Nation vs. Revolution in Iran

by Shireen Hunter

The Implementation of Iran’s nuclear agreement with the P5+1, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has not yet been completed, but critical statements by its detractors in Iran about its ineffectiveness have already began. For example, recently Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a former speaker of the Parliament and an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said that so far the JCPOA had not had a single positive impact. Others have taken President Hassan Rouhani to task for not yet improving the Iranian economy after the nuclear deal. Some have launched attacks on the Rouhani government’s efforts to enlist European participation in Iran’s development projects.

A particular target of attack has been Iran’s desire to buy a number of Airbus planes as part of its efforts to refurbish its aging fleet of passenger planes. Sardar Naghdi, a firebrand hardliner and the commander of the Basij, has chided the president that buying Airbus planes will not solve Iran’s problems of economic recession and unemployment. Needless to say, Naghdi would have preferred that a good part of Iran’s unfrozen assets go to the Basij. In the past, opposing Rouhani’s economic outlook and asking for a “resistance and jihadi economy,” he had said that if provided with adequate resources, his volunteer militia could solve Iran’s problems of economic deprivation and unemployment.

Earlier, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (of which the Basij are part) contributed to undermining Rouhani’s policies by arresting a group of US sailors and, even worse, by showing them kneeling in front of the Iranian military. No one can dispute Iran’s right to defend its territorial waters. However, the US sailors could have been warned off—or, even better, politely escorted from Iranian waters—instead of being arrested and displayed in the public media. Their arrest was a calculated act to embarrass the Rouhani government even as it has been trying hard to show a softer image of Iran. The IRGC knows well that such acts exacerbate anti-Iran sentiments in the West and leads American politicians in particular to say harsh things about Iran. The hardliners can then use these statements to show that the US continues its hostile policy toward Iran. Nor did the episode with the American sailors end with their release. Instead, Ayatollah Khamenei decorated their captors, an act accompanied by exhortations that the anti-imperialist struggle will never end.

At first glance, these acts might appear to be mere random mistakes that representat natural political rivalries. However, a closer look at the pattern of their repetition over the last 30 years reveals a more fundamental fault-line in Iran, namely the incongruence of the country’s national and revolutionary aspirations.

Against the Nation

Sadly for Iran, the Islamic revolution has always had an anti-national dimension. For the Islamists, especially Ayatollah Khomeini, what was important was Islam and not Iran. This became crystal clear upon his return to Iran. When asked what he was feeling about returning to his homeland, he said “absolutely nothing.” For the leftist elements, the search for socialist utopia and the anti-imperialist (read anti-American) struggle were the key priorities. Most revolutions have such conflicts between their local and more universal aspirations, especially at their early stages. After a while the requirements of national survival and advancement prevail over universalist goals. But in Iran’s case this dichotomy still persists, and revolutionary aspirations often trump national interest. Periodically over the last 30 years, when external circumstances have posed serious threats to national survival, the revolutionary goals have been relegated to the second place. As soon as the immediate threat has passed, the previous pattern returns.

When Rouhani came to power, the nuclear issue was hanging over Iran’s head like a sword of Damocles. Therefore he was given license to pursue a solution. Now that the hardliners feel that the immediate threat has passed, they are back to their old tricks.

More fundamentally, there is a dichotomy between the interests of nizam—the “system”—and that of Iran as a country and people. This was evident from the beginning of the revolution. The very fact of creating a separate military in the form of a revolutionary guard whose sole goal is to protect the revolution and the system attests to this reality. Never in Iran’s very long history, and despite its occupation by foreign forces, had there existed two rival militaries.

Iran’s national interests require that it maintain good or reasonable relations with all those countries which are willing to reciprocate. It requires that Iran’s energies be spent in making a better life for its people. It requires that Iran not spend its forces in pursuit of goals beyond its reach or pursue goals that earn it the enmity of others without gaining the friendship of any. The best example of such a goal is Iran’s stand on the Palestinian issue, which has been at the root of all its problems, including economic sanctions. Iran has earned the unrelenting hostility of Israel without obtaining the friendship of Arabs. Even the Palestinians, for whose sake Iran has spent so much of its resources, just recently sided with Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Iran. Iraq, too, voted against Iran in the Arab league, and both Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria have supported the United Arab Emirates in its dispute with Iran over the three islands in the Persian Gulf.

Stuck in the Past

The material and emotional interests of the hardliners are at stake in this juxtaposition of Iran’s national interests and the interests of the revolution and the system that embodies it. Moreover, the hardliners have remained unchanged while Iran and the world have moved on. Iran’s hardliners are still stuck in the 1980s. They still talk of holy war and holy defense and the martyrs and the sayings of Ayatollah Khomeini. They still see the world through the prism of the Cold War and the leftist clichés of the 1960s. They are still obsessed with the Pahlavis without realizing that at least half of Iran’s population has no memory of life under the Shah. All they know is the Islamic system and its shortcomings. The hardliners are thus yearning for the relatively more simple times when people could be lured with mere slogans.

But Iran has changed. Its population is more educated and informed. Most importantly it has experienced life under an Islamic system and knows its drawbacks and has no illusions about its promises. The world has also changed. The post-Cold War era is more complex with no overarching paradigm to guide states, whereas Iran’s hardliners are still operating under the Cold War paradigm and anti-Imperialist struggle and become frustrated when they see that others don’t see the world as they do.

Therefore, whatever the outcome of the upcoming parliamentary elections and regardless of how valiantly the Rouhani government tries to remedy the country’s problems, Iran cannot hope to achieve a national revival economically or otherwise until and unless it stops being a revolution. At this juncture, it would be wise for the hardliners to remember that without a strong and prosperous Iran they themselves will cease to exist.

Photo: Sardar Naghdi

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.


One Comment

  1. You asked for it, you got it, hardline and conservative control of Iran is absolute as long as the government is structured to empower Khamenei backed by the military and paramilitary arms of government. That’s certainly on display with the vetting of candidates by the Guardian Council which is handpicked Khamenei. If you believe Rouhani is a genuine, moderate element, then it’s clear he’s being forced to the side, as well as his backers since he has done his primary job which was secure a deal that lifts sanctions. So now the conservatives get to run amok which is what they seem to be intent on doing. In any respect,hoping for democratic change is folly unless you address the actual structure of the government which is not going to change so long as all power is vested in a single individual who is only answerable to his personal relationship with God. Theocratic regimes always make me ill whether its Iran, the Vatican or anti-abortion protesters.

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