Tehran, February 9, 1979. The Shah was gone. Iran was governed, if governed is the word, by Shahpour Bakhtiar, a former minister in the cabinet of Mohammad Mossadeq, the nationalist premier whose CIA-engineered overthrow had restored the monarchy 26 years earlier. The country was roiled by massive demonstrations and armed clashes between security forces and revolutionaries of many stripes, secular and devout, Marxist and Islamist. Eight days earlier, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had alighted at Tehran’s airport and, following a jubilant popular welcome, announced the formation of a new revolutionary government. The Iranian military was collapsing, as soldiers relinquished their rifles and numerous commanders declared their neutrality in the civil strife.
In Washington, the perplexed National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski telephoned US Ambassador to Iran William Sullivan. The United States had been arming and training the Iranian army for years — what was going on? Surely the generals could be persuaded to mount an immediate coup and rule Iran with an iron fist until the unrest quieted down. Sullivan was flabbergasted at Brzezinski’s inability to grasp reality. He lost his temper. The army headquarters was under siege, he yelled into the phone, along with the 26 US military advisers sent to stiffen the monarchy’s spine. The revolution was not going to be stopped. “Do you want me to translate it into Polish?”
1979 would be the first of many occasions on which events in Iran would take US officials by surprise. The clerical regime founded by Khomeini weathered Iraqi invasion in 1980 and eight years of horrendous warfare thereafter, despite the “beautiful maps” of the Iranian rear hand-delivered to Saddam Hussein’s high command by Defense Intelligence Agency officers and the winks from Washington at the savage chemical attacks unleashed by Saddam upon Iranian troops. In 1997, the Clinton administration struggled to fathom the sudden ascendance of President Mohammad Khatami, who seemed to break with years of bombast damning the Great Satan with his call for a “dialogue of civilizations.” And who was this distinctly “un-Islamic” Abbas Kiarostami, whose film Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, earning the accolades of Jean-Luc Godard and Akiro Kurosawa? Two years later, few understood why Iranian university campuses — supposed bastions of conformity after Khomeini’s “cultural revolution” — were again aflame, this time because students were demanding the rule of law and a state accountable to the people. Mouths hung open once more in 2005, when the obscure layman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rode the economic and cultural anger of the poor to the presidency of the Islamic Republic, defeating not only the reformist candidate in whom the middle classes’ hopes were vested but also the fattest cat in the clerical hierarchy, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. CNN producers had booked the wrong man — Rafsanjani — to interview before Iranians went to the polls. On June 12, 2009, Iran may have another surprise in store when Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust-denying comic-book villain of many an American talk show and an embarrassment to many an Iranian, faces the electorate anew.
Over the years, this being no time for false modesty, readers of Middle East Report will have been considerably less surprised by Iran than Washington policymakers and pundits. This magazine was among the few English-language publications that featured coverage of the full spectrum of political and social forces coursing through Iran during its revolutionary moment. Many of those forces — students both pious and not, intellectuals both Islamist and not, women both feminist and not, the rural and urban poor, organized labor — were harnessed by the Islamic Republic that eventually consolidated itself 18 months after the revolution, but they were never completely controlled. Washington has failed to understand Iran because it sees the country only through the prisms of geopolitics and ruling ideology; as in years past, this special anniversary issue has favored the kaleidoscopic, but far more acute sociological lens.
Understanding Iran’s internal dynamics allowed one, in the 1970s, to appreciate that Iran was no “island of stability” in Washington’s sea of Cold War alliances, but a society in turmoil. Shi‘i fanaticism does not explain the resilience of the Islamic Republic in wartime; Iranian nationalism does. The smiling, diffident President Khatami (1997–2005) was no more the only face of Iran during the “reformist moment” than the grinning, uncouth Ahmadinejad is today. Rather, each represents a vibrant constituency whose fortunes have been boosted and aspirations sharpened by the modernizing socio-economic policies of the same Islamic Republic that has sought to impose a (mythical) past religious purity upon the population — and especially upon women. It was an Iranian social revolution that brought down the monarchy and built the contemporary state; today, the children of the revolution are steadily fashioning what is, in many ways, the first post-Islamist society. The Islamic Republic is itself polyvocal, with fairly liberal-minded clerics pressing to revise the grim jurisprudence of Khomeini and his heirs, and pragmatic conservatives jostling with hardliners over control of negotiations about Iran’s nuclear research program. But most of the factions within the regime project Iran’s future in developmentalist rather than Islamist terms, arguing that the success of the revolution will be marked by its technological leadership in the region by 2020, not by its export of clerical rule.
