Every revolution is different. But some, like the Iranian Revolution whose 40th anniversary falls this year, are more different than others. From a popular uprising against the pro-Western Shah and his secret police, SAVAK, there emerged an Islamic Republic led by Khomeini, an intransigent and brutal Ayatollah.
Forty years ago, the CIA was monitoring the Iranian Left but missed the significance of the Mullahs. They recognized its importance after the American Embassy had been sacked and hostages taken. Meanwhile Grand Ayatollah Khomeini returned from France to eliminate his secular compatriots in the revolution, as well as his religious opponents. Suddenly Shi’a Islam, or at least Khomeini’s idiosyncratic confection of French revolutionary popular sovereignty and Islamic dictatorship, burst onto the international scene as a new threat.
Khomeini’s rule by Shi’a jurists, velayat-al-faqih, was presented as a divine dispensation. Shari’a Law ordered society. Any evolution of the revolutionary process towards a more open society was slow, fragmented, subject to major challenges and reverses. Over the years, alongside the power of the Supreme Leader, backed by his Revolutionary Guards, grew a ‘liberal’ wing of Mullahs and lay politicians and civil servants. Ayatollah Hassan Rouhani, the current President, is that wing’s most recent leader. President Khatami, before him, followed much the same path.
In the midst of these internal conflicts, at the turn of the century, I participated for several years in - what I privately called “Six a side with the Ayatollahs” - formal dialogue and discussions with the Iranian Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue, part of the government-controlled Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation. The numbers on the Iranian side were sometimes more than six. The team was usually a mix of Muslim lay scholars and a Hojjat-al-Islam, a clerical grade one below Ayatollah. During one visit to Iran by a delegation from the Church of England, a key meeting was attended by a laid-back character wearing blue-jeans. He clearly outranked the Hojjat in the chair and turned out to speak fluent English. Intelligence service A further strand in the tangled national skein of power.
For us western visitors, what went on in Evin prison, the persecution of the Bahais, the severe consequences of conversion to Christianity, and all the other pervasive human rights violations, were difficult to square with the warm hospitality and the friendliness of our hosts. Our interlocutors seemed like academics anywhere else: keen to discuss the new French philosophers, particularly Foucault. I remember the hacking cough of a cleric next to me at dinner, who told me he had been gassed in the Iraq-Iran war. More touching were the young couples walking in the mountains which cradle North Tehran who, when they saw you approaching, sprang apart. All smiles, and hands held again, when they realized you were not Iranian.
There were funny incidents. The austere Ayatollah Emami-Kashani, who was leader of the Friday prayer in Tehran at that time, lamenting at length the fact that youth were falling away from religion. He fluffed his answer when I asked if he ever talked to any youth. Maybe it was left un-translated. I didn’t tell him how much like a Catholic bishop I knew in Galway he sounded. He told our bemused delegation through the translator with some pride that he had gone to Rome and met a “Rock Singer”. It was some time later before I realized this was Ratzinger, the Cardinal, soon to be Pope.
Perhaps the most revealing incident of a further visit took place in late January 2006 after news of the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons of the Prophet, spun for maximum political effect, had just landed in Tehran. Our hosts had a prepared a statement for us to sign condemning the offence to Islam while praising Iran as the epicentre of interfaith dialogue and toleration. We were even told that the cartoons were now a compulsory item on the Danish schools’ curriculum. We did not sign.
After this tense day my wife and I went out for a chilly evening stroll. There was almost no-one about. This was posh Tehran where women wore their headscarves so as to reveal the maximum amount of hair while escaping prosecution. And unlike poorer, industrial south Tehran, few women dressed all in black. But the streets were empty and dark. A car screeched to a halt. There were two youngish men in it. We felt nervous. The window came down. We braced ourselves. A growling bass voice said: “You are Welcome”. For a moment the curtain which concealed the feelings of ordinary citizens had lifted.
I recommend that anyone formulating policy towards the Islamic Republic tries to tune in to each of the major contending forces within Iran. None of them have reason to trust Britain after British involvement in the CIA instigated coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. And, after the Iraq-Iran war, Iranians do not need to be told they have comprehensible national security and foreign policy concerns. But Iran is capable of change and of conciliatory negotiation.
Despite the US withdrawal and sanctions, Iran continues to comply with the 2015 nuclear deal to forestall its development of a nuclear weapon, signed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council: UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany. The deal, made against the grain by Iran, is some measure of its potential for negotiation. Trump’s and Israel’s attempt to scupper this agreement is an act of culpable irresponsibility at a time of nuclear proliferation. It is a rejection of Iranian progressives and vindication of its militarist hard-liners.
President Rouhani took a great risk by settling for a nuclear deal and permitting intrusive monitoring. He has complied with the agreement’s provisions. But he is undermined by Trump’s policy which is frankly imperial in character as well as crass, and which vindicates the adventurism of the Revolutionary Guards. The question which arises, urgently now, is whether the USA can recognize and act upon the complexity of contemporary Iran. The choice is between fostering and rewarding those Iranians seeking evolutionary change, with due concern for national security, or encouraging those wedded to militarism and expansion of Shi’a influence through proxy wars in the Middle East.