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Professor Gives View on Iran’s Politics

  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attends a televised speech after he won the election, in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, May 20, 2017. Rouhani says that the message of Friday's election that gave him another four-year term is one of Iran living in peace and friendship with the world. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hanover — Misagh Parsa, a professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, outlined the roots of a deep discord between the Iranian people and their Islamist government and pointed to possible outcomes during a talk Tuesday afternoon at the Haldeman Center.

The discussion came within days of a convincing victory from Hassan Rouhani, a moderate reformer, in the country’s presidential election and also coincides with the publication of Parsa’s latest book, Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed.

Parsa opened with a video that might give democratizers cause for hope: footage of swarms of Iranians celebrating Rouhani in the streets, dancing to thumping music — forbidden by Islamic clerics — with some women waving their head scarves in the air.

But he almost immediately tempered that optimism, noting that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, clerics and the military hold most of the power. To achieve democratic rule, Parsa said, another revolution will have to finish what began with the 1979 ouster of the autocratic shah.

“It’s highly unlikely for Iran to democratize through reform,” Parsa said, given that reformers have to work within the existing structures of power. “And so instead it’s likely that Iran will need to go through another revolutionary transformation.”

The Islamic regime has been at odds with the people since the beginning, according to Parsa. The first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, promised democratic reforms early on, giving no hint to the Iranian public that he intended to establish a religious government.

“The people did not ask for an Islamic theocracy,” Parsa said. “... That was not part of the deal.”

“Instead they gave them something no one was interested in,” he said, referring to the social and cultural restrictions imposed by Islamic leaders: restrictions on the dress and behavior of women, for instance, and bans on drinking and music.

Parsa ticked off year after year since 1979 in which massive protests against the regime were followed by brutal repression, including thousands of executions — an indication, he said, that the divide between a religious government and a more secular populace is only growing deeper.

The numbers of conservative clergy in the country’s parliament, for example, have fallen at a “shocking rate,” he said — decreasing from 60.7 percent of all members in 1980 to 5.5 percent in 2016.

Gene Garthwaite, a professor emeritus of history who gave remarks afterward, bolstered that point, saying religion in Iran has become “way overemphasized” for Westerners as Iranians grow “increasingly cynical” about it.

During a recent trip to the Middle East, Garthwaite found that mosques in Istanbul were full of worshippers, he said, “whereas in Iran, they’re all empty. That’s one of the biggest shocks.”

Parsa said the regime had failed to deliver on its promises to the people in other ways — especially economically. Khomeini initially pledged to reduce inequality and help the poor, but after seizing power he and his allies took the assets of the royal family and their associates.

In the years since, corruption and cronyism have become even more widespread than they were under the U.S.-backed shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Parsa said.

In the shah’s day, public universities commanded more respect, he said, “Now you can go and buy degrees at any state Iranian university.”

During a question-and-answer session, audience member Bruce Garland asked whether it might take more bloodshed to dislodge the current regime than it did for the shah, who fled along with his associates to the West — “Whereas the (Revolutionary) Guard has nowhere to go,” he said, “and therefore the fight would be much more bloody, much more intractable.”

Parsa said Iranians were aware that the regime was capable of extreme violence and wanted to avoid that happening.

“Iranians know that these people are very ruthless and they are willing to kill thousands again,” he said.

But at the same time, Parsa added, the Iranian government feels deeply threatened by popular protests.

Earlier during the event, he noted that Khamenei had lamented that massive protests against fraud in the 2009 election had “brought the Islamic Republic to the ‘edge of the cliff.’ ”

Other high-ranking officials said those demonstrations had posed a greater challenge to the regime than the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

Daniel Benjamin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, asked what events were most likely to trigger another revolution in Iran.

Earlier, Garthwaite had noted that a succession crisis could develop when Khamenei leaves power.

Although Parsa didn’t offer a specific example of a revolutionary trigger, he said the impetus shouldn’t come from Washington.

“Every time there’s an external conflict, Iranians tend to unite,” he said. “That is what should not happen. Let the contradictions heighten.”

Tuesday’s event was co-sponsored by the Dickey Center and the Department of Sociology.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.