March 2, 2015
Nikki Keddie on Iran
Posted on Jul 25, 2008
By Nikki Keddie
During the war, the Guards created the Qods (Jerusalem) Force to spread the Iranian revolution abroad. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Iran sent in Revolutionary Guards, who helped local Shiites form the Hezbollah group, whose resistance to Israeli invaders began its growing role and reputation. Although lines of blame are often unclear, the Qods Force seems tied to various major terrorist incidents and assassinations through 1997, and it may have been responsible for the 2002 seizure of the Karine A ship, said to have been carrying arms to Palestine, an incident that sabotaged President Khatami’s efforts to improve relations with the United States.
The Guards also control major businesses and have had a growing role in politics, culminating in the election of former Guard officer Ahmadinejad and his appointment of many ex- or current Guards to governmental positions. Slavin writes, however, that not all the Guard rank and file are reactionary; members hold a range of political views, and some leading reformers are ex-Guards.
Leading reformers often came from Khomeinist backgrounds, including the leading reformist thinker, Abdulkarim Soroush, who claims that true Islam is unknowable and that human interpretations of it must vary with time and circumstance. Also from such a background is the activist and writer Akbar Ganji, who exposed murders committed by governmental figures and who continues to write eloquently for nonviolent resistance and democracy from his post-imprisonment exile in the United States. Several of the students who led in the hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in 1979 have also become prominent reformers.
A chapter on youth notes the frustration and disillusionment of many, some of whom turn to drugs and partying. Many had exaggerated hopes of what President Khatami could accomplish, followed by exaggerated disillusionment. Many popular class youths remain strict in their outlook, and some have joined the Hezbollah offshoot of the young mobilized Basij, and attack and arrest those who flout the rules on dress and behavior. Many youths have lost interest in politics, and thousands go abroad, usually for higher education, and do not return except for visits.
A chapter on the mullahs describes the range of their views. The author spent time in the shrine city Qom, with its many seminaries and mullahs. She briefly notes, without explaining, the distinctive Shiite history of clerical involvement in modern politics, which is based in part on the belief that the 12th, hidden, imam’s will can be understood only by those with clerical training, and that his will encompasses both religion and politics. There is, she shows, no unity among clerics regarding politics. Hardly any of the top ayatollahs accept vilayat-e faqih, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s formulation justifying the rule of a top cleric. On Khomeini’s death in 1989, the Assembly of Experts could not find an ayatollah to fulfill his role, and the Assembly of Experts named Khamenei, who had only a lesser rank, though he was then given the rank of ayatollah. Few Shiites worldwide follow his religious rulings, however. A few ayatollahs, notably the demoted heir apparent, Hossein Ali Montazeri, remain open critics of the regime and what it has done to Iran. Many of the world’s Shiites now choose the Iranian-born Iraqi Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf as their source for rulings to follow, and he rejects vilayat-e faqih and clerical rule.
Clerics have become widely unpopular in Iran, and many will not appear in public in clerical garb, especially if they want taxis to stop for them. The result of clerical rule has been a documented turn away from religion, prayer and other forms of observance, and city dwellers celebrate Iranian holidays, notably the long New Year festival, more than Islamic holidays, apart from a very secularized celebration of the martyrdom of Imam Husain.
In her final chapters on Iran-U.S. relations, Slavin shows how these relations ever since the Clinton administration have been out of sync, with the United States prepared to make overtures when the Iranians were not and vice versa. Specifically, Iranians did not respond to President Clinton’s overtures, and then after 2001, when Iran helped the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, George Bush called it part of the “axis of evil” and failed to respond to serious Iranian overtures for compromise and negotiation on all outstanding questions. Slavin details Iranian overtures that were either ignored or rejected by the United States. She has useful comments on the role of Israel in promoting a hard-line U.S. policy, but does not give this the comprehensive treatment it deserves.
Slavin’s book is well informed and will give both novices and specialists a comprehensive overview of its topic and a balanced approach that could be a basis for a more productive U.S. policy toward Iran by a new administration.
Nikki R. Keddie is professor emeritus of history at UCLA and the author of “Women in the Middle East” and “Modern Iran.”
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