The Perilous Triangle: #6a: Iran

The sixth part of the series ‘The Perilous Triangle,’ about Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, was actually two lectures. The first lecture was given by Misagh Parsa, an Iranian American who teaches about 20th-century revolutions. He spoke about his homeland, Iran.


The Revolution and How It Happened

Parsa’s central contention: Thirty-one years ago, in 1979, there was a revolution in Iran — Islamic fundamentalists overthrew a repressive monarchy headed by the Shah — which was (and is) misunderstood by  policymakers, scholars, and everyone else, as a popular movement caused by a reaction to the swift modernisations of the Shah. It has been seen as arising due to an increase in Islamic fundamentalism prior to the Shah’s being deposed.

No! This was not what the Iranian people wanted.

The current Iran crisis has its roots in the 1979 revolution.

The challenges to the Iranian monarchy started in 1977, after Carter became U.S. president and focused on human rights, which influenced the Shah and caused him to liberalise in some ways, such as by releasing some political prisoners.

At this time, leftist and liberal writers and the National Front demanded civil liberties and freedom of the press.

Poets and writers spoke out for an overthrow of the monarchy. 66% of them were secular socialists or Marxists, and 28% were liberal-nationalist; only 6% had some Islamic ideology.

1. There was very little Islamic ideology underpinning groups who wanted a change in government in Iran in the late 1970s. Intellectuals (the poets and writers, see above) led the way – but these intellectuals were not Islamic in ideology.

Next came a broad coalition formed of students (leftist), bazaaris (shopkeepers, artisans and merchants who were bourgeois, with a small pro-Khomeini faction), the middle class (very diverse in beliefs and desires), the workers (mostly oil workers, 35% of whom were Marxist; they saw Khomeini as an anti-Imperialist).

These groups marched to commemorate Student Day (16 Azar in 1978, the 25th anniversary of a day (12/7) when 3 students were killed while Nixon was visiting).

These groups had diverse ideas, interests and desires. Essentially, however, the vanguard of the 1979 Revolution was leftist.

2.  The revolutionary process had to be mobilised through the mosques, which were one of the few institutions that was relatively autonomous from state control. Political repression had weakened secular organisations. Even here, however, pro-Khomeini clergy were a minority of clergy involved.

The Tasoua March (12/10/1978), two months prior to the revolution, took place to commemorate a day of mourning, but the march was for change. There were 70,000 marchers, most from the National Front (Islamic liberals), the Freedom Movement (Islamic liberals), or the mujaheddin supporters.

If Islamic fundamentalism was so powerful, why were there fewer supporters for that faction than for secular organisations, just two months before the revolution?

Overall, those who marched for change in government were not representing Islamic fundamentalism but rather Marxism, liberal Islam, and the left and liberals generally.

Slogans used during major religious-political events prior to the revolution:

38% anti-despotic;

31% “Independence,” “Freedom,” “Islamic Republic”*

16% supporting Khomeini’s leadership

15% supporting other religious leaders

* What is meant by “Islamic Republic”? It meant “social justice” to most: Specifically, the people were asking for secular things: merchants were asking that government not set prices for them; workers were asking for better salaries, better working conditions, and the freedom to organise; students wanted a socialist state.

Not one slogan attacked women or homosexuals, or asked for stoning for adulterers, or demanded the banning of music, the appointing of a Supreme Leader, the formation of the theocracy.

Khomeini himself also stressed freedom and independence, and condemned corruption. He said that coercion, repression and exploitation will be dissolved. In April 1979, he said the “repression has been banned and will not return.”

To fill in a little history (Parsa assumed we knew this timeline): The Shah fled Iran in mid-January 1979, “and in the resulting power vacuum two weeks later Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran to a greeting by several million Iranians. The royal regime collapsed shortly after on February 11 when guerrillas and rebel troops overwhelmed troops loyal to the Shah in armed street fighting. Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic on April 1, 1979, and to approve a new theocratic constitution whereby Khomeini became Supreme Leader of the country, in December 1979.” [Wikipedia]

Once the Revolutionary Guard was established, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established a theocracy. He used external conflicts — hostage crisis, Iran-Iraq War — to promote social cohesion [in the time-honoured mimetic way]; he shifted emphasis, claiming that the Islamic Republic would serve the interests of the poor, and claiming that he would give the people what the socialists would give, plus the next world!; he started using his ‘secret weapon,’ repression and executions.

Between June 1979 and Sept. 1985, 11,000 people were executed by the state, unprecedented in Iran’s history. Socialists who were also devout Muslims were killed.

The people had believed that the Shah was responsible for their suffering. They wanted political power like western democracies and socialists states have. They wanted equitable distribution of income and wealth.

Khomeini comes in and says “I am God’s representative” and he uses the state’s power against everyone at the bottom. He tricked and betrayed the people. Khomeini lied.


The Nature of the Islamic Republic: Guards, Guns, Gold, Goons and God

There was an amazing transformation from what the people asked for and what they got.

