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…