The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution, by Amir Taheri (Encounter , 300 pp., $25.95)
Present-day Iran is a glaring example of the human propensity to do harm in the belief that one is doing good. The country has been hijacked and shaken out of its course by people with a claim to a vision of perfection. Self-righteous ideologues, they are like others of the kind in other countries at other times: Their true goal is absolute power. What sets the Iranians apart is that they are Shiites, a minority within Islam with a specific doctrine stating that an imam in the 10th century went into hiding and that mankind has to convert to Islam, whereupon the Hidden Imam will return and usher in the end of days.
Today’s regime in Iran believes that this messianic vision is about to be fulfilled. Unbelievers — in other words, Christians and Jews — cannot be allowed to stand in the way. Even more problematically, within Islam itself Shiites are outnumbered about ten to one by Sunnis, and these too have to be brought into line. The pursuit of power in the name of Islam is driving the regime to develop and test weaponry, including long-range missiles and what is suspected from the available evidence to be a nuclear bomb. This threat to the world order is as sudden as it is unexpected, with a quality of hallucination about it, as if reality itself were going off the rails.
In the course of centuries, indeed millennia, Iran has experienced many ups and downs, but always managed to preserve its independence, and its identity and culture as well. Successive shahs were in the quandary of having to decide whether to modernize, and if so, how to carry it through — in other words, what accommodation to make to the ways of the West and unbelievers in general. At several levels of the society there was always a retrograde reaction to any change that seemed to be surrendering to outside influences, and an obscure and obscurantist cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, made himself the leader of a campaign against Westernization. Seizing power in 1979, he remodeled the state into a Shiite Islamic dictatorship. His hold on absolute power could only generate violence and a clash of civilizations. He did not object to being seen as another Prophet, perhaps even the Hidden Imam.
Saddam Hussein, the Ayatollah’s Iraqi and Sunni neighbor and rival, was quick to go to war against an Iran that had hit upon a new guise for ancient ethnic and doctrinal prejudices. The eventual American overthrow of Saddam Hussein dramatically changed the balance of forces throughout the Middle East. Occupying a position of military strength right next to Iran, the United States became the effective regional power, and the main obstacle to Shiite imperialism. Today’s leaders of Iran bitterly resent what they see as an American check on their ambitions and nothing less than a repudiation of their whole vision of the future. In response, they regularly forecast the coming decline and fall of the United States, and for good measure the elimination of the state of Israel as well; they speechify and mount huge demonstrations to impress on everyone that for the sake of Islam they are about to deliver the promised apocalypse. The worst of it is that most of these ruling clerics are genuine ideologues and not cynics; they really mean what they say and do.
Written in sorrow rather than anger, The Persian Night clearly and calmly describes Iran’s descent into unreality. It is a masterwork of information and argument. Formerly editor of Iran’s most influential paper, Amir Taheri is now perforce an exile but he remains in touch with all sorts of insiders. In addition to his native Farsi he is fluent in Arabic and the main European languages. Frequent quotations from Persian poetry, old or contemporary, reveal his love of his native country and its culture, but he is equally likely to make good use of Plato and Cicero, Hobbes and Goethe, or even Frantz Fanon to illustrate a point. More than ironic, it seems outright improbable that one and the same Iran could be home to ignorant bigots like Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors — in particular the vicious and narrow-minded president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — and a sophisticated humanist like Taheri.
Many people, especially on the left, have contributed to falsifying the true nature of events in Iran. Andrew Young, the American ambassador to the United Nations in the Carter years, thought Khomeini was a “saint.” Opinion-makers such as Edward Said and Michel Foucault praised Iran for its anti-Americanism. Long after the grim facts spoke for themselves, Bill Clinton could make the preposterous assertion that Iran was “the only country where progressive ideas enjoy a vast constituency” — this at a time when men were obliged to grow supposedly Islamic beards and the slogan “Death to Those Who Shave” appeared on walls.
Taheri has the figures for the victims of this regime: At least 100,000 people have been executed, among them 300 mullahs. Death squads from Tehran have killed 127 dissidents abroad in 16 countries including the United States. Over the past three decades, some 120 women have been stoned to death on charges of adultery, and women who have suffered rape have also been sentenced to death or prison. According to the chief Islamic prosecutor, in 2007 alone over 400 people were executed, while another 150, including five women, were due to be hanged or stoned. By now more than 5 million Iranians — somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the population — have been imprisoned for varying lengths of time in this replica of the Gulag.
But Iran is much more than a classic Muslim despotism. The Iranian state has been transformed into a permanent revolution. At the head of it is a Supreme Leader, and all institutions and laws have been arranged to give him unrestrained power to pursue Shiite imperialism. Here is a one-party system. Elections are manipulated. Freedom of speech exists only within agreed limits. So-called Revolutionary Guard and other paramilitary units control the population with whatever violent means are required. Superstitions are encouraged, including a cult of death and martyrdom. For Taheri, this is fascism pure and simple, and he does not hesitate to say so. Mimesis is in operation: Men who ostensibly repudiate all things Western in fact are copying and practicing a malign totalitarian doctrine that originated in the West.
“Killing is the same as mercy,” Khomeini wrote. A favorite dictum of his was “To kill and be killed are the supreme duties of Muslims.” He also liked to say that war is a “divine blessing.” That was the point of departure for the transformation of the state into a cause, which according to Taheri dates to a conference of Islamists in Sudan in 1993. At the time, the collapse of the Soviet Union was taken as evidence that God was indeed making Muslims masters of the world. The turn of the United States had now come.
To prepare for jihad and mass mobilization, the ayatollahs had to manufacture multiple fears and hatreds — notably of women, the U.S., and Israel, all reduced to stereotypes that bear no relation to reality. Taheri points out, usefully, that the ayatollahs and Ahmadinejad do not have enemies with whom it might be possible to compromise; they have foes who have to be conquered and subdued. No other approach will do. It follows that the proposals of negotiation floating around Washington are nothing but illusion, arising from failure to understand the Iranian cause and its fascist ideology.
There is hopeful news, however. It is a fantasy — pure pretense — for Iran to be casting itself as the foremost Islamic power and seeking a new world order shaped by Islam. Universal jihad on Iranian lines would involve the submission of Sunnis to Shiite leadership and example, and also threaten the existence of Muslim nation-states, many of which have fought for their independence within living memory.
And more besides. Iranians know perfectly well that they are victimized by those claiming to be acting on their behalf. The man in the street understands that the U.S. befriended Iran in the past and would willingly do so again, and to call it the “great Satan” is mere fascist sloganeering. Similarly, the popular perception of Jews tends to be positive and does not correspond to Ahmadinejad’s raving about Israel as a “dead rat” and a “cancerous tumor.” Women do not accept subordination. Workers demand rights. Minorities are close to armed revolt. Nationalism is likely to prove strong enough for a return to the conventional nation-state. The conditions and the timing for regime change, Taheri maintains, seem right.
The alternative is a war — with the U.S., Israel, or both. Khomeini’s hateful prescription that Muslims have a duty to kill or be killed would then be substantiated. Such a calamity would leave a permanent scar on mankind. Taheri raises the prospect of a Western preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but does not discuss what the consequences might be — a rare omission in this comprehensive account of today’s most urgent crisis.
In the old days of the Cold War, brave spirits used to write books that came to grips with the ideological monstrosity of the Soviet Union. They too had no choice but to publish in the West. In the end, they were vindicated. Honor now goes to The Persian Night for exposing the ideological monstrosity of Iran.
– Mr. Pryce-Jones, an NR senior editor, is author of The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.