The Iranian Revolution overthrew the Pahlavi Dynasty, which had ruled Iran from 1926 to 1979. “Dynasty” is perhaps too grand a name for it, inasmuch as there were only two shahs from the Pahlavi family. The first was Reza Shah and the last was his son and successor, Muhammad Reza Shah. As discussed in Chapter 12, Reza Shah had been the leader of an elite cavalry unit, the Cossack Brigade. With an unknown amount of British assistance, he took control of Persia in the wake of famine, foreign occupation, and the chaos of World War I. Although he expanded the role of the state and attempted to impose a policy of Westernization from the top down during this period, Reza Shah's legacy was far from assured. Indeed, during the latter days of his reign the state increasingly had to resort to violence to repress tribal and social conflicts that were simmering just below the surface.
The end of Reza Shah's rule came during World War II. Because Reza Shah's tilt toward the Nazis threatened Allied supply lines to Russia, the British and the Russians invaded Iran early in the war and forced Reza Shah to abdicate. They then engineered his replacement by his Swiss-educated son, Muhammad Reza. To prevent the new shah from following his father's independent course, the Allies made sure to limit his power. They reestablished the majlis as an independent power center and allowed the organization of trade unions and political parties. Much to the chagrin of the British and Americans, the most popular party proved to be the Communist Party (Tudeh), which soon included over one hundred thousand members.
The shah's authority was further eroded by the events of the early 1950s. The last foreign troops left Iran in 1946. In May of 1951, Muhammad Mossadegh became prime minister on a platform that advocated nationalizing the oil industry and restricting the shah's power. Mossadegh was, like the shah, Swiss-educated. During the 1920s, he became a prominent opponent of Reza Shah. Arrested by the monarch, he returned to politics in the 1940s, following the shah's deposition, and became one of the founders of the National Front. The front was a coalition of politicians united on the issues of nationalization of Iran's natural resources, the expansion of parliamentary democracy, and economic development.
In many ways Mossadegh was typical of a generation of Third World leaders that included, among many others, Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser. Like his contemporaries who rose to power during the golden age of economic nationalism and state-led economic development, Mossadegh believed that modernization and nation-building were the tickets to success. Only through modernization, they believed, could their nations preserve their independence and realize their national destiny. Only through nation-building could their nations shake off the colonial past that inhibited modernization, allowing them to join the “civilized” world. Like his contemporaries, Mossadegh sought to end the dependency of his state on the export of raw materials and the import of finished goods from more advanced nations. As a matter of fact, Mossadegh took Reza Shah's program of industrialization to its extreme, advocating the eventual establishment of an “oil-less” economy. Like his contemporaries, Mossadegh attempted to finance a crash industrialization program by seizing control of foreign assets in his country and using the revenues from those assets to foster development. Like his contemporaries, Mossadegh refused to take sides in the cold war and instead adopted a policy of nonalignment. Mossadegh spoke of something called “negative equilibrium” to distinguish his foreign policy from that of the Qajars. The Qajars had attempted to balance the Russians and British off against each other, often by granting them equal concessions. Mossadegh rejected the granting of concessions on principle. Overall, the policy of negative equilibrium alienated the United States, which was engaged in what it considered to be a life-and-death struggle with international communism.
In the beginning, Mossadegh's program received the support of both the so-called “traditional middle class” (artisans, merchants, ulama, and the like) and the “modern middle class” (students, industrial workers, professionals, and so on). When the shah attempted to oust Mossadegh, many from these groups held huge demonstrations in support of the prime minister's policies. These demonstrations so frightened the shah that he fled to Rome. In the wake of the shah's flight, Mossadegh dissolved parliament and assumed extraordinary powers. These actions fragmented the coalition that had supported him. They also encouraged the emergence of a broad anti-Mossadegh coalition made up of conservative elements of society, such as army officers, government officials, ulama, tribal chiefs, large merchants, and landlords who feared the expropriation of their property. With the help of British intelligence and one hundred thousand dollars from the American CIA, which claimed that Mossadegh's movement was being manipulated by communists, anti-Mossadegh fervor grew. The army seized control and restored the shah. Thus, unlike his father, who was invested by a foreign power but once, Muhammad Reza Shah was invested by a foreign power twice. In the eyes of many Iranians, this was more than enough to call his legitimacy into question. Once reinstated, the shah sentenced Mossadegh to house arrest, where he died in 1967.
