Is Iran the most Stable Country in the Mideast 37 Years after its Revolution?

The Islamic Republic of Iran marks the 37th anniversary of the victory of the revolution on February 11, 2016. After ruling Iran for 37 years, the late Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi left Iran on January 16, 1979, appointing Shapur Bakhtiar as his last prime minister, and Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran after some 14 years of exile on February 2, 1979.

After Khomeini’s return, Bakhtiar’s government did not last long and he fled to Paris. In the course of armed clashes on 10-11 February between Khomeini’s foot-soldiers, including the leftist paramilitary groups such as the Mojahedin-e Khalq and the Feda’iyan Khalq, and the remnants of the Shah’s army that were guarding the barracks and the Shah’s palaces, the battle was over and Khomeini’s radical supporters had won. This event not only ended 57 years of rule by the two Pahlavi monarchs, but also put an end to more than 2500 years of the Iranian monarchy.

At first, most domestic and foreign observers believed that the revolution would be short lived, and there would either be a military coup that would restore the former regime to power or a new strongman would seize power and repeat what Reza Shah had done 57 years earlier.

The reason why the Iranian people rose up against the Shah’s regime was that they wanted to have greater freedoms, an end to dictatorship, a more equitable distribution of wealth and a more open and democratic society. Sadly, none of these demands have been realized. On the contrary, even some social freedoms that people enjoyed under the Shah’s rule have been curtailed. Iran ranks as one of the top countries in the world in the number of executions, suppression of press freedom, unequal treatment of women, and it has one of the largest numbers of political prisoners in the world.

However, 37 years after the revolution, despite all those failed promises, the Islamic Republic is still in place and it could be argued that seemingly it is perhaps the most stable regime in the Middle East, especially after the successful nuclear deal with the West. There have been a number of reasons for the staying power of the clerical regime.

The first reason is of course the use of violence and force that was intense at the beginning of the revolution and that has continued ever since, as could be seen in the brutal suppression of demonstrations following the controversial 2009 election in which Mahmud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. A number of people were killed and many demonstrators, including the leaders of the Green Movement and the reformist candidates, are still in jail or under house arrest.

The second reason is that the revolutionary dynamism that resulted in toppling one of the most powerful despots in the Middle East and brought the clerics to power had the necessary impetus to keep the regime going. Although the initial zeal has cooled to a great extent, it still possesses a certain amount of mystique that gives the regime some aura of legitimacy.

The third factor that strengthened the regime and gave it public support were the attacks from outside to topple it. Even before the revolution had succeeded, many Western governments were trying to nip it in the bud. Shortly prior to the Shah’s departure, the Pentagon sent Lieutenant General Robert E. Huyser, Deputy Commander in Chief of the United States European Command, to Tehran with the aim of propping up the military against Khomeini’s revolution. According to Charles Kurzman, Huyser’s mission was “to rally Iranian military commanders and help them prepare for a last resort coup d’etat.”[1]

In his Memoirs, the Shah has written that the first time that Huyser went to see him, his only question was: “When are you going to leave the country?” Lt. General Abbas Qarabaghi, the last chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the Shah, in a revealing book has described what really happened. General Huyser who had close relations with most Iranian top generals summoned them to a meeting in Qarabaghi’s office. Qarabaghi writes that in that meeting Huyser told the assembled generals that the Shah’s time was up and that they had to stop supporting him. However, he urged them to keep the army intact so that they could organize a coup against the revolutionary regime at an appropriate time.

As it happened, nearly all the leading generals were rounded up shortly after the revolution, and many of them were summarily executed on the roof of the school that Khomeini had chosen as his temporary residence. There were a number of coup attempts by younger officers during the following months, the most significant being the attempt by the Air Force personnel stationed at Nowzheh Air Base outside Tehran to bomb Khomeini’s residence and topple his government. Shapur Bakhtiar had supported that coup from his exile in Paris, but it failed because a member of the Tudeh Party (Iran’s oldest communist party that initially supported the revolution before it too was destroyed by Khomeini) learned about it and informed the authorities, and the plotters were arrested and many of them were executed.

The eight-year long Iran-Iraq war that killed and wounded perhaps as many as a million Iranians consolidated the regime further, as people had no choice but to support their government in the face of a clear aggression, supported by the West. More than anything else, that long and brutal war linked the fate of the regime and the people together as all of them were engaged in a heroic national struggle. The world should have learned that attacking a revolution only strengthens it.

The fourth reason for the endurance of the Islamic Republic has been a degree of populism that has characterised it from the start. Before coming to power, Khomeini promised to stop all taxes on the poor, and he even promised free electricity and water for all. The mullahs, with their long experience of interaction with the masses, have been very skilful at mobilizing the crowds on various religious occasions in support of the regime.

Government-sponsored populism reached its peak under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who squandered over 800 billion dollars of oil revenue during his eight years in power on housing and food subsidies and cheap loans to the poor. Although it alleviated the short-term economic problems faced by the poor, it destroyed the economy and led to high inflation and unemployment, compounded by the sanctions imposed by the West on Iran.

