Iran’s Drift Into Moderation: The ‘Experts’ Caught on the Wrong Foot Again


The Global Complexity website was created, in part, to question the rules of the current conventional wisdom. No rule is more enduring than the stipulation that the experts in any field of activity know best. They occupy a comfortable niche in an assortment of hierarchies, and their monopoly of knowledge and wisdom, they implicitly assert, is beyond discussion. In many instances that presumption is eminently justified; as countless discoveries and achievements amply demonstrate. However, the universal validity of this contention is open to question, certainly in relation to socio-economic issue areas in general and national and international events in particular. The ‘experts’ here are, at least, just as likely to be wrong as to be right. Iran’s history is used in this instance to argue this proposition.

Basically, the experts’ performance in the issue areas addressed here does not accord with the dictionary definition of an expert as one “having or showing special skill or knowledge.” The reason suggested for this poor performance does not concern intelligence, experience, or conspiracy. It focuses on the suspicion that the so-called experts often misunderstand the fundamental nature of the processes that fall under their scrutiny.

Presumptions Versus Reality

The affairs of humankind follow an uncertain path. Deceptive stability that seems to go on and on is punctuated by sudden upheavals that arrive when least expected. That appears to be one of the few dependable features in an otherwise messy and convoluted process. Events unfold over long periods with no evident end-state of perfection, causes and effects rarely match, and apparently trivial disturbances lead every now and then to momentous consequences. Despite the best endeavours of world leaders, local dictators and supposedly all-powerful intelligence services, command-and-control systems regularly break down whenever human beings come into the reckoning. That is the reality. It holds true for the day-to-day experiences of people, but it applies equally well to national and international affairs, as demonstrated by the events and actions of leaders and their ‘experts’ in the context of Iran’s recent history.

The experts’ model of life is a simplification founded on an assumption that all systems are reasonably orderly and operate in accordance with knowable universal rules and regulations. Yes there is some unpredictability, but on the whole the system is ‘under control’. Future events are amenable to prediction and actions could be taken to achieve desirable ends in almost all cases and under most conditions. Failures do occur but, according to that conventional wisdom, these are attributable to inaccurate information, faulty technology, inexperience, or lack of vision. In such circumstances, conventional wisdom dictates that the particular ‘experts’ involved are at fault and should be replaced.

It would be wrong to suggest that management, control and leadership in national and international affairs are irrelevant concepts. Equally, conventional wisdom grossly errs in the opposite direction. Humankind has invested much faith and built an elaborate hierarchical superstructure based on the ‘orderly model’. The setup, designed on principles owing much to the natural sciences, has an impeccable pedigree and equally impressive advocates; including Franklin, Jefferson, Hobbs, Descartes, Locke, Newton, Hume, and Adam Smith to name but a few. However, the natural sciences have moved in recent decades beyond their traditional boundaries; concerned primarily with orderly linear systems, to embrace phenomena; now referred to as nonlinear systems, in which local interactions between vast numbers of actors lead, as in a game of chess, to emergent properties that could not have been predicted by simply studying the behavior of the constituent parts. Their domain falls somewhere between order and chaos.

Most practicing politicians, economists, academics, and in fact the public at large, continue to put their faith in a conventional wisdom based on linear assumptions. As described below, the consequences are of considerable significance to those affected by their reluctance to adopt a more appropriate approach. A key point to make here is that a change in viewpoint does not imply wholesale rejection of rational thinking. Advocates of change, including the author, merely suggest that clear determination of the nature of the processes allied to a given phenomenon is of fundamental importance and should precede study of, pronouncements about, and prescriptions for that phenomenon.

Understandable Reluctance to Change

A linear conception of life implicitly encompasses a hierarchical setup with a privileged elite at the apex of society. They command and control and take all the difficult decisions on behalf of the rest of the population. The hierarchical superstructure has expanded vertically in recent decades with annual rewards to the movers and shakers now regularly amounting to millions of pounds and wealth being measured in billions rather than millions. In the private sector, where aggressive command-and-control methods are especially prized, the rewards have become legendary. Politicians are not rewarded on quite such a lavish scale but the difference is only a matter of degree. In or out of power and under all systems of government they enjoy considerable advantages that go with the job. In particular, those working in the military and in the secret services have extensive vested interests that are served well by the status quo.

