Commentary: Review of shah era offers insight into Iran's future

Iranian supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi rally in Tehran.
Iranian supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi rally in Tehran. Farzaneh Khademian/Abaca Press/MCT

What comes next in troubled Iran, especially after former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's intense sermon criticizing June's fraudulent presidential election and the ensuing roundup of protesters?

Considering that Iranians in massive numbers are sick of repression, corruption and deprivation, offended by their government's manipulative ways, alienated from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and eager for change, anything is possible.

At least part of the answer could lie in the historic 1979 revolution that deposed the despotic Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — the former Shah of Iran — ushering in the current religious order, along with its own brand of heavy-handedness. Despite the different times, players and ideologies, some similarities exist between the broad circumstances surrounding the recent election and those during the upheaval of three decades ago.

Rafsanjani understands the seriousness of the situation better than most. Thus, even as he cast further doubt on the election's outcome, he invoked the name and thinking of his mentor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the moving force of the revolution and a unifying figure. It was Khomeini, Rafsanjani reminded his audience, who said the key to success is respect for the people's will. Perhaps, as some suggest, Rafsanjani is simply maneuvering to boost his influence or burnish his reformist credentials. But I believe his main motive is to end the crisis and restore stability. Rafsanjani, while certainly an opportunist, is no democrat. Rather, he lives for the revolution and will use everything in his pragmatist's bag of tricks to maintain it.

In their retort to Rafsanjani, the hardliners predictably are accusing him of supporting miscreants, repeating nonsensical and baseless claims, and forgetting that acceptance by the people does not grant legitimacy to an Islamic government. Ironically, their criticism of Rafsanjani cannot avoid landing on Khomeini.

I doubt most Iranians accept such narrow, reality-denying views. Nor do I believe they will find more than fleeting satisfaction in the consensus-building approach Rafsanjani advocates. It is too late. The Iranian people are rapidly reaching the tipping point, driven by many of the same kinds of factors that led them to stand up against the shah.

Repression and corruption ranked among the most prominent characteristics of the shah's regime. Both are fully in view today. In the waning years of the shah's rule, active political opposition, instability and violence were on the rise, just as they are now in Iran. Hoping to quash the challenge, the shah cracked down, imprisoned opponents and systemically used torture. Ahmadinejad is at the same desperate work, especially since the election, and multiple human-rights observers say torture and other ill-treatment of detainees are common. The shah grew steadily out of touch — to the point that most people clamored for his downfall and death. Ahmadinejad shows his own detachment in perceiving that Iranians would go back to life as normal after he blatantly stole the election. No wonder demonstrators are chanting slogans such as "death to the dictator" and "Ahmadinejad resign."

Just before the revolution erupted, a fearful shah placed a glove on his iron fist, betting that a dose of liberalization might stem the tide of protest. When that effort fell short, he quickly returned to oppression, which precipitated even more widespread disruption. Will a softer approach enter into Ahmadinejad's future strategy? Maybe. But even if he tries such a tactic, I suspect Ahmadinejad is also doomed to failure.

A decade after the Iranian revolution, political scientists James A. Bill and Robert Springborg offered a prescient evaluation in a book titled Politics in the Middle East. They wrote, "The support of the masses for a particular leader or political system will continue only so long as those who govern are able to meet the needs and demands of the population." If this support should disappear, they warned, then Khomeini and his successors could share the same destiny as that of the shah.

The moment they contemplated may have arrived. If fate is indeed knocking, I hope Iranians answer and — with unerring determination — launch a new revolution that delivers the freedoms and opportunities they plainly desire.


John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida. Readers may send him e-mail at johncbersia@msn.com.