We’re covering a pretty long period in this one, from half or most of the way through the war with Iraq all the way up to the present, although it’s a pretty quick hustle from Khomeini’s death in 1989 to today.
The two major players during this period, if not in Hashemi’s case always from an official position of power, were these guys:
That’s Hashemi Rafsanjani on the left, speaker of Parliament through the war, spokesman of the Supreme Defense Council over the same period, and President from 1989 to 1997. On the right is Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Supreme Leader after Khomeini despite a marked lack of religious or clerical qualifications (and they had to change the Constitution to make way for him). Rafsanjani and Khamenei were the most loyal and in Rafsanjani’s case the most capable men that Khomeini brought with him through the Revolution, and they were the ones he wanted to leave in his stead.
After Rafsanjani left office, this man came from nowhere to take the Presidency of the Republic away from the picked dude of the Establishment.
His name is Mohammad Khatami, and he was the figurehead of the first liberal (and reformist, as against the forces of conservatism and the status quo, embodied in the clique of Khamenei appointees in the veto-power-holding councils of government) resurgence. Khatami focused on political reforms. They were what Iran needed, but even a friendly Majlis couldn’t do anything to override the Council of Guardians, and spending all his time on stillborn (if necessary) policies left economics by the wayside and the great mass of poor Iranians underserved and feeling neglected.
Eight years of political impasse and economic stagnation under Khatami gave way in 2005 to the one Iranian besides Khomeini and Khamenei that we recognize in the United States:
Mahmud Ahmadinejad spent his Presidential career posturing and preening and spitting at the West, revelling in the polemics over Iran’s nuclear program and aiming at some sort of vaguely defined greater regional role while utterly failing to address any of the actual internal problems that brought him to power. I lay this in the show, but if you want any short and simple way to understand Ahmadinejad as an American, it’s this: he and Donald Trump are one and the same, although I think Ahmadinejad is probably smarter, or is now that Trump’s clearly in some sort of cognitive decline. They ran on similar populist platforms, they similarly failed to implement that populism in office, they filled the halls of government with total incompetents and they enjoyed the infamy they could create much more than the actual job of the Presidency.
Ahmadinejad’s total unfitness for the job didn’t prevent him from winning a second term with the help of some election rigging from Khamenei, which gave rise to the Green Movement in 2009 and the second Iranian liberal resurgence that led to the election of our last Iranian character, Hassan Rouhani, elevated to the Presidency in 2013 and re-elected just this past spring.
Rouhani’s popular, moderate, and reformist, and he’s doing what he can to bring women’s and minority rights, along with press freedoms and the justice system all into positions that we’d see as acceptable in the West. To do so he’s got to fight the entrenched interests of those on the Right, ranged around Khamenei and dug into every institution and structure of power in the country. Progress has been slow and it will be slow, but it’s only working by their own lights that the Iranians are going to be able to turn the Revolution around to the point where it’s fulfilling the dreams of all its original adherents and not just the most conservative ones.
The greatest threats to that progress are these two men right here, along, maybe, with Mad Dog Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly. All of them bear the typical American grudge against Iran, the one that necessarily understands our joint history to have begun in 1979 and not in 1953 and one which ignores our prominent role in the Iran Iraq War to focus on Iran’s rather less important place in the Lebanese conflicts from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Tillerson so far has slowed Trump’s attempts to unilaterally torpedo the nuclear deal, but otherwise he’s treated Iran like most US politicians: an unintelligible bad actor, always in need of a scolding from that paragon of good international behavior, the United States.
That attitude alone, expressed across the Administration, is bad enough for reformers like Rouhani in Iran who have stressed for decades the need to reach a detente with the West, but combined with Trump’s hamfisted attempts to bully Iran on the world stage, POTUS and all his merry men are doing what Americans have always done: cut the feet out from under every politician in Tehran who shares our values and interests while giving ammunition to the clerics and parochial conservatives who’d love to shut out the West and modernity forever.
And last but never least, references.
Abrahamian, Ervand. The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations. New Press, 2013.
Abrahamian, Ervand. A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran: Between Two Revolutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1974-1975 — Iran. 1 January 1975: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/pol10/001/1975/en/
Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1974-1975 — Iran. 1 June 1976: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/pol10/001/1975/en/
Axworthy, Michael. Revolutionary Iran: A History of the Islamic Republic. Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Baraheni, Reza. “Terror in Iran.” The New York Review of Books, 28 October 1976.
Byrne, Malcolm. “The Secret CIA History of the Iran Coup.” The National Security Archive, last modified 29 November 2000, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB28/.
The Cambridge History of Iran: From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic. Edited by Peter Avery, Gavin Hambly and Charles Melville. Vol. VII. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963.
Fatemi, N. S. 1985. “The Anglo Persian Agreement of 1919.” Encyclopaedia Iranica Vol II: 59.
Filkins, Dexter. “Rex Tillerson at the Breaking Point.” The New Yorker, 6 October, 2017.
Katouzian, Homa. The Political Economy of Modern Iran: Despotism and Pseudo-Modernism, 1926-1979. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1981.
Kinzer, Stephen. All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Wiley, 2003.
Roosevelt, Kermit. Countercoup: The Struggle for Control of Iran. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1979.
Rothschild, Emily. “Carter and Arms: No Sale.” The New York Review of Books, 15 September 1977.
Steel, Ronald. “Impossible Dreams.” The New York Review of Books, 12 September 1968.
“1998 Khatami Interview.” CNN. YouTube.
“Ahmadinejad: Bin Laden is in DC.” ABC News. YouTube.
“Axis of Evil Speech.” George W. Bush. YouTube.
“Ayatollah Khomeini Funeral.” hijazna. YouTube.
“CNN Report: ‘Green Movement Is Alive and Well” CNN. YouTube.
Doctor Turtle, “Lullaby for Democracy.”
“Iran: The ‘Pariah State’ |Iran & the West Part 2.” BBC. YouTube.
“Iran’s Rebel Ayatollah—Ayatollah Montazeri—Documentary.” IranDocumentary1. YouTube.
Krakatoa, “See My Blue.”
“Modern Warfare: Iran-Iraq War.” International Television News. YouTube.
“Persian Folk Music.” Traditional Music Channel. YouTube.
“USS Vincennes Shoots Down Iranian Airliner.” TVO News. YouTube.