The history of the Middle East over the last century has been dominated by the two main political movements of nationalism and socialism. These two movements have on occasions overlapped each other, but generally they have followed different agenda and have relied on distinct social classes with specific interests and aspirations. In Iran too, ever since of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the two trends have been present in the political scene. Then came the 1979 revolution – a mass uprising against the monarchy and its western supporters. A new phenomenon was entering the Iranian politics, and a form of 'national socialist' movement came into existence. Welcome to the Islamic Republic…
The history of the Middle East over the last century has been dominated by the two main political movements of nationalism and socialism. These two movements have on occasions overlapped each other, but generally they have followed different agenda and have relied on distinct social classes with specific interests and aspirations.
The nationalist groups were mainly concerned with liberation from foreign dominance, characterized by western powers that had directly or indirectly colonized this part of the world before or after the First World War. The driving forces behind these movements were the merchant classes who spearheaded the drive against the foreign interests (mainly British) in the area. They were also instrumental in constitutional movements, which sought to limit the absolute power of the monarchy and establish a parliamentary system of government.
The socialist groups were historically newer phenomena. They relied naturally on the working class, and came into existence as a political force only after the October Revolution in Russia, and sought to follow the version of Marxism as portrayed by the then Soviet Union. Though many socialist groups took part in the liberation movements against the west alongside the nationalists, they differed mainly when the interests of the Soviet Union were concerned. This put them often on the collision course with nationalist forces, with disastrous consequences for them, for the nationalists, for the liberation movements, and for the interests of the society at large.
In Iran, ever since of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the two trends have been present in the political scene. However, the socialist movement came into prominence in the 1940's and early 50's when a nationalist coalition led by Dr. Mossaddegh managed to mount an effective campaign against the British interests and to nationalize the oil industry. These were the golden days of Iranian politics: nationalists leading a historical campaign against the mighty British empire in the Middle East; and socialists creating the most powerful mass party of the working class in the area, in the form of the Tudeh Party.
Alas, the good old days could not last long. The Tudeh Party tended to look to Moscow, rather than at the interests of the working class, for its policies. The nationalists lost much of their public support, partly because of the severe economic sanction engineered by the British, and partly as a result of the local clergy coming out against them. The external meddling from both the west and the Soviet Union, combined with internal unrest, prepared the ground for a joint British-American sponsored coup in 1953 that overthrew Mossaddegh's government and handed over the Iranian politics to the Americans for the next quarter of century.
During this period, both nationalist and socialist movements were suppressed and driven underground or beyond the Iranian borders. The frustration felt by many younger generations of both camps led to the formation of new and more radical groups, with some resorting to armed struggle as a substitute for mass mobilization. The new socialist groups would also distance themselves from the Soviet block and adopt more independent policies.
Then came the 1979 revolution – a mass uprising against the monarchy and its western supporters. Both the nationalist and socialist tendencies took part in the revolution. But the power was won by a new force that tried to outdo them both. A new phenomenon was entering the Iranian politics. A form of 'national-socialist' movement came into existence. Welcome to the Islamic Republic.
This was not the first time in the Middle East that movements purporting to be
both nationalist and socialist had come to power. The Nasserists in Egypt had tried the idea. Then the Ba'thists in Syria and Iraq, and especially in the latter, followed it with more zest and conviction.
These new movements had some of the characteristics and hallmarks of by now the classical national-socialist movement of Germany between the two wars. They would appeal to all classes by portraying themselves to be both super-nationalist
and at the same time ardent socialist. And they would sometimes follow extreme policies in support of both claims. Now, the Islamic Republic was to take this phenomenon to its perfection.
Externally, it would clash with almost any power in the area, and assert its ambition to export its revolution beyond the Iranian borders. And internally, it embarked on the most widespread confiscation of the assets of the upper class and wealthy supporters of the old regime, all in the interests of “the meek”.
The two-pronged policy was very successful in mobilization of the masses and in marginalizing the traditional nationalist and socialist movements. Ayatollah Khomeini was going to establish a true independent, corruption-free and powerful state for the Iranian nation. He would also provide housing for all, and give free water and electricity to all poor people. A new generation of idealists, most of them young and religiously charged, gathered around the new Leader ready to sacrifice themselves for the good of the country and the new independent, anti-imperialist, champion-of-the-poor Islamic system.
