Analysis of Iran’s political dynamics over 31 years

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Muharram 15, 1431 2010-01-01

Main Stories

by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 11, Muharram, 1431)

In February of each year, the Islamic Republic of Iran celebrates the “Ten Days of Dawn” ceremonies that take their name from the Qur’anic surah, al-Fajr and its opening verses, Wa al-fajr, wa layaalin ‘ashr (89:1–2). Like its system, almost everything in Iran is based on Islamic principles and values. This explains the deep-seated animosity in the West toward Islamic Iran and all that it stands for. Keeping this in mind, it is a remarkable achievement indeed that Iran has not only survived as an Islamic state for more than 30 years but that it has strengthened its position vis-à-vis its enemies led by the United States.

It is not merely the fact that a Western-backed puppet and tyrant, the Shah, was driven from power in Iran; many Western-backed puppets and clowns have been removed from power only to see the new man — or in rare cases, the new woman — return to subservience of the US-led world order. Iran’s real “fault” lies in the fact that it refuses to embrace this unjust exploitative order although in recent months, Western-backed criminals and hoodlums have been unleashed in Iran to try and destabilise the system using alleged irregularities in last June’s presidential elections as a pretext. The West led by the US is essentially advocating mob rule and condemns Iran for cracking down on such criminal elements.

But it would appear that both the criminal elements in Iran and their Western backers have overplayed their hand. This was most clearly evident during the ‘Ashura commemorations on December 27, 2009 when millions of Muslims were involved in sombre ceremonies in Iran and indeed around the world. Exploiting this opportunity, the criminal elements went on a rampage setting fire to buildings, cars and buses in Tehran. When the mayhem was finally brought under control, eight people lay dead and scores were injured. These criminal elements numbered a few thousand, perhaps 15,000 according to one Tehran observer. There were millions of people including security personnel engrossed in emotional ceremonies elsewhere.

The Western media immediately unleashed a barrage of invective against the Islamic Republic accusing its security forces of “heavy-handedness”. US President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozyand British Foreign Secretary David Milliband also waded in with messages of condemnation demanding that the Islamic Republic respect the “rights” of the people. They were essentially backing the unruly mob and expected the authorities in Iran to allow it to burn buildings and buses. Perhaps these champions of freedom and democracy should consider how their security forces would react if protesters were to go on a rampage in their capital cities. In the US, the eight million Muslims have been put under surveillance and close scrutiny because of the alleged Christmas Day bomber episode. Only a few weeks earlier (September 24–25, 2009), US police and National Guards were deployed in strength, armed with guns, water cannons and clubs to prevent peaceful protesters from venting their anger at the G-20 Economic summit in Pittsburgh. The French Republic has banned Muslim girls from wearing hijab, advancing the pathetic excuse that it “violates” French secularism. And in Britain, a series of attacks against Muslims have been carried out both by rightwing thugs and the police. But in Tehran, the mob must not be stopped from setting fire to buses, cars or buildings, all in the name of freedom!

It would appear that the people of Iran have had enough. They were not going to put up with hooligans and criminals any longer. On December 30, more than two million people packed the streets of Tehran to denounce the criminals and called on the authorities to deal with them firmly. The two-million-strong rally also put the opposition on the defensive. Hitherto, opposition leaders seemed to have embraced these hooligans but all of a sudden they found themselves wrong-footed. The final straw was the ‘Ashura Day rampage. Regardless of how much they may be opposed to President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the rampaging mob on December 27 exposed its true nature and the foreign hands behind it. Opposition leaders were faced with a difficult choice: embrace the mob and lose support of the general public, or condemn the mob and lose momentum in their campaign.

The periodic rallies by opposition supporters and the unruly mob had raised hopes in the West that the Islamic Republic was on the brink of collapse. Such pronouncements were more the product of wishful thinking than an accurate reflection of the ground realities in Iran. Differences of opinion among political elites are considered so serious that these are immediately declared as the beginning of the collapse of the entire Islamic system. Contrast this with different political strands and parties in the West. These are presented as healthy signs of democracy. In Iran, political differences are declared a sign of imminent collapse!

