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Was it Wrong to Support the Iranian Revolution?

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Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani (left) with Ayatollah Khomeini.I have often reflected upon my own experience of the Iranian Revolution. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War I believed that the United States would face its next major geopolitical challenge in Iran: partly because of its role via CIA in overthrowing the Mohammad Mosaddegh elected constitutional government so as to restore the repressive Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) to power in 1953, partly because there were 45,000 American troops deployed in Iran along with a network of strategic assets associated with Cold War anti-Soviet priorities, partly because there was a generation of young Iranians, many of whom studied abroad, who had experienced torture and abuse at the hands of the SAVAK, Tehran’s feared intelligence service, partly by the intense anti-regime opposition of an alienated middle class in Iran that was angered by the Shah’s reliance on international capital in implementing the ‘White Revolution,’ and partly because the Shah pursued a regionally unpopular pro-Israel and pro-South Africa (during apartheid) policy. Against this background, and on the basis of my decade long involvement in opposing the American role in Vietnam, I helped form and chaired a small, unfunded committee devoted to promoting human rights and opposing non-intervention in Iran. I was greatly encouraged to do this my several students who were either Iranian or political activists focused on Iran.

In this period, while on the Princeton faculty, the committee organized several events on the internal situation in Iran, including criticism of the American role that was dramatized by Jimmy Carter’s 1978 New Year’s Eve toast to the Shah while a guest at the palace, ‘an island of stability surrounded by the love of his people.’ Such absurdly inappropriate sentiments by the most decent of recent American presidents were undoubtedly sincere but bore witness to what is seen and unseen by the best of American leaders when the world is understood according to the protocols of geopolitics. It was Henry Kissinger who more realistically praised the Shah in his memoirs, calling him “the rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally.’ It was this sense of iran’s subordination to the United States that increased the hostility toward the Pahlavi regime across the broad spectrum of Iranian opinion, and explained what was not then understood, why even those sectors of the Iranian establishment who had benefitted most from the Shah’s regime, did not fight for its survival, but rather ran away and hide as quickly as they could.

Despite being critical of the established order in Iran, the timing and nature of the Iranian upheaval in 1978 came as a complete surprise. It also surprised the American ambassador in Iran, William Sullivan, who told me during a meeting in Tehran at the height of the domestic turmoil, that the embassy had worked out 26 scenarios of possible destabilization in Iran and not one had accorded any role to Islamic resistance. As late as August 1978 a CIA analysis concluded that Iran “is not revolutionary or even in a pre-revolutionary situation.” In fact, seeing the world through a blinkered Cold War optic led the U.S. Government to continue funding Islamic groups because of their presumed anti-Communist identity, which was the first major experience of ‘blowback’ to be disastrously repeated in Afghanistan. The unrest in Iran started with a relatively minor incident in early 1978, although some observers point to demonstrations a year earlier, which gradually deepened until it became a revolutionary process engulfing the entire country. My small committee in the United States tried to interpret these unexpected developments in Iran, inviting informed speakers, sponsoring meetings, and beginning to appreciate the unlikely role being played by Ayatollah Khomeini as an inspirational figure living for many years in exile, first in Iraq, then Paris. It was in this setting that I was invited to visit Iran to witness the unfolding revolutionary process by Mehdi Bazargan who was a moderate and respected early leader in the anti-Shah movement, and was appointed Prime Minister by Khomeini on February 4, 1979 of an interim government of post-Shah Iran. In explaining the appointment, Khomeini foreshadowed an authoritarian turn in the revolutionary process. His chilling words were not sufficiently noticed as the time: “[T]hrough the guardianship [velayat] that I have from the holy lawgiver [the Prophet], I hereby pronounce Bazargan as the Ruler, and since I have appointed him he must be obeyed. The nation must obey him. This is not an ordinary government. It is a government based on the sharia. Opposing the government means opposing the sharia of Islam…Revolt against God’s government is a revolt against God. Revolt against God is blasphemy.”

