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02/06/09

The Iranian Revolution at 30: Still Unpredictable

By Charles Kurzman (Source: The Middle East Institute)

 

 

 

How is it possible that the Islamic Republic of Iran has lasted 30 years? Some of the revolutionaries themselves are probably surprised by this longevity. In 1979, they wrote a constitution that enshrined Imam Ruhollah Khomeini as the leader of the Islamic Republic. Surely they didn't expect him to live another 30 years, past age 100, but their insistence on Khomeini's unique characteristics made it unlikely that anybody else would be qualified to succeed him.

 

The Iranian Revolution at 30
Source:
The Middle East Institute
www.mideasti.org

This wide-ranging mega-collection of more than 50 original essays is the first of a series of six similar publications commemorating the events of 1979.
 

Sure enough, after Khomeini's death, the constitution had to be rewritten to allow Hojjat al-Islam 'Ali Khamene'i to serve as head of state. He did not have the scholarly credentials to serve as a top-ranking cleric (marja'-e taqlid), much less to overrule other top-ranking clerics, as Khomeini had been constitutionally permitted to do, yet the Islamic Republic survived.

 

Most international observers didn't expect the Islamic Republic to last this long. They have been talking about the regime being in crisis since the first year of the revolution, and with good reason. The regime has weathered innumerable crises, from the assassination of much of the top leadership in 1981 to Khamene'i's recent stare-down with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad over interim cabinet ministers.1

 

The most ardent supporters of the Islamic Republic have encouraged this discourse of permanent crisis. Every month, hard-line propagandists denounce some new, unpleasant economic or political development as an indication of a global conspiracy against Islam that must be prevented at all costs from undermining the Iranian people's fervent support of their Islamic Republic. All opposition figures, even the mildest liberals, are said to pose an imminent threat to the survival of the regime. If the regime is so easily threatened, it seems hard to imagine how it could have survived so long.

 

Of course, paranoids are sometimes correct. The Islamic Republic of Iran has faced and survived a concerted campaign for "regime change" by the world's greatest superpower, the United States. In late 1995, Newt Gingrich, then the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, insisted on $18 million for "covert" operations against the Islamic Republic.22  If journalist Seymour Hersh is to be believed, the Bush Administration increased this funding to $400 million in late 2007. Thus far the American campaign has stopped short of invasion, but it would not be surprising to discover when relevant US government documents are declassified that some funding found its way to the secessionist groups responsible for recent terrorist attacks in Iran's farthest provinces. The Islamic Republic has survived this too.

 

In addition, the Islamic Republic has survived the failure of some of its most cherished goals to come to fruition. For example, it failed to export its revolution to other Muslim societies, despite the wave of international Islamic support that Khomeini enjoyed for having overthrown the Shah. Muslim activists visited Iran from around the world, eager to replicate the miracle of the Islamic Revolution back home. Within a decade, these activists viewed their trips with embarrassment. It is difficult now to imagine that many Sunni Muslims once looked on the Iranian experience as a model to reproduce. I recall walking past the Iranian community center in Sarajevo some years ago and seeing posters of an aged Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Chairman of the Guardian Council - showcasing a distinctly un-hip spokesperson for the Islamic Republic. "Have you even been in there?" I asked a devout young Bosnian Muslim. He scrunched up his face at the absurdity of the suggestion. Iran had provided crucial weapons to keep Sarajevans from being slaughtered in the civil war a few years earlier, but even that did not win the Islamic Republic many fans.

 

The Islamic Republic also failed to overthrow Saddam Husayn, a goal to which it devoted several years and tens of thousands of martyrs in the late 1980s. Numerous regimes have fallen as a result of lesser military misadventures, but the Islamic Republic survived. Even more galling than their failure to depose Saddam, Iranians watched the United States make quick work of the Iraqi military in the wars of 1991 and 2003.

 


Charles Kurzman, author of The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran (Harvard University Press, 2004), teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The Islamic Republic even was forced to acknowledge the failure of Islamic governance, one of its primary reasons for existence, with the formation of the Council for the Discernment of the Expediency of the System, more commonly known as the Expediency Council. The purpose of the Council, as stipulated in a constitutional amendment in 1989, is to overrule the Guardian Council when necessary for the interests of the state. Since the Guardian Council's constitutional role is to assess the Islamic propriety of parliamentary legislation, the Expediency Council's oversight of the Guardian Council means that judgments about Islam no longer have the final word. Expediency -maslahat, in Persian, meaning public welfare - has the final word. In Asghar Schirazi's account of the constitution of the Islamic Republic, this amendment was not the first time that the principle of public interest was permitted to trump acknowledged Islamic principles, but it was the first time that this move had been announced and permanently institutionalized. Khomeini prepared Iranians for the change in a famous open letter of 1988 that identified the interests of the Iranian state as the primary obligation of Islamic faith, above such secondary obligations as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage. The Islamic Republic has survived this official downgrading of its commitment to Islamic principles.

 

It also has survived the failure of its promotion of popular piety. A 1975 survey found that 56% of Iranians attended communal prayers at least once a week; by 2000, the rate had declined to 40% (among young adults born after the revolution, the rate was 31%). The same poll in 2000 found that less than half of the sample felt that the religious establishment gives answers to social problems - one of the lowest ratios in any of the 14 Muslim societies polled by the World Values Survey over the past decade. This survey and others show that Iranians are generally devout, but their devotion seems to be more personal than political, contrary to the efforts of the Islamic Republic. In sum, Iran has become just another partly-industrialized, partly-democratic, partly-corrupt Third World country that has unusually tense relations with the United States and Europe. Its Islamic Republic has survived in part because regimes often survive for decades after their initial mandate and ideals have disappeared. When offered an alternative, such as the reform movement that held such promise in the late 1990s, a large majority of Iranians displayed an eagerness for political change. Even then, Iranians were hardly revolutionary - in 2000, the Iranian sample for the World Values Survey rated their own political system relatively positively, averaging 5.84 on a scale of 1 to 10. Among young adults, the average for the survey was virtually the same (5.76).

 

I published a book several years ago arguing that the Iranian Revolution had been inherently unpredictable. There are no prerequisites for revolution that would allow us to anticipate its occurrence - it can happen at any time, whenever dissatisfied people come to believe that their compatriots will join them in protest. Soon after the book was published, a colleague asked me whether I would help make a new revolution in Iran. You never know when an entrenched dictator might be overthrown, he told me excitedly, citing my book as evidence. Khamene'i could go the way of Romania's Ceausescu, who was abandoned and executed in a matter of weeks after a relatively minor event triggered a massive uprising. Apart from the ethical problems of the proposition - who am I to get involved in Iranian politics? - I drew a different conclusion. Revolutions may occur at any moment, but they are very rare. Betting on a regime's survival is almost always a safer wager than betting on it being overthrown. And if my bet is wrong, and the regime is overthrown, then that only confirms my analysis that revolutions are unpredictable.

 


1. According to political scientist Farideh Farhi, Ahmadinejad tried to keep several interim appointees past the constitutional limit of three months, in order to avoid having them rejected by parliament - Khamene'i told him to obey the constitution.

 

2. The funding was publicized before it was signed into law.

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