[Book Review] Revolutionary Iran: The History of the Islamic Republic (2013)

“Revolutionary Iran” gives a very good overview of modern Iranian history and the internal ideological struggles of the post-revolution elites–but lacks any real detail about the political economy or the class dynamics of post-revolution Iran.  

Revolutionary Iran is a pretty decent overview of Iran and its history.  It’s not terribly in-depth in the areas I’m most interested in learning about (class dynamics, political economy, and revolutionary strategies), but it is still a very good primer on the various competing ideologies within the institutions of the Islamic Republic, as well as a very thorough (and horrifying) account of the Iran-Iraq War.  It also contains great insight into the dynamics of US foreign policy toward Iran.  And finally, the book’s writing style is very engaging and concise.  Overall, I’d give it a 7.5/10.

Specific and General Characteristics of Revolutions 

The book was at its finest when it did see fit to touch upon the class dynamics of the revolution, and the ideology that the revolutionaries and the subsequent governments took toward matters of social justice.

The revolution was a fusion of conservative and radical ideas, intimately mixed.  Its commitment to the mostazafin, to raising up the lower classes, to improving their living conditions and access to education and health services, was not mere propaganda–it was genuine, and served to initiate real changes and improvements.  Genuine too was the sense that the underprivileged somehow represented the real Iran–an element of social chauvinism was also involved–that the poor were more Iranian, more Islamic and more virtuous than the pampered, westward-looking middle classes and intellectuals.  The revolution was not just a political revolution, a reshuffling of political personalities–it was (like the French and the Russian before it) a real social revolution also, raising up large numbers of the members of the lower classes and bringing down or marginalizing many members of previously privileged elites.  Notwithstanding that, many of the mostazafin stayed stuck in poverty (242).

The descriptions of certain movements during the revolution were very interesting as well.  For instance, during the turmoil of the revolutionary period, many peasants expropriated the lands that they worked on from the traditional land-owners (many of whom were of the clergy, and thus of the new revolutionary elites).  But in general, the revolutionaries were supportive of land reform and legitimizing these land grabs–although it took until 1986 to formally grant property rights to much of the expropriated land.

In the urban areas, revolutionary fervor took forms less of related to property expropriation, and more to rioting.  The fervor was such that whatever formal revolutionary government existed exercised virtually no control over the streets.  As Bill Belk of the US embassy was quoted in the book:

…the government had absolutely no control over what was happening…Armed bands of revolutionary zealots were roaming the streets and taking the law into their own hands.  The police were powerless to stop them, because the worst thing you could possibly be in Iran was a policeman…Most of the people who had been policemen were in hiding.  The streets were literally turned over to these armed komitehs.  Khomeini had appointed a Provisional Government, but they didn’t have any real authority.  The traditional institutions through which a government administers and functions were the very same institutions that were being attacked by the revolutionaries and the vigilante groups… (167).

This scene will either be very scary and very exciting, depending on your particular outlook on revolution and political change in general.  What’s interesting about this description is that it has parallels in a wide variety of situations, and illustrates a tendency for revolutionary situations to be anarchic, chaotic, and violent.  Similar narratives have been said of the Russian Revolution and the inability of the Bolsheviks to predict the enthusiasm of the workers and peasants for revolution–let alone control such energies.  The Cultural Revolution in China also resembled complete anarchy, with mobs enthusiastically taking up Mao’s call to “unleash the masses on the Party” and to collectively purge bourgeoisie elements (whether real or perceived) from the halls of power.  In any case, the data-point of Iran is another lesson for would-be revolutionaries to be cautioned that radical change should not be expected to be pretty, clean, or devoid of casualties–and indeed, that the spontaneous energies that spill out into the streets should not be expected to be devoid of reactionary or nihilistic ideologies (the racialism of the L.A. Riots of 1992 is a good example).

Iran and International Politics

One clear theme in Revolutionary Iran was the how the cards on the international arena were stacked against the Republic.  The following passage does a very good job of illustrating the nature of international capital and the global military-industrial conflict with respect to perpetuating war while also being aligned with specific geopolitical interests:

Over the period of the war various Western and other governments had supplied Iran or Iraq with weapons and had given other forms of help despite UN bans and embargoes.  Several had given help to both sides: Britain had helped Iran with spare parts for Chieftain tanks in the earlier part of the war, only to help Iraq (notably through the murky Matrix Churchill/Supergun dealings) toward the end.  The US and Israel had sent weapons to Iran; the US helped Iraq with satellite imagery toward the end of the war.  The Soviets had sent weaponry to both Iran and Iraq at different times, but had given more help to Iraq.  German companies had helped Iraq manufacture chemical weapons; France had sent powerful weaponry, especially aircraft; Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states had assisted Iraq in a variety of ways, but especially with large loans.  China, North Korea and Singapore also supplied weapons to one side or another.  Often the motives behind the various deals were mixed, not necessarily expressing a desire for one side to prosper more than the other.  The arms deals were lucrative, provided hard currency to make balance of payment statistics look healthier, and were used to support defence industries that were in danger of becoming unviable (292).

