Revolutionary Iran: a History of the Islamic Republic
Allen Lane, 528pp, £25
As they travel down a road in the scrublands of south-western Iran, a group of soldiers hear noises from a nearby trench. It is the height of war with Iraq, which lasted from 1980 until 1988. They scramble into position and start firing at their half-hidden enemies:
We were exchanging fire and launching RPG-7s at each other . . . We could hear the others, opposite us, who were attacking us, shouting “Allahu Akbar” . . . [A]s we listened to them . . . we realised that they were speaking Persian . . . We had been fighting with another group of Iranian forces.
Stories such as this one, recorded by Michael Axworthy for his new history of revolutionary Iran, are not unusual in war. Yet while there may be chaos and confusion at the front, there is usually cohesion at home. Though most Iranians were united in the face of a foreign enemy, they were also battling one another in a separate, hardly less significant struggle – for the soul of their revolution.
The stakes in that fight were high: it was for the nature of the state and the ability of the people to determine their own futures. By the time war broke out in September 1980, a referendum had resoundingly endorsed an Islamic republic in Iran; an interim government had come and gone; a bitter row over a new constitution had resulted in an unexpectedly conservative document and the hostage crisis had shattered relations with the US. A controversial new principle setting out the political authority of the chief religious scholar was embedding itself in the machinery of government.
As this book shows, the effect was polarising. The revolution didn’t simply get rid of the shah and his cronies. It comprehensively reallocated power: better-off, better-educated, anti-monarchist liberals found themselves excluded. The poor, devout and provincial were elevated, in some cases to dizzying heights. In the scramble to wrest advantages from a system in flux, the winners were those prepared to be nimble, ruthless, often violent. Sadegh Khalkhali, Ayatollah Khomeini’s avenging angel, travelled the country executing enemies of the revolution. Some of those enemies refused to go quietly: in June 1981, 70 leading members of the Islamic Republican Party were blown up by oppositionists. Two months later, a suitcase bomb killed the president and prime minister. Consolidation was not going to be easy.
This is a story with plenty of historical echoes. When thousands of political prisoners were executed in 1988, commentators invoked the French Revolution’s reign of terror. And the transformation of revolutionaries into authoritarian rulers is a pattern familiar from Cromwell onwards. There are modern parallels, too: the controversy over the drafting of Iran’s Islamist constitution brings to mind arguments now raging in Egypt.
Axworthy is good at placing Iran into context in this way, which is important as it’s too often seen as exceptional. The revolution’s religious underpinning is hard for the secular west to comprehend. Islam is the wild card that puts Iran’s predicament beyond conventional analysis. Some claim that there is a tinge of irrationality in its decisionmaking that makes it impossible to engage with in the usual way.
This line of argument leads not only to calls for pre-emptive strikes but to terrible wasted opportunities. The “grand bargain” – a settlement with the US that would have seen Iran stop funding anti-Israel groups in return for an end to isolation and sanctions – was vetoed by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney on the grounds that: “We don’t speak to evil.” Yet Iran’s domestic and foreign policies (including its stance on nuclear technology) are perfectly intelligible in terms of a desire to maintain cultural and political independence. The conservative establishment is right, Axworthy points out, in believing that if it relaxes its grip on freedom of expression, the culture it believes it has a duty to defend will be eroded. Iranians’ long history of exploitation by superpowers makes some loath to co-operate with an “international community” dominated by western interests.
Iran’s relations with the rest of the world are a reflection of who has the upper hand at home. Over the past three decades, that contest has been brutal. The reformists, always at a disadvantage because they want the state to relinquish some of its power, remain at a low ebb. Whatever the outcome of the presidential elections this summer, we must hope that the friendly fire that still characterises Iranian politics will one day stop.
Because of that election, Revolutionary Iran, which takes the reader up to the end of 2012, is particularly well timed. It will be invaluable for those hoping to make sense of the coverage. With it, Axworthy has confirmed his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment.