Iran’s revolutionary spasm

Fred Halliday
30 June 2005

The victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative candidate in Iran’s presidential election, is at once surprising, dramatic, and potentially dangerous.

It is surprising in that few inside or outside the country predicted the victory of a populist and nationalist politician who acquired a national reputation only two months ago. Yet, for all the charges of improper electoral practices (some of which may well be true) the scale of his victory speaks to an underlying mood of a significant part of the Iranian people. As much as the equally clear, nationalist and conservative, voice of millions of American people in November 2004, it is a message the outside world should not ignore.

The result is dramatic in that it emphasises that Iran remains a country of powerful nationalist and popular forces, where the revolution of 1978-79 is far from forgotten. It also reveals that in a crucial respect this revolution is like many other upheavals in moving after twenty years not into a “reform” phase but into a “twenty-year spasm” – a second reassertion of militancy and egalitarianism that rejects domestic elites and external pressure alike (as in Russia in the purge era of the late 1930s, China under the “cultural revolution” of the late 1960s, and Cuba in the “rectification” campaign of the 1980s).

The result is dangerous on two counts: opponents of the Islamic regime may, in their despair at peaceful reform, resort to violence; and Iran’s enemies in both the middle east and the west may be inspired to renew confrontation. These tendencies may develop even as the Tehran leadership itself risks falling prey to the illusions that have beset Iran’s rulers (and many revolutionary regimes) across the past century.

The image of the pure

The key to understanding Ahmadinejad’s victory is popular resentment at the Islamist elite – the post-revolutionary ruling group of around 5,000 men, cleric and lay alike, a kind of Islamic nomenklatura. Over the last twenty-six years this elite has gradually consolidated its control of the state and exploitation of the economy.

Any previous righteous revolutionary leader (Robespierre in 1790s France, Trotsky in his denunciation of the Soviet “bureaucracy”, Mao Tse-tung and Fidel Castro in their anti-bureaucratic mass mobilisations) would understand what happened. I encountered its reality some years ago when I visited the tomb of Imam Khomeini, an expansive conglomeration of mosques, apartments, and restaurants in working-class south Tehran. My secular friends were aghast that, on my first day in the country in twenty-one years, I had chosen to go there. They assured me that the large crowds visiting the shrine were not Iranians but “Afghans and Uzbeks” whom the mullahs had bribed to come with offers of free food and transport.

The shrine administrator welcomed me, and took me by the hand to enter the building where the tombs of Khomeini and his son Ahmad were located (in accordance with Shi’a tradition) inside a large rectangular cage. People were milling around – praying, sleeping, listening to tales of the 7th-century martyrdom of Imam Ali and his son Hussein.

Later, I got into conversation with a man in his late 20s, a person similar in background to the newly-elected president. He had spent several years in the army, and was now a driver in a ministry. I asked him what he thought about Khomeini and his reply echoed the views of many others: “The imam was sade (pure)”, he said – a word also used of a Turkish coffee drunk without sugar. “He was straight. He did not lie.” And then: “He was not like the others”.

The “others” were not the Shah and his associates, ousted and exiled in 1979, but the entrepreneurs, wheeler-dealers, the privileged class of the Islamic Republic, symbolised by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom Ahmadinejad defeated in the second round of the 2005 election.

Rafsanjani’s profile – as a businessman with many commercial interests in Iran and lucrative connections in Europe, who as president (1989-1997) had revealed little ability either to address the economic or strategic problems of the country – was enough to discredit him in the eyes of regular Iranian citizens like the driver at Imam Khomeini’s shrine. But in addition there was between him and the revolution’s leader a vast “moral” difference.

The currents of the past

In domestic Iranian terms the outcome in 2005 marks a victory for Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad has lived his whole career under Khamenei’s patronage, and is loyal to the alternative (and non-elected) centre of political power that he embodies.

