Time for self-reflection

A quick glimpse of the news headlines in any of the world's major presses would surely alarm any Iranian living today, either inside Iran or in the diaspora.

The morally-corrupt Islamist ideology of the ruling clergy which has been oppressing Iranians inside the country for more than two and a half decades now appears to threaten the rest of the world through that regime's covert pursuit of nuclear capabilities.

Ultra-conservative factions seem to have restored the domestic political status quo back in their favour once again, effectively ending all speculation about their supposed gradual erosion during the past seven years.

And, Iranian theocrats are allegedly working hard to foment the Shiite resistance in and around the major holy cities in the southern parts of Iraq in an effort to prolong the almost apocalyptic level of chaos in that country, and to keep Washington preoccupied as long as necessary.

That the current regime has grown more belligerent in its conduct and demeanor in lieu of growing resentment both inside Iran and abroad is hardly surprising. After all, the clerical establishment has never been particularly interested in either submitting to the will of its citizens or appeasing foreign powers; rather, it has always strived tirelessly to consolidate its grip on the instruments of power by resorting to fear-mongering and terror.

One would expect any band of criminals to grow bolder so long as no clear alternatives exist to replace it; history has shown that lack of legitimacy alone will not result in capitulation.

Yet history has also demonstrated that effective mobilization of oppositional forces (both foreign and domestic) can easily dethrone once-formidable political regimes, albeit with varying results. Unfortunately for Iran, the past century has been full of such examples, one more precarious (and lamentable) than the other.

Perhaps a brief recollection for those more than willing to forget is necessary:

The early decades of the twentieth century witnessed the widespread corruption of the Qajar dynasty and the subsequent Constitutional Revolution which led to the ascendancy of Reza Khan, an army officer who came to power in 1921 by staging a coup and later declaring himself the Shah.

Years of dictatorial rule under Reza Shah and his refusal to side with the Allies in World War II eventually paved the way for his abdication of the throne in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Foreign exploitation of Iran's natural resources at the hands of the British increased substantially under Mohammad Reza Shah, and the young monarch proved to be a mere Western puppet, both socially inept and politically impotent.

Indeed, the Shah's incompetence set the stage for the first democratically-elected parliament, the Majles, under the leadership of Mohammad Mossadeq, an eccentric nationalist bent on nationalizing Iran's oil industry and ending years of British meddling into Iranian domestic affairs.

Mossadeq's premiership and his ardent nationalistic stance against the British, however, were to be short-lived as the British were successful in persuading the Eisenhower administration that Iran was under the threat of a communist takeover.

Soon thereafter a British Intelligence and CIA sponsored coup toppled Mossadeq's government and brought the young Shah back to power. What little legitimacy the Shah had he squandered it all in the period after the coup.

Widespread discontent with the monarchy and failed attempts at rapid modernization of Iranian society forced many to place their trust in the hands of an institution as yet unblemished in the political failures of the past half-century: the clergy.

Ayatollah Khomeini's populist proclamations about cleansing Iran's social fabric of “foreign agents” and profligate (if not impious) monarchs resonated with the dispossessed masses and pleased those who viewed the ascetic religious leader as a solitary figure without any foreign constituency.

The aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution might indeed have transformed Iran into an independent nation-state in command of its foreign and domestic policies; but it also installed an archaic system of Islamic rule which turned the country into a pariah state almost overnight.

Khomeini wasted no time in devolving his status from a mighty David to that of a ruthless Goliath, eliminating (no metaphors here) all competing domestic political factions and voices of dissent in the process.

Whereas in the past brutal force and chicanery prevented the development of a genuine democratic alternative, Khomeini's rise to power was largely facilitated through an all-too-complementary admixture of populism and sophistry.

Time has proven that the Islamist ideology of the regime has been nothing but a cover for domestic exploitation of the country's resources, its leaders nothing more than “dutiful servants of power,” to borrow a fitting description from the late Edward Said.

Over time, the loyal opposition in Iran, also known as the “reform camp,” undertook a cosmetic campaign for social and economic reforms in 1997, not in order to change the nature of the regime (of which they apparently are a dispensable part), but rather in a bid to save it.

At their core, the repeated outbreak of public clashes between student demonstrators and Islamic vigilantes in the streets of Tehran symbolize the rejection of a system of rule envisioned by the so-called “reformists.”

The recent struggles have tended to be less about advancing the cause of reform (in itself a testament to the fraudulent nature of a handful of delusive tacticians behind the reform hysteria) and more about institutionalizing the most fundamental of civil rights – freedom from fear.

