“Although today many proponents of racism condemn racial discrimination in their words and their slogans, a number of powerful countries have been authorized to decide for other nations based on their own interests and at their own discretion and they can easily violate all laws and humanitarian values as they have done so.”
(The Great Satan of Tehran, speaking at the Durban Review Conference Against Racism, Geneva, 20th April 2009).
There has been a lot of coverage, all of it (naturally) superficial and manipulative, about the Iranian crisis. The Creator would not be disturbed about this except that a few leftists appear to be wavering on the matter, and some leftists (in particular the British Socialist Workers’ Party, which now appears to be entering one of its periodic ultra-right phases which are even more embarrassing than its customary ultra-left stance) are clamouring against the Iranian government. Perhaps, therefore, a crude analysis of the situation, suitable for framing or gift-wrapping electronic fish of the screen-saver breed, is needed.
Iran is, of course, not a democracy. There are periodic elections during which rival candidates backed by powerful factions sling absurd accusations at each other. Meanwhile, all actual decisions are taken by still more powerful forces behind the scenes. In short, Iran is superficially just like Britain or the United States or any other Western power.
The difference is that the power behind the scenes is not, as in the latter countries, multinational corporate interests seeking to maintain the hegemony of neoliberal practice and discourse. Instead, it is a cabal of priests and theologians headed by an Ayatollah, seeking to maintain the hegemony of Islamic practice and discourse. This, therefore is a little like the situation in Europe before the centralisation of state power, where kings, princes and dukes were ultimately dependent on the papacy for sanctioning their authority and where it was unthinkable to take a decision which would alienate the papacy unless you were in a militarily very strong position indeed (like the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II). The Presidents of Iran are free to take any decision which the Ayatollah permits them to take.
Therefore, in real terms, Iran is a theocratic tyranny. However, as in so many tyrannies, it is not totalitarian. (Even the Nazis were not totalitarian before 1942, although Stalin’s regime probably approached totalitarianism; Mussolini and Mao were amateurs in comparison, toys in the hands of greater forces.) The reason for this is that the Ayatollah and the mullahs and moulanas draw their authority ultimately from their false religion — that is, from the existence of a mythical supreme being supposedly controlling individual destiny in an imaginary afterlife. It is sad that Persia, the land of the revelation of Zoroaster, has fallen into the Kingdom of the Lie, but what can you do?
Islam is not as hierarchical a system as Catholicism was; Catholicism was structured along the lines of the Roman Empire, with a Supreme Pontiff and with Archbishops instead of provincial governors. Until the decline of the temporal power of the Papacy, the Bible was only printed in languages which the congregations — and, indeed, their priests — could not read. Thus all authority was centralised, while responsibility was devolved (as late as the eighteenth century the murders of the Inquisition were carried out, nominally, by the “secular power”). Meanwhile, Islam depends on everyone having access to the Quran. The essence of Islam is also debate about the meaning of the Word of Allah, although it is also about submission to the general will, which should be familiar to any socialist. (That is, under Islam there must be practice as well as theory, and the practice should inform the theory as much as the theory the practice; obviously Marx did not invent the dialectic, which has served Islam well except where it is corrupted as it usually is.)
What this long digression means is that the rule of the Ayatollah depends heavily upon the approval of the mosque. This is, again, not very surprising. Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, while a more superficial work than his works on Angola and Ethiopia, points out that Iran is a rather weird state. It is, after all, a Shi’ite state, and the Shi’ites are an oppressed Islamic minority who stand in opposition to the Sunni majority, hankering after dead and defeated rulers and mythical saints who hide eternally underground like King Arthur or the Seven Sleepers. (Tariq Ali called them the Maoists of Islam.) Kapuscinski argues that this is a creed which appeals to the anti-authoritarian Iranian personality; we are in opposition! No doubt he is wrong to psychoanalyse an entire nation, but it is an interesting oversimplification and helps to explain why the rule of the Shahs never got very far in Iran; authoritarianism challenged libertarianism and won only so long as nobody else had their finger in the scales, which happened in 1941 (when the pro-Nazi Shah was overthrown without a fight, in sharp contrast to Iraq where the pro-Nazis put up quite a fight) and in 1953 (when the authoritarian Shah was installed after a foreign-backed coup) and in 1979 (when after the overthrow of the Shah a new authoritarianism systematically stamped out libertarianism).
The history of 1979 and the slaughter of the Tudeh, the Iranian Left, certainly turned the Left against the Iranian theocracy. However, it is interesting that the Left has not managed to establish much of a presence in Iran, even though Iran is a deeply political society with a huge conspiratorial tradition. One reason is that, while passionately hostile to the secular nature of the Left, the Iranian theocracy is not nearly so hostile to the political goals of the Left in terms of the challenge to capitalism. The Ayatollah does not particularly wish you to get rich, and he especially does not wish you to be poor. This is in stark contrast to the theocracies of the Arabian Peninsula, where the feudal lords have made common cause with the priests and businessmen against everybody else — as if the Shah and the Ayatollah were waltzing with the oil companies.
