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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reading List: The Persian Night

Taheri, Amir. The Persian Night. New York: Encounter Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59403-240-0.
With Iran continuing its march toward nuclear weapons and long range missiles unimpeded by an increasingly feckless West, while simultaneously domestic discontent over the tyranny of the mullahs, economic stagnation, and stolen elections are erupting into bloody violence on the streets of major cities, this book provides a timely look at the history, institutions, personalities, and strategy of what the author dubs the “triple oxymoron”: the Islamic Republic of Iran which, he argues, espouses a bizarre flavour of Islam which is not only a heretical anathema to the Sunni majority, but also at variance with the mainstream Shiite beliefs which predominated in Iran prior to Khomeini's takeover; anything but a republic in any usual sense of the word; and motivated by a global messianic vision decoupled from the traditional interests of Iran as a nation state.

Khomeini's success in wresting control away from the ailing Shah without a protracted revolutionary struggle was made possible by support from “useful idiots” mostly on the political left, who saw Khomeini's appeal to the rural population as essential to gaining power and planned to shove him aside afterward. Khomeini, however, once in power, proved far more ruthless than his coalition partners, summarily putting to death all who opposed him, including many mullahs who dissented from his eccentric version of Islam.

Iran is often described as a theocracy, but apart from the fact that the all-powerful Supreme Guide is nominally a religious figure, the organisation of the government and distribution of power are very much along the lines of a fascist state. In fact, there is almost a perfect parallel between the institutions of Nazi Germany and those of Iran. In Germany, Hitler created duplicate party and state centres of power throughout the government and economy and arranged them in such a way as to ensure that decisions could not be made without his personal adjudication of turf battles between the two. In Iran, there are the revolutionary institutions and those of the state, operating side by side, often with conflicting agendas, with only the Supreme Guide empowered to resolve disputes. Just as Hitler set up the SS as an armed counterpoise to the Wehrmacht, Khomeini created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as the revolution's independent armed branch to parallel the state's armed forces.

Thus, the author stresses, in dealing with Iran, it is essential to be sure whether you're engaging the revolution or the nation state: over the history of the Islamic Republic, power has shifted back and forth between the two sets of institutions, and with it Iran's interaction with other players on the world stage. Iran as a nation state generally strives to become a regional superpower: in effect, re-establishing the Persian Empire from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea through vassal regimes. To that end it seeks weapons, allies, and economic influence in a fairly conventional manner. Iran the Islamic revolutionary movement, on the other hand, works to establish global Islamic rule and the return of the Twelfth Imam: an Islamic Second Coming which Khomeini's acolytes fervently believe is imminent. Because they brook no deviation from their creed, they consider Sunni Moslems, even the strict Wahabi sect of Saudi Arabia, as enemies which must be compelled to submit to Khomeini's brand of Islam.

Iran's troubled relationship with the United States cannot be understood without grasping the distinction between state and revolution. To the revolution, the U.S. is the Great Satan spewing foul corruption around the world, which good Muslims should curse, chanting “death to America” before every sura of the Koran. Iran the nation state, on the other hand, only wants Washington to stay out of its way as it becomes a regional power which, after all, was pretty much the state of affairs under the Shah, with the U.S. his predominant arms supplier. But the U.S. could never adopt such a strategy as long as the revolution has a hand in policy, nor will Iran's neighbours, terrified of its regional ambitions, encourage the U.S. to keep their hands off.

There is a great deal of conventional wisdom about Iran which is dead wrong, and this book dispels much of it. The supposed “CIA coup” against Mosaddegh in 1953, for which two U.S. presidents have since apologised, proves to have been nothing of the sort (although the CIA did, on occasion, claim credit for it as an example of a rare success amidst decades of blundering), with the U.S. largely supporting the nationalisation of the Iranian oil fields against fierce opposition from Britain. But cluelessness about Iran has never been in short supply among U.S. politicians. Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Bill Clinton said:

Iran today is, in a sense, the only country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency. It is there that the ideas I subscribe to are defended by a majority.

Lest this be deemed a slip of the tongue due to intoxication by the heady Alpine air of Davos, a few days later on U.S. television he doubled down with:

[Iran is] the only one with elections, including the United States, including Israel, including you name it, where the liberals, or the progressives, have won two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote in six elections…. In every single election, the guys I identify with got two-thirds to 70 percent of the vote. There is no other country in the world I can say that about, certainly not my own.

I suppose if the U.S. had such an overwhelming “progressive” majority, it too would adopt “liberal” policies such as hanging homosexuals from cranes until they suffocate and stoning rape victims to death. But perhaps Clinton was thinking of Iran's customs of polygamy and “temporary marriage”.

Iran is a great nation which has been a major force on the world stage since antiquity, with a deep cultural heritage and vigorous population who, in exile from poor governance in the homeland, have risen to the top of demanding professions all around the world. Today (as well as much of the last century) Iran is saddled with a regime which squanders its patrimony on a messianic dream which runs the very real risk of igniting a catastrophic conflict in the Middle East. The author argues that the only viable option is regime change, and that all actions taken by other powers should have this as the ultimate goal. Does that mean going to war with Iran? Of course not—the very fact that the people of Iran are already pushing back against the mullahs is evidence they perceive how illegitimate and destructive the present regime is. It may even make sense to engage with institutions of the Iranian state, which will be the enduring foundation of the nation after the mullahs are sent packing, but it it essential that the Iranian people be sent the message that the forces of civilisation are on their side against those who oppress them, and to use the communication tools of this new century (Which country has the most bloggers? The U.S. Number two? Iran.) to bypass the repressive regime and directly address the people who are its victims.

Hey, I spent two weeks in Iran a decade ago and didn't pick up more than a tiny fraction of the insight available here. Events in Iran are soon to become a focus of world attention to an extent they haven't been for the last three decades. Read this book to understand how Iran figures in the contemporary Great Game, and how revolutionary change may soon confront the Islamic Republic.

Posted at January 7, 2010 00:36