In January 1979 I went to Iran for two weeks in a small delegation of three persons. My companions on the trip were Ramsey Clark, former American Attorney General who had turned strongly against American foreign policy during the last stages of the Vietnam War and Philip Luce, long-term anti-war activist associated with religious NGOs who had gained worldwide attention a decade earlier when he showed a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation the infamous ‘tiger cages’ used by the Saigon government to imprison inhumanly its enemies in South Vietnam. The three of us embarked on this mission generally sympathetic with the anti-Shah movement, but were uncertain about its real character and likely political trajectory. I had met previously with some of those who would emerge prominently, including Abdulhassan Banisadr Ban who was living as a private citizen in Paris and dreamed of becoming the first president of a post-Shah Iran, an idealistic man who combined a devotion to Islam with a liberal democratic agenda and an Islamic approach to economic policy. His dream was fulfilled but not at all in the manner that he hoped. He did become the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but his eminence was short lived as the radicalization of the political climate under the guidance of Khomeini led to his impeachment after less than two years, and made it necessary for him to flee the country, returning Paris, now a fugitive of the revolution he had so recently championed. Of course, such a pattern was not novel. Past revolutions had frequently devoured their most dedicated adherents.

Also, I had become a close friend of Mansour Farhang who was a progressive American professor of international relations teaching at a California college and a highly intelligent advocate of the revolutionary developments in Iran as they unfolded in 1978. Farhang was appointed as ambassador to the UN by the new government, but soon resigned his post, and denounced the regime he had worked to install as a new species of ‘religious fascism.’ There were others, also, who inclined me in this period of struggle against the Pahlavi Dynasty to view favorably the revolutionary developments in Iran, but later became bitter opponents.

My visit itself took place at a climactic moment in the Iranian Revolution. The Shah left the country on January 17, 1979 while we were in Iran to the disbelief of ordinary Iranians who thought the initial reports were at best a false rumor and at worst a trick to entrap the opposition. When the public began to believe that the unbelievable had actually happened there were spontaneous celebratory outpourings everywhere we were. On that very evening we had a somewhat surrealistic meeting with the recently designated Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar. Bakhtiar was a longtime liberal critic of the monarchy living outside the country who had been appointed a few weeks earlier by the Shah as a desperate democratizing concession aimed at calming the rising revolutionary tide. It was a futile gesture, and one that Khomeini dismissed with the greatest contempt, showing his refusal to consider what at the time struck many as a prudent compromise. Bakhtiar lasted less than two months, left the country, and was assassinated in his home in the outskirts of Paris a decade or so later.

While in Iran we had the opportunity to have long meetings with a range of religious figures including Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani and Ayatollah Shariat Maderi, both extraordinary religious figures who impressed us deeply with their combination of principled politics and empathy with the suffering endured by the Iranian people during the prior 25 years. After leaving Iran we stopped in Paris and spent several hours with Ayatollah Khomeini on his last day in France before his triumphal return to Iran. At that point, Khomeini was viewed as ‘the icon’ of the revolution, but was not thought of as its future political leader. Indeed, Khomeini had told us that he looked forward to ‘resuming his religious life’ in Qom when he returned to Iran, and that he had entered the political arena most reluctantly, and only because the Shah’s rule had caused ‘a river of blood’ to flow between the people and the state. There were many intriguing facets of our meeting with this ‘dark genius’ of the Iranian Revolution, which I will leave for another post. My impression of Khomeini was of a highly intelligent, uncompromising, strong willed, and severe individual, himself somewhat unnerved by the unexpected happenings in a country he had not entered for almost 20 years. Khomeini insisted on portraying what had happened in Iran as an ‘Islamic Revolution’; he corrected us if we made any reference to an ‘Iranian Revolution.’ In this respect, this religious leader was obviously disenchanted with nationalism, as well as royalism (he spoke of the Saudi dynasty as deserving the same fate as the Pahlavis), and presumably envisioning the revival of the Islamic caliphate, and its accompanying borderless umma.