So far, so bland. Now, what has this to do with the Great Uprising Against Badness in Tehran?
As has been pointed out by others, the recent Iranian election was not about who would run the country. It was, however, about how that running would be carried out. The incumbent candidate was a mildly populist nationalist figure who was prone to criticising Israel and had kept up friendly relations with both the Shi’ite government in Iraq and the Shi’ite liberation movement in southern Lebanon, while offering assistance and sympathy to the Sunni administration in the Gaza Strip. The opposition candidate was a business-friendly figure who had played a minor role in the installation of the original Ayatollah in supreme power in Iran after the Shah was overthrown. It’s difficult to believe that he would, if elected, abandon the Shi’ites in Iraq or the Lebanon, although he might be persuaded to abandon the Sunnis in Gaza. As for the great paper tiger of Western cartoon diplomacy, Iran’s nuclear programme, both candidates were rock-solid in support of it, as are virtually all sane Iranians (both energy requirements and strategic needs call for a nuclear programme with the option of developing a weapon).
The first interesting question is, given that it is not obvious that any major change would arise out of the election from professed Western perspectives, why did the West unanimously and clamorously support the opposition candidate? The most obvious reason is that the incumbent had been thoroughly demonised by the West’s propaganda machine. Hence, from this authoritarian-corporate perspective, any change was good change. This is of course not a reason, since it contains no facts nor meaningful argument; it is equivalent to not liking Robert Mugabe because he’s black. No leftist should pay any attention to this, but unfortunately this is the core of the Western media stance and so many leftists are too cowardly or intellectually servile to challenge it.
The second interesting reason is, does the West have any objective reason for supporting the opposition candidate? Surely, a core issue is the fact that the opposition man was business-friendly. This is the chink in Iran’s theocratic armour; Iran is an oil-rich state and many people are filthy rich and would like to be richer. If greed can be used to override the Quran, then the theocracy becomes as hollow as it is in Saudi Arabia. Thus it is possible that with a businessman in power, Iran would invent the usual “development” policy under which Western corporations are kowtowed to in return for trivial investments, whereupon the government is threatened that these investments will be withdrawn unless there are political concessions to Western interests. Thus, stealthily, Iranian independence could be undermined with the consent of the political and corporate leadership — and since the Ayatollah would have given a mandate to the front-man for that leadership, he would have the painful choice of admitting making a mistake (in which case he cannot be speaking for Allah, who never makes mistakes) or going along with the tide and ultimately retiring from effective political leadership.
So that is what the stake is. What the uprising in Tehran reveals is that, unsurprisingly, a large number of people are quite prepared to see this happen. After all, the theocracy is painfully repressive on a cultural level — not quite so bad as Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, but pretty bad all the same. Plenty of people are prepared to go into the streets in order to get access to hip-hop CDs and exciting lingerie. As to whether they are struggling for democracy — well, they say they are, but then they would, wouldn’t they? Also, of course, many of them want to be richer. The leadership of the uprising are almost all middle-class people. It is striking how much of them commune with each other via the Internet rather than via the mosque. Of course the discussions in the mosque are better-informed and more open than those on the Internet, but that’s not important if you believe that you will get something out of the struggle in the end.
Westerners, of course, side with the Internet against the mosque. We are supposed to believe that the Internet is free from the restraints of Islamic theology. Actually, the Internet is dominated by atomized approaches; a million people in the street all there as individuals (which is the difference between the million people in the street in 1979). In consequence, the Iranian uprising is not a truly collective uprising, nor an anarchic uprising; it is an uprising for the individualised, “choice-based” values of consumer capitalism. Now, the Creator has been in shopping malls and survived, so will not waste time declaring consumer capitalism the Great Satan. However, there are vast differences between this and socialism, which is a collective concept intended to serve the individual.
The simplest fact is that the people in the streets in Tehran, probably without realising it in most cases, are working not merely to destroy the theocracy, but to destroy the possibility of a collective project in Iran. As such, they are as wrong as “fifty million Frenchmen” were in 1940, or “five hundred thousand rebels” were in 1862. Tragically, in the absence of socialism or any valid Left alternative, an Islamic dictatorship is preferable to a neoliberal plutocracy dictated to by multinational corporations speaking through Washington’s throat.
We have only to think about the consequences of a collapse of the Iranian theocracy for American foreign policy — everything evil about American foreign policy since 1979 would be enormously empowered and legitimised to see that the Left should swallow its pride and its history and offer active support to the odious Ahmadinejad.