Indeed, the new regime also managed to elicit the support of most of the traditional political groups. Both the nationalist and socialist movements, with few exceptions, would come to the support of the new regime based on their own analysis. The nationalists would form the government in the first year of the new regime. The socialists, though never given a chance to share power, nevertheless supported its “anti-imperialist” stands and mass confiscation of assets. The two camps would oppose each other, but not that much worried where the new regime was heading.
As with the Nazi Germany, the new Islamic regime had to find both internal and external enemies for all the ills of the society, and at the same time to create a notion of super national identity for the Iranian people in order to support its expansionist policies. The Nazis used the idea of race to formulate their philosophy. The Islamic Republic had the Islamic notion of
ummeh to play the same role. Though the notion of ummeh (a relic of the Islamic empire in its heydays under the early caliphs) was anathema to the concept of nationhood for many Iranians, it did nevertheless serve the purpose it was employed for: as a vehicle both to 'refine' the nation and identify the “pure” Iranians and at the same time to put Iran at the center of a much bigger entity far exceeding its existing geographical borders.
Internally, non-Moslems (and even non-Shi'ite Moslems) were identified as second-class citizens, with Jews and most explicitly the Bahais as the cause of some of the miseries of the Iranian people. This led to systematic persecution of these minorities. In the case of Bahais, a policy of extermination was followed, leading to hundreds of executions and large-scale measures aimed particularly at reducing their numbers through social exclusion and depravation. Of course, as with the Nazi's experience, the Bahais were not the only minority to suffer under the Islamic regime. Once started with one group, it would soon be extended to almost any 'undesirable' social group, from other religious or national minorities, to political groups, to secular intellectuals – and to women, the largest single social group to be brutally suppressed under the Islamic regime.
Externally, the regime had already identified the two super powers of the day, plus Britain and Israel, as its enemies. This was a popular policy among the population at large, and would in part appeal to most of the nationalist and socialist groups too. Taking of the American embassy and its personnel as hostages in 1979 was to prove the regime's anti-imperialist credentials, especially amongst the pro-Moscow socialist organizations. However, the regime also had the duty to export its revolution throughout the Islamic world. A wave of official campaign against the corrupt leaders of the neighboring countries started. And for very understandable reasons, Iraq with its large Shi'ite population was more than any other country at the receiving end of this propaganda.
The Islamists in power saw Iraq as the most appropriate first stage in their ambition to create an Islamic
ummeh nation. Months of provocation did the job, and Iraq embarked on a pre-emptive strike, thus starting a devastating war that was to last 8 years long. The Islamic regime welcomed the war as a divine blessing. It regarded it as a godsend opportunity to follow its ambition of creating the great Islamic state.
The fact that the war for the Islamic regime was not merely a defensive one was made clear in several ways. The war was waged as a religious campaign against enemies of Islam and not on enemies of Iran. It was a war of “liberation”, not of Iranian territories, but of Iraq's holy cities. Time ad time again, this was proclaimed in the official propaganda, in communiqués, and in the drives to mobilize volunteers for the war. The “liberation” of Iraqi cities was regarded, in spite of all the proclamations to the contrary, as more important than helping the Palestinians in their fight against Israel. Indeed, when Ayatollah Khomeini was once asked to help the Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, he declined to help and replied that the route to Jerusalem passes through Karbala (a holy city in Iraq).
Then two years after the war had started, the Iranian forces managed to push Iraqis back into their own territory. Iraq was also in a weak position ready to agree generous compensation terms (with backing from Saudi Arabia and other rich Arab states in the Persian Gulf) for the damage and destruction it had caused. However, the Islamic regime insisted on the continuation of the war, and over the next six full years sent hundreds of thousands of volunteers and conscripts to the battlefield, most of them to their certain death. Thousands upon thousands of under age youngsters would be sent to run over the minefields to clear them for the advancing army – with the promise of eternal bliss in the heaven for the kids and their parents in exchange for their martyrdom in the course of “liberation” of holy cities in Iraq.
