As an expedient nod to the democratic movement that propelled them to power, the mullahs’ constitution allowed for a president and a parliament, both directly elected by the people. An important caveat was added to this modest democratic gesture: all candidates for these posts had to be vetted by a committee of mullahs. This incongruent mix of despotism and a limited and superficial democracy has been a disaster.
Iran’s turbulent history over the past 25 years cannot be understood, explained, or changed without some appreciation of the dynamics that brought about this historic anachronism. Chronic crisis has become the defining characteristic of the Islamic regime. The current crisis—triggered by student protests on the anniversary of an earlier attack on university dormitories that left one student dead and at least 20 wounded—is only the last chapter of this tragic tale. The same social tensions that brought the mullahs to power now threaten to depose them.
Decades of Chaos
Iran entered the twentieth century embroiled in a historic battle for democracy and independence. In 1905, a coterie of intellectuals, mostly from the embryonic middle class, forced the oriental despots who ruled the country to sign into law a new constitution, one that limited the power of the king and allowed for the creation of a genuine democratic system in Iran. But democracy is more than just an idea; it requires an intricate network of institutions; it needs a civil society to act as a buffer between the people and power. It is, as Jean Jacques Rousseau never tired of reminding his readers, a highly sensitive organism, in need of constant monitoring and mentoring; it requires a citizenry conscious of the many perils that threaten democracies, one committed to political patience and well versed in the rules of tolerance.
Democratic laws, grafted from the Belgium constitution, were enacted in 1905 in Iran. Yet the social institutions and political habits necessary for democracy’s survival were simply wanting. The result was two decades of chaos—and chaos, history teaches, is a fertile ground for Caesars who deliver peace at the price of liberty. In Iran, a pair of modernizing but despotic kings emerged. Reza Shah (ruled 1925–41) and his son, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (ruled 1941–79), both undertook to modernize the Iranian economy and much of its infrastructure. The more these reforms succeeded, the stronger the Iranian middle class became. Economic power demands political power, and the Iranian middle class was no exception. As it increased in number and economic significance, its commensurate agitation for democratic rights increased. But the Pahlavis’ Achilles’ heel was democracy. They both believed that despotism was the necessary price for modernization.
Beginning in 1957, U.S. administrations tried to convince the shah to share power with the rising middle class. The pressure was particularly intense, and effective, during the Kennedy administration. The shah ultimately refused, and his refusal became even more defiant when Iran’s increased oil revenues made him independent of U.S. loans and grants. His disdain for democracy was strengthened during the Nixon era, when American officials were warned by the president not to “pester” the shah about it. This hands-off policy was before long followed by President Carter’s aggressive policy of pushing for human rights in Iran, and around the world. The harvest of these rapidly shifting policies and, more important, of the shah’s refusal to heed the demands of his people was the revolution of 1979.
The revolution was also another chapter in the woeful tale of the curse of oil money. A social contract according to which a government serves at the behest of the people is one of the necessary foundations of all democracies. In countries of the Middle East, oil money allows governments to act not as servants of the people but as their masters; men of power control the purse, doling out small portions of the loot to keep their subjects docile; they become corrupt distributors of the oil bounty. The shah specifically believed that, with Iran’s newfound wealth, he could “buy” the political allegiance and acquiescence of the middle class, and he was wrong.
An Unsavory Alliance
The Iranian middle class was denied any chance to organize itself during the days of the shah’s absolute power. On the eve of the revolution, when the crisis threatening his throne deepened, his political scorched-earth policy of the past came to haunt it. There was no moderate force ready in the wings capable of weathering the storm. The mullahs, long imagined by the shah and his secret police to be a bulwark against Soviet or Communist danger, had been the only force allowed to organize. Out of desperation, the middle class and the urban working class united with Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been fighting the shah since 1963.
Ironically, America had a role in Khomeini’s entry into the limelight of national politics. Beginning in 1961, the Defense Department, over the intense objections of the State Department, demanded that Iran grant U.S. military personnel and their families immunity from prosecution in Iranian courts. The issue was particularly sensitive in Iran because of a long history of colonial extraterritorial rights. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fiery opposition to this law and its passage catapulted him onto the national scene. It is interesting to ponder what course Iranian history might have taken if the Department of Defense had heeded the advice of the State Department. Ayatollah Khomeini succeeded in hiding his true purpose—creating a theocracy—in the obfuscating garb of anti-colonial, anti-Israeli, and anti-American rhetoric.
Furthermore, the mullahs were also well aware of the rising significance of the middle class. They realized that traditional Islam, with its emphasis on total obedience of the masses to the mullahs, was not likely to attract the increasingly cosmopolitan Iranian middle class. Clerics such as Ayatollah Khomeini began to temper their public pronouncements to fit the democratic aspirations of this class—witness his impeccable democratic facade during his stay in Paris in the months leading up to the revolution. He was forced out of Iraq by Saddam Hussein and chose Paris as his temporary abode. All too often, in response to journalists’ queries about his future plans in Iran, he would say that he would resume the life of a seminary teacher and have no part in politics. Nor would any of the clergy take over the reins of power, he would insist. He promised freedom for all, including women, and suggested Islam was not given to coercion in matters of faith. All these promises were ignored once he returned home in triumph.