The Mossadegh period was a key period in the history of modern Iran for a number of reasons. With the failure of the “oil-less” economy and “negative equilibrium,” Iran became more dependent than ever on oil exports and became firmly aligned with the West against the Soviet Union. Just as important, the political struggles of this period created a mythology. The Mossadegh period came to be viewed by many Iranians as a period of relative freedom and national reassertion. It has also become the subject of an enormous amount of “what might have been” speculation. The story of the U.S. “sponsorship” of the coup against Mossadegh has become something of an urban legend among Iranians. The students who took over the United States embassy in 1979 reportedly had copies of Kermit Roosevelt's self-serving memoirs of the period, Countercoup, with them. Roosevelt, the CIA station-chief in Tehran, ignores the genuine fear that Mossadegh's policies inspired among many Iranians. Instead, he claims inordinate responsibility for the restoration of the shah, and even quotes a grateful shah as saying, “I owe my throne to God, my people, and to you.” Unfortunately, the holes in Roosevelt's account may never be plugged: Although the CIA's own “after-action report” has been made public, the agency burned the remainder of its documentation in the early 1960s in a fit of what an agency spokesman called “housecleaning.”
Once restored to power, the shah continued his father's programs, intending that Iran become the fifth great industrial power. Like Mossadegh, he proposed using revenues from oil to finance rapid development. For example, the shah used revenues from oil to support his White Revolution, discussed in Chapter 15. In many ways, however, the White Revolution proved counterproductive. The attempt to make Iran a great industrial power floundered, in part because of the collapse of oil prices, in part because of inefficiency, domestic resistance, and corruption. As in most other places, the land reform provisions of the White Revolution were at best a partial success. Landowners found ways of getting around restrictions on landownership, more often than not peasants received low-quality land, peasants who had no formal sharecropping agreements received nothing, and the large-scale commercialization of agriculture was inefficient. As agriculture became increasingly commercialized, however, fewer and fewer peasants were needed to work the land. Peasants emigrated from the countryside to the cities, particularly Tehran. In 1940, 22 percent of the Iranian population had lived in cities. By 1976, almost half the Iranian population lived in cities. Tehran doubled in size from 1970 to 1977 alone, reaching a population of five million. Many of those who migrated were unskilled. They thus could not find permanent work and became either day laborers or members of an urban underclass.
On the other hand, revenue from oil did enable the shah to concentrate a vast amount of power in the hands of the state. The government attempted to regiment the peasantry by inundating the countryside with a host of agencies and programs. The shah's government sponsored a Literacy Corps, a Health Corps, an Extension and Development Corps, government-run cooperatives, credit unions, and special rural courts. Using revenue from oil, the government also tried to break the back of potentially subversive urban groups. To keep urban shopkeepers (bazaaris) in line, the government abolished the old guilds and replaced them with compliant new ones, bulldozed the central bazaars in some cities (such as Tehran), and conducted anti-profiteering campaigns. These campaigns resulted in the exile of more than twenty-three thousand shopkeepers. To keep the ulama in line, the state created a “religious corps” to spread its own brand of Islam, closed religious publishing houses, asserted its control over religious endowments, and passed a family law that took precedence over, and frequently contravened, the shari‘a. These measures did little to prevent shopkeepers and ulama from playing a central role in the revolution.
