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Review: Iran "Insights into its Religion, Politics, and Power"

Pam C. Nogales C.

Platypus Review 3 | March 2008

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The well attended event was held inside of the new auditorium housed in the recently buit expansion of the Spertus Insitute on Michigan avenue. The talk addressed the political character of Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79. The evening’s first presenter, Dr. David Menashri, an esteemed political adviser and director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, set the tone for the evening by commenting that he could not help but feel optimistic about the prospects of Iran. Dr. Menashri pointed to the burgeoning cultural activities taking place in the country, including a growing film industry and what he characterized as a resilient activists culture. The second presenter, visiting fellow Mehdi Khataji, did not share this sentiment, and, in the course of his introduction, Khataji presented an antinomical prespective on the legacy of this period. Over the course of their discussion what surfaced was a sober back and forth on the historical development of political power in Iran and its implications for the present.

Dr. Menashri opened his remarks by recounting the demands of the Iranian Revolution, that “there were two key issues for the Iranian people during this period, bread and freedom,” both of which, in his estimation, have yet to be adequately addressed by subsequent or present-day political leadership, and are often mistakenly substituted for ideological demands. In delivering this statement Dr. Menashri momentarily shelved the political character of the revolution, and made no mention as to what the objective socio-economic conditions were in this period. In the absence of this context, the Islamic Revolution was presented as the sole expression of a popular demand by the exploited. However, although one could not deny that these sentiments were common among those who lived under the tyranny of the Shah, it was those who had materially benefited from the process of rapid capitalist modernizations during the 1960s and 70s who organized and led the revolution. Moreover, and in contradiction to what is commonly expected from the content of revolutionary demands, when faced with the prospect of an economic collapse, the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, boldly stated, “Good. In the time of the Prophet, people ate only one date per day.” This begs the question, was the Islamic Revolution really the necessary political expression of demands for “bread and freedom?”

Dr. Menashri then proceeded to question the ideological character of the revolution, “To what extent was the Islamic revolution really Islamic?” In answering this question, Menashri emphasized that the fundamentalist radicalism active during this period was only one of the political expressions of popular demands. Pursuing his point further, Menashri introduced the “healthier” tendency within this movement, a politics centered on “pragmatism,” and argued that the real crux of the matter was, and continues to be, the tension between such a politics and one centered on ideological dogma. This conflict served to illustrate the factional divide in the nation between the orthodox Islamists, sometimes called the “crusaders,” and the pragmatists, a divide that expresses the contradiction between the ideologically retrogressive character of an Iranian politics harking back to a pre-modern form of social organization, and modern international pressures which condition the actions of the political leadership. This problematic is a rehearsal of the kind of ideological ferment found in Iran during the lead-up to the Revolution, i.e., a regressive political imagination in response to the thoroughgoing capitalist development taking place in the country during the Shah’s modernizing “White Revolution” in the decades leading up to the events of 1978–79.

The second presenter, Mehdi Khataji, argued that one could imagine the way in which this “pragmatism” in post-revolutionary Iran served as a poor vehicle for political change. Khataji emphasized how pragmatism in the context of the Islamic Revolution acted in ways that have actually worsened the conditions for a progressive politics. Khataji spoke of how this political tendency first came to a head at a moment in which the Islamic Republic was in jeopardy, both materially and ideologically. It was at this point, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, that this political tendency was given a renewed purchase. However, it was a controversial response to the crisis facing Iran’s war-ravaged economy after 1988. In light of these conditions the pragmatists suggested that Iran should adopt a more conciliatory attitude toward the West, and argued that it was in the best interest of the Islamic Republic to allow some degree of privatization of the major industries. In so doing, the pragmatists were adhering exactly to what had been established as a top priority by Khomeini in the last years of his regime, to secure the practical survival of the Islamic Republic.

To illustrate, Khataji raised the formation of the Expediency Council, established in 1988 by the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini. It was formed to resolve the constant disagreements between the Parliament and the Council of Guardians, i.e., the appointed body of religious lawyers who ensure that all legislation is in conformity with Islamic laws. Both the introduction of this assembly body and the constitutional revisions made during this period were attempts to ameliorate the tension which arose in the postrevolutionary moment over what measures to take in the face of a potential national crisis. The mediation enabled by the Expediency Council allowed for a more efficient decision-making process. It did so, however, by deepening the autocratic power of the Supreme Guide, the unelected leader of the country, which endowed Khomeini with a more pervasive supervision and commanding influence over all dimensions of political rule. Was this furthering of the authoritarian character of the regime not a “pragmatic” response?

Overall, the pragmatists left a hazy effect in the years subsequent to 1988. Iran recoiled from the prospect of dealing with the West and instead turned to Russia and China. Thus, it continues to work with a rigid state-centric model, away from of any neoliberal considerations that may have ensued from dealing with the West. The reforms put forth in the decades after the death of Khomeini in 1989 could hardly budge the repressive apparatus of the established order, one that continues to go unchallenged, and is able to renew itself, if needed, by means of agreements with international powers that turn a blind eye to insular repression.

It should be noted however, that the United States was not at all interested in pursuing the democratization of Iran. During the years of the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. jockeyed back and forth between establishing ties with the Iranian mullahs—on the basis of a shared interest, i.e., combating the Left—and funding groups like the Front for the Liberation of Iran. The latter was an extreme right wing group that fought for the restoration of the Shah, and whose leader had presided over the reversion of Iranian oil to foreign control after the CIA-backed coup in 1953. The U.S. pursued all of this while engaging in arms dealings with both Iran and Iraq, the proceeds of which were diverted to the Nicaraguan contras. This duplicitous endeavor came apart at the end of 1986 when one faction of the Iranian government leaked the story, and the Regan administration turned its attention, and support, to the Iraqi regime. Faced with this horrific history, one can’t help to ask, what could have happened if the United States would have pushed for progressive reforms in a country like Iran, or Iraq, instead of propping authoritarian regimes? Moreover, what kind of alternative role can a world hegemon play when faced with such repressive politics such as Iran’s?

In the face of Dr. Menashri’s formulation, “Whenever there has been a clash between ideology and interest, in almost all cases interest won over ideology,” one finds it difficult to conceive of what an effective politics may consist of, given this anemic framework of what is possible institutionally in Iran. It became painfully apparent by the end of the evening that this talk hinged on the presumption that imagining a politics outside of what already exists would result in pure abstraction, a pipe dream without a practical purchase. But perhaps the most telling symptom of the absence of a Left as an international force was the bleak prospect of imagining a politics that could challenge the international context, in which such isolated practices of political repression as those of the Islamic Republic of Iran are able to endure. Whether the realities of global capital could or should be challenged by a progressive political force, to the benefit of people in Iran, was completely off the table.

In a 2005 interview conducted by Danny Postel, Fred Halliday addressed the role of liberals in Iran before the revolution by saying, “In any historical materialist perspective, the ‘liberals’ reflected a more progressive position than the reactionary ideas and policies of Khomeini… The Left’s mistake was not to see this; it was an error comparable to that of the German Communists who, in the early 1930s, allied with the fascists to destroy the social-democrats.” In light of this formulation, and in the face of the present geo-political situation, i.e., in the absence of a progressive internationalist movement, what kind of political position can the Left have in regards to liberal political demands in a place like Iran? This problem raises meaningful questions in regards to the content of progressive politics, that is, it calls for pushing beyond a political response constrained by the opposition of “ideology” vs. “interest.” |P

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