Monday, November 7, 2011

Post #51 - Political Anthropology

Part of the problem with attempting from the outside to influence evolution of Iranian society along lines most palatable to us in the West, is that Iranians in the diaspora are anything but unified. A quick overview will show a community that arranges itself along certain, sometimes shifting, fault-lines:


Shah's personal dentist chair, Niyavaran Palace, Tehran
Many feel nostalgia for “the good old days” of the Shah's reign. Part of this group feels that a future with a monarchy (even if much more circumscribed than the near-absolute power of the last Shah) would have advantages. The Shah carried out many initiatives designed to Westernize and modernize; it is perhaps this aspect that holds the greatest appeal for those who would advocate a substantive role for his heir, Reza Pahlavi, who has resided in the West since his father's departure from Iran in 1979. Public statements by Pahlavi have attempted (not always with great success) to steer a middle course, one that comes across both as nationalistic to the Iranian ear and simultaneously inoffensive to U.S. audiences, including whoever is in the White House and the Congress.

A recent Florida International Poll showed that Cuban immigrants who arrived recently are much more likely to embrace initiation of overtures to the Cuban government than those who came over shortly after the Castro revolution. Similarly, those who came early in the Islamic Republic period, like pro-Batista Cubans, tend to be the most resistant to the idea of opening a "no-preconditions" dialogue with the current government in Iran.

Reza Pahlavi, heir-not-apparent
The monarchists tend to have come from the upper echelons of society; they may have actually been opposed to the Shah when he was in power, but now support either a constitutional monarchy or a "secular" Republic. (Beneath the surface discussion of forms of governance, the word "secular" may signify a fracture along lines of both religion and class. Under the Shah, the urban, westernized elite marginalized the strongly Islamic poor and lower-middle-class Iranians, whose resentment fueled the revolution.)

The widow of the deposed Shah sent a message of “solidarity” to women arrested or harassed by the government in Iran during the hotly-contested Iranian elections. In a response from one of the demonstrators, we see a dynamic that may prevent Monarchists from gaining wide acceptance:

"Mrs. empress! Examine your own conscience...and tell us what have with the women activists of June 12 and March 4?...They have been led to these paths by...a feeling of responsibility for and co-existence with women who are disenfranchised, downtrodden, unemployed, poor, low-wage workers, honorable teachers, nurses, and office employees. What link can you claim with them, other than--in the most honest and best case scenario--a sense of empathy? But is this enough to justify suddenly jumping in the fray and grabbing the opportunity?
"Have you spent a penny from your massive wealth on a women’s movement which has cast aside all aristocracy and class-based snobbery? Has any from your family, friends, or acquaintances experienced, even for a few hours, the danger of activism, forming organizations, collecting signatures for petitions, negotiations, arrest, twenty-four hour interrogations, jail, constant social insecurity, distress, job insecurity, etc.? During the last 28 years...has your lifestyle and activities even had a needle’s point of connection...with the independent women’s movement in Iran?"

Mujaheddin ("fighters for religion")

Also known as MEK or MKO or, more recently, the Council of National Resistance, this group is listed by the U.S. Department of State as an organization that has engaged in terrorism (including incidents in which U.S. citizens were targeted). The group was one of those opposing the Shah's regime when it toppled, but did not fare well after the revolution was further along -- partly because they were left-leaning. Fleeing Iran, some members went to the West, others to Iraq, where they received sanctuary from Saddam Hussein, or to other countries in the Middle East. Because the mujaheddin fought with Saddam against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, they have become anathema to many in Iran and in the diaspora. A few members of Congress have looked to them as potential “government in exile” figures, because of their ardent opposition to the Islamic Republic, and their more effective organization compared with other groups. Currently, they seek U.S. protection for those still interned at "Camp Ashraf" (about sixty kilometers north of Baghdad), and de-listing from the terrorist-group roster at State.


