In June 2009 Iran was shaken by a powerful tidal wave which for the first time since the revolution made inroads into the very bases of the power structure, without, however, managing to change it. A look at a country which for thirty years has been at the centre of international attention and concern, not least because this is something it wants.

This article was published in Oasis 10. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:43:31

The images of the demonstrations against President Ahmadinejad shook our unfounded certainty that the Islamic Republic of Islam was a granitic system supported by the majority of Iranians. Normalisation, at the cost of numerous victims, wounded people, arrests, torture and public trials, cannot conceal the fact that in Iran, as well, dissent has reached the summit of the political apparatus and that certain religious dignitaries, struck by the violence of the powers that be, called into question the truth of the official line.

Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, had to intervene personally during the prayers of Friday to support the electoral process and reject the accusations of irregularities: his religious authority was seriously undermined by this partisan stance, by which he unexpectedly took responsibility for the fraud. Can this crisis topple the Islamic Republic? Before attempting an answer, I propose to return first of all to the genesis of the revolution of 1979 and then address the importance of the question of Iran for the whole world and for Europe in particular. I will then examine the factors that could lead the present situation to evolve in one direction or another.

The popular uprising of 1978 had immediate causes which have often been emphasised such as the destabilisation of the Shah after the election of Carter, a defender of human rights, to the presidency of the United States of America and the lymph cancer that the Shah knew he was suffering from and which reduced his determination to defend the throne after his first clumsy moves. But this uprising also had deeper causes which many witnesses to the event did not always clearly understand. The revolution was the revenge of a people that had endured, at least from the beginning of the nineteenth century, continual humiliations, political and economic interference, and which often in recent history had the feeling that it was being deprived of its destiny and its sovereignty.

The Pahlavi dynasty, generally greatly praised by Westerners because of its achievements, was perceived by the population of the country as a monarchy that was continually manipulated by foreign interests: by the powerful Anglo-Iranian Oil Company until 1951 and subsequently by American imperialism which used Iran as an important ally against communism and Arab nationalism. It was for this reason that the revolution, far from being the outcome of a mere episodic crisis, represented for the Iranians, rightly or wrongly, access to political dignity. Neither the Russians nor the British, nor indeed the Americans, nor any other power, would have been able any longer to lay down the law in Iran. And the real date of the victory of the revolution is not 11 February (the fall of the monarchy) but the following 4 November when students who were followers of the Imam stormed the American embassy and took the diplomats who worked in it hostage.

Revealing to the world the confidential documents that were found in the baskets of the shredders and patiently put back together again, they were proud to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the international political system which spoke about democracy and behaved as though peoples were slaves. This embassy was nothing else but a ‘nest of spies’ which had to be dismantled together with all ties with America.

Of the three principles which are at the base of the Islamic Republic, three deserve to be stressed as regards their intersections and contradictions from 1979 until the present day: anti-imperialism, the concern to avoid a new dictatorship, and the theocratic dimension of velâyat-e faqîh (government by jurists-theologians). It was in proclaiming ‘independence, freedom, and Islamic Republic’ that the Iranian revolution overthrew the constitutional monarchy which was condemned as a vassal of American imperialism. Violently reasserting its own humiliated dignity, the Iranian people turned to those Shiite ulema who had led the opposition to the Shah for a number of decades. Only they, of the elite of the country, could not be suspected of cultural or economic collusion, of being dominated by a foreign power.

At the beginning of the Republic, the anti-imperialist struggle was used to justify the repression of the autonomist revolts, of the press and of the opposing parties, and thus the elimination of left-wing movements which were accused of being ideological appendices of the East or the West. The war with Iraq unleashed by Saddam Hussein with Western complicity (1980-88) made the external danger very concrete. It provided a justification for the elimination of rival tendencies within political Islam and allowed the patriotic and national legitimacy of the regime to be established even more. After the failed reforms of President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and the election of Ahmadinejad (2005), observers asked themselves whether Iran would have loosened its grip on women, parties, newspapers and intellectuals. The external pressure worked against the attempts at reform and fostered the militarisation of the political system.

