July 16, 2008


Pious Populist: Understanding the rise of Iran's president (Abbas Milani, Nov/Dec 2007, Boston Review)

The unwieldy social and ideological coalition that brought Khomeini to power shared nothing but enmity for the Shah. With his departure, those differences emerged with full force. While religious activists like Ahmadinejad embraced Khomeini’s theocratic project, the technocratic middle classes hoped to use Khomeini against the Shah and then create a secular, democratic republic. The urban poor joined the coalition when Khomeini and his allies promised them economic benefits—free houses and free electricity, more wages, and less pressure from the government and their own bosses. No sooner had the Shah departed than the network of religious organizations, with a mosque in nearly every town and neighborhood, began quickly to dominate the revolution: in late 1979 the country voted in a referendum to become an Islamic Republic.

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, and as a direct result of clerical dominance, Iran experienced an Islamic version of the Reign of Terror, resulting ever since in cycles of violence. Iran is something of an ethnic and religious quilt. At least a quarter of its 70-plus million people speak Turkish. Another six or seven million are of Kurdish origin. Yet another two to three million speak Arabic, and at least a million are Baluchis, who live in an area bordering Pakistan. During the Pahlavi era, the Shah and his father mimicked the Ataturk model (which banned Turkey’s Kurds from speaking Kurdish) and tried to solve Iran’s ethnic difficulties by enforcing a unified “Persian identity” and making it illegal for ethno-linguistic minorities to speak or teach their native languages.

When the central government appeared vulnerable after the revolution, simmering ethnic grievances erupted. In Iran’s Kurdish region, civil war broke out, leaving thousands dead. (The only job Ahmadinejad held before becoming mayor of Tehran was in the mid 1990s, when he was named the governor of Ardibil, which was populated predominantly by Turkish-speaking Iranians.)

Moreover, the regime’s attempt to impose its understanding of Islamic traditions—from mandating headscarves to banning unveiled women from television or films—created social strife in the country’s modernized cities. Some of the new strictures produced comical results: Hollywood films were shown with the women eliminated from every scene. Or “illicit” affairs between unmarried lovers were written out of scripts and replaced with more chaste relations, such as that of brother and sister.

Ayatollah Khomeini also began a massive purge of the military, which he suspected of harboring royalist tendencies. The Iranian air force, in particular, was decimated. After the government claimed to have aborted a coup attempt by a group of pilots, three hundred pilots were reportedly executed by firing squad. A new force, called the Revolutionary Guards of the Islamic Republic and composed of devout young men, often from the countryside, was created to safeguard the revolution and its leaders. Ahmadinejad would join them soon after the war with Iraq began in 1980. Their conservative cultural ethos and rancor against secular intellectuals and the middle class gradually emerged as the regime’s social paradigm. The regime began a massive policy of nationalizing and confiscating factories and banks owned by the elite of the Shah’s rule.

The bureaucracy no less than the military was purged. By harassing women who refused to wear the veil and pressuring men who did not display piety and devotion in their appearance, the regime facilitated the largest emigration in Iran’s history. The long war with Iraq, together with Saddam’s decision to bomb defenseless cities like Tehran, would accelerate this process. Those who left tended to be the more educated middle classes. Today at least two million—by some estimates, four million—live in exile.

In November 1979, with the country engulfed in military conflicts with ethnic minorities and clashes with the central government, and with many cities beset by strikes and student unrest, a new crisis emerged when radical Islamic students, encouraged and supported by the secular left, took over the American embassy in Tehran. In early planning for the takeover, the organizers asked the Islamic Student Association of each university to send two representatives to a clandestine plenary meeting. As scholars Alireza Haghighi and Victoria Tahmasebi have reported, Ahmadinejad, then an engineering student, was one of two delegates from the College of Science and Technology. When he heard of the plans, he demurred; he wanted them to first seek a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini. But the organizers wanted to give their leader “plausible deniability.” A few weeks later, when it emerged that Khomeini was bent on turning the hostage crisis into political theater to consolidate his own power, Ahmadinejad tried to join the student leadership committee. This time he was told he was not welcome. The episode became particularly important when, years later in the days after Ahmadinejad’s election as president, some of the former American hostages claimed that Ahmadinejad had been their guard, even their interrogator. All evidence, including an investigation by the CIA, has indicated that the allegations were untrue.

