Iran and the West: A Symposium

Iran and the West: A Symposium

The editors of Dissent asked a number of distinguished commentators to respond to the following statement and questions:

For a quarter of a century, Iran has been ruled by a militant theocracy. After the shah’s regime–authoritarian, brutal, and backed by the United States–was overthrown, the new regime quickly proved itself to be authoritarian, cruel, and self-warranted by Islamic fundamentalism. Reform efforts have proved chimerical, and Tehran has pursued nuclear capabilities with vigor, long deceiving the International Atomic Energy Agency and Western interlocutors about its efforts. To what extent should the character of the Iranian regime govern Western responses to its ambitions? Should Iran be considered just one state among others, seeking its legitimate self-interests? What “threat” does the current Iranian regime pose in today’s world? –Eds.

Read the responses: Shlomo Avineri, Michael W. Doyle, Yitzhak Nakash, Suzanne Nossel, Anne-Marie Slaughter.



The Islamic Republic of Iran poses a unique challenge to world public opinion and the international community, especially since the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as president.

Yet it should be remembered that the Islamists came to power in the wake of the authoritarian regime (the shah) whose main domestic characteristic was its attempt to create a faux-Western monarchy, deracinated from the Muslim ingredients of the country’s history and harking back to an imperial pagan tradition alien to contemporary Iranian society. The shah’s decision to abolish the Muslim calendar in favor of an invented one dating to the accession of King Cyrus (a pagan, to boot) is just one example of the cultural counterrevolution associated with the Pahlavi dynasty. Many of its symbols (including changing the country’s name to “Iran,” with its “Aryan” connotations) owe much to European integralist ideologies of the 1930s.

To imagine that there is, at the moment, a democratic alternative in Iran is a hallucination much like the belief that there were democratic forces in Iraq, just waiting to be liberated from Saddam’s shackles.

The Islamic revolution, while obviously not democratic, had deep popular roots in those sectors of Iranian society that were not linked to the narrow, westernized elites of Tehran. Surprising as it may sound to western ears, the constitution of the Islamic Republic tried to fashion a balance of power between the supreme leader, the Council of Guardians, the presidency, and the Parliament. The fact that p...

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