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The Iranian Impasse | The Nation

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The Iranian Impasse

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Marking the birth of democratic politics in Iran, the Constitutional Revolution remains a source of inspiration for Iranian progressives. And because the revolution drew upon the support of Western progressives, it has also led some Iranians to reassess their relationship with their Western peers. Not the least of the virtues of Mansour Bonakdarian's erudite and original study Britain and the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906-11 is that it challenges some of the fashionable postcolonial assumptions about Iranian history, particularly the notion that the British of a century ago were uniformly Orientalists bent on establishing imperial hegemony over Iran. Without in any way minimizing the brutality and destructiveness of imperialism, Bonakdarian argues that Iran's democratic experiment was fostered--and not merely undermined--by engagement with the West. His Occident is populated not only by British diplomat Lord George Curzon, who orchestrated the 1907 convention, but also by W.E.B. Du Bois and other participants in the 1900 Pan-African Conference in London, as well as Irish MPs who identified with Iran's struggle for self-determination and freedom. The Constitutional Revolution had many British supporters, at the head of whom stood the remarkable Cambridge Orientalist Edward G. Browne. Iran's supporters in Britain included radical MPs in the Liberal Party, Labour MPs, Irish Nationalist MPs and socialist members of the Persia Committee, which worked closely with Iranian democrats. The socialist and liberal press, including the Manchester Guardian, also sided with the Iranian revolutionaries. These groups maintained that Iran and other nations of the East had the right to determine their own destiny. For a time, their pressure stayed the hands of Britain and Russia.

About the Author

Kevin B. Anderson
Kevin B. Anderson teaches at Purdue University. He is the author, with Janet Afary, of Foucault and the Iranian...
Janet Afary
Janet Afary teaches at Purdue University. She is the author, with Kevin B. Anderson, of Foucault and the Iranian...

After the Constitutional Revolution, Iran's modernization continued but under starkly different conditions. (The best overview of this process in English remains Nikki Keddie's Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, published in 1981 and updated in 2006.) Brought to power with British support in the early 1920s, Reza Shah Pahlavi imposed a new form of authoritarian nationalism, in contrast with the Constitutional Revolution's democratic nationalism. Even as he crushed the left and muzzled political life, he also secularized the legal and educational systems, integrated women and minorities into civil society, and decreased the powers of the clerical establishment. After the Allies replaced him with his young son Muhammad Reza Shah in 1941, the struggle for democracy resumed, with the formation of new political parties like the pro-Soviet Communist Party (Tudeh) and Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh's National Front. The immensely popular Mossadegh, who had earlier taken part in the Constitutional Revolution, became prime minister in 1951.

As prime minister, Mossadegh achieved two cherished goals of Iranian democrats: wresting control over Iran's oil from foreign interests and limiting the authority of the shah. Studies like Mohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, edited by Mark Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne, and Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men have chronicled how the United States and Britain calumniated Mossadegh as a Communist sympathizer, using their intelligence services to orchestrate his overthrow and restore the shah to absolute power. Democratic political parties and trade unions were then crushed by the SAVAK, a brutal secret police force trained by the CIA and Israel's Mossad. Over time, the religious opposition filled the political vacuum.

Muhammad Reza Shah enacted land reform and women's suffrage through the top-down White Revolution of 1963. It unleashed fierce clerical hostility against the shah, with nationalists and leftists divided in their response. Soon to be designated an ayatollah, Ruhollah Khomeini led antigovernment protests against the White Revolution that combined opposition to women's suffrage and land reform with anti-imperialist and antimonarchist rhetoric. In the 1970s, younger intellectuals like the lay theologian Ali Shariati, author of Marxism and Other Western Fallacies, wove Shiism and anti-imperialism into a political theology that won over many leftists and nationalists. For his part, Khomeini resurrected an obscure religious principle known as velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist or cleric) and began to advocate the replacement of the monarchy by an Islamist state, to be led by a supreme religious leader.

As Richard and Dabashi remind us, the revolutionary left played a role in the opposition to the shah. Although the Tudeh had been eviscerated by the SAVAK, a new generation of socialists influenced by Maoism engaged in small-scale guerrilla warfare. In admiring language perfumed with nostalgia, Dabashi celebrates the mid-1970s, with its secular revolutionary intelligentsia, as a period of "cosmopolitan worldliness." That it was, indeed; but for all their sophistication and creativity, the Iranian leftist intellectuals of the 1970s failed to grasp the dangers of Islamism, ignoring or overlooking its racist, sexist and theocratic aspects in the name of the struggle against the shah and Western imperialism. During the 1978-79 revolution, Khomeini promised a break with Western imperialism--both cultural and political--and a new type of politics that would be superior to both liberal democracy and statist socialism. Instead, as Said Amir Arjomand has shown in The Turban for the Crown, Khomeini established a theocracy that had some parallels to fascism and immediately targeted leftists, feminists, gay men and Kurds. Bahaism was proscribed, and other religious minorities were reduced to second-class status.

Although some Iranian leftists briefly defended women's rights during the March 1979 demonstrations against the new regime's policy of compulsory veiling, their myopia on gender, human rights and democracy left them ideologically defenseless against Iran's Islamist rulers once the latter adopted a strongly anti-imperialist program. In books like Haideh Moghissi's Populism and Feminism in Iran, feminists who participated in the revolution have grappled with the left's failure to confront Islamism's repressive features. The new generation of Iranian intellectuals, for whom Islamism's authoritarian face is only too familiar, has been equally critical.

As Richard shows, the Western left responded to the 1978-79 revolution in sharply divergent ways. Some preferred to look past the Iranian Revolution's religious dimension, viewing the events as an essentially nationalist insurgency. Michel Foucault stood out for recognizing the novelty of the revolution, particularly the significance of religion, but, Richard writes, he was "fooled by the romanticism" of a revolution that sought to undermine Western modernity through a "political spirituality." The most sober appraisal on the left came from Richard's mentor, the late Maxime Rodinson, a renowned French Marxist scholar of Islam and author of the definitive biography of the Prophet Muhammad. Rodinson warned that Khomeini's anti-imperialism concealed an authoritarian "moral" agenda that would curtail individual freedom and women's rights. This assessment has held up far better than Foucault's, but the Islamic Republic also proved to be more resilient and adaptable than its critics predicted.

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