I returned from Iran with a sense of excitement about what I had witnessed and experienced, feeling that the country might be giving the world a needed new progressive political model that combined compassion for the people as a whole with a shared spiritual identity. There was no doubt that at the time Khomeini and Islamic identity had mobilized the Iranian masses in a manner that was far more intense and effective than had ever been achieved by various forms of leftist agitation and ideology. Some of those we met in Iran were cautious about what to expect, saying the revolution has unfolded ‘too fast’ for a smooth transition to constitutional governance. Others spoke about counter-revolutionary tendencies, and there were conspiratorial views voiced to the effect that the overthrow of the Shah was engineered by British intelligence, and even that Ayatollah Khomeini was a British agent, or that it was an American response to the Shah’s successful push for higher oil prices within the OPEC framework that was threatening to the West. We were guests in the home of an anti-Shah mathematician in Tehran, a dedicated democrat who told us that his recent reading of Khomeini’s published lectures on Islamic Government had made him extremely fearful about what would happen in post-Shah Iran. Also, some Iranian women we met were worried about threats to the freedoms that enjoyed under the Shah, and were unhappy about the new dress code of the revolution that was already making the wearing of the chador virtually mandatory. Some of those we spoke who had supported the revolution insisted that once a new political order is established, there would be a feminist outcry to the effect ‘we’re next!’ Other secular women told us that they enjoyed wearing the chador because it gave them a welcome relief from spending time on cosmetics and the various ways that modern Western fashion treated women as ‘objects’ designed to awaken erotic desires among men.

Despite encountering these reservations about the Iranian future, I returned from Iran deeply impressed by having touched ‘the live tissue of revolution.’ There was an extraordinary feeling of societal unity and solidarity that seemed to embrace the whole population, at that moment surmounting divisions of class and ethnicity, and even leading those with religious identifications to bond with liberal secular elements. It was a moment of historic mobilization, and although the future was unknowable, the release of positive energy that we experienced was remarkable. It included walking in a peaceful and joyous demonstration of several million in Tehran to celebrate the departure of the Shah and the victory of the revolution. Such an outpouring of love and happiness lent credibility to our hopes that Iran as a liberated society would go forward to produce a humane and distinctive form of governance.

It was not long afterwards, that what had seemed so promising degenerated into a process that was deeply disturbing, a new disposition toward severly abusing opponents and the emergence of a new religiously grounded autocracy that seemed as unscrupulous as its predecessor. Khomeini surfaced as the supreme leader of this kind of harsh regime, acknowledged as such without ever being elected. To be sure, there were violent counter-revolutionary forces at work in Iran, and there were suspicions that the United States was maneuvering behind the scenes to repeat its coup of 1953. There is no doubt that the United States encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980, hoping at least to detach the oil province of Kuzistan from the country, and possibly even toppling the Khomeini government. However, these developments are interpreted, there seemed little likelihood that the values that underlay the courageous campaign against the Shah would ever again achieve the spirit of unity and liberation that we found in Iran during our visit in early 1979.

I had written and spoke publically about my impressions of the revolution that we experienced before it encountered these reactionary troubles. Ever since I have been sharply criticized for my early show of support for Ayatollah Khomeini, and my subsequent misgivings, even active opposition, were ignored. Such a pattern is not unusual, and I might try to give my side of the story at some later point, but now I wish to concentrate on another part of the experience, and talk about the relation between my positive perceptions in phase one and my disillusionment in phase two. I want to raise the question as to whether my enthusiasm in phase one was itself a misguided indulgence in utopian longing that necessarily ends in a reign of terror. Such is the essential thesis of Crane Brinton’s influential Anatomy of Revolution. This view is partially also endorsed by Hannah Arendt’s Revolution with its admiration for the American Revolution because it did not attempt to achieve a social transformation beneficial to the poor and its demonization of the French Revolution because it did insist upon the achievement of a just society, which led in her view to a bloody struggle with the threatened privileged classes and to revolutionary terror.

Such a question was posed for me with stark vividness when I read recently the brilliantly provocative essay of Slavoj Zizek entitled “Radical Intellectuals, or, Why Heidegger Took the Right Step (Albeit in the Wrong Direction),” and especially the short section, ‘Michel Foucault and the Iranian Event,’ published in his breathtaking book, In Defense of Lost Causes. Zizek’s basic support for greeting such historically charismatic events with approval is based on the idea that the faith in liberating the moral potential of human society is the only alternative to being complicit in the exploitation and demeaning of the multitudes and passive in the face of pervasive structural injustice.  Zizek makes an important distinction between Heidegger’s temporary embrace of Nazism and Foucault’s of the Iranian Revolution, although he takes note of the similarities, especially the attractive quality of the transcendent moment of collective unity and its associated visionary embrace of a just future for the entire people. He seeks to distinguish the appropriateness of the enthusiasm and longing, and the actual deformity of the events.

