Who’s Responsible for Iran’s Theocratic State?

The United Kingdom-United States participation in the 1953 overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and their support for the king Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, is something I would have, had I been alive and aware of at the time, opposed and protested. With rare exception, I am a non-interventionist. The intervention, orchestrated by the MI6 and the Central Intelligence Agency was driven by Western imperialist desire, which I oppose on principle. Mossadegh was a social democrat whose reforms threatened foreign capitalist interests, in particular the British claim on the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

However, the negation of Persia that came with the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iran on April 1, 1979 does not follow from the imperialist behavior of the capitalist Anglosphere in 1953, but rather represents the work of an authoritarian movement determined to Islamize Iran and drive from Asia western notions of individual liberty, human rights, and democracy and the failure of leftwing forces to grasp the significance of this movement.

Indeed, after 1962, the Shah’s progressive White Revolution threatened the traditional Islamic structures that had long stifled that country’s development by enfranchising women, nationalizing resources, and profit sharing in industry. Rapid industrialization and cultural modernization resulted from the Shah’s project. It was to this progress that Shia Islamists reacted. Moreover, rising expectations alongside growing prosperity brought new political demands. 

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Marxists need to tell a more nuanced story of the rise of the Islamic republic, and this story should be informed by irreligious criticism. Contemporary Marxist thought seems to have forgotten its roots in antitheism, and as a result downplays or misses entirely the role religious ideology plays in world history relatively independently of material forces. It even confuses religious ideology with race and ethnic categories. These failures are largely the failure of Marxists to immunize the left from the corrupting perversions of postmodernist ideas.

The standard leftwing account of the Islamic Revolution attempts to compress more than a quarter century of history between the 1953 intervention and the 1979 overthrow of the 2,500-year-old monarchy founded by Cyrus the Great. According to this interpretation, the Iranian republic was a boomerang effect, a case of chickens coming home to roost.

A lot occurred during this 26 year period. The events of 1953 were immediately preceded by a split between Mossadegh and Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani. Mossadegh understood that Shia Islam had deep roots in Iranian society and cultivated a working relationship with the clerical community. Kashani had been a valuable ally in the effort to emancipate the energy sector from foreign control. However, Kashani sought more influence in governmental affairs. When Mossadegh, a staunch secularist, rebuffed him, Kashani joined pro-monarchy Ayatollah Behbehani alongside the Shah and participated in the British-American plot to overthrow the prime minister. Thus Islamists betrayed the prime minister.

There were other Islamists who helped undermine Mossadegh, as well, for example the terrorist Feda’ian-e Islam (Self-Sacrificers of Islam), who demanded compulsory public prayer, Islamic dress code, the expulsion of women from government service, and the prohibition of alcohol. Crucially, the Islamists supported the Shah, also a secularist, because they wanted to rid themselves of a secularist they believed was undermining their authority in Iranian society. However, the Shah’s White Revolution caused a rift between the Shah and the clerics who had supported him. Islamists support secular politicians and regimes only when they believe it advances their goals of spreading and entrenching Islam.

It was amid the White Revolution that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the future Supreme Leader of a theocratic Iran, rose to power. He aimed to thwart the Shah’s progressive agenda and establish sharia (Islamic law and government) over against the people. Khomeini was arrested and detained and eventually was forced into exile for more than a decade, first in Turkey, next in Iraq (he was expelled by Saddam Hussein in 1978), and then in France.

In exile, Khomeini wrote his Hokumat-e Islami: Velayat-e faqih (Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist). From there, he instigated uprisings in Iran, drawing government action to suppress rebellion. Taking advantage of the Shah’s political liberalization (under pressure from the Carter Administration), the Iranian left helped widen the path for Islamist success by expanding and amplifying popular protests. The Tudeh Party, Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, and People’s Mujaheddin, while opposed to clericalism, contributed to the disorder that advanced Khomeini’s goal of establishing an Islamic government. Khomeini’s movement, velayat-e faqih, or Guardianship of the Jurist, spread propaganda exaggerating the extent of government repression. Anti-western leftists disseminated the misinformation in the West (French postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault perhaps most famously).

For his part, the Shah made errors in the 1970s that helped strengthen the Islamists over against the people’s interests. The presence of tens of thousands of foreign workers drew the ire of Iranian nationalists. Austerity measures worsened conditions coinciding with the migration of unskilled workers from the countryside into the cities. The Shah’s decision in 1976 to change the Iranian calendar to the ascension of Cyrus from the Islamic Hijra (the year Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina) triggered Islamists always on the lookout for grievances with which to agitate for their cause.

The Shah was sent into exile in January 1979. Khomeini returned from exile the following month to millions of adoring fans. Khomeini’s movement ideology became the basis of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Grand Ayatollah became the Supreme Leader. This is how secular law and government were smashed.

It was not a response to UK-US intervention or the Shah’s authoritarianism that this happened, but rather Islamist reaction to progressive reforms and to western cultural influences and political and economic freedoms drove the turmoil. It was a negation of the Enlightenment, to the progress brought about by science and liberal ideas, such as the emancipation of women, which, while preferably unfolding in the context of a democratic system, can and does develop within monarchies.

It is paradoxical to celebrate the Islamic Revolution on the grounds that it overthrew an authoritarian secular regime since the Islamic Revolution established an authoritarian theocratic state, one in which women were returned to the previous status as patriarchal subjects. The ideology that fueled the countermovement against these values explicitly advanced the view that western cultural influences had to be eradicated as they corrupted Iranian society. The Revolution was simultaneously authoritarian, patriarchal, illiberal, and anticommunist, thus finding its analog in fascism.

The Marxist and quasi-Marxist groups that helped destabilize the Shah’s government found their movements hoisted upon their own petards. Perhaps it is out of embarrassment that so many Marxists rationalize the Islamic Revolution as a substitute for the failure of their political strategies and tactics in Iran.

In the end, it was a tragic thing that happened to one of the great civilizations in world history. That Iran was modernizing and its citizens were enjoying widespread freedom and prosperity makes its regression into theocracy all the more tragic.

Too often, a reflex follows the principled position against US clandestine interference in the internal affairs of foreign nations, one that blames subsequent events on the initial clandestine action. In the case of Iran, the Revolution was not a delayed reaction to UK-US action, but the work of a reactionary project to withdraw Iran from world progress. I would have opposed military intervention under Carter for the same reason I would have opposed Eisenhower’s 1953 action (also because it might have been counterproductive, undermining the Shah’s authority by even more closely linking it to Western influence). But had the Carter administration intervened and prevented the Islamic Revolution, the people of Iran would likely be better off today. Indeed, the region would likely be a lot better off than it is today.

Update (June 18, 2019): Given the saber-rattling of late with respect to Iran, I think it is helpful to recall this talk given by Bernard Lewis in 2009:

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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