Book Reviews

Theaters of Coercion

Intellectuals and activists have struggled to transform Iran. But Tehran’s role in the changing landscape of the Middle East has become the defining story.

By Danny Postel

Tagged Bashar al-AssadEgyptIranJimmy CarterLibyaSyria

Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran by Laura Secor • Riverhead Books • 2016 • 528 pages • $30

On December 31, 1977, in a toast to the Shah of Iran and his “great leadership,” Jimmy Carter described Iran as “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” Within a few months, Iran was gripped by riots, strikes, and mass demonstrations, and the monarch imposed martial law. In January of 1979, the Shah and his family fled the country, bringing their rule to an unceremonious conclusion. “Island of stability” would become one of the more ignominious phrases in American diplomatic history, an embarrassing pronouncement emblematic of a misbegotten and ill–fated policy—one that, indirectly, would help sink Carter’s presidency.

History can be cunning. Carter’s locution has recently made something of a comeback—only this time as farce. The Iran observer Kevan Harris has cleverly asked if, amid the chaotic aftermath of the Arab uprisings, we might think of Iran as a “twenty-first-century island of stability.” In the summer of 2013—as civil war ravaged Syria, chaos engulfed Libya, military rule returned to Egypt, sectarian violence convulsed Iraq, and deep states, with the aid of the Saudi kingdom, maneuvered to reassert control and crush popular mobilizations in countries across the region—Iran held a presidential election. Unlike the country’s presidential election four years earlier, which resulted in mass protests and brutal repression against protesters, this one went off peacefully and brought a new, moderate, pragmatic administration to power, one eager to negotiate a resolution to the standoff with the United States and other countries over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The country’s new foreign minister has a doctorate in international relations from the University of Denver and served as Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

Considering the trajectory of events in the region—what The New York Times Magazine recently described as the “fracturing” of the Arab world—“island of stability” might not be such a stretch. While Iran does appear stable on the domestic front, it plays a major role in the most destabilizing—and the bloodiest—conflict in the world today. The Islamic Republic is the key regional ally of the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Not only does Tehran support Assad’s killing machine directly, with the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, it has marshaled forces from across the region to fight on Assad’s side—Shia militias from Iraq, Shia mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and, of course, Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has its own reasons for crossing the border to defend Assad, but does so in close coordination with its Iranian patrons. With the rise of ISIS and the proliferation of Salafi-jihadi forces in Syria, Iran’s role as a critical counterforce to these nefarious formations—especially in Iraq—has made the Islamic Republic a strategic ally of Western powers. It has created the impression that Iran is on the right side—or at least against the wrong side—in fighting terrorism.

But as we know, looks can be deceiving. Recall that Iran rushed to Assad’s defense in the spring of 2011, well before jihadi extremists were on the scene (except the ones Assad himself unleashed from Syrian jails at the outset of the uprising). The Syrian uprising was then a nonviolent and nonsectarian affair. Its demands were freedom, dignity, and democratic rights—exactly the demands of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings (which the Islamic Republic claimed to support).

The Assad regime’s response to those peaceful demonstrations across Syria in 2011 can be summed up in two words: live ammunition. The regime’s security forces fired on crowds of unarmed protestors for upward of six months. The Islamic Republic defended its staunch ally in Damascus, as the latter unleashed a bloodbath of repression against a popular and nonviolent democratic uprising. There is a retrospective aggrandizement in the Iranian regime’s framing of its role in the Syrian conflict, as if it had always been fighting the bad guys. This conveniently elides two contravening facts:

  1. The jihadi extremists Iran boasts about repelling did not show up in Syria until well after Iran’s intervention on the side of a dictator who was shooting peaceful demonstrators in the streets.
  2. The Islamic Republic itself has orchestrated a massive transnational flow of Islamist extremists into the Syrian fray, forces that have engaged in violence on a staggering scale. This Shia jihad is largely left out of the dominant narrative. Shia foreign fighters in Syria are “far more numerous” than foreign ISIS recruits, yet have “received noticeably less attention,” note Ari Heistein and James West.

