Thinking Aloud: Iranian Expats on Iran, Part I

May 19, 2014 by Darius 

I recently saw a panel of Iranian expatriates discuss various facets of Iran’s foreign and domestic policies.  I’ll start today by sharing the comments of Dr. Mohsen Sazegara, while tomorrow’s post will share the insights of Dr. Hossein Seifzadeh and Dr. Aram Hessami.

Dr. Sazegara has had a very interesting career.  As a young man, he left Iran to go to university in the US and then in 1979 left the university and returned to Iran to get involved with the anti-Shah movement just before the Iranian Revolution broke out into the streets.  Sazegara was literally on the plane with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini from exile in France back to Tehran.  After the revolution, Sazegara was one of the founders of the Revolutionary Guards.  He was in charge of a major branch of industry for several years thereafter.  Sazegara ultimately fell out with the regime, though, and was jailed in Iran for political reasons in 2003.  After going on a hunger strike, he was released from prison for medical treatment abroad, where he remains.  He was a major supporter of the 2009 Green Revolution and was instrumental in publicizing protests on social media.  He is currently one of the most respected opposition figures in exile.

Dr. Sazegara’s remarks focused on the interplay between Iranian domestic and foreign policy.

According to Dr. Sazegara, during the Iranian Revolution, there were three main reasons why protesters were so stridently anti-American.  The first was simple: the Shah was pro-American, the protesters hated the Shah, so, logically, the protesters should oppose America, which was supporting the Shah.  The second reason for anti-Americanism went back to 1953, when the CIA not only deposed a democratically elected leader of Iran but functionally made the Shah an absolute monarch.  The final reason was due to the makeup of the protesters themselves.  Although the Islamists (or, as Sazegara put it, simply Muslims) ultimately became the dominant group, many of the protesters were originally leftist, Marxist, and even Communist.  These groups also opposed the US for their own ideological reasons.  Anti-Americanism rubbed off from these groups to the rest of the protest movement.

According to Sazegara, the first crowd to attack the US embassy in Tehran was a crowd of leftists.  That attack failed because the crowd was dispersed by a group of Islamist protesters.  Several months later, Islamist protesters breached the embassy and infamously took the staff as hostages.

During its first decade, the Islamic Republic had a violently aggressive foreign policy.  Iran or Iranian-backed groups bombed the US Marine barracks in Lebanon (as well as French military barracks), killing hundreds, as well as a hotel in Saudi Arabia.  By the second decade, there was a cooling of heads, as Iranian leaders (including Sazegara personally) began to realize that revolutionary slogans did not translate into a functioning government.  Two factions appeared within the Iranian government.  The first argued that Iran should cooperate with the West and normalize relations.  This group included most technocrats in Iran.  The second faction argued that Iran and the West were implacable antagonists and that no reconciliation should be pursued.  This group included the Revolutionary Guard and the Supreme Leader.  Those two factions are still present.

The events following 9/11 tipped the balance towards the latter faction in Iran.  As the US invaded Iran’s neighbors – both Iraq and Afghanistan share long borders with Iran – Iranian policy was originally to cooperate with the US (especially in Afghanistan).  But Iranian leaders realized that if the US could be driven out of Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran could establish greater influence in the aftermath.  That become a goal of Iranian foreign policy.

The newest phase of the dispute between the factions in Iran has been over Iran’s nuclear program.  It remains unclear as to who will win out.  Either way, though, Sazegara believes ordinary Iranians will play an increasing role.  Iran has 44 million internet users; that number will only grow.  Moreover, Sazegara foresaw a potential rerun of the 2009 Green Revolution – with one big change.  The Green Revolution was almost entirely a middle-class movement.  But economic pain over the nuclear program could spur working-class Iranians to join in the protests, making them that much more formidable.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the more scholarly approaches taken to understanding Iran proposed by Professors Hossein Seifzadeh and Aram Hessami.

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