Commentary Magazine

The Persian Night by Amir Taheri

The Thirty Years’ War

The Persian Night:
Iran from Khomeini to Ahmadinejad
by Amir Taheri
Encounter, 423 pages, $25.95


For many societies, the journey to modernity has been painful and costly. China’s struggle, more than 150 years in duration, has brought economic transformation, but the Chinese people remain ruled by a Communist regime that has killed millions of its own citizens. Reform and democracy in Russia began late in the 19th century and produced a first constitution in 1906; here we are a century later, with the collapse of the czarist system followed by the Bolshevik takeover, and the collapse of the Soviet Union followed (after a brief liberalization) by the current repressive regime.

So it has been in Iran. Its 1906 constitution was based on European models, just as Russia’s was, but the possibility of a move toward democracy was short-lived. War, the discovery of oil, Russian and British imperialism, and internal divisions soon combined to eliminate the opportunity for a democratic republic or a limited constitutional monarchy. Not until the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979 did the chance for freedom arise again, only to be crushed by the forces that still rule Iran as an “Islamic Republic.”

In The Persian Night, his ambitious history of Iran since the fall of the Shah, Amir Taheri describes those forces and what they have wrought, and the prospects for bringing that rule to an end. He is certain this goal can be achieved; he believes Iran can make the transition to a stable democratic order. During the 1970s, Taheri watched the Shah’s fall and Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise while serving as editor of Kayhan, Tehran’s largest and most influential daily. In his view, Khomeini remains a fringe figure at the farthest extremes of Iranian history and culture, and of Iranian Shi’ism. The current regime is, he claims, as foreign to Iran’s past as Mao’s Cultural Revolution was to China’s and not at all what the Iranian people wanted or expected to follow the Shah.

Indeed, Taheri shows that Khomeini suppressed loyalty to the nation and pride in Persian history and culture, insisting that only Islam deserved allegiance. The Islamic revolution in Iran was to be a revolution without borders. But this regime and its revolution, Taheri argues, have long since lost whatever attraction they held for most Iranians—labor unions, youth born after the Shah’s departure, ethnic and religious minorities, students and teachers, and millions of Iranian women, as well as the many who simply hope for a modern, democratic government that limits the role of the clergy.

Taheri does not spend much time describing why the Shah fell, but he goes into great detail about the Khomeini system both as it began and as it has degenerated. He is insistent, even pained, in his explanation of how this system differs from any other form of Islam, including traditional Shi’ism, and notes that far more Iranians see Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani as their “source of emulation” or spiritual leader than follow any acolyte of Khomeini.

Sistani is an advocate of “quietism” and an opponent of Khomeini’s velayat i faqih—“rule by jurisprudents,” or more briefly and accurately, theocracy. Never before Khomeini had Shi’ism, a branch of Islam more than a millennium old, been interpreted to require placing all power in the hands of a “supreme leader” (at least, not until the return of the Mahdi, or redeemer), and Taheri notes that “of the grand ayatollahs of the 1970s and 1980s . . . none but Khomeini himself endorsed the system.”

But by using every available weapon, including deadly force, against internal rivals and critics, the Iranian Revolution steadily hollowed out or subordinated all the institutions of the state, and all of Persian society was placed under the control of radical clerics.

For every government institution, the mullahs have created an equal and opposite force: there are civil courts and shariah courts, a parliament but several mullah-only bodies (the “Expediency Discernment Council,” the “Assembly of Experts, the “Council of Guardians,” and so on) to counteract the parliament, and mullahs placed in government agencies to ensure that they hew to the Ayatollah’s line. If these sound like old-fashioned Soviet-style commissars, that’s because they are.

The analogy continues: just as the Soviet regime degenerated over the decades and ideological commitment was replaced by corruption, self and family interest, and the sheer will to power, so the pattern repeats itself in Iran, where the mullahs are among Iran’s wealthiest cohort. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former President who is now chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council and the Assembly of Experts, is Iran’s richest man. And just as the Soviet regime came to depend for its survival less on the ideology of Marx and Engels and Lenin and more on the KGB, so too with Iran. Increasingly, regime survival depends on the organs of repression, and especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Like the KGB, this group has now developed its own army, navy, and air force, separate from the “regular” forces, and it owns a business empire that dwarfs anything the KGB created. Like the KGB in its time, the IRGC is the world’s primary backer of terror at home and abroad. And like the KGB and its predecessors, the IRGC is the true “shield of the revolution”; Taheri calls it “the dominant force within the ruling establishment in Tehran.”

He sees a further analogy to the USSR:

The present regime in Tehran, a mixture of mullahs and soldiers, is persuaded that it has inherited the mantle of the Soviet Union as the principal challenger to a global system created by the West. . . . The Khomeinists believe it is their historic mission not only to “revive” Islam . . . but also to resume its campaign of global conquest.

The revival of Islam, not of Iran, is their goal, and they view Iran’s “distinct history, culture, and identity” with distaste. In 1983, Taheri recounts, Khomeini marked the fourth anniversary of his revolution by saying, “Basically, we do not recognize a country named Iran. We have an Islamic Republic located in Iran but it belongs to Muslims everywhere.” Ayatollah Mezba-Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s theological guide, once actually said, “We do not care about Iran. What we care about is Islam.” Even Politburo ideologues of the 1920s and 1930s might have blanched at making such a statement about Russia! While the late Shah of Iran had some rather grand ambitions for regional leadership, Taheri correctly explains that “under the Shah, Iran acted as a nation-state. Under the Khomeinists, it acts as a revolution.”

This global Islamic ambition explains both the regime’s focus on America as its (and Islam’s) key opponent, and its focus on Israel as well. Neither Iranian nationalism, nor Persian culture, nor Shi’ism could give it global reach; only anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism supplied the ability to reach out to Sunni masses in the Islamic world. Despite the fact that Iran has no particular history of anti-Semitism (“Any Western visitor to Iran would quickly realize that Iranians do not hate Jews,” says Taheri) and had had decent relations with Israel, “the only theme that the Khomeinist regime might use among the Arabs is one that has resonated with at least some of them since the 1950s: hatred of Israel.” It is not at all clear that this stance has won the regime much popularity back home, but the bloodcurdling rhetoric of Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the ayatollahs has certainly raised its prestige on the “Arab street.”

But at home, Taheri assesses, the rule of the Ayatollahs is fragile. Since the death of the charismatic Khomeini in 1989, the regime has been in decline, and it is now led by a mediocre mullah (jumped up to ayatollah rank solely through politics) named Ali Khamenei. Though he has demonstrated both cleverness and toughness at regime politics, few Iranians mistake him for a scholar, theologian, or impressive national leader. Nearly 70 percent of Iranians are under the age of 30 and have no memories of the Shah—only of life under clerical restrictions on everything from clothing to movies to books to the Internet, and of course on who can teach in universities or run for office.

“The Khomeinist regime has been at war against the Iranian people almost continuously for the past three decades,” Taheri writes, and that war continues. Like all repressive regimes it seems strong, silencing voices of dissent and crushing opposition in the streets, universities, or unions. But it does not have the support of the Iranian people, he believes, and he cites a persuasive body of evidence to show that Iranians are tired of the corruption and repression the Iranian Revolution has brought. Indeed he rightly notes that even many mullahs are fed up of it: “the opposition of Shiite clergy to Khomeini’s Islamic Republic has been consistent and widespread” and “clerics account for a large number of the regime’s opponents.”

Even the Revolutionary Guard is divided, Taheri claims, with many in its ranks now mere opportunists who joined to get ahead. In his view, the IRGC is now so large that its ideological unity is suspect: “Many prominent IRGC commanders may be regarded as businessmen first and military leaders second.” He believes some parts would go down fighting for the regime, but others would not; fanaticism can be bad for business. Taheri says any effort to oust the regime should target the elements of the IRGC that handle terrorism, or internal repression, rather than labeling every member of the IRGC as an enemy.

Taheri believes that the balance of power in Iran is “shifting in favor of civil society.” The Iranian people and Iranian nationalism survive and are pushing back against the revolution, its constraints, and its organs. He urges that whenever American leaders speak, they draw the distinction between the nation of Iran and its people on the one hand, and the Islamic Republic on the other. The Iranian people and “Iran” are not the problem; the financiers of terror, the builders of nuclear weapons, the enemies of America, the threat to Israel—it is only this regime.

