Foreign Affairs

The Islamist Revolution: A Farce in Farsi

Several weeks ago, Tehran erupted in celebration. President Hassan Rouhani addressed a jubilant crowd in the capital’s Azadi Square, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. Western viewers were familiar with the images that would emerge from this event: bearded men and hijab-clad women chanting “Death to America!” amidst burning American flags, murals depicting the Statue of Liberty as Death, and fiery speeches replete with denunciations of America as the Great Satan, et cetera.

Collectively, these scenes constitute the American perception of Iran. To many Americans, Iran is little more than the Central Asian pivot of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” To be fair, it’s difficult to contemplate cultural nuance when Iran’s government is executing people for crimes as egregious as homosexuality or “enmity against God.” When Iran appears in American headlines, it’s usually in the context of state-sponsored terrorism, nuclear weapons, or religious fanaticism.

This is not the full Iran. This is a wicked puppet show composed by propagandists aiming to bolster the legitimacy of the Islamist regime. Beneath the chanting crowds and the flaming flags is a two-thousand-year-old civilization populated by a people yearning to breathe free — a people suffocated by a political quagmire that has exploited their country as a vehicle for Islamic fundamentalism.

1979: “The Awakening from a 2,500 Year Slumber”

In February, 1979, Iran’s relevance to American politics ballooned. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Washington-backed Shah of Iran, abdicated amidst a mounting insurrection against Anglo-American imperialism. While the terms “Iranian Revolution” and “Islamist Revolution” are often used interchangeably, in reality, they describe separate events. The Iranian Revolution was a nationwide thrust against the American puppet government occupying Tehran, with communists, socialists, liberals, and Islamic fundamentalists, both rich and poor, aligning to wrest Iranian sovereignty from Western hands.

The Shah’s abdication signalled the inauguration of a new period in Iranian history. This is illustrated in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, an autobiographical novel which presents a young girl’s perspective of the Iranian Revolution. She recalls her father, a Marxist, remarking that the Persian people had finally awakened from a “2,500 year slumber.” Centuries of oppression at the hands of the Arabs, the ancient Persian monarchy, the Mongols, the British, and the Americans had ingrained a “philosophy of resignation” in the national consciousness of Iran. It was there, in the closing decades of the 20th century, that the Iranian people could finally envision an Iran that was freer, more just, and more independent than ever imaginable.

Satrapi composes a portrait of the post-revolutionary fervor that consumed Tehran. The roar of clashing between police and protestors gave way to the roar of celebration. Statues of the Shah came tumbling down. Political prisoners were freed. Newspapers were allowed to reopen. Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah’s prime minister, formed a provisional government and began to organize elections. Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader who revolutionaries rallied around, was invited back to Iran after a long period of exile.

Alas, the visage of democratization was quickly dispelled. Upon arriving in Tehran, Khomeini was greeted by an exuberant crowd of several million Iranians. Hauntingly, the moderate, popelike Khomeini of pre-revolutionary Iran was not the same Khomeini that addressed throngs of revolutionaries on that triumphant day. Facing millions of cheering supporters, he declared his rejection of the Bakhtiar government, vowing to “kick their teeth in.” He saw Bakhtiar as a vestige of American puppetry that corrupted the Pahlavi regime, and pledged the creation of his own government: an Islamic republic allegiant to Iran, not Washington.

The ensuing consolidation of Khomeini’s power is what distinguishes the “Islamist Revolution” from the “Iranian Revolution.” Khomeini constructed an opposition government, appointing Mehdi Bazargan as his own prime minister. Like Bakhtiar, Bazargan was an advocate of liberal democracy, but he wasn’t friendly with the CIA, rendering him a particularly attractive alternative. Khomeini’s galvanizing rhetoric caused Bakhtiar’s government to fracture. Sections of the military defected to Khomeini, incapacitating Bakhtiar’s ability to retaliate. Even the bureaucracy of the provisional government was shaken by the schism, debilitating Bakhtiar’s administrative power. In April, the upper echelons of the Iranian military declared themselves neutral in the conflict, hoping to avoid an outright civil war. With his support rapidly waning, Bakhtiar fled the country, leaving Ayatollah Khomeini unchallenged.

The collapse of the Bakhtiar government illustrated the success of the Iranian Revolution. The United States was prepared to support Bakhtiar, but in forcing his departure, the Iranian people projected the message that they desired republican governance without the looming presence of the CIA. This was in line with the purported object of Khomeini’s consolidation of power: the implementation of an an ambiguously-defined “Islamic republic.”

While Khomeini’s decision to appoint Bazargan won over the support of the liberals — and some leftists — he rejected any pretension to Western-style democracy. He lambasted democracy as a Western concept, and his appointment of Bazargan came with the following declaration: “This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the Sharia.” Bazargan was little more than an instrument used to orchestrate the Khomeinist consolidation of power. This is corroborated by the fact that, after Bakhtiar’s departure, Khomeini’s Revolutionary Council almost immediately turned on the liberals integral to Khomeini’s ascension.