The conservative victory signals two things. First, there are very real policy differences within the Islamic leadership. Second, Ahmadinejad’s triumph highlights a vital underlying factor in the formation of Iran’s revolutionary regime: that the state, its ideology and its mentality were forged not in the years of Islamist struggle against the Shah (1963-1978), nor during the course of the revolution itself (1978-1979), but in the much more brutal and costly war with Iraq (1980-1988).

This was the second longest inter-state war of the 20th century, one in which as many as 750,000 Iranian soldiers died. The institutions created during that war – the pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), the basiji (Mobilisation) and the intelligence services – are at the core of the Islamic Republic, not the clergy, the revolution’s political leaders, or the regular army. It is significant that most of the eight-to-ten key people around Khamenei owe their prominence to this conflict.

There is an important historical context here that helps to explain the depth of Iranian national sentiment. Iran was invaded by Britain and Russia without provocation in both world wars; its ruler between the 1950s and the late 1970s was installed then sustained by the United States; and the invasion from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq it endured in September 1980 was followed by western refusal to allow the United Nations Security Council to condemn Iraq and order it to return to the pre-conflict frontiers.

All Iranian political leaders can in principle draw on this historical background, but a figure like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who lived the experience of the devastating 1980s war, is especially well-placed to do so.

The failures of reform

For reformers in Iran associated with Mohammad Khatami, and with the student, women’s and other civil-society movements of recent years, Ahmadinejad’s accession to power is a frightening moment. It also marks the third time in modern Iranian history – after the constitutional revolution of 1905-1909 and the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979 itself – when progressive reformers’ immense struggles against repressive regimes have been overwhelmed by another (popular, nationalist and authoritarian) movement.

This, then, is a moment of truth for Iranian reformers about their own country. The reform movement indeed reflected important changes inside Iran; in the end, its programme of gradual secularisation, liberalisation and opening to the outside world will prevail when the revolution has exhausted itself, as has happened elsewhere.

Fred Halliday is the author of Iran: Dictatorship and Development (1978) and of other studies of Iranian politics, religion and international relations. Six of his books have been published in Persian. He first visited Iran forty years ago.

But the movement itself was flawed: too divided to establish its own political authority, too naïve about the tenacity of the authoritarian elite around Khamenei, and too inflexible to circumvent the ban on political parties in Iran by creating and sustaining alternative forms of mobilisation.

Another impediment was the international context: it did not help Iranian reformers that George W Bush denounced Iran in January 2002 as part of an “axis of evil” four months after Iran had offered sympathy and support against al-Qaida over 9/11, and is now flirting with the most retrograde elements of the Iranian opposition in exile. While this handicapped the reformers, it only confirmed the conservative forces in their confrontational mentality.

Iran in and of the world

In a broader perspective, the election outcome shows how much Iran – far from being an anomaly in modern politics – reflects general trends in the contemporary world.

The nationalist response to globalisation among many Iranians has something in common with the reaction of many Europeans to the European Union constitution or Americans in face of economic and social dislocations. The populist anger at the misuse of oil revenues by Shah and mullahs alike – a recurrent theme of Ahmadinejad – is familiar to radical politicians like Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chàvez in Venezuela; as Terry Lynn Karl notes in her excellent comparative study The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States (1997), many developing states have experienced the political misuse of energy revenues.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as much as George W Bush owes his electoral victory to a popular mood and to the enduring strength within his society of the institutions born of earlier international conflicts. This mood and these institutions will define and constrain the way he addresses the fundamental problems he faces, from the economics of everyday life to Iran’s nuclear programme.

Iran’s new president will operate in a context where considerations of national prestige, regional influence and bargaining power are unavoidable. In this, as in its whole modern history of nationalism and revolution, Iran reflects the global context in which it finds itself. A country whose first revolution exactly a century ago surprised the world as much as did the contemporaneous one in Russia, has once again staked its claim to be a focus of international attention. We can only hope that its new leaders, and its old foes, will check their illusions against reality.

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