However, perhaps the most important factor that has enabled the clerical regime to survive has been a limited degree of democracy, allowing the public to participate in flawed but relatively fair and free elections and having a say in how the country is run. The political structure in Iran is very complex and convoluted, and it certainly cannot be called either a democracy or a totalitarian regime. The fact is that the regime has failed to stop all opposition, and there is still intense factionalism and political activity by both the supporters and the opponents of the regime, which provides some room for dissent and for checks and balances.

The Islamic Republic is run on the basis of the concept of Velayat-e Faqih, which was a novel idea in the whole history of Islam introduced by Ayatollah Khomeini, which empowers a senior cleric to be at the head of all major institutions and allegedly to rule on behalf of the Hidden Imam. Therefore, the system can best be described as a theocracy within a democratic facade.

The Supreme Leader is the highest authority in the land. He appoints the head of the judiciary who is in charge of appointing all the judges. He appoints the Friday Imams of the main cities who act as a link between him and the people and who set the agenda of public debates in their sermons, as dictated by a central office that decides the issues that should be addressed each week during Friday prayers.

The Supreme Leader appoints the commanders of the military forces, including the Islamic Revolution Guards that acts as the guardians of the revolution. He appoints the head of the national broadcasting organization that is in charge of nationwide propaganda. He also appoints six clerical members of the Guardian Council and the head of the judiciary (who is himself appointed by Khamenei) selects six jurists to the council, which is in charge of approving the credentials of all those who run for high office.

The Assembly of Experts is theoretically in charge of supervising the activities of the leader and appointing his successor when he dies or is incapacitated, but this assembly is made up of 88 top clerics who are allegedly experts in Islamic jurisprudence. Again, the members of this assembly too have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, ensuring that they follow the wishes of the Supreme Leader.

However, despite all these undemocratic principles, the system has managed to maintain a line of communication with the public and to provide a safety valve for the expression of public dissatisfaction. Practically, in all the elections that have been held in Iran during the past three decades, Iranians have shown that they are in favour of change and reform and have voted for reformist candidates. The 2013 presidential election that resulted in the victory of a centrist candidate, Hassan Rouhani, had encouraged many people to believe that the regime had moved beyond the era of Ahmadinejad and was going to allow the people greater freedom in their choices.

The massive disqualifications of reformist candidates for the forthcoming Majles and the Assembly of Experts election on February 26 show that the leopard has not changed its spots. This ominous development may bring about a repetition of former protests against the regime, which will gradually erode its standing among the people.

At this election, there are around 53 million voters, 30% of whom are under the age of 30, and 70% under the age of 50. The balance of power in Iran has shifted to a younger, more cosmopolitan and more reform minded generation. Either the regime will come to terms with this reality and will introduce a much greater degree of democracy, freedom and human rights, or it will face the opposition of larger and larger number of people who have moved on from the empty religious slogans of the early days of the revolution.


[1] Footnote: Kurzman, Charles, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran, Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 157

Farhang Jahanpour is a former professor and dean of the Faculty of Foreign Languages at the University of Isfahan and a former Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University. He is a tutor in the Department of Continuing Education and a member of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.This is the fourth of a series of 10 articles in which Jahanpour looks at various aspects and implications of the framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme reached in July 2015 between Iran and the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France, China and Germany, plus the European Union.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

CCTV News: “Iran’s Rouhani hails nuclear deal on 37th anniversary of revolution”

Posted in Iran | 8 Responses | Print |

8 Responses

  1. Iran is looking better and better, and certainly more stable than some other Middle East nations. Iran has been demonized in the US media, and recently more so, when Bibi tried to sabotage President Obama’s efforts at bringing some resolution to their nuclear program. Then there is the situation with Saudi Arabia, who has plenty of sectarian anger/spite against Iran, and seems totally afraid it will become a huge regional power to be reckoned with. It is amusing to see Saudi officials with a straight face accuse Iran of “interfering in the region”, when right now Saudi Arabia is considering sending boots on the ground in Syria. Proxy wars? Not only does Saudi Arabia resort to that, but the US does too, but you will not hear that mentioned in the US media.

    Iran has had it’s scientists murdered, been demonized by US and Israeli officials, and suffered through UN sanctions.
    It is time Iran was given a chance to become a member of the world community, and perhaps those sanctions/boycotts might be better put in use elsewhere. How about the nation that has the longest ongoing military occupation, the continuous theft of land, and attacks unarmed civilians from time to time?

