If you want to do business in middle east, you should know about Iran’s politic. SINCE IT EXPERIENCED the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Westerners have developed an idea of Iran as a highly conformist, authoritarian state that is based on a conservative reading of Islamic teaching. In the decades before this revolution, Iranian politics, while predominantly authoritarian, were anything but conformist or dull.
Based on historian Fred Halliday’s 1979 work, it is useful to see 20th-century Iranian history, before the 1979 revolution, as defined by five crises. The first was a Constitutional Revolution from 1905 to 1911, which established a parliament, the Majlis, in an effort to modify the power of the Qajar dynasty. Second, from 1919 to 1921, the Qajar dynasty was deposed and Reza Khan came to power and crowned himself shah. Third, as part of the wartime foreign occupation of Iran by British and Soviet forces, Reza shah was ousted and replaced as shah by his 22-year-old son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Fourth, from 1951 to 1953, Mohammed Mossadeq became prime minister of Iran, attempted to expropriate Iranian oil from foreign control, and was overthrown by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in concert with some internal Iranian social forces. And fifth, in the early 1960s, the shah consolidated his regime and to some degree modernized Iranian society and economy.
In Iran’s politic through much of this period, there was active competition between right- and left-wing forces, and the outcome of this struggle has had important long-term consequences for Iran. During much of the 20th century, Iran had an active Communist Party and/or the “Masses Party,” commonly referred to in English as Tudeh (and probably most accurately transliterated as Téda). The Communist Party of Iran was formed in June 1920, inspired in part by the Russian Revolution and by the political tumult in Iran at that time. The Communist Party, like Tudeh later, however, attracted the negative attention of Reza shah and his son over their 70-odd year rule.
During the Pahlavi era, violations of human rights in Iran were common, especially after the deposing of Mossadeq and especially with regard to activists on the political left. In later years, the shah exercised wide-spread censorship, held political prisoners, engaged in torture, imprisoned people in harsh conditions, and engaged in summary executions and extra-judicial killings. The only trade unions tolerated were state-controlled. While there were elections in the 1950s through the 1970s, only the two political parties that were acceptable to the shah were legal, and the shah’s secret police, SAVAK, had the right to examine and approve all candidates.
Under these conditions, dissident political movements, especially on the political left, could hardly survive, let along thrive. As early as 1932, 32 leaders of the Communist Party were arrested and tried and 27 were convicted for espionage, based on the belief that they were working for the Soviet Union. In fact, Western suspicion of communism and the Soviet Union, even during World War II, as well as the development of the Cold War after 1945, strongly informed the prospects of the Iranian left in the second half of the 20th century. As the 1930s wore on, the Communist Party largely disappeared as a result of the repression of its leadership and organization. But 1942 saw the establishment of the Tudeh Party, though there is significant scholarly disagreement about its origins and upshot. For example, Donald Wilber (1981) views Tudeh as nothing more than a Iranian front for the Soviet Union, designed to encourage a nationalist government like that of Mossadeq, with a plan to take over once conservative social forces were weakened. On the other hand, Homa Katouzian (1981) argues that Tudeh began as a broad anti-imperial, liberal, nationalist, and socialist movement and only eventually became aligned with the Soviets.
There is general agreement that Tudeh’s political base was in Azerbaijan, as well as among intellectuals, students, and workers in the oil and other industrial sectors. Tudeh had participated, and even held cabinet posts, in the 1946 government of Ahmad Qavam, but by 1949 it, along with the communist-influenced trade union movement, had been banned. Once the Mohammed Mossadeq government was overthrown in 1953, the remnants of Tudeh were identified as an internal enemy to be eliminated. In September 1954, 600 officers and soldiers in the Iranian army were arrested for alleged Tudeh connections. Many were executed or imprisoned. By the late 1950s, much of Tudeh strategy and activities were developed outside of Iran, particularly in Europe. In April 1965, a failed assassination attempt on the shah was blamed on Tudeh influence. In this period, the United States was actively involved in Iran (seeing the situation through the lens of its Cold War competition with the Soviet Union), through arms sales and the operation of a number of military missions in the country.
The political left, as it is commonly understood, has had little influence in Iran since the early 1970s. Since 1979, a major Western concern, including for every U.S. president since that time, has been the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East. It is ironic that the Cold War liquidation of the political left in Iran meant that the only opposition to the pro-Western shah of Iran was found in the mosques and among small businesses. The Western world continues to live with the legacy of the rise of this conservative, anti-Western movement.
AYATOLLAH RUHOLLAH Khomeini was the spiritual head (imam) of the Iranian Shia Muslims and leader of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Historians lay the blame on the shah or monarch himself for his Western-leaning social engineering using petrodollars in the previous decades. There was no popular demand for the shah’s “white revolution” from above when, according to his words, “the whole structure was being turned upset down” through the attempt of rapid modernization.
