What do the Iranians think of Bollywood

Iran

Alessandro Topa

Dr. Alessandro Topa is Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo. He has been traveling regularly to Iran since 1999, from where he has reported on cultural and political developments for the NZZ, FAZ and taz, among others.

In 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded. There followed a war, reconstruction, reform efforts and their failure. Today Iran's economy is paralyzed and international sanctions are back in force. The Iran expert Alessandro Topa looks back on 40 years of Iranian history.

To this day, Iran's civil society is still struggling for reforms. But in addition to more political freedom, it is more and more often about the country's miserable economic situation. (& copy picture-alliance, AA)

"The essence of Iranian history," as the former President Mohammed Khatami once put it in front of students, "is the struggle for democracy." [1] If the successes of this struggle in the past were repeatedly undone by internal system forces, the unilateral one has Withdrawal of the USA from the international nuclear agreement for the time being destroyed the historical possibility of starting a gradual opening of the Islamic Republic based on the intensification of economic relations and preparing its geostrategic approach to Europe.

Revolution and War (1979-1989): the founding years under Ayatollah Khomeini

When the Iranians were 98 percent in favor of an Islamic republic in March 1979, few knew what this would mean in concrete terms. The people followed their leader, the 77-year-old Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had just released them from the dictatorship of the Shah and his secret service. "I vote yes for the Islamic Republic," the aged cleric now proclaimed from posters. Following his example was not difficult for the then 60 percent illiterate among the 21 million eligible voters: with the green section of the ballot paper you voted for Islam; with the red against God.

For observers, however, it became clear that the referendum broke out a dispute in which the Islamist, liberal and Marxist forces united in their thrust against the Shah now turned against each other. In particular, Mehdi Bazargan, appointed Prime Minister by Khomeini, who called for a "Democratic-Islamic Republic", had to admit the impotence of his transitional government in October 1979: "Khomeini has the say, including his Revolutionary Council, the committees and his relationship with the masses." [2] This became evident in the summer when Khomeini replaced Iran's constituent assembly with the Council of Experts, which was dominated by clergy.

When students occupied the US embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, Bazargan resigned. Khomeini, however, used the anti-American agitation of the hostage crisis to further curtail the influence of the Democrats on the drafting of the constitution. One month later he was able to secure 99 percent approval for a constitution which, by virtue of the doctrine of the "rule of the legal scholar" (velayat-e faqih) secured the dominant position of power in the state.

The first years of the Islamic Republic were marked by excesses of violence with which, after the Liberals, militant Islamo-Marxist opposition groups were also eliminated. Thousands of members of the opposition had been killed by 1988. [3] In the course of a rigorous cultural revolution, the Islamization of the judiciary and education as well as the economy and the media was pursued at the same time.

For the population, these developments took place within the historical framework of the so-called "holy defense" against Iraq, whose tanks penetrated Iranian territory on a broad front on September 22, 1980. A war began that would cost hundreds of thousands their lives, especially since Iran itself went on the offensive from 1982 onwards. As a myth of willingness to make sacrifices against the aggressors from the neighboring country and in solidarity-based belief in the revolution, the transfiguration of the war shapes the social model and self-image of the Islamic Republic to this day - and is part of an Iranian-Shiite history of salvation.

Reconstruction and De-ideologization (1989-1997): Pragmatism under Hashemi Rafsanjani

With the armistice between Iran and Iraq in July 1988 and the death of Khomeini in June 1989, a phase of de-ideologized debate began over pressing political and socio-economic problems.

The problem of the establishment of a new order of power after Khomeini was solved by a constitutional reform, which the principle of velayat-e faqih modified: The revolutionary leader was no longer required to unite the highest religious and political authority. Instead, the constitution now made it possible to compensate for a lack of theological qualification with political expertise. The Expert Council appointed Seyyed Ali Chamenei a "mere" hojjatoleslam to the Führer, who had previously served as President. A little later, Khamenei was promoted to theological rank of Ayatollah. With Hashemi Rafsanjani, another middle-ranking clergyman was elected president, who had also belonged to Khomeini's closest advisory group.

Rafsanjani’s policy focused on rebuilding the industry and infrastructure that had been destroyed in the war, as well as eliminating inefficiencies through the privatization of state-owned companies. The path of indebtedness was chosen to supply the country with imports. With its modernization projects, the Rafsanjani government partly followed the plans of the Shah and sought exiled experts whose return should help to overcome the deficits in management, technology and education.

At the same time, Rafsanjani found himself increasingly exposed to left-wing Islamist criticism, which warned a lack of loyalty to the egalitarian ideals of the revolution and denounced the opening of the economy to foreign investors as treason. In particular, the leaders of religious foundations (bonyadha), whose holdings manage the state-owned means of production, resisted the liberalism of Rafsanjani, who in his second term in office could hardly count on the support of parliament after the population had lost confidence in him. Economic liberalization failed and corruption was rampant.