Just as his father had done before him, Muhammad Reza Shah resorted to repression to eliminate dissent. He banned the independent political parties that had emerged during the 1940s and 1950s. At first, he constructed two parties in the majlis, commonly referred to as the “yes” and the “yes, sir” parties. Then, in 1975, he combined them into a single party, the “National Resurgence Party,” made up of “all loyal Iranians.” He built a security apparatus that was one of the most repressive in the world. In 1976, Amnesty International reported that “no country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran.”
Many Iranians were also angered by the fact that the shah's family was the foremost beneficiary of the income generated by oil, and the line between state earnings and family earnings blurred. By 1976, the shah had accumulated upward of one billion dollars from oil revenue; his family — including sixty-three princes and princesses — had accumulated between five and twenty billion dollars; and the family foundation controlled approximately three billion dollars. The foundation used its money for patronage and investment in agriculture, real estate, construction, insurance, hotels, publishing, automobile manufacture, food-processing, and textile factories. In all, the Pahlavi Foundation controlled more than two hundred companies. This, of course, laid the shah open to the charges of corruption and nepotism.
During the 1960s, the shah's policies began to spark resistance. Armed groups, modeling themselves on the Algerian and Palestinian resistance, undertook a guerilla war against the state. Some in those groups borrowed their ideas from such celebrity-revolutionaries as Che Guevara of Cuba and Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam. Others borrowed their ideas from an Iranian writer and political activist, ‘Ali Shari‘ati, who promoted a doctrine that combined elements of Islamic modernism and Marxist analysis. Shari‘ati's ideas influenced a wide spectrum of Iranians, from university students to ulama. Little wonder. His denunciation of those who slavishly imitate the West, his advocacy of cultural authenticity, his division of individual societies and whole nations into the categories of oppressor and oppressed, and his belief that the principal function of the state is to promote social justice contained many of the elements of the Third Worldism popular at the time.
While the war waged by the guerilla groups against the regime was debilitating, it was not nearly as threatening as the agitation against the White Revolution in which ulama played a leading role. Because many ulama were landowners, they were not particularly enamored by the shah's land reform measures. Ulama also objected to the expansion of the right of Americans to be tried in their own courts (the right of extraterritoriality) and a new electoral law guaranteeing women's suffrage. It was during this period of unrest that a then little-known cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, first came to public attention by calling for the shah's resignation. (Ayatollah is a title granted to prominent teaching mujtahids.) In the wake of the anti-White Revolution agitation, the shah forced Khomeini into exile.
In December 1977, U.S. president Jimmy Carter visited the shah and proclaimed Iran to be “an island of tranquility in a sea of turbulence.” This show of support emboldened the shah to begin a new round of repression. Early in 1978, the official newspaper published an attack on Ayatollah Khomeini, then in exile in France. The attack on Khomeini was the spark that set off the revolution. Theological students in the city of Qom staged a protest which the government broke up at the cost of seventy lives. In accordance with Shi‘i ritual, memorial demonstrations were held after forty days. The government broke these up as well, again with loss of life. Thus a cycle was initiated: a demonstration, a massacre, a memorial demonstration, another massacre, and so on. The demonstrations grew larger and larger with greater and greater loss of life. Khomeini, using audiocassettes, which were widely distributed, telephone lines, and networks of ulama, kept in touch with and helped coordinate these demonstrations from France. In January 1979, the shah went into exile. He died the next year.
