One of the strange features of 20th century Iranian leaders has been a tendency to perceive themselves, their government, and Iran as serious challengers to the present world order. Given the fact that the present world order is very much a Western dominated system, the Iranian leaders’ historic “crusade” has been broadly anti-Western. Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi as well as his successors have perceived their respective regime as offering the world a different system of leadership — one that is far superior to that of the West in many respects. Thus, Iranian “exceptionalism” rests on two main pillars: the negation of the present world order and the belief in the inherent superiority of Iranian civilization.
Iranian leaders’ repudiation of the current world order stems from their criticism that it perpetuates the gap between the less developed and the more affluent nations; enables the exploitation of less developed countries by Western multinational companies; imposes an international trade regime while denying useful technology to developing countries; drains the meager wealth of developing countries by foisting upon them luxury and consumer goods which for the most part they could do without; and pollutes the environment. They also accuse the West of fuelling domestic turmoil and conflicts between the nations of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. By keeping the conflicts burning, the West is able to sell arms to the warring parties, thereby preventing their leaders from spending money on health, education, job creation, and other services. Iranian leaders also charge that the West has interfered in the political affairs of less developed countries, including by tacitly supporting coups and assassinations, and by other methods, seriously hampering the efforts of nationalists and patriotic leaders who have challenged Western supremacy and incursion into their countries.
Another important area of dispute between the Iranian leaders and the West concerns the latter’s political structure. The Iranian indictment of the Western political system, or liberal democracy, is twofold. First, according to Iranian leaders both before and since the Islamic Revolution, the notion that genuine democracy exists in the West is an illusion. The people in the West are misled by those who hold real power to believe that they are enjoying democracy — that they, as citizens, can choose their government and that they can alter the government and change its policies through the ballot box. These are deceptions and illusions. The real power in the West is held by those who own large economic enterprises — banks, factories, financial institutions, and multinationals. They choose the government and the ruling elite through a complex political and media network. It is true that the people in the West believe their votes at the ballot box changes the government and appoints new leaders, but lo and behold, it is the vested interest that holds all the strings and imposes its will upon the ordinary man on the street, leading him to believe that it was his or her vote which brought changes.
Second, Iranian leaders have disputed the West’s claims about human rights. Both the Shah and Islamic leaders have been criticized by the West for their human rights record. Of course, human rights violations were far more serious and widespread during the Pahlavi era than under the Islamic regime. However both regimes’ responses to the Western criticism have been astonishingly identical. Neither the Shah nor Iran’s present leaders ever accepted that they might have violated human rights. Nor have they ever accepted that they might have put someone behind bars for his or her political views. Both have insisted that those who were detained were criminals, were colluding with the country’s enemies, or were jeopardizing state security. They also have dismissed Western human rights criticisms as being “politically motivated.” Whereas the Shah stated that his independent policies were the real cause of the West’s anger against him, Islamic leaders have accused Western countries as being the real violators of human rights.
But the most remarkable similarity between the Shah and the Islamic leaders lies in their dismissal of Western civilization on the one hand and their belief in “Iranian superiority” on the other. In the case of post-revolutionary leaders, Islam has been added to the “Iranian” ledger as well. The Shah praised his “Great Civilization” (Tamadon Bozorg) as an alternative to Western civilization which, according to him, would end in Fascism or Communism if it failed to change its political system.He was so confident of the superiority of the great Iranian civilization and of his political philosophy under the Tamadon Bozorg to the West’s liberal democratic system that nearly a year before the 1979 revolution he actually advocated it as an alternative to Western democracy.
The idea that Western civilization is disintegrating and that Islamic Iran offers a viable and a far superior sociopolitical as well as economic alternative has become a far more serious undertaking under the leaders of the Islamic Republic. Many Iranians perceived the Islamic Revolution as a “third way” between Western capitalism and Eastern communism. The great slogan of the revolution “na sharghi, na gharbi” (neither the East nor the West) reflected the conviction that Islamic Iran would be a truly independent state — independent from both Western and Soviet domination. Gradually, however, the notion of “neither the East nor the West” turned into an ideological crusade implying the superiority of the Iranian-Islamic model that had been established in Iran since the revolution. The bitter eight-year war with Iraq and a host of other problems which emerged in the country persuaded many Islamists not to greatly boast the merits of the Islamic Republic to the West or the East. The ideological crusade receded during Hashemi Rafsanjani’s term as President (1989-1997), and receded further during the reformist period under President Muhammad Khatami (1997-2005).
However, since the rise of the hardliners in 2005, the ideological crusade has resumed. Both President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders are once again beating the drum of the superiority of Islamic-Iranian civilization over that of the “decadent West.” According to the Iranian hardliners, the US failure in Iraq and Afghanistan as well the collapse of the US plan for the “Greater Middle East,” coupled with Israel’s defeat by Hizbullah in south Lebanon in 2004, Iran’s progress in its nuclear program despite the West’s opposition, and the great financial crisis of the Western economy in 2008 all are clear indications that the West is on the decline and that the great and historic Islamic civilization is on the rise. Of course, the more prudent and more realistic Islamic leaders have not partaken in this crusade. But the more hardline Islamic leaders enthusiastically tell their huge audience that the decadent and arrogant Western power is disintegrating, Islam is on the rise, and victory will come soon.
Given the extremely dangerous ramifications that this strange “superman” attitude and an “ideological crusade” can have for peace and security in the region, not to mention its negative and tragic consequences for Iran itself, it would be an interesting academic exploration as well as immensely useful sociopolitical research to find out why so many Iranians perceive their country as the great nation which has been entrusted with the historic task of saving the world from decadent powers.
. Sadegh Zibakalam, Moghdame-h bar Inghelab-e Islami [An Introduction to the Islamic Revolution], 5th edition (Tehran: Rozaneh Publications, 2007), pp. 195-216.
. Zibakalam, Moghdame-h bar Inghelab-e Islami, pp. 189-190.
. Zibakalam, Moghdame-h bar Inghelab-e Islami., p. 198.