Revolution in the Air: Iran
Disillusionment with Iran’s secular king brought the Islamists to power in 1979. Will the population now oust the ruling theocracy, asks Baqer Moin?
The demonstrations over the election results in Iran have ignited a major crisis. Questions have already been asked about whether this is a new revolution or a civil movement attempting to correct the revolution of 1979. Either way, it is about a nation’s identity and its attempt to reconcile Islam and democracy.
The country is torn between its loyalty to ancient Iran, to Islam, and to the modern world, which makes it different from other Islamic countries. It sees itself as the key contributor to the Islamic civilisation, its science, poetry and mysticism. But it follows its own branch of Islam, the Shia faith, which became the state’s religion in the 16th century. It retains Persian as its language while other Islamic countries converse in Arabic. Iran is also very proud of the glories of the pre-Islamic Persian Empire, with Persepolis as its centre of excellence, and the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722), which created the beautiful city of Isfahan.
However, from the early 18th century to the beginning of the 20th, while Europe was going through theIndustrial Revolution and intellectual renewal and empire building, Iran, exhausted by internal battles and external wars, was mostly hibernating under the decadent and largely stagnant Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) of the Persian Empire.
Early in the 19th century, Iranians woke up to their dire predicament when Britain and Russia started to carve up countries on Iran’s periphery. This sense of powerlessness in the face of industrialised and militarily powerful European empires left a deep impression on the Iranian elite, who saw the country as physically and intellectually broken and in need of revolutionary change. But they were not united in wanting to reconcile the quest for heavenly salvation with reality on the ground.
Diverse visions among the Iranians of how to bring about an Iranian renaissance and a modern democratic government created a confused scene. The glorified memory of the ancient Persian Empire was a model for romantic nationalists. The clergy thought the prevailing decadence could only be remedied if Iranians went back to the purity of early Islam. The secular intellectuals were insistent that Iran should follow a Western-style secular democratic government.
By the early 20th century, a powerful coalition formed among those of the elite who wanted Iran to bring to an end the despotic monarchy of the Qajar kings and turn it into a constitutional monarchy. This consensus between the clergy, the intellectuals and the establishment elite, supported by the merchants and tribal chiefs, brought about the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. The ineffectual, dying monarch, Mozaffaruddin Shah, gave his consent. To satisfy the diverse coalition, a constitution was drafted that undermined the traditional hold of the clergy over legislation and education but allowed them to retain a supervisory role in the making of laws.
Tension soon broke out between the Westernised technocrats and the clergy over the role of religious and secular laws. This gave an opportunity to the tyrannical new monarch, Mohammad Ali Shah, who was supported by the Russians, to bomb Iran’s new parliament. The constitutionalists, supported by Britain, won the day. A leading clergyman, Shaikh Fazlollah Nuri, who opposed the constitution as too secular and sided with the defeated Mohammad Ali Shah, was hanged. Aged ten at the time, Khomeini would later make Nuri one of his heroes.
In 1921, out of the chaos following the First World War, a new charismatic officer emerged, Reza Khan Pahlavi. Soon he became Reza Shah and established his own dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1921 to 1979 as a secular monarchy, excluding the clergy from power. Influenced by the secular leader Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Reza Shah was a dictator: he secularised the laws, forced women to do away with the veil and introduced Western-style dress for men. He also united the country, formed a national army and began the long process of modernising Iran. And he amassed great wealth. Reza Shah was dethroned by the Allies in 1941 and his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, replaced him.
From 1941 until 1953, when the popular prime minister, Dr Mohammad Mossadeq, was overthrown in a Western-led coup, Iran under the young Mohammad Reza Shah witnessed a decade of openness, with the emergence of pro-Soviet communists, nationalists and a regrouped clergy with traditionalist, reformist or Islamist tendencies.
Mohammad Reza Shah’s personal rule started in 1953. He curbed the communists, the Islamists and the nationalists. He was neither an ardent secularist, nor a believer in democracy. He encouraged a cult of personality and fused it with ancient Iran and personal faith. Helped by money from oil, he made moves towards further modernising of the country. As an absolute ruler, he relied heavily on a well-armed, depoliticised army and his own security forces. In the 1960s, when he felt confident enough to restart his father’s social reforms, the Shah faced formidable obstacles and vociferous opponents. His attempt to give equal rights to women antagonised the clergy. His land reform, though welcomed by the peasants, alienated the land-owning classes and his authoritarian style of government drove young educated people towards Islam or leftwing and Islamic underground groups. It was in this period that Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as the Shah’s chief antagonist, earning himself a short period of imprisonment and an exile from 1964 until he returned home in 1979 as the leader of the revolution.
Millions who supported the Ayatollah’s leadership wanted democracy and more freedom, while the Ayatollah wanted an Islamic government. The clergy, who were better organised than other groups in 1979, felt they were in a position to set up an Islamic state – which had been denied to them during the Constitutional Revolution in 1906.
The key slogans that echoed in the streets of Iran during the 1979 revolution were: ‘freedom’, ‘independence’, and calls for an Islamic government. When the revolutionaries settled for an Islamic Republic, they made a historic compromise again: Islamic to satisfy the doctrinaire and Republic to placate the democratic forces.
Some 30 years after the revolution, debates over the concept of the Islamic governance have resurfaced during the recent presidential elections. The Islamic constitution is based on the separation of the three branches of power (the executive, the legislature and the judiciary), with an all-powerful Supreme Leader and an unelected Council of Guardians which can veto the choice of the electorate. The structure is in fact a theo-democracy, or theocracy with some democratic features that has left this key question unanswered: who is the source of legitimacy, God or the electorate?
The reformist candidates such as Mir Hossein Mousavi see the people as the source of their legitimacy. But radical conservatives such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies have their misgivings about the concept of the Islamic Republic. They believe in the Islamic Rule which, in their view, is legitimised by God and argue that by giving their oath of allegiance people make the Islamic rule acceptable, without being its source of legitimacy.
The Islamic Republic has failed to set up a viable system based on nationally organised and representative political parties. This means that there is neither a politically neutral professional civil service nor a shadow opposition to the government, as is customary in democracies. Successive Iranian governments have wasted a good deal of Iran’s income from its oil by engaging in a trial and error approach to governance, policy making, planning and economic production. The system is so politicised that factions, when they take over, install their own officials, even at a local level. This is why voters who were confident their candidates would win the recent election were so outraged by the results.
It is too soon to judge to what extent the election was rigged. But recent demonstrations by the supporters of the reformist candidates were only partially about the result of the elections. They were also about a generation of young people born during and after the revolution who are not happy with their personal, social, cultural and economic life. It is the ‘feel-bad’ factor in Iranian politics coming to the surface.
The Islamic Republic has survived for three decades and met external challenges such as a war with Iraq and even international sanctions. Tension with the outside world, on the other hand, has helped to postpone the demands of the young population. That is why some hardliners are not keen to relax their grip. The current crisis has also divided the ruling clergy themselves. The hardliners, under the pretence of theocracy and loyalty to the Supreme Leader, have the power to deprive the reformists of any influence in the Islamic Republic. They also retain the power to abort reforms. However, there are people within the ruling clergy who are well aware that preventing reforms may well lead ultimately to another revolution.
Baqer Moin was head of the BBC Persian and Pashto Service from 1990-2004 and is now director of London-based Jadid Media. He is the author of Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah (I. B. Tauris, 2009).
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