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Toppling the Iranian regime is the only way to reform it

Adil Benhamza

Published: Updated:

If the Iranian revolution represents a success story of the clergymen and traditional structures in the Iranian society – which had been long ignored by the excessively westernized Shah Reza Pahlavi, it also teaches a very important lesson about various regimes regarding the reasons that led to the downfall of the Shah’s regime, once considered one of the strongest regional regimes; both politically and militarily.

The toppling of the Mohammad Mosaddegh Government on 19 August 1953 was a forced obstruction of Iran’s transformation to a genuine democratic state. Meanwhile, privileged with an exceptional western support and inspired by the ancient Persian tradition and its imperial glories, the Shah attempted to resurrect an obsolete ruling system. He surrounded himself with fake modernization forms that, in their essence, represented the estrangement which he, along with his aristocratic and financial elite, were living through along with all the corruption-enabling structure that became an integral part of the Shah regime.

Hence, it is no wonder that at the end of his rule, the Shah became all alone and totally incapable of handling the accelerating events of the revolution where Iranian communists, nationalists, and liberals, along with the Mullas of religious authorities in Qum, were all taking part.

To understand this entire situation, it is advisable to resort to a book written by UNESCO personality Ehsan Naraghi, titled: “From Palace to Prison; Inside the Iranian Revolution.” In its primary chapters, Naraghi documents his interviews with the Shah of Iran during the latter’s final months in power. He quotes the Shah as saying: “What on earth is happening in Iran, Naraghi? How come that none of my officials has ever notified me of this sweeping flood of anger, frustration, and rejection of me and my regime in the streets? I have no doubt that this crisis is not a recent development!” Commenting on the words of the Shah, Naraghi insightfully argues that he thinks the reason behind that estrangement is the hierarchical nature of the regime back then, where the prime minister, for example, cared about nothing except the orders he receives from higher positions. This led to a situation where no one felt responsible on the political level, because all crucial decision were made by the Shah himself, and since he was the sole entity involved in defining the state’s goals, his elite considered their role to be confined to providing him with information that fits his political vision. In other words, that elite used all its intelligence and knowledge to follow the steps of the Shah or, as Naraghi argues, “to prevent the Shah from seeing the truth.”

The 1979 revolution was hijacked by Ayatollah Khomeini from his Paris exile, and it led to the toppling of the regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Since then, Iran has been living under a totalitarian religious regime that cannot be likened to any other political system. The current Iranian regime is totally contradictory to the one prevailing during the days of the Shah.

However, a distinction must be made here between two stages. The first stage is the Iranian revolution which was unanimously backed by the Iranian people, managing to converge all the various political trends of the country during that revolution from the extreme left of the Iranian Communist Party (Tudeh) to the clergymen in the religious authorities of Qum, including the dignitaries of Teheran’s Bazaar, the university students, the independent academic researchers, and some liberal personalities. To sum up, everyone was entirely upset by the lifestyle of the Iranian Royal Family and the corruption that became an integral part of the country’s government structure. The second stage, however, is the regime that resulted from that revolution, and which continues to rule Iran up till this moment.

The Shah was not the only one to underestimate the clergy. The communists and liberalists also thought that the clergy would return to their hawzas after the ousting of the Shah, paving the way for the former to hold the reins of power alone. What happened instead was the complete opposite. The clergy liquidated all their allies in the revolution, taking advantage of the US dread of communist control over Iran and the US intelligence’s poor assessment of the geostrategic risks of the rise of the Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) in the region. Khomeini established and led an autocratic regime in his capacity as the caliph of the Imam in Occultation. Any dissident rhetoric was labeled as conspiracy against the revolution; thus, facilitating the stifling of any dissenting voices. Furthermore, the significant divide in the army helped the new regime take large factions of the Armed Forces under its wing, driven by ambitions to improve their financial means and take vengeance on army elite who took advantage of the Shah regime’s structure. In short, despite the domestic and local misjudgment of the abilities of Khomeini and his entourage, the group proved that it was the most capable one of investing in the contradictions of the Iranian regime, political currents, and society at a historical turn of events.

In 2009, the world thought that the Iranian Revolution bore its fruits, and that the people of Iran are finally revolting against an authoritarian religious rule that was no better than the Shah’s regime, especially in terms of freedoms, democracy, and social justice. Reformist slogans were raised, and reformists from within the system took part in the demonstrations. However, all this experience proved is that the so-called reformists are in fact a mirror of the regime, and that the reformist-conservative alliance is no more than a redistribution of roles within the same regime structure that remained unchanged since the toppling of the Shah.

The Green Wave vanished into thin air and the regime in Tehran proved that it is still capable of controlling the streets and “protecting” the revolution. Nonetheless, this was just round one. All the conditions for another round remain available, especially in light of a socioeconomic situation that has been worn down by the war economy, continued illusions of exporting revolutions, and uninterrupted international sanctions.

The annual conference of Iranian opposition groups is set to take place on 9 July 2021 in Paris, with clear slogans and demands to topple the political regime and its authoritarian structure that evokes the Shah era, given the impossibility of reform. The strength of Iranian opposition groups lies in that they represent a national current that has been in the opposition since the toppling of the Mosaddegh Government in the early 1950s with the complicity of Washington, London, and the Shah, as well as its key role in the revolution that brought the Shah down. Could this historical legitimacy help create a hopeful horizon for a Persian Spring? Or is it just a transient crisis that nonetheless heralds a new revolution, especially with the appointment of Ebrahim Raisi as head of state -- as if the ruling class in Iran is bringing out the worst in it as a closing chapter of the book of resisting the collapse?

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Lebanese news outlet Annahar al-Arabi.

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