During the 1950’s Mossadeq was the leader of the National Front. (Moaddel 1993) He was democratically elected by the Iranian people. (Moaddel 1993) Around 1953 Mossadeq nationalised the oil companies in order to benefit the country’s economy. (Moaddel 1993) The oil companies and Iranian bourgeoisie were appalled by this move. (Moaddel 1993) Therefore the United States government, with the help of the CIA, overthrew Mossadeq from his position and installed the Pahlavi dynasty. (Moaddel 1993) This did not sit well in the minds of the Iranians. Even to the modern day, for this reason, the Iranians have any international relations with the United States. Even in a time like now, when the people of Iran are in conflict, they look down upon interventionalism. Never the less, the west did have great influence on modern day Iranian politics. To better understand the current situation in Iran, a more in depth look is needed at the relational history with the west and how it affected later events in Iran. How did western influence shape modern day Iranian politics? In order to answer this question one has to take into account the 1979 revolution, the aftermath of the revolution, and the struggle for power that is still an issue to date. More importantly, how these new political problems can be fixed with the help of the west and the locals.
Many causes led to the 1979 revolution in Iran. While the west supported the Shah fully, they did not care about the fact that he was becoming an authoritarian and suppressive leader. The people of Iran were very sceptical of the foreign intervention of the west. It seemed as though they were on a road to economical and political development. For example, in the 1960’s a land reform was created by the Shah that got rid of the old feudal class’s position and gave opportunity for a capitalist movement. (Moaddel 1993: 67) While from the outside this looked like a move towards capitalism, it completely screwed up the class system within the agricultural system in Iran. Only about a 100,000 people were given a good portion of the land, thus creating a new and dependant class of bourgeoisie in Iran. (Moaddel 1993: 67) This would later on be one of the causes as to why the revolution took place. Another reason was the political ideologies of the Shah. Iran is traditionally a highly religious society, religion shaped the ideological thinking of most Iranians. (Moaddel 1993: 61) Moaddel writes, “The more the Shah insisted on his secular antireligious ideology, the less he was applauded by his critics.” (1993: 64) Again this gave the people another cause as to why they should revolt. The only problem during this time was that the people were politically lost, they needed uniting force to bring them together against the Shah.
During the late 1970s, discontent ran amongst the people due to economical and class troubles. This is the time the clergies began to gain a lot of power in Iran. In order to understand why the Shia clergies gained power before the revolution, one has to understand the factors that led to their support. While under the Shah, the people looked to two main political parties for ideologies. One being the National Front, whose views were comprised of liberalism. (Moaddel 1993) They were also mentioned earlier as being the party Mossadeq belonged to. The second party was Tudeh, which was a communist party. (Moaddel 1993) In the pre-revolution era, these two parties began to lose a lot of appeal and relevance to the activists and intellectuals. (Moaddel 1993: 140) The reason why these parties began to lose power had to do with their internal struggles and disunity since the post-coup period. (Moaddel 1993: 140). For these reasons there is mass conversion to Islam and Islamic ideology as an alternative to both communism and liberalism. This sudden shift can be seen as a reaction to the state intervention of the coup, set up by the United States. If the United States had not intervened with the earlier system of democracy, then none of these later events would have taken place.
To better understand the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, one has to look at the driving power behind the revolution. The Shia clergy elites known as the ulama were the group that people looked upon once the National Front and Tudeh party declined in power. Moaddel defines the ulama as “a group of learned scholars and jurists, whose religious status made them members of the elite.” (1993: 131) Even though during the coup they were with the Pahlavi dynasty, they turn against the shah during the revolution. (Moaddel 1993: 139) The ulama begin to support the merchants who are being mistreated by the bourgeoisie in the country. They also were not very popular during the Pahlavi dynasty until the end where people began to follow them and their ideologies. (Moaddel 1993: 131) Seeing as how the ulama started supporting the middle class Iranians, they began to gain a lot of popularity. The bourgeoisie consisted of a small amount of Iranians while the middle class comprised of the larger part of the population. The ulama were also a supporter of constitutionalism, which led to their later development of “velayat-e faqih”. Of course the ulama gets the idea of constitutionalism from western countries. Sayyid Mohammad Tabataba’i, a prominent member of the ulama said,
“I have not seen constitutionalism. But according to what I have heard, and been told by those who visited the constitutional countries, constitutionalism will bring security and prosperity to the country. Therefore, I also became an enthusiast of constitutionalism and interested in setting up a constitutional system for Iran.” (Moaddel 1993: 136)
These political ideologies are kept in mind after the 1979 revolution. With these words one can see that the western countries do affect the way the revolutionaries were thinking, even though they were approaching the situation cautiously. They wanted a median of the western ideas, and the ideas of Islam. Although everyone in Iran was sure that they wanted the Pahlavi dynasty out of power, even the intellectuals in Iran.
