The ability of Americans to believe that Iran secretly wants to be just like us but is repressed by unrepresentative opponents never ceases to amaze me, and the dynamic is at work once again surrounding the funueral of “dissident” Grand Ayatollah Mir Hussein Montazeri.
Predictably, the death of one of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s original associates who turned against the current ruling class has energized the persistent minority in Iran that seeks modernization and westernization, complete with massive urban demonstrations and repressive reactions by the theocracy that rules the country. Thanks to modern technology, the images are available to us all, and they bring sparks of hope among westernized Iranian expatriates and Americans who firmly want to believe Iranians are “just like us” and that maybe, just maybe, the result will be genuine reform this time–by which we mean the adoption by Iran of western-style democracy or something like it. As the New York Times gushed in today’s edition, reaction surrounding Montazeri’s death has raised “the possibility that the cleric’s death could serve as a catalyst for an opposition movement.”
The key word here, of course, is “possibility,” because the real prospect is no more than the most remote possibility of change toward westernizing Iran and thereby lessening the animosity between Iran and the United States that has dominated Iranian politics since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and has its roots back into the immediate post-World War II period.
The belief that some Iranians would like to become westernized is not entirely baseless, of course. The whole thrust of Shah Reza Pahlevi’s White Revolutionwas to transform the Peacock Empire into a modern, competitive (aka westernized) society as a way to restore Iran’s historic place in the world. In the proces, Iran did develop an urbanized, educated, and westernized class, and some of that group and its successor generations are still found in the cities and provide the nucleus of the dissident movement. They did not then and certainly do not now represent anything like a majority of the population or the government’s support base, which is based in the highly religious, Shiite rural masses who view the theocracy as their natural leaders and the urbanized sophisticates in the cities as apostate unbelievers who would undermine Islam. When the regime reacts to protests by turning loose the Basij militias to stomp on reformers, it does so with the tacit consent of a fairly large part of the population.
These dynamics have history behind them, in at least two ways. One is that westernization, which is nearly universally associated with the Satanic Americans, undercuts the traditional values of one of the most traditional peoples in the world–rural Iranian Shiites. Change threatens them, and they correspondingly have little sympathy with agents of a change they can only oppose. Second, the dissident middle class in Iran has, over the years, proven pitifully politically inept. They could not keep the democratically elected Mossadeqh regime in power in the 1950s in the face of a CIA-backed coup, and they failed miserably to seize control in 1979, when their leaders felt certain they could gain power over the “country bumpkin” Ayatollahs whom we have learned to know and love so well.
Despite all this, we in the west wax ebullient whenever Iranians take to the street. Anybody to the political left of Ahmedinejad is seen as a democratizing savior, whether he is or not. Have we so quickly forgotten the euphoria associated with the loud dissidence of Mir Hussein Moussavi protesting that the elections earlier in the year that returned Ahmedinejad to power were rigged? In that euphoria, we forgot that Moussavi had been approved as a candidate by the Supreme Council, an endorsement he would hardly have achieved were he truly anti-regime. Similarly, Montazeri spoke out against the regime, but he did not threaten the system. Had he, he would not have been allowed to stick around.
So off we go again, spinning the stuff of dreams about yet another round of “reform.” Like all the preceding rounds, this will die off in a few days, and things will return depressingly to normal in Iran. That may not be the way we would like it, but it is the way things are in Iran.