I-Iranian Revolution Was not Islamic!
Iran’s 1979 Revolution was neither “Islamic” nor anti American (anti-West). It became both in less than a year. At the advent of revolution Iran was at the verge of becoming “modern,” a quest that had begun more than a century ago and seen Amir kabir era (mid 19 Century), Constitutional Revolution (1905-7), and Reza Shah’s reign (1922-1942). By “modern” here we mean an industrialized (advance market) economy, an accountable government (democracy), and secular society. In 1979 Iran had an acceptable record in two of the three of the above. Over 70 years of oil revenues had enable it to build a modest modern economy, despite all mismanagements and corruptions. The quadrupling of oil revenues since 1973-74 oil crisis had purred in so much money that at times government was unable to spend it all. More relevant, it enhanced the “private sector” and made it closer to a real one. This was unprecedented because, due to oil revenues, Iran was suffering from “Dutch disease.” State’s economic role was simply overwhelming. Resource allocations (mainly oil revenues) were not based on logic of market (profitability) but arbitrary political reasons. This may have made sense while economy was backward and underdeveloped, when there was no solid infrastructure and market mechanism was weak. Now things had changed. There was an infrastructure that would meet minimum requirements of a modern economy. The state should have been more of an enforcer of contracts (law maker) and observer, rather than direct producer. Respect for law including personal freedom was a prerequisite for further economic advancement. State’s incursion in the realm of economy, particularly the royal court (Darbaar), and resulted nepotism and corruption was one major source of discontent in 1979.
Iran was also a secular society in the sense that life in Tehran for great majority of people was not much different than Istanbul, Beirut, or many major European cities. It was not uncommon for the young to have boyfriend or girlfriend and go to a movie, bar, or even discothèque together. Although most of the poor and shanti town (a consequence of 1960’s land reform) youth could not afford this life style, many aspired to have it. There was a more traditional and religious segment of society opposed to this life style. Their number in large cities were small, and more important, the cultural hegemony of modernists was undeniable. The appearance (dress, ambience, socialization,..) and content of social discourses were secular and modern. Other than “Islamists” who were a minority (there were around 10000 clergy in Iran at the time, compared to about 400000 today) most people were not unhappy with this life style. They did not come to streets to demonstrate against it. Sadly, this is where the most change has happened under the Islamic Republic. Islamists were opposed to it and ended up changing it.
If neither economy nor society were the primary source of discontent then what was? It was polity. Lack of freedom of speech and association, suppression of basic human rights and institutions of civil society was frustrating. The notorious SAVAK (secret police), the arbitrariness and depth of government intrusion, lack of respect for privacy, and the fear atmosphere that dominated social life were more of a reason for people to demand change. One wonders if the Shah’s regime had let some minimal political openings, freedom of press, and may be a free election prior to the start of revolution how things were different for Iran, and consequently the region and the world.
The revolution began, not by “Islamists” and “Islamic” demands, but by intelligentsia. While upset over the role that CIA played in 1953 Coup against Mossadeq, and the subsequent support for Shah by “Western” powers, the revolution was not anti-American either. In the two year process that resulted in demise of Shah’s regime Islamists gained some prominence. Analysis of this phenomenon is beyond scope of this article. One factor that is worth mentioning is the fact that mosques were the only public space that people could gather to organize. No institutions of a civil society free of full control and infiltration of SAVAK existed. In the first few months after the revolution Iran was among the freest countries in the world. Pretty soon, however, the leaders of Islamic republic realized running a country is much more complex than demanding “Shah must go,” as Ayatollah Khomini had emphasized all along, and probably believed once Shah is gone everything will be fine. Besides, it didn’t look like “Islamization” of society, demanded by Khomeini and his followers was not going anywhere with majority of people opposed to it. Indeed less than a month after the revolution, on March 8th 1979, there was a spontaneous demonstration by thousands of mostly women protesting against government’s demand of forced Hijab for its employees. As a result Khomeini and government backed off. But they did not give up on curbing people’s basic rights such as freedom of speech. A major step backward was in August 79 when nearly a100 newspaper and magazines were shut down. Everyone was frustrated that things were not going the right way and looked for someone or something to blame for failure of revolution. The “perfect” culprit came in form of the “Hostage Crisis.” A takeover of American embassy by a group of “students” meant to last 2-3 days. It aimed to protest US’s admitting of the exiled Shah to the US and embarrassing Prime Minister Bazargan’s lack of revolutionary zeal. The ordeal lasted for 444 days. In the name of “struggle against great Satan” Islamist consolidated their power, crushed all secular opposition groups, arrested and later executed a large number of their leaders and rank and file. They also closed all independent media and silenced all voices of opposition, changed the draft of constitution and added a number of “Islamic” articles and concepts. The most notorious addition was creation of the “Supreme Leader” with godlike authority.