  2. It is completely unethical for any revolutionary leader to give young people the idea that they should be striving for greater democracy in a just society, if we understand democracy as allowing the masses to determine national economic policies. If democracy is understood as allowing for freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, a reasonable degree of tolerance can be granted.
    The masses of people are completely untrained in understanding economic dynamics. In fact history shows that the masses have great difficulty in figuring out what is good for them. Any person in a position of power who would tell the masses that they deserve to have a say in how their society is run is a flat out liar. Even giving the expectation that freedom of speech or the press should be absolute is very irresponsible. A wealthy man should not be allowed to spread dangerous ideas just because he owns a printing press or TV station.
    Only those who have recieved a life time of proper training in philosophy, economics, sociology, psychology, and military matters is potentially qualified to sit on a Central Committee and decide what national policies will be.
    The problem of humanity is that those who become the experts can not be trusted anymore than the masses. HIstory has shown that the experts almost always use their expertise and their positions at the top of massive institutions to take advantage of the masses. The masses are defenceless. Even though they may know that they are getting screwed they are totally incapable of determining who the people are that are qualified to lead thier society.
    The solution to this problem does not lie in the mistaken idea of one man one vote. That concept is just a euphamisim for one idiot one vote.
    There is no solution for preventing nut cases from comming to power. There is a solution for preventing nut cases from being able to do any damn stupid thing that they want to.
    The solution is jury nullification. It is in the jury box that the citizen of a nation can carry out the sacred duty of protecting the nation from stupidity. In the jury box the jury should not only be allowed to decide if a person actually did with what (s)he is charged with but whether or not the law itself is a just law.
    The jurors will not get to hear sound bites or slogans but will get to hear a complete and comprehensive explination of the issue from two opposing attornies. Some juries will make bad decisions. But, over the long run quasi dependable patterns will emerge.
    Of course I know that people do not like to be told that they are idiots, politcally speaking. Of course I know that attacking the idea that democracy is obviously a form of government better than all the others is attacking a sacred cow. Yet it is the duty of a responsible person to say what is true not to say what people want or expect to hear.
    I am capable of explaining in great detail the theoretical reasons that one man one vote does not work worth a shit. I am also capable of explaining in great detail why one dollar one vote (libertarianism) does not work worth a shit either. I could do the same for socialism, theocracy, or even anarcho-communism. That would make the post much to long however.
    The important thing for you the reader to remember is the next time you see tanks in the streets toppling a government, it is in your best intrests to cheer. If those on top of the tanks promise to implement jury nullification and abolish the Federal Reserve cheer very loudly.

    • Mira, look, it is reali not all that complicated. If Iran wants to reamain stable for the next 37 years it has to choose between two courses of action with reguards to ecomomics. It can follow the path set forth by the ecomomics department of the University of Kansas City as expounded by such ecomomists as Michael Hudson and Warren Mosler. Or, it can follow the advice of those ecommists who have developed Parecon who are led by Michael and Robin Hahnel.
      In the short run there is really only one choice. That is to implement the polocies set for by Michael Hudson and his team.
      Like everyone else, the Iranians will probalby chose to ignore my advice. If they do what I expect them to do, then Khameni will not really be in charge of the Islamic Republic all that much longer.

  3. Everything after reason #1 is window dressing. When the fashion police is a significant RSA, we can stop the analysis at state oppression.

  4. Your article has almost ignored the main reason why Islamic republic has stood all these years and will probably remain further. That’s Shiasm. In Iran every man and woman who wants to marry, who dies, who wants to pay his/her financial religious payments (Khoms) will to go whom? to clerics. and clerics definitely favor a regime that provides atmosphere for the religion and them to work. in addition for Iranians (pro- or anti-regime no matter) there are certain religious red lines which the Islamic Republic is guardian of them including core principles of Shiasm, Imam Hussein which the regime can rally poeple behind him, the core issue for remaining the government and the clerical system is that people still live with religion in every aspect of their lives so the regime will remain as long as religion and Shiasm thrives among people. That’s the most simple explanation for their survival. however, speaking about new freedoms you’re right, increasing personal freedoms and democratic values and accountability as well as transparency will also help the ruling clerics remain in power even longer than anybody can predict.

  5. “The political structure in Iran is very complex and convoluted, and it certainly cannot be called either a democracy or a totalitarian regime. ”

    The situation in Iran is very similar to the governmental situation of the UK from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 until the Great Reform Bill in 1832.

    As such I give them the best chance of developing full democracy of any country which doesn’t have democracy yet.

  6. Iranian system survives because most people prefer it. Though there is sizeable minority which has reservations. I have met dozens of such young people in many Muslim countries have an idealistic view of the world. Even after living for years in western countries it takes time to remove their rose tinted glasses. A trio of Iranian women claimed that India is a safe place for women and Indian women are honored by Indian society as opposed to Iranian society !! This on basis of a couple of weekend visits to Delhi. A couple of anti establishment young men claimed that India is a peaceful society without violence between political groups. After days of incredulous arguments a challenge to read the headline of any major Indian newspaper for a month cured them of the the Alice in Wonderland syndrome.
    More interactions with the rest of the world will remove the blinkers from many of these people and make them appreciate their system. The fact is in today’s world there is a jihad by the dominant western social system with no scope for any other system to prevail in any land. Different people’s have values quite different to each other. Their social systems reflect their values. The unrelenting jihad by Western and West allied countries to impose their values on others results in strong security States in countries like Iran.

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