As the Assad regime has massively escalated its violence, Iran has actually doubled down on its support for its ally in Damascus. And make no mistake: While all sides in the Syrian war have committed atrocities, the overwhelming majority are the work of the regime. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that Assad regime forces are responsible for more than 95 percent of all civilian deaths in Syria. The UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria has reported that the Assad regime “has committed the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts.” The regime uses hunger as a weapon—a war crime—depriving hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in Syria’s besieged areas of access to food and medicine. Physicians for Human Rights calculates that the regime and its allies are responsible for more than 300 attacks on medical facilities, killing hundreds of health workers in what Amnesty International called part of a deliberate military strategy. And it has escalated. In July 2016 alone, there were 43 attacks on hospitals—one every 17 hours. In addition, the Assad regime has engaged in “industrial scale” torture and murder of detainees.

Iran is deeply complicit in these crimes. And if it was ever ashamed of this, it no longer is: Whereas for years the regime concealed the extent of its involvement in Syria from the Iranian public, it now openly celebrates it.

All of which is to say that the most important Iranian story today is not its domestic, but its foreign policy—its role in the Syrian conflagration, in the sectarianization of the region’s politics, and its intensifying rivalry with Saudi Arabia. (These three things are intricately interrelated.) Not to mention that one of the biggest geopolitical developments of the last year is the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members—China, France, Russia, the UK, the United States—plus Germany), which has added fuel to the fire of Saudi (and broader Sunni Arab) anxieties about the expanding Shia Crescent/Iranian hegemony in the region.

Until 2011, I saw things the other way around: It was the complex drama unfolding inside Iran that fascinated me. I found neoconservative fulminations about Iran being the World’s Leading State Sponsor of Terrorism and an “existential” threat to Israel not just exaggerations, but distractions from the far more significant developments taking place inside Iran, if largely under the radar—what the scholar Mehran Kamrava calls Iran’s intellectual revolution. I spent several years exploring and writing about this labyrinth. But in the new political landscape of the Middle East, Iran’s foreign affairs have come to occupy center stage. Its domestic developments seem almost trivial given the tragedy in Syria (and Iran’s role in it).

In this sense, Laura Secor’s long-awaited Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran comes at an inopportune moment. Its focus is decidedly on Iran’s domestic front. It ends in the immediate aftermath of the regime’s crackdown on the 2009 Green Movement protests that convulsed Iran. A brief epilogue brings things up to the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in 2013. It is a deeply gripping and marvelously in-depth portrait of Iran over the last several decades, but it doesn’t discuss the biggest story of the current era: Iran’s role in the conflicts and changing international relations of the Middle East since 2011.

Despite this, the story of Iran’s internal transformations since the 1979 revolution is so compelling that a book on the subject is of enormous value in its own right. And Children of Paradise is an exceptionally well-crafted and textured exploration of this journey. Among its cardinal virtues is the depth of attention it devotes to the roles that ideas, books, and their authors play in Iran. Ideas matter in Iran, so intensely and to such an extent that unless you see it with your own eyes up close, it’s difficult to fully appreciate. But Secor, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, former staff writer for the Boston Globe’s Ideas section, and former foreign-policy editor of The American Prospect, brings this essential dimension of Iranian life into sharp focus through a series of vibrant portraits of thinkers and their influence on the shape of Iranian politics since the 1960s.