II- Islamists Need Pseudo Crises
Islamists had learned a valuable lesson: Use fear of known and ‘other” to create a “crisis’ and blame everything on it. Indeed hostages were freed only after Saddam Hossein’s invasion of southwestern Iran has generated a “better” crisis. The 8 year old war with over a million causalities on Iranian side and half of that on Iraqi side destroyed both countries economic infrastructure. The most devastating event in Iran’s history was proclaimed a “blessing” by Khomeini. It was indeed a blessing that consolidated Islamists’ power further. It would have continued if not threatening their existence. Only then Khomeini “drank the poison chalice” and accepted a ceasefire. But the policy continued. The “nuclear crisis’ is the latest of these mostly pseudo crises. Its attraction is that Islamic Republic leaders rapped it around nationalism and sold it to the public as matter of national pride ad sovereign rights. It became a symbol of resisting the imperialist bullies. In mid1990s a number of polls showed support for most of IRI policies among people of Iran around 18%. The nuclear policy would score in mid-sixties. It was this appeal, and not quest for the bomb that made IRI leaders to continue playing the game. No doubt that there were, and are, some of these leaders who would love to have a few bombs. Despite their denial it is very likely that at some time in the past they have pursued the bomb. Contrary to the public perception, however, it would have not been primarily against the US or Israel. Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) leaders are many things, include brutal violator of people’s human rights, but they are not naïve or suicidal. They know their few bombs are no match for thousands that US has or tens to hundreds that Israel possesses. More important, despite the harsh rhetoric, they have no reason to attack Israel. They would have wanted a bomb as a protection against their real enemy Saddam Hussein whom at the time (mid 1990s) they were suspicious of pursuing nuclear weapons in secret. But after 2003 revelation of existence of some secret nuclear sites in Iran, acquiring the bomb was not the primary objective of IRI. Having a “crisis” in hand was! They have generated a narrative in which the world imperialists led by the US had destruction of IRI as their top priority.
For the narrative to make sense the other side must also play the game, as the US leaders did. In 1979 US government was suffering from “Vietnam syndrome.” It had a low level of credibility with its own people, and little domination in international arena. The defeat in Vietnam earlier in the decade and Watergate saga were followed by loss of Shah, a powerful and reliable ally. In 1978 communists in Afghanistan took over, an even that resulted in Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in Dec, 1979. US government could use one of those “crises” to rally troops also. The extensive daily coverage of “hostage crisis” played a major role in moving American public opinion to the right and in favor of more militaristic foreign policy. President Carter used it in his “Rose Garden” campaign strategy to crush Ted Kennedy’s challenge in primary elections. Ronald Regan used it to defeat Carter in general elections. In what was dubbed as “October Surprise” Regan’s campaign team met in secret with Iranian officials and made sure that hostages will not be released before elections. Indeed hostages were released the day of inauguration of president Regan. In return IRI received, in secret, weapons it needed to use in war with Iraq. The latter relations eventually were revealed and are known as “Iran-Contra” affairs. This “open hostility and secret deals” relation continued. Numerous sanctions were imposed on Iran for a variety of reasons. This process had begun with the hostage crisis and continued for Iran’s support of Hezbollah and Hamas and a variety of other reasons. The end result was that IRI became the bogeyman of international community. The role suited IRI because it would fit their above mentioned narrative of the whole world was there to get them. Other countries in the region, most notably Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey also welcomed the role that IRI was playing and exaggerated IRI’s ill intentions, both in terms of its desire and its ability to cause them harm. Israeli right wing Prime Minister even elevated IRI to an “existential threat” fully knowing that the Mullahs in Tehran neither intend nor are able to threaten existence of Israel. But it was good policy and worked against the left liberal domestic opposition. Other countries such as China and Russia benefited from this “dangerous” IRI politically, and due to the sanctions, economically. In short everybody was happy. The big losers by far were people of Iran, and to a lesser extent that of the US and region.
