On Aug. 19, 1978, the Cinema Rex in a poor area of the Iranian city of Abadan, across the Shatt Al-Arab from Basra, burnt down. At least 400 people died — and probably many more. It was a turning point in the Iranian Revolution. Islamists blamed the SAVAK secret police and the shah, inflaming popular opinion against the regime. Women in particular, setting the tone for their families, abandoned the monarchy in revulsion. It eventually turned out that SAVAK had nothing to do with the affair. In fact, the arsonists were four young Islamists, supporters of Ruhollah Khomeini, who thought cinema satanic and decadent. After the fall of the shah, when relatives of the victims demanded proper justice rather than show trials, they were beaten up by the Basij and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. And, in any case, it was too late. The revolution was born in lies and blood and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
As I write, the Iranian authorities have killed hundreds of Iranians who had participated in recent protests, first about gasoline prices and then about the wider corruption and incompetence of the system to which the arson at the Cinema Rex helped give birth. They have arrested thousands more. In Iraq and Lebanon, similar protests with similar origins and similar demands continue. Ali Khamenei may offer to give a select few of the dead the status of martyrs, but ordinary people in all three countries have had enough of the lies, greed and oppression of the self-serving elites who rule them. These elites are all, in different ways, products of the events of 1978-79 in Iran. Khamenei, Hassan Nasrallah, Nabih Berri, Muqtada Al-Sadr, Hadi Al-Amiri, Qais Al-Khazali, Nouri Al-Maliki, and Adel Abdul Mahdi are all Shiite Islamists, whatever their political differences, who owe much of their current position to the fact that Khomeini and Sadegh Khalkhali, not Mehdi Bazargan or even Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, emerged victorious from the terror of the early 1980s. And in their train they bring consummate opportunists like Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Michel Aoun or Gebran Bassil in Lebanon and a multitude of co-opted Sunnis in Iraq.
And these people blame the protests not on their own failings or the bankruptcy of the sectarian and theocratic systems that Khomeini did so much to create and disseminate across the region, but on the hidden hand of foreign powers — the US, the UK, the Arab states of the Gulf. And they use these fabricated accusations to justify the use of lethal force, street thugs, torture and rigged legal processes.
The lies and blood continue to flow, but this time the people aren’t buying the lies. And they are clearly prepared to continue to shed their own blood. In Iraq, Iran is now less popular than the US. In Iran, protesters have attacked statues of Khomeini. That’s a new revolution of the mind, happening in front of a watching world.
And here’s another thing. In 1978, Michel Foucault, the French philosopher, was engaged by the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, to report from revolutionary Tehran. At first he did so with enthusiasm, claiming to perceive there the emergence of a “political spirituality.” He eventually lost some of his illusions but could never really shake off what his compatriot, Pascal Bruckner, has called “the anti-Western prejudices of the intellectual elite.” This is something that, in a roundabout way, even Foucault’s apologists accept: The only difference is that they take pride in sharing them. And the only people who still give the Islamic Republic of Iran the benefit of the doubt are these same leftist elites in the West, which continue to cultivate a narcissistic form of self-hatred founded, as Nietzsche saw, in a metaphysics of moral loss.
The Iranian Revolution undoubtedly has some achievements to its name. In the last 40 years, Iran’s education system has vastly expanded. It has developed a more diversified economy than any of its Arab neighbors and an extensive middle class. But this may have happened anyway. The economy produces lots of things, but none particularly well (apart from components for nuclear enrichment and missiles). And the damage, in terms of human capital (with a steady wave of emigration by the same educated middle classes), war losses (maybe half a million in the needlessly protracted war with Iraq), economic distortions (smuggling, rent-capture, opaque banking practices and so forth), corruption and bad faith, has been massive. US and other sanctions have certainly contributed to this, but a lot of it is simply down to misgovernance.
When the Iranians signed the nuclear deal, it was clear they expected a massive economic dividend. It wasn’t just Donald Trump’s unexpected election victory that derailed these hopes. The last 40 years have left a legacy of profound distrust of Iranian intentions. Iran’s consistently destabilizing activity in the region and its support for criminal, subversive and terror activities in North and South America, Europe, Central and Southeast Asia, West Africa and Australia mean that its only real international friends are Venezuela and North Korea. Russia and China are out for what they can get. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey thinks like an Ottoman. And, while Islamists and some on the European left may think, like Foucault, that the Islamic Republic (a contradiction in terms) is one of the last bastions against US-led neoliberalism, their secret longing for a world re-enchanted by a subaltern revolt in the name of a religious impulse they have lost is not shared by anyone else.
It is certainly not shared by the protesters on the streets of Mashhad, Ahvaz, Baghdad, Beirut, Nasiriyah, Tyre, Tripoli or Basra. Since 2015, oil prices have halved, populations increased and economic growth stagnated. Public debt, youth unemployment and environmental degradation have all increased. The protesters want a better life and an end to their instrumentalization by Iran and its allies. As one young woman in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square said on CNN the other day: “We want an independent country — one that we make.”
Their slogans are against those who claim the authority of religion to steal, beat, kill and misgovern. They are overwhelmingly young — as is the population of the Middle East as a whole (in Iraq, the median age is 19, in Lebanon it’s 29 and Iran’s is 30). They don’t remember the Iran-Iraq War (something on which Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif incessantly harps), the Lebanese Civil War or the agonies of Saddam Hussein’s rule. They reject attempts to sectarianize their struggle. They express solidarity with each other. Learning from 2011, they have no obvious leadership. Women play prominent roles. And they are highly motivated.
