A theocracy at the crossroads
"Its demise is not probable, but certain": the end being forecast here is that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the man daring to make this bold prognosis is its first president, Abolhassan Banisadr.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently marking its 40th birthday, and its former president has been in Parisian exile for almost 39 years. Like many contemporary witnesses, the 85-year-old is currently in demand for all manner of media interviews: on the true nature of this unique revolution, on what became of it and above all, where it is now headed. All these interviewees – most of them male and elderly – are happy to talk in great length and detail, whichever side of the frontline they happen to be on.
And many fronts have arisen over these past 40 years. Small wonder then that for weeks now, Iranian media and websites have been full of reports, documents and interviews in which Revolution winners and losers are given their say, bringing to light many old and new truths from a dark time. Attentive historians will appreciate the value of these interesting accounts.
But much more important than the past history of the Islamic Republic are its precarious present situation and its uncertain future. We do not know what the coming weeks and months will bring. But there is no shortage of prognoses: further radicalisation or gradual moderation, rapid demise or slow disintegration – in the not too distant future we will see who is right.
What becomes of this nation is not just important to Iranians themselves, but also to the entire world. Regardless of the future path of this remarkable republic: the process will change the region and ultimately, the entire world – just as it has over the past 40 years.
Bin Salman yearns for the "good old days"
When Mohammad bin Salman, known as MbS, the omnipotent Saudi Crown Prince, was asked in October 2017 why he wanted to reform Saudi Arabia so quickly and thoroughly, the young firebrand replied that he wanted to return to the pre-1979 era.
Why does he want to go so far back? Because the year 1979 left a traumatic mark on the psyche of Saudi Arabia and the entire Islamic world.
This was the year when a political earthquake threatened the power of royal dynasties. The epicentre of this quake lay in Iran, where a popular revolution led by an Ayatollah ("sign of god") put an end to the monarchy – a revolution that wasn't just fascinating, but also very dangerous.
Its message could be summed up in one sentence: political Islam can change the world. And it did just that. Fundamentally, dramatically.
In other capitals, the powerful had to steel themselves against the danger ahead. As to Saudi Arabian efforts to counter the allure of the Iranian Revolution over the past 40 years, probably enough books and articles have been written on the subject to fill a medium-sized library.
Immunising Sunnis against the Shia revolutionary virus
The idea was to immunise the Sunni world against the Shia revolutionary virus. The Saudis set forth with billions of petrodollars and an army of propagandists and preachers. Religious schools, mosques and foundations were set up all over the world aimed at spreading Saudi Islam.
But the Saudis also created, intentionally and unintentionally, their own – Sunni-influenced – political Islam, one that stepped onto the political global stage with spectacular acts of violence. Terror groups emerged with the goal of shaking the world to its very core. Al Qaida, 9/11 and the ensuing wars, IS and the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are the aftershocks of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
Appreciation of this context is essential if one is to understand why the power-conscious Saudi Crown Prince suddenly wants to travel back in time to his own childhood.
A correct interpretation of his comments would be that he also wants to end Saudi support for various Islamist groups and establishments around the world. Whether he can and will actually do this, is another – interesting – subject.
But with his desire to return to his own childhood, MbS is expressing a familiar principle of history: every major revolution imposes lasting change on the world. Just like the Russian and the French, the Iranian Revolution also turned – if not the entire world, then at least the Islamic world - upside down. And this far-reaching upheaval is not yet complete.
Even the Revolutionary Guards are nervous
And what is going on in the homeland of this Revolution, on its 40th anniversary? "Is the Islamic Republic on the brink of collapse?" This question was the title of a long interview published by the Iranian news agency Tasnim.
To fully appreciate the true explosive power of such a report, it is important to know that Tasnim is the agency of the Revolutionary Guards; it is better informed and more powerful than the IRNA, Iran's state news agency controlled by the government.
The choice of interviewee is equally charged: the 60-year-old sociologist Mohammad Reza Tadjik, who holds important posts and positions in Iran despite being close to the reformers. The British-educated professor is regarded as a recognised strategist and as deputy minister at Iran's Ministry of Intelligence, responsible for psychological warfare.
Tadjik, who is known for his candour, comes straight to the point. "In my opinion we're in a traumatic situation," is his first sentence in this interview and he immediately goes on to define what he means: "In such a situation the souls, emotions, thoughts and convictions of the people are burdened by pain and suffering that comes from both within and without. Society is out of kilter, it becomes abnormal."
The causes of pain and suffering from within are, according to Tadjik, corruption, mismanagement, bad decisions and wrong-headed strategies: all of which have violated the souls and emotions of the people.
The strategist for psychological warfare cities another symptom of the disease: "the second problem is that all authorities and capabilities turn out to be incapable. Everything that determined all actions in the past, the permitted and the prohibited, now has no validity: not just in the private sphere, but also in society," says the sociologist – and reaches an alarming conclusion: "Iranian society is breaking up, in a state where the past is dying and the future cannot arise, including the capacity for reform," says the former adviser to reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
"People of the world…"
Whether it's the disintegration that many fear, or the reform that many hope for, or the uprising of the dissatisfied that U.S. President Donald Trump aims to trigger with his sanctions: whatever happens now in Iran, whatever path this nation may take, it will pull the region along with it into an uncertain tide of change just as it did 40 years ago. It will change the world just as it did before.
Yet neither Trump and his allies, who believe they have found a strategy against Iran, nor Europe, currently striving for a definable diplomatic approach, can afford to be complacent over the possible future path of the Islamic Republic.
"People of the world, look upon [Iran]" might be an apt modification of Ernst Reuter's legendary sentence. With his appeal, Berlin's former mayor wanted to draw attention to the fate of the city, that what was happening there should be of interest to the whole world.
The situation facing contemporary Iran is not much different.
Translated from the German by Nina Coon