III-Two Approaches by the US
Collapse of Soviet Union in 1988 left no doubt in mind of US and many other world leaders that US is the sole super power. As for how it conducted itself, however, there were and are some differences. While Republicans, in particular neo-cons, are more in favor of “hard” power (military), democrats prefer “soft power” (diplomacy). This is not to say the formers didn’t rely upon diplomacy or that latter refrained from using military in due time. It is a matter of degree. A comparison of Clinton, Bush, and Obama policies towards Iran is revealing. Towards the end of its second term president Clinton seemed interested in normalizing relations with Iran. Secretary of State Madeline Albright delivered a conciliatory message on the occasion of Iranian New Year (Nourooz) in March of 1998. Iranian side either was not interested or did not realize how short this window of opportunity was. As a result a valuable opportunity was lost. When Iran’s reformist president Khatami proposed a “grand bargain” deal in 2003 Bush administration was not interested. At the time it was determined to continue its “awe and shock” military policy to Iran, the next in Axis of Evil line. This was new turn in the bilateral relations because to this time the hostilities did not include the “regime change.” Bush administration was bogged down in Iraq after overthrow of Saddam, however, and had to abandon ( or postpone?) the military option. Even till last days of Bush administration fear of a different kind of October Surprise was real and many expected a military attack against Iran.
Obama’s doctrine of reliance on diplomacy won him a Noble prize for Peace even before taking over as president. Based on disastrous outcome of invasion of Iraq he was convinced that “Iran problem” does not have a military solution. Problem was that IRI would not come to table, partly due to mistrust and mostly because the hardliners who have the upper hand did not want to let go of their anti-American rhetoric that has become their identity. To force IRI to negotiation Obama administration extended and intensified the sanctions to an unprecedented level. This was partly due to wrongheaded attitude of IRI leaders (president Ahmadinejad repeatedly said sanctions are not worth the paper they are written on). It was mainly due to diligence, persuasion, arm twisting and threat of Obama administration that the sanction system was so comprehensive and effective. It is doubtful that in foreseeable future the experience could be repeated. Even if the two sides fail to reach an agreement the sanction system would not be restated to its previous level. As a result of effectiveness of sanctions, and wrong economic policies of Ahmadinejad administration, Iran’s economy was at the verge of implosion two years ago. A GDP growth rate of -6% and inflation of 44% are unheard of in any modern economy in peacetime. So the IRI leadership decided to negotiate with Americans, first in secret in Oman and later, after election of president Rouhani, officially via foreign minister Zarif.
IV- Iran benefits from the Deal
The, deal, if reached, is a first step in bring back IRI from a pariah state into a normal member of the global community. This makes neocons and all those in favor of a more militaristic foreign policy in the US nervous because they lose a good “excuse.” Same is true for BB Netanyahu and extreme right in Israel that will be denied this “existential threat.” The hardliners in Saudi Arabia and other regional countries will not be happy either. Russia and China, too, will lose an economic bonanza, and an occasion to demand favor from US and its allies in return for using their leverage to keep IRI from causing trouble. Hardliners in Iran, those who steel dream of “exporting Islamic revolution” are very much oppose to this deal also. In short, it seems everybody loses from IRI stopping to be a bogeyman. Who benefits? As was said If IRI leaders decide to make Iran’s national interest, rather than their own internal and external “Islamization” agenda, top priority, they will find out that a normal relation with the US benefits both countries. Iran and the US share many common interests. Some, such as support for Iraqi and Afghani governments, or fighting against ISIS and Taliban, are obvious and publicized. Less publicized is the daily contact and cooperation between Iranian and US navies in the Persian Gulf. This is a shallow body of warm water full of marine life. If one of the giant oil tanker carrying hundreds of thousand tons of crude oil is sunk in it (something that terrorist groups must be dreaming of everyday) an environmental catastrophe is in hand. For years that has not happened thanks to the coordination between the two navies. Major challenges to Iran’s national interests do not come from the US, Israel, or Saudi Arabia. They come from the north.