The war situation would naturally call for national unity, with all the political forces coming together to defend the motherland. But it also provided the convenient cover for the Islamic regime to pursue its other, internal, design: to eliminate all other political forces inside the country, not only politically but literally in physical terms too.
And so, as soon as the Islamic regime established itself and needed no more help from traditional nationalists or socialists, it embarked on one of the bloodiest campaigns in the recent Middle East history to eliminate all these groups. Though political suppression was nothing new in Iran as elsewhere in the area, this was the first time that they were being physically wiped out. Thousands and thousands of opposition figures and sympathizers were rounded up and summarily executed over the years.
The final act of these large-scale massacres were to occur in 1988, soon after the Islamic regime came to the realization that its adventurous foreign policies have been in vein: 8 years of war with over a million casualties and billions of damages have resulted in no victory. Ayatollah Khomeini had to swallow the poison, as he put it himself, and accept a humiliating ceasefire. However, he had no reason to accept defeat at the internal front – so he ordered the mass execution of all remaining political prisoners throughout Iran. The order was carried out dutifully, and over the next few weeks several thousand political prisoners were again physically eliminated. Only after this final act, the great Leader could die peacefully in his bed.
Of all the legacies of Khomeini's ten-year rule, his act of mutilation of the Iranian politics may have more long lasting effect. A decade after his death, a reform movement has been gathering pace in Iran. The main elements of this movement consist of young revolutionaries who were mesmerized by the great Leader at the time, and were at the forefront of his campaigns in the early years after the revolution. They were ready to follow orders – whatever the order. May of them were actually involved in carrying out the persecution policies of Khomeini. They had been promised heaven on earth, and they were ready to sacrifice themselves and anybody else necessary to make it happen. In the course of achieving this end, any means was legitimate if sanctioned by the great Leader.
Now, they found many of those dreams were hollow. Power is concentrated in the hand of a new elite. Corruption is rampant. Poverty is on the increase. Unemployment affects the new generation very badly. Crime and addiction is widespread. A society battered socially, economically and politically. Full-scale nationalizations and confiscations of assets after the revolution have resulted in the creation of colossal conglomerates outside public control and a readily available source of embezzlement for the army of state officials and the ruling clergy. Two decades of Islamic government has only managed to take the society further away from the modern world and into the middle ages – with women downgraded to less than half a man, and barbaric punishments of public executions, amputations, whipping and stoning to death becoming routine.
In other words, the great national-socialism project of Imam Khomeini has meant almost noting but poverty, destruction, war, corruption, massacres, discrimination, crime, violence, human miseries and social disintegration. The exceptions being few advances here or there, such as high literacy rate amongst women or a large increase in higher education intakes.
So the reformists are calling for change. But to what? Democracy is the buzzword. This of course is a great aim for a society deprived of basic political freedom over a very long time. But that seems also to be the ultimate aim for most of the reformists. There is a dearth of ideas of “what else?” in political, social or economic terms. With the demise of Soviet Union and the rise of political right at the international level, the reform movement in Iran too is finding no way to turn but to the right.
The catastrophic outcome of Khomeini's “socialist policies”, which was characterized by mass nationalization and confiscation of property and assets, has proved to many that socialism is doomed. And persistent anti-American rhetoric of the Islamic regime has infatuated the younger generation with anything American – from its
laissez faire capitalism, to Hollywood culture, and to its right wing politics.
The physical elimination of political forces during the 10-year reign of Khomeini has deprived Iran of its political traditions, and had severed the historical link between the new generation of activists with their political and ideological ancestors. The political landscape of Iran is barren with only a few green-shoots of recovery appearing here and there.
The days of the national-socialist regime of the Islamic Republic may be numbered. But its legacy in political and social terms would take much, much, longer to disappear.
This is an expanded version of a talk given at the “Nationalism and Socialism in the Middle East”
session of the week-long series of seminars and debates organized at University of London under the title of “Marxism 2002″,
7-13 July 2002.
Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues.
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