The Islamic Republic and the World aims to provide a major political re-interpretation of Iran’s revolution, one which argues that it was anti-capitalism which put its stamp upon events rather than Islamic fundamentalism. To understand the book is to grasp that its message is not just academic, but a book with a political message, which could have an impact on the formation of Western policy. It is most likely to be successful in doing so by appealing to groups which have influence over the formation of such policy. Many of the author’s compatriots in the West (she is herself from Iran) will take an interest; some of these are influential public opinion formers and advisors to governments.
Many of those who came to the West from Iran were the more modern, educated, urbanized and politicized, and as such, were also those who either suffered political repression at home or were generally more in tune with Marxism than theocracy. It is these people the book is most likely to reach and influence. Because of their background, language and the need for employment, many of these Iranians have filled a niche by becoming experts and advisors in the politics of their own country, occupying positions in academia, journalism and as advisors to governments.
The new interpretation of the events of the past thirty years seems to be based on the fact that Marxism was an important force during the revolution, which was what gave these events to some degree an anti-capitalist flavor. Marxist ideas rubbed off to some extent on members of the clergy. In addition, the US was an imperialist power with both economic and political interests in Iran, which created a material basis for a genuine anti-capitalist response. Because the revolution interfered with its interests, the US attempted to roll back the tide of revolution; support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War was one of the most significant such ventures which is submitted as evidence by Panah to show the extent of US counter-revolutionary activity.
US imperialism has had a major impact on Iran, and on the thinking of Iranians. The CIA abetted coup, which removed the popular nationalist leader Mossadegh from power in 1953, and US support for the Shah, have remained embedded within the consciousness of the nation and influence thinking and policy today. At the same time there were and are a number of different kinds of reactions by Iran’s leaders. First, there was a reaction to the US as an imperialist power which involved ousting the Shah and putting an end to US great-power influence in the country. Another kind of response to the US consisted of actions which were inspired by a fundamentalist tendency which was aggressive in its own right, and not just as a reaction to the past actions of the US. A third factor was the ratcheting up of tension and conflict, by the clerics in particular, as a means of rallying support and keeping themselves in power.
There were a number of concerns the US had about Iran after the Shah’s departure. There were concerns about the influence Iran was having on other countries in the Middle East. The author herself states that Iran made attempts to spread the revolution to other states, which she supports with references to Kayhan, Iran’s conservative newspaper. The US reacted not simply to the revolution (e.g., the overthrow of the Shah and the initial threats to its interests), but to ongoing and developing concerns, which also included the hostage crisis.
With regard to the last two sorts of reactions as described above, we might ask: were these the actions of liberationists, brother-under-the-skin to Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh? Iran’s actions don’t quite fit this template. It makes more sense to see them as part of a fundamentalist revolt against the West, mainly because it was the clerics who seized control of the revolution.
The fundamentalists were opposed to the West for reasons different to the Marxists; the former were more concerned about political ideology which was based on political interpretations of religious sources, the Marxists were more concerned about economic exploitation and foreign control. Political fundamentalism in its extreme forms has an appeal similar to that of nazi myth-making about the superiority of the German volk.
However, it is often difficult for Westerners to see this. The worst aspects of it are usually for internal consumption only. The external events, such as opposition to imperialist powers, appear to ape the more familiar national liberation or socialist/communist movements which took place during the last century. There are anti-imperialist, secular tendencies in Iran, but these are repressed by the regime, hence we get less of a chance to see them. It might be useful to make a distinction between secular and fundamentalist anti-imperialism.
Ayatollah Khomenei’s values were fundamentalist, Panah’s protestations to the contrary. It is true that Marxism was an important force at the time of the revolution, and it is true that some clerics were influenced by these ideas. However, it does not follow, nor is the evidence cited convincing, that Ayatollah Khomenei, who held ultimate power, was swayed from his original conservative-Islamist path by them. It is true that he made various pronouncements about equality and justice, and railed against imperialism.
However, Khomenei wanted to keep his very diverse revolutionary coalition together, which included Marxists, and therefore his remarks, which were superficial in the extreme, judging from those quoted in Panah’s book, and could more convincingly be described as opportunistic and rhetorical rather than as accurate indicators of his views. Khomenei’s most important commitment was to power. His major work, Velayat-e-faqih, the rule of the Islamic Jurisconsult, was a blueprint for totalitarianism, and he ultimately saw himself as fitting the job description of totalitarian-in-charge. However, in The Islamic Republic and the World, this point is, strangely, not strongly emphasized.