While the religious leaders were the main driving force of the revolution, intellectuals also helped bring about ideas that moved the people. For example, students began to circulate copies of Andre Gunder Franks’ works on the dependency theory. (Mirsepassi 2010: 125) This can be seen as a reaction to the social oppression brought upon the country by foreigners, such as the United States. His theories of development and underdevelopment were especially popular. (Mirsepassi 2010: 125) In an interview with Alireza Alavi-Tabar he says that there are two main principles the intellectuals created that were the main driving forces of the revolution along with the leadership of the clergy. (Mirsepassi 2010: 126) The first principle was the limitation of power, obviously created from the years of absolute monarchical rule of the Pahlavi dynasty. (Mirsepassi 2010: 126) The second principle was that the people should recognize the country’s underdevelopment and that the government should help better the situation. (Mirsepassi 2010: 126) Hearing these ideologies, along with the shift to the Islamic side, the people had enough reason to get to the streets and bring down the Pahlavi dynasty once and for all. The people of Iran had a logical reason to overthrow the Shah. One can clearly see the influence that western intellectuals like Andre Gunder Frank had on the intellectuals in Iran and more importantly, the 1979 revolution. Without the influence of these western ideas, Iranians would have been lost as to why they needed to revolt against the Shah.
Like any revolution, there was bound to be a lot of bloodshed and suppression towards many political groups and ideologies. While the country worked as a whole to achieve the revolution, post revolution brought feelings of hostility towards groups that did not support the Shi’a clergy. Why did the clergy gain the power after the revolution and not the intellectuals? Again, Iran had a great shift to traditional Islamic ways, therefore any intellectuals who tried to oppose the clerical rule was bound to face difficulty. (Mirsepassi 2010: 130) To everyone’s surprise, the clerics began to turn against the intellectuals that helped them pave the way to revolution. There were two reasons why the clerics turned against the intellectuals, one was the sudden change in the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) ideology to Marxism, and the second was that the MEK and Foghat Group began to support the opposite ideologies of the clerics. (Mirsepassi 2010: 128) Before the revolution, the clerics were already furious at the fact that the country was being led by non-Muslims and foreigners. (Yu 2002: 55) Therefore it is understandable that after the revolution the clerics did not want the country to be ruled again by non believers of Islam. This gave way to great suppression of intellectuals in Iran. At this point, ideas of secularism began to lose power and faded away. It can now be seen the reasons as to why anti-American sentiments began to arise in the Iranian social atmosphere. Furthermore, anyone who was seen as supporting western ideas of government would be prosecuted by the clergy. Although this is not to say that western influence was completely out of the picture when the new government was being formulated.
Seeing as how a large amount of the population supported the clergy rule in Iran, as mentioned before, ideas of secularism were thrown out the window. Ayatollah Khomeini was radical cleric who found gradual support from the people and the clerics throughout the process of the revolution. (Yu 2002: 56) When drafting the new constitution in May of 1979, Khomeini brought up the idea of velayat-e faqih to the Assembly of Experts which comprised of six hundred members made up of clergy and lay members. (Moslem 2002: 26) What is the idea of velayat-e faqih? Velayat can be translated to “rule”, and faqih, can be translated to “Islamic jurists” or “guardian(s)”. (Yu 2002: 57) Ultimately this idea created by Khomeini, criticizes the western models of democracy in upholding rights and sovereignty of the people, and that sovereignty based on Islamic law belongs to God, who gives people their rights, and in return the people choose the faqih to protect them. (Moslem 2002: 28) In simple terms, democracy alone is not the way an Islamic country should be ran. Clergies have a religious duty to look after the country and make sure that it stays an Islamic republic. This form of government is known as a theocracy. On November 1979, the constitution was passed, giving the power of the country to a faqih that would be chosen by the Assembly of Experts. (Moslem 2010: 30) Furthermore, based on articles 91 through 99, the Guardian Council (half of which are chosen by a faqih and the other half by the Majlis) have the power to “review all laws passed by the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament) to check their Islamic credentials, and have the right of veto in interpreting the Constitution and supervising elections of the Assembly of Experts, the president, the Majlis, and referendums.” (Moslem 2010: 30) Later on it can be seen that this piece of the constitution brings many conflict amongst the Iranian people. One could easily poke holes in these articles of the revolution as they seem authoritarian like. The faqih, or “supreme leader”, in this case Ayatollah Khomeini can be seen as almost having a autocratic position in the government. For example, Khomeini began to politicize religious ceremonies. (Yu 2002: 57) Again, hopes of having a secular government were completely gone. Religion is completely being infused with government, which has possibilities of creating internal conflict amongst the people of Iran. Having a religion as the main authority of a country can lead to racism and discrimination. The populist vote must get to choose the laws being implemented on them, rather than have a religion impose rules on them. For these reasons new constitution seems very radical through the eyes of the west. At the same time, having a country being preached by a religious leader can spring up new hatred towards the western countries who participate in actions that are against the Islamic law. This new attitude can be seen as an answer to the earlier intervention by the west. People had multiple reasons to look down upon the west at this time in Iran.
