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Iran: Revisiting the 1979 Revolution

By Jalal Alavi
The 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution is nearing.  The revolution of 1979 was not only an act against the US domination of Iranian politics, which began with the US-British coup of 1953 against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, but also an act that was supposed to place Iran amongst the countries that made the transition to electoral democracy [1] as part of what the late Samuel Huntington and others have called the "third wave" of democratization.
Thirty years later, it seems fair to say that neither of the above objectives has been achieved to the satisfaction of the majority population in Iran, of course, for a variety of reasons, the most important of which, as of the time of the revolution, may be said to be actor-based in nature: those who promised a more sovereign Iran and a more open society decided to establish a manifestly anti-Western theocracy instead, which eventually engendered not only a more interventionist Iran policy on the part of the United States and other Western powers, but also a clerical regime that turned out to be more reactionary than the secular autocracy it replaced.
Thus the turn of events in Iran paved the way for the gradual international isolation of the country under the global hegemony of the United States, which has continued to this very day, as well as the domestic rise in corruption, poverty, and chronic repression.   
Implicit in the above is the important proposition that the Iranian revolution of 1979 could have alternatively led to a more balanced state of affairs at both the domestic and international levels had those in charge of the revolution been less impulsive and thus more pragmatic in their political thinking and behavior.
To be sure, a more pragmatic approach to politics would have required not only a show of indifference on the part of the revolutionaries with regard to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's entry into the United States on medical grounds (as this eventually turned out to be a source of great tension in US-Iran relations [2]), but also firm support for the provisional government of Mehdi Bazargan, whose conciliatory approach towards the United States - under a somewhat sympathetic Carter administration - had the potential of not only improving relations between the two countries at an early stage, but also preventing the occurrence of both the hostage crisis of 1979-1981 and the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1988.
Alas, such political realism on the part of the Islamic Republic is as much a rarity now as it was at its formation stage; hence the current situation, in which the regime is finding it hard to even manage its day-to-day activities.
The failure of the 1979 revolution to bring about a more prosperous and democratic Iran can also be blamed on the Islamic Republic's lax attitude towards the establishment and growth of myriad special interests that have hitherto permeated Iran's fragile, often mismanaged petroleum-based economy.
The "bonyads", or charitable trusts often of dubious nature, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose privileged and thus predatory position in the Iranian economy has not remained a secret to anyone, are to name but two of such special interests.
Added to all this, of course, is the fact that Iran's increasingly volatile state of affairs has made it extremely difficult over the years for foreign investors to take part in Iran's various development projects.
It may be concluded, therefore, that, short of direct action by Iran's disgruntled citizenry, the combination of the above, along with the possibility of even more international sanctions and lower petroleum prices in world markets, is bound to have a major effect on policy decisions within the Islamic Republic.  Let us hope, however, that this effect is not only benign in nature, but also imminent [3].
[1] Modern electoral democracy, rooted in Joseph Schumpeter's notion of procedural democracy, can be found in many less developed countries and thus does not require the sort of structural changes that, say, a liberal or social democracy would require.  At a minimum, competitive elections of a free, open, and fair nature must be guaranteed for a political system to be called electoral democracy.
[2] In retrospect, it seems the effort by some influential elements in or close to the Carter administration to secure the Shah's entry into the United States might have been a shrewd way of dampening the prospects of better relations between the US and revolutionary Iran.  Thus a show of indifference by Iran would have neutralized this stratagem.
[3] Tragic incidents, such as the current US-backed Israeli massacre of the Gaza population, which, according to such prominent international law experts as Richard A. Falk, is a "severe and massive violation" of the very principles of international humanitarian law as defined by the Geneva Conventions, have historically had an impeding effect on the process of democratization in Islamic countries, not least by playing into the hands of authoritarian rulers.

About the author: Jalal Alavi is a sociologist and political commentator residing in Britain.

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