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25 September 2023

How the Islamic Republic colonised Iran

Protests against the regime are the beginnings of a national independence movement.

By Maryam Aslany and Rana Dasgupta

The Iranian president’s Koranic sermon to the UN General Assembly last week made it clear that the Islamic Republic is an unusual member of the United Nations.

The Islamic Republic does not even claim to be a nation-state. “Islam opposes nationalism and nationhood,” proclaimed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the wake of the Islamic Revolution he led in 1979. “We have no need for people who want to be part of a nation,” he warned his critics. “We need people who are Muslims.” 

The regime he founded embraces an extreme interpretation of Islam, which acknowledges no legitimate sovereignty save the universal rule of Allah. This sovereignty is administered on Earth by clerics who, though they are obliged to interact with other nation-states, regard them as fundamentally illegitimate, and are committed to their overthrow. Contrary to both the liberal and communist wings of Enlightenment tradition, there is no place in their system for “the people”, who may be legitimately jailed or executed if they dare to contest divinely ordained laws and institutions.

This is an outlandish polity. How do we describe it in normal political language? It is a colonial regime. A peculiar kind perhaps, where dispossession is administered from within rather than without. But colonialism it is. Iran’s national resources are plundered in order to support a foreign project: the global Shia revolution. The aim of that revolution is to spread Shia doctrine universally, destroy Israel, generate an earthly war of all against all, and so create the conditions for the final apocalypse, when the 12th imam will return to lead Muslim forces. Driven by such millenarian considerations, the regime disdains “normal” political constraints, and considers the use of nuclear weapons, for instance, to be rational and justified if it accelerates this final arrival.

This project is as alien to most Iranians as it is to most readers of this article; obviously, they do not wish their country to be sacrificed to it. There is a deep historical bond, for example, between them and the people of Israel, which goes back to the time of Cyrus the Great. The Iranian people must therefore be coerced – by levels of economic exploitation and legal annihilation equivalent to what Algerians experienced under the French or Kenyans under the British. And inevitably there is a similar, furious, backlash. The protests that have been going on since the state murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last year aim not merely to secure greater rights for women, as the foreign media usually reports. The weekend before last, on the anniversary of that murder, despite the huge presence of regime forces, demonstrators in many Iranian cities repeated the same chant, “We fight, we die, we take Iran back from this occupying regime.” This is a movement for national independence.

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“Colonialism within one country” might seem counter-intuitive, so let us reflect on how the classic features of colonialism are displayed in Iran.

First, the historical trajectory of Iran’s political development has been cut off. That trajectory produced the Middle East’s first parliamentary democracy in 1906. Already by the 1920s, the country was moving towards a secular legal system guaranteeing freedom of speech and belief, and equality of women and religious minorities. Those innovations emerged from political traditions dating back to ancient Persia; in trying to undo them, the Islamic Republic has waged war on Persian history and culture. That campaign has resulted in devastating losses to global cultural heritage. Having no consideration for ancient temples and palaces, for example, the cash-strapped regime is selling world heritage sites to the highest bidder. The protesters’ emphasis on Persian art and poetry derives from widespread repugnance for this destruction.

[See also: Will the Iranian protesters succeed?]

Second, the fundamental condition of life in Iran is determined by foreign agendas. Even during the present economic crisis, large sums are exported to fund Hezbollah; administer Shia indoctrination programmes in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Morocco, and even in such European countries as Germany and the UK; infiltrate foreign governments, universities and media; intimidate and even assassinate foreign citizens.

This results, like all colonial plunder, in economic and ecological breakdown. Over the past year, the value of the currency has fallen by half. With inflation having soared to 50 per cent, and most pension funds emptied, the middle class has collapsed, and three quarters of the population fail to earn subsistence levels. Taxes increase every year to fund budgetary increases for law enforcement, surveillance, religious propaganda and military. The country is plunged, meanwhile, into a water crisis so severe that even cities cannot provide enough for daily consumption. Water mismanagement has seen lakes shrink to 20 per cent of their former size.

Third, the predation can only continue if all political opposition is outlawed. Democracy, obviously, is a sham, and criticism is brutally punished.

According to the Human Rights Activists in Iran group, during the first three months of last year’s movement, some 19,262 protesters were arrested and 517 killed in the unrest (including 70 minors). Youth arrests have been particularly high: according to the regime’s own Fars News Service, 90 per cent of detainees are under 35. Overall, the protests have been met by a barrage of rape, torture, psychological warfare, execution by hanging, and mass chemical attacks on schoolchildren.

The Islamic Republic maintains its hold with well-worn colonial strategies. By intensifying control over women’s bodies, the “hijab and chastity” law passed by parliament last week illegalises everyday life, further enabling the regime to arrest anyone at any time. Similar laws govern male dress and all social behaviour. “Divide and rule” is also essential: the regime manufactures internal enemies and even orchestrates “sectarian” terrorist attacks to turn the population against itself. Even so, it is unable to find enough Iranians willing to collaborate in the oppression of their compatriots, and staffs the security forces with mercenaries brought from elsewhere in the region.