Further, the recent street violence by unruly mobs is compared to the massive protests that were staged in 1978–79 that brought down the Shah’s regime. The West sees parallels between the two but overlook certain fundamental facts. First, the Shah’s regime was totally alienated from the Iranian masses. The Shah was trying to impose an alien Western system. He was seen as an American stooge by most people. The movement to remove the Shah was led by Imam Khomeini. He was not beholden to the West; in fact, the Imam had emerged from the very roots of Islam. He was beholden to no one. The tiny secular elite represented by nationalist-liberal intellectuals who suffer from illusions of their own self-importance were left with no choice but to hitch their horses to the movement led by the Imam.

They thought once the revolution succeeded, the Imam would return to Qum in the manner of Ayatullah Kashani in 1953 leaving the field open to the liberal-nationalists to take the reigns of power. In fact, in the first few months of the revolution, the Imam did precisely that. It was only his ill-health — a serious heart condition — that forced him to relocate to North Tehran to receive the kind of treatment that was necessary and to be in an environment that was more conducive to his health. This explains why he settled in North Tehran and not in dusty South Tehran where the mustadafeen of Iran live and from where President Ahmedinejad hails. The Imam and since his demise, his successor, the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei, are men who are very close to ordinary people. Despite his poor health, the Rahbar regularly visits remote villages to meet people and to inquire about their well-being.

The current crop of opposition figures lacks a charismatic leader like the Imam to mobilize the masses. Besides, the overwhelming majority of Iran’s masses are not going to abandon the Islamic system that has not only given them dignity and self-respect but also improved their material well-being. Some statistics would help to sustain this assertion.

While Iran’s population has more than doubled since the success of the Islamic Revolution in February 1979, there has been an even greater explosion in higher education. During this period, the number of university graduates has grown nine-fold, from a base of 430,000 to nearly four million. There has been an even more remarkable improvement in educational opportunities for women. Despite the Shah’s much-touted reforms to provide educational opportunities for women, their literacy rate was a mere 17 percent when he was driven from power. Today, this has jumped to 77 percent. In several universities faculties — medicine and education, for instance — female students outnumber male students by a ratio of 54 to 46. The same is true in the media and parliament. In most newsrooms in Iran, one sees a large number of female employees, among them many editors.

There has been another factor also at work. Since the end of the eight-year war with Iraq, Iran opened its universities to the volunteers that had participated in the defence of the Islamic State. Their children were also given opportunities in colleges and universities. While this led to objections from the wealthy classes of North Tehran that languished in five star hotels throughout the war years while the children of the poor and downtrodden slugged it out in the trenches making enormous sacrifices for the defence of the revolution, the Islamic State neither forgot these people nor abandoned them after the war. These are the people that are the backbone of the revolution, not the Gucci crowd of North Tehran that is good at making connections on Facebook and Twitter. These keyboard revolutionaries can pass messages quickly but they cannot bring about a revolution that would require enormous sacrifices, a concept totally alien to their ethos and upbringing.

As Dilip Hiro, author of a book on Iran, has pointed out: “Now, the foremost question for Iran specialists ought to be: over the past six months have significant numbers of residents from downscale south Tehran, with its six million people, joined the protest? Going by the images on the internet and Western TV channels, the answer is ‘no’. South Tehranis do not wear fashionable jeans, and any protesting women would appear veiled from head to toe and without noticeable make-up.” (Asia Times Online, January 14, 2010).

Western reporters favour the North Tehran crowd because these people tell Western reporters what they want to hear: denunciation of the Islamic government. Further, since most five-star hotels are located in North Tehran, the lazy Western reporters find talking to such people more convenient than going out into the rural areas or even to South Tehran to speak to ordinary people. Besides, we should harbour no illusions about the West’s real agenda: it would never report anything positive about Iran. One can easily establish this by glancing through major newspapers in the West. The New York Times can be considered typical. Almost daily, there is at least one story about Iran but the most negative spin is put on events. There is not even the pretence of objectivity. The Western media takes its cue from the policies of their governments that have been at war with Islamic Iran since even before the revolution succeeded in toppling the West’s favourite puppet.

