Seizing the moment

Historical accidents and collective learning in Iran


Seizing the moment
by Ahmad Sadri

Lake Forest, Illinois - "Why, oh, why me?" is a common theme of Persian poetry, and complaining about the disfavour of the stars is a general Iranian art form. There is no dearth of evidence in Iranian history for this attitude. King Xerxes was probably the first to complain about his Persian luck when a tempest sank his armada off the coast of Magnesia in the 5th century BC.

Fortuna was looking the other way 1,100 years later when the Persian Empire lost a decisive battle against Muslim Arabs with a tough wind on their back. And appearing to help Iran's enemies with hurricanes and sand storms, the heavens seem unforgiving of the slightest Iranian ineptitude. All it took was one lapse from a careless Shah and the Mongol steamroller stopped its westward march to turn South, literally flattening Iran's thriving 13th century civilisation.

And it's even more unfair when Iranian leaders act correctly only to be tricked by the law of unintended consequences. About 30 years ago, Iran's first post-revolutionary prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, obtained the blessings of Ayatollah Khomeini for a fairly secular and democratic constitution.

But Bazargan, the inveterate liberal optimist, could not leave well enough alone. He insisted on ratification of the constitution by a democratically elected Assembly of Experts. To Bazargan's dismay, a loud right-wing cabal took over that elected body and transformed the democratic constitution into a blueprint for a semi-theocratic system.

The troubled history of the Islamic Republic is largely due to its flawed constitution, which privileges unelected theocrats over democratically elected leaders. The scion of genuine democratic sentiments, Iran's undemocratic constitution, is evidence of the importance of historical accidents in Iranian history.

For all their complaining, Iranians are also good at seizing the moment on rare occasions when their stars do line up. It is well known that the political idealism of Ayatollah Khomeini was the reason Iranians continued to fight against Iraq years after it was clear that they could not prevail.

Khomeini inveighed against negotiating with the "world arrogance" odiously represented by Saddam. It was a brilliant stroke of good luck that Khomeini did not die in the middle of the ten-year war in the 1980s. The charismatic leader lived just long enough to drain "the chalice of poison" (his poetic allusion to accepting the UNSC 598 Resolution) that ended the hostilities in August 1988.

By quaffing that cup, Ayatollah Khomeini became the universal symbol for the triumph of realpolitik over the "ethics of ultimate ends". Iranians had made the best of their good fortune that came in the guise of capitulation and defeat.

In the summer of 1988, it became suddenly clear that theocracy was an optical illusion; that Iranians (not cosmic misfortune or invisible foreign hands) were the authors of their own woes. It was Ayatollah Khomeini's turnabout that put the reformist cadre elite of the revolution on the path of disestablishment, democracy, and normalisation of Iran's international stance.

What Iranians learned about the inadvisability of mixing religion and politics at the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War could never have been taught by preaching secularism to dissident groups in clandestine workshops. Nor could it have come out of the barrel of invading armies of liberation. Of course the current frame of the Islamic Republic, like any empowered political system, is obdurately resistant to reform. But the fact remains that the post-war period in Iran has been a time of sobriety and intense collective learning.

The current penchant of Iranians for democracy is the result of their matriculation in the school of hard and very expensive knocks.

The key now is to stop supporting the Iranian right wing's vision of the world where external enemies lurk behind all of Iran's problems. Those supporting any future military intervention by the United States must realise that foreign bombs will not only destroy suspected nuclear sites and kill Iranians but also anger all of Iran. The day streaking missiles and invisible bombers crowd the Persian sky might also be used as an excuse to crush the reform movement. But the main danger of a massive military strike is that it will wipe out the dialectic of Iran's indigenous collective learning and set the clock back to the fearful and pessimistic mindset of the late 1970s.

Ahmad Sadri is professor of sociology and James P. Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College in Chicago, Illinois. This article was first published by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at


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more from Ahmad Sadri

Obviously did not loose relative in mass executions and war

by Amir K. Sheibany (not verified) on

Quote: "The troubled history of the Islamic Republic is largely due to its flawed constitution" :-)

Obviously brother Sadri did not loose a relative in the mass executions and war that followed the "glorious popular revolution".

judgement day for ALL Islamists is written in the stars.. Long live Iran.


Trouble runs much deeper

by BK (not verified) on

Ahmad Sadri writes:

"...The troubled history of the Islamic Republic is largely due to its flawed constitution, which privileges unelected theocrats over democratically elected leaders..."