Dialogue and Democratic Hopes (1997-2005): Reformism under Mohammed Khatami

Rafsanjani’s pragmatic policies, in particular the strengthening of the private sector, better education and the relaxation of censorship, prepared the way for Mohammed Khatami’s victory, who was elected president in May 1997 with 70 percent of the vote. The left-liberal cleric understood public discourse and political participation as the key to liberalizing the Islamic Republic within the framework of its constitution. Accordingly, he started with the agenda of strengthening civil society and advocating women's rights and freedom of the press.

While Chatami's foreign policy of a "dialogue of civilizations" improved relations with Arab and European countries, he was hardly able to keep his promises domestically - despite initially unbroken approval in the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2000 and 2001: culture and political discourse flourished at the same time But the conservative forces began to organize around revolutionary leader Khamenei and countered by arresting reformists and banning many newspapers. Every third law passed by parliament failed due to the veto of the Guardian Council.

When the law enforcement officers brutally attacked students demonstrating for freedom of the press in July 1999, riots broke out across the country and several people died. Khatami initially did not comment on the events; But then - after massive pressure from the military and the revolutionary leader's camp - ostentatiously behind Khamenei.

By turning away from the students, who could only see them as treason, from the perspective of secular reformists and many young Iranians, Chatami missed the historic opportunity to risk a direct confrontation with the revolutionary leader, supported by the people. In the political actions of the spiritual reformer, the system-immanent limits of the democratic potential of the Islamic Republic became apparent. In this respect, the summer of 1999 represented a decisive turning point in recent Iranian history. Accordingly, many former followers of Chatami are still disaffected today.

With the positioning of Iran on an "axis of evil" carried out by US President George W. Bush in January 2002, reformism came under additional pressure in the wake of the US-led "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq. The previous Iranian cooperation with the US armed forces in the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was initially celebrated as a foreign policy success of reformism.

In the 2004 parliamentary elections, 3,600 reformists were not admitted, so that - also due to an election boycott by the reformists - the conservatives regained a majority in parliament.

Aggressive foreign policy and left-wing Islamist populism (2005-2013): neoconservatism under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

In 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (on the right) wins the presidential election. With him a non-cleric first becomes president. Congratulations on taking office (from left to right) Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammed Chatami and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

The political failure of reformism strengthened the insight among observers that the Islamic Republic could not be democratized within the framework of the given constitution. In addition, reformism indirectly triggered a new profile for conservatism and set in motion the shift of the revolutionary leader's power base to the empire of the Revolutionary Guards. These were founded in 1979 as a counterpoint to the regular army with its monarchist tradition.

Both developments culminated in the 2005 presidential election, in which none of the reformers succeeded in activating old potential voters. Rather, a new type of fundamentalist politician triumphed over Rafsanjani, the candidate of the clerical establishment: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first non-clergy head of government of Iran since 1981.

Ahmadinejad was a transportation engineer and a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war. He came from the milieu of the loyal Basij militias - a paramilitary volunteer militia that mobilized the Revolutionary Guards as an auxiliary force if necessary. Other neoconservatives, in opposition to reformism, made their way into local administrations, institutional leadership positions, parliament and finally also into the government.

Ahmadinejad's offensive stance, his denial of the Holocaust and Israel's right to exist, and his intransigence in the nuclear conflict further isolated Iran and resulted in sanctions by the UN Security Council. Domestically, his left-wing Islamist program based on the core concept of social justice was repeatedly criticized as populist clientele policy and as an illegal waste of foreign currency.

In June 2009, Ahmadinejad was unexpectedly clearly re-elected as president (with over 62 percent). The "deep state" around revolutionary leader Khamenei was subsequently accused of having falsified the election results, which led to the most serious legitimacy crisis of the Islamic Republic's political system to date.

There were mass rallies of the rapidly emerging neo-reformist “Green Movement” at which the urban middle classes protested against what they - presumably rightly - must have considered blatant electoral fraud. But revolutionary leader Khamenei and the security forces reacted: There were dozens of deaths, hundreds of injuries and a wave of arrests that systematically silenced the voices of thousands of opposition members. [4] Numerous well-known members of the opposition were indicted and convicted in show trials for supporting a revolution allegedly directed from abroad. The defeated reform-oriented candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who documented violations of the electoral law and urged new elections, are still under house arrest today.