It certainly would be interesting to know specifically which German companies helped Iraq with their chemical weapons programs; the descriptions of the chemical attacks on Iranian forces and populations were some of the most gristly descriptions of war that I’ve read (to the point where I don’t really feel like going back to quote them).

Iranian refineries burning after an Iraqi attack (1980)

Much of the international marginalization of Iran is attributed to the United States, whose stance toward the country was first influenced by the hostage crisis, and then by the sudden increase of newly unemployed “Kremlinologists” after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  This group of analysts tended to think in terms of confrontation and notions of “evil” (whatever that means when applied to geopolitics), and sought to apply a similar lens when dealing with Iran–notwithstanding the huge differences in military might and ideology between the USSR and Iran, and the complete inability of the latter to actually threaten the world’s only superpower.  This irrational ideology–probably very influential in the rise of the Bush-era neoconservative movement–was (and still is) a primary reason for Iran’s ostracization from international politics.  The irrationality is made all the more depressing when we recognize that Iran is a much more progressive country than backwards nations like Saudi Arabia, which are apparently liberal and democratic enough to be America’s allies–despite being the primary sponsor of fundamentalist religious terrorism across Africa and the Middle East.

Khatami’s Failed Reformist Project

The 1997 elections in Iran were brought on by a massive wage of enthusiasm for reforming the Islamic Republic, moving away from the free-market drift of the last decade (which many Iranians saw as empowering a small, privileged elites at the expense of the rest of the population), and taking care of Iran’s pariah status in international politics.  Mohammad Khatami, a political outsider, swept the 1997 elections with 70% of the vote, in an election that saw the highest turnout in Iranian electoral history (around 80%).  The mandate to reform was clear.

The descriptions of the campaigning and the energy of the population for getting Khatami into office brought immediate parallels to my mind with the 2008 Obama campaign.  Similar fervor was present, as people were faced with the prospect of radically altering the course of America after 8 years of the disastrous and corrupt Bush regime.  Both Obama and Khatami were supposed to be the symbol for their respective countries getting back on track.

But like Obama, Khatami was unable to strongly impact the Iranian regime.  There was a brief period of time where press freedom exploded, and the end of the police state seemed to be in sight.  But the conservative/right-wing factions in Iran–supported by Supreme Leader Khamenei–quickly pushed back, with everything from assassinations to electoral fraud.  It seemed clear that the powers-that-be in Iran would not tolerate the level of reform that Khatami–and the Iranian people–sought.

Oddly enough, the author sees the Khatami’s election as proof that Iran is much more democratic than Western observers think.  After all, most of the regime insiders did not expect his victory at the polls; thus, 1997 symbolizes the ability of the general public to use Iran’s democratic structures to undermine the elites.  But does this really make sense?  After all, Khatami’s project was ultimately a failure.  Even if he was elected, he was quickly (and rather easily) subverted and undermined, and by the mid-2000s it seemed fairly clear that the Islamic Republic was controlled very much by the reactionary right (a fact not lost on the people, demonstrated in the much lower turnout at the polls in the 2005 elections).

Whether a “democracy” is actually a democracy should be judged based on the amount of actual change achieved–not whether somebody who has grand visions of change is elected.  The real process of politics has to be observed between elections–not during.

Limitations and Critiques

To re-iterate, I do think the book was a good read, and would recommend it to people; however, I am somewhat miffed about certain tendencies.  One of the main reasons I chose to buy this book was because of the description on its Amazon page:

“Throughout, he emphasizes that the Iranian revolution was centrally important in modern history because it provided the world with a clear model of development that was not rooted in Western ideologies.”

At the time, I had interpreted “development” to be along economic lines, and that the political economy of Iran was fundamentally different to both Western capitalist and 20th-century socialist models.  In retrospect, however, the term “development” in the description is much more about the “political” in political economy; economic debates in the Islamic Republic tended to be very akin to those that are currently taking place in Europe, and oscillated between pro-state leftism, and free-market liberalism.  Nonetheless, it was still interesting to see how Islam (specifically, Shi’a Islam) influenced political philosophy in Iran.

Another point of irritation was the tendency to focus on the “big men” of Iranian history, rather than the dynamics of the underlying social movements and struggles that underpinned the revolution and its subsequent stability.  There is no denying that there was huge public support for the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of an Islamic governance system, and it would have been insightful to see the specifics of grassroots support for an Islamic state–as well as the specific strategies used by radical left groups like the MEK and the Fedayeen, and why they failed (although the answer is probably not too far from my analysis in my last post on adventurism).  Hopefully, we will see a “people’s history” of Iran come out sometime soon–the trend to move away from narrating the adventures of singular figures toward understanding mass movements and the politics of the general population seems to be steadily increasing (from my perspective, anyway).

Despite the book’s limitations, I’m still pleased to have acquired and read it, and would recommend this book to most of my friends who are interested in Iran and its history.

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