Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Preeti Koirala

The Iranian Experience: What can Nepal Learn?

The 20th century is full of case studies in which the vaccuum left by the monarchy has been filled by radical elements almost all the time resorting to dictatorship rather than democracy

By Preeti Koirala

Iran serves as another good example for Nepalis to take lessons from, international powers to realize from their mistakes and regional players not to underestimate the powerful inertia of fundamentalism and totalitarianism that can offset the whole regional power dynamics. A shining modern society, aiming to be the fifth power of the world, relatively moderate, secular and a pro-west Iran under the Shah has now turned into an axis of evil, headache for the whole of the middle-east, an oppressor of its own people, a preacher of violent Islam and a supporter of terrorist organizations such as the Hezbullah.

Young Iranians who took to the streets against their monarchy in 1979 today don't have a right even to evaluate the performance of their government. In fact, they don't even know what the outside world possibly thinks about them or their country except what their national television and government owned newspapers tell them. Iranian women who used to wear jeans to college in the mid-seventies today play basketball in their burkas. Those who used to advocate for free and fair elections during much of the Shah era, today shake their heads when they see the entire government ruled by an un-elected and illiterate clergy who know nothing about politics and economics than what their understanding of Quran told them. What went wrong in Iran? Who is to blame? And what lessons can Iran's modern history offer to Nepal and to the Nepalis people as we find ourselves in the midst of a takeover by another variety of extremists in our own country?

In 1925 a specially convened assembly deposed Ahmad Shah Qajar, the last ruler of the Qajar dynasty, and named Reza Khan, who had adopted the surname "Pahlavi", as the new Shah. Reza Shah had ambitious plans for modernizing Iran. These plans included developing large-scale industries, implementing major infrastructure projects, building a cross-country railroad, establishing a national public education system, reforming the judiciary, and improving health care. He believed that a strong, centralized government managed by educated personnel could implement his plans. He sent hundreds of Iranians including his son to Europe for education and technical training. During 16 years from 1925 till 1941, Reza Shah's numerous development projects transformed Iran into a modern country. Public education progressed rapidly, and a new social class emerged. Iran's political system also opened up. Political parties were allowed, and in 1944 the Majlis polls were held which were the first genuine competitive election to take place in the country. In fact, Iran was the most "democratic" country in the whole of the region at that time. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company owned by the British government, continued to produce and market Iranian oil. In the beginning of 1930s some Iranians began to advocate nationalization of the country's oil fields. After 1946 this became an increasingly popular political movement as the oil gave Tehran much needed revenue for modernization drive.

His son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, popularly known as the "Shah of Iran" was even more modern and pro-American. So much was Iran's prosperity in comparison to other Gulf states during his reign that even the royalty of other countries used to look up to Iran's wealth with aghast. The King named himself the "Shahenshah" and also the "Light of the Aryans"*.During the Cold War, the Shah established himself as an indispensable ally of the West. Domestically, he advocated reform policies, culminating in the 1963 program known as the White Revolution, which included land reform, granting of voting rights to women, and elimination of illiteracy. He made major changes to curb the power of certain ancient elite factions by distributing large and medium-sized estates for the benefit of more than four million small farmers. However, these modernization measures, including extending suffrage to women, met the discontent of the Islamic clergy. Unafraid of the clergy and their outdated theories, he instituted exams for Islamic theologians to become established clerics, which were widely unpopular and broke centuries-old religious traditions. In less than two decades of his reign, Iran became the undisputable major economic and military power of the Middle East.

On the foreign policy front, the Shah maintained cordial relations with the Gulf states and established closer diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. With Iraq, he signed the Algiers Accord, which granted Iraq equal navigation rights in the Arvand/Shatt al-Arab river, with the Shah also agreeing to end his support for Iraqi Kurdish rebels.

He built good relations with Israel and the United States which turned out to be sufficient reasons for Islamic fundamentalist groups to attack his policies. Nepal had also established diplomatic relations with Iran and late King Mahendra participated in the grand coronation ceremony of the Shah. Kathmandu opened its residential mission in Tehran with late Ishwori Raj Pandey serving as the first (and the last) charge d' affairs.

In 1949, an assassination attempt on the Shah, blamed on the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party, resulted in the banning of that party and the expansion of the Shah's constitutional powers. Furthermore, he passed a controversial bill that allowed municipal officials in the country to take oaths of office on whatever holy book they preferred. This and other reform policies angered religious zealots, the most prominent among them being Ayatollah Khomeini.

