The bloody scenes in Tehran, with at least 19 protestors killed so far in clashes with government forces, may seem like a repeat in miniature of the violence there more than 30 years ago. The glaring difference is that the protestors who toppled a corrupt, oppressive regime in 1979 have become the corrupt, oppressive regime in 2009.
With the 1979 Iranian revolution so close in the rearview mirror, the mistakes of Western observers then bear remembering today, as the seeds of something momentous may be again at hand. In the late seventies, some intellectuals, enamored with the idea of revolution in general and the anti-Western outlook of the Iranian revolutionaries in particular, projected their political values on the shah’s deposers. When, instead of embracing the ideology of Harvard Square or Telegraph Avenue, the revolutionaries exported terror, exhibited a toxic anti-Semitism, persecuted homosexuals, and pursued nuclear weapons, many of these intellectuals emerged with egg on their faces. As Mother Jones editor Adam Hochschild candidly admitted after Iranian reality had dashed Western dreams: “The Left is always better at seeing what leads to revolutions than at seeing what may follow them.” Though criticisms of the shah of Iran for human-rights abuses and other crimes seemed on the mark, Hochschild conceded in 1980 that his magazine had been “embarrassingly nearsighted about [the shah’s] successors.”
A year earlier, Mother Jones had been much more buoyant about the Iranian revolution’s prospects. “What kind of state might result if Khomeini or his followers take power?,” Eqbal Ahmad asked in the magazine’s April 1979 issue. “As someone who has talked with him at length, I believe that, when Khomeini speaks of an Islamic state for Iran, it is a Shi’ite scholar’s way of saying that he wants a good state in Iran. His concept of a good state includes democratic reforms, freedom for political prisoners, an end to the astronomical waste of huge arms purchases, and a constitutional government.” Ahmad ridiculed the view that “reactionary Muslim mullahs motivated by their hostility to modernization and reforms” led the revolution. “Left alone,” he speculated, “Iran without the Shah would probably evolve into a country that looked like Spain or Portugal without Franco or Salazar.” Even by the magazine’s postdated publication date, the prediction appeared ridiculous.
Sounding like the ideological tourists who visited Iran’s Soviet neighbors several generations earlier, Kai Bird opined in the March 31, 1979 issue of The Nation that “there is every reason to believe that the still unpublished [Iranian] Constitution will include all the elements of a liberal democratic system.” The future Pulitzer Prize winner exuberantly noted how merchants hawked Lenin and Marx on the streets. He imagined decentralized workers’ collectives, rather than the state, controlling Iran’s oil industry. In the April 21, 1979 issue, Bird described the economic views of Iranian oil workers as not very different from those of the average Nation reader. He wrote, “The worker komitehs want to participate in [oil policy] decisions—and if they persevere, there will be little room left for the fellows from Exxon.” In an unsigned editorial in the March 24, 1979 issue, anticipating its special correspondent’s report, The Nation excused “the revolutionary insistence on summary justice” by maintaining that it “may have staved off a far bloodier round of private vengeance.” After all, “less than forty former Pahlevi officials have been executed, and with only one possible exception, each was prominently associated with the worst excesses of state power in the Shah’s era.” But just a few months after the Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumph, events forced Bird to concede that the Islamic Revolution had been a “disappointment.”
“One thing must be clear,” warned postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault in the fall of 1978. “By ‘Islamic government,’ nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control.” An atheist homosexual, Foucault nevertheless found himself seduced by an Islamic revolution that targeted people like himself once it had consolidated power. Writing for the French and Italian press, the celebrity intellectual made two trips to Iran in the fall of 1978 to compile material for his firsthand dispatches.
Prophetic in seeing Islam as a “powder keg” of political force, Foucault was horribly remiss in his uncritical assessment of Islamism. From his conversations in Iran, and in Paris with exiles such as the Ayatollah Khomeini, Foucault was not, unlike other Western intellectuals, deluded into believing that the shah’s overthrow would result in a secular government familiar to Westerners. Rather, he believed that an Islamic theocracy might consist of equal rights for men and women, a socialist redistribution of oil profits, and a responsive democracy, among other things.
Writing in Le Nouvel Observateur in October 1978, Foucault outlined the principles that he believed would undergird any emergent Islamic state in Iran: “Islam values work; no one can be deprived of the fruits of his labor; what must belong to all (water, the subsoil) shall not be appropriated by anyone. With respect to liberties, they will be respected to the extent that their exercise will not harm others; minorities will be protected and free to live as they please on the condition that they do not injure the majority; between men and women there will not be inequality with respect to rights, but difference, since there is a natural difference. With respect to politics, decisions should be made by the majority, the leaders should be responsible to the people, and each person, as it is laid out in the Quran, should be able to stand up and hold accountable he who governs.”
The devotion to socialism, pluralism, democracy, and disarmament that Foucault, Bird, and others imagined in their Persian proxies turned out to be remarkable delusions. Rather than looking at Iran and describing the ugliness they saw, prominent intellectuals instead looked in the mirror, reported the beauty they saw there, and called it Iran.
Their blindness offers a cautionary lesson for today. As a new generation of Iranians rebel against yesterday’s revolutionaries, conservatives appalled by the anti-Americanism of the Iranian old guard risk projecting their political values upon today’s revolutionaries. This is Iran, after all, and even the opposition candidate despises Israel, aggressively pushes for a nuclear Iran, and has heretofore shown little interest during his long political career in transitioning from government by ayatollahs and mullahs to government by the people.
President Obama, who undermines his credibility by vacillating between remaining strategically outside of the fray and inserting himself in it by telling Iranians that the whole world is watching, nevertheless seems to understand the danger of getting Western hopes up too high: “Although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference in actual policies between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as advertised,” the president explained on CNBC last week. “I think it’s important to understand that either way, we are going to be dealing with a regime in Iran that is hostile to the U.S.”