In the 1960s, one of the country’s leading ayatollahs, Khomeini, deploring the “moral degradation” he saw around him in women’s emancipation and national secularization, pledged his opposition “as long as there was blood in my veins.” Khomeini preached that the Shia doctrine of quietism, taguiyya, was a negation of Islam, and that Muslims were obliged to struggle for an Islamic state. The shah, who despised the religious establishment as bearded parasites living in the dark ages, paid little heed to the homilies of Khomeini, who in turn branded him as Genghis Khan’s successor, who would have to go. But first, it was the ayatollah who had to spend 15 emigrant years in Turkey, Iraq, and France, tirelessly campaigning against the Pahlavi dynasty and handily making use of its faults. Everything worked well against the shah: his pro-Western sympathies, economic errors, too-fast transformation of everyday life, and ignoring the servants of Islam.
Khomeini got the Holy Banner into his hands. Maybe, in other cases, it would not be so dangerous if one recollects Ataturk, who dared to challenge Islam in Turkey 50 years earlier and won the battle. But it was quite different with Iran. There wasn’t a revolutionary upsurge of lower classes to support the modernization; the mullahs’ (religious leaders’) reputation was sacrosanct. Instead, there was the hated tyrant who, according to the Shiite canon, had no formal right to reign over the faithful. The educated spoke for securing Islamic traditions too. Yeoman farmers, turned by the shah into a rural proletariat, were accruing grudges against being resettled to “model towns”; meanwhile their sons went into the cities and formed the ayatollah’s mob of anti-government protestors. Their brothers in the army were reluctant to shoot at them when the time came.
The shah, faced with persistent insurgencies, lost the will for power and fled the country on January 16, 1979, to die in exile a year later. Khomeini returned to Iran triumphantly on February 1, 1979. Different elements of society created a strange alliance around him. This coalition of nationalists, liberal Islamists, secularists, and leftists soon decayed as the clerics began to rule the state as Khomeini seized ultimate power on February 11, 1979. After the referendum, an Islamic republic was declared in which a president was elected every four years. Only the candidates approved by the top clergy could run for the office. Khomeini himself became head of state as leader of the revolution, and later supreme spiritual leader, being vested with both political and religious primacy and implementing velayaet-e faquih (the guardianship of the Juris consult). The Islamic revolution was true to conservative type because its leader’s goal was to re-establish Sharia or Islamic Law and traditions.
Khomeini proclaimed his intention to spread the Islamic Revolution to neighbouring countries and further on to the whole world. The major obstacle and main power hostile to this project was sure to be the United States, which was stigmatized by Khomeini as “Big Satan.” His storm-troopers, mostly students, named Guards of Islamic Revolution, captured the American embassy in Tehran, holding diplomats hostage for 444 days. “It’s almost impossible to deal with a crazy man, except that he does have religious beliefs, and the world of Islam will be damaged if a fanatic like him should commit murder in the name of religion against 60 innocent people,” wrote President Jimmy Carter, who unsuccessfully attempted to rescue the captives militarily; America was obliged to ransom them at a heavy price.
Being a political and religious zealot, Khomeini turned Iran into a militant, intolerant theocracy. In the first two years of its existence, it executed over 8,000 people, convicted in Islamic courts of being “enemies of Allah.” It dispatched the minorities’ leaders and wrecked churches and synagogues. Tens of thousands of Iran’s professional and middle classes were expelled or forced to flee the country. Khomeini’s harassment generated great socio-political tension in Iran. The neighbouring dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, decided to take advantage of the situation and occupied a set of disputable bordering Iranian territories. Khomeini saw Allah’s gift in the bloody war of 1980 to 1988, which was necessary in order for him to unite the people and effectively rule the country.
In 1988, an established Anglo-Indian writer, Salman Rushdie, published a controversial book of fiction, The Satanic Verses, which drew Khomeini’s attention, who pontificated: “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.” In this case, Khomeini’s intolerant action formed a strange conjunction of the right and the left, who became as hostile to Khomeini as the White House was. Rushdie became a Noble Prize winner and multimillionaire, but he also had to live incognito, being concealed from paid and voluntarily committed murderers who were eager to accomplish the imam’s fatwa (proclamation).
Strengthening of the Islam factor in world politics is firmly associated with Khomeini’s name. His teaching and policy provided enormous impetus to the Islamic revival, politicization of Islam, and Islamization of politics in Eurasia. The vocabulary of jihad (holy war) and martyrdom was vindicated. His choice was the absolute denial of the West as the incarnation of evil. The most extremist militant anti-Western and anti-Israeli groups in the Middle East and worldwide were sponsored by him or regarded him as their patron. “Our politics is our religion and our religion is our politics,” his followers declared. His authority remained beyond question up to his death. The regime he created remains largely in place in the early 2000s, out of step with its neighbours and at odds with much of the rest of the world.
Reference of Iran’s politic:
- Martin, Geoffrey R. “Iran.” Encyclopedia of Politics: The Left and The Right. 2005. SAGE Publications. 2 Apr. 2009.
- Charskykh, Igor. “Khomeini, Ruhollah (1900–1989).” Encyclopedia of Politics: The Left and The Right. 2005. SAGE Publications. 2 Apr. 2009.