It's true that citizens of the United States have gone through a remarkably unstable and trying year in the first year of the presidency of Donald J. Trump. In fact, many of us find it exhausting, disheartening, embarrassing and incredible.
But we Americans have had to deal with nothing compared with what the people of Iran have been through in the last 40 years, with one convulsion after another, all of which have left the country reeling.
After walking readers through five major upheavals in Iran since 1979, Bhala focuses on the current protests and concludes this:
"What’s happening in Iran now is fundamentally an economic revolt driven by the masses. With no central conductor, spontaneous street choirs sing in a bass tone that Iran is neither just a theocracy nor just a plutocracy, but both, and that its theo-plutocratic economy is base."
He adds: "Their economy, a ‘Theocratic Plutocracy’, is frail, and their self-declared policy of an ‘Economy of Resistance’ is failing. The choirs of protests sing for sustainable, inclusive growth." (Bold and italics his.)
Sometimes in a place like Iran (what is like Iran?) it's hard to tell what's theological and what's economic and what's both. It's clear that the 1979 revolt was deeply theological as well as political, as Muslim leaders ridded themselves of the autocratic and corrupt shah. But since then the forces driving change and revolution have been decidedly mixed in origin and purpose.
But Bhala insists that the current protests are essentially economic in origin: "Iran often is called authoritarian, in part thanks to Āyatollāh Khomeini’s view of liberal western democracy as undesirable. It also is dubbed a dictatorship, thanks to its poor human rights record. 'Sponsor of terror' is another label tossed at the regime, especially by America, Saudi Arabia, and their Sunni Arab allies. None of these labels aptly explains the current protests. They are political epithets, whereas Iran’s lousy economy motivates the incantations of protesters."
So he combines the country's economy with its theology and declares it to be a theocratic plutocracy, which strikes me as about right.
The question, of course, is whether the Iranian people, who historically have expressed warm views about the West and particularly the U.S., can find a way for their Islamic theology to lead them into a time of economic calm and a time of peace with the outside world. At the moment that appears to be an almost-impossible task, which means continuing protests and other types of unrest and resistance, unless, as Bhala suggests, they can integrate a type of capitalism into their system.
Bhala again: "With the legacy of Persian civilization dating to Cyrus the Great (553 B.C.), today’s Iran is the world’s only Twelver Shī‘īte country. This heritage and its modern expression can be cherished. But tomorrow, save for economic transformation today, only yesterday will endure."
And that would be a disaster for the Iranian people and their neighbors.
(By the way, the Pew Research Center has put together this piece outlining five facts about Iran that can help all of us understand the situation there better. It's got a bit of a different take than Bhala's on the connection between economics and theocratic matters, but I'm betting you can sort all that out for yourself. And a Virginia Tech researcher says that anger of Iran's stagnant economy isn't going away soon.)
* * *
WHY MENTION THAT GREITENS IS JEWISH?
It's intriguing how various news outlets emphasize or at least mention an aspect of a story that others don't. The example today is JTA, the Jewish Telegraph Agency, which offered this piece about the sex scandal involving Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens. The headline on a JTA e-mail with a link to the story said this: "Jewish Governor Investigated After Ex-Lover Claims He Blackmailed Her." And, as you can read, the story itself notes that Greitens "became the first Jewish governor of Missouri when he was elected in November 2016." What I don't get is what Greitens being Jewish has to do with the story. I'd say nothing. I'm thinking that if non-Jewish news outlets had used that headline or even mentioned him being the state's first Jewish governor, they would have come in for some well-deserved criticism because his religion seems irrelevant to the story. Imagine, for instance, The Kansas City Star starting a story this way, "Kansas City's black Mayor Sly James today proposed a new solution to getting the city's airport replaced." His racial identification is irrelevant to such a story. So what do you think? Was it OK for the JTA to play it that way just because it's the Jewish Telegraph Agency?