Iranian politics a quarter of a century after the Islamic Revolution

Developing Just Leadership

Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour

Dhu al-Hijjah 10, 1424 2004-02-01

Special Reports

by Mohammad Saeed Bahmanpour

For this special section, we particularly wanted an Iranian perspective on post-Revolutionary Iran. HUJJAT UL-ISLAM M. SAEED BAHMANPOUR, an academic currently based in London, discusses Iran’s progress in the last 25 years.

Objectivity has always been an ideal for political analysts, but it hardly materializes in the objective world, so we usually try to feign objectivity by concealing our inner commitments. But let me be frank. I am writing as an insider of the Islamic Revolution, as an admirer of the late Imam Khomeini, and as a supporter of the present establishment in Iran. This confession might be taken as a sign of naivety, gullibility or inexperience, because it is not the norm in journalism to reveal one’s loyalties; the fate of Jenny Tonge, expelled from Britain’s Liberal Democratic party because she decided to break out of diplomatic language and speak her heart about Palestine, is instructive.

But let us leave the hypocrisy of illusive objectivity and be really objective by admitting our subjective realities. We have heard enough of those who hide their subjective tendencies or objective misunderstandings under piles of so-called bijective terms and analysis in order to mislead themselves and others.

In the past twenty-five years Iran has had many ups and downs, many successes and achievements, and admittedly many mistakes from which it has learnt precious lessons and still has more to learn. However, as someone who has been involved in the Revolution from its beginning, I regard all these as a process of moving forward, of trials and errors, and of struggling to swim against the current, but never as defeat and retraction.

The problem in judging the accomplishments and triumphs of the Revolution is the standard and criteria on which we base our judgements. Analysts usually try to judge the achievements of the Islamic Revolution by the very criterion against which the Revolution was launched; i.e. with the yardstick of liberal democracy. One might rightly object that no democracy existed in Iran at the time of the Shah, either liberal or any other brand, to be the target of any Revolution; in fact it was the dictatorship against which the Revolution was formed, not the democracy or lack of it. However, anyone who lived in Iran at the time of the Shah would know that Iran, like other countries in the region, was a trash-can of Western liberal democracies, in which all the evils of the system were thrown and from which all its benefits were withheld. For youngsters like myself, who followed Ayatullah Khomeini at that time with heart and soul, it was his pure, unadulterated brand of Islam, his call to piety and modesty, and his renunciation of foul ‘values’ that appealed most, as well as his rejection of dictatorship and his support for a democracy that was not liberal.

So evaluating the achievements of the Islamic Revolution with the spectacles of liberal democracy and within the paradigms of power would lead us to produce the type of waffle about Islamic Iran that has filled the media for the last quarter-century.

But if Iran is not to be judged by such standards, how are we going to judge it? According to what criterion can one hold Iranian politicians accountable for the good and bad of the past twenty-five years? Who is responsible for the current political crisis in Iran, and according to which principle? The answer to all these questions should be sought in the central principles of the Revolution: Islam and democracy. Iranian politics since the Revolution has been struggling for something for which there was no previous model: a democracy that is not liberal and an Islam that is not based on old concepts of politics but still safeguards the norms and values central to this deen. Any fair judge would admit that this is an onerous task, and many disagreements, quarrels and even fights could be expected to break out on the way. The two main political factions now competing in Iran would not disagree that they both want democracy (though not the liberal brand of it), and they both want Islam, though not the Taliban variety. They even have no disagreement about what name they give their ideals. Both Ayatullah Khamenei and president Khatami have spoken of "religious democracy" as their ideal political system for Iran. But how a religion can be democratic and how a democracy can be religious, and what type of political system can support such a religion and such a democracy, are questions that still need to be answered.

I do not view what is currently happening in Iran as a selfish power struggle between rival groups; rather I see it as a vital and crucial process, from which, if it is not aborted, a working model should eventually emerge that will set one possible path for all those Muslims who want to have both Islam and democracy. After all, is liberal democracy not the outcome of a long process of trial and error, and are not the relatively stable political systems based on it the result of long struggles, confusions and uncertainties?

This achievement of the Islamic Revolution is yet to be finalised. There are, however, other accomplishments that have had an impact worldwide. When Imam Khomeini started his call to Islam, the Muslim world was dozing and Islamic movements were reluctant to reveal their real aims. Not long after the Revolution in Iran not only the movements but even the political leaders of so-called Muslim countries started to compete to prove their "Islamicity". Even the miserable Saddam, whose enmity to Islam and Muslim scholars is common knowledge, knew that to appeal to the Muslims he had to address them with verses of the Qur’an, and the president of the United States is anxious not to miss a message of greeting to Muslims on Eid day.

As for foreign policy, recent events have provided evidence that Iran has been successful in its foreign affairs. The danger of the Taliban and their brand of Islam has always been emphasised, and the menace of Saddam was pointed out by Imam Khomeini long before the world realised it. Ironically, both these great dangers to the stability of the region in general (and of Iran in particular) have been uprooted by the greater enemy of Iran: the US. According to some analysts Iran has turned out to be one of the luckiest countries in terms of foreign policy in the past few years. A friend of mine recently joked that the Islamic Republic of Iran sets foreign policies and the US implements them!

But, joking apart, the cases of the Taliban and of Saddam prove the mood that prevails in US foreign policy, and the stability and confidence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This stance has been even more confident and more unwavering on Palestine. In the past quarter-century Iran has stood virtually alone in its criticism of Israel and its unqualified defence for the people of Palestine and their just and rightful resistance. Today this policy is being assumed by a growing number of individuals and nation-states. Even politicians in Europe and America are re-examining their ideas about Israel after observing the hatred that their support for Israel has created between them and the Muslims. If the WTC and Pentagon were hit by radical Muslim groups, as they would have us believe, then that shows that the support that the US is providing for Israel is leading them into an undeclared war with people who do not care about their own lives because they do not see the world as a worthy place to live in, because of all the cruelties and injustices occurring daily in Palestine and elsewhere.

This brings us to thorny issues that have long persisted in Iranian foreign policy: blocking the Middle East peace process, supporting "terrorism", and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. I believe it is now clear that it is Ariel Sharon and other like-minded Israeli politicians that are responsible for blocking the peace process, rather than Iran or the Palestinians; actually the Israelis have never believed in an honourable peace, let alone been committed to any peace process. As for the second issue, it is a matter of terms and definitions; obviously Iran does not regard resistance cells in Palestine or anti-occupation groups in Lebanon as terrorists, but as national heroes and international champions; if one day Iran sits at any table with the US it is the latter that has to get its terms and definitions right.

As for weapons of mass destruction, Iran’s nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes. Having blundered badly in Iraq, and been exposed as liars and manipulaters, the US and Britain can hardly expect anyone to take seriously their accusations against Iran. Iran may often seem to be alone as a state opposing the machinations of Western powers, but after a quarter-century it is far from alone in its understanding of the world we live in, of the nature of Western hegemony, and of the challenges facing Muslims.

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