Will Iran remain a theocratic state or could western liberalism take hold?by Christopher de Bellaigue / February 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
A child passes a poster of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the revolutionary guards in Tehran © Getty Images
Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy (Allen Lane, £15)
Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and its Consequences by James Buchan (John Murray, £25)
Going to Tehran: Why the US Must Come to Terms With the Islamic Republic by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett (Metropolitan, £18.99)
If you peel away the politics, the question of how the west should deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran goes deep into the structures of history. The continued survival of Iran’s revolutionary theocracy nags at anyone who believes that personal liberty and secular politics are the common pursuits of all civilised nations. The fight here is between the normative and the descriptive; many of us believe that personal liberty and secular politics should be the common pursuits of all mankind. We are offended if the evidence disagrees.
Iran lays claim to an immense culture, but its people chose a priest formed by medieval scholasticism to lead them into an Islamic regime when they last had the choice, in 1979. Four years ago, a movement of protest following a disputed election was easily crushed by the state bequeathed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—which now confidently vows to resist a sanctions regime of exceptional severity and scope. The Islamic Republic cannot be casually traduced as a personal tyranny along the lines of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, killing dozens before breakfast and immortalising the dictator in poured concrete. It is a serious state, governed by more than one man and backed by an ideology that aims to give liberal democracy a run for its money. In other words, it is a competitor.
And yet Iran is not quite lost to Karl Popper and JS Mill. Although Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, has identified liberalism as a threat to the Islamic Republic, and while he states confidently that his compatriots spurn this alien and decadent creed, his words have yet to be tested—through a referendum, for example. The Green Movement of 2009 was the post-Enlightenment event par excellence, combining non-violence, adroit use of modern communications, implicit rejection of “charismatic” leaders and the participation of men and women on terms of absolute parity. But it failed and now the debate is about why this happened.
According to supporters of Khamenei’s Islamic Republic, the movement crashed because the majority of Iranians rejected its values. The Greens cite operational reasons; the security forces were armed and the protesters were not. The underlying question remains unanswered. Is Iran destined always to be different, always theocratic, or will it eventually bend itself to the American vision of redemption for all—the vision of the marine colonel in Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket, who declares (while standing over a Vietnamese mass grave), “inside every gook there’s an American trying to get out”?
Going to Tehran: Why the US Must Come to Terms With the Islamic Republic is an intriguing, forthright but ultimately partisan defence of the “Iran is different” argument. Its main point is that the United States has erred terribly in forming policy with the idea of releasing the secret American in every Iranian. There isn’t such a person, argue the authors, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett (who are husband and wife). Most Iranians, they believe, “do not want a political order grounded in western-style secular democracy,” but one “reflecting their cultural and religious values.” In other words, they want what they have.
Diplomats and government advisers under the Bill Clinton and George W Bush administrations, the Leveretts have been refining their revisionist ideas—and losing friends in the process—ever since they left the Washington bureaucracy in the early 2000s. Vilified by some as Iranian stooges, in this book they respond with a rogues’ gallery of their own: naming western academics, analysts and journalists who perpetuate the “myth” that Iran is an illegitimate state run by “mad mullahs” building nukes and repressing their freedom-seeking people. Such stereotypes are “dangerous,” the Leveretts write, because they “skew western thinking towards the inevitability of confrontation.”
When I was a reporter living in Tehran, I would be amused on trips to Washington to hear officials and analysts who had barely visited Iran tell me what was going on there. The Leveretts are right to criticise the distorted viewpoints that affect American policy: the predictions of the imminent demise of the Islamic Republic; the support for anti-regime groups such as the People’s Mujahedin, a lethal personality cult that the US recently took off its list of terrorist organisations; and, barely acknowledged, the preposterous influence wielded by pro-Israel lobbyists.
The Leveretts’ account of US-Iran diplomacy is not correct in all particulars. They dismiss, for example, the sense of alarm that George W Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech generated in Tehran—which I observed. For all that, they show that the Iranians have on several occasions been willing to engage the US and been rebuffed in ways that have led to the current, dismal state of mutual mistrust. Hillary Mann Leverett was a witness to Iran’s under-appreciated efforts to help the US occupy and stabilise Afghanistan after the attacks of 11th September 2001 and to the contemptuous rejection by the Bush administration of an Iranian proposal for détente in the spring of 2003. By then, neoconservative tails were up and the talk was less of accommodating Iran than of toppling its regime, in turn, after Saddam’s. But Iraq descended into disaster and regime change was discredited as a tool of policy. Indeed, America’s occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq allowed Iran to rise regionally after years of being hemmed in by hostile neighbours.
The Leveretts rightly present Iranian foreign policy as more pragmatic than is commonly thought. Since antiquity Iran has hardly ever waged an offensive war and scratching at American scabs in Israel, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria is the expedient of the weaker of two powers seeking regional sway. (Iran is presented as a “threat”; but it is American warships that steam up and down the Persian Gulf, American agents that sabotage its nuclear facilities, and American civil servants that plot tirelessly to cripple its economy.) Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not at present thought by western intelligence agencies to include the building of a weapon—this cannot be done under the bedcovers and would entail crossing a “red line,” in President Obama’s words, that would surely lead to an American attack. But Obama’s half-hearted attempts to use “carrots and sticks” to persuade Iran to stop enrichment and further open up its facilities have not worked, in part because America’s attitude of hectoring disdain offends Iranian pride. It is as a strategic rival that the Leveretts urge America to view Iran, not a beast of burden digging in its heels, and they cite Richard Nixon’s opening to China as a precedent.
