In recent article for The New Republic, Abbas Milani attempts to scare Egyptian revolutionaries from pursuing their goal to fully dismantle the country's dictatorial political structure. He warns: "Egyptian democrats must not be fooled by the radical Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. If and when Mubarak falls, they simply cannot allow the most radical and brutal forces to win in the ensuing chaos. If these forces are allowed to claim power using the rhetoric of democracy, Egyptians will find themselves decades from now needing another uprising, which is precisely the current situation of the Iranian people."
But the fact is that in the 1979 Iranian revolution to which he is referring, the radical Islamists of the current regime did not seize power through posing as democrats, but by exploiting a lack of consensus amongst political parties in defending democracy; by systematically using physical street violence -- often in the form of thugs and violent fanatics -- to repress the opposition; through massive vote rigging in the Parliamentary election; and finally through a coup against then-president Banisadr in 1981 when he refused to exchange his defense of freedoms for greater power.
In other words, Milani twists the facts of the Iranian revolution in order to justify his warning, which is nothing but a repetition of that issued by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. How does he do it?
First, he argues that the Shah of Iran could have crushed the revolution by deploying the armed forces. He then laments that the US government did not support the Shah, and thus tolerated bloodshed, saying: "when the leader tried to use the force of his military to calm the situation, the United States issued ambiguous statements". But how can the figure of over twelve thousand people killed or injured during the revolution not be regarded as a consequence of the military's attempt to crush it? The number seems simply not big enough for Milani.
The fact is that from the first day of protest, the Shah did try to quash the developing revolution through violent means. The most well known (of which I am a survivor) was "Black Friday", in which over 400 civilians were killed or injured, most by heavy machine gun fire. Milani also fails to mention that the Shah had told his generals that even if he had to massacre a hundred thousand Iranian civilians, he would do so in order to save the crown. Furthermore, the hawks in Carter's government (as well as Zbigniew Brzezinski, then-head of the National Security Council) were openly suggesting that the Shah assert an iron-fist policy. Even Jimmy Carter told the Shah that he would support all means necessary to turn the tide of revolution. The shah asked for a letter from Carter, in which the latter would spell out his support for the military solution; of course Carter could not have given this in writing.
Unlike what Milani asserts, at the height of the revolution Carter had stopped pressing the Shah to establish even limited freedoms. Although some Americans did negotiate with Khomeini's men, Carter never conceded to Khomeini then, let alone recognize them. We can see this in the Shah's appointment of Shapur Bakhtiar as prime minister as a last attempt to control the situation. But when Bakhtiar was offered the chance to resign this post and return as Khomeini's prime minister, it was Carter who strongly opposed the idea and prevented Bakhtiar from accepting the offer, hence Bakhtiar bowed to Carter's demand. Iran thus lost a historical opportunity to prevent the fundamentalists from gaining power. Soon after, Carter sent General Huyser, then-deputy commander of NATO in Europe, to take charge of the armed forces to support Bakhtiar, in case Bakhtiar's government failed to conduct a coup. The refusal of Iran's patriotic generals, expressed as a total lack of cooperation, and the sheer people power on the streets, prevented Carter from achieving his goals.
Second, Milani fails to realize that even if Carter had listened to his advisors, who had the same view as Milani, and the Shah had given his generals a green light to inflict massive repressive violence on Iranian citizens, it is doubtful that such an order would ever have been carried out. The value of blind obedience, which was a written rule in the Iranian army, had eroded fast in the street. The majority of soldiers simply could not fire at people who were protesting peacefully and offering flowers and kisses. There was systematic disobedience amongst rank-and-file and military desertions had increased dramatically. Before I myself deserted the army, for example, there was a consensus amongst the soldiers in my unit that when the order for shooting came, all should miss their targets. Only a few soldiers in any of the units broke with this agreement -- otherwise, the number of casualties would have been much higher.
Third, it seems that Milani was not amongst those spending day and night in the streets demonstrating; it is thus unlikely that he could feel the pulse of the people's spirit, or the mood of the revolutionaries. Perhaps only they can understand the sheer determination of the people to dethrone the Shah. During the last few months of the revolution, people's determination was so strong that repeated massacres would not have prevented them from pursuing their goal; on the contrary, they would only have been more determined.
Finally, Milani tries to cement the fear of revolution for Egyptians and all by saying that in Iran, "benefiting from the subsequent chaos, radical Islamists, posing as democrats, used the chance to seize power and deracinate the democratic movement in favour of tradition and theocracy." He adds: "for Egyptians, the history of the Iranian Revolution should serve as a warning. In 1978, Ayatollah Khomeini hid his intentions, namely the creation of a despotic rule of the clerics". But Khomeini did not have to become dominant. Milani fails to mention that when President Banisadr was struggling against the fundamentalists in order to defend the democratic goals of the revolution within the new government, the US government sided with the dictatorial camp. What was later to become known as the "October Surprise" and Iran-gate or Iran-Contra Affair are indicators of the secret relationship, which the Reagan administration developed with Khomeini. Banisadr later referred to this as an "organic relationship between Khomeinism and Reaganism."
In fact, president Banisadr, at the time commander in chief, was fighting a defensive war against Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army. Through a combination of battlefield victories and successful diplomacy with non-allied countries, he was able to make Saddam Hussein accept an end to the war mainly on Iran's conditions. But the coup against him was conducted less than ten days before the non-allied countries were to make the ceasefire official. The ruling clergy were able to oust the president only because the US, via Israel, had supplied them with the weapons required for continuing the war. Without this support, the ruling clergy would not have been able to prolong the war, and without the war, would have been unable to solidify its control over the state and society.
In other words, without US support, the fundamentalists in Iran could not have gained the upper hand in its struggle with the democratic forces, led by the president. They were not popular by any standards: candidates from the fundamentalist Islamic Republic Party could scratch less than 5% of the votes in the first presidential election, while Banisadr garnered over 76%. This alone shows that Milani's warning to the Egyptian revolutionaries is misleading. With such a small social base, and since the occupation of the US Embassy in 1979, the ruling party has been forced to throw the country into one crisis after another in order to prevent mass mobilization against itself.
It is time to stop arguing that people need to support corrupt despots, or despotic political and social structures, in order to prevent fundamentalist forces from taking over. This politics of fear -- long honed by neo-conservatives -- does not work anymore. The fact that the Tunisian and Egyptian people have risen up, and that the presence of fundamentalist powers is so minimal, tells us this much.
But there is still much to learn from the experiences of the Iranian revolution. One statement on this has been eloquently presented by Banisadr. Perhaps the Tunisian and Egyptian people would be interested to hear from someone who has lived through this fire, who has reflected on his own mistakes, and who can call the bluff of power when he sees it.