Shlomo Avineri Responds

Shlomo Avineri Responds

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.

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 presidential and parliamentary elections are contested (even if it is clear that the last ones were rigged) suggests an important element of representation. Women, for instance, have the right to vote (and helped to elect Mohammad Khatami twice). The system offers potential for change, even if former president Khatami failed to make use of it when he was in office. A relatively vibrant civil society—expressing itself among students and journalists—suggests a basic difference between Iranian society, blessed with the rich layers of Persian history, and the much more conformist and militarized Arab societies.

One should recall ...

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