Khomeini was not the only opponent of the regime, nor were ulama the only segment of society to rebel. The revolution succeeded in part because of strikes among oil field workers. As discussed in Chapter 16, these strikes limited the access of the government to revenues that, in turn, frustrated the government's ability to suppress the revolution. Students, leftist guerrillas, members of the Tudeh party, even women's groups all mobilized to get rid of the shah. Nevertheless, the ulama emerged on top for two reasons. First, many ulama were able to speak a language that had broad appeal. They were able to counterpose their own brand of “cultural authenticity,” as represented by Islam, to the secular nationalism of the shah's regime or the communism of the Tudeh party. Secular nationalism, they argued, was inauthentic because it had been imported from the West. Furthermore, it had brought nothing more than social disarray and repression to Iran. The second reason the ulama emerged on top was that this group was linked to the urban masses, particularly the bazaaris, who fought the revolution. Many ulama themselves came from the urban lower-middle and middle classes. Furthermore, since the Qajar state had been weak, many activities normally associated with governments, such as witnessing contracts, were still handled by ulama. The participation of ulama was thus essential to many activities vital to day-to-day life. While the Pahlavi Dynasty had sought to break the power of the ulama, its success was limited.
Revolutions are rare occurrences in world history. After the big two — the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution — social scientists find it hard to agree on others. Why would a list of revolutions include the Chinese Revolution and not the Cuban? Why the American Revolution and not the British Glorious Revolution of 1688? Did the Free Officers of Egypt pull off a revolution in 1952? 1956? At all? Even those social scientists who swear by the concept of revolution cannot agree on how to assess their causes. Accordingly, there have been a number of theories about the causes of the Iranian Revolution. Some social scientists have offered religious or cultural explanations, stressing the role played by Shi‘ism. They argue that Shi‘ism was born as an opposition movement and that this gave Shi‘ism a unique ability to function as a basis for revolutionary activity. Hence, the role played by Shi‘i ulama in Iranian politics from the 1891 protests against the tobacco concession to the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979. Unfortunately, this explanation fails on three grounds. First, Shi‘ism has been the religion of a majority of Iranians since the sixteenth century. Religious and cultural explanations fail to account for the timing of the revolution. As a matter of fact, before the Iranian Revolution, Shi‘ism was considered by many experts to promote “quietism”—the passive acceptance of any political order. Citing Shi‘ism as the cause of the revolution also overemphasizes the role played by the ulama in the revolution and discounts the role played by other groups in bringing down the shah. Furthermore, religious and cultural explanations fail to account for the fact that the Iranian Revolution took place during a period of widespread revolutionary activity, from eastern and central Europe (for example, the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia) and the Philippines (the “people power” revolution), to Nicaragua and Palestine (the intifada). None of these states was predominantly Shi‘i. None of this revolutionary activity was led by Shi‘i clerics.
Khomeini sends the shah packing. Poster from the Iranian Revolution, 1978-1979. (From: Barry M. Rosen, ed., Iran Since the Revolution: Internal Dynamics, Regional Conflicts, and the Superpowers (Boulder, Colo.. Social Science Monographs, 1985), p. 43.)
The Making of a Revolutionary Symbol
In successful revolutions, a broad coalition of groups unites around common slogans and common symbols. Hence, the “bread, peace, land” of the Russian Revolution and the tricolor of the French. The participants in the Iranian Revolution united around a single demand — the shah had to go. They also adopted symbols from Shi‘i lore.
The central event in the Shi‘i calendar is the commemoration of the killing of Husayn, the third imam and grandson of Muhammad, at the Battle of Karbala in A.D. 680. Husayn was killed on his way to the city of Kufa, in present day Iraq, where the population had proclaimed him the rightful caliph. When the governor of Kufa sent out an army to meet Husayn's challenge, most of Husayn's army melted away, leaving only about seventy men, women, and children to do battle. The results were as one might expect. As recorded in a ninth-century chronicle, a soldier in the governor's army described the battle in the following manner:
We attacked them as the sun rose and surrounded them on every side. Eventually, our swords took their toll of the heads of the people; they began to flee without having any refuge; they sought refuge from us on the hills and in the hollows as doves seek refuge from a hawk. By God!...It was only a time for the slaughtering of animals, or for a man to take his siesta before we had come upon the last of them. There were their naked bodies, their bloodstained clothes, their faces thrown in the dust. The sun burst down on them; the wind scattered dust over them; their visitors in this deserted place were eagles and vultures.
