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From the Telos Archives: Difference and Repetition: Understanding the Iranian Revolution of 1979

Instead of engendering a renaissance of interest among Western intellectuals in the conditions of the 1979 revolution, the post-electoral crisis in Iran has unfortunately obfuscated what was already a complex historical event. Given that the protests in Iran cannot be understood without an adequate knowledge of their historical precedent from 1979 and earlier, we are making available here an edited version of Rasoul Nafisi’s “The Genesis of the Clerical State in Iran” from Telos 51 (Spring 1982). Telos 51 is available for purchase here.

The Genesis of the Clerical State in Iran
by Rasoul Nafisi

The religious state that has emerged in revolutionary Iran poses serious questions that, because of the rapidity of developments, have remained unanswered. In order to understand the Iranian revolution and the emergence of the clerical state, therefore, it is necessary to analyze the revolution’s genesis, its course, its aftermath, and, most importantly, the clergy’s role as a key sector of the power elite and its alliances.

When the Constitutional Revolution broke out in late 1905, the national bourgeoisie demanded complete control of the state. The intelligentsia, the merchants, and the clergy jointly led this revolution. The urban population protested with peaceful sit-ins. The merchants and the intelligentsia demanded parliamentary rule and freedom, while the clergy focused on Edalat Khaneh, or the house of justice. This appeal for more “Islamization” meant increased clerical power, although efforts to establish a religious state were defeated in Constitutional Revolution and the resulting state was liberal and secular. The emergence of Reza Shah in 1925, however, put an end to the liberal bourgeoisie’s consolidation of political power. The new military despot destroyed all opposition and developed a gigantic bureaucracy around himself, which remained intact up to the last days of the last shah, Mohammad Reza.

Because he sided with Nazi Germany, allied forces forced Reza Shah to abdicate in 1941 and enthroned his son, Mohamad Reza, to continue his father’s policies. With the consolidation of his dictatorship, Mohamad Reza eventually abandoned the limited traditional routes of communication between the monarchy and the populace, and dismissed the few members of Parliament who represented different factions of Iranian society. In so doing, he also alienated the clergy.

In Pahlavi’s Iran, it was not economic interests that shaped politics, but political decision that gave direction to the economy, with the determining factor being the maintenance of the shah’s dictatorship. A selected surrounding the royal family harvested the lion’s share of profits. Big business was given priority and foreign capital emphasized. This process damaged the national bourgeoisie, while favoring the best echelons of the bureaucracy.

The national bourgeoisie had been decisive at the beginning of the shah’s reign. It was almost strong enough to dethrone the shah in 1953. Mossadegh, the leader of the national bourgeoisie and of the intelligentsia, revitalized the traditional coalition with the clergy, nationalized Iranian oil (at that time controlled by the British Petroleum Company), and exiled the shah. The clergy conditionally supported Mossadegh up to the point when he showed his radicalism. Its withdrawal of support contributed to his fall, and when the shah was returned in 1953 with the aid of the CIA, the clergy’s upper echelons acquiesced while the rest remained silent. However, when in 1963 the shah finally granted extraterritorial rights to the U.S. military mission, the clergy arose against the shah. Khomeini at the time was a philosophy instructor at a theological school who strongly advocated the clergy’s political interests. As a leader of this uprising, he was exiled when the revolt was suppressed.

Although most high clerics were affluent, Khomeini never displayed much interest in wealth, and remained anti-shah, anti-modern, and anti-Western. According to him, the law of God as expressed in Islam must become institutionalized in the state. His philosophy basically was that of Al-Afghani, which contained messianism, pan-Islamism, and holy war. But while Al-Afghani sought the help of Great Britain against Russia to emancipate the Moslem community, Khomeini hated anything alien to his beliefs.

Between 1963 and 1977, the university remained the focus of national protest. The outbreak of urban guerrilla movements such as the Fedayeen (Marxist) and the Mojahedeen (Islamic socialist) and the quadrupling of oil prices (1973) coincided with the shah’s system reaching the peak of terror and suppression. In the meantime, religion was becoming politicized in urban areas through Shariati’s liberal interpretation of Islam, which was closer to the Mojahedeen than to traditional Islam, and therefore not welcomed by the clergy.

