Don't distort Iran's history -- a former hostage's view

By , John W. Limbert, a foreign service officer assigned to the US Naval Academy, was a political officer in Iran from August 1979 until his release in January 1981.

A year after the release of the American hostages by Iran, scholars, diplomats, and journalists are publishing their experiences and observations in an attempt to explain the Iranian revolution and its chaotic aftermath. It is well worth making the effort to explain the realities of this profound social and political upheaval. We still do not know, for example, how an apparently stable monarchy could collapse so quickly. Nor do we understand why postrevolutionary Iran has developed toward fascism despite the original hopes for an open society. Least of all do we know what will happen next in Iran.

Moreover, few of the recent books have the objectivity, accuracy, and understanding of the Iranian environment required for a serious analysis of the revolution. One author, for example, tells us that members of the PLO helped to plan the Nov. 4, 1979, attack on the United States Embassy. Perhaps they did. The students were indeed sympathetic to the Palestinian cause; but the author's only evidence for this claim is his own assertion that the leadership cadre of the attackers and its PLO allies were responsible for launching the attack.

Several recent books have used the term ''mojahed'' (pl. ''mojahedin'') so imprecisely as to deprive the word of all political meaning. In these works the American Embassy's irregular security force (of February through August 1979) is called ''mojahedin;'' the student occupiers of November 1979 are called ''mojahedin;'' yet neither of these groups had anything in common with the better-known ''mojahedin-e-khalq,'' an organization advocating armed struggle to achieve an ideological blend of Islam and Marxism.

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Authors should be cautious in their judgments while the outcome of the Iranian revolution remains uncertain. Although Iranian society and politics of the 1980s will be very different from what they were in the 1970s, the revolution will not obliterate 2,500 years of Iran's history as a distinct nation. Many features of current Iranian politics -- the devotion to the leader, the drive for martyrdom, and the triumph of emotion over reason - originate, for better or worse, within that nation's long history and rich culture.

Objective analysis of the revolution should separate what is new from what is historically consistent with Iranian traditions. Despite speculation about the role of outsiders, the revolution has taken much of its character from historical and cultural conditions that are peculiarly Iranian. The author who fails to understand the importance of these conditions will seek causes of the revolution in areas familiar to himself -- Washington bureaucratic rivalries, for example -- but unrelated to the realities of Iranian society. This superficial methodology has led authors to false conclusions: for example, that disagreements between former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and national security adviser Zbigniew Bzrezinski were responsible for the fall of the Shah.

What can we say about Iran that is not distorted by ignorance, emotion, polemic, and wishful thinking? Although much of what is happening now in Iran -- the prevailing unreason and fanaticism -- is a rejection of that nation's traditional love of justice and human diversity, the revolutionary movement is obviously strong enough to survive the decimation of its leadership, diplomatic isolation, and a costly war. A serious book on the revolution will have to identify the sources of this strength. It should explain, for example, why Khomeini's religious rhetoric appealed to Iranian professionals, intellectuals, and civil servants. Why did these groups support an Islamic republic which has no place for intellectuals or bureaucrats and in which intellectuals rank with liberals as targets for the bitterest denunciations and threats?

One possible explanation for this anomaly lies deep in Iranian culture. More than 1,000 years before the appearance of Islam, Herodotus wrote that the ancient Persians taught their children to ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth. Almost 2,400 years later Khomeini reprimanded young Iranians for their frivolity and reminded them that Islam recognizes only two amusements as legitimate because of their military value: shooting and horsemanship. Had Khomeini read Herodotus? Probably not, but this part of his Islamic rhetoric was rooted in Iranian traditions and would find a ready response in the national feelings of his countrymen.

Other statements may have had a similar effect. Some features of revolutionary Iran -- the imposition of a puritanical version of Islam on a hedonistic people and the economic disorganization - may be less politically disruptive than is commonly supposed. The imposition of strict Islamic regulation of social life has not drastically altered the life of most of the population. It has changed television programming and forced much of the middle class to buy video tape recorders. The life of most of the Iranian people was already determined by the regulations of Islam. Wearing the veil (chador) was not an imposition for the majority of Iranian women who already did so.

Shortages, inflation, and unemployment will of course bring dissatisfaction. At present, however, these problems are not likely to cause the downfall of a regime which many Iranians consider theirs. To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, there may be chaos, but it is our chaos; and so far most Iranians have preferred such chaos to any imported order. Apparently many Iranians can excuse the faults of this regime -- its brutality and its inefficiency -- as long as these faults are part of an Iranian system which can extract and refine oil, fight a war, and supply people with food and fuel. The feeling of national pride from these achievements of an indigenous regime may have compensated many Iranians for their loss of cabarets, bars, modern art museums, and film festivals.

A Persian proverb says, ''The more fruitful the tree, the lower hangs its head.'' For someone writing about the Iranian revolution there is no disgrace in intellectual humility or caution while the revolution continues and its outcome remains uncertain. Perhaps the best works at the present are the chronicles: an ex-hostage's account of his days in captivity or the memoir of the wife of an ex-ambassador.

Objective and serious analysis will be especially difficult as long as events in Iran are abhorrent to American values. How does an author deal objectively with a regime which executes its political opponents for the crime of ''waging war aginst God?'' Although such an absolutist mentality may recall the horrors of European history -- crusades, religious wars, and inquisitions -- the present Iranian regime will not fall because most Americans find it repulsive. Wishful thinking, no matter how sincere, is no basis for political analysis and prediction.

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