Iran's Chilling Show Trials
The mass trials of opposition prisoners under way this week remind Gary Sick of the forced confessions and other abuses of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.
Iran today is doing what all aging revolutionary regimes seem to do—transforming itself into the image of the very regime it displaced. Just as middle-aged men and women look in the mirror and are surprised to see their fathers and mothers looking back at them, revolutionaries are startled to see themselves inexorably turning into the tyrants they thought they had banished forever.
To put it another way, “Revolutions revolve—360 degrees.” This aphorism, invented years ago by Charles Issawi, the late Egyptian-born Middle East historian at Columbia, captures nicely in four words the typical lifecycle of the great revolutions.
The pattern is familiar. Those put in the dock have all confessed, even though their “crimes” are ludicrous. A French researcher, who observed riots in Esfahan and sent email descriptions and photos to her professor and friends in France, was accused of espionage.
So, even in the absence of hard reporting on the ground, we can tease out some useful insights about the situation in Iran by looking at the experiences of the French or Chinese or Russian revolutions. We should not expect a perfect match. Each of those revolutions had its own political, cultural, and temporal context which made it distinct. However, as Mark Twain observed, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” So let’s look for rhymes.
The show trials in the Soviet Union began in 1936, almost 20 years after the Bolshevik revolution. The pretext for what came to be known as the Great Terror was the assassination of a Communist Party official, but the real reason was Stalin’s determination to consolidate his power and eliminate his rivals. A total of 54 veteran revolutionaries were tried publicly, confessed to collaboration with foreign intelligence services, and most were executed. Many outside observers were so persuaded by the confessions that they regarded the trials as fair. What became clear later was that the trials were only the tip of the iceberg. In 1937-38 some five million people in the Soviet Union were arrested, and nearly one million were sentenced to death as enemies of the state. There is no doubt today that the “confessions” were due to a combination of physical and psychological pressure that proved irresistible.
The Iranian numbers are trivial in comparison, at least so far. After the triggering event of the June 12 elections, some 4,000 Iranians were arrested, several hundred of those probably remain in prison, and about 100 have so far been put on trial. But the pattern is familiar. Those put in the dock have all confessed, even though their “crimes” are ludicrous. A French researcher, Clotilde Reiss, who observed riots in Esfahan and sent email descriptions and photos to her professor and friends in France, was accused of espionage. She told the court that "I had personal motives for joining gatherings to see what was happening out of curiosity, but I admit that I made a mistake and should not have attended." A French Embassy employee tearfully admitted that "brothers at the intelligence ministry made me understand my mistake."
This is not Moscow. The Iranian trials come 30 years, not 20, after the triumph of the revolution, and very few people in Iran or elsewhere are willing to accept the confessions as genuine. But they serve a similar purpose. Many of those in the dock are committed to reform of the Islamic republic, and many are potential rivals to those who presently hold power. This mass trial is a wholesale assault on a set of individuals and ideas that threaten the cozy status quo of the ruling elite and its growing devotion to the twin notions of a militarized corporatist state under an all-powerful ruler endowed with divine rights.
Over the past decade the Iranian security system has prosecuted, usually behind closed doors, a number of people who were leading activists, intellectuals and political leaders during and after the revolution. Most of these have appeared to be attempts to intimidate and silence individuals who thought the revolution had lost its way and who were calling for change. For the most part, this technique worked. But the latest electoral shenanigans appear to have sparked a new wave of opposition to what was perceived as a political coup, and the Iranian leadership mimicked Stalinist Russia when it began a roundup and mass prosecution.
Another parallel from the past is the rampage of the Red Guards in China. From 1966 to 1968, as part of the Cultural Revolution intended to purify the Chinese Revolution of those suspected of trying to restore capitalism, Mao Zedong embraced the creation of student Red Guard brigades at schools throughout the country. These self-appointed guardians of the revolution set about purifying the country by attacking intellectuals and anyone accused or suspected of having contact with opponents of the revolution. The movement quickly spun out of control into internal disputes and spiraling deaths and destruction until the brigades had to be forcibly dismantled. By that time, however, Mao had used the hysteria to purge his opponents and fully consolidate his position of power.
Again, the Iranian situation pales in comparison, at least so far. However, one might draw a comparison of the role of the Chinese Red Guards and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who seem to have been the prime movers in the recent events, and especially their hyper-ideological paramilitary arm, the Basij. Although both the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij have become much more disciplined organizations than in the early days of the revolution, both of them see their mission as protecting the ideals of the revolution (as they interpret it) and they have demonstrated a willingness to take the law into their own hands if necessary in order to fulfill their duty. There is no institution in Iran that can stand up to them.
Without pushing the analogies too far, there are some lessons here that can be applied to the Iranian case.
First, these revolutionary excesses—the show trials in Moscow and the madness of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in China—both occurred in the context of the consolidation of power by a single leader who feared the rivalry of those who had been with him on the ramparts and who had shared power as the revolution stabilized.
It is no stretch to suggest that a similar process is under way today in Iran. The simplest explanation for the “miscalculation” of crudely fixing the June 12 election—the day that is likely to become famous as 22 Khordad on the Iranian calendar—is that the supreme leader and the Revolutionary Guards were determined to prevent anything from coming in the way of their assertion of absolute power. The possibility of a win by Mir Hossein Mousavi (or even a near-win) would have undercut their claims to absolute authority at a time when they were confidently poised to seize full power. The subsequent unrest may well have surprised them, but it also provided the excuse for a purge of some of the leading reformers and their rivals. That is still underway.
Second, events of this nature grow out of ideological paranoia. As people emerge from the exaltation of their revolutionary triumph and begin to confront the realities of governing a country, tensions inevitably arise between the purity of the ideals of the revolution and the mundane choices of day-to-day rule. It seems to be inevitable that a set of radical leaders claim primacy as the only authoritative interpreters of the revolution and conclude that only they can be trusted to insure its survival. In their minds, anyone who proposes reforms and alternative policies must be trying to sabotage the revolution, probably in league with evil outsiders. Since the revolution is the ultimate value, any tactics, regardless of how brutal, are justified to protect it.
As one set of leaders begins to look at those around them with suspicion and begins to denounce them, others begin to do the same—initially perhaps out of conviction, then later as a defense mechanism. Survival depends on defining oneself as an insider by denying the outsiders, whoever they may be and however preposterous the charges. The paranoia feeds on itself and systematically destroys trust and relationships. By the end of Stalin’s purges, he had arrested and executed almost every important living Bolshevik who had participated in the Revolution.
Third, terror becomes a habit. Security forces are mobilized to enforce the paranoid concerns of their superiors. Instead of being horrified, they come to see it as a natural part of their job. It becomes routine and utterly banal, as in Hannah Arendt’s formulation of evil.
Finally, the internal dynamics of fear, greed, paranoia and rivalry for power feed on themselves and carry the process to excess that is difficult to comprehend, even in retrospect. Iran is still at the early stages of this process. The number of forced confessions, torture, trials and deaths, though horrible to view, are small compared to what happened in Russia and China, as well as France.
The real question to be asked is whether the resemblances of Iran’s revolution to those in France, Russia and China will in fact prove prophetic. In the earlier cases, all notions of good governance were abandoned and the ferocious internal rivalries shredded the fabric of society and killed unimaginable numbers of people. Is Iran a different case? Will it succumb to the typical patterns of other revolutions?
History does not necessarily repeat itself. But if Mark Twain was right and the present rhymes with the past, the Iranian syntax is not encouraging. All Iranians and all those who would like to deal with Iran as a stable, responsible state have scant grounds for optimism.
Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is the author of two books on U.S.-Iranian relations.