How did the liberal values underpinning Iran’s revolution end up its biggest casualty?
On February 11, 1979, after several days of street fighting, Iranian revolutionaries seized palaces, government buildings, and TV and radio stations across the country, ending the US-backed monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
Although labor strikes and civil resistance had gripped the country for more than a year, the Shah’s ouster took many Western analysts by surprise. Just six months earlier, a CIA report had confidently asserted that Iran was “not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation.” But still more shocking than the revolution was the kind of government it produced.
For years, observed historian Roham Alvandi during a campus symposium marking the revolution’s 40th anniversary, the Shah’s opponents had decried the regime’s human rights abuses. Human rights slogans were in fact a staple of Iranian revolutionary rhetoric—“particularly [for] the Confederation of Iranian Students, in their activities in Europe and the United States,” Alvandi noted. So how did the revolution produce “an authoritarian state that engaged in the same human rights abuses—or even worse—than the regime it replaced?”
Looking at Iran’s revolution through the prism of human rights—how that issue gained saliency during the Shah’s tenure, even as the liberal values underpinning it lost ground—can help shed light on the revolution’s biggest casualty: liberal constitutionalism itself, which had at one time seemed like the likeliest future for Iran.
During a half-day symposium presented by the Middle East Center featuring about a dozen scholars of Iranian history and politics, Alvandi, an associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, gently chided the conventional Western view of the revolution and offered an account that helps explain the triumph of repressive government.
The story of human rights in Iran often centers on US President Jimmy Carter, whose administration made the issue a big part of its foreign policy. But Alvandi argued that the pressure Carter exerted on the Shah was “absolutely minimal” compared to the demands made of other foreign leaders. “Most of the pressure on human rights was actually coming from civil society in Europe and the United States,” Alvandi said, naming Amnesty International as an example, “and from the Confederation of Iranian Students and other opposition groups who formed a kind of transnational network to pressure the Shah.”
Their pressure was effective, he argued, because the Shah initially saw himself as a civilized ruler in the Western mold, who was bound by at least some strictures on the use of power. Domestic critics who accused him of failing to meet that standard found a sensitive spot—which also drove some of the Shah’s liberal reforms in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Shah’s view of himself also influenced his decision not to crack down when his opposition gained momentum. To advisors who urged a crackdown, the Shah responded “that a monarchy cannot rest on the blood of its own people—that somehow the nature of a monarchy is different from the nature of other dictatorships,” Alvandi said. “He says things like, ‘I am not a Sukarno, I am not a Pinochet,’” referring to the authoritarian rulers of Indonesia and Chile.
“Now, an uncharitable reading of the Shah was to say, ‘Well that’s ridiculous,’” Alvandi allowed. “Because of course the Shah was, in the popular imagination, in that pantheon of Cold War right-wing anti-Communist autocrats.” The Shah owed his throne to the United States, which he appeased in 1953 by permitting a US-backed coup against Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, a liberal constitutionalist whose plan to nationalize Iran’s oil industry made him powerful enemies in the UK and the US. And Mosaddegh’s fall created a lasting stain on the legitimacy of the Shah’s royal regime.
One way the Shah tried to restore his legitimacy was by developing an alternative human rights framework that rejected the Western orthodoxy—“a Third World narrative,” Alvandi noted, “which basically said that individual rights and civil rights didn’t matter; what really mattered was social and economic rights.” Iran championed this view at the United Nations, hosting the 1968 International Conference on Human Rights in Tehran to advance it.
Meanwhile, the coup against Mosaddegh drove opposition parties to abandon liberal constitutionalism in favor of “varying shades of Marxist, Maoist, and Islamist” ideologies. For them, human rights rhetoric functioned mainly as propaganda.
“At the same time they are making claims about human rights abuses by the Shah’s regime,” Alvandi observed, “what opposition intellectuals and figures say about human rights in Persian—to each other, in their theoretical journals, in internal discussions, or in fact in their human rights practices within their parties and movements—is completely contradictory to what they have to say about human rights in English to a European or American audience.” Parties that posed as human-rights crusaders were, whenever they thought the West wasn’t looking, glorifying “violence, martyrdom, and armed struggle” while ruthlessly purging dissidents within their own ranks.
“Human rights organizations were completely conscious of this” and fretted about whether they were in fact being used, Alvandi said. “In the internal reports Amnesty International was writing in the 1970s, they were extremely worried: What would happen if this Iranian opposition actually came to power?”
One of the things that made the revolution and its outcome so shocking to outsiders, Alvandi concluded, was that outsiders had overestimated the difference between the Shah and his opponents.
“They were actually very similar to one another,” he argued. “They both, in the 1970s, shared this notion of the West being in decline, and the idea of rejection of the West. … It’s just that they looked to different utopias to replace that liberal vision.” The Shah advanced his own version of human rights as a suite of social and economic arrangements that a strong monarch could help bring about. “For the more Marxist wing of the Iranian opposition, it’s a rejection of human rights on the basis of it being a product of bourgeois liberal values that are really irrelevant—because once you establish a socialist society, a communist utopia, there will be no human rights violations because class conflict will be eliminated. And from an Islamic point of view, it’s a critique of human rights based on cultural relativism—that human rights represent Western values that have no place in the Islamic world.”
Small wonder, then, that the revolutionary government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini went on to become synonymous with human rights abuses.
Could things have happened differently? And why did Iran’s liberals get pushed to the margins, where they have essentially remained for the last 40 years? During a discussion following Alvandi’s presentation, Ervand Abrahamian, who is perhaps the most influential contemporary historian of modern Iran, offered an analysis of the “not-so-strange death of liberalism in Iran.”
He suggested that Iran’s opposition may have been driven away from liberal values less by ideology than by a bitter lesson in geopolitical realism.
“I would trace it back to ’53,” Abrahamian began. “I know a prominent intellectual who is a very strong Mosaddeghist. He argues that Mosaddegh’s biggest mistake was that after the failed coup”—he survived a first coup attempt, only to fall to a second one four days later—“he didn’t just round up all the coupists and shoot them. Because someone actually suggested that.” But Mosaddegh was unwilling to commit extra-legal violence against the plotters.
“Fast-forward to 1980,” Abrahamian went on, “and the National Front organized the last demonstration in support of Mosaddegh on the anniversary of Mosaddegh’s death. Khamenei at that time was imam and made this very big speech. He didn’t want to use Mosaddegh’s name, but he said, ‘We’re not liberals like Allende that the CIA can snuff out.’ In other words: if you are going to deal with imperialism, you can’t be a liberal; you have to execute people. So in a way, this was the mentality of the opposition. It wasn’t that they rejected individual rights; their argument was the only way you can deal with dangers such as [the US-backed coup of] 1953 was actually to be tough-minded.
“In that way the coup did more than undermine Mosaddegh,” Abrahamian concluded. “It actually undermined liberalism and the whole constitutional movement.” —TP