Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Iranian Horse 

At least fifty people were killed in Iraq today, but nobody ever said the transition to Islamic theocracy would be a smooth one. Our learned colleague Roger Gathman of Limited, Inc., despite vigorous assurances from Vice President Cheney and the NYT's Dexter Filkins that in Baghdad Everything's Secular Nowadays, thought he heard a familiar note in the democracy-talk burbling forth from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and his constituents in the United Iraqi Alliance:
If we make a comparison between Khomenei’s rhetoric, in 78 and 79, to the rhetoric emanating from the UIA, there is a rather eerie similarity.

We looked up an old article from Foreign Affairs by a French correspondent, Eric Rouleau, about “the peculiar sort of political blindness” that afflicted the West with regard to Iran during the revolution. Rouleau astutely points out that the power of the clerics in Shi’a culture seems to exist in direct proportion to the advances of foreign power upon that culture:
Thus by the beginning of the 19th century, Shi’ism emerged as a kind of early anti-imperialism movement. In 1826, the ulemas declaired a holy war against Russia. Three years later they had the members of the official delegation from St. Petersburg assassinated. They brought about the cancellation of the incredible monopoly for the exploitation of mines, forests, railroads, banks, customs and telegraphic communications granted to BARON Julius de Reuter in 1872. Their 1891 prohibition on tobacco consumption – largely observed by the population – led to the withdrawal of the tobacco monopoly accorded the previous year to a certain Mr. Talbot. Part of the clery actively participated in the 1906 revolution aimed at establishing a constitutional regime. They did so not in the name of democracy –a Western notion they abhorred even then – but to better control a Royal power which favored Euuropean penetration.
If we look at Sistani’s role during the occupation, he seems to have been very much in this tradition, with the substituting of a constraint on American power for European penetration. This isn’t to say that what happened in Iran in 1979 is analogous to what is happening in Iraq, simply that there are some similar elements, and a similar rhetoric – in particular, the elevation of secular and Western acceptable political figures by the UIA is pretty close to the strategy of Khomeini, who explicitly said that clerics shouldn’t run for office, before he returned to Iran, and who set himself up as an advisor away from the capital city in the same way Sistani has set himself up as an advisor away from the capital city . . . .

This history is cautionary, rather than predictive. However, there is no caution in the American press, and no room for any narrative but the one which puts American pre-suppositions at the center of history.

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