Theocracy didn’t resolve the pre-revolution conflicts, it only added more:


— high unemployment and inflation

— per capita income rates very slow to rise: in 1978: 5500 rial; in 2008: 9500 rial

— rise in poverty rate: in 1978: 33%; in 2010: 55%

— income inequality rising

— 77% of Iranians expressed intense sense of injustice at economic disparities [when?]; only 10-15% of Iranians support the fundamentalists in power

– the ruling mullahs and civil allies have and control vast fortunes

— Iran is 168 out of 180 in the Transparent International corruption index

— Revolutionary Guards control Iran’s economy

— current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sets a mullah’s 10% (tithe) – he gets 10% of all income

— the power elite in Iran consists of 200-300 men

— the Supreme Leader (now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed in 1989; he was also elected president in 1981 and 1989) is an unelected and unaccountable clergyman

Social and Cultural Conflicts

— women are 2nd-class citizens, denied basic rights

— there are cultural restrictions on dress, music, dancing and drinking (the vast majority of Iranians do drink – they make it in their own basements)

— condemned gays to death, stoned adulterers

The majority of people who participated in the revolutionary struggles never wanted this.

Iranians are the most secular people in the Middle East. Iran is also now the most pro-democracy and pro-American country in the Middle East, despite all the propaganda they hear and see against both. Most of the people see whatever the regime says is bad as good, and vice versa (America, alcohol, women’s rights, etc.).

In 2000, 75% of the people said that they don’t say daily prayers, which is an obligation in a theocracy (86% of the youth don’t)

There’s been a huge backlash against fundamentalist ideology.

In 2000, 83% said that religious teachings are irrelevant to their daily lives.

In 2009, half of the mosques in Iran were inactive.


Challenges to the System (why another Revolution — not a reform — is coming)

— Shia clergy were never unified

— clerical factionalism and calls for change resulted from the rise of “reformists” in 1990

— Mohammed Khatami won presidential elections in 1997 and 2001 and attempted more liberal reforms, but the conservatives blocked virtually everything he introduced. He never called on supporters to demonstrate. Basically impotent.

— Students protested in 1999 and 2003 for greater freedom and equality. As early as July 1999, they demanded the overthrow of the Islamic Republic and the regime.

— In the months before the contested 2009 elections, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad distributed  money and food among the poor. He received $1 billion from oil revenue (which went “missing” in 2009).

On 13 June, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, and there were instant protests despite threats.  This is similar to the last phase of the 1979 Revolution, only then it took the Islamists one year to get 1 million people  mobilised; in 2009, it took 3 days to get 3 million people mobilised.

The slogans for the march were “Death for Dictator,” “Death to Ahmadinejad,” “Where is My Voice?”, and “You Are the Enemy of this Land.”

On 19 June, a new Revolutionary struggle began. Slogans even read “Death to Khamenei,” after he called the election settled, and even though this sort of slogan is punishable by death.

The protests continue in 2010, with calls for Freedom and Justice, and calls against Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, deceit, murderers, repression.

109 people were killed shortly after the 2009 election in government repression. 52% were students, 22.5% were white collar workers. The Islamic Republic has not absorbed the best educated modern citizens.


Why Have Challenges Failed?

— Revolutionary leadership not strong: — Mir Hossein Mousavi failed to lead: told people not to march because they didn’t have a (government-issued) permit, said “We are not against our sacred system;” simply had the people shout “Allah-O-Akbar (God is Great) from their rooftops at night (as done at other times of unrest), but God’s greatness is not at issue.

Mousavi is gradually radicalising. In Feb 2010, he said that the revolution has not fulfilled its goals; in June he characterised the government as totalitarian and said he wants independence of clergy from the state.

— Lack of  disruptive measures:  absence of strikes and shut-downs

In a  July 2010 poll among Iranians, 84% said they wanted to change the political system (34% ‘radically’); only 15.7% wanted no change.



The options are reform, repression and revolution.

The regime has chosen repression and so far is surviving. The expulsion of reformists by the regime has drastically undermined the regime and made it more likely that revolution, not reform, will happen. The revolutionary struggle is already underway. The U.S. should support and not block Iranians’ struggles.

Asked in the Q&A if the U.S. should openly support an Iranian Revolution, Parsa said that it’s difficult, because then the regime will say that anyone who supports revolution is an agent of the West. The U.S. should defend the interests of the Iranian people. U.S. Pres. Obama should be more outspoken but he should not support reformists, who may be part of the criminal system — he should support revolutionaries.

It’s good that the U.S. didn’t insert itself in the election conflict because it would have been seen as an unwanted external force. He wishes Bush has never invaded Iraq, because it has complicated things for Iran and caused the Islamic Republic to be more important in the region.



Asked in the Q&A whether there should be a mosque built near the site of the 9/11 bombings in NYC, Parsa agreed with his co-lecturer, who said simply, “I really believe in the Constitution of the United States.”

Asked whether the Shah wasn’t equally repressive and also backed by the 5Gs (Guards, Guns, Gold, Goons and God), Parsa responded that both regimes are highly authoritarian and fascist — but the major difference is that the Shah didn’t represent God. The Shah had accountability, legally, even if he broke the law. The Shah has no legal accountability. Iranians went from the frying pan into the fire.

Asked about the Revolutionary Guard, Parsa said that there are about 150,000 of them and they are very committed to Islamic fundamentalism. They are not highly educated. They have a major economic interest in the maintenance of the current system.  The Guard controls most of the important economic assets of the nation, the nuclear facilities. There is some opposition within the Guard and some have fled to Malaysia, Turkey, etc.


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