Cromwell, Napoleon, and the Iranians

By , James A. Bill is professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of "The Politics of Iran" and coauthor of "Politics in the Middle East."

The bewildering chaos and violence in revolutionary Iran becomes more comprehensible when interpreted in light of past major revolutions such as those that took place in England in the 1620s, France in the 1790s, and Russia in the years following 1917.

Indeed, Crane Brinton's classic study, "Anatomy of Revolution," published in 1938, is in many ways of blueprint for the Iranian revolution. According to Brinton, the great revolutions all exhibited striking uniformities (not identities) and all passed through a series of similar overlapping stages. In each case, a powerful popular movement overthrew a repressive ancien regimem whose leaders had neither the will nor the capacity to use force effectively to crush the uprising.

The revolutionary overthrow is followed by a short period of euphoria in which the government is in the hands of moderates -- relatively idealistic leaders who are "temporarily unfitted for the rougher and dirtier work of the politics of direct action." The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in Russia, the Feuillants and Girondins in France, and the Presbyterians in England are comparable to the National Front in Iran. Moderate leaders like Bakhtiar, Bazargan, and Bani-Sadr are not unlike the Miliukovs and Kerenskys of Russia, the Mirabeaus and Lameths of France, and the Holleses of England.

Recommended: 5 ways Americans and Iranians are surprisingly similar

Trapped between the desperate conservative leftovers from the old regime and a new group of aggressively extreme revolutionaries, the moderates are doomed to failure. Revolution is a time of great emotion, fanaticism, and extremism; the moderates do not fare well in such immoderate times. The honeymoon of their rule is rudely interrupted by the accession to power of extremists who are fanatical, disciplined, and ruthless.

This is the time of the Robespierres, the Lenins, and the Khomeinis. The extremist leaders are true believers who place their principle of the revolution before their regard for civil liberties or social justice. In Brinton's terms, the extremists become quite adept at distinguishing between liberty for those who deserve it and liberty for those who don't deserve it.

The height of extremist rule leads into a Reign of Terror and Virtue in which violence and bloodshed become the order of the day. Driven by a kind of religious zeal, the extremists set out to decimate all opposition to their rule. In France, the short period of the Terror resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths and 250,000 arrests. According to Brinton, the extremists "are convinced that they are the elect, destined to carry out the will of God, nature, or science . . ." and their opponents "are not just political enemies, not just mistaken men, grafters, logrollers, or damned fools; they are sinners, and must not merely be beaten -- they must be wiped out."

Iran today is in the incoherent midst of its Reign of Terror and Virtue. It began with the June 21 impeachment of President Bani-Sadr. With the political demise of Bani-Sadr, the last piece of the moderate center was demolished, leaving the field to extremists and extremism. True believers such as Muhammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani and Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani have now moved to fill the places of fallen colleagues Muhammad Hussein Beheshti, Muhammad Javad Bahonar, and Muhammad Ali Rajai as martyrdom and murder move side-by-side through the streets of Tehran.

The Terror in Iran promises to be an even more vicious and extended period than that which occurred in France, Russia, or England. The fundamental struggle in Iran is between two major extremist bands -- the ruling Islamic Republican Party on the right and the challenging Mujahideen-e Khalq on the left. This two-winged extremism counts fanatics and zealots on both sides and, as the conflict continues, the lengthening lists of names of the martyrs will only intensify the warfare. The existence of two armed and relatively balanced camps of extremists (along with numerous other competing groupings) with the capacity to cripple but not destroy the opponent differentiates the Iranian case from the earlier revolutions. Also, the confluence of Shi'a Islam and politics has given the Terror in Iran a depth of fervor unusual even in the classic revolutions.

Although the costly rule of extremism will continue in Iran, it cannot last forever. The next stage of the revolution, i.e., the Thermidor, or convalescence, will inevitably appear.All periods of violent extremism burn themselves out since few human beings can exist for long in suspended periods of high-pitched emotion, physical fear, economic deprivation, and political anarchy. A reaction to the chaos sets in and ultimately a new kind of authoritarian rule appears in the form of a strong man.

In France it was Bonaparte; in Russia, Stalin; in England, Cromwell. If Brinton's model applies to the final stages of the Iranian revolution as well as it has to the earlier stages, then a Persian strong man will emerge. Either he or some authoritarian collectivity will take firm control after more and more Iranians are repulsed by the politics of extremists. In the meantime, the Iranian people seem destined to undergo a good deal more suffering.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...