Iran in the straits?

How are recent events in Iran to be interpreted? History has a lot to teach us, argues David Madden
David Madden
5 January 2012

Accurate western news coverage of politics in Iran suffers perennially from a single reality: lack of reliable information.

There is no mystery to this, nor to its cause: a tyrannical regime in Iran which permits little dissent and thus little in the way of a free press. With the recent imprisonment of dozens of journalists such as Isa Saharkhiz, it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain an accurate picture of events in Iran as they unfold.

Yet be that as it may, there has been a recent trend in western analysis of Iran which suffers from more than a mere lack of information. In many cases, our understanding of the regime in Iran is based on a basic failure to take the authorities in Iran seriously.

The recent events involving Iran's threat to close the Straits of Hormuz (through which roughly 40% of global oil shipments pass) are a classic example of western inability to take stock of the history. The line being put out by most outlets today is that this is simply Iran acting out; a nation not getting its way and therefore making a lot of noise.

Our governments would do well to avoid such thinking.

In 1978 there were warnings of a popular revolution in Iran to topple the last Shah, Mohammed Pahlavi, warnings which the international community remained concerned about but essentially chose to ignore. The Revolution in Iran thus took the world completely by surprise when the clerics acted on their promise to remove a seemingly impenetrable monarchy armed to the teeth by British and American arms deals.

In 1980 there were warnings of a response by the new Islamic regime over Iraqi territorial threats. Again, few nations took the threat of absolute response seriously. Up to 900,000 deaths and 8 years later, Iran was no longer seen as a sounding gong or a clanging bell; there was fervour behind all the noise-making.

So it is that behind every case of international refusal to take the clerical powers in Tehran seriously lies a severe lack of acceptance of the psychological realities of those who head one of the most brutal, long-standing theocracies on earth. When the Shah Reza Khan (father of Mohammed Pahlavi) set to work destroying the social power of the clerics in his country, he set in motion a series of oppressions which would one day come back to bite. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslim clerics from across Iran were sent into exile to wait twenty or even thirty years to take their revenge. The great irony of the last Shah's life is that he himself spared Ayatollah Khomeini the gallows, on the advice of his adviser, Pakravan.

The oppression carried out by the Shah against the clerics was brutal in its own right, with the SAVAK secret police destroying families, exiling fathers, torturing scholars, and making basic elements of religious life (such as wearing the "chador" or "hijab" in public) illegal. Legal and educational powers were removed from the clerics, denying them the major source of their living, and removing an entire section of traditional life in Iran. It bred a deep well of bitterness among rural and religious sections of society.

Granted, much of what we see today is indeed a reflection of the power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, but this is often so exaggerated by western news outlets that the bigger, more historically informed picture is lost entirely.

The reason, all said and done, that there has been no Arab Spring-style uprising in Iran is that not everyone in Iran wants it; the regime remains popular with many sections of religious, rural, and traditionalist society. Many in Iran remember the Iran-Iraq War, the oppression of the Shah, the destruction of democracy in Iran (when the CIA ousted Prime Minister Mossadeq) and thus don't share the zest for democracy that so many younger Iranians feel.

Ultimately, Iran will decide its own fate and it will not be coerced into deciding either way; it has shown itself capable of enduring serious crisis on countless occasions since the west first set about destroying Iran's sovereignty.

If we believe that sanctions will achieve our aims then we misunderstand the old men in the Council in Tehran, and we do so at our peril, for they have endured enough torment in their own lives to be committed to the road that leads to war. They will follow that road if pushed to do so, and it is perhaps time our leaders accepted this.

Will Iran attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz? It's unlikely.

But so was the Revolution in '78.

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