Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How Iran's 1979 Revolution Was Hijacked

1979 Mullahs Of Qom

It has been three decades since Iranian college students overran and occupied the American Embassy in Tehran, and we are still dealing with that country's revolution.

Americans at the time were understandably preoccupied with the fate of 66 countrymen who were held captive, accused of being spies, and threatened with prosecution and punishment—which in the Iran of those days tended to mean firing squads or the noose. We still refer to this outrage as the Iran Hostage Crisis. Yet this way of remembering the episode ignores its larger significance in Iran, and impedes our understanding of the political drama unfolding there today.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

The movement to oust the Shah was primarily a nationalist one, albeit colored by the religious rhetoric of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Many of those who took to the streets in 1978 and 1979 were motivated not by a desire to establish a theocracy but by the same thing that stirs the reform movement there today—a desire to cast off authoritarianism and establish democracy. The seizure of the U.S. Embassy was the pivotal event in the takeover of the revolution by the mullahs of Qom.

The seizure of the embassy and the kidnapping of the American mission was not only a crime against it and the U.S.: It was a crime against international diplomacy. The pretense for the embassy takeover was false. The presence of a working U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 was not evidence that the U.S. was plotting to overthrow the revolution, as the hostage-takers claimed. It was evidence of America's acceptance of the revolution, and of its willingness to work with Iran's new leaders, whoever they turned out to be.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

I say "whoever," because nine months after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled it was still unclear what kind of government Iran was going to have. Religion did play a big part in the Iranian revolution and Khomeini was its galvanizing figure. But the ayatollah was ambivalent about the idea of clerical rule.

When he returned to Iran from exile in Paris, he set up a secular provisional government in Tehran that was headed by Mehdi Barzagan, a liberal and a democrat. A constitutional convention was convened to sort out what permanent shape Iran's new government would take, and among those participating in that fundamental exercise were communists, socialists, democrats and plenty of other nationalists who did not pray five times a day for religious rule.

Mehdi Barzagan on the right

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
 Young revolutionary Islamists, alarmed by this secular drift and recognizing that they were in a minority, banded together. Representatives from the five main universities in Tehran formed an organization they called "Strength in Unity." One of these men was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

When they learned that Barzagan's government had quietly been holding talks with the U.S.—the country had complex military and economic ties with America that needed sorting out—the students claimed these secular leaders were conspiring with the Great Satan to restore the shah. This myth picked up steam when President Jimmy Carter allowed the deposed shah to enter the U.S. for cancer treatment.

The story was swallowed whole by many Iranians, who had valid reasons to fear U.S. meddling. The embassy seizure was designed to protest this supposed plot. The students planned a sit-in. The stunt would give them a platform to condemn the Barzagan government and warn their countrymen of its traitorous plan. Khomeni's first instinct was to order that the students be chased off the embassy grounds, just as the provisional government had evicted another group of invaders months earlier. But when the ayatollah saw on television enormous crowds cheering the student occupiers—and as more clever and ambitious clerics around him saw the political potential of this stunt—Khomeini reversed himself. His endorsement of the outrage cut the legs out from under Barzagan. Within hours he resigned and his government collapsed.

The students now owned not just a platform in Tehran but the spotlight on a world stage.

In the months that followed, to prove their allegations, they questioned each and every hostage and pored over every scrap of paper on the grounds, even piecing together the documents embassy workers had managed to shred before they were taken. None of it supported the myth. There was no evidence of a plot because there was no plot. If anything, the files revealed how paltry America's intelligence gathering really was. The U.S. had failed even to see the revolution coming.

It didn't matter. Before the embassy seizure, the ayatollah dithered; he had secular leaders like Barzagan on one side and ambitious clerics on the other. The students forced him to side with the clerics.

Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr

Guided now by savvy mullahs, the students smeared political opponents the way Sen. Joe McCarthy once did, waving stolen documents before the cameras as "proof" of collaboration with the U.S. They drove many secular leaders out of politics, into jail, or out of the country. Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr, the first elected president of Iran after the revolution, still lives in exile in Paris. His foreign minister, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who met in secret with Mr. Carter's emissaries in an effort to resolve the hostage crisis, was imprisoned and shot by firing squad. By the summer of 1980, with the hostages lingering under guard in informal prisons scattered around the country, the clerics had clinched their hold on the country.

For the strict fundamentalists among those student leaders, this was victory. For men such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this meant power. For others in that group such as Ibrahim Azgarzedeh, Mohsen Mirdamadi and Abbas Abdi, it meant watching their hopeful revolution devolve into yet another form of tyranny.

Messrs. Azgarzedeh, Mirdamadi, and Abdi were religious young men who bought into the romantic rhetoric of Islamist militancy in the same way many young antiwar Americans in the 1960s and early '70s bought into the gaseous pop-rhetoric of "revolution" here. For many in America, this amounted to little more than generational solidarity and a fondness for recreational drugs. In Iran it amounted to a real revolution with real blood and a real responsibility to forge a new state. Even some of the devout Islamists caught up in those heady times were no more wedded to theocracy than devout Christians, Jews, and Muslims in America secretly wish for religious rule here.