The country was under pressure on all fronts: the wars in Kuwait (1991), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), the Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2008) led to the fall of two enemies of Tehran (Saddam and the Taleban) but created a turbulence in which the regime felt surrounded by the Americans, ostracised as a terrorist power, and afflicted by sanctions and violent anti-Shiite reactions in the Muslim world. The Constitution of 1979 guarantees popular sovereignty and neutralises moves towards dictatorship but if the gears of democracy have indeed seized up and power has been confiscated by the militia, then one can no longer speak of a republic but of an Islamic dictatorship, a regime where the exploitation of religion makes the Islamic alibi even less credible.

On the World Scene

Three reasons explain the resonance of the Iranian question in our mass media. First of all the West is worried about oil and its energy supplies and Iran has the fifth largest oil reserves in the world and the second largest (after Russia) reserves of gas. This makes it a sought after nation and one that is courted by the whole world. The Iran-Iraq war, which was waged on a long front in Mesopotamia and the Kurd mountains, for Westerners was seen as a question of how to control oil and direct it towards industrialised countries, and for this reason it was called the Gulf War. This denomination, which was unrelated to the event, was taken up later to describe the Kuwait war of 1991, and then the Anglo-American war against Saddam in 2003, a fact that says a great deal about the worries of industrialised countries who were concerned about the decrease of oil reserves in the world. Secondly, the question of Islam has increasingly involved Europe because of the presence in the continent of minorities of Muslim origins who often react unanimously with their brothers in the Middle East and are sensitive to the anti-imperialist revolutionary issues developed by the Iranian revolution.

Iran was the first Muslim country to uphold Islam as an ideological foundation of political legitimacy rather than nationalism and socialism. One is dealing here with an Islam that is at one and the same time modern, progressive, open to parliamentary forms of democracy, in favour of the Third World, anti-imperialist and concerned about the destiny of the Palestinian people. This Islam, even though rejected by many young people who by now have been saturated with religious propaganda, remains the social glue that defines most effectively the nation’s collective culture in the face of the challenges of globalisation. It is specifically in striving for the greatest independence in relation to Westerners that Iran chose the policy of fracture, acting to the full in supporting the Shiites of the Hezbollah in the Lebanon and the Islamic radicals of Hamas in Gaza. At the moment when the pro-Israeli front declared that it was necessary to boycott the winners of the Palestinian elections of 2006 and no longer gave the subsidies that up to that point had been distributed as aid for refugees, Iran took this opportunity to raise the tone of anti-Zionist propaganda. It did not matter very much at this point that the anti-Semitism experienced by Europe had no grip in Iran where Jews have been rooted since remote antiquity and differently to what happened in other countries of the region maintained their rights of citizenship. It was of little importance that the anti-Zionist approach of Ahmadinejad was more a provocation amplified by the Western mass media on the look out for everything that could demonise the enemy of Israel than a real threat, for which, indeed, Iran was not equipped.

In their aspirations to hegemony the Iranians still remain obstructed by two handicaps: they are not Arabs and for the most part they are Shiites, in a Muslim world which is 80% Sunni. One can understand how their pro-Palestinian policy helps them to overcome these two disadvantages in imposing themselves in the region. The question of Israel is so sensitive in Western countries and above all in Europe, which still has the dirty conscience of the Holocaust, that most Europeans feel directly involved in the defence of Israel, whatever the policy of this country towards the Palestinians may be. In addition, a fourth reason explains the importance of the Iranian question. The absence of a peaceful solution in Transjordan and Gaza creates a terrain that is favourable for all forms of violence: the regional conflicts are not limited to Palestine.

Since 11 September 2001 Westerners have understood that they are not safe anywhere and have reacted by generating two new conflicts, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Curiously, the Iranians are on the side of the Americans. The repeated accusations made by the Western massmedia about Iranian interference in these conflicts to support insurgency groups are probably in part true, that is to say they reflect the contradictions to be found within the Islamic Republic. The most anti-American elements have, in fact, an interest in weakening the American domination of Iraq so as to prevent this country from becoming a satellite of Washington. Because of where their sympathies lie, they support the Shiite extremist groups who uphold the sovereignty and independence of the country and thus they associate themselves with the most radical and generally anti-Shiite initiatives of fundamentalist groups that resort to terrorism and suicide attacks.

As regards the Kurds, for some time Iran has infiltrated the north of Iraq in order to try to weaken the trans-frontier movements which could act to obtain autonomy or an independence for Kurds not only in Iraq but also in Iran and Turkey. In Afghanistan the situation is equally confused: the Wahabite ideology of the Taleban led them, once they were in power, to actions involving the violent repression of the Shiites. About a fifteen Iranian diplomats were massacred in Mazar-i Sharif in the north of the country. The retrograde and fundamentalist face of Taleban Islamic fundamentalism is in opposition to the progressivism of Iranian political Islam.

To sum up: there is no contact between the two tendencies which legitimise and regulate, each in opposing ways, the exercise of power in the name of Islam and the sharî’a. But in addition to geographical proximity and the permeability of the frontiers, cultural and historical ties and the penetration of the Persian language make communication between Iran and Afghanistan very easy. It was in Iran that during the Soviet occupation up to two million Afghans took refuge and many of them, above all for economic reasons, stayed there. It is very probable that the Taleban, in order not to rely solely on the tribal areas of the north of Pakistan, established certain logistical bases in the east of Iran, above all in the areas of Sunni Baluchistan. The tolerance of the Iranians of this kind of phenomenon can be explained by the desire to infiltrate the Taleban movement and the incapacity to control the arms and drug trade linked to the Afghan insurrection. Of all the Muslim countries, Iran was one of the first to recognise the government of Hamid Karzai: in 2002 the reforming President of Iran, Khatami, made a visit to his Afghan counterpart before his official investiture; on that occasion the head of the Iranian Executive passed before a guard of honour of American marines in Kabul.

What is Iran looking for in these two conflicts? To keep the frontier status quo and impose itself as an arbiter. In Iraq, contrary to the threatening prospect of partition which arose in 1991, a global game carried out by Shiites influenced by Iran emerges. For this reason, Tehran favours a consensual normalisation that would block the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. On the Afghan side, the strategic axis that links Kabul to Islamabad and above all to Karachi must be now give way to a new route that passes by way of Mashad and the east of Iran. This applies not only to supplies for NATO troops and Afghan foreign trade but also to the link between central Asia and the Indian Ocean: in both cases the interests of the Iranians are not in opposition to Western interests; indeed, they converge with them.

Lastly, the final concern of the West as regards Iran concerns nuclear proliferation. With the Iran-Iraq war, Iran resumed its programme of uranium enrichment which had been begun at the time of the Shah in order to develop independently its civil nuclear capacities. In reality, in this policy of Iran the military prospect is determining but more as a deterrent that the country could rapidly develop in the eventuality of a new conflict than as an offensive weapon ready to be used (as in the case of Japan which is said to be a ‘threshold nation’ given that it is prohibited from producing bombs of mass destruction but ready to have resort to them in order to defend itself). The scenario is particularly worrying but it does not relate only to Iran because India, Pakistan and Israel, not to speak of Russia and the Ukraine, are already nuclear powers. This is a very alarming picture when one observes the rapidity of political change in the whole region.

All Power to the Guardians

In internal politics the Iranian situation is in a state of change. From the outset, the definition of a new power structure has oscillated between democracy and Islamic law. In order to solve this problem, the revolutionaries of 1979 created a political oxymoron, the ‘Islamic Republic’. Contrary to all expectations and despite the alarmist prognoses of all the Iranian opponents who went into exile in 1979, the concept has functioned rather well. Religious figures took over the leadership of the country, including the Executive, but accepted the rules of democracy that had been secured by the Iranians at the beginning of the twentieth century: a parliamentary system, the separation of powers, the fundamental freedoms of citizens in the State, equality before the law… and also the female suffrage and the right of women to be elected. In acquiring the reins of a great State, these religious figures understood certain fundamental rules of modern political systems such as the need for propaganda, the control of communications, a certain alternation, and a responsible management of national wealth. They have lent themselves to great international debates, the fight against American imperialism and communism, pan-Islamist causes, but also questions connected with the development of the Third World, financial and energy questions, the need to assure the defence of the country not only at a military level but also at an economic and cultural level, etc.

