Iran’s revolutionary fervour persists in a mellowed form
Clerics must recognise need to acknowledge aspirations of Iranians born after revolution
Members of Iranian revolutionary guards corps during a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution at the Azadi (Freedom) square in Tehran on Sunday. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets this week to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution even though its results many have been mixed and the clerical regime it ushered into being facing a major crisis of confidence due to its failure to meet expectations.
But the same could be said of the the secular revolution which preceded it some 19 years earlier. And for very similar reasons. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s 1960s White Revolution failed because he pressed conservative, devout Iranians to adopt 20th century Western mores and modes of behaviour. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution has faltered because he sought to force Iranians to embrace their faith, rule by clerics and outmoded social behaviour.
Both revolutions suffered from overconfidence: the shah thought 2,500 years of monarchical rule could last forever; the ayatollah believed he possessed a mandate from heaven. Consequently, neither tackled mismanagement and corruption. Both cracked down on dissent.
The shah’s dependence on the US led to his downfall. The US-UK ouster of Iran’s democratic, nationalist prime minister Mohamed Mossadegh in 1953 continues to rankle with Iranians. Many believe their country would have achieved democracy if Mossadegh had not been removed after nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which controlled the country’s energy resources.
‘Government of God’
Exploiting enduring resentment over the coup, Khomeini promised a “government of God” independent of the US. He installed a two-tier model of governance involving an elected parliament overseen by “vilayet-i faqih”, guardianship of a jurist, a position he assumed, and appointed clerical bodies which determine who can stand for public office. This model did not deliver democracy, justice or prosperity.
Although vetting limits candidates, reformists and women are represented parliament and government. Women drive, attend university and join professions – but are compelled to dress conservatively and do not enjoy equality with men.
The Islamic Revolution secured a measure of economic self-sufficiency by diversifying Iran’s industrial sector. Subsidised food, fuel, health care and education raised the standard of living of the poor. Literacy rose from 37 to 86 per cent. But Iran’s progress did not sustain an upwards trajectory as advancement depended on reforms which were not enacted, the fluctuating price of oil and obstructive sanctions.
The clerics made early enemies by proclaiming Iran’s hostility towards Israel and attempting to export their Shia revolution to Sunni Gulf neighbours who responded by financing Iraq’s 1980-88 war against Iran which followed Tehran’s attempts to subvert the secular government in Baghdad.
Blunders of its enemies
Later, Iran secured regional reach thanks to the blunders of its enemies. During Israel’s 1982 Lebanon war, Iranian Revolutionary Guards recruited and trained Lebanese Shia militiamen who formed Hizbullah. The US occupation regime in Iraq installed pro-Iranian Shia fundamentalists in power in Baghdad. Western and Arab intervention in Syria’s civil war prompted Iran to deploy militiamen in support of the government. In response to the 2015 US-backed Saudi-led war on Yemen, Iran has given marginal assistance to rebels who have fought the coalition to a standstill.
But the revolution did not liberate Iran from the US, which remains eternally resentful over the shah’s fall. Moderate presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohamed Khatami where rebuffed when promoting peaceful coexistence with the US and the West. President Hassan Rouhani, elected in 2013, nearly succeeded when Iran signed the 2015 deal for dismantling its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.
Hardliners opposed the deal but Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the public approved, ensuring its adoption. Unfortunately, the Obama administration prevented Iran from benefitting by maintaining US controls on banking and trade in dollars. The Trump administration withdrew from the deal and imposed punitive sanctions. Iran continues to honour the deal.
Demonstrations were countrywide
Its sanctions-ridden, mismanaged economy is in crisis, eliciting popular protests against unemployment, the high cost of living, and the collapse of Iran’s currency. Demonstrations were countrywide in 2018. Participants blamed misrule and corruption and called for regime change. Hundreds were arrested.
Trump administration policy has boosted anti-US feeling in Iran. “Death to America”, the chant adopted in 1979, was on the lips of Iranians rallying on the anniversary of the revolution. Since Europe has supported Iran against the Trump administration’s violation of the nuclear deal, Khamenei moderated the message by saying it refers to the US government not the American people.
Iran’s revolutionaries have mellowed. Hardline clerics have lost their tight grip on power and society. Today they promote nationalism rather than adherence to religion and social conservatism. The clerics know they must acknowledge the aspirations of the 50 per cent of Iranians born after the revolution, who insist on personal freedom and government accountability.
President Donald Trump demands Iran halt missile construction and its intervention in regional affairs as the price of renegotiating the nuclear deal. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo and security adviser John Bolton call for regime change.
This could empower Revolutionary Guard commanders who insist Iran must arm to defend itself and deter attack.
Michael Jansen lives in Cyprus and writes for The Irish Times on Middle East affairs