In a region littered with failed states, Iran is often mischaracterized as an island of stability, notes Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The history of the Islamic republic, however, is a turbulent one, featuring a constant struggle between an authoritarian regime and restive population seeking democratic empowerment, he writes for The Washington Post:
When they first assumed power, the clerical oligarchs waged bloody street battles to repress other members of the revolutionary coalition who did not share their desire for a theocratic dictatorship. In the 1990s, they faced the rise of a reform movement that remains the most exhilarating attempt to harmonize religion and pluralism. The reformists spoke about reconsidering Khamenei’s absolutist pretensions and expanding civil society and critical media. The regime reacted with its usual mixture of terror and intimidation to eviscerate the movement. And then came the Green Revolt in summer 2009 that forever delegitimized the system and severed the bonds between state and society.
The issue at the heart of the power struggle between ‘reformists’ and ‘hardliners’ is “whether the civil society has a role and right to govern or not,” according to Abolhassan Banisadr (right), the country’s first president, impeached and exiled after falling foul of the clerical establishment, adding that this was the main difference between totalitarianism and democracy.
“From when velayat-e-faghih [the rule by the Islamic jurist] was put in place, they were concerned about the connection of the country’s second most powerful person [president] and the civil society,” the 84-year-old told The Guardian from exile in France. “They want to cut this link no matter what. During my time, they closed down universities and carried out executions to undercut the civil society and make it passive.”
The ideology of the 1979 Islamic revolution continues to infuse Iran’s foreign policy, analyst Kenneth Kaltzman writes in a recent report from the Congressional Research Service.
The revolution overthrew a secular, authoritarian leader, the Shah, who the leaders of the revolution asserted had suppressed Islam and its clergy. A clerical regime was established in which ultimate power is invested in a “Supreme Leader” who melds political and religious authority. In the early years after the revolution, Iran attempted to “export” its revolution to nearby Muslim states. In the late 1990s, Iran abandoned that goal because promoting it succeeded only in producing resistance to Iran in the region.
“Iran’s attempt post-1979 to export a revolutionary Islam – a move that also focused on its Sunni neighbours – remained a paper tiger,” claims one analyst. “The Saudis, on the other hand, conducted reactionary missionary work during the same time period, carrying their Wahhabism to the farthest corners of West Africa and Indonesia.”
Mocking presidents of the Great Satan, the United States, has long been standard practice during state-backed rallies in Iran, where anti-Americanism is ingrained in state ideology, The New York Times adds.
“The one thing certain about Iran’s future is that another protest movement will rise at some point seeking to displace the regime,” the CFR’s Takeyh suggests. RTWT