She starts in the decade or so before the revolution, with the thinkers who set the stage for the upheavals that were to come. We meet Jalal Al-e-Ahmad (1923-1969), who railed against “Westoxification” or “Occidentosis.” Far too many Iranians, he lamented, had fallen under the spell of the West—its secular values, moral laxity, ethos of materialism, and cult of the individual—at the expense of indigenous Iranian and Islamic traditions. Thanks to Al-e-Ahmad, “Westoxification” entered the everyday lexicon of Iran’s cultural and political conversation in the 1960s. We meet Ali Shariati (1933-1977), the key intellectual influence on the revolutionary generation. Shariati developed a radical interpretation of Shiism and synthesized it with anti-colonialist and Third-World-ist currents. He translated Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s What Is Poetry? into Persian. Shariati’s books were required reading in radical circles—especially the religiously oriented ones—in 1960s and ’70s Iran. But it was his spellbinding lectures that made him a living legend. Young Iranians flocked to hear him speak at the Hosseiniyeh Ershad in Tehran, a vortex of cultural activity that was part library, part mosque, and part lecture hall.

Iran’s domestic politics seem almost trivial given the war in Syria.

In those talks, Shariati fomented a revolutionary idealism that not only stimulated new thinking, but also inspired myriad Iranians to devote themselves to realizing, here and now, the Islamic utopia he preached. Shariati was forced to flee Iran and died in London just months before the start of the revolution whose intellectual foundations he helped lay. “He embodied the anguish of his country at the fulcrum of its twentieth century, and he furnished a common point of origin for two generations of thinkers,” Secor observes. “They began in his thrall and ended up in argument with him. They built their house to his design, and by the early 1990s they came to see it as a prison.”

The prison metaphor is apt given that a good deal of the book is set behind bars, especially in interrogation rooms. If you’ve seen Jon Stewart’s 2014 film Rosewater, about the detention of the journalist Maziar Bahari for his reporting on the 2009 elections, you have some idea of what it’s like inside an Iranian prison. But the scenes behind bars in Children of Paradise make Bahari’s experience as depicted in Rosewater seem like a cakewalk (and would make for a much more powerful film). There is ritual torture, deprivation, humiliation, blackmail, beatings, forced confessions, show trials, and threats of reprisals against family members. It is the image, from George Orwell’s 1984, of “a boot stamping on a human face—forever” made concrete.

Secor’s is by no means the first account of this ghastly “theater of coercion,” in her evocative phrase. Ervand Abrahamian’s Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran chronicled this landscape in excruciating detail. But Secor’s rendering is bone-chilling in its narrative detail. It is also illuminating. She talks about the “cruel efficacy” of the forced confession—the extraction, through the horrific infliction of pain, of false statements attesting not only to one’s own guilt but to one’s involvement in a grand plot and vast network of seditious activity. The cruel efficacy of this crude tool lies in imposing impossible choices on people: “Confess” to something you have not done and implicate your equally innocent friends, or the authorities take your wife in for “questioning” (with not so subtle hints about what will happen to her). It is designed to make people crack, and it usually works. It smears reputations, shatters psyches, and destroys lives. This methodology was established during the first decade of the Islamic Republic, in the 1980s, and persists to this day. It is, in an important sense, a defining characteristic of the regime.

One of the most harrowing and haunting stories in the book involves a group of reformist bloggers who endured months of brutality behind bars. They eventually got out of prison and left the country, but the experience inhabits them. Of one of them, Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, Secor observes: “The torturers had dimmed a light in him and ferried his spirit even further from the surface of his skin.”

One of Roozbeh’s cellmates, Omid Memarian, sensed that their tormentor was “given to ecstasies of violence.” This is a central component. There are both ideological and unmistakably sadistic qualities to the cruelty inflicted on political prisoners in Iran. The ideological element could be taken to seemingly absurd lengths. The reformist strategist and intellectual Saeed Hajjarian, locked up during the 2009 crackdown, was forced to renounce Max Weber’s theory of the patrimonial state. He confessed to having “fallen blindly into the trap of these misguided theories.” Hajjarian wrote: “[W]e now know that many of these ideas were at the root of the protests that threatened national unity….Theories of the human sciences contain ideological weapons that can be converted into strategies and tactics and mustered against the country’s official ideology.”

