The Islamic Republic of Iran

By Gaither Stewart


Persia, as Iran was once called, was one of the greatest empires of the ancient world. It is still distinct from the main body of the Islamic world in that it has maintained its language, Farsi. Iran is of the Shia strain of Islam as is the majority of the population of its neighbor, Iraq.

            In 1979 Iran was the center of world attention when a popular revolution overthrew the American supported Pahlavi monarchy and a unique Islamic republic was declared. The clergy, headed by Ayatollah Khomeni who returned from exile in Europe, took over political control.

The following period was unstable and bloody as the revolution devoured its own children, the same youth of various political shades who fought against the bloody tyranny of the Shah and for a free Iran. That period included an eight-year war with its neighbor Iraq supported by—who else but the USA!—which cost a million lives and in which Iran’s oil wealth plummeted.

On Khomeni’s death in 1989, Ayatollah Khameni was named Supreme Leader for life. As such he appoints the chief of the powerful judiciary, military and security leaders and media chiefs.

Then, surprisingly, two decades after the 1979 revolution, Iran appeared to be entering an era of political and social transformation with the victory of liberal reformists over the clergy-backed conservative elite in parliamentary elections of the year 2000. President Mohammad Khatami’s support for greater social and political freedoms made him extremely popular with youth, who today make up half of Iran’s population of eighty million. Azar Nafisi describes that historical moment well in her best-seller, Reading Lolita in Tehran.

But his reformist ideas also put the new President at odds with the Supreme Leader and hardliners in the government and judiciary reluctant to lose sight of Islamic traditions. Khatami’s reformist legislation was blocked during his eight years in office, his supporters disqualified, and he isolated.  

In June, 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran’s ultra-conservative mayor defeated former President Rafsanjani in run-off elections and became Iran’s first non-cleric president in twenty-four years. In the last year the relatively free press under reformist Khatami has been targeted by conservatives, pro-reform publications closed and reformist writers, journalists and editors jailed. The reform movement in the government was crushed though it apparently is still alive and strong among youth.

Promising a new era for Iran, an era of peace and progress, President Ahmadinejad vowed to plough ahead with Iran’s controversial nuclear program. He also created a furor in the world when he said that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map and that the holocaust was a myth.

Ahmadinejad was born in the country near Tehran. He is a former Revolutionary Guards officer, was actively involved in the revolution, and at least participated in the occupation of the American Embassy in midtown Tehran in 1979. He is known as “the man of the barefoot people.” That is, of the poor masses of Iran who support him. He is not loved by the reform-minded youth. Yet, nowhere is the gap between rich and poor more evident than in Tehran itself. Built on the side of a mountain, the rich live high at the top and the poor masses at the bottom. The observer is struck by the symbolism of the sewage of the rich running down open ditches into the districts of the poor.

Europeans concede Iran the right to develop nuclear energy while remaining realistically aware that control is next to impossible. Iran needs nuclear energy but who trusts it not to make a bomb? Besides, Iran looks around and sees that many of its neighbors have nuclear weapons: Israel, India, Pakistan, China, Russia.

One immediate problem of the warlike Bush stance toward Iran is making an unpopular man in Iran, popular. Ahmadinejad is not loved by urban, for a great part English-speaking youth in contact with the world via seven million internet accesses, cell phones, sms and TV. But they too love their country.

Here are some considerations: Iran is a big Middle Eastern country, and like Israel non-Arab. Israel does not want a clash with Iran, nor does Iran really want a clash with Israel.

Though Ahmadinejad is the immediate problem, he is not the only power in Iran. In fact, it is unclear who is really in command there. Ahmadinejad heads only one class, but not the modern part of the country, nor the clergy. A power struggle is in progress. For that reason, Ahmadinejad needs an external enemy. His fiery anti-American, anti-Israeli speeches show that.

In the same way, George Bush’s administration needs an enemy. Apparently Washington aims at a regime change in Iran. How that is to be achieved is the point. European observers warn that the USA cannot afford to err again as in Iraq, where, as Condoleeza Rice this week told the world, “America has made thousands of mistakes.” America cannot afford military actions against Iran just because Bush “wants to do this thing.” Iran is simply too strong. Europe recommends aiming at weakening Ahmadinejad internally and supporting youth and reformism.

Background to a Revolution

            In trying to grasp the Middle Eastern crisis, as most people know it is good to keep on eye on oil. The motives for western aggression in the Middle East have usually had to do with oil. In 1944, US interests in oil output there was only 16%. In 1955, those interests had grown to 58%. Profits from Middle Eastern oil are greater than elsewhere because of low labor costs and the high productivity of the wells. The result is extremely high profits.

            Imagine the shock to western oilmen when in 1951, the reformist Iranian Premier Mohammad Moussadeq decided to nationalize the oil industry, then British controlled. After a lot of saber-rattling, Great Britain retired from the scene and the USA stepped in. The coup d’état that overthrew Premier Moussadeq and re-installed the amenable Shah on the throne was one of the newly founded CIA’s first major covert actions. The justification of the then CIA Director Allen Douglas was this: “Where there begins to be evidence that a country is slipping and Communist takeover is threatened (such was his English!) … we can’t wait for an engraved invitation to come and give aid.” How familiar! Fifty years ago just as today!

            When I worked in Tehran during the year 1979, Western businessmen, when warned that an Islamic revolution was brewing and threatened their economic interests, answered with great assurance: “A regiment of US Marines will put things right.”

© 2006 Gaither Stewart

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in Italy and various European countries, he today writes fiction. He has authored novels and short story collections. His collections, Icy Current, Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger, Once In Berlin, are published by Wind River Press. (http://www.windriverpress.com/ or http://stewart.windriverpress.com/) He lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome. Other essays and stories by Gaither are available in Archives.