Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1979 revolution. He now lives in exile outside of Paris. He recently spoke with Noema Editor-in-Chief Nathan Gardels.
Noema: Both Iran and China seem to have agreed that their prospects of building a future with the West are so diminished that they should instead join together to build an alternative order that better suits their mutual interests. It appears the two nations are about to sign a new 25-year mega-pact on infrastructure, investment and military cooperation that would alter the geopolitical landscape, bringing Chinese influence deeper into the Middle East than ever before.
From your vantage point of long promoting an independent Iran free from the domination of outside powers, what are the implications of this impending shift?
Abolhassan Bani-Sadr: In general terms, the character of a “state” is always the consequence of internal and external power relations. Any time an external power has the upper hand over another country, state authority is strong. Except for its brief episodes of democratic rule, this is true of Iran. Authoritarian leaders always leverage the external power, either in alignment or through conflict, to control their own population.
With this impending pact that you asked about, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Revolutionary Guards are hoping to seal their dominance at home by aligning with the dominant rising power on the world scene today: China.
For decades, the hardliners held onto power by holding the Iranian people hostage through their confrontational policies with the U.S. and across the Middle East.
In effect, they were co-conspirators with President Donald Trump in sinking the nuclear pact negotiated by former President Barack Obama. But as sanctions cut so deep into the Iranian economy, especially since the Europeans were unwilling to salvage commercial relations with Iran as a result, that all changed. The only way they could get out of the box they trapped themselves in was by looking to China and Russia. The hostility they’ve cultivated with the U.S. is being used to justify turning away from the West and shifting to the East.
The hardliners believe that by agreeing to military cooperation and entangling Iran’s economy with China’s through $400 billion in investments, the Middle Kingdom will always side with the present power structure in Iran on all matters over the long term and against any forces that would seek regime change — from without or from within.
Noema: How has this pattern played out in the past in Iran?
Bani-Sadr: This dynamic has been true throughout Iran’s long history, despite those few intervals over the past century when, through mass grassroots movements, the Iranian people have sought to cast off domination both abroad and at home. The aim of those movements has been consistent: to gain independence from outside powers and freedom from within so the state becomes subordinate to the will of the people and not vice versa.
Monarchical despotism in Iran was always based on a few internal pillars and one external pillar. Internally, it was the armed forces and bureaucracy; the bazaar in the cities; big landownership in the rural areas; and the clergy. The external pillar was either in the form of competing with another dominant power, such as Rome and Byzantium, which lasted more than 1,000 years, or, in modern times, submitting to the dominance of hegemonic powers, such as Britain and the United States.
In the 19th century, during the Qajar dynasty, Iran became one of the main places where Russian and British powers competed against each other in order to expand their sphere of influence.
During this time, four kinds of Iranian elites had emerged: the Anglophiles, the Russophiles, those who tried to create a balance of power between the two by giving concessions to both sides, and the last kind of elites, who sought a balance of power by not giving any concessions and instead using their geopolitically non-aligned advantages to extract concessions from all external powers. All of the social movements in Iran since the tobacco protests in 1890 until the 1979 revolution were led by the latter elites, who canceled any concessions to foreign powers.
At the end of the Qajar dynasty in 1925 when, as a result of the end of Russia’s influence with the 1917 revolution, the British dominated Iranian politics. The main result of this was the British-backed 1921 coup by Reza Shah Pahlavi, which restored the monarchy, in effect terminating Iran’s experiment with democracy that had emerged after the 1905 constitutional revolution.
The critical change, which this coup initiated, was that the “indigenous despotism” under the Pahlavi regime lost two of the key internal pillars that upheld previous monarchies — the clergy and big landowners, which were suppressed through aggressive Westernization of the regime and agricultural reform, pushed on the shah by President John F. Kennedy in order prevent Soviet penetration within Iran. That left the regime’s authority in a fragile state, relying on the ascendant hegemonic power after World War II: the United States.
The 1979 revolution swept away the last pillar of despotism: the monarchy. The debates in those days, responding to the question of “What comes next?,” formed around two visions.
One vision aligned with the spirit of Mohammad Mossadegh who, as prime minister in the 1950s before he was ousted in a coup engineered by the CIA and MI6, argued that for Iran to regain its independence and freedom, it needs to establish a democratic state legitimated by the will of the people. My own election, by more than 76 percent of the popular vote in 1980, showed that the majority of Iranians supported this vision.
The other vision sought to rebuild the “subordinate despotism” of the Qajar and the Pahlavi dynasties, but under the garb of received religion instead of royal heredity. In order to restore that scope of religious authority, the ayatollahs understood they needed an external foil to consolidate their dominance — namely, by inflaming the hostility of the hegemon that had stood behind the Pahlavi throne: the U.S.
The occupation of the American embassy and the taking of hostages with the blessing of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini did just that. Making the U.S. the sole axis of both Iran’s internal and external policies enabled Khomeini and his allies to execute the coup in June 1981 that overthrew me.
Taking the Americans hostage in order to secure power also meant making the Iranian people hostage to a form of religious despotism that could only be sustained by external threats, whether the protracted war with Iraq or the ongoing confrontation with the U.S. over nuclear capacity.
The point I’m making is that for the Iranian regime to continue to stand on the one pillar of the clergy, it needs an external power to maintain stability — either in confrontation or in some kind of alliance. That is where the China pact comes in.
Here, today, we can see the rerun of the time of the Qajar dynasty with its competing Anglophiles and Russophiles. There are two trends within the regime: One faction, led by President Hassan Rouhani, wants to move toward the West, hence the importance of the nuclear accord. The other faction, led by Supreme Leader Khamenei, wants to move away from the West by granting concessions and aligning with the East (China and Russia).
We should not neglect the fact that there is a third faction within the regime that believes that in order not to be swallowed by a single power, Iran has to create a balance of power by giving concessions to both sides.
To sum up, it is impossible to establish a democratic and stable regime in Iran by relying on the support of any foreign power. It can only be established by observing the guiding principles of independence and freedom. If power were freed from the clutch of the clergy and Revolutionary Guards, such a state would be at the service of people.
Noema: What might happen in Iran if Joe Biden is elected president in November and returns to the nuclear accord that Trump abandoned?
Bani-Sadr: Even if Biden gets elected and returns to the nuclear deal, the regime will still use the “nuclear crisis” for its internal politics, citing, as seen with Trump, the excuse that the U.S. is not trustworthy. It will not consider the issue as being solved.
For Iran, the only way out of this impasse would be if the Iranian public feels secure from any external threat. Then things would open up, as we saw with the millions who marched in the streets with the Green Movement. In good measure, that was caused by the election of Obama. Iranians felt that in the case of an uprising, their country would not be attacked under Obama.
The only way out of the nuclear crisis with the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, is if the U.S. stops threatening Iran and removes sanctions. In that event, those in the regime who want to move to the West instead of the East will be strengthened, while the pro-China and Russia factions will be weakened. It also will strengthen the approach that aims to balance relations between both sides.
Then, it would be unlikely for the regime to sign a 25-year agreement with China or renew another 20-year agreement with Russia.
Under any new administration, the U.S. should consider that relaxing pressure on Iran, and thus offering breathing space for civil society, is the only way to keep it from falling into the sphere of influence of Russia and China. Time is short to circumvent this critical shift in geopolitics that is already in the works and will not easily be reversible once it is in place.