Sunday, January 22, 2023

Mehran Kamrava's "Triumph and Despair"

Mehran Kamrava is Professor of Government, Georgetown University in Qatar, and directs the Iranian Studies Unit at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. His books on Iranian and Middle Eastern affairs include Inside the Arab State and The Nuclear Question in the Middle East.

Kamrava applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, Triumph and Despair: In Search of Iran's Islamic Republic, and reported the following:
It just so happens that page 99 of the book starts with a section that is at the core of one of the book’s chapters, titled “Reforming the System.” If one were to read page 99 only, or to at least start there, one would get a sense of the complexities of the Iranian political system and its internal tribulations from its inception in 1979 until today. There is much that the reader would have missed – the Islamic Republic’s precarious start, the constitutional deliberations that gave rise to its peculiar institutional make-up, the reign of terror that consolidated it, its later approaches to the rest of the world, its indecisive patterns of economic development, and its increasing tilt toward authoritarianism ever since. But page 99 does point to a pivotal point in the Islamic Republic’s history, a moment of reflection and an inadvertent inflection point.

This is what the first two paragraphs of page 99 say:
The Reform Movement

Even before the start of what Iranians popularly though largely inaccurately refer to as the “reform movement” – there was no movement per se – a general sense of dynamism and palpable yearning for change permeated the air. In various ways, the reconstruction campaign had helped facilitate the new phase, in part sparked by Rafsanjani’s more permissive attitude toward political pluralism. In its post-war phase of reconstruction, the Islamic Republic had rediscovered and reinvigorated the debate on nation, history, and method of governance, and also on national identity and rights. This had spurred the publication of a spate of new books and journals, among them a number of independent magazines and newspapers devoted to the issue of women. Earlier, Zanan (Women) had been launched in 1991, followed by Farzaneh in 1993. These independent publications were all the more impactful as a number of other, earlier publications on women, most notably Zan-e Rooz (Woman of the Day) and Payam-e Zan (Woman’s Message), had become Islamization tools at the hands of hardliners.

The appearance of new publications in the 1990s was the result of a convergence of three separate but interrelated intellectual currents. One current was comprised of ideas imported into the country through translations, especially on topics related to philosophy and sociology, based mostly on countries with experiences similar to Iran’s. A second current was made up of literature being produced by a new crop of religious intellectuals who were presenting new ideas about religious hermeneutics and the relationship between religion and politics. A third and final current was comprised of the works of those looking at ideas that were largely non-religious and were considered Iranian-national.
The book itself is a broader chronicle of the Islamic Republic’s tormented journey to the present from its birth. Triumph and Despair tells the dramatic story of post-revolutionary Iran’s first four decades, from its establishment in 1979 until today. The revolutionary coalition that overthrew the monarchy was at once democratic, populist and Islamic. The Islamists, and the Khomeinists in particular, were able to capitalise effectively on prevailing conditions on the ground; to frame the new republic’s constitution, capture nascent institutions, and consolidate their power by eliminating opponents through a reign of terror. Once the war with Iraq was over and after the death of the new order’s charismatic founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic was consolidated: first by tweaking its institutional arrangements, and then by fostering economic development and post-war reconstruction. A reformist interlude then followed, reversed unceremoniously by a return of populism and a broader authoritarian retrenchment.

Today Iran remains at odds with itself, its economy too deeply political to yield meaningful developmental results, its foreign relations too conflicted to allow it a productive place in the community of nations. As Iran’s nationalities and its women and youth carve out spaces for themselves in the broader narrative, competing identities–religious, national and otherwise–abound.

The Islamic Republic is a hybrid political system whose authoritarian features and impulses far outweigh its responsiveness, accountability, and representative nature. It is a system with an all-powerful religious figure at the helm, and whose elected president and parliament have few powers. It is a system that has repeatedly shown itself to be unwilling to tolerate internal reforms, one that remains essentially nondemocratic. Despite the manifold changes it ushered in Iran, the Islamic revolution did not fundamentally change the nature of state-society relations, and the state has remained deeply authoritarian. Iranian thinkers and writers frequently muse over the relationship between what it means to be “Islamic” and what it means to be “republican.” Academic musings notwithstanding, it is Khamenei’s interpretation of Islam that today rules over Iran, with the country having gone from the authoritarianism of the monarchy to the authoritarianism of the Islamic Republic.
Visit Mehran Kamrava's website.

--Marshal Zeringue