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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 28, June 27, 2009

Revisiting the Iranian Revolution

Thursday 2 July 2009, by M K Bhadrakumar


The following article was written four years ago in 2005 soon after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory in the first presidential election in Iran. It is being reproduced here because of its current relevance.

Persians invented the game of chess. It seems to remain very much their game. It is “check-and-checkmate” in the epic game between Iran and the United States—for the second time in 27 years. There is dramatic irony in the leadership of the Islamic Government in Iran passing into the hands of a leader who was instrumental in planning the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, which triggered the “hostage crisis” and led to an ignominious end to Jimmy Carter’s political legacy. Carter, too, had advanced a democracy project in Iran, and ultimately became its victim. Is President George W. Bush following in Carter’s footsteps?

”They will never let go of us of their own will. No more than they did in Vietnam.” Humbled by this remark time and again in the restless streets of Tehran and Qom as the Iranian Revolution gathered speed in the autumn of 1978, Michel Foucault, the French historian and philosopher, wrote that he wanted to respond that “they are even less ready to let go of you than Vietnam, because of oil, because of the Middle East”. Some four months later, half a million men poured into the streets of Tehran, up against machine guns and tanks, to wrench liberation from “their” hands. The Iranian Revolution that ousted the US-backed Shah was certainly hard-earned.

Therefore, the efficacy of watching Iran through American eyes has never been a good idea. But the flood of Western media coverage of Iran is so alluring and sedative that most observers end up accepting the soporific almost knowingly, for taking a short-cut to Iran.

Under the presidency of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97), Iran was described for the first time as a country of “fundamentalists” and “liberals”. Rafsanjani was the liberal and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was the fundamentalist. A dialectics was on—so we were led to believe. The liberals needed to be encouraged and the fundamentalists should be isolated so that Iran’s economy could be globalised. With the Iran-Contra scandal, that phase of interpreting Iran abruptly ended—with red faces all around.

During the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the cliché was that Iranians were either “conservatives” or “reformists”. Iran’s salvation lay in the international community facilitating the ascent of the “reformists”. Lately, a further bifur-cation came about—“conservatives” could be “radical” or “moderate”. Still a bit later, another caveat was added—radicals could either be “young radicals” or the “Old Guard”. That such neat characterisations have been essentially polemical emblems is often overlooked.

It is in this sense that Iran’s presidential elections have turned out to be an ethical compass. Authentic politics in Iran has surfaced after a long hibernation of nearly 17 years. Its timing and outcome is extremely fascinating, and no less intriguing. Foucault was prescient when he wrote a quarter century ago:

It [Islamic Government] impressed me as a form of “political will”. It impressed me in its efforts to politicise structures that are inseparably social and religious in response to current problems. It also impressed me in its attempt to open a spiritual dimension in politics... This “political will” raises two questions:

Is it sufficiently intense in the short term, and is its determination clear enough to avoid... Western-style democracy? Is this “political will” rooted deeply enough to become a permanent factor in the political life of Iran, or will it dissipate like a cloud when the sky of political reality will have finally cleared... (a) possibility we have forgotten since the Renaissance and the great crisis of Christianity—a political spirituality. (Excerpt from Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson)


Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory in last Friday’s presidential election in Iran can be summed up as a revival of the spirit of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. We could glance in it shades of what Foucault called “political spirituality”. What happened?

Though the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was drawn from several quarters of the ideological spectrum—social democrats, liberals, Communists and anarchists—its leadership passed into the hands of the Shi’ite clergy. This was inevitable given the working, intimate climate between the Shi’ite and his mosque. The mosque is everyday life for the Shi’ite, life itself. In times of stress or unhappiness, the common Iranian looked toward Qom. If there was a crisis, he looked for the first signals from Qom.

The unprecedented turnout of voters in the first round of the presidential election on June 17 was a clear indication to the outside world that all across Iran, in the mosques, a call had been made that the Islamic Revolution and what it stood for was in danger, and a renewal of faith in demons-trative terms had become a “historical” necessity. Outsiders cannot easily understand the “historical” imperative except by recalling the context of the tragic fate and the sense of tragedy, of the wrongs and misfortunes that accompany them, embedded in the Shi’ite consciousness.

In the Shi’ite world, hardly anything went right for centuries. Fate slipped through the Shi’ites’ hands; every ray of hope would fade as soon as it began to shine. Acts of incredible abjuration, courage and spiritual strength in Shi’ite history, the ideology of contestation and resistance, and of a defiant preservation of distinctness and dignity—these are the hallmarks of the epic of the Shi’ites. (We are witnessing the early stages of its political expression unfolding in Iraq, and a variant of it in Lebanon.)

Why should the “signals” from the mosque have gone in favour of Ahmadinejad? Wasn’t Rafsanjani, too, of Iran’s “clerical establishment”? Two out of every three Iranian voters have chosen Ahmadinejad.

