Iran in the crucible
Iran is on the verge of a second revolution. How it eventually plays out, argues Galal Nassar
, depends entirely on the ability of conservatives to accommodate
I have held off commenting on the bloody aftermath of the presidential elections in Iran, preferring instead to leave the field open to writers of the stature of Hamid Dabashi, Azmi Bishara and Mustafa El-Labbad to apply their knowledge, insights and unique perspectives to the analysis of events. The differences of opinion and their richness in depth and detail were commensurate with the magnitude of events. Many of their views clashed on the pages of Al-Ahram Weekly, leaving me some room to manoeuvre between them in an attempt to discern the future of Iran and its nascent reform movement.
The Islamic revolution in Iran erupted in 1979 to exact revenge against the tyranny of the pro-Western regime of the Shah. Reza Pahlevi readily sacrificed the interests and welfare of the Iranian people as he purchased arms and the cast-offs of Western industries in order to help keep Western capitalism afloat and himself on the Peacock Throne. In the manner of all colonialist proxy regimes, he surrounded himself with a coterie of sycophants and fanatic Westernisers, while lashing out brutally against nationalist forces, from Islamists to the radical left.
Religion, national dignity, shura, democracy, liberty and independence were the clarion calls of a revolution fuelled by hatred of the West and its agents. The all-encompassing anger and all-inclusive justifications combined to catapult the revolution to its victory. The Islamic jurist, the nationalist communist and socialist, the patriotic farmer and worker, infuriated intellectuals from across the political spectrum, were united in believing that this was their revolution. The West was sucking the country dry, oppressing its people, destroying their morals and sapping their morale beneath the façade of a sovereignty embodied by the Shah who, inspired perhaps by his foreign supporters, was persuaded that he could turn history back 2,500 years and don the crown of his alleged ancestor Cyrus the Great. Who would dare challenge the weight of such history? Ironically, it is the very fabrication of history that was instrumental to the Shah's overthrow.
The literature on the history and dynamics of revolutions holds that major revolutionary orders must undergo a series of internal upheavals in order to purge the order, rectify its course, alleviate its severity and curtail excesses. One of the great thinkers on this score was Thomas Jefferson. A revolutionary leader and a political philosopher, the man who became the third US president famously said that his country needed a revolution every 20 years.
Former president Mohamed Khatami embodies the intermediary phase, or prelude to Iran's second revolution that is taking shape today and that will regain momentum in spite of the supreme guide and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conservative camp. If the first revolution was comprehensive, what do Iranians hope to gain from a second?
This new revolution contains some new and healthy aspects alongside negative ones. On the positive side it seems aimed at dismantling the absolute authority of the supreme guide, the effect of which would be to bring government back to earth from the ethereal realm of the divine right of the surrogate of the hidden imam and his other earthly representatives, and towards a secular polity, the need for which becomes more glaring the longer its realisation is delayed.
One hopes that the second revolution takes a middle course and preserves some of the gains of the first, even if the secular revolution is almost a natural reaction to Khomeini's sanctification of rule by clergy. If the first revolution replaced the virtually infallible shah with the virtually infallible imam, one can picture the second revolution elevating material man and concrete interests. Indeed, Khomeini inadvertently planted the seeds for the secular revolt against the clergy when he sought to safeguard religion by means of a sanctified ruler who would sit aloft and protect the people within the confines of a form of sanctified democracy. The contradiction between the concentration of so much power in the hands of a single man and the democracy that is extended to the people with one hand and wrested away with the other by the supreme and nearly untouchable authority of the imam invites the rational minds of the nation to iron it out sooner or later. The Khomeini formula for an Islamic revolution with democratic features was brilliant for its time, but if it ensured its success it simultaneously began the countdown to its end the moment it succeeded.
Changing personalities also played a role. The leaders of the 1979 Revolution were tough, ambitious and unswerving in their determination. Today's leaders are of a somewhat different stamp: they have been tamed by statehood, an element of the rotation of authority, money and power, age, growing awareness and closer contact with a changing world. This applies equally to hardliners and reformers, which is to say to Rafsanjani, Mousavi, Karrubi, Montazeri, the man with ultimate power in his hand, Khamenei, and even the most extreme advocates of liberalisation and openness, such as Abdel-Karim Soroush. They have all changed, even if they do not sense it themselves.
The first revolution was charged with religious and patriotic fervour, and it was fired by the desire for independence from the West and its ills and the aspiration for a true spiritual, political and economic renaissance. The Khomeini creed, in particular, was the product of the intellectual political culture of revolutionary right and left and Shia seminaries. It was an essentially democratic and populist culture, appealing to the very same constituency that has begun to avenge itself against those it regards as having commandeered all the gains of the revolution. If, at the time of that revolution, the popular mind could not imagine government without a shah, making possible Khomeini's rise as a holy shah, the democratic culture that is gaining ground today has begun to regard the cleric-ruler with the same wrath it once reserved for its monarch.
