Alternative Iran

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Stereotypes of Iranian society see a cowed population dominated by "mad mullahs". Naz Massoumi takes a look at new books which challenge the myths.

The US's imperialist project in Iraq is falling apart - a fact that even the most belligerent of neoconservatives has been forced to admit. But this does not mean that George Bush is retreating quietly. The instinctive response of the US ruling class to its troubles is to ramp up its aggression - and Iran is rapidly becoming the key target for "regime change" in the Middle East.

The military threats against Iran, as ever, have been accompanied by a sustained ideological attack that trades on a series of racist and Islamophobic stereotypes. The Iranian government is demonised as being in the grip of "mad mullahs", while the people of the country are portrayed as powerless
victims in need of rescuing by the West.

This picture of Iranians as passive, cowed and backward is a travesty of the truth. Some 70 percent of Iran's population are under 30 years old and they are prominent voices in a vibrant culture of political debate.

And the internet is a key space for this debate. "Today Farsi is the fourth most frequently used language for keeping online journals," writes journalist Nasrin Alavi in her introduction to We are Iran - a comprehensive account of Iran's huge blogging community. The growth of weblogs in Iran (as of last year 700,000 of them) is phenomenal, incorporating anyone from female taxi drivers to established clerics. Even Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has one.

Alavi chains extracts from many of these to provide a rich social and cultural history of Iran. And nothing evades the minds of Iran's youth. They embrace popular Western music in the same breath as Persian poetry and Shia Muslim saints.

They crave freedom of expression, venting their opinions and demands on issues ranging from aerobics to the earthquake in Bam, from the hijab ban in France to the legacy of political figures such as Mohammed Mossadegh, the nationalist president of Iran overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1953. These young people constitute a large section of the grassroots support for Iran's "reformist" democracy movement. We are Iran provides a fascinating snapshot of their experiences, but the book is less successful at contextualising them for a Western audience.

Part of the problem is Alavi's often confusing analysis. She holds a very one-dimensional view of Iran's conservative clerics, devaluing their importance by failing to take them seriously as a political force. Nor does she explain the bloggers' often complex relationship with Islam, forgetting the Islamophobia that has taken root here.

On the other hand, Alavi rightly recognises the many paradoxes of Iranian society. She forcibly rejects the myth of Iranian women as passive victims, noting their active participation in civil society where they form a "third of all doctors, 60 percent of civil servants and 80 percent of all teachers".

Reform movement

One such woman, a heroine of the blogs, is human rights activist and 2003 Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Her book Iran Awakening is a fascinating personal story of the women's movement - a struggle that split open the political divisions from which the reform movement materialised.

The significance of Ebadi, and other dissidents like her, is the fact that they participated in the Iranian Revolution, supported the formation of the Islamic Republic and now, in many complex ways, are fighting to change it from within.

Theoretical religious debates, in universities, seminaries and the reformist press were one consequence of this development. Unfortunately, there are rarely any English translations available. Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Richard Tapper have put together a book, Islam and Democracy in Iran, that goes some way to addressing this gap.

It examines the reform movement through the eyes of a leading reformist cleric, Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari. The authors chart his "intellectual and political trajectory", translating extracts of his works, speeches and debates in the Iranian reformist press. The strength of the book is that it provides accessible introductions and background to the debates in question.

Eshkevari falls into the category of the "new religious thinkers" who "articulate a theoretical critique of the Islamic state from an Islamic perspective". He argues for the "compatibility between Islam and democracy".

As the authors point out in their conclusion, Eshkevari is only part of a number of clerics and reformists who they broadly place into three groups. There are those who support the velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurist, the theoretical basis on which Iran's system is based) in some form and seek democratisation within it. This camp includes Mohammed Khatami, Iran's former president and a leading reformist.

A second group, which Eshkevari falls into, sees Islam as compatible with democracy but opposes velayat-e faqih as no longer viable. There is also a third group that argues for a secular democracy, including Akbar Ganji, a former revolutionary guard turned high profile political prisoner who has called for more radical change through a referendum on the constitution.

