The post-Mosaddeq Mohammad Reza Shah era in Iran, characterised by its dictatorial rule, had several things in common with regimes today, including those that were recently overthrown. The Shah's regime misunderstood and misperceived its people, who were seen as ‘peasants' by the regime's top statesmen.
The Shah and other repressive rulers realised they could have common interest with western states, despite a conflict in values. It is true that democratic values are essential in the West, but economic and security interests are also important, especially during times of economic strain.
In the Shah's period (Cold War), the West, specifically the United States, was competing with the USSR in an arms race and was engaged in a policy of containment, which constrained its economy. This made the West deal with states that could provide the energy and liquidity needed to fulfil its policies.
Also, the West understood that the best regimes for achieving these aims in a competitive international environment are autocratic regimes that can be drawn to their sphere of influence. Recently, for instance the global financial crisis forced the West to deal with states such as Libya, for the aforementioned reasons.
Such regimes have the tendency to mistrust their people and deny them the chance to be part of state development. In case of the Shah, he involved Morrison-Knudsen, an American firm, and also Max W. Thomburg, an American consultant and adviser, that structured the Development Act of 1947. Additionally, he put in charge H. Norman Schwarzkopf in the Internal Security force, which he organised along American lines.
Due to the influence of and brainwashing by the West, the Shah was obsessed with buying the latest weapons from the US. In fact, he even paid for the technological development of some of these weapons, which made it cheaper for them to be utilised by western armies. However, given the Shah's and other autocratic regimes' oppressive nature and their need for the luxuries of life, they use certain tools to ensure ‘state feudalism'.
First, they detach themselves from other groups in society under the guise of ‘modernisation' or westernisation. Second, they jail, torture or co-opt opposition parties or individuals, who try to challenge their regime. Also, they absorb them into their sphere of influence either by offering them jobs or threatening their family stability by blackmailing them. Besides, they brand enthusiastic individuals who challenge their regime as traitors or accuse them of disloyalty.
To guarantee his rule and silence society, the Shah used the Savak internal security agency. There came a time when people started to distrust even their brothers, suspecting them of being agents of the Savak.
On the other hand, the Shah destroyed the nomadic, tribal structure of Iran. Tribal coalitions like the Afshari, Zands and Qajars, expanded Iran's borders, north to Azerbaijan and east to Afghanistan. Despite this, the Shah forced them to settle and disarmed them. He used their grazing land for mega projects that never materialised due to corruption and mismanagement. Such policies assured the alienation of a group in society that doesn't except anything less than freedom and self-determination as a way of life.
This misunderstanding and misuse of the tribal structure continues in the 21st century. Regimes like that in Libya use alliances with the tribal structure as a buffer against those who challenge them in society. However, states that are considered tribal should use this opportunity to develop into a democracy based on a stable cultural structure.
The tribe should be the decentralised organ that ensures democracy and provides manpower for the state. The tribe should select its representative in parliament, federal and local government. This, for two consecutive four-year terms, with one term out of government and the option of then being re-elected to represent one's tribe.
Also, the elected members should be academically qualified. These requirements will provide an incentive for future generations to participate in decision-making while ensuring they are competent enough to do so.
From the perception to be served by the society, not serve the society, autocratic regimes like those of the Shah misunderstand the principle of basic human rights, which are achieved through democracy.
Democracy is an objective strategy to serve, respect and appreciate one's people as a source of strength for one's society, culture and economy.
The issue doesn't end at this level. These regimes think their people are naive and easily bought by increasing their pay or distributing grants. This was demonstrated in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where people were branded ‘peasants' by some regimes and labelled as disloyal just because they realised they had a right to a decent, honourable life. However these same ‘peasants' became the fuel that ensured the ouster of such ignorant regimes. And there may be more to come!
- Dr Mansour Bin Tahnoun Al Nahyan is a lecturer at the American University of Sharjah.