Special to AC360°
The 1979 Iranian revolution took place during the Cold War. During this time Third World societies were deeply influenced by anti-imperial ideologies. Although the Iranian revolution had an Islamic character, the Islam that was turned into a political ideology was influenced by the ‘progressive’ ideology of those days, i.e. Bolshevik Marxism.
In broad terms, Iranian revolutionaries wanted independence from foreign control and were critical of Western intervention that was supporting political despotism in Iran. The Shah of Iran was considered to be the regional gendarme of American imperialism in the Middle East. A popular slogan during this period was “after the [downfall of the] Shah it is America’s turn [to be defeated].”
Anti-Western sentiment at the time had two separate meanings: anti-imperialism in a Leninist sense of the term; and a critique of modernity in the Heidegerrian sense of philosophical critique. The other popular slogan at the time was a demand for social justice. What was missing, however, from political discourse at the time was a serious consideration of the ethical requirements of democracy and human rights.
Other events quickly followed: the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, Saddam Hussein’s military invasion of Iran, a cultural revolution and the crushing of Marxist and other opposition groups. The revolution that Ayatullah Khomeini was leading was populist in nature with little concern for fostering political pluralism and respecting diversity.
At the same time, as a result of the 1979, the masses of people were now active agents in determining their political destiny. The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) further enhanced social mobilization. Populist economic policies and the nationalization of economic assets and resources made the state the key actor on the scene. Oil revenues not only led to state autonomy from civil society but it allowed the state to expand its repressive apparatus and solidify its vertical control over many aspects of society.
Thirty years of Islamic fundamentalist rule, however, has generated significant political opposition throughout Iran. This has gradually coalesced into the Green Movement which has been on global display since the June 2009 presidential election. What the world has been watching for the past eight months – in contrast to the 1979 revolution - is a movement that seeks a democratic transition to a regime that respects pluralism and human rights.
While this has been taking place the focus of the US government and most of the media remains on Iran’s nuclear program and the possible dangers it poses for the world.
Perhaps the Iranian regime’s repression over the past eight months, replete with the death of about 100 people in the streets, deaths due to torture, executions, the mass arrest of hundreds of opposition supporters, harsh prison sentences, and the banning of all opposition media, pales in comparison to the loss of life in neighboring Iraq. But this is the story of a people who have endured three decades of repression and fear, humiliation, the squandering of their national interests and the humiliation of their country by the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It might be hard to appreciate how widespread and deep rooted is the discontent amongst freedom-seeking and peaceful Iranians toward the current regime but denying this fact will lead to distorted and ideologically-biased interpretations of Iranian politics and society.
While Iranians certainly want to see diplomatic relations re-established between Iran and the United States, in no way do they want to see this happen at the price of ignoring systematic human rights violations, including executions of political prisoners. Actions of this regime against its own people are tantamount to crime against humanity.
Editor's note: Akbar Ganji is a leading Iranian dissident and pro-democracy activist. He served a six-year sentence in Tehran's Evin prison for his reporting on human rights abuses in Iran. The London-based human rights organization, Article 19, has described Ganji as the "Iranian Vaclav Havel" and he has received more than a dozen human rights, press freedom and pro-democracy awards. He is the author of "The Road to Democracy in Iran" (MIT Press, 2008).
This article was translated by Nader Hashemi, Assistant Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.