Khomeini used the hostage crisis—and the preoccupation with the embassy takeover in Iran, the United States, and much of the West—to pass a draconian constitution that placed virtually all power in the hands of an unelected ayatollah. He had come to power officially promising a democratic republic, though his own doctrine of the rule of the judges had circulated widely among his followers. From exile in Paris (where he went after Saddam Hussein expelled him from Iraq in 1978), he had said that no clergy would hold office when the revolution won power. But once back in Iran and empowered by the revolution, he placed virtually all power in his own hands and claimed a legitimacy founded on divine right, not popular will. If anyone dared remind him of his democratic promises, he resorted to an important concept of Shi’ism called tagiyeh. Much like Jesuitical equivocation, tagiyeh allows the pious to prevaricate in the service of preserving the faith or leading the faithful. (Khomeini was also a great admirer of Plato, and his doctrine of the guardianship of the jurist (velayat-e faqih) bears striking resemblance to Plato’s ideal of a republic ruled by a philosopher king, just as his idea of tagiyeh is similar to Plato’s idea of the noble lie.)

In Iran, as scholar Arash Naraghi has shown, Khomeini has even tinkered with his own theory of the rule of the jurist. Initially, according to his interpretation of the law, the purpose of such a government was to implement Shari’ah (religious law.) When faced with the practical problems of running a modern polity based on religious laws that were a thousand years old, however, Khomeini offered a new variant of his theory. Now, the ultimate goal of Islamic government is the preservation of the state itself, and all rules of Shari’ah, even the pillars of faith, are subject to change, depending on the interests of the state. In the new version the state is everything, and Shari’ah is but its tool.

As a nod to the democratic aspirations of the movement that had brought him to power, Ayatollah Khomeini allowed constitutional provisions for a powerless, but elected, presidency and a unicameral parliament. But even these weak institutions were circumscribed by the power of unelected mullahs. An appointed institution called the Council of Experts, composed of clerics and experts in Shari’ah, had veto power over all laws it deemed inimical to the letter or spirit of Islam. Initially of uncertain significance, it turned out to be a key factor in the clergy’s control of the county. During the presidency of the reformist Khatami (1997–2005), for example, the Council of Experts rejected more than two hundred laws passed by parliament in a two-year legislative term. The same council has also claimed for itself the right to veto candidates for any election in the country. In one election for the parliament (or Majlis), they rejected more than three thousand candidates, most of them supporters of Khatami-style reform. [...]

[A]hmadinejad’s meteoric rise was soon followed by a no less spectacular fall from grace. One problem was that Ayatollah Khamenei and other leaders of the Islamic Republic came quickly to see that Ahmadinejad and his verbal outbursts were becoming a serious liability. Nothing was more emblematic of this problem than his vocal anti-Semitism, which, like much else in his vision, was not acquired casually but has roots in his experiences during the early days of the revolution.

Soon after the creation of the Islamic Republic, a series of lectures and discussions were held in Tehran led by a stridently conservative cleric, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, and a philosophy professor named Ahmad Fardid. A student of German philosophy and a disciple of Heidegger, Fardid believed that Freemasons and Jews have for the past century conspired together to dominate the world. When Ayatollah Khomeini won power Fardid abandoned his sycophantic royalism and became not just a devout Moslem, but a passionate advocate of the rule of mullahs as the necessary and anointed prelude to the return of the Hidden Messiah. Together with Mesbah-Yazdi—Ahmadinejad’s religious mentor—Fardid forged key elements of an Islamic pseudo-fascist ideology founded on a sour brew of anti-Semitism, Heideggerian philosophy, and Khomeini’s theory of the guardianship of the jurist.

Whatever their sources, Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic comments were—according to a widely held view in Iran—a key reason for the two U.N. resolutions against Iran.