To find an answer, we must revisit the Iranian revolution. There were two broad political streams in the revolutionary Shi’ism that overthrew the Shah’s despotic rule. These were the currents of freedom and dignity with social justice, and, secondly, the mystical-commercial-gustatory nexus between the clergy and the Iranian bazaar. The demonic force of Persian nationalism galvanising the revolution and the towering presence of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, the long-awaited 12th Imam, subsumed the contradictory political currents through the 1980s, though dissent had broken out in the revolutionary camp no sooner than the Shah was banished into exile. Of course, dissent took many forms: for example, the titanic power struggle between Ayatollah Behesti, the hardline puritan, and Bani Sadr, who led the intelligentsia, the students and the mujahideen. (Rafsanjani played a cynical role then, too, and rode to power by aligning with Behesti.)

The preoccupations over the eight-year Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) precluded the dissent from becoming an outright schism. Soon after, Iran plunged into the depths of sorrow and loss with the passing away of Khomeini. The Rafsanjani presidency that followed (1989-97) presided over a country deeply in mourning attending to the million bleeding wounds inflicted by the war. That was hardly the time for settling dissent. Besides, Iran was confronted by continued American hostility, despite the latter’s assurances of peaceful cohabitation that provided the basis of the resolution of the “hostage crisis”. Rafsanjani, an astute politician of Machiavellian proportions, utilised the prevailing political climate for assembling a domestic coalition in which bazaari interests reined supreme. All within his coalition benefited, including corrupt sections of the clergy, and, without doubt, himself. Marooned in corruption and political cynicism, by the end of the Rafsanjani presidency, the Iranian Revolution seemed to have all but extinguished itself. Iran became, once again, ripe for change and “reform”.

Mohammad Khatami offered a fresh look. Viewed through the prism of “reformism” versus “conservatism”, Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005) may appear as an unmitigated failure. But, paradoxically, it was the intensity that Khatami brought into the Iranian debate that eventually sharpened the hitherto unresolved questions of Iran’s revolutionary legacy - and, arguably, swept Ahmadinejad into power.

A politician’s success ultimately rests on his ability to “connect” with the people. Ahmadinejad’s success lies here. On the contrary, Rafsanjani became a victim of the opportunist politics that he spawned—by somewhat downplaying his bazaari links and instead positioning himself cleverly as a “reformist” (applauded no doubt by the West: his advisers had already commenced discussions with the British Embassy in Tehran for a compromise over Iran’s nuclear issue), as a benevolent uncle of the Iranian youth and the middle class of north Teheran. Rafsanjani simply went too far in a direction that alienated the common man.

Son of a blacksmith, Ahmadinejad’s fierce championing of the downtrodden struck a chord among the “pious poor”, both in the rural areas and among the urban poor—be it on land redistribution or emphasis on social justice. His impeccable revolutionary pedigree (he played a role in the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979), his personal integrity and Spartan private life, his unquestionable loyalty to the regime, his anti-American rhetoric, his pledges to fight poverty, corruption and discrimination, his promise of a fairer distribution of Iran’s vast oil wealth (instead of by “one powerful family” as he put it)—all this immensely appealed to the common people.


The most important aspect of Ahmadinejad’s politics is that his platform attempts to put the derailed Iranian Revolution back on track—making amends for the deviations of the “Rafsanjani era”. It harks back to the two principal ideologues of the Iranian Revolution—Ayatollah Shariatmadari and Ali Shariati. For Shariatmadari, all power was bad except the power of the imam. He inspired among the Iranian revolutionaries the vision of an Islamic Government characterised by an absence of hierarchy in the clergy, which allowed religious leaders independence from one another, but placed a dependence on those who listened to them and gave importance to purely religious authority; an Islamic Government that was more a movement that gave a permanent role in political life to the traditional structures of Islamic society; an Islamic Government that allowed continuing activity of political centres spawned in mosques and religious centres all over the country, introducing a spiritual dimension to political life—what Foucault called a “political spirituality”.

Ali Shariati, enshrined as the “invisible present”, or the “ever-present absent” (the highest privilege that Shi’ism permits), and who studied in France, brought into the revolution an entire doctrine of non-Marxist socialism. Though coming from a religious background, Shariati preached that the true meaning of Shi’ism should not be sought in an institutionalised religion but in the sermons of social justice and equality as preached by the first imam. Shariati’s martyrdom stands out, without doubt, as one of the most poignant sagas of the Iranian Revolution. It must be recalled that Shariati’s name was the only name that was called out, besides that of Khomeini, by the young Iranian Revolutionaries (like Ahmadinejad) pouring out into the streets in the winter of 1978. By echoing Shariati’s sermons, Ahmadinejad in his election speeches reached out to the slumbering collective memory of the Iranian Revolution—revisiting the revolution itself.

Thus, the election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as the new President of Iran is bound to jog American memories of Iran. But, first, what could be the impact of Ahmadinejad’s election for the outside world minus the US (and, of course, Israel)?

