• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Fall and Decline

Such attitudes are, interestingly enough, widespread among the revolutionaries in Iran today and form part of the ideology of various political thinkers. Professor Keddie surveys certain aspects of Iranian political thought over the last century in a useful and competently written chapter. She concludes that until very recently the main direction of Iranian political thinking has been secularist, anticlerical, and even Westernizing.

What, then, of the Islamic revolutionary thought that has been so prominent in the revolution? We learn much about this from the second half of the chapter, by Yann Richard, which summarizes the ideas of leading exponents of contemporary Shi’ite political thought, including the work of two clerical thinkers, Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani, and three lay writers, Mehdi Bazargan, Ali Shariati, and Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. Mr. Richard is succinct, precise, and intelligent. In fewer than thirty pages he covers a great deal of ground, and much of what he has to say will be new to American readers. Three of his comments seem worth quoting, to give the flavor of his analysis. The first is on Ali Shariati, who died in 1977 and whose revolutionary Islamic ideas have been immensely influential among many young Iranians, including the Mujahedin-e Khalq who now are engaged in a violent struggle with Khomeini’s Muslim forces.

The really political thought of Shariati is not very developed in published texts, even though everything leads to it. His stress on the community following the imamate suggests that Shariati, while making implacable criticisms of totalitarianism, dreamed of an Islamic totalitarianism, the only one he saw as respecting completely the individual, not enslaving him to anyone but God, and not reducing his autonomy to that of an economic producer. Islam is, besides, he says, the only basis for an ideology of permanent progress and revolution—halting any attempt at a return to tyrannical powers and any degradation of political relationships.

Shariati sees Western democracy as rotten, because the power of money and not electors dominates politics. It is also rotten in principle, as universal suffrage, while claiming to create equality, in fact ensures the crushing of the progressive minority by the conservative majority….

Despite the importance Shariati gave in his lectures to a critique of Western society and his insistence on saving a humanism threatened by decadent Christianity and materialism (both capitalist and communist), his knowledge of the West was schematic. Understandably, he did not expand before his audience his portrait of the Christian mystic Massignon, or expatiate on the democratic ideals of many Western countries, but some of his polemics indicate that Shariati was not interested enough in the systems he combatted to study them closely.

Shariati also neglects the history of Iran; he admits that in his studies he disliked history, perhaps because of the use made of it. He refers very little to it; what interests him is an ideal original Islam, not its historic compromises. Hence, his analysis of the relations of Shi’ism with the government since Safavid times lacks references to accessible texts and documents.

On Bani-Sadr:

Two tendencies seem to dominate the writings of Bani Sadr; on the one hand a certain anarchist tendency, which pushes him toward rejecting any domination of man by man under any pretext, and toward rendering possible the installation of what he calls “organized spontaneity;” on the other hand a tendency to make (in his Persian more than his French writings) all analyses, even in the social or economic domain, enter the traditional theological categories of Shi’ism. These two features give Bani Sadr’s thought a contradictory quality, but it is also thanks to these tendencies that he attracts numerous partisans, who are trying to reconcile a desire for liberty with the rigors of Islamic law.

On recent Shi’ite political thought generally:

…most modern Shi’i political thinkers have assumed that solutions to Iran’s problems are essentially simple. They have tended to think that freeing Iran from foreign control and influence and setting up new and fairly simple political and economic institutions, for which they find an Islamic base, will solve Iran’s problems, but this has not turned out to be case. In essence, the new Islamic thought became a potent weapon in making a revolution, but had far less success in building up new institutions. The various books and pamphlets on Islamic politics and economics written in the past twenty years do not, even had they been followed in detail, provide an adequate basis for setting up a polity that could meet the widely recognized needs for social justice, mass participation in political and economic life, rights for minorities and women, a truly functioning economy, and so forth.

One last comment on the book. Professor Keddie sees fit, in three separate instances, to repeat the vague assertion that the religious minorities in Iran, and particularly the Bahais, have “ties to Western powers,” or “ties to foreigners.” Iranians from minority groups such as the Bahais, and Muslims as well, are being executed in Iran today on the basis of precisely such unsubstantiated allegations. It need hardly be said that they have no place in a work with claims to scholarly objectivity, or in one published by a reputable university press.

John Stempel, in Inside the Iranian Revolution, focuses not on the long historical view of Iranian developments but on the revolution itself, which he observed as a political officer in the US embassy. He writes briefly on the immediate causes of the revolution; at much greater length on the months preceding the fall of the Shah and the seizure of power by the revolutionaries in February 1979; and again briefly on events following the revolution. He provides a detailed, factual, narrative account of these developments, but he does not view them from any particular historical or social perspective.