Mr. Mirdamadi is in prison right now. Messrs. Azgarzedeh and Abdi have both spent time locked up. They and others, including even the annoying spokesman for the hostage-takers, Massoumeh Ebtekar, are now identified with the reform movement. Their outspoken rejection of Ahmadinejad's tainted re-election last summer illustrates how broad and deep runs opposition to the current regime.

So 30 years after seizing power, the mullahs of Qom find themselves in a difficult spot. To turn back the domestic tide of reform they must employ the very tools employed by the despised shah—mass arrests and trials, torture, execution and censorship. Older Iranians recognize this approach as the very thing they rebelled against in 1979. Younger Iranians have the same energy and spirit as their elders, only this time around, the revolutionary rhetoric of change is no longer anti-American and Islamist.

Iranians want real democracy. All our actions are informed by past experience. We act as if history repeats itself. Sometimes it does; sometimes it does not.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 has cast a dark shadow, from the American diplomatic hostage crisis to, indirectly, the rise of al-Qaida. And it is through the prism of 1979 we should view this rise of the Arabs in the streets. But 2011 could resonate in history more positively. First, however, the democratic-minded have to learn the lessons of 1979.

Why is the Iranian uprising so important in understanding these rebellions now erupting in the Arab world? What can it teach those who value democracy?

Many of us forget that that revolution began as a secular, mostly left-wing revolt against the autocratic rule of the shah of Iran. Khomeini, who would become the ayatollah who tormented the United States, astutely used his brigades to hijack the revolution.

Secular leaders of the initial revolution made a tragic mistake. They saw the Islamists as an essentially progressive force. They thought they could control them. Actually, it was the other way round.

Iran is not Arab. But there are important similarities across the Arab and Persian worlds. Significant parts of the Arab world share domestic fractures that characterize Iran. In both, sectors of society that are middle class with a centrist Islam are arrayed against a fundamentalist Islam — the Islamists. We in the West have, going back to the traumas of 1979, paid attention to only one side of that split — the Islamist movements.

But relatively secular and civic forces have been, gradually and unevenly, building up across the region.

The Middle East has been long lagging behind the rest of the developing world in important social indicators. But that is the Middle East as a whole. Those trends, such as women in the work force, have been more positive in more secular countries — like Tunisia.

Yes, the poor are at the heart of the rebellions right now. But next we will see different elites battling to claim leadership over the masses. That is the critical point: Who will succeed in that struggle? That will tell us whether to celebrate or to recoil at the latest explosion of the Arab street.

The question is, can the lessons of 1979 be learned?

The hijacking of the revolution by the Islamists in Iran generated untold misery for the world. The Sunni Saudis began competing with the Shia Iranians for the allegiance of the Muslim world. They sent enormous sums of money abroad for building hardline schools, or madrassas. Saudi Wahhabism sowed the seeds of al-Qaida. The gentler streams of Islamic practice from Indonesia to Nigeria now face an invidious challenge from these radicals — 1979 was a disaster for almost all concerned.

We forget the other side of the Iranian revolution — the more secular and centrist Muslim forces that lost. They did not disappear. We see their arc growing from Tunisia, to Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and in the Green movement in Iran. We in the West hear more about the menacing arc of Iranian hardliners, Hezbollah in Lebanon and other militant groups like Hamas.

The Islamists appear to be a minority on the ground in Egypt and, most certainly, in Tunisia. The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been careful, initially, to keep a low profile. But already there are increasing numbers of the Brotherhood active among the protesters.

The Brotherhood and other Islamists will emerge with greater assertiveness if the uprising makes further strides. To gauge future developments, we must keep an eye out for the struggle that will then shift to the different elites. To the extent that the secular and centrist Muslims make concessions to Islamist groups, we have a problem.

It is not encouraging in that light that Mohamed ElBaradei, presently the most visible opposition figure, is reportedly in talks with the Brotherhood to form a unity government. The "March of Millions" to take place today could also be telling. Reports indicate that in recent days older, more disciplined contingents of the Brotherhood are appearing at protests.

Another sign to look for: expressions of anti-Western sentiment have been marginal. No burnings of American flags. No attacks on Western embassies. If the tone shifts that, too, will be a reason for concern. The democrats will have their complaints about the West, but anti-Western sentiments will not be a central part of their ideological arsenal.

What is the lesson of 1979? Keep the Islamists out of power. Do not bring them into government. Let a civic and centrist Islam assert itself. Even if the rebellion is democratically successful in only a couple of countries — like Tunisia and Egypt — we may begin slipping out from the shadow of 1979. The year 2011 will then shine for the Middle East, and for the world as a whole.

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