Turban renewal?

Dissecting the history and politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran is never an easy undertaking.

April 2, 2010 16:07

after khomeini 58. (photo credit: .)

After Khomeini
By Said Amir Arjomand | Oxford University Press | 268 pages | $24.95

In his new book, After Khomeini, Said Amir Arjomand, a professor from Stony Brook University, writes in three different voices – the professor, the reformist and the apologist – that contradict each other on key issues.

Arjomand the professor explains how the Islamic Republic of Iran was an attempt at the “pouring of Islam into the ideological framework borrowed from Marxism.” He explains that it has not been easy to build a functioning government from this framework.

To this end, he details the power struggle that has taken place in Iran since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. As Arjomand explains, it has been a struggle to “translate [Khomeini’s] charisma into lasting institutions.” After Khomeini’s death, professor Arjomand explains, the “late imam’s authority now seemed divided between a clerically selected leader and a popularly elected president.” Indeed, the men who hold these two powerful positions have openly competed for control over Iran’s infrastructure, from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the military to the courts and the clerics. That struggle has continued, on one level or another, to this day.

Enter Arjomand the reformer. This Arjomand has a hard time concealing his respect for the leaders of Iran’s reform movement whom he commends for “rejecting the revolutionary idea of Islam as an ideology.” He sneers at the hard-liners for trying to forward “populism and social justice... as proof of their unflinching loyalty as the children of the Islamic revolution of 1979.”

Arjomand the reformer is openly critical of Iran’s hodud penalties and corporal punishments that “obviously contradict the international human rights instruments that outlaw cruel and inhumane punishments.” He also states clearly that the Iranian justice system is an “instrument of repression of dissidence. It has put many dissident clerics behind bars and executed a number of them.”

Arjomand the reformer expends some effort explaining the ideas of Iranian reformers like Abdulkarim Sorush, who criticizes Iran’s failure to keep pace with the West because it is too busy rejecting it. Sorush argues, “as our world view expands with the development of natural sciences... there should be a parallel evolution of the norms of Islamic law.” Not exactly ground-breaking stuff in America, but it borders on heretical in Iran.

Then comes Arjomand the apologist. He admits that the 1979 siege of the US Embassy in Teheran seared a permanent impression of Iran as a country of extremists in the minds of Americans. He explains how Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the man largely viewed as a “reformer” in Iran, drew up a plan in 1981 to create “an Islamic front” worldwide. He doesn’t ignore the 1989 fatwa against author Salman Rushdie that prompted global violence, or the 1990 conference held in Teheran to support the Palestinian intifada against Israel, featuring the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups. As Arjomand readily admits, none of this did much to dispel the notion among Americans that Iran was a country led by extremists.

Arjomand, however, rips the US for failing to respond to Iran’s signs of possible moderation from 1990 to 1995. Never mind that Iran carried out an attack against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, and another attack against the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in 1994. Never mind that in 1995 it attacked the Khobar Towers, a building that housed US personnel in Saudi Arabia.

Arjomand the apologist also blames Washington for failing to take advantage of Iranian signs of moderation again in 2005. He ignores that America was bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. More importantly, he ignores that Iran was fueling the violence in both places. Instead, Arjomand blames the “unsympathetic Bush administration dominated by vice president [Richard] Cheney and secretary of defense [Donald] Rumsfeld.”

Arjomand the apologist doesn’t stop at the US. He blames America’s justifiable policy decisions on the influence of Israel – just as the Iranian hard-liners do. While he admits that there was ample reason for Americans to be distrustful of Iran (he calls it “fertile ground”), he asserts that the primary impediment to peace and understanding between America and the Islamic Republic is Israel’s purported effort to “sow vengeance.” Indeed, he blames “the power of the Israeli lobby” for Washington’s “spiteful” decision to seek “revenge” against Iran for its sponsorship of terrorist attacks since the 1980s.

The asininity of Arjomand the apologist (mostly in chapter 7) overshadows whatever legitimate points the author makes throughout the rest of the book. Indeed, the legitimate frustrations Arjomand expresses about Iran’s radical president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seem like half-hearted protests, particularly when compared to his rants against Washington and Jerusalem.

Still, if one knows what to look for, After Khomeini isn’t a complete wash. Arjomand expends significant effort to provide a history and even a snapshot of the financial holdings of the IRGC. This is particularly instructive to those weighing broader financial sanctions against Teheran for its efforts to procure a nuclear weapon.

Arjomand explains how the IRGC’s bonyad-e mostaz’afin (Foundation of the Disinherited) “was a conglomerate of 1,049 enterprises and 2,786 real estate units by 1982.” He further explains that similar bonyad entities (foundations) control “an estimated 40 percent of the Iranian economy.” Indeed, the “bonyads sustain their own network of contractors and suppliers. Clerical families and their relatives are prominent among their beneficiaries.” Moreover, those who control them “hardly pay income tax.” Arjomand, in fact, names several of these entities and their holdings at different points throughout the book. So, while Arjomand’s conflicting voices make for a maddening read, the financial intelligence makes these 268 pages worth thumbing through for that reason alone.

Still, for those trying to understand Iran, steer clear. Whereas Turban for the Crown, Arjomand’s last book, received some worthy praise, this one should not. It is a prevaricating tome that underscores the lack of moral clarity by professors of Middle Eastern studies in America today.

The writer, a former US Treasury intelligence analyst, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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