To begin with, it should be clear to anyone who followed the lively Iranian election campaign over the past several weeks that the main plank of Ahmadinejad’s “manifesto” was Iran’s domestic issues. Ahmadinejad repeatedly emphasised in his campaign speeches that he would lead the Iranian people back to the principles of the Iranian Revolution—namely, economic development based on social justice and national dignity. He made promises on land reforms, employment generation, fair distribution of oil wealth, social control over national resources, support for the weaker sections of society, the fight against corruption, etc. He hardly spoke on international issues.

Inevitably, Ahmadinejad has taken positions on the two issues that are central to Iran’s foreign and national security policy at the moment—Iran’s relations with the US and its nuclear programme. On the first, he has gone on record saying that any normalisation cannot but be on the basis of Iran upholding its national interests. He has emphasised that Iran will not compromise on its national dignity and freedom of action on international issues. His rhetoric is strongly anti-American.

On Iran’s nuclear programme, Ahmadinejad has asserted that Iran will not give up its right to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme and develop nuclear technology, consistent with its privileges and obligations as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Ahmadinejad completely conformed to the stated official Iranian position on the nuclear issue.

Equally so, something must be said about how Iranian statecraft works. One of the enduring legacies of Khomeini has been that policy-making in Iran is a highly diffused process with a regime of interlocking mechanisms providing an underpinning with a view to ensure that optimal discourse and debate takes place on all vital issues of national interest and arrives at a consensus. Khomeini thought of such a regime taking into account the diverse social, political and ideological base of the Iranian Revolution, apart from acting as a safeguard against foreign interference.

Thus, the office of the Iranian President is vastly different from the American or French system. It is no doubt an executive office, but in the formu-lation of national policies, it works within a collegium. It is rendered “powerless” if it puts itself at odds with other key policymaking institutions—the majlis (parliament), the Expediency Council, the Guardians Council and, of course, the Supreme Leader, who is the ultimate embodiment of authority.

Iran has a highly effective National Security Council (NSC), which is the brain trust of the government on foreign policy and security issues. The Foreign Ministry carries out the NSC’s decisions but is far from being the “foreign policy establishment”. The majlis appropriates an assertive role in foreign policy. This system of policymaking has ensured consistency to the fundamentals of Iranian foreign policy over the years, and at the same time enabled Tehran to react to the outside world in terms of its national interests. Clearly, it is downright churlish to view Ahmadinejad’s election in apocalyptic terms.

But Ahmadinejad’s presidency will have certain new features. Firstly, in systemic terms, there will be far greater ideological cohesion at the policymaking level in Tehran. Arguably, never in the past 17 years of the Iranian Revolution, since Khomeini passed away, has the country had such cohesion at the leadership level as it will have in the coming period. This, in turn, means that a hostile power such as the US can no longer bank on a policy of fragmenting the Iranian leadership structure (“fundamentalists” versus “liberals”, “conservatives” versus “reformists”, “radical” conservatives versus “moderate” conservatives, “young revolutionaries” versus the “Old Guard”, unelected clerical bodies versus representative state organs, etc.) and breaking the national consensus.

Taking the above factors into account, the US will be seriously limited in threatening Iran at the present juncture. From now on, Washington knows —and Tehran knows too—that an outright military invasion of Iran has become a “non-option” more than ever. The national solidarity in Iran makes any form of intervention a non-starter for a foreign power. On the contrary, the US policy of contain-ment of Iran has not worked either. Iran’s inter-national standing has never been as comfortable as it is today. Soaring oil prices could make Iran an even more important interlocutor.

European powers are unlikely to jeopardise their cooperation with Iran for the sake of sub-serving American interests. The same is the case with Japan. Iran’s relations with Russia and China are fast assuming the nature of strategic partnership. On the other hand, Iran’s cooperation is crucial for maintaining security in Afghanistan and Iraq—which happen to be “bleeding wounds” for the US.

Over and above all this, the carnival of democracy in Iran makes a complete mockery of the Bush Administration’s democracy project in the Middle East. Tehran has thrown a gauntlet on the arena: can Washington afford to allow a legitimisation of state power by the Arab street?

Finally, the mainstream impulse of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had been toward bringing Iran within the community of nations that emerged out of national liberation struggles in the developing world—in radical departure from the Shah’s proclivities of locating Iran within the four walls of the Western world. Thus, in sharp contrast with most other candidates in the presidential election, Ahmadinejad has made it abundantly clear that he is not in any hurry to normalise relations with the US.

The Iranian revolutionaries planned the “hostage crisis” of 1979 as an insurance against any brazen

American attempt to interfere with the flow of the Islamic republic’s destiny. By choosing an unvar-nished revolutionary to lead the country at this juncture, Iranians are once again signalling to the Americans to lay off and to leave them alone.

M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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