Even more important was the role of the clerics in fostering a new version of Islam, rid of all signs of obscurantism and amenable to the rational tendencies of the educated middle class. According to these reformists, such practices as flagellation during mourning for the martyrs of Islam and such doctrines as the absolute rule of the clergy were inimical to the rational and democratic spirit of the age. In the days leading to the fall of the shah, the writer Ali Shariati’s picture was one of the most often displayed by angry demonstrators demanding the end of monarchy. As a sign of things to come, no sooner had Shariati established a base of his own, and begun to criticize the mullahs, that they turned on him and all but declared him a “heretic.”
This new “modern” version of Islam began to be formulated by such pundits as Shariati. Some of Iran’s most renowned secular writers—figures such as Jalal Al Ahmad—helped this Islamic revival by their sometimes exaggerated celebration of the role of the clergy in fighting “colonialism.”
The power of this unsavory alliance between the middle class, some of these secular intellectuals, and the mullahs was enough to topple the shah. As soon as Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and realized the organizational weakness of the middle class, he began to renege on his promises. The new democratic constitution that was drafted during the months leading to the revolution was scuttled, and in its place a draconian set of laws was rammed through the mullah-dominated Constitutional Assembly. Instead of the promised democracy, a veritable apartheid was created, where a small band of mullahs gave themselves an exclusive monopoly on power, privilege, and wealth. On the eve of the revolution, for the first time in the modern history of the country, the subjective and objective conditions for democracy were more or less available: rudiments of civil society had been created during the shah’s modernizing efforts; a large enough middle class—known since the time of Aristotle to be the best champion of democracy—was on the scene; and the people had repeatedly shown their desire and readiness for democracy.
With the 1979 political heist, this unique democratic opportunity was aborted; yet the middle class continued to exist, even to thrive. Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran in 1980 delayed, for the duration of the eight-year war, an open confrontation between the advocates of democracy and the supporters of the new Islamic apartheid. It is a sad, often neglected, fact of history that in 1983, when Iranians were apparently on the verge of defeating Saddam Hussein, it became the policy of the Reagan administration not to allow his fall.
The Struggle for Reform
When the war finally ended—when Ayatollah Khomeini, in his own words, was forced to drink the poison of peace—the middle class emerged out of its temporary nationalist cocoon and began to once again fight for its demands. Increasingly, ideas about secularism, the rule of law, the sanctity of the private realm, the necessity of a viable market economy, freedom from the predatory influence of special interests and the state, and, finally, normalized relations with the rest of the world, particularly the United States, began to be unabashedly articulated.
Some of the regime’s staunchest supporters returned from the front only to become conscious of the endemic corruption and ruthless oppression that had rotted to the core the regime they had idealized. Their frustrated utopianism turned into an unrelenting demand for democracy. Powerful allies from an unexpected source soon joined the democratic forces. Islamic Student Unions, once the bastions of zealotry, became the vanguards in the battle for democracy and secularism.
In this long struggle, women have played a key role in every stage. They are incessantly defiant in their battle to preserve their hard-won rights and to thwart the regime’s early attempts to create a gender apartheid in Iran—one much along the same lines of what the world later witnessed, with horror, in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. They were the deciding factor in electing the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami president, and today they are no less a key part of the overall fight for human rights and democracy. However, in this struggle a small step forward is often followed by two steps backward.
Dashed hopes can lead to despair in some, resignation in others, and renewed resolve for the most committed. In Iran, some members of this middle class have now taken refuge in drugs. Heroin and opium addiction are, by the regime’s own admission, endemic. AIDS is a ticking time bomb. Corruption and graft have become a way of life.
Another response to the chronic crisis has been exile. Ever since the revolution, large segments of Iran’s middle class, particularly those with professional training, chose—or were forced into—a life of exile. In the United States they have become an economic powerhouse, controlling close to 600 billion dollars of capital. They are only beginning to organize politically. Like all exiles, diaspora Iranians continue to have an avid interest in their native land and its fate. The Internet has facilitated their near constant contact with developments in Iran. They have become an integral part of Iranian civil society. Some elements of this diaspora have a royal “restoration” on their mind, while many others insist on the establishment of a secular, democratic republic. Both groups have become increasingly active and organized in response to the deepening crisis in Iran.
Add to these long-fermenting internal and external ingredients of change the new reality of nearly 200,000 U.S. forces perched all around the borders of Iran, and the apparent attempt of the Islamic regime to acquire nuclear weapons; the result is a new historic juncture full of peril and promise. The need for a clear American policy toward Iran has never been greater; the confusion of policy has also never been more obvious. It is in fact safe to say that, ever since the end of the Nixon presidency, the United States has not had a strategic vision toward Iran. Instead it has relied on a series of short-lived reactive policies. Today’s bluster becomes tomorrow’s empty bluff. The best the United States can do under the current circumstances is to make its strategic alliance with the Iranian people, particularly the middle class with its democratic aspirations. It should declare clearly, and categorically, that it will not make a “deal” with the mullahs. The United States should further help disseminate reliable news and democratic ideas throughout Iran. It should confront the regime’s apartheid policies and its constant breaches of human rights in every international forum. For the rest, it should rely on the recipe provided by Jon Stewart’s Daily Show: to bring about democracy in Iran, create a theocracy, wait 20 years, and stir. Those 20 years are now up.