What needs to be explained concerning the Iranian revolution is not why it happened, but why it happened at that particular time and in a religious foot. In the 1970s, the economic system was totally dependent on the world market to export oil and import agricultural products and manufactured goods. Consequently, the 1976-1977 world recession badly damaged the Iranian economy primarily because of inflationary spending of oil revenue in the non-productive sectors at the expense of “self-centered” national production. The 1962 land reform and the 1973 oil price increase, which were supposed to alleviate the misery of the peasantry and urban poor, worked to their detriment. Both groups suffered in the slums of Tehran. The land reform only benefited 10 percent of the middle peasantry, and the oil price increase caused economic hardships for the urban dwellers in terms of housing and food prices. The peasants’ mass exodus to the cities resulting from these two events played a critical role in spreading religious ideology. The subjugation of the remaining rural people to prevailing political authorities remains an important component of rural culture, which saw the shah’s bureaucrats as more respectable than the turbaned clergymen who had lived directly off their labor. The absence of peasant participation in the revolutionary uprising also shows that religion was not the primary motive behind the revolution.

The change in attitude of the shah’s international supporters was significant in his downfall. This is even acknowledged in the introduction of the country’s new constitution. The shah complained about the lack of support from the U.S. and British embassies to the last days of his life. The kind of support he had in mind is not clear, but obviously the human rights advocates inside and outside of the U.S. State Department became a major obsession. This change of attitude toward the shah in the United States had a tremendous importance in igniting the revolution. Another major factor was the shah’s poor health. He had concentrated absolute power around himself so much that when, due to his illness, he was no longer able to operate effectively, the system was greatly weakened—especially since the shah’s removal had become the main task of the revolution.

Eventually, the revolution erupted in every urban center in 1978. Intellectuals also shook the system with their street demonstrations and “nights of poetry reading” devoted to reciting revolutionary literature. Later, new government workers paralyzed the bureaucracy with a general strike. The remnants of Mossadegh’s National Front first squabbled over the selection of a leader but, having done so, eventually managed to mobilize a number of street demonstrations independent of the clergy. In the end, the Front’s major element kissed Khomeini’s hands in Paris.

The clergy followed the old pattern: they joined the movement after it had already started and took over leadership as an independent force. Shariati’s politicized religion had won widespread support and the clergy did nothing to oppose it. Only after the revolution did the clergy announce its own version of Islam: the Islam of 1400 years ago, with no modifications.

The working class has no specific organization to represent it and was dispersed among various organizations. Yet, it was able to strike the last blow to the shah’s system in the oil fields with its unified strike. The left, consisting mainly of people released from prison during the revolution, were not effective organizers. During such a revolution, the nihilistic and adventuristic clergy provided the perfect leadership. They had no clear policy, but a strong hatred for the shah’s rule. Today, it is still difficult to determine the patterns of clerical rule from its day-to-day responses to problems. Since it has no program, the clergy seems to have chosen the road of adventurism.

The quick victory over the shah’s system, for which the clergy took full credit, resulted in an increasingly adventuristic posture. The shutdown the higher education system is an example of the anti-modernism that also led it to reject all kinds of national or international alliances. The rejection of Westernization as “Westernomania” brought about an unproductive approach to development. Attacking Western culture as “evil” is a good common tactic for revolutionary mobilization. But after the victory, when revolutionary governments are forced with the achievements of that same culture, the boundary between evil and non-evil becomes arbitrary. Thus, the Iranian clergy now label “Westernomania” all non-clerical trends, from the National Front’s nationalism to the Mojahedeen’s religious socialism and the Fedayeen’s Marxism.

The clergy’s anti-imperialism is ambiguous. The universities were shut down on the pretext of purifying the educational system from imperialist influences, and there has never been any hesitation to apply the label “imperialist” to democracy or social freedom. Earlier, Khomeini had attacked only the United States as imperialist. Later, he extended the label to the Soviet Union as the “imperialist of the East.” The clerical state continues to postpone international alliances since it has not yet begun rebuilding the country’s infrastructures. Thus, its anti-imperialism cannot be long lasting or effective. As a ruling class, the clergy has no reason to stay away from political or economic alliances with international capital, even though it has been anti-imperialist during its struggle for power. This can be deferred only as long as the clerical state avoids any clear political and economic strategy. As soon as such a strategy develops, past moral objections to imperialism will give way to more realistic calculations. The anti-imperialist rhetoric will remain, but alongside massive exchanges of oil for consumer goods.

Still, Khomeini’s rule remains conditionally the rule of the people. But this only goes to show that the people cannot really rule without intellectuals and bureaucrats. The clerical state is determined to reverse history. But to do so it will have to unleash repressive programs ten times harsher than those of its predecessor, who only wanted to safeguard the status quo. These nihilistic policies will continue as long as no new revolutionary force emerges to change the course of Iranian history once again. Although the clerical elites can still manipulate religious feelings and its brutality is still interpreted as a religious necessity or revolutionary decisiveness, it is losing ground rapidly. The Islamic Republic’s slogan of “neither West nor East” is proving to be hollow given its ever increasing dependency on commodities from both the West and the East.

