Opinion: is Iran a nation at war with itself?

As US-Iran tensions escalate once more in the wake of the airstrike that killed Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, we revisit this February 2018 article where two academics offered their opinions on the Iranian government’s relationship with the west, and with its own people.

Crowds protest in Tehran

Interviews by Chris Bowlby, a BBC journalist specialising in history

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Professor Ali Ansari

Iranian economic reform and growth has necessitated some form of rapprochement and detente with the west. It was this that in some ways informed the desire on both sides to reach the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear development. [The agreement saw Iran promising to scale down its quest to build a nuclear bomb, in return for the lifting of sanctions.] The trouble is that there are many within the Iranian political establishment who cannot reconcile this necessity with their fear, some might say paranoia, about western influence. Rather than try to manage the relationship, they are intent on blocking it. They are of course supported in this outlook by Russian interests, and hawks in the west resistant to any idea of engagement.

This fear of outside influence has deep historical roots. For the better part of two centuries Iran has been subjected to the growing influence and power of the European great powers, with Russia encroaching from the north and the British establishing themselves in India. In many ways, this simply reflected developments in 19th-century great power politics. But the shift was made more dramatic by exponential growth in European industrial and military power, along with the decline of Iranian power as a consequence of political turmoil in the 18th century.

The power that has done most damage to Iranian sovereignty is one with which the Iranian state is now, diplomatically, closely aligned: Russia

In 1828, Iran in effect lost its great power status after Russia seized its Caucasian territories, and for much of the next century its political and territorial reach was reduced through British and Russian pressure. Along with other regional states, it became part of the rivalry between Russia and Britain evocatively described by Lord Curzon in Persia and the Persian Question (1892) as, “pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game for the dominion of the world”. For much of the 20th century, as these powers have receded, so Iran has sought to re-establish itself as a great power in its own right.

In popular perception, the two ogres of interference have been Britain and the United States, in large part because of their involvement in the overthrow of the nationalist prime minister Dr Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. Successive governments since 1979 have spared no effort in reminding the people of this traumatic episode – and, when anything goes wrong, the United States, Britain and Israel are usually evoked as in some way responsible.

The 1979 revolution against the pro-western Shah is regarded by many as the latest of several attempts to establish self-determination and eliminate foreign influence, although the achievement has been at best mixed. The fact that the revolution established an Islamic Republic (an essentially western concept) is evidence enough of the deep influence of western ideas. And, for all the overt resistance to foreign domination, this western influence remains palpable and visible. This is neither surprising nor should it be considered necessarily unusual. Many intellectuals in the Islamic Republic have been educated in the west.

Ironically, the power that has done most damage to Iranian sovereignty is one with which the Iranian state is now, diplomatically, closely aligned: Russia. It is testament to the political nature of these narratives that Russia itself is largely exempt from official opprobrium.

Ali Ansari is the professor in Iranian history at St Andrews University


Prof Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

There has been intense competition to rule Iran for millennia. We are witnessing, then, an ancient battle for the meaning of Persia and the future of the Iranian polity. Today’s efforts to democratise and pluralise Iran are an extension of a series of convulsions in the country’s recent history: revolts in the 1890s against the granting to the British of a monopoly in the tobacco trade; a constitutional revolt in 1906–07; a CIA/MI6 coup d’état that tragically brought to an end the prime ministership of Dr Mohammad Mosaddegh; and the revolution of 1979 against the Shah.

Among the main slogans of the revolutionaries were independence, freedom, ‘Islamic Republic’. The original precepts of the Iranian revolution were all about the rights of the so-called oppressed – which explains why it mesmerised the biggest minds of the age, including philosopher Michel Foucault. Philosophers are not easily fooled, so there must have been something about the revolution that made people embrace it with such honest romanticism.

Many Iranians feel that these lofty goals have not been turned into a political culture strong and diverse enough to absorb the demands of a highly educated, supremely cultured population. But none of the most significant demonstrations after the revolution have been direct attempts to overthrow the state. The recent protests were largely about bread-and-butter issues, driven by the rural strata of Iranian society and workers. This dissent did not translate into a mass movement but it is indicative of President Hassan Rouhani’s failure to institute a more egalitarian socio-economic system in Iran, and to battle corruption.

The dissent is indicative of President Hassan Rouhani’s failure to institute a more egalitarian socio-economic system in Iran, and to battle corruption

To fully understand Iran, you have to understand the trajectory of global history. Through poetry, philosophy, revolution – from Islam to nationalist inventions – Iranians have experimented with a diverse set of invented identities in innovative ways. Yet none of the modern Iranian states, before the revolution or after, has managed to forge a national narrative that absorbs the intensely complex, diverse and beautiful mosaic set-up of the Iranian population. Unless there is an acceptance of Iran’s embeddedness in the world, any state trying to govern Iranians will struggle.

The reality is that there are aspects of being Iranian that touch upon Europe, Arabia, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Persia, east Asia, Zoroastrianism, Shiism, Sunnism and Turkism. These huge concepts can only be digested if the idea of being Iranian is stripped of its heavy ideology and condensed into one simple concept: being a citizen. This is why citizenship rights have been at the heart of successive demonstrations.

If this approach to governing Iran could be achieved – if national identity was as thinly constructed as possible – it would ultimately prevent recurrent upheavals and the painful travails of psycho-nationalist indoctrination. Many Iranians continue to believe that the revolution of 1979 was an opening to that end.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is professor in global thought and comparative philosophies at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

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This article was first published in the March 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine