Thursday, February 23, 2012

Post #192 - Making Real Progress

The following article, which can be found at:, was entitled "The Iranian Impasse." Written by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, it deals with contemporary Iran, but also with germane early-20th-century history. Obviously, some changes have occurred since the time of their writing, but I think it remains largely pertinent. (I have edited down, out of space considerations.)

Some "light reading" from the West
"During a visit to Tehran in the spring of 2005, we were impressed by the degree of intellectual freedom Iranians had carved out within the Islamic Republic. The numerous bookstores...across from Tehran University carried an array of newly translated books by Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, among others...
"Of course, this was not the whole picture. Books on contemporary politics continued to be heavily censored. On the streets, the morality police harassed women who violated the regime's stringent dress codes...Those who fought for social and political freedoms lived under constant threat. A feminist activist told us in a matter-of-fact tone that she feared a return visit to 'Hotel Evin'--the notorious Evin Prison, where she had been tortured.
"We were in Iran during the last days of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who had...[promised] to carry out democratic reforms and open Iran to the outside. Some of those promises were kept, but many were not, and the real power remained in the hands of more conservative clerics like Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even in the spring of 2005, we felt a hint of a chill as we left the country. At the airport, one of us had to go through a security check, a requirement for any Iranian passport holder trying to leave the country. It was during precisely such a procedure that, a year later, reformist philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo...was arrested and forced to make a public "confession." By then, conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been elected to the presidency. Ever since, Iran and the Western powers have clashed over Tehran's nuclear program, leading to threats of military action from the United States and Israel and arrests of Iranian diplomats in Iraq.
"At home, the Islamic Republic has cracked down hard on reformists...Khatami's era of a 'dialogue of civilizations' was over, at least as far as the state was concerned. As if to dispel any doubts about this, the regime arrested several Iranian-American intellectuals who had committed the 'crime' of promoting cultural and scholarly dialogue between Iran and the West, among them Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the wife of Shaul Bakhash, a distinguished historian of Iran. (Esfandiari was in Iran visiting her mother when she was detained.)...
"What went wrong? When reform-minded Iranians discuss this question, the conversation often turns to the 1906-11 Constitutional Revolution, widely seen as a missed opportunity for democratic modernization...[now] as its centenary is celebrated by Iranians at home and abroad.
Key figures in the Constitution movement
"The Constitutional Revolution was the first democratic revolution... in the Middle East, and perhaps the most important. [It] established a freely elected Parliament and a Constitution with civil liberties, severely limited the powers of the shah and promoted the establishment of women's schools and councils. It also set up a state-based judiciary that challenged the traditional authority of the Shiite clerics. As Yann Richard, France's leading Iran specialist, observes in ...Birth of an Islamic Republic, from the late eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century the Shiite clergy had provided a counterweight to the monarchy. But with the emergence of two heterodox offshoots of Shiism in the mid-nineteenth century, Babism and Bahaism--both of which challenged social hierarchies, including gender inequality--the clerical establishment drew closer to the state in order to combat these dissident religious movements. When the Constitutional Revolution broke out, some influential clerics sided with the state; one of them, Sheikh Fazlullah Nuri, was executed by the revolutionaries. Yet the leading clerics were by no means united in opposition to the revolution: Quite a few embraced the changes, with some going so far as to endorse Nuri's execution.
"As Hamid Dabashi recounts in Iran: A People Interrupted, this "revolution in the very moral fabric of a nation" was, like most later progressive movements in Iran, marked by the participation of its ethnic and religious minorities--Azeris, Armenians, Bahais and Jews. The revolution also saw an unprecedented flowering of Iranian literature. Hoping to build what Dabashi calls "an anti-colonial modernity," the great writer Ali Akbar Dehkhoda launched a campaign in the press against oppressive social customs (especially regarding gender)...
"The revolution faced two formidable external adversaries...: the British Empire and Czarist Russia...In 1911 Russian troops, with British approval, moved to just outside Tehran and threatened to take over the capital unless the Parliament was disbanded. An internal coup ended the standoff and brought the revolution to an end. Although the 1906 Constitution was retained until 1979, it was reduced to a formality." 

The authors note that "marking the birth of democratic politics in Iran, the Constitutional Revolution remains a source of inspiration for Iranian progressives" and led, in part to the Mossadegh government of the early '50s, its overthrow and the subsequent Western-aligned monarchy, with its repression and modernization, followed by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 -- where we pick up their narrative again:

"The Islamic Revolution broke with the national, political, legal and social ethos of the Constitutional Revolution, though not entirely with its modern institutional apparatus, such as the Parliament, the media and the military, which it harnessed to its agenda. Islamist women attained leadership posts in the state, were recruited for the war effort and joined women's paramilitary organizations that enforced the state's rules of morality on other, more secular women." 

The administration of Khatami the reformer " moderate the Islamist regime," but "in the summer of 1999, large-scale student demonstrations were crushed by hard-liners after Khatami refused to support them." It is suggested that "the reformists succeeded in changing the public conversation and even 'transformed the mindset of an entire generation' by popularizing phrases like 'public sphere,' 'human rights,' 'rule of law' and 'democracy.'"

Azadi (Freedom) Monument, Tehran
Khatami failed to significantly change Iranian governance and then -- "for the hard-liners who sought to rein in the reformers during the Khatami era, the election of George W. Bush provided an unexpected opportunity. When Bush called Iran part of an 'axis of evil' in 2002, despite its behind-the-scenes assistance in toppling the Taliban, and warned of possible military action against Iran, the reformers, many of whom had campaigned for diplomatic relations with the United States, became easy prey. Hardliners clamped down on the press, arrested ministers and parliamentary deputies, and escalated the kidnapping and murder of reform activists and even some members of Parliament."
"The election of Ahmadinejad to the presidency in June 2005 marked the end of the reform era...Shrewdly exploiting the reformists' failure to address issues of poverty and class, Ahmadinejad promised to reduce unemployment and to provide greater subsidies, especially low-interest loans. Since his election, conservatives have gained a firmer grip on power and cracked down on labor, women and gays."

It gets worse. "Thanks to US interventions in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq, the Islamic Republic's two most formidable enemies in the region, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, have been vanquished, while the Shiite-dominated state emerging under the American occupation in Iraq is poised to become a key ally of Tehran. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have also turned the nuclear issue into a matter of national pride, comparing it to Mossadegh's fight for the nationalization of Iran's oil. The Islamic Republic's support for Hezbollah during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon has gained it many admirers internationally, while Ahmadinejad has forged alliances with Latin American leftists like Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega."
"...the chief card the regime has played is national unity in the face of external threats--a gift that keeps giving, courtesy most recently of the Bush Administration [now of the Obama administration, AP]. These threats (particularly talk in Washington of 'regime change') have emboldened Iran's hard-liners and driven its vibrant democratic movement into a strategic impasse. The challenge facing progressives in North America is to find a way to give more support to Iranian democrats and feminists even as we oppose the US imperial agenda. The international solidarity displayed by progressive members of the British public during the era of Iran's Constitutional Revolution just might provide us with a model."

Isn't it marvelous ~ in terms of Iranian liberty, we may have worked our way almost to where we were in 1906.

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