This second revolution is from the secular world of today, without a shah harking back two millennia and without a jurist on some sacred cloud. It is a revolution about jobs, food on the table and the welfare of the people and against the likes of Ahmadinejad with his demagoguery, hostility towards the world and perpetuation of a spirit of vengeance that is not conducive to the longed-for culture of democratic stability.
The camp of conservatives and hardline mullahs may have succeeded in suppressing the second revolution for the moment but they will not be able to ward it off forever. It will come, if it can hold on to the most valuable part of the legacy of the first revolution and avoids falling into the traps of chaos and disruption. If it can clear the domestic way to permit for greater civil freedoms it will gradually strengthen the foothold and scope of democracy and generate a freer, more aware and realistic society. Moreover, its political and economic might could enable Iran to stealthily engulf its neighbours, much in Turkey's quiet but steady manner. As it grows in power and prosperity, Iran could evolve into a flexible empire, dominating the region by force of economic power and political influence, in partial harmony with the West, and competing with Turkey over spheres of influence, markets and even colonies under fragile and undemocratic regimes. Who knows? It might even be entrusted to guard some of the West's most cherished interests in this part of the world.
Under the second revolution, the culture of pragmatism that the mullahs have renounced for themselves and the people will become official policy, loved and accepted by the majority. Which is not to say that the Mullahs could not be self-serving when need arose. In Iraq and Afghanistan they tacitly struck common cause with the US because it averted direct clashes, and it helped them place Shia leaders in positions of power in Iraq and expand their influence in Afghanistan. But under the next revolution, pragmatism will be the rule not the exception and the Islamic resistance will be left to fend for itself in many places as the country turns inward.
The next revolution, once it achieves its aims in Iran, will produce another kind of society and culture that may have as much impact on the region as the first revolution, but in a different way. This will be a soft revolution, in the sense that it puts people first and places them at the heart of the political process. When people can influence what form their government takes and ensure that it effectively represents them they can willingly accept its decisions. And if they should learn that they left loopholes open that allow rulers to deceive them they can always rectify the situation. This is the law of the revolutions that have taken root and reaped the benefits of popular consent, progress and the ability to change. It is the story of the revolutions in France, the US and Britain, of democratic evolution in India, the quiet Ping revolution in China, which subtly overturned the regime in creed and practice without causing international tremors. Iran could take its cue from such wisdom. It could well be in the country's interest to permit for smooth and subtle change, instead of massive upheaval. Surely a moderate, realistic revolution would be healthier than postponed cataclysm.
Unless the way can be cleared for calm and peaceful change, the second revolution will become harsher and more radical. Indeed, the danger that awaits the forthcoming revolution resides in the clarity and nature of the divides. So far, the forthcoming revolution remains a perpetuation of the first. But the longer it is held off, the more it will diverge from the ideology, aims and identity of its predecessor. Its ideologues and followers will work to create a counter culture, one most likely opposed to the clergy and religiosity, and less concerned with Islamic causes. If it is led by intellectuals and forces out to avenge themselves against the culture and practices of the mullahs, it will foment a climate of sedition and turmoil, all the more so because agents of outside powers will find a place to operate again, forces bent on settling scores will have the perfect soil and mullahs of a new stripe will claim the vanguard.
In this regard, there is an important factor that is influencing the hearts, minds and relations of the society of the second revolution. This factor is not a fantasy; it is very real. Two decades ago, the CIA set up an organisation targeting young people around the world. It enlists young Westernised men and women with ostensibly liberal political sympathies in order to incite social revolutions that favour Western interests. It trains these youths in the use of modern media, methods of instigating unrest, and ways of undermining the authority of the target societies. The first success of this network was in Serbia. It then scored similar successes in the Ukraine and Georgia. Its tentacles are to be found in every state and society that is of importance to American interests and its cadres benefit from Washington's secret protection. Moreover, the US is serious in its determination to entrench and expand these networks so that it can draw on them whenever and wherever it needs to. Many have hastened to deny its existence, attributing it to the fantasy of the conspiracy mentality. But the organisation is there and boasts of its accomplishments. While documentary evidence so far is limited, there is no doubt that it is a major project in the making and that it has proven its efficacy. It is not yet clear whether this organisation has been successful in Iran, in spite of everything we have seen. We certainly cannot chalk down every Internet action to this network, or even the decision of the US president to postpone the repairs to the Twitter site until disturbances in Iran had subsided. But the new media technology will have a major impact on the future of the world.
Only the greatest wisdom will forestall the excesses of the inevitable second revolution. There must be a vision that blends the old with the new, but such a vision is difficult to foresee in the current climate, even more so if the needed initiative is delayed. The conservatives may win in the short run, but their easily won victory will ultimately harden the opposition. The more harshly those in power deal with their opponents the more they themselves are contributing to the success of the second revolution. But that revolution will not be soft. It will be the product of a culture hostile to many of the principles of the first revolution, some of which will die as Iran crosses the threshold into a new world that will be cheered by those who make it, delight those who watch from abroad and punish those it has placed in its crosshairs.