To say to someone to consider a political career in Iran is like saying to a newly wed couple to go for their honeymoon to Damascus or Sana’a!
The perils of pursuing a political career are not new in current Iran. I don’t remember during the Pahlavi regime anyone ever talking about a political career either. If the door to politics was not entirely closed no one knew where it was and how to enter it. The fact that no soul talked about getting involved in politics speaks volume about its exclusive and insidious nature of that time. People in my generation considered almost every possible career except in politics. There was a ‘political party’ and a parliament with ministers sitting in its chamber but it was merely a facade and as relevant to the general population as the monarchy themselves.
Interestingly when the revolution started many wanted to carve out a political career for themselves. They saw the imaginary doors of politics open to them for the first time. It was almost dizzying to keep up with people’s political ideas and leanings. They bombastically spoke of themselves as the chosen ones holding the key to a better society. The monarchy failed to see that Iranians had strong political instincts as any other nations and they only were waiting for the right opportunity to unleash their political visions. Although the Mossadeq era was not far behind us the regime clearly chose to ignore peoples’ enthusiasm in wanting to have a say and be involved in their own affairs.
After 1979 the speed by which various political manifestations spread was faster than any plague. But the excitement was short-lived. As we gradually witnessed the annihilation of various political factions by the Islamists as Hezbollah and the revolutionary guards began to violently remove them one by one from the political scene.
Strolling down memory lane to the streets of Tehran in 1977/78 (by those of us who were there) one important word was often missing from all the slogans against the regime shouted by the demonstrators was “justice”. Was it because it didn’t rhyme as well with the other words like Islam, Islamic republic, Khomeini, freedom and Quran? Or was it because people had no clue what it meant? I wonder how much resonance the word “justice” has even today among people who oppose IRI?
It was this lack of understanding of the word “justice” that people’s conscience did not get stirred to speak up against the political executions that the Islamists carried out immediately after they came to power, targeting the remnant of the ‘monarchists’. Nobody cried out for a fair trial, or punishment that matched their crime. It became clear that many of the executions were not about serving justice at all but eliminating threats against the Islamists in the future. But the barrel of the gun slowly turned and pointed at those who were cheering the executioners. Alas, it was only then that they realised what a terrible mistake it was to keep silent because they were next in line for they too could pose a threat to the Islamists’ hold on power.
Justice is not a relative term. It should either apply to everyone or to no one at all.
But why Iran after such a long history has not been able to grasp the full meaning of justice, citizenship and human rights?
For much of Iran’s history right up till now the structure of the society has been a pyramid shape. Power has always come down from the top. What distinguished the ancient Greeks from their archenemies, the Persians, was the way they viewed their government. Greeks were cynical toward authority, Persians devotional and trusting. Both societies had laws and rights but Greeks looked at people in authority as fallible human beings that if given too much power could turn them into tyrants and become self-serving and make grave mistakes. Power, unfortunately, does have this inherent quality which is to corrupt if it goes unchecked. Persians perceived their kings as divine who could do no wrong.
A political ploy the Islamists used in order to topple the monarchy was they were denied the right to participate in politics (see the photo). But time has only proven that they are not interested in allowing any one else to participate in governing the country. The Iranian Green Movement back in 2009 showed that the ruling elite had no moral qualms to devour and eat their own fellow statesmen if they stepped out of line. Hardly anything in the Islamic regime is as it seems and everything needs to be decoded in order to be fully comprehended. Why, because the power structure is highly engineered to ensure the survivor of a corrupt system that does not want to be accountable and scrutinised.
Theocracy is not a new political system. Ancient Egypt and Tibetans had it. Byzantine Empire was a form of theocracy between A.D. 324-1453. The Islamic Caliphate was a Sunni version of theocracy that ruled for centuries. There are also similarities between oligarchy (which was the Spartan system of government) and theocracy.
During the period of democracy in Athens, the Greeks fought against the Persians and the Spartans in order to avoid giving absolute power to a few. Greek democracy by no means was perfect and had many flaws, for example, women were excluded from participating in politics, but, nevertheless it was worth the experiment and proved that it can work as an alternative model where for the first time more people can vote (especially the poor) and debate their different perspectives on things.
The reason Persian empire was so successful on the other hand it was for the autonomy they gave to their subjects to follow their native laws, speak their own language and keep their own customs. This policy was very attractive to those who were regularly trampled by the bigger and more powerful tribes, for example, the Jews. Persians gave all the nations under their jurisdiction equal protection. It is interesting to note the word satrap is from late Middle English: from Old French satrape or Latin satrapa, based on Old Persian kšathra-pāvan ‘country-protector’.
But still, the power structure of the Persians was not transparent. The justice system took people’s grievances seriously but no one could challenge the status quo. The Achaemenid generosity and inclusiveness were their winning cards but the law (dāta) was given by Ahura Mazda and the king his representative. This attitude placed the king and their laws beyond criticism.
The Athenian democracy and Persian empire were obliterated by the Macedonians and the world has experimented with many forms of political systems ever since. Modern democracy is relatively very new in many countries. Trump’s era is making people doubt the effectiveness of their democratic system. But also it is the first time their institutions have been truly tested.
History teaches us that power corrupts. Accountability is needed. And no one should be above the law and the same rule should apply to all if citizenship and participation in politics are to be upheld and promoted. Many interesting ideas were born for the first time in Athens and Persepolis. What didn’t work can be left behind and what did work can be carried forward and further tweaked.
As far as justice (human rights) and freedom are concerned Iran today has regressed much further back than when it started by Cyrus the Great more than 2500 years ago. Unless the pyramid shape of the political system is changed and the door to political participation at all levels of government is open to all, the current political system will continue to imprison, torture and execute its citizens for simply wanting to participate and be active in their own affairs.