So “what to do about Iran” is not the right question; the issue is “what to do about the Islamic Republic in Iran,” and Taheri’s answer is that we should act to promote regime change. He quickly clarifies that regime change need not mean war and intervention: there are a range of options “on the economic, diplomatic, political, and moral fronts.”

In a sophisticated analysis, Taheri explains how change will require divisions within the ruling establishment, and among the clergy, that are deeper and more visible than those we see today, in part because only when those divisions appear will there emerge alternative sources of moral authority and potential political leadership. He is no naïf about this, and while he believes Iran is a “heaving volcano, ready to explode” he does not see the regime collapsing “anytime soon.” His point is that the regime is getting to be “overthrowable,” and he concludes that “the Persian night can come to an end.”


This message will be poorly received by the Iranian peace processors in the United States—the Gulf equivalent of those who have always believed peace between Israel and the Palestinians was inches away and just required a few more international conferences. With such views ascendant, negotiations with Iran appear to be in the cards this year. Taheri notes that previous episodes give no cause for optimism: “In every case, the Islamic Republic has interpreted the readiness of an adversary to talk as a sign of weakness and, as a result, has hardened its position.” An American diplomat in Tehran once sent the State Department “several lessons for those who would negotiate with Persians: One should never assume that his side of the issue will be recognized. . . . An Iranian will assume that his opposite number is essentially an adversary. . . . Statements of intention count for almost nothing . . . . Cultivation of good will for good will’s sake is a waste of effort.” It should give our eager negotiators pause to note that those were the words our charge d’affaires in Tehran, Bruce Laingen, sent home in a cable on August 13, 1979, less than three months before he and the Embassy were seized and held hostage by the Iranian regime.

Now, it is possible to negotiate hard with an enemy, and to negotiate without legitimizing him or weakening those who oppose him. Ronald Reagan did it with respect to the Soviet Union, whose leaders he engaged while calling their regime an “evil empire” that would be left “on the ash heap of history.” Critics at the time suggested that Reagan would lead us into nuclear war with such talk. George W. Bush attempted to square this circle with North Korea, appointing Jay P. Lefkowitz special envoy for human rights in North Korea at the same time the “Six Party talks” on nuclear issues were under way. Lefkowitz was often treated by the State Department as a greater enemy than North Korea and was soon marginalized, while American negotiators made concession after concession to the implacable North Koreans.

Those two experiences remind us that it is extremely difficult for American diplomats to hold fast to a “talk but vilify” approach, not least because they are soon attacked for it—first by academics, non-governmental organizations, journalists, and other critics who will claim that such an approach is bound (or even intended) to make negotiations impossible, and then by State Department officials and others in the government who will try to censor the tough rhetoric and compromise the hard line in an effort to get agreement on something.

The economic and financial sanctions against Iran adopted over the last several years have hurt the Iranian economy, and perhaps had oil not reached $140 a barrel last year, the impact would have been great enough to sway the ayatollahs’ policies. Certainly with oil now ninety dollars a barrel lower, and with billions fewer dollars available for the regime to buy off the populace, it is a policy worth continuing and making more stringent. But to what end?

Taheri provides a good reminder that Iran was a huge problem before it got close to building nuclear weapons, and that U.S. interests in the region will only be enhanced by the demise of this evil regime. It may be possible to slow or stop the acquisition of nuclear weapons through economic pressure and diplomatic negotiations, and the administration should make this effort.

But ultimately our goal must be greater: to see the people of Iran free of their oppressors, the region free of this threat to stability and security, and the world free of the largest single state sponsor of terrorism—with or without nuclear weapons. Is it not clear that the “Thirty Years’ War” between this regime and the United States will continue until the regime falls? A “grand bargain” in which we guarantee this regime’s security and accept that it is the greatest regional power would be a bad bargain indeed, for it would be a betrayal of our allies in the region—including those in Iran who are struggling for a free nation that could be at peace with its neighbors. As in the Soviet case there may be negotiations to be held and deals to be struck, but Amir Taheri explains powerfully in The Persian Night that there is no real solution to the problem the regime presents except its collapse.

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