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Review: The Islamic Republic and the World

Michal Onderčo / Ed. 14. 3. 2016

PANAH, Maryam. The Islamic Republic and the World : Global dimensions of the Iranian Revolution. London & Ann Arbor. MI : Pluto Press. 2007. 213 s. ISBN 978-0-7453-262-1.

If you open any newspaper in the West, chances are that there will be at least a column on Iran in its international section. Iran and its infamous president, Iran and its nuclear program, Iran and its economic problems, Iran and its assertive politics in the Middle East. We are all confronted with developments taking place in this important, yet not fully known country.

Academics, journalists and politicians alike decided to quench our thirst for knowledge by publishing numerous books on Iran. While many of those books repeated what we already knew, only a few managed to offer new insights or to put the Iranian politics into a wider perspective. Maryam Pahah’s book The Islamic Republic and the World attempted to fill this gap.

First and foremost, we need to say that the task was not easy. The expectations were certainly high and making sense of politics of Middle Eastern countries in a way that a Westerner without deep knowledge of its history and society would understand it has never been an easy task. Nevertheless, the Panah’s book is a very refreshing addition to already existing scholarship on the Iranian revolution and the republic.

Panah undertook the task to study the Iranian Islamic revolution in its international context, as well as put the history of the Islamic republic into the international framework. This is certainly a praiseworthy undertaking, because no social movement, however indigenous it may seem, is not isolated from the world. This review also follows the structure of the book. Panah builds at first her theoretical framework and than proceeds to apply this framework on her case. While we may not agree with the framework itself, the application is very convincing and the overall result is worth reading, even though at times superfluous.

The Panah’s theoretical framework is Marxist. Panah sees the world order in terms of capital, exploitation and imperialism. Even though she never defines any of those terms, she illustrates them all on the example of the relationship of Iran and the US during the shah’s rule. She argues that when state does not follow the interest of the capitalist class anymore, the only recourse of the capitalist states ‘robbed’ of their mechanism of exploitation, is “to use the visibly coercive instruments of force”. She also claims that tensions between the status quo players and revolutionary states is due to the impediments imposed by the revolutionary states on the exercise of more “incisive power”. From those positions, we may get the impression that Panah got her ideas from Khomeini himself – who saw the US in very similar terms.

Author’s analysis of the Iranian revolution starts in 1941, when the Reza Shah vacated throne to let his son, Muhammad Reza, reign. The period of the beginning of the Cold War and the rapprochement between the US and Iran is closely scrutinized in the book. Free of any unimportant details, while being very detailed when it is needed, the book provides a lengthy overview of how Iran became the pillar of the US Gulf policy. Panah argues that the US tried to prevent emergence of any anti-capitalist movement (not only Soviet-backed movements as outlined in the Eisenhower doctrine). This is however no surprise, as many authors have argued that the US Middle East policy stood on three pillars – support for Israel, oil supply safety and countering USSR. Panah at lengths discusses the US-backed coup in 1953, which removed popular (but nationalist) prime minister Mossadeq from power and several times comes back to this event throughout the book. Panah portrays Iranian political system under Shah as the one which came to power thanks to the US and kept the power thanks to the same power. One of the strongest points of the book is, however, the detailed description of the social impact of the international context on the common people in Iran. It is truly crucial for the understanding of any movement, revolution or system alike, that we understand what is ‘going on’ on the ground. Without this understanding, we cannot grasp the logic of the past and present. Panah nevertheless succeeded in detailed depictions of the impact of the industrialization and the active role of state in it on the life of population of Iran.

While author also strived to look on how the revolutionary discourse appeared in Iran, it must be said that this part of the book is useful for the understanding of the following passages, but if a reader truly wants to find out more about the revolutionary discourse, he or she should look further than Panah’s book. Vali Nasr’s recent Shia Revival is an excellently written primer for understanding the Shiite politics and especially ideological underpinnings of the Revolution.

