For nearly 40 years now, Iran has been feared and hated as a Puritanical theocracy. In America and elsewhere, the prevailing image is of an austere regime, led by fanatical mullahs who are backed by masses of the Muslim faithful ready to die to defend it.
This picture, which was always at least somewhat inaccurate, is now profoundly wrong. The results in the recent presidential election in May are another sign that Iran is actually riddled with corruption, that the governing clerical elite is continuing to lose popular support, and that a growing number of Iranians, quite possibly already a majority, are no different than people elsewhere in wanting a government that respects human rights.
This picture of Iran in 2017 should raise doubts about U.S. policy in the region, which under Donald Trump is now aligned completely with Israel’s: Iran is supposedly unified, powerful and expanding, so it must be confronted everywhere. A sober look should also further discredit the Orientalist analysis of the Middle East, and its corollary, the Clash of Civilizations theory. Iran also reminds us of a universal human truth; wherever you have religion, you will also sooner or later find religious hypocrisy.
One of the best reports appeared in the May 16 Financial Times, (“Election Exposes Iran’s Deep Divisions,” unfortunately behind a paywall). Najmeh Bozorgmehr’s long article explained that the relaxation of international sanctions after the 2016 Iran nuclear deal did not end economic stagnation. Youth unemployment is at least 26 percent, probably much higher, and a third of the country is living in “absolute poverty.” This is not the profile of a nation that is a plausible threat to conquer the rest of the Middle East.
Corruption in Iran is becoming more glaring. Bozorgmehr reports that the elite Revolutionary Guards, long regarded as the pious shock troops of the theocracy, in fact have more earthly reasons for their loyalty; they control a business empire that is worth $100 billion.
One Iranian official told Bozorgmehr why new high-class apartments are rising in Tehran instead of the low-income housing the regime had promised:
These luxurious buildings are merely tips of an iceberg, which is the astronomical wealth of those who have no records of any innovative business or industrial and manufacturing work. Wealth accumulated over a short time is usually [the result] of special advantages of those linked to power centers . . .
The Financial Times finding of mega-corruption and repression is amplified in a just-published book: Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How it Might Succeed. The author, Misagh Parsa, is a professor at Dartmouth, and his study, although well-written, is a touch dry and academic. But as he piles on the evidence, his work becomes both a crushing indictment of the theocratic regime, and an inspiring chronicle of the widespread, continuing and brave resistance. It turns out that corruption may have even reached as high as the son of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is alleged to have taken 1.5 billion euros from oil revenues.
Professor Parsa explains that the Khamenei regime turned even more repressive after its candidate almost certainly lost the 2009 presidential election to the reformers. Iranians poured into the streets for huge post-election demonstrations, one of which attracted three million people, until the Revolutionary Guards cracked down. The regime arrested 4000 people in the months after the vote and put to death 115 of them, one of the highest rates of executions in the world. Some 100,000 fled Iran, and the candidates who supposedly lost in 2009 are still under house arrest.
But the resistance continues. The ongoing economic stagnation and corruption is regarded as the major reason that the more moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, comfortably won re-election on May 19. No one is suggesting that Iran is on the verge of a democratic revolution. But the portrait of a sinister Islamic juggernaut, the view that unites Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump and the King of Saudi Arabia, is seriously out of date.
Iran today is another blow to the tottering Clash of Civilizations theory. Samuel Huntington, its main proponent, argued 20 years ago that “Islam” was unifying, preparing to expand beyond its already “bloody borders.” He claimed that the world was witnessing a “reduction or suspension of antagonisms within the Muslim world,” as “old differences among Muslims shrank in importance compared with the overriding difference between Islam and the West.”
Huntington died in 2004, so he is not around to squirm as his theory to fails to explain the vicious “intra-Muslim” civil war in Syria, and he would be stupefied by Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia to strengthen the anti-Iran alliance between the U.S., Israel, and the most fundamentalist branch of his “Islam.”
Clash of Civilizations is inspired partly by the philosophy of Orientalism, which has as one central tenet the conviction that Muslims are different than other kinds of human beings. Unlike the rest of us, Muslims are not mainly motivated by the daily reality they face. Instead, Muslims act after consulting their sacred texts, and then, robot-like, they join with other Muslims to ruthlessly spread their religion.
But Iranian Muslims turn out to be not all that different from people elsewhere. Some are surely genuinely religious (and Professor Parsa reports that many of the most sincerely pious have turned against the theocratic regime). Certain other Iranians are hypocrites, who have used religion to consolidate political power and amass great wealth. But quite possibly a majority of Iranians see through that hypocrisy, and demand the same rights as Americans or Europeans; freedom to express themselves without fear of arrest or execution, to form independent labor unions, and to choose their leaders instead of being ruled by unelected, thieving theocrats.
And an inspiring number of Iranians are prepared to risk their freedom and even their lives to resist. Here is just one of them: Bahareh Hedayat, a 36-year-old student leader and activist for women’s rights, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2010 for “insulting the president” and “disrupting public order through participating in illegal gatherings.” The regime forced her to serve more than 6 years of her sentence before releasing her in September 2016, even though her health had deteriorated sharply in prison.