Every year, in the month of Muharram, Shi‘is recall the Battle of Karbala in ritual and pageant. As a penance for the abandonment of their imam in his hour of need, Shi‘i men march in processions, whipping themselves and chanting, “Oh Husayn, we were not there.”
Commemorations of acts of cowardice do not, of course, contribute to revolutionary fervor. Enter Ayatollah Khomeini, who, on the eve of the Iranian Revolution, offered his followers a different reading of the Battle of Karbala. Khomeini counseled his followers not to fixate on the community's abandonment of their imam. Rather, he advised, Iranians should take heart from the courage displayed by Husayn and his handful of followers who stood up to tyranny in the face of overwhelming odds. According to Khomeini:
I tell you plainly that a dark, dangerous future lies ahead and that it is your duty to resist and to serve Islam and the Muslim peoples. Protest against the pressure exerted upon our oppressed people every day. Purge yourselves of your apathy and selfishness; stop seeking excuses and inventing pretexts for evading your responsibility. You have more forces at your disposal than the Lord of Martyrs (upon whom be peace) did, who resisted and struggled with his limited forces until he was killed. If (God forbid) he had been a weak, apathetic, and selfish person, he could have come up with some excuse for himself and remained silent. His enemies would have been only too happy for him to remain silent so that they could attain their vile goals, and they were afraid of his rebelling. But he dispatched [a messenger] to procure the people's allegiance to him so that he might overthrow that corrupt government and set up an Islamic government. If he had sat in some corner in Medina and had nothing to do with anyone, everyone would have respected him and come to kiss his hand. And if you sit silently by, you too will be respected, but it will be the kind of respect that is given a dead saint A dead saint is respected by everyone, but a living saint or Imam has his head cut off.
Other social scientists use economic or structural explanations to account for the Iranian Revolution. Those who argue for economic explanations point to a stagnant economy in the years leading up to the revolution. Iranians rebelled, they claim, simply as a result of economic deprivation. Those who cite structural reasons usually point to the fact that Iran was a rentier state. In rentier states, they assert, the government's relationship with its population is one of a patron to a client. When the government can no longer distribute the goodies to which the population feels entitled, that population withdraws its allegiance. The Iranian government, they argue, faced such a crisis in the second half of the 1970s. Once again, neither the economic nor the structural explanations are persuasive. In terms of the former, even if revolutions were nothing more than glorified bread riots (a good reason to get rid of the concept of revolution in the first place), there is no evidence that hungry people are more likely to rebel than well-fed people. Furthermore, while economic downturns occur all the time, revolutions are a rare occurrence. If it is economic deprivation that causes revolutions, why was there no revolution in the United States during the 1930s? Social scientists who argue for structural causes also have to explain why other rentier states, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, did not undergo revolutions in the late 1970s, while non-rentier states, such as the Philippines and Nicaragua, did. Last, as we saw in Chapter 15, all states in the Middle East are, to some extent or another, rentier states, and the political structures of all states in the region are fundamentally similar. So, again, why Iran and not, for example, Egypt?
Finally, there are those who argue for what are called “conjunctural/ multicausal theories.” According to these theories, revolutions occur when a variety of factors — none of which is sufficient to spark a revolution by itself — converge. According to one scholar, for example, the Iranian Revolution might be traced to the simultaneous occurrence of rapid and uneven capitalist development, political weakness of the monarchy (prior to Jimmy Carter's visit, the shah had temporarily eased repression), the development of a broad oppositional coalition, the unification of that coalition around a set of key symbols, and the right international context. The main problem with conjunctural/multicausal theories is that they are inelegant. They violate that fundamental rule of the natural, and social sciences, Ockham's razor, which states ”entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" (simpler is better). In addition, because every revolution might be attributed to a different set of causes, conjunctural/multicausal theories lack universal applicability. They also appear to rely on that bane of historians, post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) reasoning. Unfortunately, for the time being, they are the best theories we have.