This smacks of dark satire. But it reveals the dark side of the importance of ideas in Iran. Ideas matter in a big way not only to students, activists, elected officials, and ordinary citizens, but also to regime apparatchiks and even to prison interrogators—in the negative, as threats to the system. The student activist Ali Afshari found himself interrogated about philosophy. “Did good and evil inhere in actions?” the interrogator asked. “Or did a person’s perceptions and intentions determine whether his acts were good or bad?” The interrogator had no interest in a free exchange of ideas—he was trying to see if Afshari was under the influence of dangerous reformist interpretations of Islam. These discussions “ended in beatings.”

But the Islamic Republic has gone much further than forcing intellectuals and dissidents to renounce theories. Over the course of several years in the 1990s, it went about killing off writers and intellectuals, in a notorious episode that would come to be known as the “chain murders.” The revolutionary-turned-dissident investigative journalist Akbar Ganji wrote a series of newspaper articles about these events that were published in book form under the felicitous title Dungeon of Ghosts. He was consequently thrown in prison, where he spent the better part of a decade and nearly died.

The most influential of the generation of Iranian thinkers who began in Ali Shariati’s thrall and ended up in argument with him was Abdolkarim Soroush, who has been called an Iranian Luther and the Martin Luther of Islam. Secor’s profile of Soroush’s intellectual and political evolution is among the highlights of the book. She describes his shift from acolyte of Ayatollah Khomeini and functionary of the regime to advocate of a tolerant reading of Islam and critic of the regime’s tyrannical drift, and also details Soroush’s central role in shaping the public soul-searching about the direction of the revolutionary project. Secor brings us deep inside the archipelago of journals and think tanks inspired by the philosopher’s work in the 1990s and 2000s, a world full of passionate debates and personalities. Soroush’s lectures, like Shariati’s two decades before, attracted throngs of young Iranians and filled university auditoriums. They also attracted members of pro-regime militia forces, who shouted him down at public appearances. On one occasion, during a 1995 lecture in the city of Isfahan, things turned violent: “The militiamen surged from the audience, pummeling the philosopher in the face and head and tearing his shirt from his chest.”

Soroush and other reformists began to realize that there was a fascist streak deep in the heart of the Islamic Republic. “The triumph of worshippers of darkness conveys the defeat of our culture,” Soroush wrote to then-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Saeed Hajjarian likewise expressed what Secor calls “a deep foreboding about the direction his revolution had taken.”

During the summer 2009 election protests that rocked the Islamic Republic to its foundations, the regime arrested thousands of demonstrators. It was soon revealed that many of them—both men and women—were not only beaten and tortured while in detention but brutally sexually assaulted. “Guards burned detainees’ hands and feet with molten tar, broke their teeth, put them through mock executions, and raped and sodomized them violently and repeatedly,” Secor reports. Mehdi Karroubi, the reformist cleric and former speaker of Iran’s parliament, warned that these violations threatened to “overshadow the sins of many dictatorships including that of the deposed Shah.” Karroubi has been under house arrest since shortly thereafter.

Gandhi said something to the effect that the true test of a society is how it treats its minorities. Reading Children of Paradise made me think that another test is how a society treats its dissidents. On this score, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a colossal failure. And as Secor notes, many of Iran’s leading intellectuals and even religious authorities—including members of Khomeini’s inner circle—have themselves reached this conclusion. The late Hossein Ali Montazeri, a Grand Ayatollah (the highest clerical rank in Shiism) and Khomeini’s heir apparent until he began criticizing the regime’s abuses in 1988, declared the Islamic Republic neither Islamic nor a republic.

We are your only safeguard against the cataclysm that would unfold if you rattle the cage, the regime tells Iranians.

These carnivals of atrocity may, as many Iranian dissidents suspect, be an intractable fact of life in the Islamic Republic—a defining feature of the regime. The reform movement seemed dead after the 2009 crackdown. Its leaders had been jailed, its newspapers shut down, its ability to operate effectively closed. Despite this, the 2013 election presented a new set of possibilities, and millions of Iranians got behind the candidacy of Hassan Rouhani. The domestic picture in Iran has remained bleak—under Rouhani’s watch, repression has, if anything, increased, and the Islamic Republic has gone on an execution spree. (Iran is consistently among the top five executioners in the world—along with China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—and leads the world in putting children to death.)