Khomeini’s populist discourse and his ideas are discussed in Chapter 3 of this book, which also shows a trajectory of how the power came to the hands of a few. Panah offers insights into the contradictions and controversies within the clergy and also between cities and rural areas. While Iran and Iranian public is often seen as a single body, Panah’s insightful depiction of the various factions within the revolutionary mass is very useful. On direct examples of property rights or rights of women, Panah illustrates the inherent controversies within the revolution. Author also with precision describes the hardliners’ discreditation of the provisional government, which was depicted as liberals. In fact, everybody who was opposed to any Khomeini-led policy was depicted as either liberal, US conspiracy-driven or secular left, none of which were reconcilable with ‘the revolution’. Author also debates the support that Iran offered to the Islamist movements around the globe, acknowledging that those were often eager to accept Iranian support, training and arms, but scarcely willing to accept the Iranian aims.

Author takes pain to describe and analyze two events that largely affected Iran and its immediate geopolitical situation – the one being storming of the US embassy and the other the war with Iraq, which is up to date the bloodiest of the Middle Eastern conflicts. While she comes here and there to the Iran-Iraq war, she doesn’t talk about the conflict itself, but rather about its internal repercussions and impact on the life, society and politics in Iran. She describes the mobilization of the Iranian society, including the war donations and general war effort – something that we know well from the modern European and US histories too. On the background of the deadly conflict with Iraq, the author describes the disintegration of the revolutionary coalition of Islamists and other leftist groups, with Khomeinism being left as the only current.

The revolution has failed to bring about the desired economic change – right to the opposite, the situation worsened, when the lack of economic development coupled with US-imposed sanctions were laid on the country. The support for the revolution deteriorated too. The ulama preached that posterity is the right way. However, the end of war and the death of Khomeini led to a small ‘reformation’ – in 1990s, the material wealth has ceased to be demonized and posterity was not the tenet of the day. The election of the reformist president Khatami brought with it also the promises of the social and political changes, but left the economic field largely intact. Panah claims that the reforms have largely failed and that state still controls better part of the economy.

In the last chapter, Panah assumed to analyze the newly assertive foreign policy of Iran. She claims that the fall of the Soviet bloc led to the assumption that Islam is the only alternative to the capitalism. Iranian media started spreading the word of the revolution, partly in order to escape what Olivier Roy called “Shia ghetto”. Iran improved relations with Central Asian neighbors, continued to support the Palestinian and Lebanese movements against Israel. However, the only country where the Islamic government came into power was Sudan. She also discusses Iranian attempts to replenish its military power, including the military use of the nuclear power. Panah mentions that the pressure of the US has increased since the election of George W Bush into the White House, but she also says that the US-imposed sanctions are not as widely respected by Western companies who follow their business interests.

Maryam Panah concludes that the more international pressure on Iran will lead to more domestic support for conservatives who posit themselves as the bulwark against the hostile capitalists.

The book deals truly with all subjects pertinent to contemporary Iran. Author is true to show that the enmity between the US and Iran is much deeper and older than current issues with the Iranian nuclear dossier. On the other hand, one needs to point to some shortcomings of the book. The book fails mention anything about the Iranian support for the Lebanese movements taking US hostages in 1980s, subsequent US pressure on Iran and sales of arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war through Israel. While the book is largely critical towards the revolution results on the economic plane, it mentions only one failure of the revolution – the failure to export. It does not say anything about the dissent among the clerics (including top echelons consisting of marja’) which is studied to great depth in Olivier Roy’s seminal Failure of Political Islam. When the author illustrates that the western companies and banks do work in Iran in defy to the US-imposed sanctions (to support her claims that other Western countries are more interested in business than in obeying US sanctions), she mentions several companies that in the meantime left Iran exactly due to the sanctions. Deutsche Bank is an illustration of such company and the current reluctance of the French Airbus to engage in business in Iran is another example, that US-imposed sanctions are actually affecting Western companies.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is useful for everybody interested in understanding contemporary Iran. It sheds light on numerous issues which are discussed today and enhances our understanding of Iran. Beyond the newspapers’ headlines…

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