Determining the causes of the revolution is not the only problem that has proven to be contentious. There is also the problem of the revolution's significance. Some social scientists consider the Iranian Revolution to be one of the most significant events in the history of the modern Middle East. They believe this for two reasons. First, they argue that the Iranian Revolution established a new model for government — one not borrowed from the West. This model has inspired social movements from Algeria and Egypt to Palestine and Afghanistan. Second, they argue that the doctrines of the dominant group of revolutionaries were exceptional in the history of revolutions.
Iran is, technically, a theocracy. According to the Iranian constitution, adopted in 1979, all laws of the Islamic republic are to be based on “Islamic principles.” It is up to the ulama to ensure these principles are respected. At the top of the political pyramid stands the vali-e faqih, commonly translated as “supreme leader”—a nice Orwellian touch. The supreme leader, according to the Iranian constitution, is to be a “just and pious faqih [a legal expert qualified to rule on matters pertaining to Islamic law] who is acquainted with the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability; and recognized and accepted as leader by the majority of the people.” The first supreme leader was Ayatollah Khomeini, who dubbed this type of government a velayat-e faqih—that is, a government of the faqih. An assembly of clerics — the Assembly of Leadership Experts, to be precise — elected his successor, Sayyed ‘Ali Khamenei, upon his death in 1989, as the constitution authorizes. Neither of the two supreme leaders chose to view the position as that of a mere figurehead. Thus, the leading cleric in Iran has not only overseen but intervened in the legislative and executive branches of government. The supreme court of the Islamic republic, the Supreme Judicial Council, is also to be composed of ulama, as is the Council of Guardians, whose job it is to ensure that laws passed by the majlis are compatible with Islam.
The second reason some scholars believe that the Iranian Revolution marks an epochal shift in the history of the modern Middle East is the doctrinal foundation for the new governing structures. One historian has argued it this way: Since the French Revolution, revolutionary movements had sought power in order to establish some Utopian vision of a new society based on one or another modernizing ideology. The French had their “republic of reason,” the Bolsheviks of Russia had their Marxism-Leninism. The leaders of the Iranian Revolution, on the other hand, rejected Utopian models for the future in favor of an ancient one. Theirs would be a society that gave pride of place to purity rather than modernity — a society in which its members abided by the shari‘a. This means that the values promoted by the Islamic revolution differ from those of other revolutions. This also means that the Islamic republic represents a system detached from Western notions of individual rights, women's rights, popular sovereignty, and so on.
Other scholars are more leery about attributing special significance to either the structure of the Islamic republic or its doctrines. When Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in 1979, he gave a speech in which he outlined the reasons for the revolution. According to Khomeini,
Muhammad Reza Pahlavi is gone....He fled after destroying everything. He ruined our country and made our cemeteries flourish____Our agriculture is wiped out.... He kept our culture in a backward state.... We have had universities for more than fifty years.... Due to treason committed against us, however, there has been no human development.... As regards oil, it has been given totally over to foreigners, whether to Americans or other countries.... If, God forbid, that man had remained on the throne for several more years, our oil reserves would have been exhausted.... The blood of our young has been shed for these same causes and for freedom.... We want a strong country with a stable and powerful system. We do not seek to reverse the system totally. In fact, we want to maintain it, only let it be based on — and in service to — the people.
The same speech might have been given by Muhammad Mossadegh or ‘Ali Shari‘ati.
Lest it be thought that Khomeini was only playing to the crowd, the record of the Islamic republic seems to indicate otherwise. In spite of its discourse, the Iranian revolutionary model of government is, in many ways, borrowed from the West. Where in the Qur´an or hadith is there mention of an Islamic republic? Where is there mention of elections, parliaments, or constitutions? The Islamic Republic of Iran has all three. Indeed, the constitution seems to waffle on the idea of popular sovereignty. While the constitution proclaims sovereignty belongs to God, it also stipulates that God “has placed man in charge of his social destiny” Nor has the Islamic republic rejected the ideology of nationalism. The president of the Islamic republic must be Iranian, and Khomeini himself spoke of the “Iranian fatherland.” Rather than Islamizing the nation, it might be argued that the revolution nationalized religion.