In looking at the causes of the revolution or the American failure in Iran, or the twists and turns of crises as the revolutionary fever spread, Mr. Stempel offers a wide variety of explanations, but we do not learn what weight he attaches to these various factors. At every crucial point, he suggests, the revolution might have taken another direction had one of the major actors made a different choice or had a crucial event been differently fitted into the jigsaw puzzle. One such moment occurred, he tells us, when the National Front leader, Karim Sanjabi, joined hands with Khomeini in November 1978, another in December when the Shah rejected proposals for a regency council. “Often,” he tells us, “a choice with broad consequences is narrowly made, based on nothing more than a personality quirk or even random accident.” The author’s perspective thus works like a prism rather than a lens. It has the advantage of projecting the rich panoply of events and of reflecting the difficulty of getting a period of social and political upheaval straight; but his account becomes blurred.

The book is over-long; one yearns for the knife of a suitably merciless editor. The author uses flippant language which at best irritates and more often makes for fuzziness where precision is required. We are thus told that the leading religious figure in Iran is a “super” ayatollah; that the revolutionaries who moved to seize power in various Iranian cities in January 1979 were practicing “their own version of ‘throw the rascals out”’; and that the Marxist Fadayan guerrilla group, making a bid for power, was seeking to “capture all the marbles.” The clerics around Ayatollahs Beheshti and Taleqani, we learn, unhelpfully, “had no use at all for the United States.”

More careful editing would have weeded out numerous small errors and might have clarified the confusion the author sows on the question of the “Mujahedin.” Mr. Stempel seems to believe that the left-wing Islamic Mujahedin-e Khalq, who are now busy trying to overthrow Khomeini, and the revolutionary guards, who are now fighting them on the streets of Tehran, are all part of the same general group.

Mr. Stempel provides a vivid description of a night-of-the-long-knives on February 14, when “Mujahedin” (by which he appears to mean members of the revolutionary guard) and the members of the Marxist Fadayan guerrilla movement fought it out on the streets of Tehran and “went from house to house…seeking their counterparts and shooting at their rivals.” The killing is supposed to have continued for another three days. The only difficulty with this dramatic affair is that it never took place. Revolutionary guards and the Fadayan did fight each other, but that was later and took place not in Tehran, but in Kurdistan and in the Turkoman region.

On the other hand, when Mr. Stempel is discussing matters with which he is directly familiar, he is interesting and informative. Like William Sullivan, the former American ambassador to Iran, Mr. Stempel is able to provide valuable details on the political negotiations that took place on the eve of the fall of the monarchy and involved the Shah, Iranian elder statesmen, members of the opposition close to Khomeini, and, indirectly, American diplomats in Tehran.

The question raised by both Mr. Stempel and Mr. Sullivan is a dramatic one. Was there a good possibility that a more intelligent US policy might have helped to bring about the peaceful removal of the Shah from office and the installation of a more stable revolutionary regime? It is clear from their accounts that the participants, including the Shah, sought from the negotiations a moderate solution to the Iranian crisis. The negotiators for the opposition hoped through these talks to achieve a peaceful transfer of power from the monarchy to its revolutionary successors. Both parties sought to involve the United States in the discussions: the Shah because he hoped the United States would use a leverage it did not have to temper the demands of the opposition; the opposition negotiators because they wanted the Americans to persuade the Shah to leave the country, turn over to them control of the army, and make possible a nonviolent transfer of power. Both Mr. Stempel and Mr. Sullivan make it clear that by early November 1978, the US embassy strongly doubted that the Shah could survive. Ambassador Sullivan himself attempted to use American good offices to ensure that the army remained intact and to facilitate the transfer of power to the moderate wing of the Khomeini camp.

The revolutionary position, Mr. Stempel tells us, was explained to American diplomats primarily by two leading opposition figures, Mehdi Bazargan and Nasser Minatchi. Both were closely associated with the Iranian Committee for the Defense of Human Rights. Bazargan was the leader of the Freedom of Iran movement and was to become the first prime minister of the Islamic republic. Minatchi would become minister of information. Both were moderate nationalists who were eventually swept from office. Although their contacts with the “Great Satan” were later decried by the hard-line clerics around Khomeini, there is little doubt that Khomeini and his advisers in Paris were fully aware of their discussions with the embassy.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print