By Farhang Jahanpour
In a radio broadcast in October 1939, Winston Churchill described communist Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Many people in the West today have the same feeling about Iran under the ayatollahs. One hears many pundits refer to Iranian politics as mysterious, inscrutable, baffling and unpredictable. Churchill continued his sentence by adding, “but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” I believe that if we apply the same key to Iran it becomes much easier to understand Iranian policies and actions.
Although the Islamic revolution of 1978-79 brought about many political changes, yet many facts about Iran have remained the same. They include the main elements of Iranian culture, an attachment to Iran’s long history, and a desire for a better life. The main slogans chanted by the people on the eve of the revolution were “freedom, independence and social justice”. The first referred to freedom from domestic tyranny, the second to independence from foreign meddling, and the third to a fairer distribution of wealth.
In order to understand the motives that gave rise to the revolution, as well as what has happened since it is essential to cast a quick glance at Iranian history in the 20th century. Iran was one of the first countries in the Middle East to stage a democratic revolution. The Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905-06) put an end to millennia-old absolutist monarchy and replaced it with a constitutional monarchy and a parliament [Majlis], and paved the way for modern Iran. However, Iran was not allowed to enjoy the fruits of that revolution for long.
Shortly afterwards, Russia and Britain divided Iran into zones of influence under the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907 as part of the “The Great Game”. The discovery of oil in Iran in 1908 led to the formation in 1909 of the London-based Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which not only dominated the Iranian economy but also meddled in Iranian politics. During the First World War, despite her declared neutrality, Russian and British forces invaded Iran in order to safeguard British India and keep Iran out of the hands of the Central Powers.
During the Second World War, Soviet, British and American forces invaded Iran, deposed Reza Shah who early in the war had declared Iran’s neutrality, and placed his young son Mohammad Reza Shah on the throne. The Trans-Iranian Railway was used to send millions of tons of desperately needed supplies to the Soviet Union. In 1951 Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq nationalized the oil industry to end the unfair exploitation of Iran’s most valuable asset, but in 1953 he was toppled in a coup orchestrated by Britain and the United States.
It is important to remember this long history of foreign meddling in Iran’s internal affairs in order to understand the fury of the revolutionaries against Mohammad Reza Shah and the West. What is remarkable is that despite all those catastrophes, the Iranian parliament that was first convened on 6 November 1906 continued to function, at least in name, right up to the 1979 revolution. The Islamic revolution inherited a democratic legacy with universal male and female suffrage. The first Women’s Journal was published in 1910, and on January 7, 1936, Iran became the first Muslim country to ban the veil in public. Women were given the right to vote and to stand for public office in 1963. By the time of the revolution there were many Iranian female ministers, judges, doctors, university professors, pilots, etc.
The people who took part in the revolution were demanding more not less civil and political freedoms. Therefore, the Islamic regime that came into being under Ayatollah Khomeini had no option but to continue the traditions of parliamentary democracy, with universal suffrage for both men and women. Consequently, the constitution that was approved in a referendum was quite progressive on paper, with the big exception of the inclusion of velayat-e faqih (the rule of the religious guardian) and clerical boards, such as the Guardians Council that supervises the selection of presidential and parliamentary candidates.
These powers have certainly compromised and restricted Iranian democracy, but they have not diminished the thirst of the Iranians for democracy and freedom. The elections have also been far from rubber stamps for official candidates, but have often produced many surprises. Up to a week before the 1997 election, a senior conservative cleric Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri who was the establishment candidate was expected to win. However, Mohammad Khatami’s reformist campaign attracted the biggest turnout in the history of Iranian presidential elections and he won with over 20 million to Nateq-Nouri’s seven million votes.
President Khatami initiated a period of major social reforms at home and a policy of rapprochement with the West. He called for a dialog of civilizations and even proposed a grand bargain to the United States in 2003 covering Iran’s nuclear program, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Persian Gulf security. However, in return, he was rewarded with President George W. Bush’s inclusion of Iran in the Axis of Evil.
The rejection of Iran’s outstretched hand strengthened the hardliners and led to the victory of the rightwing candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election. In 2009 again the majority of people voted for the reformist candidate Mir-Hoseyn Mousavi, but Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in what many people regarded as a rigged election. Millions of Green Movement supporters demonstrated in the streets, but they were put down by force, and Iran and the world had to endure four more years of Ahmadinejad’s rule.
When Dr. Hassan Rouhani declared his candidacy for the June 2013 presidential election, opinion polls put his popularity at only five percent, but an energetic campaign with promises of greater freedoms at home and a policy of engagement with the West brought more than 72 per cent of the electorate to the polling stations and he won in the first round with 51.7 percent of the votes, while the main candidate of the hardliners, Saeed Jalili only received about seven percent of the votes.
While the president has to balance his powers with a number of other influential players, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the conservative clerics and the Revolution Guards, nevertheless, he is the chief executive and his policies can make a huge difference in both domestic and foreign policies. Within the first 100 days of his tenure, President Rouhani reversed 34 years of mutual hostility with the United States and reached a landmark agreement in face-to-face negotiations between Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and the US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The agreement limits Iranian nuclear activities and virtually makes it impossible for Iran to move towards a breakout without being detected in plenty of time by the IAEA inspectors who have been given the power of daily inspection of Iranian sites. A rapprochement with Iran helps calm the situation in a turbulent Middle East, reduces hostility towards Israel, helps America with her withdrawal from Afghanistan and fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
A country of 80 million youthful and educated people, with the world’s largest gas and the second largest oil deposits can provide a huge market for the West. If Iran’s outstretched hand is once again rejected, it would send a message to Iranians that the West is not sincere in her dealings with Iran. It will strengthen the hardliners, reversing the gains of the past few months, and will make the situation even more dangerous than before. It will also harm the cause of reform and greater democracy in Iran, as well as making the Middle East a much more dangerous place, ultimately leading to a devastating war.
It is time for the United States to turn over a new leaf in her relations with Iran and start a period of collaboration, which will help both countries.