, as without such industries they would lose the technical and scientific knowledge that are part and parcel of these industries.

    THE END

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