I beg to differ. You cannot reform the unreformable.

The troubled history of the Islamic Republic is largely due to the fact that it exists at all.

This vile, intolerant, reactionary and brutally repressive regime has to be uprooted completely and replaced by an open, freedom supporting and inclusive democratic system, which above all protects the human rights of ALL its citizens and celebrates the Iranian nationhood and the various traditions and cultures that have flourished within this ancient land.

However, I do agree that external military attack on Iran will be counter-productive and very probably will play into the hands of the Islamic Republic, providing it with an ideal pretext to increase repression and prolong its grip on power. Primarily it should be up to the people inside Iran to bring about any fundamental change.


Iran,s misery in large part is due to

by samsam1111 on

 her so called "Ideologicly inclined Elitists" of 60,s & 70,s with their twisted logic which brainwashed the useful idiots of "change for the sake of change" crowd. Where are they now?dead or in foreign lands...only the masses are stuck with this gorila regime back home.


As always I think you raise

by Ye Irani (not verified) on

As always I think you raise great awareness with deep understanding of our civilization and history.

I think we , Iranians, live in a surreal atmosphere. Sometimes, we do not only even agree with ourselves and our minds outpace our own expectations. We always think that the world revolves around us and are the center of universe. We probably are the most complicated human being on the face of Earth!

The fact of the matter is that Apocalyptic minds bring on simulated dooms day upon people.
We need some sober men running countries rather than those who smoke their idealism and exhale it on the face of nations.
We need some men who are as much in touch with realities as they are with ideals.
Those who know how far to bend not to break. Those who impose their ideals (not their attitudes) on people with a CARROT rather than a STICK.
Those who try to focus on dealing with friends more than confronting enemies.
Those who prefer to IMPROVE and CONSTRUCT rather than DESTROY and BUILD.

BTW, I like the politicians who are not short folks - They usually end up creating more problems. The big guys are usually more kind-hearted and humble!


Jenab Sadri

by farrad02 on

Mesle inkeh ghasde bazgasht be Iran nadarid shoma? :)


How about a solution?

by Mehdi on

I wish Mr. Sadr you had included a suggested solution. Your article seems to be more like an amusing look at the events. You do disagree with certain paths of travel but I didn't see any real solution provided. How about that?


Fred: What religion would you suggest?

by Mehdi on

Would you please let us know? Should we fight for a Jewish Republic? A Christian Republic?

You don't seem to like clandestine nuclear activities, but I have never seen you criticizing Israel's clandestine nuclear activities which has been completed and produced bombs. Will you take a stand against those criminals too? Or are you too terrified of annihilation to be able to be decent and fair?

Why is it that everytime anybody writes something promoting peace it gets on your nerves and you have to invalidate it by baseless accusations and by regurgitating the black sewage that comes out of radio Israel?


Skewed Minds

by IRANZAMEEN (not verified) on





Prophets of false hopes

by Fred on

You say: “Of course the current frame of the Islamic Republic, like any empowered political system, is obdurately resistant to reform.” Does this statement of yours apply only to Ahmadinejad or is it all inclusive. If it is all inclusive, then what was so different about the eight years of Khatami that you were so doggedly a proponent of and how does it differ from the current status? And if by the above statement you are referring to only the current face of the Islamist Republic, then logic dictates that you know of a hidden face that does allow reform and is not “obdurately” against it. It certainly cannot be the Khatami era for he had the Presidency and the ersatz Islamist parliament and even the Municipalities all run by his followers. Those eight years bought the Islamist Republic time to extend its tentacles into more places internally and outside its borders to say nothing of its clandestine nuclear activities. No one in his/her right mind would wish a military conflict, but prophets of false hopes make that a certain eventuality. The Islamists of all hues are discredited by the thirty years of Islamist Republic’s rule. There is still time to give up this nonsensical Islamic reform in the context of this regime and band together to get rid of this insatiable monster of a regime before others feel compel to do it their destructive way.


Very good points

by Abarmard on

This is a good article. I agree with your points but the statement that "The troubled history of the Islamic Republic is largely due to its flawed constitution" is debatable. Although constitution plays an important role in most societies, for the Iranian society is nothing but an image. It is possible that a better constitution would've advance the social movement to a degree, but not guaranteed. One could argue that our society was not in a level to understand a more democratic constitution and therefore it would be irrelevant to our social progression.

Thanks for the article.