The odd thing about Panah’s book is that she is good at describing much of what took place, such as Iran’s adventurism, the post-revolution rise of Islamism at the expense of Marxism, and the repression which took place post-revolution. These descriptions have some holes in them, but are fairly comprehensive. What is missing is not accurate description, but rather an interpretation which accurately fits the description. Perhaps it is because there are those on the left who would like, at this moment in history, to draw a veil over these events in order to enlist the sympathies of leftists in both Iran and the West in defense of the regime in order to see the defeat of the West.
It is curious that sections of Iran’s left should be so inclined. It is an indication of the fact that many on the left see their futures linked to a nebulous anti-Americanism, rather than anything generated by a coherent Marxist analysis. If further evidence was needed about Khomenei’s leftwing sympathies, the fact remains that he betrayed the left, slaughtering and imprisoning thousands, as soon after the revolution as he was able to do so. It is odd that the author does not make more of this betrayal of the left by Khomenei and the conservatives.
Khomenei was anti-imperialist, but with a fundamentalist and conservative slant. There was no room in such a weltanschauung for self-criticism and assumption of responsibility for one’s own actions. In this way of thinking, the only way to resolve conflict between Iran and the US is for the US to stop putting pressure on Iran. This is certainly one of the points of Panah’s book, which is why the book does not just provide an analysis but is also a rationalization of regime behavior.
Political fundamentalism in Iran is a loose doctrine which is left vague in order to accommodate a coalition consisting of many factions which disagree about many issues, but share, or can be made to share, anti-Americanism in common. Because the factions are often unable to agree, for example, on economic principles, it became an amorphous doctrine which tended to see things in terms of good versus evil.
There is a surface eclecticism in such a doctrine which makes it possible for conflicting ideas to coexist, but this is the pragmatic surface rather than the hard-core foundation. The doctrine is amorphous enough so that it can present a Marxist face to a Marxist, and an Islamist face to an Islamist. It could be described as ‘root-cause ideology.’
Underneath, however, there usually lies a very inflexible core, a Manichaean view of the world, in which the Good and Great Satan are pitted against each other. It is a view of reality which depends on contrasts rather than contents, in which psychological splitting and projection help to generate the core beliefs. The Syrian scholar Bassam Tibi in his book The Challenge of Fundamentalism has described Islamic political fundamentalism as a modern movement which lends itself to vagueness.* It is for this reason also malleable because it has lost touch with traditional religious principles.
Panah describes Ahmadinejad also simply as ‘anti-imperialist.’ He is that, but with a twist in the tail. His is an extreme political ideology based on an apocalyptic variety of Shiism. This is not Marxism, nor is it secular nationalism. For Westerners, such views should make us pause to consider. We should not rush to judgment based on our own preconceptions, and it would be a folly to assume that giving them what they want will cause them to become less extreme. They may want more, ultimately, than non-interference.
There is an attempt in the Islamic Republic and the World, to create a picture of a regime embattled because it stands for Good Things, but is opposed by an evil World Power, and hence cannot achieve all of these things. In short, the regime has been re-branded as a victim, not as the world thought previously, as aggressive and reactionary. The airbrushing might create sympathy and support rather than the more natural reaction, fear and revulsion, among the readers whose views were formed by the events since 1979.
The panacea for current conflict which is being circulated by the regime and its supporters, could best be described as appeasement. If only the US would stop putting pressure on Iran, all would be well. This may be a cure for the problems of the hardliners, but those who wish peace may be disappointed. In fact, the most likely effect of appeasement is that it would be taken as a sign of weakness, or worse, of surrender, by Iran’s hardliners, who might then go on to press for a total victory.
In my view, this does not mean that a peaceful resolution to the conflict is impossible. What it means is that appeasement is the wrong policy for bringing it about. If both sides are willing to enter into détente and make concessions, a solution is possible. If only one side is expected to do these things, (and there are some Iran ‘experts’, perhaps influenced by arguments such as these, who advocate a one-sided détente by the United States!) it will be a recipe for defeat and/or further conflict rather than a peaceful resolution.
With a little help from its friends the regime may succeed if there is no opposition to its strategy. The result could be a new fascist empire, super-empowered by nuclear weapons and terrorism and keen to impose its own rule in a new imperialist phase of history as far and wide as the world will allow.
The Islamic Republic and the World presents us with a new twist in the tale of Iran and its relations with the West. It is one in which Western ideas are enlisted to gain sympathy for the regime. It should be read by anyone with a keen enough interest in how this is done and by anyone with a keen enough sense of the dangers involved. It is an object lesson in the continuing attraction of totalitarian ideas which have not yet been worked through on the left either in Iran or in the West.
* Bassam Tibi, The Challenge of Fundamentalism (University of California Press 2002)