|Thirty years after Iran's Islamic Revolution, it isn't only lesbians and gay men who are suffering, as students riot after a stolen presidential election. How did it get this bad?
Gays get lashed in Iran (pic: Tinker~Tailor~soldier~Sailor on Flickr) Why did the Islamic Revolution occur? The Shah was an anachronism, an absolute monarch who nevertheless relied on surveillance, secret police (SAVAK), torture and execution to maintain his steely control. The United States even supported an anti-democratic coup in 1953, after which Iran's tyrannical monarchy ruled for another twenty six years, buttressed by oil revenue. Unfortunately, only the Shia umma (clergy) had the necessary legitimacy and infrastructure to provide the necessary leadership and direction when the antiquated pretence foundered on the rocks of western recession, diminished oil revenue and economic turmoil.
Unfortunately, what emerged was an equally flawed state of affairs. While there is (or was) a democratically elected President and Majlis (Parliament), there is also an unelected Supreme Leader (of the Shia umma hierarchy), a Board of Guardians from the umma appointed by the Supreme Leader, and the corrupt Revolutionary Guard. These can overrule democratic civil liberties and human rights if they are found to 'conflict' with their interpretation of Islam. Oddly enough, it doesn't always do so. The umma have proven quite pragmatic when it comes to needle exchanges and HIV/AIDS prevention in that context, and have taken a compassionate stance when it comes to state-subsidised reassignment surgery. Contraception is also provided for married couples. Moreover, there are other surprises- illicit satellite television, runaway urban heroin addiction and high levels of youth emigration, for example.
Iran has pursued a canny foreign policy since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, shortly after the long stalemate of the first Gulf War, fought against Saddam Hussein, Iran's former rival for local dominance of Southwestern Asia. After seven long years of war, it ended in a virtual stalemate, and Iran needed time to rebuild. Thanks to the Iraqi dictator's megalomania and pragmatic presidential leadership, there was a breathing space, although Iran also provided covert assistance to Shia satellite movements like Palestine's Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah, as well as to its ally Syria. With Iraq devastated after the first Gulf War, Iran rebuilt and prospered.
However, the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khameini), Board of Guardians and Revolutionary Guard weren't happy with that, and as a result of their manipulation of democratic procedures, arch-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2003. Moreover, the Majlis itself fell under conservative domination in 2004, after a deeply suspicious parliamentary electoral process. During the Ahmadinejad administration, there have been repeated bribery and corruption scandals, the aforementioned questions of electoral fraud and his infamous outburst related to Holocaust denial. Moreover, he is also prone to exaggerating his role in the US Embassy hostage crisis of the early eighties and the Gulf War against Iraqi forces.
As for the plight of lesbian and gay Iranians, it is dire. According to the current interpretation of sharia law, any Iranian lesbian or gay man caught participating in lesbian or gay sex is liable to receive escalating corporal punishment, until, in the third consecutive case, they are executed. Not surprisingly, Iranian lesbians and gay men abroad condemn the current regime, but would things change if Ahmadinejad were overthrown?
For that to happen, there would also have to be a major upheaval within the Shia umma, which would overthrow the Supreme Leader, Board of Guardians and Revolutionary Guard infrastructure, and even then, Shia Jafari haditha (cumulative clergy interpretations of the Qu'ran and Islamic theology and ethics) is still conservative when it comes to male homosexuality and lesbianism.
At present, one can only support solidarity action for Iranian students protesting against the regime and support the work of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. After what they have endured, lesbian, gay and all other Iranians deserve better than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tyranny.
Con Coughlin: Khomeini's Ghost: London: Macmillan: 2008.
Clive Simmons: "Children of the Revolution" DNA 99 (April 2008): 50-54
Brian Whittaker: Unspeakable Love: Lesbian and Gay Life in the Middle East: Berkley: University of California Press: 2006. Craig Young - 25th June 2009