By 1980, Bazargan had grown tired of wrestling with the Revolutionary Council and resigned. The regime forced the closure of anti-Khomeini newspapers and outlawed the National Democratic Front, one of Iran’s premier liberal parties, after its members engaged in violent clashes with Khomeinist paramilitary groups in the streets of Tehran. The Muslim People’s Republican Party succeeded the NDF as the bulwark of Iranian liberalism, but Khomeini swiftly ordered its dissolution and the arrest of prominent party leaders. To Western observers, it appeared as if the revolutionaries were cannibalizing themselves.

With Iran’s liberal factions incapacitated, the leftists remained the only significant opposition to Khomeini. The Revolutionary Council responded accordingly with the launch of the “Iranian Cultural Revolution.” As Marxism, a German philosophy, underlay the ideologies of the Iranian left, the regime disparaged leftist factions as being corrupted by gharbzadegi — that is, “the Western plague.” Khomeinist paramilitary groups were directed to purge universities, newspapers, bookstores, and other intellectual establishments of Western influence, which had the effect of debilitating the Iranian left. Within the government itself, an additional purge was conducted which targeted gharbzadegi in the bureaucracy, parliament, and judiciary. This, of course, effectively functioned as a purge of leftists from the Khomeinist regime.

Dissonance Between the “Popular Revolution” and Popular Interest

During the Islamist consolidation of power, the clerics commanding the revolution did not entirely neglect their pretext of acting in the popular interest. In 1979, two referendums were held which were meant to establish the legitimacy of Khomeinism. The first referendum, held in March, simply asked if the voters supported the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of an ambiguously-defined Islamic republic. With 98 percent turnout, 97 percent voted yes. International observers concluded that, while the election was imperfect, its results were ultimately legitimate. Following the drafting of the Islamist Constitution — which, incidentally, articulated rights of the Iranian people that Khomeini would blatantly fail to respect — a vote was held to gauge its popularity. With widespread boycotts whittling the turnout down to 72 percent, 99 percent voted in favor of the Constitution.

From the outset of the Islamist Revolution, the Revolutionary Council only purportedly represented the interests of the Iranian people. If anything, the 1979 referendums reinforced the popularity of the Iranian Revolution as opposed to the Islamist Revolution. Beyond the architects of the Islamist government, nobody precisely understood what an “Islamic republic” was. Khomeini roughly described an Islamic republic as “(guaranteeing) freedom of the people, independence of the country, and attainment of social justice.” Of course, these virtues informed virtually every revolutionary paradigm advanced in the wake of the Revolution. Hence, the vagueness of the referendum question prompted a result that was more so a rejection of the monarchy than it was an enthusiastic embrace of fundamentalist governance. The second referendum was similarly misleading in that it proposed a constitution with “democratic character,” but its overarching theological themes essentially nullified any civil rights ostensibly protected by the document.

Beyond detached, hypothetical analyses of what really happened in 1979, first-hand accounts of post-revolution Iran seem to corroborate the notion that Khomeinism is unpopular among the Iranian people. Michael Craig Hillmann, a professor of Persian Studies at UT Austin, makes multiple observations of this sort in his book From Durham to Tehran.

Having visited Iran with the Peace Corps in the 1960s, Hillmann was particularly poised to contrast pre-and-post-revolution Iran with his 1989 visit to the country’s capital. Writing shortly after the 10th anniversary of the revolution, he noted that “the actors of the Revolution…cannot suppose (it has) yet succeeded,” and that he did not “hear much positive commentary by Iranian acquaintances of the first decade of the Islamic Republic.” A certain sadness was present among the people who labored for Khomeini’s return, only to further languish under his oppressive regime.

Despite the omnipresence of anti-American slogans around Tehran, Hillmann did not feel particularly unwelcome or threatened by the people themselves. This is embodied by a rather comical scene in which a shopkeeper remarks, “Glad to finally see an American here” as a sign reading “Down with the USA” looms in the background. In another part of the book, Hillmann recounts being interrogated by a police officer at a traffic stop; after presenting his UT ID and making it apparent that he was a U.S. citizen, another officer implored him to tell the American people “the truth” about Iran when he returned home. Indeed, many Iranians he came across were more antagonistic towards the United States government than the American people.

Of course, he was not well-received everywhere in Tehran. The occasional disapproving glance was shot his way. Customs officials did not exactly shower him in hospitality upon seeing his American passport. People would occasionally greet him in German, anticipating that he was not from “that other country.” This did not bother him, however. If anything, the Iranian people were right to be suspicious of an American fluent in Farsi. In pre-revolutionary Iran, Americans fluent in Farsi were generally affiliated with the CIA. It was the Americans who overthrew Iran’s budding democracy in 1953 and installed the tyrannical Shah. It was the Americans who indirectly facilitated Khomeini’s ascent to power.