We have seen the collapse of any claim the Islamic Republic has to legitimacy, justice or principle. There was a time when some people probably did believe that Iran defended the oppressed and punished the oppressor. No longer. In addition, the increasingly obvious corruption and violence of the ruling Islamists in Iran has discredited religion there as a public good, as many dissident and prescient Shiite scholars warned would happen. Religious observance — as opposed to personal faith — has been in steady decline for years. We see the wider impact on Shiite communities across the region, just as we see the damage that the brutality of Daesh and Al-Qaeda has done to the reputation of all Sunni Islamists.
When young Shiite protesters attack the Iranian consulate in Najaf and the offices of Islamist militias across Southern Iraq; when Shiite tribes previously associated with the Hashed take to demonstrating themselves; when a son of the late Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah joins his fellow Shiites in their protests in Beirut; when the admirable Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani says that the source of any political legitimacy is the people and that any new political system in Iraq must be free from “wisayah” (guardianship), we are witnessing a rejection of the foundational doctrine of the Islamic Republic. This is the re-emergence of a doubtless still devout but politically materialist critique of the pretensions of Islamist ideologues that many thought had been lost forever somewhere between 1958 and 2013.
And this is fatal for the Islamic Republic. Not necessarily now or next week. Regimes that have lost ideological confidence can still maintain themselves in power by force. We saw this with Ba’athist Iraq and Syria. We see it in Venezuela and Cuba. But every year the costs rise. Every time protests happen and are disappointed — 1999, 2009, 2017, 2018 and now 2019 — the anti-regime feeling grows. Eventually all you have is a burnt-out husk where there had once been a cause. And then you see clearly the real lineaments of power, stripped of the glamorous aura of resistance; just another set of hatchet-faced thugs on the make.
For the leadership of the Islamic Republic, there are no more illusions, no more myths to sell. They can no longer pose as righteous avengers when they have been responsible for the chronic underdevelopment of a country rich in human and natural resources, for the export of terror, for the murder of thousands of their fellow Iranians, for the rigging of political systems not just in their own country but in Lebanon and Iraq too, and for the brutal suppression even of those who call not for revolution but for reform. This last point was made from house arrest in December by Mir-Hossein Mousavi, when he pointedly compared the actions of the regime to those of the shah’s armed forces in 1978.
Those in power will react badly. They already have. They have, after all, nowhere else to go. They have shown their willingness to threaten their own people, their neighbors and the international economy. I do not think they will back down on this any more than they have on previous occasions. We have heard the Pentagon warn of potentially new aggressive actions from Iran in and around the Gulf. The New York Times has at last caught up with the fact that Iran has been supplying advanced missiles not just to Lebanese Hezbollah but to Iraqi militias and probably the Houthis too, as a recent US naval interception of a “significant cache” of advanced components on their way to Yemen confirms.
Israel continues to prepare for conflict. Its strikes on Hezbollah and Iranian-linked targets delay but do not stop them: Even now the Iranians are rebuilding their facilities on the Iraq-Syria border at Al-Qaim, which the Israel Defense Forces hit some months ago — and may have hit again in December. Inside Lebanon and Iraq, the political classes continue to play for time, while supporters of the very same militias that supplied black-clad snipers to deploy against protesters are bussed in for counter-demonstrations (and reportedly a covert campaign of stabbings, kidnappings and live fire, right out of the Qassem Soleimani playbook) in Tahrir Square.
Iran can impose its will only through massive violence — against restive populations, against its neighbors and against international targets. It hopes, in so doing, to raise the costs for the world of insisting on change. This can certainly work for a while. After all, the lesson the Khomeinists drew from their success in 1979 was to show no weakness. And the regime believes it has fireproofed itself against revolution through an interlocking system of praetorian guards and the creation of a privileged class of militarized clerics. The same applies to Hezbollah, which retains significant support among Lebanese Shiites, though less so to the Hashed in Iraq.
But all this imposes severe costs on creaking economies. Neither Iran nor the Gulf states can or will provide the same level of financial support that they did in 2006. With a currency in freefall against the dollar, an inability to borrow on international markets, inflation at about 36 percent and an 80 percent fall in oil exports, even the Iranian vice president has admitted that Iran’s foreign exchange reserves are dangerously low — around $86 million, according to the International Monetary Fund, which is 20 percent lower than in 2013; and that figure probably overstates the amount to which the government actually has access. Lebanon is more or less bankrupt, with a quarter of the population living on less than $14 a day and the top 0.1 percent of the population (who own much of the massive public debt) earning the same share of national income as the bottom 50 percent. The rubbish still stinks. And, perhaps most important, the community of true believers is shrinking.
In the face of all this, we in the West should collectively show what Antonio Gramsci called pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. That is, we should prepare for the worst — an expansion of repression and conflict — by remaining clear and resolute about our ultimate goals. These are not necessarily about democracy (whatever that actually means), but they are about the right of people to benign and competent government and a decent life, and the right of states to live in peace. And the means we should use are not necessarily those of counter-force, though everyone has the right to self-defense — the most basic of natural rights (which is the real message that a strengthening of US forces in the region would send).
Above all, we should continue to impose costs upon Iran for its destructive behavior. This is a test of nerve. And anyone who listens to the heartbreaking appeals of those in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, who want the world to pay attention and help them recover their independence and dignity, should remember that we are collectively, and often individually, massively more powerful and capable than Iran.
So, although there will be more lies and almost certainly more blood spilt this year, we should keep calm. We should help where we can. Countering the periodic blocking of the Internet in Iran and Iraq is one way, while calling Iran constantly to account for its actions; helping Iraq at last develop a proper system of governance; rewarding those in Iraq and Lebanon who want fiscally stable, financially capable, economically open and competent government; building expertise through education; and bolstering ballistic missile defenses in the Gulf and in Israel are others. But above all we should remain calm, determined and consistent. The Islamic Republic has tried and will continue to try to sow division, to intimidate and bribe. But in the long run it cannot win unless we let it.
Source » arabnews