Countless pleas on behalf of the citizens for necessary leadership from President Mohammad Khatami and his allies in the Majles have yielded no results, depriving many, especially the youth, of the political support critical to their cause.

It is no wonder, then, that the reformists' silence has been widely interpreted as the final political act in what had long been a doomed effort, from the start, to rescue the theocratic regime.

As before, Iran is once again at a crossroads with a regime that has stretched the social fabric of the society to its very limits, all the while earning itself an exclusive place in the infamous “axis of evil” country club.

Just as the past, moreover, Iran has come to be more than just a concern in the eyes of a great foreign power – in the case of the United States, the sole super-power – with its own messianic band of administrators more than willing to right what they regard as the wrongs of the past.

But perhaps what is most discouraging is the appalling state of opposition groups in exile; how dogmatic and pedestrian their efforts remain.

Considering the abysmal state of affairs inside Iran, one would expect a burgeoning intellectual and political movement outside of the country.

After all, Iranian exiles boast more than twenty 24-hour television and radio stations, an eclectic array of social, political, and economic journals and newspapers, and a host of active political organizations.

But whereas academic and cultural undertakings in the diaspora have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts since the Islamic revolution, hardly any one of the opposition political groups has managed to provide its constituency what has long been absent in the Iranian public domain: a well-informed framework for debate, reflection, and rational thinking.

Instead, they have together managed to develop a theatre of the absurd-like forum, where cults of personality and momentary celebrity are almost always more important than any constructive discussion of present afflictions.

Contrast this to the quality of debates amongst the underground political groups inside Iran – be they student-led or otherwise – on everything from the viability of Islamic rule to the challenges of modern culture in Iranian society; where historical accounts of foreign interventions and domestic complicities have been supplanted by all-inclusive, knowledge-based cultural narratives that challenge outdated orthodoxies of the past, as well as dismissing the nostalgic revolutionary calls of the present.

A great majority of Iranians today are the children of Islamists, secularists, and above all, nationalists, for whom the black-or-white interpretations of history are but a curse to be undone by their generation's colourful quest for freedom.

Such a setting would hardly be ideal for the sort of outmoded pronouncements prattled about aimlessly by a discredited group of pretentious contrarians (with a sole exception or two) occupying the airwaves round-the-clock from Southern California and Washington, D.C.

Theirs is a message shaped by their unyielding desire to submit a modern society to what may magnanimously be identified as fatuous revisionist forays into a reconstructed past. The fact that they are made aware of their delusions on an hourly basis by their viewers is only further proof of their aloof obduracy.

For how long, and to what extent, is this calamitous atmosphere of political paralysis to be tolerated and endured? Can one even begin to think of democracy inside Iran when there is no semblance of a democratic engagement between opposition political parties outside of the country?

What would the alternatives look like if the current regime were to crumble overnight? Are we to place our trust, yet again, in the hands of a few self-appointed tacticians who have shown to be more concerned with their own status rather than that of their compatriots?

Or, worse yet, are we to support and encourage a self-proclaimed global policeman to overthrow the Islamic regime and replace it with its own Allawi- or Chalabi-like characters?

Of course, the irony in the current situation is that it was precisely these same set of questions which we failed to ask ourselves time and again. It's almost as if critical reflection and rational thought are not relevant to the choices we make for our future.

Democratic change must start from within, the self, the individual. Every socially-conscious political group operating outside of Iran must comprehend other political organizations' rights to a democratic expression first, and then proceed to play a constructive role in alleviating, negotiating, or even articulating the problem.

It is only through vigorous engagement and exchange with others that one could acquire a more comprehensive understanding of human effort in the public arena. To advocate against such reflection is to deny the possibility of coexistence and social harmony.

And what good is it to follow any group who would deprive its opponents the right to participate in a democratic forum?

A nation scarred by successive periods of autocratic rule, Iran is once more bracing for change, only this time bitter experiences of the past must serve as a guiding light for the future.

To paraphrase an invaluable remark by Gandhi, political leaders must embody the sort of change wish to bring about. It is our obligation to critically examine the proclamations of the many figureheads amongst us by continually – indeed, unceasingly – questioning their past and present knowledge of the pending afflictions as reflected in their activities.

How ironic is it that at the time of this writing a seemingly delusional, self-described psychic – who has also been away from Iran for more than 40 years – has managed to delude a great many into believing that he shall be arriving in Tehran (accompanied by 50 airplanes) in due course to remove the regime?

We better start reflecting, now!

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