Social and political polarization is intensifying. A number of Marxist groups, such as the Tudeh Party and Fedayeen (the Majority section), have sided with the clergy on the basis of the Zhdanovian line of “two camps,” whereby anything against imperialism is on the side of socialism and progress. Thus, the clerical state is seen as progressive because of its anti-Americanism. The fact that the clerical state has ruined the material and cultural basis for any progress in the country is seen by these groups as mere mistakes due to the inexperience of the newly established regime. These Marxist apologists disregard the slaughter machine designed to silence any voice not in total accord with its medieval tone, thus documenting once again the deep crisis of institutionalized Marxism in the Third World.

On the other side, the Mojahedeen movement (originally an urban guerrilla organization that branched out of the religious wing of the National Front in 1974) has confronted the clerical state. Its ideology is a combination of Marxist methodology and Islamic rhetoric. It enjoys the support of educated urban youth, the intelligentsia, and the middle classes. Its tactics have been mainly terroristic and have turned out to be particularly unsuccessful in that it has excluded Khomeini as a target, thus leaving intact the main source of the system’s legitimacy and regeneration.

Earlier, Ayatollah Shariatmadari and lately a cleric named Tehrani were the major critics of the clerical dictatorship. They are both silenced now. The uprising of the clerics and young theologians in the holy city of Qom in September 1980 testified to the emerging gap between the ruling clergy and other clerics. The ruling clergy themselves are divided over a number of issues, including the succession of Ayatollah Khomeini, private ownership of land, nationalization of foreign trade, international relations, and so on. On the question of a successor to Khomeini, there has been a long-standing but covert feuding among the clergy. Some preferred Ayatollah Montazeri, while others demanded a council of Faqihs. As far as private ownership of land was concerned, top clergymen such as the late Beheshti and Mesh-kini asked for a radical redistribution of agricultural land according to Koranic laws, which claim that land belongs only to God. But others wanted a more moderate land reform, or none at all. The end result, ratified by the Islamic Majlis, is very much a continuation of the shah’s land reform. The takeover of the foreign trade by the state also was resisted by some clerics inside and outside the Majlis. Now that it is being ratified, the extent of its application and effectiveness remains to be seen, with regard to the shortages management faces and the lack of a nationwide distribution network. But the mere fact that the state has decided to operate foreign trade—the main source of profit for bazaar merchants—discredits one of the commonly held views, which sees the state as a mere tool of the commercial bourgeoisie. Once again in Iran, political decision-making gives shape to the economic processes and acts in relative independence of economic classes.

To be sure, Iran has broken out of the monopoly of the U.S. and West Europe market. While in the fiscal year 1977-1978 the proportion of imports from the West was 74 percent of total imports as against 8 percent from COMECON, in 1980 this changed to 60 percent and 15 percent, respectively. But changes in foreign trade were mainly based on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations. Western economic sanctions against Iran and better deals and availability of credit, oil barter for commodity, and the supply of arms from the Eastern bloc explain the improvement trade with COMECON countries. In spite of diversification of the sources of trade, however, dependency on foreign trade is increased due to the drop in Iran’s GNP, which hardly reached two-thirds of the amount seen during the shah’s regime.

Once the war with Iraq is over, the ruling clergy may try to marginalize the army and locate its own military apparatuses inside the urban barracks. Therefore, the army, enraged by these actions and harassed by relentless purges, may enter into open conflict against the ruling clergy. At that point, the army can count on its national credibility. It is likely, however, that the clergy may continue the war with Iraq to the point that its own military machine becomes mature enough to the regular army.

Winning the war would affect the opposition forces in two contradictory ways: a victorious clergy would not hesitate to unleash even harsher oppression, but it would also lose the state of emergency and would have no more alibis for its protracted social, political, and economic inertia. This would provide the opposition forces with better arguments. The growing coalition forces under the leadership of the Mojahedeen may eventually make a difference then. The fact that the Mojahedeen has resorted to terrorism, however, indicates it is far from creating a mass movement. The regime also mobilizes the urban youth, as volunteers, or by direct and indirect force, to go to war-damaged areas for reconstruction, which would avoid a conflict with unemployed and frustrated forces. Nevertheless, the specter of the 1979 revolution continues to haunt the new Iranian rulers, who have not succeeded in removing most of its structural causes.

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