However, we need not concern ourselves too much with the self-serving pronouncements of the West. They have been wrong for 30 years when discussing the affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. They will continue to be wrong for the next 30 years as well unless they come to grips with reality and take an accurate stock of what is really taking place there. What is more important is the position of various players in the political system in the Islamic Republic.

In Iran there is indeed a segment of the political class that considers the system to be taking Islam too seriously. These are essentially Iranian nationalists in Islamic garb. They had bided their time while the Imam was alive hoping that with his passing away, the field would be open to them to move the country back to its nationalistic mode with a little sprinkling of Islam, in the manner of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. In fact, these nationalists layed low when people like Mehdi Bazargan, Iran’s first post-revolution Prime Minister, Bani Sadr, first president under Imam Khomeini, and Sadeq Qutbzadeh, foreign minister in the Sadr presidency, were in the forefront. All of them were given an opportunity by the Imam but they betrayed the revolution. Bazargan was willing to open Iran to the Ame-ricans to make a come back; he lost his job for such naivety. Bani Sadr tried to undermine the Islamic system from within and barely managed to escape before being impeached by parliament. Qutbzadeh was foolish enough to attempt a coup and had to face the firing squad after confronted with incontrovertible evidence and confessing to his crime.

Despite this painful history, it seems there are still some hardcore nationalists within the Iranian establishment. They suffer from revolution fatigue and want to put it to rest. They have had enough of revolutionary talk and feel they no longer should be paying a price to maintain it. They talk in terms of Iran first, and then worry about Lebanon, Palestine or Gaza. True, this finds resonance with some Iranians but it would be a grave mistake to assume that this is how the vast majority of people in Iran view their country’s role in the region, or indeed the world at large.

One must concede that Iran has had a long history of nationalism. There are also many achievements it can boast of, unlike regimes in the Middle East. There are people in Iran who harbour illusions that Tehran has nothing to fear from the US and can deal with it from a position of strength if it opens up to it. There are others who talk about a dialogue with the West without first having a dialogue among Muslims. It is these kinds of people that the West is trying to woo and promote. While some of them may be sincere but naïve, others may have had their ranks infiltrated by Western-backed agents in hopes of influencing their thinking. Whatever the truth, it is important to understand that Iran’s present standing in the Muslim world is not because of Iran’s 2,500-year history or the glory of Iranian nationalism; Iran’s present position owes to the Islamic Revolution that has made it the leading edge of the Islamic movement. Abandon Islam and Iran would turn into another Turkey or Pakistan. We are currently witnessing a rise in Turkey’s standing in the Muslim world because of its stand in support of the Palestinian people and also because Kemalism is being put on the backburner. By moving toward its Islamic roots, Turkey is finding its rightful place in the Muslim world. Iran’s Islamic nationalists want to move their country in the opposite direction. They want to turn Iran into a milder version of secular Turkey with the same disastrous consequences.

Being the leading edge of the Islamic movement demands sacrifices. As long as the people of Iran are prepared to make these sacrifices, the liberal nationalists would not be able to make much headway. Their slogan of Iran-first does not resonate with the majority because they have seen the benefits of the Islamic system in a tangible way in their lives. Even in post-revolutionary Iran, there was a period when the rural masses felt largely neglected because the Westernised elites tried to get ahead in life. President Ahmedinejad has reversed this trend and has won the trust and support of the people for the Islamic government.

This will not be easily defeated no matter how much the West may talk about the collapse or implosion of the Islamic system. What the West really wants is not a relationship with Iran based on mutual respect but one that is based on imposing the West’s hegemony and Iran accepting the West’s agenda of greed and exploitation. This is unlikely to be realized as long as the masses remain faithful to the revolution. They will withdraw their support if they see that the leaders of Iran have accepted the West’s supremacy and abandoned the principles of Islam.

That would spell the end of the Islamic Republic and the end to the most successful contemporary thrust in implementing Islam’s political system in the world.

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