It is also a common Washington mistake to see Iran exclusively as a regional challenger of the US and Israel or an inveterate meddler in neighboring Iraq. Priding itself on being a geographic fulcrum, Iran calibrates its foreign policy vision with an eye to the west, to be sure, but also to the south, north and east. Of course, it was Saddam’s deployment of illicit chemical munitions, and the ensuing international silence, that prompted Khomeini to restart the nuclear research begun (with Ford administration backing) under the Shah. But one cannot understand the persistence of the Islamic Republic’s likely (though unproven) effort to acquire nuclear weapons capability without seeing, as Tehran does, the nuclear-armed US submarines prowling beneath Persian Gulf waves, the large (and possibly loose) arsenal in the former Soviet Union and the atomic weaponry in oft-hostile Pakistan, as well as the missile silos of North Dakota and Dimona. Thus surrounded, and under US and international sanctions, the regime is quite rational to desire the option — and note we say the option — to acquire the ultimate deterrent of outside aggression. This “turn-key” capacity, the ability to assemble a nuclear weapon quickly if circumstance demands it, is thought to belong to some 20 nations, including Japan.
Iran lies along the oil-rich Persian Gulf, the primary source of its strategic importance, but it also sits astride some of the shortest routes of possible pipelines from Caspian Sea oil deposits and Central Asian gas fields to warm-water ports, and borders the Obama-era theaters of the “war on terror” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thus far, the Obama administration has shown signs of comprehending the complexity of Iran’s regional role, with special envoy to South Asia Richard Holbrooke including Iran in his general remit and in talks about Afghanistan. Regrettably, the Obama administration is coupling these overtures with moves that transparently seek to intensify the international isolation of the Islamic Republic. President Barack Obama reached out to Russia to find a face-saving way of dismantling the missile defense system that his predecessor (with nary a whisper from Brzezinski) started erecting in, of all places, Poland. Though the Bush administration clearly aimed this system at Russia, not at Iran, as was claimed, taking the system down is a gambit to persuade Moscow to cooperate with tougher sanctions on Iran, if need be. Additionally, the US diplomatic opening to Syria is intended to split Damascus from Tehran. This dubious idea bears the fingerprints of Dennis Ross, the State Department doyen whose erstwhile think tank, the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, is at the forefront of anti-Iranian agitation and is fond of crossing items off the Israeli wish list.
It is early days, but there is a tempting contrast to be drawn, as regards US-Iranian relations, between the transition from Bush to Obama and that from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. The two transitions are mirror images of a sort: Carter introduced a human rights agenda that emboldened the Shah’s domestic critics, but once the revolution was accomplished, and the hostage crisis ended, any hope of closer US-Iranian ties was dashed by the hard right turn of the Reagan administration. Not coincidentally, Reagan’s was the first White House to declare a “war on terror,” and Reagan-era officials like Richard Armitage, certain that an Iranian hand was behind attacks on US personnel in Lebanon in the 1980s, brought an instinctive distrust of Shi‘i Islamism with them into the administration of President George W. Bush. When Bush took office, Khatami’s reformists were in power in Iran. The reformists offered numerous olive branches to the US that were spurned by the neo-conservatives and unreconstructed Cold Warriors in the Defense Department and the Office of the Vice President. The cold US shoulder gave the reformists a nudge toward electoral defeat, with Iranian hardliners seemingly vindicated in their judgment that the Great Satan will never act in good faith toward the Islamic Republic, and the bellicose Ahmadinejad was ushered in. The election of Obama, however, has already reverberated in Iran, perhaps contributing to Khatami’s decision to run against Ahmadinejad in June and hinting at a reorientation of the US-Iranian relationship.
All the more reason why Obama should think very carefully about the welter of messages being sent to Tehran by his nascent administration. US actions do not, of course, set the course of Iranian domestic politics by themselves. As in 2005, when the economically disenfranchised and the culturally conservative formed the bloc that elected Ahmadinejad, in 2009 it ought to be social forces that determine the identity of the next Iranian president. Ahmadinejad’s economic record is checkered, to say the least, from the perspective of the working and middle classes, and his draconian crackdowns on personal freedoms and civil liberties are a daily reminder of the repressive state to the educated middle classes, women, minorities and trade unionists who propelled Khatami forward in 1997 and 2001. But the conservatives have a stranglehold on the state institutions that oversee the election and — as in 2004, when hundreds of reformists were “disqualified” as candidates — they may abuse their power to tilt the playing field. It is by no means clear that Khatami will be allowed to campaign, let alone win, or that the popular vote will be properly counted. At the same time, many in the conservative establishment detest Ahmadinejad and fear his own capacity to mobilize a social base. In the fluid polity that is the Islamic Republic of Iran, in other words, almost any outcome is imaginable.
And the actions of outside powers do count. Israel’s assault on Gaza over the winter of 2008–2009 blacked out news of dramatically stepped-up right-wing vigilante attacks on university students, unionists, feminists and human rights activists, including Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, whose home was besieged. Similar spasms of repression have gripped Iran in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon war and following each tightening of international sanctions upon the Islamic Republic. The worst turn the Obama administration could do the Iranian people is to press ahead with measures that push the regime further into a corner. The hardliners in Tehran badly want another device for convincing Iranians that an enemy without is more dangerous to them than their enemy within.