From Philip Carl Salzman
How do we know whether our models, or, to be more modest, our characterizations of countries are correct? We try to show that the case studies and other information that we adduce support our vision. But our interpretations are seldom challenged by immediate events, and their validity is most easily assessed in the long term, by which time our views have been forgotten or are deemed irrelevant.
At a recent conference on Iran, three speakers with strong credentials made a case that the Islamic Republic government was basically rational, that it responded reasonably to variations in its political environment, and that its goals were based on realpolitik and realistic. I had two doubts about that. First, its fundamental raison d’etre was religious, and religious objectives, very aggressive ones, appear to be its long-term goals. Second, its extreme position on Israel appears to be fueled by a religious absolutism and triumphalism.
In recent days, I have become convinced about a third basis for doubt about the rationality of the Islamic Republic government. The Iranian national election for president was, by established procedure, already fixed. Four acceptable candidates were chosen out of the hundred-plus by the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei. All four were outstanding supporters of the Islamic Republic and had held high positions.
But this was not sufficient for the “Supreme Guide” and his extremist supporters. Instead of letting the populace vote for their preferred candidate among this small coterie of loyalists, the “Supreme Guide” decided to fix the election again, in favor of the most extreme candidate, Ahmadinejad. (In Persian, the name is Ahmadi-nejad, rather than the incorrect Ama-din-ejad that one hears on the media.) So, for the benefit of choosing among the small differences in outlook of the candidates, the “Supreme Guide” decided to insure that Ahmadinejad would win, whatever electoral fraud, and preemptive announcement was required.
Was it rational for the “Supreme Guide” to jettison all pretense of electoral probity, and of a “Republic” supported by the people, for such a small gain? Was the loss of legitimacy both at home and abroad worth it? Was driving the populace, seeking small measures of personal freedom and economic stability, to a new understanding that the Islamic Republic regime was their enemy, a reasonable price for the small gain of choosing one among the selected candidates? I would suggest that it was not rational, but rather an expression of fanatical religious motivation. And that would make the Islamic Republic regime a non-rational player.
The events of the fixed election and it s popular aftermath has inadvertently provided a test for a model of the Islamic Republic proposed by Amir Taheri in The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution, published last March, before the recent election. Taheri (p. 358) says that “Iran today… is… like a heaving volcano, ready to explode.”
Taheri’s thesis is based on the multiple contradictions and fractures in Iranian society: revolutionary institutions versus conventional state institutions; the revolutionary armed forces versus the state armed forces; the radical mullahs who wish to control the government versus more traditional mullahs who do not wish religion to be tainted by governance; religious foundations and Revolutionary Guard enterprises versus the workers demanding trade unions; revolutionary religious surveillance of education versus teachers; the revolutionary generation versus the post-revolutionary youth; and Shi’a Persians supported by the revolutionary government versus ethnic and religious minorities.
Taheri cites as further reasons for popular discontent the oppression of the revolutionary institutions, from attacks and arrests over “improper” dress and comportment, to mass arrests of allegedly dissident populations, to the continuing closing of newspapers and magazines deemed insufficiently sympathetic to the regime, to the ever increasing blocking of the electronic media, to the blacklisting of authors and books, to “disappearances” of trade union leaders, journalists, student activists, ethnic activists, and opposition mullahs, to the ongoing wave of executions of minorities—especially Kurds, Arabs, and Baluch—and other perceived opponents of the regime. Taheri (p. 361) says that “faced with popular discontent, the Khomeinist clique is vulnerable and worried—extremely worried…. Iran today… is about a growing popular movement that may help bring the nation out of the dangerous impasse created by the mullahs.”
Taheri wrote this before the recent election and the extraordinary popular demonstrations against the fixed results, and then against the regime. I think that a case can be made that Taheri’s account of Iran has been validated by subsequent events. If he were correct in his assessment, the result should have been exactly what did happen. Taheri’s model has been tested by events and shown to be sound.
What is Taheri’s policy advice? He says (p. 361) that “the outside world would do well to monitor carefully and, whenever possible, support the Iranian people’s fight against the fascist regime in Tehran.” How would he do that? “With a clear compass, the litmus test for any particular policy towards Iran will likewise be clear: does this activity, program or initiative help or hinder regime change?” (p. 362). What would not help is for foreign countries to treat with the regime in any way that would validate it and give it legitimacy. President Obama and European Union, please take note.
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