In this assessment, Zizek sides with the outlook of the French philosopher Alain Badiou and the Irish playwright Samuel Becket: “Better a disaster of fidelity to the Event than a non-being of indifference toward the Event..one can go on and fail better, while indifference drowns us deeper and deeper in the morass of imbelcilic Being.”  Of course, it is a radical claim to insist that the deformed societal structures faces us with such a stark choice between revolution and complicity via indifference. Such a view rejects reformism and liberal perspectives because of their acceptance of the structures in place, and rejection of more radical challenges on behalf of justice.

Rethinking after more than 30 years my own sequence of enthusiasm, disillusionment, and opposition I am assisted by Zizek’s disquisition although I would not pose the issues of choice so starkly. What seems to me important is to side with the revolutionary impulse, although I am not sure that our historical experience gives us any confidence that revolutionaries are learning to ‘fail better’ although they are definitely learning to ‘fail differently’ (for instance, compare the Arab Spring with the Iranian Revolution) (or Mao’s cultural revolution with the Soviet experience with Stalinism).

Was it a mistake of perception, a radical form of wishful thinking, to underestimate or fail earlier to apprehend the negative potentialities of the Iranian Revolution when I visited the country in late 1978, and again in early 1980 in the aftermath of the hostage crisis? Or was it correct to give voice to the positive potentialities that seemed to surface so compellingly during those moments of collective excitement and unity, as well as were expressed by most of those with whom I spoke during the 1979 visit to various Iranian cities? Is Zizek and Badiou correct to separate so sharply the revolutionary vision from its actual dismal human results, or is this an incriminating instance of the irresponsibility of radical thought that has an infantile appreciation of revolutionary ideals while ignoring the conservative wisdom of serious conservative thought that warns us about the demonic outcomes every effort to ditch abruptly existing institutions and class relations? Are we as a species destined to see our dreams of a just and sustainable future always shattered by the deforming effects of struggles for and against new arrangements of governing authority and class relations? Are we condemned, in other words, to banish our dreams from the domain of responsible politics and confine our efforts to marginal reformist initiatives?

Posing such questions is easier than resolving them. I am inclined to think that my response to what took place in Iran was authentic at its various phases, reflecting my best understanding of the unfolding circumstances, adjusting my evaluations phase by phase. I prefer such a view, even in retrospect, to indifference to the Shah’s oppressive regime, while realizing that drastic change, especially in a country endowed with abundant oil reserves, is almost certain to be a rocky road. Should I have been immediately more suspicious of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic dimensions of the revolution? Probably, but it was not clear at the time, because the leading religious figures in Iran were articulating a vision of a just future for Iran even if  the future made it clear that their preference was for some kind of theocracy. It should also be pointed out that some religious leaders did seem to envision a humane sequel to the Shah’s Iran that would be inclusive, humane, and sensitive to the human rights of all Iranians, but their voices did not prevail.

I continue to believe that despite the dangers of visionary politics, it is the only hope we have as a species of creating a sustainable and just future for humanity.  In ending I should be clear that I have consistently supported reformist efforts in Iran over the years since the ouster of Banisadr and others, including the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and the more recent Green Revolution. As with the days of the Shah, Iran urgently requires an emancipatory politics that liberates from within, and regenerates the hopes of the Iranian people. What Iran does not need is an Israeli-American military strike or destabilization moves funded and promoted from without. Intervention by way of military attack, or even in the form of strong economic sanctions (as present), stabilize the regime in Tehran and impose added hardships on the Iranian people. As I have argued in the past the best and only acceptable way to address the questions of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is through establishing a nuclear weapons free zone that includes Israel. To avoid even the discussion of such an option illuminates the strategic submission of American foreign policy to Israeli governmental priorities even in cases such as this where the Israeli public is split and the response to an attack, if it happens, is likely to inflict severe harm on Israel, as well as to risk transforming the entire region into a war zone.   


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