The misunderstood revolution

Iran Rising. The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic
Forfatter: Amin Saikal
Forlag: Princeton University Press (USA)
IRAN / Solidly argued status of Iranian state 40 years after the fall of the Shah.


The Iranian revolution got off to a bad start. Already the following year, the 22. September 1980, Iraq's then dictator Saddam Hussein launched a large-scale attack on neighboring countries. On the one hand, he feared that Iranian Shi'ite Islamism would spread, and therefore he wanted to make a brief process of Ayatollah Khomeini's rule in Tehran, and partly he wanted Iraq to replace Iran as the regional superpower after the fall of the Shah.

As you know, it did not succeed. Instead, the two countries were thrown into a military gloom, which lasted eight grueling years. Iran lost half a million men on the battlefield while the war swallowed between 60 and 70 percent of the state budget.

In addition, the so-called hostage crisis, in which militant Iranian students the 4. November 1979 invaded the US Embassy in Tehran, keeping 52 Americans trapped for 444 days. This threw the Iran-American relationship into a serious crisis, the war against Iraq isolated Iran over most of the Arab world, and these are problems that the Iranians have been facing ever since.

Pragmatic Islamism

It is now 40 years since it all started. You can think of those kind of anniversaries what you want, but Amin Saikal, a professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the Australian National University, has in any case taken the opportunity to make some sort of status about the revolution and its future destiny. He does so in his new book with the very telling subtitle The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic.

Khomeini's dualism and pragmatic approach make the Iranian revolution a successful revolution.

It has turned into a well-written and well-documented analysis, where the natural protagonist of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is sharply focused. This has often been the subject of violent demonization in the West, which, according to Professor Saikal, is mostly due to fear and ignorance. He draws a far more nuanced picture.

Khomeini was far from being a monolithic thinker. He wanted to build a state that was both Islamic and modern, and he did that by combining Jihad with ijtihad. The first was in Khomeini's eyes an uncompromising implementation of Islam, while ijtihad is a creative interpretation of Islam in pairs with changing times and conditions. He gave way to reform by, for example, giving women approximately equal access to higher education, and with a host of similar examples, Saikal portrays the man as pragmatic.


In line with this, Khomeini must also have wanted to agree with the United States. He was not behind the hostage crisis; it was triggered by conservative forces that would force Americans to extradite the Shah to prosecution, and as this failed and the crisis dragged on, Khomeini's only option was to take the same anti-American rhetoric into his mouth. It was on this occasion that he began to call then-President Jimmy Carter "the American dog."

It was these same conservative forces that forced Iran on the strongly anti-Western course. The prerequisite for that was the division of power that Amin Saikal identifies as one of the paradoxes of the revolution. From the outset, it was decided that the country should have a clergy and a political leadership, creating two sets of institutions, which were often parallel and often disagreed. In this way, a social structure was obtained, which on the one hand was deeply conservative and at the same time reform-friendly and, for example, open to economic cooperation with abroad.

Destructive populism

After the unfortunate war on Iraq, Iran therefore experienced new economic growth and increasing prosperity. But the institutional divide had also made society extremely sensitive to cyclical fluctuations and political pressure from the outside world. Rafsanjani, who became president at Khomeini's death in 1989, came to personify this problem more than anyone. He was even more pragmatic than Khomeini, and was extremely popular for the first time.

But the problems were evident. The war had created anti-Iranian sentiment in most of the Arab world, and relations with the United States continued its decline. It was also a time of falling oil prices, so revenues were failing, and the Iranian economy could greatly sense that half a million unemployed men had fallen on the battlefield, while the influence of conservative forces led to an explosion in child numbers – ie, more mouths, that should be saturated. The economic crisis started.

Khomeini has often been subjected to violent demonization in the West, but the author draws a far more nuanced picture.

Again, the contradictions in management came to fruition. For example, the reform wing was granted access to private banks, which stimulated the economy, while the conservatives in 2004 blocked the construction of Tehran's new major airport on the grounds that the work was done by a Turkish-Austrian consortium. In that light, the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005 came as an expression of inner desperation. In his young days, this was peripherally linked to the circle of students who occupied the US embassy, ​​and now his deep conservatism was expressed in what the book's author describes as destructive populism. He gained popular popularity with projects like Maskan-e Mehr, which was to provide 600 low-cost housing to low-income families across the country, but it was all funded with unsecured loans from the central bank, which brought the country's economy to a catastrophe. Both unemployment and inflation increased dramatically. In 000, annual economic growth was 2005 percent, and in 6,9 this was reversed to -2011 percent.

One might object that Ahmadinejad also had the boycott of Iran to fight with. Of course, it has had its effect, and it still has, but far along the way, Saikal dismisses the boycott's dominant effect. He argues that as soon as Ahmadinejad left the scene in 2013, and reform-friendly Hassan Rouhani took office, the economy began to recover. The explanation is that the oil is only part of the Iranian economy and that the country has now recovered from the children of the revolution. In addition, the many children who came to the world at Khomeini's request have now reached the productive age and can contribute to the country's robust economy – despite continued sanctions.

In January of this year, an Iranian man was executed by hanging because he was gay. This is just one example of human rights abuses in Iran, and that side of the case is easily crossed over by Saikal. One can accuse the author of conveying an apologetic attitude towards repressive governance. However, this is not his task. He is primarily interested in the overall question, namely the nature of the revolution and its results. Along the way, he brings a thought-provoking comparison between Khomeini and Lenin, and the conclusion is that the Iranian revolution has been far more successful and viable than the Russian one. The Iranian Revolution has been misunderstood, and has been met with fierce opposition from the outset, but in particular Khomeini's dualism and pragmatic approach has made it a successful revolution.

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