Iran's dismal conditions are not ultimately about sanctions or the lack of reforms, but for the criminal ignorance of the revolutionaries of 1979 who replaced a flawed but technocratic regime with medieval despotism. What happens when those responsible begin to fade away or die?
February 11, the anniversary of the 1979 revolution in Iran, has become a recurring, and unrelenting, pain in the hearts and minds of Iranians the world over. While the number of veteran revolutionaries and participants in that calamity goes down by the year, and generations born since entering middle age, Iranians have become ever harsher in their judgment of those parents and grandparents who bequeathed them a catastrophe.
Besides the Islamic Republic's own, loutish nomenklatura and hirelings who — for the state salaries paid to them — cherish the date and heap abuse on dissenters, the former revolutionaries now close to senility or death react differently to the admonishments of generations that have seen their lives and hopes torn to shreds. Their response often depends on personal levels of realism or awareness of the costs of their revolution.
Many former revolutionaries are repentant and dismayed at the fruits of the revolution, and cannot bear the criticism of younger Iranians. Others are as angry as their critics. But a third category, while aware of the disasters of past decades, persists in praising the event. They are stubborn not just for having participated in it, but in their blinkered refusal to observe and comprehend.
Suffering from the choices of the past
The generations that have followed the revolution are entirely justified in their criticisms, given the lasting and continuing harm done to their homeland by the choices of a single generation in the late 20th century. The greatest injustice is perhaps in the cost one generation imposes on its successors.
The word revolution kills.
If every generation paid for its misdeeds without harming its descendants, we might not see quite the fury and frustration shown at the events that toppled the monarchy in 1979. The ire of Iranians is proportional to what they have paid for their parents' folly.
In our culture, power is closely related to paternalism. In many of Iran's epic poems, we see fathers who work, wittingly or not, to destroy their children before sinking into abject remorse. The same pattern recurs in our history, as monarchs have killed or blinded sons and heirs.
As recently as 150 years ago or late into the Qajar dynasty, Persian provinces typically hosted one or several princes whom their fathers had ordered blinded, out of mercy, instead of decapitating them as dynastic threats. Most had done nothing wrong nor had they shown any undue ambition, though history is oblivious to iniquities.
The need for serenity has always led people to believe that balance and fairness must govern the world's affairs. It is a comforting thought, though removed from events that reflect nature's often unfathomable laws. Where is the fairness or balance in suffering for generations the results of our forebears' actions?
Pro-democracy demonstrators in Tehran in 1979
Ochlocracy to kleptocracy
We may judge the revolution more equitably by considering its results, instead of dissecting the revolutionary generation's motivations. How do they differ from the results of the 1906 constitutional revolution, which improved government and dragged Iran out of the pitiful, dependent state into which it had fallen in the late Qajar period? The constitutional revolution took the first, big steps toward turning Iran's feudal peasantry into citizens. Even the most ignorant of Iranians would not wish to return to the pre-constitutional period.
Did liberty's friends want a revolution?
The constitutionalists who rose against Qajar despotism, and especially their intellectual leaders, were progressive, educated and disinterested. They were familiar with both modern Western and Iranian cultures. They were concerned for the country and aware of their compatriots' historical backwardness, which placed them significantly ahead of the rulers of the time.
The opposite happened in 1978-9. That revolution produced an ochlocracy, or mob rule, that soon also became kleptocratic, as institutions wallowed in corruption.
Against the empty claims of certain, inveterate revolutionaries, the sin of that wretched generation was not in its idealism or desire for change, but its ignorance. Regardless of intentions, it caused a backward, criminal regime to replace a system that was modern, technocratic and forward-looking in spite of its shortcomings.
I would like to cite the novelist Mahshid Amirshahi, who chose in the midst of the collective frenzy to neither side with fools nor observe in detachment.
She asks in the preamble to her novel Dar hazar (At Home, 1987), "Where did the yelling mob come from? Where are they going? What do they want from this land? What are they saying to its inhabitants? They are saying: 'Revolution!' Revolution? A revolution is more effective than any bullet, it is the perfect shot and sharpest of blades. It is dirtier than any war, and the path that leads straight to despotism. No calamity will shed as much blood. The word revolution kills.
Millions have died of it. It can only stifle, as millions will know... Did liberty's friends want a revolution? Did they accept Khomeini? Did those who know freedom greet its enemies? Did they banish reformists? Dismal history! Impotent, helpless, useless history, which teaches nothing and has no pupils. All it does is gather dust on bookshelves."
Quite simply, Iran's current calamity is the fruit of that vast, collective ignorance. Unable to recognize freedom, the Iranians of 1979 imposed its enemies' despotic rule on generations — and in cases still insist they did us a service!
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