As for establishing an “Islamic third way” in economics, the record of the Islamic republic has been equally dismal. From 1982 to 1988, the government of the Islamic republic advocated public ownership of industry, price controls, industrial regulation, and import substitution industrialization. While these statist economic policies may have been necessary for mobilizing Iran's economy during its eight-year war with Iraq, the Iranian leadership also argued that they would enable Iran to achieve economic self-sufficiency after hostilities had ended. As a result, the economy of Iran during this period resembled that of Egypt under Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser or Syria or Iraq in the early days of Ba‘th Party rule. After 1988, however, the government of the Islamic republic began to espouse a different economic doctrine. It not only looked favorably on the reemergence of the private sector, it tried to diminish the role of the government in the economy. It did this by promoting the establishment of offshore free trade zones, foreign investment, privatization, and deregulation. The government even brought in consultants from the International Monetary Fund to advise it on its change of course. The results achieved by applying the new economic doctrine were spotty. Privatization was slow and marred by corruption, and the size of the public sector continued to grow rather than diminish. Nevertheless, in terms of economic objectives (and tribulations), Anwar al-Sadat would have felt quite at home.
While social purity has pride of place in official doctrine, skeptics argue that the revolution has had little effect in most areas of daily life. True, women's clothing has been tightly regulated, but girls are still educated and women still vote. In fact, the revolution's quest for social purity might be put in the same category as the French revolutionaries' quest for a society built on “republican virtues.” And even though the Islamic revolution claimed as a model the first Islamic community, what revolution has not looked backward to a more pristine time? As Karl Marx put it more than a hundred years before the Iranian Revolution,
At the very time when men appear engaged in revolutionizing things and themselves... they conjure up into their service the spirits of the past, assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed language. Thus did Luther masquerade as the Apostle Paul; thus did the revolution of 1789-1814 drape itself alternatively as the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.
And, lest anyone forget, the very rejection of Westernization and the embrace of “cultural authenticity” is itself part of the Western cultural tradition — nineteenth-century Romanticism.
It might seem odd that the debate over the significance of the Iranian Revolution would continue even after the Islamic republic celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. Nevertheless it does, in large measure because aftershocks from the revolutionary upheaval continue to be felt. In 1997, Muhammad Khatami was elected president on a reformist platform that called for greater political freedoms and a “dialogue among civilizations” (in place of Samuel Huntington's “clash of civilizations”). Observers hailed the onset of a new era in Iranian politics. It didn't take long for that prospect to dim. Although reformists took two-thirds of the seats in the Iranian majlis a year later, conservative clerics and their hardline allies blocked any attempt to open up the system and diminish clerical authority. In 2005, the mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, became president with the support of Iranians disgusted by the political gridlock. More importantly, he became president with the support of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (a branch of the military under direct control of the supreme leader) and the basij (the brutish paramilitary force deployed against “internal enemies of the revolution”).
