The Iranian Revolution 30 Years On

By Shahrough Akhavi - University of South Carolina | Jan 29, 2009
Flickr user Shahram Sharif
Flickr user Shahram Sharif
The Iranian Revolution 30 Years On

In assessing the progress of the revolution in Iran, it might be useful to recall how other revolutions of the 20th century fared at the 30-year interval. Using their commencement rather than the actual seizure of power as the baseline, the 30th anniversaries of major 20th century revolutions were 1940 for Mexico, 1947 for the Soviet Union, 1964 for China (using the “Long March” as the year), 1975 for Vietnam, 1983 for Cuba (dating its beginning with the attack on the Moncada Barracks), 1984 for Algeria, and 2008 for Nicaragua.

It was only with Lazaro Cardenas’s tenure (1934-1940) that the early land reforms demanded by the Zapatistas were finally pushed through. Meanwhile, many of the revolution’s leaders had been assassinated. In the Soviet case, Josef Stalin’s grip on power became so suffocating that many argue that by 1947 the promises of the Russian Revolution not only had not been fulfilled, but the country had even retrogressed. For China, 1964 came shortly after the disastrous “Great Leap Forward” of 1958 and the concomitant radical People’s Communes policies, which were harbingers of the coming excesses of the Cultural Revolution launched in 1966. In Vietnam, 1975 marked the pullout of the American military and the unification of the country under the post-Ho Chi Minh (d. 1969) leadership. This marked a major political victory, but economically the country was in a shambles. In 1983, Cuba, despite very impressive achievements in areas such as health care and education, faced a precarious economic situation, thanks in large measure to the American embargo but also internal mismanagement. In Algeria, as 1984 dawned, the state’s reputation was mainly as a leader of the non-aligned movement and of the Group of 77 in the United Nations. But serious economic troubles accompanying the regime’s version of socialism undermined these diplomatic successes. Nicaragua was a seeming exception to these cases, as contested elections took place in 1990, with the Sandinista regime voluntarily relinquishing power to a coalition of bourgeois political parties. In 2006 Daniel Ortega was elected President, marking the return of the Sandinista leader to power. The Citizen Power Councils introduced under his leadership proved controversial, but on the whole the society seemed to be moving away from the politics of violence.

What about the Islamic Republic of Iran? Regionally, it has become a leading power, but this is not due to the efforts of the leadership. It has instead resulted from the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which removed the Iranian government’s two major regional enemies: the Ba‘th and the Taliban. So far, Iran’s nuclear program has rattled the West and Israel, and the Arab states also are unhappy about it. So far, threats from the United States and Israel have not resulted in armed conflict, but internal sabotage through the infiltration of “black ops” detachments and unmanned aircraft strikes are frequently rumored to have occurred or to be in store.

However, it is in internal developments that the Iranian Revolution faces its major shortcomings and failures on its 30th anniversary. The ever-widening gap between state and society is no secret to observers. This gap was a serious problem in the late Pahlavi period. Although it was temporarily narrowed in the early post-revolutionary period (due in significant measure to Iraq’s invasion of Iran, which caused regime opponents to “rally to the flag”), it grew dramatically when the Khomeinists launched a kulturkrieg against the intellectuals and the universities after June 1981, a struggle that continues today. This has led to serious defections not only on the part of the secular-but-religious-minded intellectuals — such as ‘Abd al-Karim Surush, Akbar Ganji, and Sa‘id Hajjarian — but also by leading thinkers of the traditional seminaries, such as Muhsin Kadivar and ‘Abdallah Nuri among lower ranking seminarians, and Mahdi Ha‘iri (d. 1999), Sadiq Ruhani, and Husayn ‘Ali Muntaziri among senior clerics. As for secular-oriented intellectuals, they too have faced intimidation, though some, such as film directors, have been given a surprising degree of latitude.

The several governments since 1979 have failed in their promises to diversify the economy and thus end the country’s over-dependence on oil. Over time, the economy has performed poorly. The current regime had staked its reputation on improving the lives of the masses, but, if anything, it has proven itself more incompetent than its predecessors. The Khomeinists have reacted by clinging even more tightly to power. The leader, ‘Ali Khamane‘i, in advance of the next presidential elections (now scheduled for June 2009), has tried to pre-empt the outcome by telling the current incumbent, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, to prepare for another term in office. The June 2009 voting will mark the tenth presidential election since 1980, suggesting a degree of institutionalization. But in fact it seems that the pre-determining of the outcome of such elections remains an abiding issue. This is not to suggest that sometimes presidential outcomes do appear to be the result of an open electoral process, but this is the exception (for example, the presidential elections of 1997 and 2001).

However, dramatic improvements have been shown in literacy; advances in health care are evident, and in principle, women are not barred from high office. In the early 1980’s Khomeini issued a fatwa against factory owners who were trying to deny female employees maternity leave and thus sided with women’s economic rights. Recently, it has been noted in the press that the judicial authorities have ruled that, at least for now, the capital sentence of stoning be suspended until exemplary justice becomes not just the norm but the reality, so that its violation would be inexcusable.

Nevertheless, the balance sheet in regard to human rights is strongly negative. An estimated 150 newspapers have been shut down since the revolution, leading public figures are routinely harassed and imprisoned, the authorities arbitrarily reject candidates for office (even those whom they permitted to run in earlier campaigns), and they send armed thugs into people’s homes, places of work, classrooms, and open assembly venues to wreak havoc in defense of the absolute mandate of the jurist (Velayet-e Faqih). Perhaps, despite certain achievements, it is the fate of all revolutions to suffer Thermidorean reactions, as Crane Brinton once noted.[1]This could be said to varying degrees of the Mexican, Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, Algerian, and Nicaraguan revolutions. Although a hallmark of Thermidor is the end of the extreme brutality of the reign of terror and virtue, another characteristic is the return to the authoritarian excesses of the past. For its part, the Iranian Revolution is 30 years old, but it still suffers a plethora of “infantile disorders.” Thermidor is “alive and well” in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is its society that is the loser.

 

 

[1]. The term “Thermidor” refers to the revolt against the excesses of the French Revolution. See Crane Brinton’s classic study The Anatomy of Revolution, revised edition (New York: Vintage, 1965).

 

in principle, women are not barred form high office