But Rouhani’s election—and especially his choice of Javad Zarif as foreign minister—was consequential if not, indeed, historic, because it led directly to the resolution of the nuclear issue that had bedeviled Iran’s relations with the great powers. Most Iranian dissidents and human rights activists—including former political prisoners (for to be a dissident or human rights activist in Iran virtually guarantees jail time)—support the deal. The persistence of the nuclear issue meant the constant threat of military action against Iran, and that threat played right into the hands of regime hard-liners. In the event of a military strike on Iran, dissidents and human rights activists would have found themselves in an even more precarious position, and the prospects for reform obliterated. Iran’s dissidents hope that “the nation’s attention, previously monopolized by the negotiations, could now turn to critical domestic issues, among them, the state of basic freedoms in Iran,” according to a report issued by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. They harbor no illusion that the nuclear deal will end the regime’s repression overnight. But they do believe, as the report’s authors note, that a resolution to the nuclear issue is “a necessary even if not sufficient requirement for any progress toward greater rights and liberties.” And the nuclear agreement probably would not have been reached without Rouhani and Zarif (and, for that matter, Barack Obama and John Kerry) at the helm. This is an important reminder that, despite the human rights horrors and the repeated failures of Iran’s reformists to stem them, which Secor’s book so luminously chronicles, elections in Iran—as narrowly constrained as they are within an authoritarian system—still matter.

In a 2003 open letter to Iran’s then-president Mohammad Khatami, Soroush argued that the country was at a crossroads. The people, Soroush wrote, “demand not the reform of the present theocracy, as the reformists want, but a fundamental change towards full fledged democracy and [political] secularism.” Was Soroush right? In 2009, as millions of Iranians took to the streets and their slogans crescendoed over the course of months from “Where is my vote?” to “Iranian Republic”—a direct challenge to theocratic rule—Soroush’s claim seemed to be bearing out.

But through a combination of repression and attrition, the regime eventually quelled the Green Movement. The Islamic Republic has used the chaotic aftermath of the Arab uprisings to deter revolt at home. Look at Libya and Syria, the regime tells Iranians—is that what you want? We are your only safeguard against the cataclysm that would unfold if you rattle the cage.

It’s unclear if this messaging is the reason Iranians have largely pulled back from protest politics, but pull back they have. And yet, the Green Movement, to quote a Persian proverb, could be “a raging fire under a heap of ash,” with the potential, as Iran analyst Muhammad Sahimi has noted, “to come to the surface again at any moment.” It’s easy to forget how unpredictable world events can be. A revolution was inconceivable even to most Iranians until it actually happened in 1979, as the sociologist Charles Kurzman reminds us.

One event that can be predicted with absolute certainty is that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, now 78, will die one day. That will be a true crossroads for Iran, much more than any presidential election, because it will put the very theological foundation of the system on trial. When that day arrives, the Iranian people will be confronted, for the first time since 1989—when Khomeini died and Khamenei was anointed his successor—with a simple yet monumental question. They will have to consider whether they want the office of Supreme Leader—which the Iran scholar Hamid Dabashi calls an “undemocratic obscenity”—to continue.

When Khamenei dies, the machinery of the Islamic Republic will go into high gear to ensure a smooth transition—and it will do so swiftly. The clerical Assembly of Experts will deliberate to pick the next Supreme Leader. (Technically its members are elected, but candidates are vetted to exclude reformers.) As those deliberations take place, this paramount question will finally crack open, and I believe the Iranian people will look into their future in a way they have not since 1979. They will have to ask themselves if they want another 20, 30, maybe 40 years of this “obscenity.” It is then that the “forever” part of Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face” will come into blinding focus. And it is then that we will find out if Soroush was right about what Iranians really want.

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Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the author of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism (2006) and co-editor of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2010), The Syria Dilemma (2013), and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (forthcoming).

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