Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Iran’s Revolution Enters Its Stalinist Era

By Barry Rubin

The post-election trials of opposition activists in Tehran resemble the Soviet purge trials of the 1930s. They are one more sign that Iran is entering a new era, but one that is the exact opposite of the idea that the conflict over stolen elections will weaken the regime or lead to more active dissent.

Up to now, the regime has generally operated—or at least pretended to do so--on what in Iran is called the “Islamic Republican” philosophy which allowed a real margin of freedom. This is a combination of popular sovereignty and Islamism. The people were allowed to vote for candidates deemed to support the revolution. At times, the balloting was more honest; at times less.

The regime exercised control by deciding who could run, not by dictating everything. A second line of control was the Council of Experts, which served as a supreme court to determine whether legislation passed by the elected parliament was acceptable under the regime’s definition of Islamic law and religion.

The system’s advantage was that it gave people a greater sense of freedom and broadened the regime’s base. Different factions co-existed and competed with a fair amount of freedom. Newspapers critical of the regime were shut down but then allowed to reopen under a different name. The relatively “liberal” establishment figure Muhammad Khatami and his reform-minded supporters were even permitted to win elections. They just weren’t allowed to change anything.

But several things made the regime too nervous to continue with this system. The main one was fear of losing not only an honest election but even a “lightly” fixed one. Several years ago, the rules were tightened to favor the regime even more. Yet the last election proved even this didn’t suffice.

Compare this to Soviet history. From the time of the revolution into the 1930s, the USSR was a dictatorship which ruthlessly repressed any opposition to the Communist regime. But there was also a certain amount of freedom for different views within the context of the ruling ideology.

Then, Joseph Stalin emerged as sole dictator, with a monopoly on the legacy of the revolution’s founder Vladimir Lenin, and suppressing any other possible leader or faction. Every aspect of Soviet life was reduced to worshipping Stalin. Institutions were purged; formerly respected leaders put on trial, admitting they were fascist-capitalist agents, and being finished off with a bullet to the head.

To say this is happening in Iran now would be an exaggeration but parallels are striking.

In Iran, the new system’s key element is partnership between Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Perhaps the 70-year-old Khamenei accepts the 52-year-old Ahmadinejad as heir, the man he thinks best able, along with his Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps backers, to preserve the regime.

Khamenei’s likely motivation is fear that the revolution is being eroded by what its leaders consider the endless cultural subversion of the outside world. It is also, as history shows, very hard to maintain a high level of revolutionary enthusiasm over a long period of time in any society. And the last election certainly shows that a very large number of Iranians are fed up with the regime.

That’s why the trials theme is that the opposition planned a coup, reflecting the leaders’ single greatest fear. Of course, staging a coup is precisely what the rulers are really themselves are doing. By the way, many of those being tried are reformers associated with Khatami, not the organizers of demonstrations. This makes the goal even clearer: wipe out anyone in the establishment who favors a more "liberal" regime.

Yet being thrown out of power is not the regime’s only worry. The other main concern is that external forces might moderate the regime’s policies by bringing to power less radical leaders. This government is determined to remain hard line and ideologically tight. Ahmadinejad is clearly the man for this task and that is why Khamenei is promoting him. And behind Ahmadinejad stand the revolution’s armed elite, its most fanatical upholders: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the thuggish Basij.

This is why no amount of concession or engagement will alter the Iranian government’s strategy and behavior. Iran’s ruling group is becoming more, not less, militant. In Soviet terms, Iran today is in the Stalinist 1930s, not the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev.

Being on the verge of getting nuclear weapons makes the regime feel stronger and able to be more aggressive, not the opposite. Those who think a nuclear Iran will be a secure, reasonable Iran are in for a big disappointment.

Gorbachev’s legacy is precisely what the regime fears. At the trials, the prosecution speaks of a “velvet coup” or “color revolution.” This calls to mind what has happened elsewhere: masses inspired by freedom revolted; rulers, easing up their tight fist, contributed to their own downfall. Communism’s collapse has haunted Middle East dictators, persuading them to tighten up further. One anecdote: after Romania’s dictator was executed, graffiti appeared in Syria warning that country’s dictator he was next.

According to the regime’s conspiracy theory—never in a shortage within Iranian debates—foreign money, spies, and think tanks backed locals to overthrow the regime. One might wish this to be true but it isn’t.

The alleged big plan was to claim “falsely” that the election was stolen, mobilize demonstrations, and seize state power. Precisely how this was to be done given the fact that the regime has all the guns and institutional control is not clear.

This conspiracy was supposedly coordinated by Western powers. The arrests of a string of American and European nationals, journalists and researchers, in recent years on espionage charges laid the basis for the regime’s campaign. A key figure at present is Clotilde Reiss, a French citizen whose “espionage” seems to have consisted solely of taking pictures of demonstrations, talking to people about events, and passing the publicly available information to the French embassy.

But whether or not there was Western involvement—the U.S. government and Europe leaned over backwards and denied the oppositionists the kind of verbal support they would have received if from any other dictatorship—the Iranian government was going to claim it existed.

Meanwhile, some defendants in the trial “confessed” in obsequious terms that they lied, plotted, and subverted the glorious Islamic republic. Were they tortured? Threatened with death for themselves or their families?

What all this seems to signify is not just short-term repression to enforce Ahmadinejad’s reelection but a turning point in the regime’s history. Many historians think that Stalin’s terror was motivated by his discovering that a lot of his Communist party colleagues voted for other candidates in the Central Committee elections.

The new era in Iran might well be of vastly heightened internal repression coupled with an ambitious program of expanding Iran’s influence in the region, no less than seeking to be leader of the Gulf area, Middle East, and Muslim world generally. In the face of this trend, the efforts of Western governments or of President Barrack Obama to talk, charm, or sanction Iran into more moderate behavior are hopeless.

This seems to be the start of an era characterized by Western appeasement of Iran, an unprecedented challenge by that regime to the international and regional system, or both.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran (Oxford University Press and Penguin); The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), To read or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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