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THE LAST GREAT REVOLUTION Turmoil and Transformation in Iran

by Robin Wright Knopf, $27.50

COINCIDING WITH THE RECENT triumph of reformers in the Iranian parliamentary elections, Robin Wright's depressingly titled book (are there really to be no more great revolutions?) is timely indeed. With impressive diligence she conducts us on a brisk trot round the modern Iranian social landscape, especially that part of it inhabited by enlightened reformers. The result is instructive and important to Americans reared on a media diet of fanatical mullahs preaching jihad to chanting masses.

Wright excels in the personal story--plunging into street demonstrations to elicit the life histories of youthful participants, dropping by a family-planning clinic to monitor young couples discussing sex, interviewing former revolutionaries, museum guards, carpet sellers, journalists, and many more, with impressive energy. At times I felt exhausted by her sheer industry. Her discussions with the liberal Islamic scholar Abdul Karim Soroush, one of the bravest and most interesting figures of contemporary Iran, as well as the redoubtable politician Ataollah Mohajerani, are particularly interesting.

Her conclusion is simple and hard to quarrel with: The Islamic revolution in Iran is reforming itself, struggling free of the suffocating embrace of the religious tyranny imposed by Khomeini after the overthrow of the Shah. The men (and, to a lesser but still surprising extent, women) now taking power are, she makes clear, intent on improving relations with the United States.

I hope Wright's book will be closely studied in Washington, where the Iranian "threat" is apparently still taken seriously in some quarters. Iran's missile program is, for example, customarily invoked as justification for the missile defense boondoggle, while the administration goes to enormous lengths to ensure that Caspian oil will not be routed, as the oil companies would prefer, through Iran, but rather through war-torn states of the former Soviet Union. Since there are so very few threats to go round in today's world, it may be some time before the national security establishment can tear itself away from the useful specter of militant ayatollahs.

In fact, Iran was never much of a threat in the first place. When our friend the Shah was overthrown by his enraged subjects, who went on to indicate in the hostage crisis that they had their beefs against the United States, threatmongers had us trembling in our beds at the prospect of militant Islam sweeping out of the desert sands and menacing Western civilization as we know it. Yet the Iranian revolution was principally an uprising against the secular modernism of the Shah's regime that had signally failed to promote social justice in Iran. Whatever Ayatollah Khomeini may have hoped, it had little export potential.

The theocracy espoused by Khomeini was a novel perversion even of Shia Islam, let alone the Sunni variant to which the vast majority of Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere adhere. "Velyat e Faqih," the notion of a religious leader holding supreme political power, was given a very sniffy reception by theologically more eminent Shia figures, such as Grand Ayatollah al-Khoie, venerated religious leader of the 12 million Iraqi Shia. Thus, when Khomeini reached out to subvert his Iraqi co-religionists soon after taking power, few of them heeded his call. In fact, the Iraqi Shia fought tenaciously for Saddam Hussein against the Iranians over eight bloody years. The Shia of Saudi Arabia never posed much of a threat to the monarchy and were eventually bought off.

Further afield, the triumph of the revolution in Iran may have appeared to have found echoes in other Muslim countries with the appearance of fanatical groups pledged to "renewal" of their faith by returning to the alleged purity of seventh-century Islam. As in Khomeini's Iran, this involved adopting as dogma the most intolerant of the Prophet's revelations--chopping off the hands of thieves, subjugation of women, etc. But such movements have rarely successfully taken power, and where Islamic states have appeared they have not served as models to others. Today, apart from Iran, the sum total of successful fundamentalist Islamic revolutions consists of Sudan and Afghanistan, hardly an advertisement for the model.

Admittedly, there are places where militant Islam still appears to flourish. In Indonesia, for example, a Muslim leader recently told a hundred thousand demonstrators in Jakarta that "tolerance is absurd," sparking a massacre of Christians. Nigeria is convulsed by riots and massacres following attempts to impose Islamic "sharia" law. Pakistan, where the military rulers have followed Koranic precepts in banning interest on bank loans, may yet fall victim to a corrosive fundamentalism. Nevertheless, the overall picture is that of a movement in retreat, most tellingly in the place where it all started: Iran.

Just as Khomeini's revolution was propelled by disaffection with the poverty and social injustice associated with the Shah's corrupt rule, so his successors have suffered from their failure to alleviate poverty and their own very evident dishonesty. On my last trip to Iran I found this to be the dominant topic of conversation across the country: "Prices keep rising, wages stay where they are. The mullahs are corrupt. There's no freedom here." Not surprisingly, the mullahs' failure has led to a gradual loss of interest in Islam itself. It is rare for example to see people stopping to pray in public places, a common sight in supposedly secular states like Turkey.

For a time, it appeared that Khomeini's hard-line heirs would not give up their power without a fight. Liberal student demonstrations were brutally broken up; a death squad operating from within the intelligence service began killing prominent reformist intellectuals. It is therefore all the more cheering that, in the end, the Iranian revolution appears to be reforming itself peacefully, a fact that provides the central thesis of Wright's book and has been notably confirmed by the recent elections. As she concludes: "The Islamic Republic does deserve credit for one of the twentieth century's most important legacies. In ways never anticipated, Iran's upheaval did succeed in creating a climate for revolutions within the revolution." Maybe Khomeini had his points after all.

ANDREW COCKBURN's most recent book is Out of the Ashes; The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Cockburn, Andrew
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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