In all these questions the role of Islam has become increasingly vague. Islam acted as a glue to rediscover, after the Iran-Iraq war, solidarity with a number of countries of the region and to demonstrate to Westerners an apparently impenetrable ideological façade. Surprised by the dynamism of the politicised ulema, the liberals, nationalists and secular forces have at times cooperated with the new institutions and have made their contribution to ideological debates; but they have above else tried to recreate non-clerical areas of freedom in the press, in literature and in theoretical reflection. Major debates have called into question the fundamental options of the regime, whether they be velâyat-e faqîh or the repression of political pluralism, the rights of women or ethnic or religious minorities, or even openness or otherwise to Western culture. It is certainly the case that censorship has blocked the development of debates on velâyat-e faqîh, which is seen as the monarchy is in Great Britain, namely the cornerstone of the entire edifice. But in other spheres, for example religious pluralism, the role of the Sunnis in particular and the legal status of official religious minorities, questions remain on the table and are the subject of discussion. Many factors have profoundly changed the direction of political life.

When Khomeini died in 1989, given that no theologians of a high level figured amongst his possible successors a man was appointed as leader whom Khomeini himself had designated and who bore only the title of hojjat ol-eslâm and not that of ayatollah. This lowering of qualifications to hold the highest office of state involved a certain ideological secularisation. After the demonstrations of the summer of 2009, the figure of the leader of the country was publicly called into question and some voices even planned to force him to resign.

With President Khatami (1997-2005), the role of women and young people emerged as a force for political renewal. This was the result of two factors: the emergence of a largely school-educated population which had had access to university education and the modern mass media (satellite television, internet) and thus was exposed to a cultural solicitation beyond the country, and the growing role of women in society. As regards this paradoxical second point one can observe the efficacy of Islamisation which, in forcing women to wear a veil, opened up more public spaces to them, above all access to universities and to the highest levels of society: 60% of students are girls. Doctors, engineers and teachers, they marry later than their mothers did and on average have only two children; they wish to practise a profession and often end up by occupying positions of responsibility.

One may add to these two factors a third which astonishes everyone who visits Iran – rapid urbanisation. With the loss of their rural roots, today’s Iranians reduce in their lives the signs of membership of traditional clerical Islam, while they tend to manufacture a more personal and individualistic religion. All these factors lead to a distancing of the Iranian population from the classic Islamic model which the founders of the Republic had dreamed of, that of a society in which the ulema were the universal leaders who would have formed in Iran human beings entirely shaped by the religious ideal.

In contrary fashion, young people, saturated by propaganda from a very early age, tend to distance themselves from this en masse. Was there a coup d’état in Iran after 12 June? The leaders who proclaimed that they had won with the re-election of Ahmadinejad accused those who contested them of having attempted a ‘velvet revolution’ along the lines encouraged by the Americans in Georgia or the Ukraine. In this they provided arguments and parallels, including the symbols that Mir Hossein Moussavi adopted for his movement, the colour green, huge demonstrations for justice and freedom, etc., and orchestrated support abroad, amplified in Iran by those who watched the very recent BBC channel in Persian. For their part, the leaders of the opposition – Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohammad Khatami – denounced the military coup d’état, the repression carried out by the armed militias, the organised fraud, and the Stalin-style trials. These last did not fail to look at what had happened in June 2005 with the first mandate of Ahmadinejad: the central axes of power, the ministries, the provincial governors, but also the management of the most important sectors of the economy such as oil, transport, airports, the military industries but also the nuclear industry, had all been systemically entrusted to the Guardians of the Revolution. This militiamen, whose organisation comes from the Iran-Iraq war, and who enjoy a strong popular membership and owe everything that they have to the regime, have already carried out their own creeping coup d’état. One should not, therefore, be amazed to observe that they will not abandon their mandate because of the caprices of the ballot box. It is not the person of Ahmadinejad that is at stake but a praetorian idea of power: the conservation of an Islamic order has become more important than Islam itself and which closes in on itself because around it are perceived only enemies.


Bibliography: Yann Richard, L' Iran de 1800 à nos jours, Flammarion, Paris 2009