Watching the ayatollah, the other ayatollahs, the militants, the demonstrating crowds, the revolutionary council, the foreign minister, the new president…one learns the importance of having a government. Even if the best government is one that governs least, it must at least govern. Thus far, the Iranian revolution has been a people’s festival, a school holiday, a vacation from authority. Perhaps we should sympathize with that, for it may well be that the government the Iranians eventually get, like the one they had, will be worse than the present turmoil. And yet the purpose of a revolution is to produce a new regime, a new social order, new economic arrangements. This is not the work of men and women marching endlessly through the streets with their fists raised. The marchers, like the militants in the embassy, prolong the holiday and the turmoil, but are unable to create anything new.
From the beginning of the hostage crisis, the Carter administration, unwilling to use force or uncertain that force could be used effectively, decided on a policy of appeasement. But there was this fatal ambiguity in the policy: our leaders were unsure just whom to appease. Fortunately for us all, I think, the militants have turned out to be unappeasable. They insist on total surrender, and even the United Nations—which has assumed what we may come to recognize as its characteristic role, the intermediary of appeasement—was not prepared for that. The departure of the Waldheim Commission from Tehran was the most forceful act by UN personnel within recent memory. But had the militants been smarter (less militant?), they might have asked for a lot and gotten it, first from the UN and then from the US, then claimed a great triumph and a vindication for the politics of international terrorism.
We don’t really know who the militants are. When they imprisoned their captives, they imprisoned themselves too, cut themselves off from the ongoing politics of the revolution, locked themselves into what must be a hothouse of ideological or religious fervor. I don’t relish the thought of the hostages locked up with them. And yet I can’t help thinking that our government has been lucky in its enemies. Just as the PLO persistently refuses American overtures, and so holds off the crisis in American policy that acceptance would bring, so the Iranian militants have spared us humiliation and denied themselves the possibility of victory. Why? Why haven’t they emerged from their self-imposed prison to join the politics outside, to articulate a program, to build a movement? Why didn’t they negotiate with the UN? Full of hate and anger and, it may now be, full of fear, they await their inevitable defeat.
That defeat should have been our goal from the start. We should have aimed, we should still aim, at forcing a confrontation between the militants and some emerging revolutionary government. Whatever the political character of that government, it will act, as soon as it can effectively, on our behalf. It will dispossess the militants and free the hostages—if only to prove that it really is a government. And for that outcome, we can and we ought to wait. We should try, of course, to build up diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran. But mostly we have no choice but to sit still, refusing every arrangement that even appears to give way to the militants. We owe much to the hostages, but we don’t owe them a deal that, for the sake of their release, legitimates their capture and puts Americans all over the world—diplomats, businessmen, students, and tourists—at risk.
Bani-Sadr is by far the most attractive figure to emerge in the course of the revolution. Despite his disconcerting resemblance to Inspector Clouseau, he is no comic figure. He has courage, speaks with unusual frankness, and seems committed to a serious program of social experimentation and change. Behind the obligatory rhetoric, he is recognizably center-left, perhaps center-new left, an opponent of the militants and of the clerical fundamentalists. He embodies the hopes of Iranian democracy. Unhappily, the army isn’t his, nor the police, nor the revolutionary guard. He has no armed supporters; he doesn’t lead a vanguard movement. He has no base except a popular base and no mandate except an electoral mandate—an anomaly among revolutionary leaders. And so he is precariously perched.
He is unlikely to win out in the parliamentary elections, where the mullahs, organized down to the village level, can easily influence or intimidate the voters. The procedures of the voting completed last week are worth noting. In a country which still has a high illiteracy rate, it was decided that each voter would have to copy from a list of several hundred names the 30 that he wanted to support. Conveniently, scribes were available to write out the list for those voters unable to do so themselves. Under these conditions, it is hard to imagine any outcome other than a victory for the clerical coalition. And that probably means a long wait for the American hostages.
Bani-Sadr’s strategy for releasing the hostages was to build up the Waldheim Commission. “An investigation directed against a superpower,” he told Le Monde after the investigation had been hastily adjourned, “is a turning point in the history of humanity, the debut of a new era for all the oppressed of the planet. Unfortunately, the Islamic students are not able to understand that.” The argument would sound better than it does if we had some reason to expect other investigations of other superpowers: Russia in Afghanistan, China in Tibet, France in Central Africa. But there is no reason to expect anything like that. The Nuremberg trials were morally important (even though they were never repeated) because nazism was something so extraordinary and so frightening that it needed to be singled out and definitively repudiated. But American conduct in Iran was the ordinary conduct of a superpower. The only reason for this investigation is the seizure of the hostages: and that makes a bad precedent.
Of course, the American government participated in the shah’s tyranny (as we have and continue to participate in tyrannies in other parts of the world). Many liberals and leftists opposed our Iranian policy and can now plausibly argue the political stupidity of trying to “hold” a country by shipping vast quantities of military hardware to its tyrants. But it is silly to claim that the US was the cause of tyrannical government in Iran—as silly as it is to claim that everything that goes wrong in the country today proves the existence of an American conspiracy. As if Americans were omnipotent and Iranians childlike and irresponsible! In fact, Iran had tyrants before the shah, centuries of rule by brutal military chiefs, extending back long before the history of the United States began. We can’t be to blame for all that. If Iran’s revolutionaries are to give their people something new, they must look to the transformation of their own political culture. Anti-Americanism is a diversion from their real work.
Were we to acknowledge our complicity, we might have some difficulty repeating it. But the next Iranian government, or the one after that, almost certainly will seek (and probably get) American help in repressing various provincial rebellions. So long as the government calls itself revolutionary, most of the shah’s opponents will applaud the repression. And no UN commission will listen to the testimony of the victims. Maybe, then, the Kurds would be wise to take some American hostages…just as a precaution.
Somewhere around the 120th day of the hostages’ captivity, a camel was sacrificed in front of the embassy, American newspapers reported the sacrifice as if it were the sort of thing that political militants did all the time. They expressed no surprise and reported no details, (How do you sacrifice a camel? Did the militants burn the entrails and distribute the meat among the ayatollahs?) In fact, political militants don’t do that sort of thing all the time, I’ve never read of a camel being sacrificed in the midst of a revolution, not even in Paris in 1789. There are still things going on in Iran that we are not likely to understand.
This article originally ran in the March 29, 1980, issue of the magazine.
Follow @tnr on Twitter.