Despite being the largest country of the world Russia does not have practical and unimpeded access to open waters. Tsari Russia’s quest for “warm waters” has resulted in cession of big chunks of Persian Empire in the past two centuries. Except for a brief period under Lenin, the quest seemed to have continued in the Soviet Union. During the WWII Iran was invaded from south by the US and UK, and from north by Soviet Union. They used Iran’s facilities, its railroad in particular, to send supplies to Eastern fronts and successfully stop Nazi army from further expansion. This was so crucial that Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin dubbed Iran “bridge to victory” in their 1943 meeting in Tehran. After war was over Stalin refused to pull its troops from northern Iran. One of the earliest cases the newly found United Nations had to deal with was Iran’s complain against the Soviet Union. US’s pressure on Stalin was helpful in the eventual withdrawal of Soviet forces. After collapse of Soviet Union things have changed, not necessarily for better. Caspian Sea, the largest lake in the world, is full of resources. Other than oil and gas its caviar is famous. Before the collapse of Soviet Union it was controlled half and half by Iran and the Soviet Union. Now there are five countries there and they dispute Iran’s claim to half, or much water beyond its coast. The legal status of Caspian see is in limbo. Iran needs all the help that it can get in any relevant International organization or arena dealing with this issue. Another major challenge with huge upsides for Iran relates to the newly independent Asian republics of Soviet Union. They would welcome presence of US in the region as a counterpart to the heavy influence of Russia and increasingly China. These are land lock countries. The shortest, easiest (mostly flat terrain) way to access the rest of world is via Iran with its numerous roads and railroads.
The biggest benefits of this rapprochement for Iran and the rest of the world are in the realm of economic. Iran is a country of 75 million mostly young people with an above average of the region acquired taste for modern products and services. Its labor force, too, is higher than average in terms of education and dexterity. Thirty five years of various sanctions has made it in dire need of modern technology. It also has one of the lowest foreign debt ratios in the world, another consequence of the sanctions. To this one should add Iran’s potential as a hub for access to several central Asian countries. Iran is the best transit route for exports, mostly oil and natural gas and minerals, of these to the rest of the world. All of these create potentials for hundreds of billions of dollar of investment and millions of high paying job for a country that is suffering from double digit unemployment.
V- What to do?
The “nuclear enrichment policy” of IRI has cost more than $150 billion dollar directly, and nearly $700 billion indirectly (in terms of forgone opportunities) with next to nothing benefits so far. The potential benefits of the rapprochement for great majority of Iranian people, and the rest of the world, are so much that justify extensive flexibility and compromises by all sides. Indeed, due to so much opposition to the deal there have to be strong determinations amongst negotiators. On the US side, president Obama and Secretary of State Kerry so far have shown required toughness to overcome neo-cons, pro -Israeli lobby, and GCC objections. Still there is a long way to go to convince skeptical public and media in the US. This “holding our nose” approach of Obama administration towards the deal is not very helpful. While it is important to point out negative consequences of no deal and lack of a viable alternative if negotiations fail, they must also emphasis, ala Cuban case, some of the positives of the deal that the US government and businesses will benefit from. Additionally, they should be more vocal aginst to negative statements, bordering racism, made on “Iranians” by the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu and senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Iranian negotiators have a more crucial role. They have to convince their neighbors in the south that Iran’s return to the mold is positive and beneficial to them. They should start by taking a more friendly posture. For example, they could have invited Saudi Arabia (and Turkey) to the negotiations. If Germany gets to seat on the table, why shouldn’t Saudis and Turks? While convincing Netanyahu may be impossible, conciliatory comments toward Israel and Jews will help the center and left of Israeli politics to be less concerned. By making it clear that they are opposed to Shia extremists as well as the Sunni ones, and do not intend to export a Shia revolution, the IRI leaders may calm down Sunnis in the region. Besides, pointing out potential for future investment to their rich southern neighbors will help. All of these make Iranian negotiators role crucial and difficult. Do the IRI leaders in Tehran want to, and if yes, can they pull this out? It is clear that a great majority of Iranian people want the deal. It is also safe to assume the Rouhani administration want to deliver and bring back IRI to the global community, may be with some ifs and buts and reservations. Those who oppose, however small in number, are very powerful. There are many political centers in Tehran, some more powerful than Rouhani administration. Everybody knows about the Supreme Leaser and his “House” that is for all practical purposes a state within the state and more influential than government. The Revolutionary Guards and security apparatus, too, are very powerful. So are institutions controlled by the conservative clergy. In all of these institutions there are elements opposed to the deal. Although this is not to say these institutions are solidly opposed to a deal. More problematic is the fact that those opposed to the deal do not argue their cases based on rational economic and political cost-benefit analysis. They are in this messianic mind-set that considers any rapprochement and compromise as betrayal of the revolution and martyrs. They claim, and probably are willing to, shade blood, including their own. They have a lot to lose materially and mentally. Rouhani-Zarif must win the cultural war against this opposition. It is very difficult but seems the only way. But again, if anyone can pull this out Rouhani would be it. A clergy who got his PhD in Law from a Scottish university, and has extensive background work within the security apparatus, he led Iranian negotiating team under Khatami. That was the last time that IRI made meaningful concessions.
G. Reza Ghorashi is a professor of economics at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.