1979-2003: An extraneous and distant power

Article published on July 9, 2003
community published
Article published on July 9, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Today, as before, Iran’s ‘power base’ is far from its people and especially far from the younger generation. Are the ayatollahs destined to end up like the Pahlavi?

The Iranian revolution in 1979 was a revolt by a people against a power that did not represent it. Such an interpretation, that at the time was complete, especially in rightwing European circles, can appear anachronistic today. It is actually worthy of merit: it neither plays down the role adopted by the Shiite clergy or historicises the action. Thus, the socio-economic situation of the country at the end of the 1970s becomes an indispensable tool for understanding events. The creation of the ‘Islamic Republic’ became the fruit of the post-revolutionary relationships of violence, instead of the end the Iranians had wanted and tried to achieve. The consequence of such historicising? The events of 1979 could be repeated, if the conditions allow it. Even at the start of the 21st century.

The ‘link between the mosque and the bazaar’

The fall of the Pahlavi dynasty started with the oil crisis in 1973-1974. Opposition to the authoritarian power of the sciah existed even before that time, as the influx to Paris by those in opposition and enemies of the powers that be, condemned to live in exile, demonstrate. Those two years created a general sense of discontentment that also involved the urban middle class. The rise in the price of petrol, decided on by OPEC after the war of Yom Kippur, created ample ways into Iran. Bad economic policy did not know to exploit these immense resources to develop the country, transforming it instead into a source of inflation and revealing what would later become deep-rooted reasons for the revolution. On one side, the Sciah was perceived increasingly as a tool in the hands of foreign powers, especially America. On the other hand, a restricted group of Iranian businessmen was growing richer, demonstrating the only benefit of the authoritarian power of a monarch. Iran and her people’s interests were, in both cases, sacrificed for the interests of a particular group, within and outside the country, that depended on the sciah. The ‘bazaar’, or traders and the urban middle class wanted change.

The ‘mosque’, for its part, accused the sciah of not respecting the Islamic nature of the Iranian people, as well as stifling the Shiite clergy. The biggest outrage came when Reza Pahlavi made himself king of Persia in the ruins of Persepoli. Modern Iran was, therefore, based on Persian culture and not Islamic: Reza Pahlavi had distanced himself from the religious men. Grounds for an alliance between the two groups was fertile.

Power without legitimacy

The Persepoli ceremony, exceptionally magnificent, had also created distance between the sciah and his people. His power adhered to increasingly divine origins, which, in the second half of the 20th century, appeared credible and acceptable only with difficulty. All the more so by a population that was suffering from difficult economic conditions and harsh repression. In 1977 Amnesty International denounced the repeated violations of human rights in Iran. In the same year, the American President, Carter, who in defence of human rights was making a bipolar weapon with the USSR, openly asked the Shah for improvements. The co-operation that they felt constrained into became the breach through which the revolt passed against a closed, distant and corrupt system, a system in which values and protests were foreign to the Iranian people. Today, Iran is governed by the same link between the ‘mosque’ and the ‘bazaar’ that drove the revolt against the sciah. Both groups, however, have changed. Through this process they have become very similar to the powers-that-be that they tried to drive out. The old ‘bazaarists’ have supported ‘liberalising the State’ that has guaranteed them continued wealth, while the urban middle class have continued to suffer high taxes and constant inflation. The ‘mosques’ and their leader have become the only source of legitimacy. The wilayat al-faqih system gives the Supreme Leader a role so elevated that he, almost naturally, looses contact with the population. The war against Iraq, thus, has allowed the use of hasty methods to break up other opposition groups and the practice of an iron grip on every sector of life in the country, starting with education, and forcing the population to live in a police state. The Iran of today, as far as human rights are concerned, is in no way inferior to the Iran of the Shah’s time.

Everything begins with students in the streets

In 1977-1978 the first to go into the streets to protest were the students. The sciah’s police suppressed these demonstrations. Massacres like those in Qon, in January 1978, signalled a point of no return in the student’s opposition to the monarchic regime. July 9th 1999 was the same thing. Iranian students had given the regime a chance, believing in its exponent, Mohammed Khatami, and in his project of reform. The regime, however, does not seem reformable from within. ‘Power’ is still a long way away, distant and extraneous to the needs of the people. 60% of this population were born during the war with Iraq and have only known the misery associated with war. Together, they have known the internal aspect, that is to say repression and being shut off. It no longer sees the excessive openness of the regime to the world as cause for the suffering, as in 1977-1978. On the contrary, it sees the excessive shutting off by the regime to the outside as the cause. In a time of interdependence and exchanges, however, no regime is untouchable. The sciah should have taken into account the mosques’ communication and organisational network. The ayatollahs face the universities and the networks created by modern technology and the Internet, while abroad Bush’s strategy of pressure recalls that of Carter. What is missing is an increase in other groups within Iran.