The relationship between Iran and the United States has been the subject of international focus since 2017 when the U.S. decided to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. However, the U.S. withdrawal ought to be put in the context of the Trump administration’s expressed desire to topple the Iranian regime. Arguably, tensions between Iran and the U.S. have never been higher. However, Iranian-American relations have been strained for decades, long before recent negotiations over nuclear non-proliferation.
After the 1979 revolution, theocratic governance known as the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist was enacted in Iranian law. As a theocratic regime, Iran is at odds with secular liberal democracy. This is largely why the relationship – although markedly better under the Obama Administration – has always been contentious.
Over the course of World War II, the Allies and the Soviet Union invaded Iran in a joint attempt to secure oil reserves and eliminate the potential threat that the Nazi occupation of the Caucasus would pose. However, this meant the neutral status of Iran in WWII was ignored. The installation of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi then followed as an alternative to his father, Reza Shah, with the belief that he looked favourably upon the Allies. Ultimately, this upheaval was a product of war strategy to prevent Hitler from obtaining resources. Whether such a move was beneficial will remain the subject of historical debate, but it is relevant in understanding the West and Iran’s present dynamic.
The 1979 Revolution:
At the height of the Cold War in 1963, the Shah’s intention to modernize and reform the country through the “White Revolution” was particularly unpopular with many clerical class members. Ruhollah Khomeini, an outspoken critic of the move and vocal opponent of modernization, was exiled from Iran in November 1964.
After spending some 15 years in Turkey and Iraq, Khomeini was forced to leave Iraq under the order of then-Vice President Saddam Hussein. He then settled in France in October 1978, after attempting to enter Kuwait on a false passport. Khomeini managed to garner significant media attention among practicing Shia Muslims who viewed him as a beacon of hope, democracy and republicanism.
Defending the French’s actions at this time, former French Ambassador to Iran, Francois Nicoullaud, said that “there is a short moment of unanimity at the beginning of the revolution when everyone agrees to get rid of the tyrant.” With the benefit of hindsight, this action was an idealistic Cold War project based on naïve optimism. Khomeini bid his time in France, waiting for the revolution to unfold back home slowly. When the Shah was overthrown, he returned at the precise moment to seize power and implement the theocratic regime that continues to suppress free speech, protest and democracy to this day.
This suppression began early with the first post-revolutionary President Abolhassan Banisadr and his opposition towards extrajudicial executions in the 1980s. Banisadr protested Khomeini’s abuse of power, leading to his impeachment and escape to France in 1981 – only two years after the Revolution. In an interview with The Associated Press, he argued that Khomeini simply “restored a dictatorship” and that France had “to take a risk” in supporting Khomeini in 1979.
A comprehensive understanding of Iran’s history is important for international organizations, advocates of human rights awareness, and governments worldwide to fathom the status of human rights in Iran. As a repressive theocratic state, human rights organizations’ ability to source valid information on the situation in Iran is difficult.
Despite this difficulty in obtaining information, there are scant sources and information leaks that suggest that Iran’s situation is now in worse shape than it ever has been, or indeed was under the prior rule of the Shahs. National upheaval against the regime in December 2017 led to a systemic crackdown on public protests, as 4,900 people were arrested.
Furthermore, active persecution of Muslim minorities has also taken place, some having even been executed for their role in subsequent protests. The regime also shut down internet access to social networking applications such as Telegram, Facebook and Twitter, restricting communication for up to 40 million Iranians.
Despite this, the people of Iran have continued to mobilize against the leadership of Supreme Leader Khamenei and have risked arrest, torture and execution. 13 people were arrested after signing an open letter that urged Khamanei’s resignation in late August 2019. This also included calls for better rights of various groups, including women and the disabled. The list of repressive governance and political persecution continues to increase, including the jailing of a political satirist Keyomars Marzban for 23 years.
This is hardly shocking when one considers the Islamic Republic’s track record towards freedom of association, speech, and personal freedom.
The United Nations and many other international organizations have continually condemned the Iranian regime’s treatment of its citizens. However, there needs to be more attention given to the historical context around which the present regime came about and a proper understanding of the events that led to its theocratic rule. The fact that condemnations of human rights abuses – as right as they may be – are the international community’s focus suggests that these groups continually ignore regime type issues.
Presently the situation for internal change in Iran is difficult. As a theocracy, Iran’s top legal institution relies on religious interpretation and scriptural references within its constitution. While Article Six of the Iranian constitution mandates the rule of democracy and popular elections, these are subordinate to the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader’s rule as spelled out in Article 107-112 of the constitution. This severely contradicts democratic rule.
As the political situation has worsened, Iran’s attitude and sentiment have slowly changed for the better since 1979. Although Iran’s elections are built on the false pretence of fairness and equality, they are slowly turning into acts of defiance. Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Colombia University, stated to Al Jazeera:
“The fact, however, is that in every such electoral occasion in Iran we are witness to two elections and not just one – the diametrically opposed staging of two spectacles of the democratic game: one that the state plays and the other that the nation intuits.”
Elections essentially provide two things – the mere image of an election and an opportunity for the Iranian people to defy the regime. This proved to be the case with President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election in 2017 after having served a full first term on a platform of relative reform. Hope for the future of human rights in Iran remains bleak, but his re-election may provide some reassurance.
While most of the world focuses on the U.S.’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iranian youth are more interested in improving their home country. Roughly 35% of the country’s population is under the age of 30 and has access to the outside world through social media. Moreover, many young Iranians are also educated in the West and have the freedom to experience other political systems; one can assume that Iran will change for the better in the foreseeable future. Therefore, Iran’s youth must continue to have access to outside media sources and alternative forms of information that contradict official regime sources. With this, the regime in its present form can’t survive much longer.
The 2017 election proves that Iran’s people are increasingly supportive of fairer, more open and self-critical forms of government. The Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist) is thought to weaken over time. The international community should steer its attention to this in its relations with the Iranian regime. Time will tell whether the Trump administration’s strategy to influence regime change works or not. The nuclear deal is only the tip of a very deep iceberg – an iceberg that may crack one day.
Once it does, the world can expect major steps toward a truly representative state of the Iranian people to emerge.