Iranian revolution, lessons for Zimbabwe

Guest column: Tendai Makaripe

AN ANONYMOUS author once wrote: “The memory of the Middle East is too long, too great, too accurate; nothing is ever forgotten, nothing is ever forgiven, everything is remembered and everything will be avenged.”

This statement pertinently sums up how events in the Middle East are not treated in isolation, but rather viewed as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that when joined together, convey meaning.

Misdemeanours do not go unpunished, retribution may take time, but it will eventually be handed.

For Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, otherwise known as the Shah, the monarchical Iranian leader between September 1941 and February 1979, these object lessons were learnt the hard way.

His glaring errors, wanton disregard for human rights and an unmatched penchant for looting, among other depravities, were neither forgiven nor forgotten.

Instead, they were avenged in a way that ensured the revolution would forever be engraved in the annals of history.

The much-publicised insurrection led to the toppling of the Shah from the country’s hot seat on February 11, 1979.

He was replaced by a cleric and one of the Shah’s sharp critiques, Ayatollah Khomeini, who immediately instituted an Islamic republic.

This region, aptly termed the global religious and political melting pot, chronically war-prone and the site of the world’s most protracted conflicts, which have kept the world on the edge of its seat since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, provides valuable lessons for contemporary and future politicians.

A reading of the pre-revolution events in Iran bears a striking resemblance with the current Zimbabwean socio-economic and political situation, which leaves one wondering whether history will repeat itself on this side of the Mediterranean, as alluded to by the late Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, who noted that: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

The Shah, being the head of an absolute monarchy exercising ultimate governing authority as head of State and head of government; possessing powers not limited by a constitution or by the law, used this power to amass enormous wealth.

He reaped the benefit of skyrocketing global oil prices, especially the 1973 oil boom, when prices quadrupled and revenues poured into the national coffers. Now the Shah was free to indulge his twin tastes: Luxury and paranoia.

The Iranian people loathed his profligate spending because they continued to wallow in abject poverty and squalor despite realising massive wealth from oil.

They lived with bitterness every day of their lives, a sullenness that grew daily, until it eventually exploded in the Sha’s face.

His proclivity for an extravagant lifestyle and how it architected his downfall can be an important lesson for the current political leadership in Zimbabwe, whose weakness for an extravagant lifestyle amid economic calamity can eventually blow up in their faces.

Neoliberal policies, centred on austerity, which in itself never succeeded anywhere in Africa, are enforced as feeding troughs for the local ruling elite, who milk suffering citizens through taxes and squander the proceeds.

They globe-trot in multi-million-dollar private jets like the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft, which cost US$74 000 per hour to hire, while the impoverished citizenry are bearing the brunt of high transport fares, which are making it difficult for them to move from one point to the other.

The poverty datum line has shot to over $1 000, ensuring that a decent lifestyle for the ordinary person under this economy remains a pipe dream. On the contrary, those strolling the country’s corridors of power are well fed. Those in touch with reality can attest to the fact that most Zimbabweans are disgruntled, but just like pre-revolution Iran, their pain and discontentment are suppressed.

Will history, which has a knack of repeating itself, be witnessed again in Zimbabwe?

Will the dissatisfaction that manifested itself in Iran be witnessed again or the locals are not yet “revolutionary conscious”, in the words of philosopher Karl Marx.

Iran, just like Zimbabwe, endured serious economic problems during the Shah’s reign. There was massive hyperinflation, urban overcrowding, corrupt electoral processes, corrupt leaders and a large gap in the distribution of wealth. This gap was caused by the concentration of much of the wealth in the hands of a few elites, who were the leader’s acolytes.

Philosopher and author Frantz Fanon warns against this behaviour by leaders in the Wretched of the Earth, when he says: “The scandalous enrichment, speedy and pitiless of this caste is accompanied by a decisive awakening on the part of the people, and a growing awareness that promises stormy days to come.”

Whether stormy days lie ahead in Zimbabwe due to the people’s suffering remains to be seen.

What also left Iranians seething with anger was how the Shah dealt with dissenting voices.

With the help of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1957, he set up a notorious and brutal secret police force called the SAVAK, which employed 30 000 Iranians, 5 000 of who tortured, arrested, and killed thousands of the Shah’s opponents.

Thousands were tortured to death in its secret torture chambers, while others were gunned down in the streets, especially when the revolution was in full swing.

During the riots, martial law was instituted, and the Shah ordered his troops to shoot demonstrating crowds in Tehran.

The estimated death toll resulting from these public displays was over 3 000, but the total casualty figures were four times this number.

Unfortunately, for the Shah, the once powerless civilians could not stomach his ruthlessness any more.

They had lost friends, wives, children and relatives at the hands of the SAVAK and were prepared to put an end to this reign.

The tide had turned, the anger of the proverbial hungry man was set in motion, leaving the once-feared leader to capitulate.

Can local leaders not learn a lesson on the eventual consequences of using violence to quell dissenting voices? Was the Shah’s use of the SAVAK any different from the use of the army to deal with civilians in our case?

Was the gunning down of civilians in August 2018 and January 2019 not a carbon copy of the Tehran massacres?

This is exactly what political philosopher Nicolai Machiavelli advised against in his much-celebrated book The Prince, where he urges the prince to blend the traits of a lion and the fox.

Writes Machiavelli: “… because the lion cannot defend himself against traps and the fox cannot defend himself against wolves. Therefore, it is necessary to be a fox to discover the traps and a lion to frighten the wolves. Those who rely simply on the lion do not understand what they are doing.”

The Iranian revolution provides important lessons for those possessing power. The question now is whether they are able to learn from history because in the words of the late American journalist, Sydney Harris: “History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.”

Tendai Makaripe is a social commentator and writes here in his personal capacity

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