Ahmadinejad ran on a platform of social justice, economic populism, and a return to revolutionary ideals. And soon after taking office he began making good on that platform by launching a number of initiatives, including a scheme that might have caused even Wall Street swindler Bernie Madoff to blush: Under the “shares of justice” program, the Iranian government offered stock in state enterprises to all Iranians, starting with the very poorest. The new stockholders, in turn, would reimburse the government from the dividends the stocks would (hopefully) generate in the future. If redistributive programs such as this seem innocuous, even noble, consider the rest of the bill of fare that accompanied Ahmadinejad's presidency: the brutal suppression of dissent (such as unleashing the basij on unarmed protesters after the disputed election of 2009), the obsessive pursuit of conspiracies against the revolution, the confrontational rhetorical style (saying about Israel, “this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”), the adventurist foreign policy, and the public embrace of Iran's nuclear program in the face of international censure. As a matter of fact, the embrace of Iran's nuclear program perfectly encapsulates the mental universe inhabited by Ahmadinejad, his supporters, and his collaborators: On the one hand, the program embodies the defiance of the West (particularly the United States) and national assertion that had engendered the revolution in the first place. On the other hand, it is a component of a strategic calculation that, even if suspicious-to-the-point-of-paranoia, is not entirely fanciful. After all, what better insurance could there be down the road against an American-orchestrated “regime change” than the threat of nuclear retaliation?
Just how much Ahmadinejad's policies captured the Iranian imagination is hotly disputed among observers. Certainly the results of the 2009 presidential election can hardly be used as a bellwether. The election was so widely perceived as stolen that it triggered the worst domestic crisis since the revolution. On the other hand, the election did serve as a reminder of how difficult it is, given Iran's opaque political system, to determine who only reigns and who actually rules.
To be official, the result of the election had to be validated by the supreme leader, who did so with unseemly haste. To be effected, the result of the election had to be enforced by the basij, which did so with unseemly violence. Over the years, the supreme leader had filled in the blanks in his vaguely worded constitutional mandate and added some prerogatives of his own. Thus, while article 110 of the constitution states that the supreme leader's powers include the “delineation of the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran...” and “supervision over the proper execution of the general policies of the system”—phrases that might define the role of Queen Elizabeth II of England as well — the supreme leader has managed to put economic and foreign policy, as well as executive appointments, under his control. He has also inserted what one scholar of Iran has called a “network of clerical commissars” loyal to him throughout the system to oversee the execution of his policies. The revolutionary guards and basij likewise command an independent powerbase. They derive this not only from their military and police functions, but from their dominant role in the engineering, construction, oil and gas, and armaments sectors of the economy (not to mention their role in the lucrative contraband trade). Revolutionary guard leaders (appointed by the supreme leader) have even headed the “Foundation of the Oppressed and Disabled”—the former Pahlavi Foundation — whose value and investments in the economy have only increased with time.
Both the supreme leader and the revolutionary guards and the basij, then, threw in their lot with Ahmadinejad. Or, perhaps, he threw in his lot with one or both of them. In fact, it very well may be that the “theocratic republic” has become what one dissident cleric has called a “military guardianship.”
Wherever power in Iran ultimately lies, whatever the rhetoric and policies of one or another Iranian government, it might be argued that it was inevitable that the revolutionary tidal wave that had threatened to spill over Iran's borders and engulf the entire Middle East would be contained within the borders of Iran. To put it another way, it might be argued that it was inevitable that Iran would continue to function as just another nation-state, albeit one that at times is particularly surly and contentious. This is because of the strength and resiliency of the international economic and state systems, because Iran cannot simply opt out of those systems, and because, in the end, Iran must play by the rules of those systems. Iran still depends on the export of oil for over 80 percent of its revenue. Most of this oil goes to states in Asia and Europe, particularly Japan and Italy, with whom Iran must maintain friendly commercial relations. Furthermore, for all its early identification as the spearhead of an international Islamic movement, Iran has been forced to conform to the dictates of the international state system. When the United States froze Iranian assets in the aftermath of the takeover of its embassy in Tehran, the government of the Islamic republic took the dispute to the World Court. The World Court only recognizes states that conform to international norms as litigants. For Iranians to take a commercial airliner abroad, for them to send a letter abroad, Iran must adhere to international civil aviation and postal conventions. Only states that conform to international norms participate in these conventions. Overall, then, the modern economic and state systems gave the revolutionaries of the Islamic republic little leeway for accomplishing or even envisaging a new order that lay outside those systems.