Sunday, October 30, 2005

Andrew Cockburn, "The New Iran" (2000) - Retrospect on a failed experiment of reform-within-the-system

Update, 10/30/2005: The landslide election of Mohammed Khatami as President of Iran in 1997, on a program of democratic and modernizing reform within the framework of the Islamic regime, initiated a period of expanded political openness, debate, and mobilization in Iran. A string of decisive electoral victories by reformers over the next 6 years at every level of the political system (including the even more lopsided re-election of Khatami as President in 2001) reinforced the impression that dramatic and peaceful changes were now possible, both within Iranian society and between Iran and the outside world.

However, the theocratic hard-liners, headed by Khomeini's successor Ali Khamenei, still controlled the non-elective part of the Iranian government, which happens to include almost all the real levers of power--the army, the police, the judiciary, the intelligence services, foreign policy, various councils with the power to invalidate laws and disqualify political candidates, etc. Using these and other instruments, including a few unofficial threats, beatings, and assassinations, the hard-liners were able to block the reformers, undermine them, and eventually demoralize them. By 2003-2004 it was clear that the whole Khatami-led project of reform within the system had hit a dead end. In the 2005 elections, the hard-liners were able to install as President a radical (and reactionary) exponent of classic Khomeinist ideology, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, so that they now control the elective part of the government as well. The Khatami experiment is now definitively over.

(I've discussed these developments in a few pieces over the past few years, including "Is Iran approaching its 1989? (June 2003)", "End of the Road for Khatami?", and "The Iranian Dubcek bows out".)

The piece below that the British journalist Andrew Cockburn published in April 2000, "The New Iran", very nicely captures the sense of hope and political possibilities that this reformist opening aroused in many observers. With the benefit of hindsight, many of Cockburn's confident judgments, and the practical conclusions he drew from them, now look not only wrong but naive. For example:
[Robin Wright's] conclusion is simple and hard to quarrel with: The Islamic revolution in Iran is reforming itself, struggling free of the suffocating embrace of the religious tyranny imposed by Khomeini after the overthrow of the Shah. The men (and, to a lesser but still surprising extent, women) now taking power are, she makes clear, intent on improving relations with the United States. [....]

For a time, it appeared that Khomeini's hard-line heirs would not give up their power without a fight. Liberal student demonstrations were brutally broken up; a death squad operating from within the intelligence service began killing prominent reformist intellectuals. It is therefore all the more cheering that, in the end, the Iranian revolution appears to be reforming itself peacefully [....]
Well, apparently not. But this piece is most useful in bringing out the historical ironies and disappointments associated with this whole episode in Iranian history. Even though this political enterprise turned out to be a failure, it was probably necessary for it to be tried and to fail before Iranian political society could move on to the next step (not unlike the 1968 experiment in Reform Communism in Czechoslovakia, which helped convince the Eastern European opposition movements that no real change could be accomplished within the system). It remains to be seen what that next step will be, and how the long-term consequences of the Khatami experiment will play themselves out. A great deal depends on that, not just for Iranians but for the rest of us, too. Will there be an Iranian version of 1989? Probably not any time soon--but if something along these lines doesn't happen in the not-too-distant future, we are all in trouble, because right now all the foreseeable alternatives look pretty scary.

--Jeff Weintraub

__________________________

Andrew Cockburn, "The New Iran"
(Washington Monthly, April 2000)


The New Iran


By Andrew Cockburn

Coinciding with the recent triumph of reformers in the Iranian parliamentary elections, Robin Wright's depressingly titled book [The Last Great Revolution] (are there really to be no more great revolutions?) is timely indeed. With impressive diligence she conducts us on a brisk trot round the modern Iranian social landscape, especially that part of it inhabited by enlightened reformers. The result is instructive and important to Americans reared on a media diet of fanatical mullahs preaching jihad to chanting masses.

Wright excels in the personal story---plunging into street demonstrations to elicit the life histories of youthful participants, dropping by a family-planning clinic to monitor young couples discussing sex, interviewing former revolutionaries, museum guards, carpet sellers, journalists, and many more, with impressive energy. At times I felt exhausted by her sheer industry. Her discussions with the liberal Islamic scholar Abdul Karim Soroush, one of the bravest and most interesting figures of contemporary Iran, as well as the redoubtable politician Ataollah Mohajerani, are particularly interesting.

