The Capture of Tehran, 1983
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous eleven chapters of this series we remembered the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War; the course of the war itself; the breakdown in Iraq’s relations with its coalition allies and with the United States in the war’s aftermath; the chain of events leading to the Gulf War; the start of the Gulf War itself; Saddam Hussein’s desperate efforts to maintain power as his military forces disintegrated in the face of coalition military pressure during Desert Storm; the ultimate collapse of his regime in the final days of the war; the manhunt for the fallen tyrant; and Saddam’s trial and eventual execution. In this installment we’ll examine some of the political and social problems that confronted Iran’s people after the end of the Iraqi occupation .
With Iran finally free again after nearly eight years of Iraqi occupation, the paramount question on the minds of its people was what direction its new government should take. While some Iranians advocated a return to the Islamic theocracy that had existed before the Iran-Iraq War, many others felt Iran should become a fully secular state. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was one of those who belonged to the first camp. In his younger days he’d been a fervent supporter of the 1979 Khomeini revolution which first created the Islamic Republic, and the travails he had experienced under Iraqi occupation in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War had only deepened his commitment to restoring the Islamic regime.
Understandably, the idea of a revived theocracy in Iran made many people in the West nervous. The United States in particular viewed a reborn Islamic Republic as a potential hub for terrorist activities against American allies in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf; some military experts even expressed concern that an Iranian government controlled by Khomeini-style hardline mullahs might seek to pick up where the late Saddam Hussein had left off in the quest to achieve the Middle East’s first working nuclear weapons capability.
There was also the question of how to deal with the possible threat a nuclear-armed Islamic Iran might pose to Washington’s chief allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Ahmadinejad had little patience for those who expressed even a slight tinge of unease about the prospect of the re-establishment of a theocratic government in Iran. In fact, the way he saw it, the whole point of resisting Iraqi occupation all these years had been to bring back the Islamic Republic-- if not in its original form, then at least something strongly resembling that form. And he wasn’t the only one to voice such sentiments; one of the most popular political organizations to spring up in Iran in the aftermath of the Iraqi withdrawal was the so-called Islamic Revival Party, a conservative group whose main goal was to restore the Islamic fundamentalist political structure that had been shattered by the Iraqi occupation. The Revival Party drew much of its power base from older generations of Iranian society, yet it also had a strong attraction for young people-- a CIA analysis of the party commissioned by the White House in March of 1992 estimated that nearly a third of the party’s membership was under the age of twenty-five.
While not officially a Revival Party member when the group was first created, Ahmadinejad strongly supported the party’s ideals and promised its leaders that he would work closely with them to help them achieve their aim of a revived Islamic Republic. When the Revival Party sponsored mayoral candidates in municipal elections in Kerman, Bam, and Zarand in late September of 1992, it was Ahmadinejad who did most of the initial stumping on the candidates’ behalf; Ahmadinejad also loaned one of the candidates the services of his top speechwriter to help polish the contender’s campaign rhetoric.
Two months later Ahmadinejad became a member of the Revival Party himself, and the organization’s prestige was greatly enhanced as a result. Given his track record of fighting relentlessly to restore Iran’s independence in the years when it was under Iraqi occupation, Ahmadinejad was viewed by many people both within and outside Iran as just the man who could give the party that little extra push over the top needed to make it a national political force. But not everyone in Iranian society thought this was necessarily a good thing. Among the leading opponents of the Revival Party was the Iranian Free Congress, a center-left organization that sought to make Iran a fully secular state; its founders were mainly ex-political prisoners whose distrust of the old theocratic regime’s fundamentalist ideology had gradually been sharpened over time by cynical propaganda ploys from the Iraqi occupation forces trying to sell the late Saddam Hussein as a savior of Islam even though he was at heart a secular Marxist.
From the moment the Free Congress was established, it was seriously at odds with the Revival Party on just about every major issue facing Iranian society at large. Even before the Free Congress had held its first formal national gathering, Ahmadinejad denounced the organization as “corrupt maniacs” and “a nest of Zionist vipers”. The Free Congress leadership responded to Ahmadinejad’s charges with some fairly harsh accusations of their own, suggesting his political activities might be more motivated by personal ambition and a desire to make his mark in history than by any serious interest in the work of creating a functioning post-occupation Iranian government.
Inevitably, the verbal combat between the two factions sometimes escalated into physical confrontation. One perfect example of this happened in April of 1993, when a dozen or so Revival Party supporters crashed a Free Congress rally in Shiraz. Insults were exchanged between the Revival Party backers and a handful of Free Congress stalwarts; at the height of the verbal quarrel a Revival Party man picked up a loose stone and heaved it in the direction of one of his Free Congress adversaries. The stone missed its intended target and instead struck the wife of a mid-level party official; in retaliation a band of Free Congress supporters rushed the unfortunate stone-thrower and mercilessly pummeled him, halting their attack only when local police intervened to break up the melee. “If this is the kind of behavior one can expect from the Revival Party towards those who disagree with them,” one Free Congress spokesman told an Agence France-Press journalist, “we might just as well still be living under Saddam’s boot.”
