Islamic Iran will enter its 30th year with almost as much political noise as it generated at its inception. On the one hand, Iran’s nuclear program and the confrontation it has engendered are daily reminders of the regional and global dimensions of Iran’s revolution. On the other hand, the incessant squabbling among various branches of the government as well as among different political factions point to the fact that, more than anything else, the revolution was about an end to a one-man dominated political system.
The noise persists because of domestic quarrels over the nature of Iran’s relationship to the world, particularly to its sole remaining superpower, as well as to itself. The revolution of 1979 was for most Iranians a double-edged affair, involving aspirations for freedom (azadi) and national sovereignty or independence (esteqlal). These aspirations continue to shape and haunt the Islamic Republic. No matter how one looks at Iran today, there can be no denying that they remain at best partially fulfilled. More importantly, they continue to be played against each other. In the name of external threats, national security, and sovereignty, critical expressions are silenced while unhindered and, at times, unhinged political competition has turned democratic institutions such as elections into instruments of intra-elite rivalry rather than expressions of national will.
The shaping of post-revolutionary Iran through its search for independence is manifestly reflected in its almost pathological insistence on national sovereignty and being treated with respect in the face of international pressures. The haunting comes in the form of “strategic loneliness.” Tehran is indeed betrothed to “neither West nor East,” as its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini insisted nearly 30 years ago, but does not rest easily in that position.
This does not mean that it is denied a seat at the table. In fact, as recently as July 2008 Tehran was host to the 15th annual ministerial meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. But its desire to receive support for its noncompliant posture received half-hearted support from other non-aligned countries worried about their names being too closely identified with a country in direct confrontation with a rather unforgiving superpower. Tehran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy is repeatedly reaffirmed as “the basic and inalienable right of all states, to develop [and] research, [the] production and use of atomic energy for peaceful purposes,”but only a few countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria are willing to condemn the three standing UN Security Council resolutions against Iran.
Regional developments — including the removal of Saddam Husayn and the Taliban, challenges facing the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the increased clout of Hizbullah in its domestic environment — have improved the chances of finding natural allies in the region and, as such, have led to enhanced Iranian confidence. Yet Iran continues to wear its independence or non-alignment uneasily. Rather, Iran’s leaders insist on telling their domestic audience and proclaiming to the world repeatedly that Iran is indeed a sovereign nation and a poke in the eye of the powerful. Almost 30 years after the proclaimed “victory” of the Islamic Revolution, the need to reiterate that, “the only path to victory is through resistance and steadfastness” persists.
Why this is so certainly has much to do with the external pressures that continue to be exerted on Iran in order to contain its regional influence. It is true that the United States has never been able to come to terms with the loss of one of its most important pillars of support in the region, and US policies since the revolution have aimlessly and not very effectively vacillated between containment and regime change, with occasional minor and unsuccessful forays into engagement. But the reality is that Iran also remains conflicted internally over the direction of the country because, along with its anti-Americanism, the revolution also brought into existence a polity based on contestation and pluralism, regulated through a system of controlled and yet competitive elections.
To be sure, Iran continues to demonstrate amply that the presence of meaningful intra-elite struggles for power is not sufficient to make democracy sustainable, even if transfers of power occur through elections. The absence of rule of law and corruption among the elite have in fact turned political contestation into instruments that undermine democratic institutions such as elections, which are transformed into mechanisms of intra-elite competition rather than an expression or projection of popular will. Nevertheless it is significant that this political competition continues to keep the aspirations of the revolution alive and part of Iran’s contemporary political discourse.
Thirty years after the revolution, Iran is not a consolidated democratic state as the revolution promised. Neither is it a consolidated authoritarian one. And in this unconsolidated authoritarian environment, the search for national sovereignty and independence is a revolutionary legacy that cannot be simply wished away. This is so not merely because the idea still occupies the minds of a good segment of the Iranian elite. It is more so because it is a frame that can be utilized as a driving force for a more assertive security-oriented and nationalistic disposition that is then used as a means to silence or sideline domestic rivals by accusing them of being members of a fifth column or soft on enemies.
It should be noted, however, that in Iran’s contested political environment, this security orientation is merely a policy alternative framed by the historical aspiration for complete independence. As witnessed during the presidencies of both ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, this policy alternative can be tempered or even partially abandoned in the direction of a more conciliatory approach, emphasizing dialogue and détente, but only if the Islamic Republic does not feel directly threatened. As such, in its rightward or security-oriented reaction to the external threats of the past few years, the Islamic Republic is not acting any differently than other countries with contested political environments.
On revolutionary Iran’s 30th anniversary, it must then be considered truly unfortunate that Washington’s aggressive interest in isolating Iran came after several years of attempted conciliatory foreign policy on the part of Khatami’s government. In Iran’s contested political environment, the failure to show results effectively paved the way for the ascendance of the belief that the more conciliatory foreign policy practiced during the reformist era was perceived as weakness by “enemies” and led to calls for more, not fewer Iranian concessions. Hence, the common refrain among current decision-makers in Iran these days that enemies only understand the language of power and strength. The reality, though, is that despite the contemporary currency or pretense of a muscular foreign policy, Iran’s politics remain underwritten by both contestation and insecurity.
. Final Document of the XV Ministerial Conference of Non-Aligned Movement held in Tehran, July 27-30.
. Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene’i, speech given to Iranian officials on July 30, 2008.
Thirty years after the revolution, Iran is not a consolidated democratic state