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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Iran is not complicated if we take the necessary steps to understand it

Bernard Hourcade

Texte intégral

1July 2006

2Today’s Iran, like in the days of Montesquieu, is a good example of the image that “Westerners” have of a “complicated East, which, out of ignorance, often provokes fear and anxiety. To avoid understanding it, we have become accustomed to putting aside all that annoys us and finding ourselves on the east of the Bosporus in a box – or even in a dustbin – on which “complicated East” is written.

3In the past few decades, however, Iran has come out of its box, with China, India, Turkey and of course Japan following suit, disturbing our way of thinking. This situation is all the more problematic since the Iranian government, which came to power as a result of the first post-Soviet revolution, has isolated itself from the international community, which in return has isolated ancient Persia. For the average French person, Iran meant Persepolis, Persian poetry, caviar, petrol and the Shah and his wife Farah on the cover of Paris Match. Today, it signifies the black veil for women, turbans, and despotism and, more recently, the fear of nuclear arms.

4All this is true, but we do not quite understand the logic behind how this has become a generally accepted image. The work of a researcher in the social science is therefore not easy. How can we show that this country and its inhabitants could be analysed and understood like the Spanish or the Canadians and even the English? At the CNRS and within academic circles, it is sometimes difficult to explain that we can have strong scientific collaborations with our Iranian colleagues without any fatality or pre-determination that would make any attempt at rational analysis futile.

5In France we are lucky to have the largest number of academics and researchers in the world – after the USA, where they are somewhat scattered – working full time on Iran from its origins to the present day in all disciplines. However, no man is a prophet in his own country. It remains extremely difficult to make oneself heard to inform and suggest rational analysis in order to understand this paradoxical and fascinating country, but we can understand it well if we take the trouble to listen as well as the necessary measures to understand it.

6All means are therefore welcomed to try to shatter the misconceptions. Crossing Persia by bike in the middle of summer is an exceptional way to understand the country in its entirety.

Turning one’s back on the tradition/modernity duality

7The sudden emergence of “modernity” in pre-industrialised societies was a major aspect of history in the 19th and 20th centuries. In Iran, which has never “benefited” from the advantages of colonisation, the dualism between tradition and modernity has long remained a paradigm for historians and sociologists to understand the social and political dynamics. This model is now outdated. For a long time, we were used to placing Islam on the side of tradition, but can we call the Iranian Shiite clergy “traditional” considering that they have been managing the country for three decades now, negotiating nuclear matters or even entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and perfectly mastering the intricacies of international “business”? Can we call an engineer, trained in the 1950s, producing the same car model for the past five decades, who does not have the faintest idea of management techniques and the current scientific and technological developments “modern”? All over the world, the contrast between continuity and change, tradition and modernity remains relevant, but it is quite a superficial method for understanding a changing society. We are using more sophisticated methods and concepts when it comes to understanding the American and French societies. Unless we use “modern” methods to understand Iran, this country will remain somewhat “complicated”.

8For three decades, the Iranian society and the political place of Iran have radically changed, due to tragedies, conflicts and despotism, but also due to the struggles and ambitions of the Iranians themselves. For the first time in 1979 (the year of the Islamic revolution) the population of the cities and the literate population have exceeded the rural and illiterate population. This was the result of the progress made after the “White revolution” launched by the Shah in the 1960s. In 1976, 17% of women learnt how to read and write in the rural areas and this increased to 63% in 1996. The average number of children per woman had dropped very little between 1966 and 1986 (6.8 children) in spite of the laws on women’s emancipation under the imperial regime. In 2004, however, there was an average of only 2.2 children per woman. This decline was the largest ever recorded in times of peace in the history of humanity. Since 2001, girls have been outnumbering boys in the universities, but a swallow doesn’t make a summer; the economic and moral situation of the Iranians, especially young people, is often tragic, but this shows that the rules have changed. The nature of the system has changed, even if eternal Iran and the magnificent – or sordid – heritage of the past live on.

A difficult balance between Iran, Islam and the international community

9Today’s Iran is no longer built around a simple dialectic between nationalism and Islam, the country identified with modernity and tradition respectively. Since the discovery of petrol in 1908 in Masjed Soleyman, Iran has been involved with the international community. The scientific, industrial, artistic, economic and intellectual dynamics that fuel the world in the 21st century world are at play in Iran, regardless of the government in power.

10The identity of this country is therefore the result of a competition, a difficult dynamic balance between three complementary forces: Iran, with its national, cultural, social and natural heritage, Shiite Islam around which modern Iran has been built since the 16th century and which remains the cultural reference of the vast majority of the entire population, such as Catholicism in France, and international aspects, such as science and arts, and life in a globalised world where Iran wants to play its role to the full.

11In the past, each factor dominated the other. Réza Chah, the founder of modern Iran (1923-1941) was extremely nationalist and had suppressed Islam and his son, Mohammad-Réza (1941-1979), had overvalued the international dimension – this being the relations with the United States at the time – while the Islamic Republic imposed Islam as a unique reference.

12In recent years, this tough historical experience was analysed in depth by Iranian intellectuals, politicians and a movement of reform affecting all social groups in an attempt to achieve a better balance between the three components of the contemporary Iranian identity. Mohammad Khatami, President from 1997 until 2005 made an initial attempt at this and despite appearances, this balance is also on the new President Ahmadinejad’s agenda, but on different terms: social change does not mean political change.

13The nuclear crisis shows the extent to which the scientific and nationalist issues are priority without necessarily neglecting Islam, which remains a structural reference. This crisis is extremely serious, but it may yield some good because its challenges go beyond issues that are strictly technological or military. For Iran, it means that it is finally taken seriously as an independent regional power, giving it the recognition it deserves in all its diversity, including Islam.

14For a long time, Europe has recognised the change in the political system in Tehran, but not the United States, which demanded a change in the system before standardising their relations. Since 31st May 2006, the American government has decided to participate in discussions with Iran. It marks a turning point, not for supporting the current – or future – Iranian government’s policy, but to recognise that there is a new major player in the Middle East, whose population, independent of its government, has carried out a difficult and sustainable internal revolution for the last 30 years.

15To understand this new Iran, researchers in the social science and in experimental, theoretical or technological sciences, especially in high-level companies, have got their work cut out, which could lead to the discovery that Iran is a nation that is on the point of becoming a leading partner, like India or China.

16For a century now, man’s madness has not reduced the long march of the Iranians to nothing, regardless of their opinions.

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