Sunday, 17 February, 2019

Four decades of Iranian revolution

By Asif Durrani

Iran is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution amidst the worst kind of American sanctions. It is a nation under stress economically; considered an interventionist state by its GCC neighbours and their allies; and is in a state of undeclared war with Israel. Being the champion of Shia Islam, the country is deeply involved in Iraq and Syria where Daesh/ISIS have played havoc forcing millions of Iraqis and Syrians to flee their countries.

What is it that keeps the revolution going in Iran despite myriad challenges that the theocratic order faces from day one? The Iranian officials would proffer the strength of the revolution which gave voice to the common man and toppled the monarchical rule of the erstwhile king Reza Shah Pahlavi. The post-revolution history of Iran is quite elaborate about the sacrifices rendered by the people under the leadership of Imam Khomeini. Conspiracies of the Americans to topple the Islamic system and the former dictator Saddam Hussein’s imposed war are the major planks of Iran’s contemporary history.

The Iranian system of governance has evolved in the past four decades. From a pure theocratic order, it has adopted the modern system of governance. Interestingly, conservative and moderate presidents have alternated in the corridors of power to accommodate the ideological divide within the theocratic system, mostly gauged in terms of social freedoms.

President Ahmadinejad represented the conservative ranks, who was accused of curbing social freedoms; irking the West due to his frank and terse remarks over its duplicity on Palestine and, doubting Israel’s exaggerated narrative over holocaust. The incumbent President Hassan Rouhani is considered a moderate who has further relaxed social freedoms, especially dress code for women. He is also credited with signing of the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear programme to peaceful purposes. While the agreement brought Iran to global mainstream, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal on the pretext that the agreement ignored Iran’s missile programme and its interference in the Middle East. US decision has been a clear setback to the international disarmament regime. The nuclear deal has also put President Rouhani under pressure from the conservative camp which blames Rouhani of holding a soft corner towards the West.

Iran’s internal political scene has also evolved over the four decades in which the ruling elite have made substantive progress in providing relief to the masses. Even opponents of the theocracy in the country admit that post-revolution Iran has achieved universal literacy (97 percent); developed the education system on modern lines with emphasis on development of technology. Despite American sanctions since the inception of the Islamic revolution, Iran has focused on encouraging indigenous research; in terms of scientific research and publications Iran is ranked second after Turkey in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Poverty in the country has fallen from 13.1 percent to 8.1 percent between 2009 and 2015 although 26 million Iranians still suffer from absolute poverty.

In the health sector, according to the WHO report, Iran tops the list in primary health while it has made tremendous strides in secondary and tertiary health throughout the country. Infrastructure development in the country is exemplary and can be compared to anywhere in the developed world. Most importantly, hygienic standards in the country are par excellence which immensely contribute to raising the health standards.

Pakistan-Iran relations during the past four decades have evolved into a mature and stable partnership. Both countries have always stood by each other despite differences in perceptions in the past on certain regional issues. Pakistanis do not forget that Iran was the first country in the neighbourhood which recognized Pakistan soon after independence. During Shah’s regime, Iran was forthcoming in helping Pakistan in its wars with India in 1965 and 1971. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has steadfastly supported right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people.

Similarly, Pakistan stood by Iran in the post-revolution period despite pressures from the Americans and some Arab countries. Whether it was Iran-Iraq war or vote in the IAEA against Iran’s nuclear programme, Pakistan supported Iran. India backed out during the IAEA vote in 2008 ostensibly to gain access to the American nuclear technology.  The scorecard of the Iranian revolution’s achievements is still incomplete. In the 21st century when the speed of information transfer is just seconds away, putting carbs on media has not worked in Iran; twitter or WhatsApp may be officially banned but are widely used throughout the country. The Iranian leadership although mindful of the peoples’ pressure has to grapple with the ensuing challenges.

However, it goes to the credit of the Iranian revolution that it could survive the Arab spring due to existence of a parliament with regular elections. Lively debates amongst the conservatives and moderates over the domestic and foreign policies of the country channelize the collective wisdom into decision making process at the top level. As compared to the rest of the Middle East, Iran has a vibrant political system which can sustain external pressures; socio-economic freedoms continue to evolve to keep pace with the modern trends in politics and economy. Today’s Iran is much different than two decades ago when slightest dissent would tantamount to conspiracy against the system with grave consequences for the dissenters.

Another important feature of Iran’s political system is the establishment of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which serves as a parallel force to the country’s armed forces. IRGC has all the three wings-army, air force and navy-to ensure that no harm comes to the system and also keep a check on the regular armed forces to contemplate staging a coup in the country. Second, IRGC is also involved in the ongoing war against Daesh/ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Its Qods Force commander General Soleimani has attained the legendary status in the country for his daring feats in Iraq and Syria. Third, IRGC’s subsidiary flank, Basij (voluntary force), with a strength of over two million, are available all the time to defend the revolutionary system.

The ongoing tensions in the region, especially Iran’s tussle with Saudi Arabia over Yemen, may have serious implications. It has already generated an arms race compelling the Saudis to spend $300 billion on American weapons. Additionally, Iran’s commitments in Iraq and Syria are costing approximately 9-10 billion dollars per annum which are proving to be onerous on its resources and may become a source of discontent within the country, especially when American sanctions have substantially squeezed Iran’s trade. Meanwhile, cost of living in the country due to rising inflation and unemployment, estimated at 27 percent, are further compounding the economic problems of the country.

Some American and Western analysts believe that economic crunch may serve as a catalyst to bring a change in the country. American National Security Advisor John Bolton has even claimed a regime change in Iran in 2019. However, ground realities in Iran do not support such claims, at least not in the foreseeable future. There may be some discontent in the country but the general mood is not in favour of another revolution. Concurrently, the Iranian leadership needs to rethink its policy in the region. Being the largest country in the MENA region with second largest economy after Saudi Arabia, Iran has to show leadership by raising the comfort level of its Arab neighbours.

The writer is a former ambassador

Published in Daily Times, February 10th 2019.

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