Indeed, following Hillmann’s 1989 visit to Tehran, Islamism only grew more unpopular, and swaths of Iranians remained nonplussed by their regime’s vehement opposition to all things American. A Smithsonian Magazine reporter who spent time in Iran recalled being asked why Americans hate Iranians, not vice versa. He was also pleasantly surprised to observe a certain admiration of the United States among Iran’s youth, as well as disinterest in the anti-American curriculum enforced in the Iranian school system. The Iranians appeared more confused by the geopolitical situation affecting the two countries than anything, and were genuinely curious about the U.S. as it existed beyond its satanic depictions in government propaganda.

Opinion polls support the pro-American sentiment gleaned from these anecdotes. A 2009 poll found that 51 percent of Iranians held a favorable view of Americans, ironically placing them among the most pro-American people in the Middle East. Furthermore, a majority of Iranians expressed an interest in restoring diplomatic relations with the United States, while also feeling unfairly antagonized by the U.S. government. Conversely, a 2007 poll found that a dismal 29 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the Iranian people.

The ascent of Donald Trump to the American presidency has done little to improve the situation. A July 2018 study reported that, for the first time, a majority of Iranians now hold unfavorable views of the American people. Declining trust in the Trump administration’s diplomatic aims has also caused Iranians to grow skeptical of the value of negotiation with the United States, bolstering the popularity of Iran’s missile program as a means of self-defense.

A 2018 Reuters article describes a sense of fear pervasive throughout the Iranian populace. A group of students who spoke to Reuters pointed out that Trump explicitly said the Iranians were right to distrust America, and expressed frustration towards Trump’s stubborn refusal to engage in constructive dialogue with Iran. (If there really is an American Great Satan in the Iranian imagination, it would either be Donald Trump or John Bolton). Some students articulated their fear that they would one day be killed by American bombs.

Bombing Iran is something of a terrible joke in American politics. In 2007, John McCain attracted controversy when he sang “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara-Ann.” His campaign defended it as a meaningless joke, but it signals an alarming complacency toward the idea of a military strike. Any sort of military maneuver against Iran could erupt into a geopolitical catastrophe that would further damage American legitimacy and wreak havoc upon the Iranian people.

Not only would the war elicit condemnation from the international community and tax American military capacities far greater than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; it would also slow regime change by substantiating the devilish image of America concocted by Islamist propagandists. Should Tehran burn beneath a fleet of American bombers, those Iranians admirant of America would surely become disillusioned. It’s worth noting that John Bolton’s presence in the White House renders military conflict with Iran a startling possibility.

Inculcating understanding between Iranians and Americans could be the first step toward the construction of a mutually-beneficial relationship between the two countries. Toward the end of Michael Hillmann’s From Durham to Tehran, as he is going through customs at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, an official informs him that a stack of books in his luggage may not leave the country. After explaining to the officer that these sorts of books are necessary to help Americans appreciate Iran, the officer concedes and lets them through customs. Whether this concession was made to avoid a hassle or out of a genuine interest in facilitating understanding between Iranians and Americans, it cannot be said for certain. But what can be drawn from this exchange is an acknowledgement of the countless barriers in place that prevent Americans from receiving a clearer picture of Iran.

As of now, it is exceedingly difficult to visit Iran as an American, Briton, or Canadian, but it is not impossible. Perhaps a relaxation of restrictions on American tourism could aid Americans in seeing that the the Central Asian pivot of the “axis of evil” isn’t as aggressively anti-American as it appears on CNN. Furthermore, as Trump’s rhetoric causes Iran to adopt an isolationist pose, perhaps greater cultural exchange with the United States could further germinate the admiration for American ideals present in Iranian youth, catalyzing anti-Islamist protests that have already taken the country by storm.

Post-revolution cultural exchange initiatives would not be without precedent. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate reformist, expressed interest in orchestrating Iran’s emergence from decades of isolation. His first remarkable gesture of rapprochement was his invitation of American wrestlers to a prominent Iranian wrestling tournament. The U.S. agreed to participate, and its wrestling team was received tremendously well. Pleased with this success, Khatami reached out to American NGOs to further re-establish cultural, academic, and scientific dialogue with Americans.

Alas, Khatami was succeeded by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-line fundamentalist who constricted the flow of engagement between Iran and the United States. The Bush administration responded with the formation of the Iran Regional Presence Office, which sought to maintain the cultural detente occurring between the two countries. The IRPO oversaw bilateral tourism initiatives, academic exchanges, scientific collaboration, American-Iranian sports tournaments, radio and television broadcasting, speaker programs, and other measures which served to bridge the chasm between America and Iran.

While plenty of Iranian politicians were supportive of fostering understanding with the United States, fundamentalists were apprehensive about potentially sowing the seeds of revolution by exposing their populace to the Western world. Indeed, the 2009 Iranian Green Movement — a monumental uprising against President Ahmadinejad — appeared to vindicate their hesitance. Hence, exchange initiatives have been volatile, subject to obstruction at the hands of Islamist radicals. Regardless, as the Atlantic Council concluded in its report on US-Iran cultural relations: “The goodwill of the Iranian people is ultimately the biggest US asset in changing the direction of the Islamic Republic. We should do all we can to safeguard and enhance it.”

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