Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Boston Review on Iran

Abbas Milani writes an excellent concise history of Iran since WWII as the essential backdrop to understanding the present acendency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is the most restrained overview of the situation in Iran I have come across in an overtly liberal publication. Milani is clearly attempting to present an accurate description of a complex historical society reacting to the forces of a modernizing world. It is good reading for anyone wanting more than a simple headline understanding of the Islamic Republic.

Boston Review: With the Cold War raging and concern about oil supplies on the rise, the Eisenhower administration worried that the Shah’s repressive regime would incite a social revolution. The resulting pressure to liberalize, which mounted during the Kennedy years, compelled the Shah to introduce a series of socioeconomic reforms collectively known as the White Revolution (“white” for its supposed nonviolent nature).

Like millions drawn to the city during those years, the Ahmadinejad family settled in one of Tehran’s poorest neighborhoods and brought with them the cultural conservatism and traditional Islam of Iran’s peasantry. Struggling to make a living through odd jobs, the elder Ahmadinejad continued to cultivate in his son an unbending devotion to Islam. Even by the standards of other villagers, the family was unusually devout.

Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election, one of his chief lieutenants observed after the victory, was no “accident.” It was the result of “two years of complicated, multifaceted planning” by a coalition that included Revolutionary Guards commanders, a handful of clergy, some leaders of the Basiji (unhappy that the government had not yet given them jobs in the coveted civil service), and friends and allies of Ahmadinejad from his days as mayor of Tehran. This coalition was helped to victory by Ayatollah Khamenei.

After taking office Ahmadinejad began a massive purge of the Iranian bureaucracy, installing allies in key positions. Ahmadinejad’s administration has rightly been called a “barracks regime,” with a majority of his cabinet officials and top managers coming from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence agencies. The size of this network of allies and supporters surprised nearly all observers and apparently even Khamenei himself. More importantly, Ahmadinejad not only made new appointments but tried to change the criteria for them, recalling the early days of the revolution when publicly demonstrated piety was the sole basis for appointment to key positions in government and the economy.

The internal economy of Iran is in shambles and an extremely youthful population is absolutely aware of how their lives compare to the rest of the world. Milani ends with the iconic liberal call for “an offer of unconditional negotiations”. Given his convincing description of the oppressive state apparatus in place, it is hard to understand why he thinks trying to talk oppression away would help the Iranian people, much less the rest of the world. As much as the liberals hate the direct action in Iraq, those people are going to be living better lives long before their Persian neighbors.