Her conclusion is simple and hard to quarrel with: The Islamic revolution in Iran is reforming itself, struggling free of the suffocating embrace of the religious tyranny imposed by Khomeini after the overthrow of the Shah. The men (and, to a lesser but still surprising extent, women) now taking power are, she makes clear, intent on improving relations with the United States.

I hope Wright's book will be closely studied in Washington, where the Iranian "threat" is apparently still taken seriously in some quarters. Iran's missile program is, for example, customarily invoked as justification for the missile defense boondoggle, while the administration goes to enormous lengths to ensure that Caspian oil will not be routed, as the oil companies would prefer, through Iran, but rather through war-torn states of the former Soviet Union. Since there are so very few threats to go round in today's world, it may be some time before the national security establishment can tear itself away from the useful specter of militant ayatollahs.

In fact, Iran was never much of a threat in the first place. When our friend the Shah was overthrown by his enraged subjects, who went on to indicate in the hostage crisis that they had their beefs against the United States, threatmongers had us trembling in our beds at the prospect of militant Islam sweeping out of the desert sands and menacing Western civilization as we know it. Yet the Iranian revolution was principally an uprising against the secular modernism of the Shah's regime that had signally failed to promote social justice in Iran. Whatever Ayatollah Khomeini may have hoped, it had little export potential.

The theocracy espoused by Khomeini was a novel perversion even of Shia Islam, let alone the Sunni variant to which the vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere adhere. "velayat-i faghi," the notion of a religious leader holding supreme political power, was given a very sniffy reception by theologically more eminent Shia figures, such as Grand Ayatollah al-Khoie, venerated religious leader of the 12 million Iraqi Shia. Thus, when Khomeini reached out to subvert his Iraqi co-religionists soon after taking power, few of them heeded his call. In fact, the Iraqi Shia fought tenaciously for Saddam Hussein against the Iranians over eight bloody years. The Shia of Saudi Arabia never posed much of a threat to the monarchy and were eventually bought off.

Further afield, the triumph of the revolution in Iran may have appeared to have found echoes in other Muslim countries with the appearance of fanatical groups pledged to "renewal" of their faith by returning to the alleged purity of seventh-century Islam. As in Khomeini's Iran, this involved adopting as dogma the most intolerant of the Prophet's revelations---chopping off the hands of thieves, subjugation of women, etc. But such movements have rarely successfully taken power, and where Islamic states have appeared they have not served as models to others. Today, apart from Iran, the sum total of successful fundamentalist Islamic revolutions consists of Sudan and Afghanistan, hardly an advertisement for the model.

Admittedly, there are places where militant Islam still appears to flourish. In Indonesia, for example, a Muslim leader recently told a hundred thousand demonstrators in Jakarta that "tolerance is absurd," sparking a massacre of Christians. Nigeria is convulsed by riots and massacres following attempts to impose Islamic "sharia" law. Pakistan, where the military rulers have followed Koranic precepts in banning interest on bank loans, may yet fall victim to a corrosive fundamentalism. Nevertheless, the overall picture is that of a movement in retreat, most tellingly in the place where it all started: Iran.

Just as Khomeini's revolution was propelled by disaffection with the poverty and social injustice associated with the Shah's corrupt rule, so his successors have suffered from their failure to alleviate poverty and their own very evident dishonesty. On my last trip to Iran I found this to be the dominant topic of conversation across the country: "Prices keep rising, wages stay where they are. The mullahs are corrupt. There's no freedom here." Not surprisingly, the mullahs' failure has led to a gradual loss of interest in Islam itself. It is rare for example to see people stopping to pray in public places, a common sight in supposedly secular states like Turkey.

For a time, it appeared that Khomeini's hard-line heirs would not give up their power without a fight. Liberal student demonstrations were brutally broken up; a death squad operating from within the intelligence service began killing prominent reformist intellectuals. It is therefore all the more cheering that, in the end, the Iranian revolution appears to be reforming itself peacefully, a fact that provides the central thesis of Wright's book and has been notably confirmed by the recent elections. As she concludes: "The Islamic Republic does deserve credit for one of the twentieth century's most important legacies. In ways never anticipated, Iran's upheaval did succeed in creating a climate for revolutions within the revolution." Maybe Khomeini had his points after all.

Andrew Cockburn's most recent book is Out of the Ashes; The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein.

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