For all the lucid correctives offered by the Leveretts, their account is marred by personal rancour and their reluctance to find fault with any action by Iran’s leadership. Among the western observers of Iran they deprecate are perceptive writers who resist their easy caricature—the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen is one. In putting across their uniformly positive picture of the Islamic Republic, furthermore, the authors cite several “interlocutors,” many of them email correspondents, who do not seem to make up anything like a cross-section of Iranian opinion—rather, they represent the official line.
This and the Leveretts’ distance from events may account for the deficiencies in their account of the election of 2009 and its aftermath—failing to mention the huge size of the Green Movement demonstrations or the intensity of the violence employed against them and, most outlandish of all, likening anyone who persists in regarding the election results as fraudulent to peddlers of the lie of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion.
We may have to wait a long time before we learn from an independent source the precise circumstances under which the election was held. It is no longer possible to air allegations of fraud inside Iran and the leaders of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, are currently being detained against their will. But the majority of people who think that the poll was stolen are not, as the Leveretts seem to think, western pundits and their Iranian expatriate friends. They are Iranians inside the country. To equate them with the American bandwagon that set off for Baghdad in 2003 is wayward, to say the least.
The irony is that Mousavi, Karrubi and most of their high-profile supporters are former stalwarts of the Islamic Republic who have moved away from their previous positions—without abandoning them altogether. Here is the middle way that the grizzled ex-revolutionary finds between two types of historical determinism, Islamist and liberal—a pragmatic endeavour to marry different values. Something along these lines is now being essayed in the countries of the Arab Spring, but haphazardly and without the benefit of Iran’s longer experience of electoral and constitutional politics—a politics that has been in motion ever since the revolution of 1979.
That was “one of those events in which history changes direction,” writes James Buchan in Days of God: The Revolution and Its Consequences. Yet even now, events seem too recent, too much part of Iran’s contemporary politics, to be viewed by the participants with anything approaching detachment. In and out of the country, Iranians continue to dispute whether Khomeini’s revolution was an authentic expression of national will, a liberal moment seized by radicals, or simply a terrible mistake.
Among the western powers that were the Shah’s greatest friends and felt keenly the revolutionaries’ anger, the pain and bewilderment carries to the present. From the perspective of the American public, the fact of the revolution is dwarfed by the seizure of the US embassy that followed it, the subject, by my reckoning, of no fewer than 40 books and now a Hollywood blockbuster, Argo, that narrates (with considerable licence) the rescue of six embassy employees from revolutionary Tehran.
Less non-specialist attention has been devoted to the revolution itself. The task for the popular historian is to explain how a powerful king was toppled after guiding his country to greater prosperity than it had known since the 1600s. Rejecting theory, Buchan relies on old-fashioned virtues: a careful reading of the Persian and foreign sources, his immersion in the country’s culture (he was a star Persianist at Oxford) and an instinct for the events and personalities that turned Iran from Middle East poster boy to society in upheaval.
Buchan brings a keen, satirical eye to the story of a corrupt, intrigue-ridden court and a modernising Shah who cut through traditional Iran as if “the conflicts of centuries were being squeezed into half a dozen years.” Some of the important episodes on the way to revolution, such as the burning of the Rex cinema in the south of the country, which killed at least 470 people, and the collapse of the Shah’s army, are thrillingly told.
With the toppling of the Shah, he writes, the Iranians showed that “they are ready to go hungry for the sake of what they hold to be their honour,” and this remained true for at least the following decade, as the people endured civil conflict between the various revolutionary groups (the Khomeinists won) and a brutal, eight-year war with Iraq after Saddam (abetted by the west) invaded in 1980.
Was it worth it? Buchan seems to think not because, in his eyes, the main promise of the revolution—the protection of Iran’s traditional civilisation—was not kept. Iran today suffers from a striking gap between rich and poor, family breakdown is at western levels and there is a huge drugs problem. “What the Iranians most wished for,” Buchan writes, “they never gained, and what they most sought to preserve they lost.”
But the revolution was also a nationalist event, and Iran’s tryst with independence has been triumphantly fulfilled—indeed, it is the main basis for Iranian prestige across the Middle East. By the end of his reign, the Shah’s decision-making was influenced to an extraordinary degree by what happened in his meetings with the US and British ambassadors. Not so since 1979; Iran’s post-revolutionary history has a self-contained aspect, dominated by internal debate.
It is this internal debate, spanning more than three decades, that interests Michael Axworthy in his new book on the period, Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic. Planners and free marketeers; reformists and conservatives; mullahs and laymen; all have competed for dominance over the political process—and always under the eagle eye of the supreme leader. A former British diplomat who teaches at Exeter University, Axworthy diligently covers all the ground: the Iran-Iraq war, the period of consolidation that followed it, and the tenures of the most recent presidents, the reformist Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who stands down this summer.
Unlike the Leveretts, Axworthy thinks that Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2009 election was probably fraudulent. Although, like them, Axworthy favours engagement between Iran and the US, he thinks that reconciliation would bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, while the Leveretts believe that it would add to its stature. It is possible to imagine a similar debate taking place in Tehran—this one behind closed doors.
There is a third possibility, that Iran is not quite as pivotal to world affairs as it thinks—and certainly not in the same league as China at the time of Nixon’s visit in 1972. A senior European diplomat recently put this to me in a different way: “Iran is important only because Israel says it is.” There is every sign that the Obama administration tends to this view. If its limited diplomatic outreach does not work, it will endeavour to keep Iran where it is—this side of the red line, hammered by sanctions, its people fighting their ideological battles in chilly isolation.