Thus alongside a young and vibrant movement a fierce political debate continues that was reflected in Iran's recent municipal elections. These saw the reformists making significant gains after they put some of their differences aside and abandoned a failed strategy of election boycotts.

But the political dynamic in Iran also points out the limitations of the reformist movement. While its leaders are steadfastly opposed to US intervention in their country, whether in the form of sanctions or military attacks, they remain confused about the nature of the US as an imperialist power - and the links between this imperialism and the global neoliberal economic project.

These contradictions are exemplified in Confronting Iran by Ali Ansari. He is a young Iranian academic based in Britain who supports Khatami, whose election in 1996 is widely seen as the watershed of the reformist movement. The purpose of Ansari's book is to avoid what he sees as an ensuing conflict between the US and Iran "that many accept but few understand". He aims to head off this threat by examining the history of US-Iran relations from 19th century Persia to the present day.

The book is well-researched with valuable evidence that demonstrates the significance of the Iranian Revolution in achieving what was undoubtedly its people's single most important desire for 150 years - independence from foreign powers.

Ansari's acute understanding of Iran's complex internal politics is particularly insightful. Nevertheless, his focus on "easing tensions" between the US and Iran leads to a sophisticated but politically mistaken analysis. Ansari argues that antagonism between the two countries "cannot be understood outside the intimacy that preceded it - friendship precedes betrayal".

The "friendship" comes in the first half of the 20th century. Following Iran's constitutional revolution of 1906, the country's leaders looked to the emerging power of the US as a means by which to wrestle independence from the clutches of British and Russian imperialism. Independence came with the election of Mossadegh and the oil nationalisation of 1951, and henceforth "betrayal", two years later, when Mossadegh was toppled and the Shah, the king, placed back on his throne.

US administrations have repeatedly underestimated the significance of 1953 on the Iranian political psyche. But, continues Ansari, the traffic flows both ways - the same should be said about the 1979 seizure of the US embassy that followed the revolution, the taking of its staff as hostages and its impact on US domestic politics.

Ansari says that for Iran the embassy seizure was "an act of closure", part of a revolutionary process that brought an end to what began in 1953. But for the US it was the beginning, "the cause of collapse in relations". This misunderstanding, according to Ansari, is at the root of the inability of the US to relate to the Islamic Republic.

By pitching things in terms of "misunderstanding", Ansari fails to appreciate the extent to which the 1979 Iranian revolution undermined US imperialism. His "solution" to the threats facing Iran is merely to call for more understanding on both sides. This leads him to seek a "reciprocal cultural relationship", encouraging US foreign policy to consider the benefits of an Iran that it can do business with.

The call for reconciliation with the US must be understood within the wider objectives of the reformist leadership who are making a concerted attempt at wedging out a new foreign policy towards Iran in Washington and London.

The domestic counterpart to this strategy is the reformists' desire for foreign investment, part and parcel of their frantic but slow attempts at privatising Iran's economy (70 percent of which is still state owned).

Tellingly, Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei backs them on this question, issuing an executive order last July to privatise 80 percent of state-owned companies. Ahmadinejad's position remains unclear - some sources suggest he wants to direct Iran's economy towards a Venezuelan path.

Where Ahmadinejad has backing from the supreme leader, though, is his social conservatism. In the run-up to the December elections, another major crackdown ensued - a response to what appears to be a revival in a previously fractured reform movement that is now remobilising, especially around the campuses.

It is important for us in Britain to understand these contradictions. The grassroots of Iran's reform movement should be supported, as opposed to Western governments and armies. But the attachment of key reformist leaders to neoliberalism only serves to weaken this movement and discredit it in the eyes of the population. Ultimately imperialism and neoliberalism have to be opposed consistently - and this political vision can only emerge in Iran from below.


  • We Are Iran by Nasri Alavi is published by Portobello Books, £9.99.
  • Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi is published by Rider & Co, £12.99.
  • Islam And Democracy In Iran by Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Richard Tapper is published by IB Tauris, £16.99.
  • Confronting Iran by Ali Ansari is published by C Hurst & Co, £16.95.

You can get these books from Bookmarks bookshop, 020 7637 1848.