Farideh Farhi, while working for the International Crisis Group in 2006, attended a women’s demonstration in Iran for equal rights.
The Bush administration had recently given about $18 million to various civil society organizations in Iran, pushing for equal rights. The Iranian government viewed these funds as “regime-change money.”
After she had watched for a long time, a police officer approached her. The woman asked Farhi leave. She did not leave; she tried to negotiate. In Iran, after all, negotiating with police is common.
To her surprise, that police officer arrested her. She had only been in Iran for two days. Instead of being taken to a police station, Farhi and about 70 others were taken to a prison’s intelligence compound. The charges: acting against the system and threatening national security.
The police suspected Farhi was there as an agent of the U.S. with cash to give to the civil society organizations.
After several days of interrogation, Farhi was released. But she took with her knowledge about Iran that she wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Farhi shared this story as part of her 10:45 a.m. lecture Thursday in the Amphitheater. She was the fourth speaker in Week Six’s topic, “Iran: From Ancient Persia to Middle East Powder Keg.”
In addition to being a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manao, Farhi is an adviser to the National Iranian American Council.
In her speech, titled “Making Sense of Iran’s Contentious Politics,” Farhi explained that the Iranian domestic government can be understood in three aspects: the nature of revolution, the lack of compromise and the changing society.
The nature of revolution
The Islamic Revolution of 1979, Farhi said, was the first modern revolution of the 20th century. It was extremely popular. It brought together opposing forces to face off against monarchy. Monarchy, she said, could not adjust itself into modern times, so it had to go.
There were three goals of the revolution: no to monarchy, no to dictatorship and no to a patron-client relationship with the U.S. Similarly, the slogans read independence and freedom.
Later, a third slogan was added: Islamic republic.
“It was added later, some people say, to ensure clerical control,” Farhi said, “while others saw it as a commitment to economic justice and populace politics.”
Once the monarch was removed, the consensus fell apart. The differing opinion-holders could only agree on what they did not want; there was no choice in what system to adopt.
Lack of compromise
Farhi asked the audience to think of the words “Islamic” and “republic.” She said an “Islamic republic” is an oxymoron. As such, problems were unavoidable.
The clerics are not elected and essentially have veto power. The elected officials -- the president and parliament --represent the people but constantly are in conflict with the clerics on how to run the country.
“Under consensual circumstances, if there was a broad agreement about how to run the country -- the policy direction of the country -- this institutional arrangement could be considered a system of checks and balances,” Farhi said. “But as we are learning in the case of the United States as well, these institutions of checks and balance in times of serious policy disagreements and conflict end up being institutions that are in gridlock and impasse.”
In the end, it comes down to whether the interests of state trump interests of religion, or vice-versa. As it turned out, the state won that battle, Farhi said.
She added that one of the causes of the uncompromising problem is that the Iranian people never were able to keep a single revolutionary political party to keep progress on the right track.
Instead, she said, there is an “absolute impasse” in the Iranian government.
Changing Iranian society
Secularism is Iran is growing, she said, which is directly opposing the idea of an Islamic republic.
“You can live in Iran,” Farhi said the government tells the secular middle class. “It’s your country. Even make good money if you have good skills. … You can enjoy your private life, as long as it does not spill too much into the public life, because your lifestyles are not Islamic enough. Either don’t participate in elections, or if election results are manipulated to change the results, don’t protest. Because if you do, you will be dealt with harshly.”
The supreme leader of Iran, the leader of the clerics, has the final say, according to the Iranian Constitution. Once he announces the election results, it is final. However, that’s only if you take it literally, Farhi said.
She said the idea that the supreme leader has absolute power is very much “against the spirit” of the 1979 monarch-removing revolution. In the end, it returns back to that revolution.
“The Islamic republic remains in limbo,” Farhi said. “It is still trying to find a compromise to the fundamental contradiction of a popular, anti-imperialist revolution that cannot find the proper balance or accommodation among the contending forces. Unless it can become a much more inclusive political system, Iran will continue to become a very noisy place for years to come.”
Farideh Farhi is an adviser to the National Iranian American Council
and an independent scholar and affiliate graduate faculty at the
University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. An expert analyst on Iranian affairs,
she has appeared on ABC’s “This Week” and PBS’ “Charlie Rose,” and is
frequently sought for comment by news outlets including NPR, The Christian Science Monitor and The National in the United Arab Emirates.
Farhi has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado,
Boulder, University of Hawai‘i, University of Tehran and Shahid Beheshti
University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based
Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua and numerous articles and book
chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics.
A recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and
the Rockefeller Foundation, Farhi was most recently a Public Policy
Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has
also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International
Country, Middle East, southwestern Asia. Area: 636,374 sq mi (1,648,200 sq km). Population (2009 est.): 74,196,000. Capital: Tehran. Persians constitute the largest ethnic group; other ethnic groups include Azerbaijanians, Kurds, Lurs, Bakhtyari, and Baloch. Languages: Persian (Farsi; official), numerous others. Religions: Islam (official; predominantly Shi'ite); also Zoroastrianism. Currency: rial. Iran occupies a high plateau, rising higher than 1,500 feet (460 metres) above sea level, and is surrounded largely by mountains. More than half of its surface area consists of salt deserts and other wasteland. About one-tenth of its land is arable, and another one-fourth is suitable for grazing. Iran's rich petroleum reserves account for about one-tenth of world reserves and are the basis of its economy. It is a unitary Islamic republic with one legislative house and several oversight bodies dominated by clergy. The head of state and government is the president, but supreme authority rests with the rahbar (leader), a ranking cleric. Human habitation in Iran dates to some 100,000 years ago, but recorded history began with the Elamites c. 3000 BCE. The Medes flourished from c. 728 but were overthrown in 550 by the Persians, who were in turn conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. The Parthians (seeParthia) created an empire that lasted from 247 BCE to 226 CE, when control passed to the Sasanian dynasty. Various Muslim dynasties ruled from the 7th century. In 1501 the Safavid dynasty was established and lasted until 1736. The Qajar dynasty ruled from 1796, but in the 19th century the country was economically controlled by the Russian and British empires. Reza Khan (seeReza Shah Pahlavi) seized power in a coup (1921). His son Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi alienated religious leaders with a program of modernization and Westernization and was overthrown in 1979; Shi'ite cleric Ruhollah Khomeini then set up an Islamic republic, and Western influence was suppressed. The destructive Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s ended in a stalemate. Since the 1990s the government has gradually moved to a more liberal conduct of state affairs.