Part one of the Persian Path series, on Iran, its history, and dissidents.

The regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran would not have approved of the medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam – and he certainly would not have approved of it. His poetry celebrated the delights of wine and love as set against the austerity and conservatism of religious orthodoxy. These lines from Richard Le Gallienne’s translation of his work are a fairly accurate depiction of the core of all religious austerity, but particularly its Islamic permutation which causes such misery the world over: ‘The wintry soul that hates to hear a song,/The close-shut fist, the mean and measuring eye,/And all the little poisoned ways of wrong.’

And one of the most puffed up and perfidious manifestations of Islamic conservatism comes in the form of the current Iranian regime, installed after the overthrow in 1979 of the Pahlavi monarchy. Rarely can a people or a nation have been so unlucky in its political and social fortunes. From great heights in ancient and medieval times to a twentieth century dominated by, first, a despotic monarchy and, up until the present moment, a backwards theocracy. One of the saddest failings of the modern era is the ruination by Ruhollah Khomeini and other Shia clerics of the secular, democratic, leftist opposition to the Pahlavis. And it is, among great competition, one of the western world’s most terrible shames that it conspired in the removal of the secular reformist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, restoring the Shah to power.

But there is still a thriving Iranian opposition to the current regime, and it has great support among swathes of Iranian society- and particularly women and the young. This series of short articles will outline some of the history and details of, and prospects for, Iranian dissidents who seek regime change. Civil society has flourished in Iran for decades and I feel confident enough to predict that within the next few decades the ancien régime will find itself consigned to the rubbish heap.

Before starting on this project proper I thought it appropriate to use this first piece to remark on the ancient civilisation once known as Persia.

Invaded by Alexander of Macedon before the time of Christ, and home to flourishing ancient civilisations before and after that, Iran was conquered by Muslim forces in the seventh century- and from then on was ruled and invaded by a succession of dynasties and ethnic groups, including the Mongols. Civilisation flourished in Persia, as it did in much of the Muslim world for hundreds of years, producing great scientists, artists, and poets, including the venerable Omar Khayyam.

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries the rule of the Safavid dynasty led to the conversion of Iran to the Shia version of Islam. The details of this ancient schism would take us too far afield- suffice it to say it is about spilling blood over splitting hairs as much theological disputation is (to echo Richard Dawkins), and that this conflict within Islam has been a blight on the world, and specifically Muslims themselves, ever since. Shias and Sunnis, this latter the most numerous branch of Islam, have many doctrinal disputes, arising from the seventh century succession crises after the prophet Muhammad’s death. Iranian Shia theology is obsessed with the Mahdi, a saviour who will return and herald the end of the world- you have heard it all before because Islam is a plagiarism, just like Christianity (and Mormonism and…well, this list could go on forever). Sunnis believe in the Mahdi too, but, of course, in a different way.

Anyway to zip forward somewhat, British rule over Iran after the First World War gave way to the despotic and cruel Pahlavi dynasty. In attempting to modernise and industrialise, in alienating conservative Muslims because of its attempts to give women some rights, in being repressive, and in being quite incompetent in economic matters, the Shah’s regime fell in 1979 to Khomeini. Secular leftist and liberal opposition was drowned out by the clerics and it was they who inaugurated a glorious new dawn, declaring an Islamic republic based upon the concept of velayat-e faqih (‘guardianship of the [Islamic] jurist’)- imposing strict Islamic laws and customs, creating an apartheid state where women were utterly inferior, instituting a mockery of democracy, persecuting dissent and liberalism, and much more besides. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the enforcer of the regime’s ideology, founded by Khomeini, and has recently, and quite justifiably, been declared a terrorist force by the US.

Whilst the likes of the fatuous Michel Foucault relished the Islamic regime because of its ‘authenticity’, as Mariam Memarsadeghi puts it, or some such dribble, thus paving the way for western liberals to replace the American-dominated selfish opportunists as betrayers of the Iranian people, the regime murdered opposition, funded international terrorism, oppressed gay people, got involved in a devastating war with Saddam Hussein, called for the murder of a writer named Salman Rushdie, and embarked on a mission to arm itself with nuclear weapons (coming closer, it might be added, than any other fanatical ideologue to possessing such weapons- a terrifying thought, and still a real possibility given the breakdown of the 2015 nuclear deal, which the regime had dishonestly ignored anyway).

I think I have made my point – the Islamic republic was born from fundamentalist tyranny and has been and remains a serious threat to the world, and certainly to its own people.

Iranians have been betrayed time and again by the west, both by imperialist governments and by leftists and liberals who ought to have been by their side but who have either seen any enemy of the west as good by default despite any barbarism they display (think Jeremy Corbyn, who accepted money to appear on the television propaganda organ of this gay-murdering regime) or who are just afraid of seeming ‘disrespectful’ of another culture. Or, as this really is, a white, western, self-indulgent abnegation of moral responsibility which is racist in both condemning other peoples to suffering and in claiming that a whole group of people can be subsumed under ‘their’ culture and are therefore all going to feel aggrieved at any criticism. This logic is patently flawed given the mass protests and numerous opposition movements to ‘the’ Iranian ‘culture’ and to Islamic orthodoxy in general among many Muslims and ex-Muslims – two other groups much maligned by leftists.

A particularly poignant betrayal, however, comes from western feminists. Iranian women, who have lately been tearing off their hijabs in protest at its enforcement by the regime, receive very little support from western feminists.  

Protests by Iranians have erupted sporadically over the years and there are numerous dissident groups in exile. There are reformers within Iran itself – though the Reformist political parties who oppose the more conservative Principlist ones are ultimately compromised by upholding a rotten system – who provide hope that one day one of the most civilised people on the planet will be governed by a political order worthy of it. It is the aim of this short series to explore some of these issues, and I shall sign off for now by quoting the words of Mariam Memarsadeghi: ‘The Islamic republic must fall’. And there is every reason to hope that it will, that anyone concerned with human rights and decency should help to hasten this, and that perhaps even one day, though I doubt it, the western world’s governments and liberals will unreservedly support dissident Iranians and look back with shame in their hearts and apologies on their lips for their betrayals.

Read part two of the series, The Path of Resistance, here.