His domestic policies have been comparably disastrous. For much of the past quarter of a century, the Islamic Republic of Iran—having emerged from the authoritarianism of the Pahlavi dynasty—faced a number of fundamental choices about basic social and economic organization: state planning vs. market coordination; private property vs. public ownership; technocracy vs. piety as a measure of public service; women as subordinate vs. women as equal citizens; export of revolution vs. consolidation of power at home; nuclear power and a full fuel cycle vs. accommodating the international community; fundamentalism vs. acceptance of eclectic new ideas and changing interpretations of the canon; and finally, East vs. West.

In navigating these positions, Ahmadinejad has often embraced ideas and practices that are now widely rejected elsewhere. He has shown little affection for the private sector, advocates statism and a more highly planned economy, and has all but destroyed private banking in Iran. He initially defended some rights for women, such as their ability to watch soccer games at public stadiums, but backed off in the face of stiff opposition from the traditional clergy. And although he has been consistent in his advocacy for the poor—he increased the minimum wage by sixty percent and ordered the establishment of a “Love Fund” to help poor young men defray the cost of marriage—his policies often seem ill-conceived. His casual comment that the stock market is a form of gambling and should be banned led to a massive sell off and a steep fall in stock prices. He has a penchant for throwing money at any problem. One policy, for example, gave low-interest loans to small businesses willing to hire new employees, in an attempt to create jobs and stem inflationary pressures. But because his administration failed to exercise oversight, the loans were used by employers for purposes other than job creation. According to some members of parliament, similar failures of oversight explain the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars of governmental funds. Ahmadinejad’s government has not only spent the entire windfall revenue from oil price increases, but he nearly depleted the currency fund set up to protect the government when the price of oil falls. As always the poor—now a quarter of the country’s population—bear the brunt of these disastrous inflationary policies.

In international relations, Ahmadinejad’s faltering program has had three key components. The first is the idea of exporting the Islamic Revolution and creating a “Shia revolutionary arc” in the Muslim world. Like Trotsky, who rejected the idea of socialism in one country, Ahmadinejad believes that Iran’s Islamic Revolution will survive only if it helps lead other Muslims in the fight against a weak and declining West. In recent months, he has talked more ambitiously about Muslims generally, and not only about Shias.

The second component of his program is the idea that the Islamic regime can maintain its dignity and achieve its goals only if it stands firm on plans for a nuclear weapons program. For Ahmadinejad, Khatami and his chief negotiator on the nuclear issue, Rouhani, committed treason when they agreed to suspend the nuclear program. A few days after Iran announced that it had enriched uranium successfully, Ahmadinejad and his allies declared that “the West can do nothing,” adding that Iran must push forward aggressively with all aspects of the program. Shortly after Putin’s recent and historic visit to Iran, Ahmadinejad made two incredible claims in a televised interview: first, that Iran has won the public-opinion battle around the world over the legitimacy of its nuclear program, and that the West might soon give up its opposition to Iran’s nuclear program; and second, still more incredibly, that “Iran is now one of the nine nuclear powers in the world” and that the other eight must begin to share their global power with Iran.

The third component of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy is intimately linked with the second, and is referred to by the Iranian policy establishment as the “Asia Look.” According to this notion, Iran’s future no longer rests with the declining West but with the ascendant East—particularly China and India. Multi-billion-dollar oil and gas agreements with both countries, and negotiations for the construction of a new pipeline connecting Iran to India through Pakistan and eventually to China, would allow Iran to have a rapidly growing market for the country’s oil and gas. Moreover, both China and India have nuclear technologies they could share with Iran and, based on their past behavior, neither is likely to “meddle” in Iranian domestic affairs, particularly on issues of human rights and democracy. Ahmadinejad is further convinced that Russia (with its new, more muscular foreign policy and its desire to embarrass the United States) and China (with its insatiable appetite for energy) would never allow the passage of a U.N. resolution against Iran.

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The failure of nearly every aspect of Ahmadinejad’s program—including his failure to fight corruption or improve the economic plight of the poor—has caused his domestic popularity to decline sharply.

Ayatollah Khamenei has long understood that the Revolution is no basis for running a successful state and society, but Mahmoud doesn't get it, so he's toast next election.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 16, 2008 5:29 PM
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