By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed*
After overthrowing the Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini succeeded in one thing: He eliminated the strongest, richest and the most successful state in the Middle East. The regime he built on the ruins of the modern empire was a backward clerical state with old leftist economic policies. Iran had represented to the West a successful model — which was way ahead of other countries.
Then Khomeini disappointed his supporters and all those who expected the best of him. Young people were looking for a comprehensive democratic system after the Shah.
Ethnic minorities thought that the removal of the Shah would end Persian nationalism and build a collective Iran for all. The communists thought that he would be their ally against the US who was the ally of the Shah. The Americans thought that the arrival of religious scholars was better than the arrival of the communist Tudeh Party, and that it would block the way of the Soviet tanks which had occupied neighboring Afghanistan, and that they could work together later on. And the Arab masses believed the commitments of Khomeini to liberate Jerusalem from the Israelis, and the Gulf Arabs hoped that the removal of the Shah would end the dispute over the islands, over Bahrain, and over Iraq.
They were all wrong.
After Khomeini came to power, Iranian youth paid the highest price. Universities were placed under the administration of the clergy, and women were persecuted. The first victims of the new regime were the leftists who suffered the prejudice of the clergy although they had helped it in Azadi (Freedom) Square.
Moreover, the regime suppressed ethnic minorities. The Americans realized that the religious right in the region was not the same as the political right in the West. The religious right was more hostile to the West than the Tudeh Party. Tehran limited its dispute with Israel to Arab areas of influence. And Gulf Arabs discovered that Khomeini considered them his main enemy and permanent target by relying on the old sectarian differences.
Those who think that the economic crisis is the reason behind the Iranian uprising and the people’s push against the regime of the Supreme Leader are missing other more dangerous and deep-rooted causes. The demonstrations of 2009 were larger, and they were led by people from within the regime who enjoyed certain privileges. The roots of the current crisis are what I mentioned above.
The regime excluded all local forces and distanced itself from the others. And when it failed, it was easy for all people to rally behind one demand: Overthrowing the regime. Bread is not the only problem with the government of Hassan Rouhani, and the price of fuel is not their main argument against the regime of the Supreme Leader. Rather, they are against everything represented by the regime.
The majority of Iranians are not religious; they have national pride and reject that pride’s marginalization by the clergy. Iran was more civilized and open during the rule of the Shah, and it was more advanced in science and industry. All that evaporated after a group of dervishes came to power, believing that their only duty was to harness the state to serve the ayatollah and spread his teachings and fight for them all over the world.
This naive selfish way of thinking was not convincing to the majority of Iranian youth who produce the best movies, recite the best poems, and hold parties in basements away from the eyes of Basij informers. For many months, Iranian girls appeared one day a week and published their photos without hijab (head cover) in defiance of the clergy. There is genuine hatred by the Iranian people for the regime. Some of the banners held during the demonstrations had slogans deploring the support for religious movements in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. This is far more dangerous than the demand for cheaper bread.
There are many enemies of clerical rule abroad as well, including some of those who show their feelings, like Russia which has disputes with the Iranian regime regarding the division of the Caspian Sea and other subjects. This is what may pressure Tehran to change into real politics, treat its people according to their wishes, and stop foreign adventures. If it does not make these changes, the antagonistic majority inside and outside Iran will succeed in toppling it.
• Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.
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