The Enigma of Iranianism

Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos
A peasant kissing the feet of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi during a ceremony to distribute land deeds, Isfahan, 1962

For most Americans Iran is a riddle wrapped in a bundle of incomprehensible and highly inflammable contradictions. For decades, before the creation of the Islamic Republic in the late 1970s, Iran was admired in the US as an indispensable ally, a favored arms customer, and even a policeman in the Persian Gulf. It is now portrayed as an implacable opponent and looming threat incessantly scheming to expand its influence from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. For decades its shah would make annual visits to the White House to extend and receive flatteries. The present Supreme Leader would not stoop to visit any foreign country, let alone the Great Satan.

For decades, modern-looking men with clean-shaven faces, sporting silk ties and wearing Italian suits, had led Iran. They could converse in fluent French and, even more conveniently, in English. They were sometimes criticized for being autocratic, but they were at least “our” autocrats. The country is now led by turbaned and gray-bearded clerics aided by stubble-faced technocrats deeply distrustful not only of US foreign policy but also of many aspects of secular culture—except nuclear technology.

What is more, for decades the US considered Iran to be an oasis of stability in a region of instability. Then, in a brief fifteen months between 1977 and 1979, Iran experienced a dramatic upheaval: the replacement of the monarchy with the Islamic Republic, which led to a radical transformation in the system and legitimacy of government and in the concept of the social order. The Islamic Revolution was accompanied by considerable violence, although not as much as the revolutionaries liked to claim, and by an impressive amount of mass participation—and it prompted nearly one million people to flee the country.

Thomas Carlyle, writing about 1789, declared that real revolutions were a “transcendental…Phenomenon of our Modern Time,” which would hopefully erupt only once in a millennium. He clearly exaggerated their rarity, but he had a point in doing so. Along with the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, the Iranian Revolution can be listed among the few that completely reshaped their societies. Americans were mesmerized by footage of the very first revolution to be televised, and then outraged by nightly coverage of the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran, which lasted for 444 days.

Since 1980 the US has openly advocated regime change and even military strikes against Iran. The two countries enjoyed a brief détente in 2015, when President Obama signed the nuclear agreement and replaced talk of overthrowing the regime with calls for it to change its behavior. This interlude ended abruptly in 2017, when Donald Trump denounced the nuclear agreement and assigned CIA Director Mike Pompeo to destabilize the Islamic Republic. Trump’s decision on May 8…

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