The Iranian Impasse
During a visit to Tehran in the spring of 2005, we were impressed by the degree of intellectual freedom Iranians had carved out within the Islamic Republic. The numerous bookstores on Enqelab Avenue across from Tehran University carried an array of newly translated books by Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, among others. A lecture on "Foucault and Feminism" at Alzahra Women's University elicited enthusiastic responses, including one from a high university official clad from head to toe in a black chador. A visit to the literary editors of the country's most prestigious newspaper, Shargh (daily circulation 100,000), led to a conversation that ranged easily from religion and politics to Continental philosophers like Foucault, Theodor Adorno and Giorgio Agamben.
Of course, this was not the whole picture. Books on contemporary politics continued to be heavily censored. On the streets, the morality police harassed women who violated the regime's stringent dress codes, and Tehran University still maintained sex-segregated cafeterias. Those who fought for social and political freedoms lived under constant threat. A feminist activist told us in a matter-of-fact tone that she feared a return visit to "Hotel Evin"--the notorious Evin Prison, where she had been tortured.
We were in Iran during the last days of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who had been elected by a landslide in 1997 after promising to carry out democratic reforms and open Iran to the outside. Some of those promises were kept, but many were not, and the real power remained in the hands of more conservative clerics like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even in the spring of 2005, we felt a hint of a chill as we left the country. At the airport, one of us had to go through a security check, a requirement for any Iranian passport holder trying to leave the country. It was during precisely such a procedure that, a year later, reformist philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo--who had brought Jürgen Habermas, Antonio Negri and the late Richard Rorty to speak in Tehran--was arrested and forced to make a public "confession." By then, conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been elected to the presidency. Ever since, Iran and the Western powers have clashed over Tehran's nuclear program, leading to threats of military action from the United States and Israel and arrests of Iranian diplomats in Iraq.
At home, the Islamic Republic has cracked down hard on reformists, shutting down Shargh for six months and drastically tightening the enforcement of dress-code violations. Ahmadinejad's initial Holocaust denials--which Shargh indirectly but courageously rebutted by running stories about the Nuremberg trials in late 2005--tarnished Iran's reputation in the West. Khatami's era of a "dialogue of civilizations" was over, at least as far as the state was concerned. As if to dispel any doubts about this, the regime arrested several Iranian-American intellectuals who had committed the "crime" of promoting cultural and scholarly dialogue between Iran and the West, among them Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the wife of Shaul Bakhash, a distinguished historian of Iran. (Esfandiari was in Iran visiting her mother when she was detained.) While the situation is not entirely bleak--Tehran's bookstores continue to display their new titles, and Shargh has won the right to reopen--the cause of human rights and intellectual freedom has suffered a significant setback since 2005.
What went wrong? When reform-minded Iranians discuss this question, the conversation often turns to the 1906-11 Constitutional Revolution, widely seen as a missed opportunity for democratic modernization. This has been especially true in the past couple of years, as its centenary is celebrated by Iranians at home and abroad.
The Constitutional Revolution was the first democratic revolution to take place in the Middle East, and perhaps the most important. The revolution established a freely elected Parliament and a Constitution with civil liberties, severely limited the powers of the shah and promoted the establishment of women's schools and councils. It also set up a state-based judiciary that challenged the traditional authority of the Shiite clerics. As Yann Richard, France's leading Iran specialist, observes in his latest book L'Iran: Naissance d'une république islamique (Birth of an Islamic Republic), from the late eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century the Shiite clergy had provided a counterweight to the monarchy. But with the emergence of two heterodox offshoots of Shiism in the mid-nineteenth century, Babism and Bahaism--both of which challenged social hierarchies, including gender inequality--the clerical establishment drew closer to the state in order to combat these dissident religious movements. When the Constitutional Revolution broke out, some influential clerics sided with the state; one of them, Sheikh Fazlullah Nuri, was executed by the revolutionaries. Yet the leading clerics were by no means united in opposition to the revolution: Quite a few embraced the changes, with some going so far as to endorse Nuri's execution.
As Hamid Dabashi recounts in Iran: A People Interrupted, this "revolution in the very moral fabric of a nation" was, like most later progressive movements in Iran, marked by the participation of its ethnic and religious minorities--Azeris, Armenians, Bahais and Jews. The revolution also saw an unprecedented flowering of Iranian literature. Hoping to build what Dabashi calls "an anti-colonial modernity," the great writer Ali Akbar Dehkhoda launched a campaign in the press against oppressive social customs (especially regarding gender). Socialist ideas from the 1905 Russian Revolution entered the country through Baku and Tbilisi.
The revolution faced two formidable external adversaries, however, in the British Empire and Czarist Russia. The 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention, which divided Iran into a northern Russian and a southern British sphere of influence, showed that the great powers were bent on pursuing a more aggressive imperialism in the region. In 1911 Russian troops, with British approval, moved to just outside Tehran and threatened to take over the capital unless the Parliament was disbanded. An internal coup ended the standoff and brought the revolution to an end. Although the 1906 Constitution was retained until 1979, it was reduced to a formality.