Khomeini held beliefs of an extreme form of the Shi'a creed. From exile, he developed the concept of a theocracy, which significantly altered what had largely been a non-political branch of Islam. He was able to exploit contradictions of the Iranian society and garner support from the communists, the liberal democrats and students for a revolution against monarchy. The then Soviet Union had hoped that the fall of monarchy would bring down a pro-west regime in Tehran and perhaps erect another Stalinist republic. The United States and its European allies although supportive of the Shah from a regional perspective, regarded Islamic fundamentalists as a bulwark against communism. As long as the Shah was not overthrown by Communists, the regime change seemed ok to Washington and London. The marginalized sections of the rural areas thought that they would get a pro-poor government rather than an urban centered [government]. The youth desired to see an end to centuries' old feudal rule that would bring in a youthful leadership capable of driving the nation forward. The secular forces hoped that the fall of absolute monarchy would usher in a truly secular, more modern state with full democratic credentials such as periodic elections, freedom of speech, guarantee of human rights and a free press.**

But after the Iranian revolution, Khomeini betrayed everyone and embraced only those who agreed to his vision of a radical Islam. He appointed himself Supreme Ruler, with a "parliament" made up of clerics, instituting a strict regime of Islamic law, ordering women to wear veils and suspending the criminal justice system. In November 1979, a group of student radicals overran the U.S. embassy and took American embassy staff including diplomats, intelligence and military personnel hostage, as per Khomeini's orders.

The rest is history. If there was no Islamic revolution in Iran, there would not have been the Iran-Iraq war in which the Reagan administration had to aid Iraq's Saddam Hussein regime. Had their been no mullahs ruling Tehran, there would have been no or little support to terrorist organisations such as the Hezbullah and Hamas. Khomeini was the first to use radicalism in Islam and tint it with anti-American flavour which encouraged other people like him such as Bin Laden and groups like the al Qaeda to use the same tactics of terror. It was Khomeini who first issued fatwa calling on Muslims everywhere to kill Salman Rushdie for writing a book The Satanic Verses. The proclamation became groundbreaking in the politicization of fatwas. Khomeini had previously abused the fatwa to deliver death sentences to thousands of his domestic political opponents. In later years, Osama Bin Laden used the same fatwa against the United States for the 9/11 attacks and continues to do so to terrorize the democratic world. Had the monarchy remained in Iran, the history of Middle East would have been totally different and the world certainly would have been a much safer place to live in.

It is thus an irony of history that in the land of Cyrus The Great, the birthplace of the first charter of the "Rights of Nations" and the "Declaration of Human Rights" over 2500 years ago, there is today hardly any semblance of civil rights. According to official Iranian estimates, more than 200,000 Iranians lost their lives in the Iran-Iraq war that ended without any political or geographical change of either country. It is a regime that has executed over 120,000 political prisoners in two decades. Torture is rampant and corruption is colossal. Since the inception of the mullahs' rule, hundreds of women of various ages have been and continue to be stoned to death throughout Iran. So much so that Iranian dress codes prohibit the country from fielding women teams for Olympics in events including swimming, track and field, and other sports that expose woman's toes, head or arms.

It has been 27 years since the fall of the Shah yet theorists are still struggling to understand what happened then. Today Iranian people are demanding civil and political freedoms, separation of religion and government, equality and justice (especially for the Iranian women) and immediate freeing of all political prisoners. But their government is more interested in building nuclear weapons. The world continues to watch helplessly as a bunch of radical clerics make a mockery of human civilization.

The first lesson that Iran's predicament teaches Nepal is not to act in haste and repent in leisure. Young Iranians protested for about three months before the downfall of monarchy in 1979. But they have been repenting and dreaming for a just, equitable and a free society to re-emerge for the past three decades. Lesson number two: The want for more freedom, more democratic space, freedom of press, bigger role for the civil society, devolution of power, etc. is not a crime but people must first make sure that even the little that they already have isn't lost in the procss of yearning for more. Lesson number three: The 20th century is full of case studies in which the vaccuum left by the monarchy has been filled by radical and sinister elements almost all the time resorting to dictatorship rather than democracy. They have killed far more people in the name of "new democracy" or religion than under the previous "totalitarian" regime. Lesson number Four: Just by having a republic, hoping that all the country's problems would suddenly vanish away is a sheer nonsense. Most of the time the country's problems have nothing to do with the monarchy and can exasperate with the collapse of law and order situation. Lesson Number of Five: Just two Kings ruled Iran under the Pahlavi dynasty yet the impact of its downfall has been devastating for the people of that country and for its neighbouring countries. Nepal was not even born as a nation until a King of the Shah dynasty unified the country as a single entity. There is very little basis to imagine that Nepal will be truly "democratic" once it turns into a republic.

It is true that history never looks like history when one is living through it. But it is also true that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

*He did not “name himself”, rather the title was bestowed upon him by the Iranian Parliament. Also, the “Mehr” in “Aryamehr” means love and affection, not “light”.

** I disagree. Most of the support for Khomeini and the Mullahs came from the misguided “youth”, led on by the so-called “intellectuals” of the time. Furthermore, no one among the enemies of the Iranian government accused it of not driving the nation forward. Embracing Khomeini and a backward Shiite theocracy stands as a testament to the fact. Lastly, the alliance of the so-called “secular” forces with Khomeini and their subsequent support of the Islamic Republic proved that the presence of secular forces among the revolutionaries was non-existent, despite all their secularist pretensions. The secularists, such as Shapour Bakhtiar and Dr. Sadiqi, stood with and backed the Iranian government.


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