Hegemonic Forward Defense and Failure of the Nuclear Agreement (2013-2019): Neopragmatism under Hassan Rouhani

The political history of the Islamic Republic in the past decade is essentially determined by the targeted expansion of its sphere of influence - military, religious-political, economic, cultural and academic - in the states of the region torn by civil wars. This "forward defense" takes place in the short and medium term with the aim of compensating for conventional military weakness through strategic depth and a network of Shiite militias. In the long term, it is about the ambitious and precarious goal of being able to consolidate the accumulated hegemonic power in the construction of an "Iranosphere". The youth protests that have been held down with extreme violence in Lebanon and Iraq since the late summer of 2019, which are directed against the corruption of local clients and the Pan-Shiite expansionism of Tehran, show how deeply it now permeates the everyday reality of the citizens. The nuclear conflict, which has been the focus of media attention in recent years and which is also highlighted below as a narrative guide, is to be classified in this overall picture and probably also to be relativized with regard to its historical significance.

Nonetheless, the election of Hassan Rouhani as the seventh President of the Islamic Republic in June 2013 undoubtedly heralded a radical change in foreign policy and diplomatic course. This was, of course, greatly facilitated by US President Barack Obama's (2009-2017) innovative policy on Iran at eye level. Ahmadinejad's ideologically disguised attitude of maximum intransigence was followed by the solution-oriented pragmatism of the liberal legal scholar and security expert Rouhani and his urbane foreign minister, Mohammed Zarif, who was deeply committed to the nuclear deal.

The talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, USA, United Kingdom) including Germany and the European Union soon showed progress. After a series of negotiations, they led to the one agreed in Vienna Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the "International Nuclear Agreement". With this agreement from July 2015, Iran undertook - in return for the gradual lifting of sanctions - to suspend and regularly monitor the potentially militarily useful components of its nuclear program for 15 years.

In 2017 President Hassan Rouhani will be re-elected - with a clear majority. Nonetheless, social frustration is growing: Iran's economy is paralyzed and unemployment is high. At the turn of the year 2017/2018 there were nationwide protests. (& copy picture-alliance, AA)

After Donald Trump's election as US president in November 2017, the euphoria in Iran and Europe about the opening up of opportunities for economic cooperation in the context of Iran's technological modernization soon gave way to concerns that the new US administration might withdraw from the agreement. It was feared that the USA intended to force Iran back to the negotiating table by tightening the sanctions, in particular in order to include the Iranian missile program in an - from the American point of view - improved agreement.

The official declaration of the US President on May 8, 2018 to withdraw from the agreement was followed by the reinstatement and tightening of sanctions in November 2018. Since then, the aim has been to further isolate the Islamic Republic economically and to bring it to the brink of financial collapse by completely stopping oil exports and thus to encourage protests in the interior of the country. In response to rising food prices, a lack of wage payments and costly support for Shiite militias abroad, protests across the country, some of which were extremely violent, broke out at the turn of the year 2017/18. Likewise in November 2019: The peaceful demonstrations, which initially arose because of unannounced gasoline price increases, developed within a few days into nationwide protests against the system of the Islamic Republic and its leadership. The martial intervention of the security forces resulted in the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators. [5]

After the escalation of the conflict with the USA at the turn of 2019/2020, the Islamic Republic appears to be at an epoch-making crossroads at the beginning of the new decade. The developments that were set in motion by the assassination of the Quds Brigade commander Qassem Soleimani by a US drone attack in Iraq on January 3, 2020, can currently hardly be overlooked due to their domestic and global political complexity. Iran responded to Soleimani's killing by shelling military bases in Iraq used by US forces.The scale of the attacks made it clear that Tehran wants to avoid war. At the same time, millions of Iranians took part in mourning processions lasting several days for Soleimani; the protests of November seemed forgotten for the time being. But on January 11, the Revolutionary Guards officially admitted guilt that they accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane with 176 people (mostly of Iranian nationality or descent) on board near Tehran on January 8. Again there were protests against the regime. Well-known figures in public life published messages in which they distanced themselves from the system of the Islamic Republic.

In view of the hopeless economic situation and the Trump administration's strategy of subjecting the Islamic Republic to a permanent "stress test", it can be assumed that the Islamic Republic will undertake domestic and foreign policy corrections in the direction of constructive pragmatism. These course corrections could break the basic consensus of all political camps in the Islamic Republic that has prevailed up to now, if a way out of isolation and the complete exhaustion of the country in the conflict with the USA is to be avoided.

So far, this consensus has firstly included the conviction that the US’s Iran policy is working towards regime change in Tehran. Second, this consensus includes a military defense doctrine, according to which the massive armament of the Gulf States and the military threat potential of the new Washington-Tel-Aviv-Riyadh axis can only be neutralized by expanding hegemonic "forward defense" at the expense of an attack to be able to keep pushing one's own territory higher. Thirdly, this consensus includes the conviction that Iranian society will show solidarity with the regime the more pressure from abroad increases.

Of these premises, only the first one seems to be able to be accepted with certainty in Tehran.

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