One of the more modern presidents of Iran began to take a more liberal side, which was seen as a great development since the revolution. On May 23rd, 1997, Mohammad Khatami won the Iranian presidential election receiving 70% of the vote with nearly a 90% turnout. (Clawson et. All 1998: 1) By Iranian standards Khatami was seen as a liberal, and he was determined to change things in Iran. (Clawson et. All 1998: 23) Khatami was a supporter of relative openness, women’s rights, and had a more pragmatic view towards the outside world. (Clawson et All 1998: 23) This must have inspired many of the Iranian people who were looking for more freedom against the authoritarian system of Iran. At the same time, this must have drawn the attention of the clerics who viewed every single move that Khatami made. Military leaders began to doubt Khatami and said that he was undermining the velayat’e faqih and that he was going against what the revolutionaries and clerics had worked so hard for. (Moslem 2002: 38) Even when a leader like Khatami tries to bring in the smallest amount of freedom to the people, he is criticized heavily by the military and the clerics. This can be seen as the beginning of a realization by the Iranian people that they were under authoritarian rule. A popularly chosen leader like Khatami should have the power to make the changes he feels are necessary, and should not come up with new laws under fear of being prosecuted by the clerics. Khatami was seen as the more pragmatic leader compared to the clerics. (Clawson et All 1998: 29) For this reason conflict began to arise in Iran. The difference amongst the president and the clerics can be compared to liberalism vs conservatism. Khatami was only the “third wave” that would break with the clergy. (Lafond and Reed 2006: 27) Some in Iran enjoy the religious conservative way of life, while others want more freedom, and do not care about conservatively following religious rules. Although a large amount Iranians are Muslims, not all Muslims enjoy the religion as much as having it rule their lives. Another thing that has to be realized is that 60% of Iranians had not witnessed the revolution that took place quarter of a century ago. (Lafond and Reed 2006: 28) Therefore the new and young generation were more exposed to the western culture through media, giving the people an opportunity to realize that there were other possibilities out there in terms of political regimes. This is probably one of the most important aspects of influence the west has had on Iran. New and upcoming Iranians look more and more towards the western system of democracy and wonder why they are still stuck under an authoritarian government.
Political oppression took a turn for the worst in 2009. On June 12, 2009, Mahmoud Ahamdinejad won a controversial election that led to weeks of protest by the Iranian people. (BBC 2009) Pro reform candidate Hossein Mousavi had attracted many voters, even though his campaign abilities were weakened since most of the principl-ist people ran most of the media and comprised most of the government. (BBC 2009) Before the election, Ahmadinejad was supported more in the rural areas and Mousavi in urban areas. Therefore Mousavi would have rallies that were attended by a huge number of supporters. Iran has a population of 76,923,300, where 71% of the population live in urbanized areas like Tehran, Esfahan, Qom, and etc. (CIA Factbook 2011). 46.2 millions of these people are eligible to vote. (BBC 2009) These facts show that election results are not as legitimate as they seemed. People began to protest, wearing colours of green to show their support for Mousavi. The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly stated that he fully supported the election results and even before the campaign he showed support for Ahmadinejad. (BBC 2009) By doing so, it would seem obvious that the supreme leader would begin to lose power amongst the reformists in Iran. According to Aljazeera, “The dispute of the result brought tens of thousands of supporters of the reformist candidates out onto the streets to demand that the result be annulled and there have been sporadic protests ever since.” (Aljazeera 2010) Some interpret this as a cry to the international community for help. History has proven in many cases that intervention is not the answer to help a country like Iran. From their long histories with the United States and Britain, the last thing the Iranians would want is help from these two countries. Although the western way of communicating helped the protesters show the true oppression of the Islamic authoritarianism when the people of Iran used the popular website twitter to show pictures and live updates of police brutally beating protesters and imprisoning them for no cause. (CNN 2009) Again this should not be looked upon as an international cry, rather it should be seen as an internal way of Iranian people trying to reach each other and tell each other that it is time for change.
In conclusion, by looking at the 1979 revolution in Iran, the aftermath of it, and the modern day struggles in Iranian politics, we have seen how the west has influenced everyday modern Iranian politics. Intervention has not proven to be the answer the west needs to take in order to help Iranians. The United States made relations with Iran sour since they showed selfishness in only wanting oil, and not caring about bringing about democracy to Iran. Therefore, just like history had proven before, it is the Iranians who need to revolt against the new authoritarian regime. Only the people of Iran can overthrow such a government through unity. Further international intervention can only make the authoritarian regime of the clerics stronger, since they can bring back the memories of the past when international intervention destroyed the country. Also they can bring religious factors into the mix by implying that western help is immoral due to their culture. Iranians will sooner or later realize that the authoritarian cleric rule must come to an end, and when that day comes, it is only they who can bring about a new regime that will bring about freedom to the people.