An Iranian case study: Backwards or Forwards?


The dynasty which stigmatised the latest years of the Iranian history, is the Pahlevi one. Until 1925, Reza Khan Pahlevi had achieved full dominance of the army, the police, the Majlis (parliament) and the church. In 1941, Reza Khan Pahlavi's son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, took power and he ruled the country until 1979. The United States managed to have full control of Iran this way, as Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was their own choice.

Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was known for his "White Revolution" which was declared on January 27th of 1963. The White Revolution consisted of 6 main benchmarks: 1. The agricultural reform, 2. the nationalization of water and forests, 3. The fact that the workers could enjoy some of the assets of the industries they worked at, 4. Women's right to vote, 5. Creation of educational institutions, and 6. Creation of health institutions.

The White Revolution was one of the two parameters which completed the "great civilization" or "Shahinshahi". The other parameter was the Iranian autocracy. According to Maurice Duverger, iranian autocracy was called "illuminated" as the main target was the quick modernization of the economy in Iran. The Shah leaded, without accepting any other power except for hiw own, he had a huge fear for the notion of democracy which would deprive him of his powers. Nevertheless, he was supported by the United States.

But was it really "illuminated" this iranian despotism? And if yes, in which ways?

During the rule of Mohammed Reza Shah, women enjoyed freedom of speech, they were dressed as they wanted and had adopted the western fashion in their everyday lives. The country's economy was quickly modernized. But still, the country had no freedom as a political entity. Iran was at that time, more like a puppet state, or a "rogue state" (as it was called later), in hypnosis.

The power of the Shah's police Savak, which operated under his rule, was so strict and tough, that it allienated the iranian intelligentsia and the upper middle class, which supported him at his beggining. Thus, the basis for a legitimate and logical leadership in iran had failed. The brutality of the iranian despotism led to the 1979 revolution in Iran. Between those who supported the revolution of 1979, there was also a strong women's front, which couldn't wait for the country to be free from the western influence.

The new leader who achieved power was the 76-year old Ayatollah Ruhollah Homeini. The new leader's education was deeply religious and as it is easily assumed, Iran moved back to theocracy.

Khomeini inaugurated the Islamic Democracy of Iran period. He ruled under the doctrine called "Velayat-e-Faqih" which meant the leadership of the islamic priests. Khomeini eventually got in charge of all the iranian institutions and gathered all the powers that existed. He thus became a totalitarian theocratic emperor.

During his leadership women lost most of their rights and freedom of expression. Censorship stigmatized the Islamic Democracy of Iran in everyday life. Arts and culture moved backwards and death penalties were a common practise.

Women were forced to wear hejab again.

Many leaders succeded Khomeini, but we can assume that Khomeini stands as a benchmark for the next decades in Iranian history, as his followers continue to rule under the theocratic model he initiated to the country again.

Iranians seemed they have been constantly struggling with that dilemma. Free from foreign influences or back to theocracy again? There is a confusion or lack of ability stemming from the country's culture, to discriminate between political freedom and human rights. Those two parameters can be both achieved and function together in a complementary way.

And this argument highlights Iran's recent history. There is an unwilingness to align with anything that was achieved or believed during the Pahlevi period, even if that was a good and evolving feature. The will for a free of western influences Iran, anathematizes human rights achievements, as it can only be accomplished with a turn to the "core" to the traditional religious identity if Iran, which is in anyway different (and thus free) from western habits.

For the next years the challenge in the Middle East is a huge one. This challenge, consists of the effort to create a leadership with an independent agenda, while respecting and promoting human rights, which unfortunately move backwards when an islamic country inevitably promotes its freedom by approaching closer its religious culture.

The only country in the Middle East which can break free from this circle, and prove that by having a strong leadership freed from the western control, there is also space for human rights without disclaiming the religious part of the islamic culture, is the Islamic Democracy of Iran, which has already tried both the western and the islamic status quo. In case this happens, the balance in the region will change, by giving it a strong asset against the western criticism of the islamic religious culture as a fundamentalist one.

The challenge is huge and it only remains to be seen, if the Islamic Democracy of Iran has the will to become stronger with unbeatable arguments in the international arena or not.

                        written by Themis Panagiotopoulou, PhD in Political Science

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