This term denotes a loosely-affiliated group of Iranians (but which includes the group called United Republicans of Iran, formed in 2004 and based in Virginia) who favor a shift away from theocracy, but do not accept the idea of monarchy or a radically-oriented approach like that of the mujaheddin. In this same band of the spectrum might be placed those academics and former government officials who embrace Western ideals of governance and hope for either a gradual or rapid change of regime that would lead in that direction.


Those who were affiliated with, or sympathetic to the Tudeh party in Iran (which had ties to the Communist Party in the Soviet Union), are a small group, generally critical of the current government in Iran. They had common cause with the clerics during the revolution, but were shut out as those leaders consolidated their dominant position. Tudeh still exists as an underground group within Iran and as a communist-leaning group in exile. Some more moderate leftists are more concerned about forestalling threats from the West, which is still seen as the more significant “enemy of the people.”


There are some academics or pundits who have independent sources of reliable information, who are intellectually honest and balanced (some of these have been consistently spot-on in their analyses and predictions about trends and about the longer-term ramifications of events and policies). Not surprisingly, these are never numerous, and they may find themselves attacked from all sides on occasion.

Those who have roots in, and emotional ties to, Iranian culture, but who approach current events as a bi-national and international challenge. These individuals and groups attempt to balance American (or Western) ideals, priorities and interests with the interests of the people of Iran. Representative of these would be the National Iranian American Council [full disclosure: I am a co-founder of the Council and a member of its Advisory Council] or Iranian Alliances Across Borders, and local or special-interest groups, such as the Association of Iranian American Professionals.

Ad Hoc and Issue-Oriented Groups

Groups that have formed for a limited purpose, such as the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran [full disclosure: I have been an officer of the U.S. affiliate of this international group], or the Persian Gulf Task Force, which is concerned with ensuring that names like “the Arabian Gulf” of "The Gulf" are not substituted for the long-accepted geographical nomenclature, “the Persian Gulf" to denote the body of water between Iran and Arabia.

National Frontists

Not much now remains of the erstwhile party of the important nationalist Mohammad Mossadegh. Their ranks were so thoroughly decimated that their once-vast organization is a “shadow of its former self.” Members remain true to the "Revolution," in the sense of being anti-monarchist, but they are also critical of the Islamic Republic.

Islamic Republicans

Lastly, there are those in the West -- sometimes identifiable by the more traditional garb of the women -- who are (at least tacit) supporters of the current government. They recognize that the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has managed to improve many aspects of life in Iran, has to some extent leveled class differences, and has been nearly free of outside manipulation and exploitation since the mullahs took over. Members of this group tend to be themselves believing (even devout) Muslims, who maintain close relations with family and associates back in Iran. Even among the Islamic Revolutionaries, there are, as Ray Takeyh writes, at least three discernible groups: conservatives, pragmatists and reformers.

Despite this diversity of hopes and values, it is clear to me that a rough, sometimes shaky consensus does exist regarding the bi-national relationship. Personifying that diversity, a woman who describes herself as "an American with diverse Persian heritage (Judeo-Christian and Moslem with Zoroastrian traits), " Rachel Eliasi-Kohan (a Pen writer) could say on the IranDokht [Daughter of Iran] website, a few years ago:

Anti-War Protestors in the Nation's Capital

"The four million Iranians in Diaspora, including the nearly one million Iranian-Americans-who have fled their homeland for fear of religious or socio-political persecution and as a result have paid dearly with their lives in the past thirty years-also express concerns and oppose invasion against Iran. The Iranians with a proud and culturally diverse nation, with a long glorious history several millennia in the making (despite having witnessed the lingering quagmires created in Afghanistan and Iraq), have remained pro-western, and also pro-American, even with the repeated U.S. meddling in, and rhetoric against their country's policies since the 1950's."

These two aspects -- deep affection for American values and a rejection of the saber-rattling of the Bush administration -- can be found, to varying degrees, in all the groups described above, with the possible exception of the Mujaheddin.

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