The Revival Party in turn blamed the melee on the Free Congress, whom Ahmadinejad denounced as “jackals” and “monsters” in a BBC-TV interview three days after the Shiraz incident. And those were simply the comments the BBC allowed to be broadcast on the air; what its viewers didn’t hear was Ahmadinejad’s almost scatological commentary questioning the sexual orientation of the Free Congress party leadership, or his veiled accusations that the party’s second- highest ranking officer regularly practiced incest.
Two months after the Shiraz fracas, Free Congress and Revival Party supporters squared off again, this time in the holy city of Qom. The trouble started during a Free Congress march held in the vicinity of Khomeini’s old mosque. To Revival Party backers, the Free Congress demonstrators’ presence near the mosque was an insult bordering on sacrilege; twenty-five or so of these Revival Party men confronted the marchers and hurled a torrent of invective at them, the mildest of which was “Zionist” and “blasphemer”. The Free Congress partisans quickly unleashed a verbal barrage of their own in retaliation, and before an hour had gone by punches were being exchanged along with the insults.
In response to these incidents, Iranian president Mir Houssein Mousavi went on television to appeal to the leaders of the feuding parties for calm; he also met with the director general of Iran’s national police force to discuss options for containing the unrest between the rival parties’ more confrontational members. For a brief time there was even talk of submitting a bill before the Majlis to put certain restrictions on large ublic gatherings, but this idea was shelved when Mousavi’s advisors accurately pointed out that such a measure would bring back unpleasant echoes of the Iraqi occupation and the worst excesses of the old Khomeini regime. While Mousavi and his advisors strived to maintain a balance between civil liberties and internal security, the Free Congress and the Revival continued to snipe at one another at every opportunity, and at least once that sniping led to actual riots in the streets of some of Iran’s largest cities.
By June of 1994 the internal situation in Iran had gotten to the point where the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran was requesting extra security personnel for guarding its perimeter and a prominent British journalist was describing the country as “the Yugoslavia of the Persian Gulf”. The chief of Israel’s military intelligence branch Aman told then-CIA director George Tenet that in his estimation Iran was only a year or less away from outright civil war.
It wasn’t just politics that were a source for division in Iranian society during the first half of the ‘90s; sexual mores in a post-Gulf War Iran were also a bone of contention between the elder generations who favored a conservative approach to sexuality and the younger generations who wanted to embrace, however tentatively, the more liberal attitudes toward sex that were prevalent within the West. The old Islamic Republic had fostered an extremely repressive sexual climate which younger Iranians had grown to heartily detest-- some of them to the point where they’d even entertained(albeit rather briefly and with a considerable sense of guilt) the idea of collaborating with soldiers of the now-departed Iraqi occupation forces in order to meet physical needs that might not be fulfilled otherwise.
There was also the thorny issue of what was to be done where the rights and needs of Iran’s religious and cultural minorities were concerned. Under the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime anyone who made the mistake of belonging to the wrong spiritual faith or ethnic group could expect a rough ride from the government, with Iran’s extremely fragile and steadily dwindling Jewish minority being singled out for particularly harsh treatment. And things hadn’t been much better for minority groups during the Iraqi occupation, either; Saddam’s troops had used them as a convenient scapegoat for all the ills that befell his attempts to subjugate Iraq’s hostile neighbor in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War.
The Iranian Jewish subculture, whose survival had been under constant threat even during the relatively tolerant days of the Shah’s reign, teetered on the verge of extinction in the years between the start of the Iran-Iraq War and the collapse of Iraq’s Baathist regime in aftermath of the Gulf War. And in the post-Gulf War era, there were still no guarantees that an Iranian Jew could safely walk the streets after dark; around the same time the Saudi embassy in Tehran asked for its security detail to be expanded, an Amnesty International-sponsored investigation of human rights violations in Iran found that Iranians of Jewish descent were three times more likely to be assaulted or murdered than other Iranian citizens and six times more likely to be arrested on civil unrest charges. The Mousavi government was trying as best it could to remedy this unfortunate state of affairs, but years of anti-Semitic propaganda from the defunct Khomeinist regime and the Iraqi occupation-- not to mention ancient anti-Jewish prejudices which predated even the earliest Persian wars with Greece --were making his job extremely difficult if not impossible.
And the actions of the Revival Party would only serve to complicate matters still further....
To Be Continued