Lastly: like other colonial regimes, the Islamic Republic has produced a severe intellectual and moral recession. By promoting only those with solid ideological credentials, it has forced talented individuals to flee the country, leaving bureaucracy, business, media and education in the hands of often-incompetent ideologues. Those who remain behind are deprived of opportunities if they do not comply with the regime’s ideological constitution.

Since the regime has scuppered the economy, meanwhile, it must increasingly fund its international terrorism from mafia-like activities. Recently, Mohsen Rezaee, a former vice-president of economic affairs for Iran, openly advocated increasing criminality: “We’ll take 1,000 Americans hostage… America will have to pay several billions to get every single one freed. This is how we can solve our economic problems.”

So what? Calling the Islamic Republic a colonial regime: isn’t it just a game of words? No. It transforms the international obligations. The post-1945 international system placed responsibility for human rights with individual national governments. It was an internal issue. Accordingly, Joe Biden feels no responsibility for the Iranian population: he wishes only to restore the nuclear deal and return to business with the regime. He has just released $6bn to the Islamic Republic in return for the release of five American prisoners; despite the rhetoric, those funds will certainly assist in the continued repression of the Iranian people.

But the post-1945 accommodation made sense only on one condition: colonialism had to be eradicated. Unlike representative national governments, colonial regimes could not be trusted to guarantee human rights and so, while they persisted, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights meant nothing. In 1960, the United Nations instructed all countries to cooperate in “bringing to a speedy and unconditional end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations”. The present system of sovereign states arose from that concerted effort.

The effort was extended, significantly, to include an early instance of “colonialism within one country”: apartheid South Africa. Not only did the UN organise an external boycott of the country, it also intervened in South Africa’s internal affairs: declaring that the apartheid government was not the legitimate representative of “the people of South Africa”, and that the country’s constitution and elections were “null and void”. This international pressure was essential to the ultimate success of the national liberation movement.

Apartheid was organised around a principle we understand well: race. The Islamic Republic’s colonial regime is defined by more obscure principles of theology. But the overall structure is the same and, just as in apartheid South Africa, the Islamic Republic cannot be viewed as the legitimate representative of the Iranian people. Responsibility for their physical security and political self-determination therefore reverts to the international community. Foreign governments have obligations to the people of Iran that are precisely parallel to those they once had to South Africa. Just as in the South African case, the cause of national liberation will best succeed when they take up those obligations.

But there is a second, more cynical, reason for inaction. Better the devil we know.

This too arises from ignorance – and indeed from the unquestioning acceptance of propaganda. The regime and its supporters abroad spread the word that protests inspired by the death of Mahsa Amini, who was from Iran’s Kurdistan province, would lead to ethnic civil war and national break-up. Mahsa’s mother was the first to denounce this manipulation: Mahsa, she emphasised, was a “daughter of Iran”, and the protesters were lovers of their country.

All who are complacent with the regime like to claim that the alternative is chaos. In fact, the future state is being carefully planned by a large network of Iranians inside the country and around the world. The constitutional details will only be decided after the regime falls, when referendums and elections are finally possible. But after 44 years of political stagnation, no one is interested in taking further backwards steps. Over the past year, the movement has evolved to great political sophistication, and formal political parties have been created in anticipation of future democracy. Like the broader movement, their talk is of secularism, democracy and national unity.

No one is naive about the challenges. But the exiled crown prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, who has emerged as a popular figurehead, has borrowed lessons from two of the most principled national liberation movements of the past century: Gandhi’s in India (“non-violence”) and Mandela’s in South Africa (“truth and reconciliation”). Considering his four decades of advocacy for a secular, democratic Iran, protesters of all political hues have rallied behind Reza Pahlavi, who is working to engineer a peaceful and humane transition towards a founding referendum in which all Iranians, regardless of religious and political views, will choose their preferred form of governance.

There is an extraordinary opportunity. But to take advantage of it, we need to understand the nature of 21st-century conditions. Eight decades after 1945, states have diverged significantly: just because they all have flags and a UN seat does not mean they are all the same thing. Political entrepreneurs such as Iran’s autocratic rulers have turned the raw monopolies of the nation-state to completely unanticipated uses. These demand new terminologies, new codes of action, and new levels of international coordination.

If we think back to the UN’s principled struggle against apartheid South Africa, the Iranian president’s address to the General Assembly last week presented a pathetic spectacle. Delegates listened to him as if he were a head of state like any other. In fact the “butcher of Tehran” heads a 21st-century colonial regime that offends all the UN’s purported values. The international community must deny all legitimacy to this regime and stand with the Iranian people’s campaign for independence. It is essential for the protection of the society of nations. And the rewards will be immense.

[See also: Joe Biden said “America is back”. So why are its foreign allies going their own way?]

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