08 August, 2009

"The Priest and the King"

The full title of this book by Desmond Harney is The Priest and the King: An Eyewitness Account of the Iranian Revolution. Mr Harney seems to be some businessman fellow who was a large international bank in Iran at the time of the Shah's fall. The book is a diary of political events he kept during the last months of the Shah's regime. One thing that strikes about it is that by the time he starts writing the Shah's position already seems terminal, even though it was still four months before the fall of the monarchy and the Ayatollah Khomeini's return. The sense of impending doom seems to have driven Harney to start writing. He had been out of Iran on holiday, but while he was away news came in of a massacre of demonstrators by the Shah's soldiers. Sensing that this was going to both trigger further unrest and expose the regime as morally bankrupt, Harney raced back to Iran, and rapidly becomes convinced that the regime, and the Iran he knew, was doomed.

Oddly, the Ayatollah Khomeini takes some time to appear in this book. Although the Shia Muslim clergy played an important part in the agitation against the Shah, Khomeini was not initially that prominent. At the commencement of the unrest, Khomeini was in exile in Iraq, confined to the city of Najaf. Messages smuggled from him there were reaching the disaffected in Iran, and his teachings did have some resonance. In an attempt to reduce his influence, the Shah prevailed upon Saddam Hussein to deport Khomeini, to remove him from the vicinity of Iran. From Iraq the Ayatollah made his way to France, where he was able to speak to the world media, with his message making its way into Iran through the BBC World Service's broadcasts. This seems to have turned Khomeini from being just one of many disaffected clerics to being the face of opposition to the Shah.

Once the unrest got seriously going, it took a while to bring down the Shah's regime, but the outcome (to Harney anyway) was never in doubt – he consistently dismisses as too little too late any attempts to form new governments acceptable to the opposition. He also has no time for the talk, common in the elite circles in which he moves, of a hard-line crackdown by the regime, or even a rightwing coup that would remove the Shah and crush the opposition. To Harney, a crackdown was impossible, as after the initial massacres of demonstrators morale in the army had collapsed, and there was the real likelihood that the army would mutiny or disintegrate if ordered to shoot demonstrators again.

As well as the demonstrations, Harney also mentions the labour unrest that paralysed Iran in 1978. Half the country seems to be either on strike or else showing up to work but not doing any. From his perspective, it is not too clear how much of this is political and how much purely economic – Iran had been going through an inflationary boom, and many workers would have found prices rising faster than their wages.

One thing you hear in retrospect about the Iranian revolution is leftist played a major part in it, only to be crushed after the fact by Khomeini and his allies. You do not really get much of a sense of this from Harney. Leftists are fairly invisible, with the demonstrations appearing to be lead by the clergy. As Khomeini assumes greater prominence, pictures of him are increasingly everywhere. He does mention one demonstration by the Tudeh ("masses"), Iran's communist party. It comes pretty late in the day, and comes across distinctly as a "we're here too!" affair. It sounds almost quaint and, in the light of what came after, rather sad – the demonstration features mass ranks of men and (unveiled) women marching hand in hand, openly repudiating the Khomeini-ist social codes they would soon have to live under.

One factor significant in the Shah's fall that Harney does not mention, because it only came into the public domain afterwards, was how unwell the Shah was at the time. Harney does comment on the unfortunate paralysis of the regime, its inability to act or take any kind of serious decision. We know now, of course, that the Shah was severely unwell in the last years of his rule, and was basically terminally ill at a time when his regime most needed direction. Whether his dynasty could have survived if he had been in a position to provide clearer direction is something we cannot say, but it is often noticeable in history how often monarchical regimes fall when a major crisis coincides with some kind of weakness at the top.

A couple of things in the book seem relevant to current events in Iran. One thing he is struck by is how the Shah has no riot police – so once a demonstration becomes too big for the ordinary cops to deal with, the authorities have to either surrender the streets or call in the army to start shooting people and creating martyrs. In contrast, during the recent unrest in Iran it was noticeable that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad clique was able to deploy riot police and various paramilitary thugs to crack heads and clear the streets, keeping demonstrator fatalities to a minimum. On the other hand, the role of external broadcasts (indeed, of the BBC) is strikingly similar in both cases. In 1978, the BBC world service was broadcasting to Iran in Farsi*, carrying reports of the unrest that the censored local media was ignoring. In 2009, meanwhile, the BBC was publicising the unrest on the web and in Farsi-language satellite news broadcasts. Memories of the role played by the BBC in the fall of the regime they replaced may well have driven the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad faction's recent vilification of the BBC.

There is one big difference, though, with the fall of the Shah and the current situation in Iran. In 1978, the Shah's regime increasingly had no support whatsoever outside the various placeholders who surrounded him – in society at large it was increasingly isolated. This is not really the case with the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad faction. They may have stolen the recent election, but they do have a significant bloc of public support. Their supporters may well be a minority, but they might well be a minority sufficiently large to keep the regime in place so long as it is willing to crack the heads of anyone who tries to stand against it.

*Farsi is the main language of Iran. I am guessing the word comes from the same root as Persian.


Anonymous said...

Yes, 'Farsi/Parsi' are linked.
I like your HM posts, I always get a good overview on something that just looks like a muddle to me.

ian said...

Cheers. Hopefully you are not too led astray by my idiosyncratic opinions.