TitleWhat historical precedents Iranians should keep in mind today

Lessons from the past, lessons for the future

26 Feb 2010

■ Tony Judt
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In New York, Shervin Nekuee (chief editor of TehranReview) discussed the Green Movement and the current crisis in Iran with British historian Tony Judt, whom Nekuee calls his ‘intellectual mentor’. After their long conversation, Judt wrote down some of his afterthoughts in the following letter to Nekuee. Which other 20th century regimes can Tehran be (partially) compared with, and what are the historical precedents that Iranian insurgents should keep in mind today?

Dear Shervin,

Our conversation left me a little depressed, because the more I learn of the Iranian situation the more I fear a western compromise with the “least Islamic” part of the authoritarian regime. It is clear that, given Obama’s impossible dilemma in Afghanistan and Pakistan (impossible because of the domestic political costs of telling the truth or changing strategy), an accommodating Iranian regime ought to be very welcome to Washington. I assume this message is not completely inaudible in Tehran as well.

Tony Judt

There are many partial precedents. Eastern Europe is an interesting one. There, the internal opposition to communist dictatorship and repression remained loyal to the ideological principles of the regime at least until 1968, accusing it above all of betraying its own ideals. Thus both “the street” (which hardly existed) and the intelligentsia were to some extent trapped by their common desire to make Communism “work”.

From ’68 through 1989, young men and women developed an alternative strategy: realizing that they had no hope of overthrowing the regime in direct confrontation, and no longer believing in its own ideals, they started to theorize a strategy of “as if”. They would live as though the regime’s constitutional and legal and doctrinal positions should be taken seriously. This way, they reasoned, at the very least they would feel freer; but they would also reveal the truth (or rather the lie) below the surface, thus helping the mass of the population understand that this situation could not go on.

It’s important to understand that this did not work. It did work intellectually – a lot of young people began to think and talk in these terms. But the Communist regimes could have survived indefinitely on a diet of foreign loans and Soviet tanks, facing down the few students and writers and playwrights who were “living in truth”. By the late 1980s, most of the population in Eastern Europe was cynical and de-politicized: pretending to espouse the regime’s language and theorems but actually ignoring them. The regime in turn would pretend to believe that people shared its doctrines, when even the leaders themselves were skeptical.

What changed all that of course was Gorbachev: an external imperial factor not really present in your case. What may be relevant was Gorbachev’s conscious decision not to use tanks. If he had gone the other way he could have clung to power and communism could have survived in Eastern Europe for a while longer. So don’t discount the risk of sheer repressive force. Even in an age of cell phones and internet, there is nothing that outside powers could or would do to help. Look at Budapest (1956), Prague (1968), Warsaw (1981), Beijing (1989) – these communist instances all saw Washington making loud unhappy noises…and sitting quietly back. I fear something similar would apply in Tehran.

Iranian insurgents have to ask not just what is right and just, but what would work and how to get there and whom to get there with

More relevant is Turkey, because the mixture of sophisticated urban modernity, rural backwardness and religious allegiance echoes aspects of Iranian history. In Turkey, the military even today sees itself as the “guardian” of Ataturk Republicanism, against the twin foes of Islamic backwardness and left-wing democratic challenge. On nearly half a dozen occasions since the 1920s, colonels and others have seized power for a while – successfully and with some popular support “restoring” the Ataturk model. By treating Islamic law and practices and internationalist affiliations as somehow “anti-Turkish”, the army has successfully conveyed the illusion that it represents national identity and modernity in Turkish life. This is changing now that the EU has imposed a whole series of both secular and civilian requirements for Turkish membership, with the result that both the Muslims and the army feel rebuffed by modern Europe and are looking elsewhere.

I’m not sure where this leaves you. Clearly, the young people’s sense of wounded national pride in Iran – the sense that they and their country have been humiliated both by their leaders and by the outside world – could produce a sort of left-national-Muslim democracy which the West would completely misunderstand and prefer to see replaced by “our sort of people”.

Washington desperately needs people who can explain the sort of mistake this would be. The instinct of even liberal foreign policy elites over here is always to follow the traditional strategy of decades past, but changing and adapting styles and rhetoric to new circumstances. As I grow older I have become more sympathetic to the “geo-political” theorists of my youth, who used to argue that if you want to understand what great powers are going to do, the best way is to ask i) what is their geographical situation? ii) what are their timeless interests and iii) what did they do last time in the closest comparable case? These questions still make sense.

Last thought. In the medium to long term, Iran is a natural ally and attractive friend to a lot of places: Russia, Israel (yes! – Israelis are complete cynics in this matter and would go to bed with anyone who promised to be unfriendly to their enemies), Turkey (for slightly similar reasons but also because Ankara is looking for medium-sized friends in central Asia these days)…and therefore the US. What works against this logic is Iranians’ own desire for freedom and a constitutional state, which is disruptive to many of the above; and, of course, the post-9/11 obsession of the West, even after Bush, with terrorism, real and imagined. It won’t be difficult for people with an interest in doing so to paint the more radical end of the Iranian street as potentially terroristic.

It follows that, like the Palestinians in a way, the Iranian insurgents have to ask not just what is right and just, but what would work and how to get there and whom to get there with. Any revolution that ignores these questions – and I can give you dozens of sad cases – risks finding itself marginalized even in the community of states that ostensibly share its own ideals.

Let’s keep talking about the future of your country.

All the best,


Tehran Review
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