But the above rewards shrink into insignificance when compared with the fortunes made by politicians and military leaders who assume supreme power without the checks and balances associated with traditional democratic systems of government. Here the sky is the limit and the distinction between what belongs to the nation and what belongs to the ‘father of the nation’ becomes somewhat academic.

According to prevailing custom and practice, the elite have to be well rewarded for their distinctive skills and their ability to take the lead and to tackle demanding situations. That principle is now firmly engrained into the ‘orderly model’ and its associated hierarchical structure. The reputed penalties for failure, which in terms of probability is just as likely as success, are easy to bear in most cases. Compensation is high and, similar to managers of under-performing football clubs, the persons affected quickly find an equally lucrative opening elsewhere. Dictators, when they escape a violent death, join their fortunes abroad and normally live a long and comfortable life. It would be unnatural, therefore, for the ‘experts’ to concede that there are strict and tangible limits to their power of prediction and to their ability to control events. A conception that admits these limitations, accepts a role for chance events, and recognises the crucial importance of local actions and actors would threaten the whole edifice, including the privileges that go with being part of the select few at the top of the tree.

However, it would be incorrect to blame reluctance to change viewpoint on personal ambition and greed alone. The present setup promises stability and a measure of control that is prized by the rest of society. The elite control events, and others, the bulk of humankind, could then get on with their life. In essence, there is a pilot at the front and the passengers at the rear can relax and enjoy the view. Is it not reasonable to pay the ‘pilot’ well? And would the community at large welcome a suggestion, no matter how justified, that control of national and international events might be, to some considerable extent, a hit or miss affair? The answers to these questions are self-evident.

The design principles on which the current wisdom is based are now part and parcel of how ordinary human beings routinely, and in the main subconsciously, perceive and respond to what they encounter in life. For all the above reasons, it could be expected to continue for a long while yet. But that does not prove it is the best evolutionarily stable strategy. In the long run a change will take place and it is desirable, and in fact necessary, to consider the alternatives.

Why should we consider change? The answer to that question rests mainly on the fact that the present conventional wisdom imposes its own substantial penalties and costs. In strategic terms, disparity in rewards to different sections of the community is of little consequence: the presence of privileged experts and elites is a ubiquitous feature that has been observed in all walks of life and in all societies through the ages. The key issue of primary relevance is what elites do with their power. Interventions might be neutral, and even beneficial, in some cases. But they all too often yield negative results that blight the lives of millions. In essence, and expressed in technical jargon, treating a nonlinear process, such as politics or economics as though it is a linear process that obeys ‘Newtonian’ laws is useless at best and harmful at worst. This assertion will be tested by considering Iran as a case study.

Iran at the Heart of the Arc of Crises

Brezezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor, called the region from Pakistan to Kenya; including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, the Gulf states, Somalia, and Ethiopia “the Arc of Crises”. Crises are grist for the mill of politicians, economists, dictators, military leaders, and secret agencies. They must be dealt with to protect and promote the ‘national interest’, and there can be no loftier mission than that. Meetings, press conferences, briefings at all hours of the day and night, and portentous sounding announcements are seen as the marks of an effective leader. If that ‘expert’ happens to be part of a hegemonic power the need for decisive action on all issues large or small anywhere in the world becomes an all-consuming preoccupation. Nothing can be left to chance or to local actors.

For many reasons associated with its history, its location, and its natural resources, the Arc became the stage on which local and foreign ‘experts’ played their endless games. There is a little of the chicken and egg situation here, but partly as a consequence of that oppressive and obsessive interest, the whole region has experienced massive problems of war and deprivation despite, or possibly because of, the fact that it is rich in minerals and other resources. Conspiracies have also been blamed for the difficulties experienced by the area. However, a great deal of the harm was, and is, caused unintentionally because leaders and their ‘experts’ simply muddled along with adventures based mainly on largely irrelevant calculations, fears, and idle speculations.

Iran is at the heart of the Arc of Crises. As a result, it demonstrates rather clearly and painfully the catastrophic consequences of perpetual meddling and feuding by local and foreign ‘experts’ throughout its history. Predictably, turmoil in Iran, caused by internal and external actors, has been attributed to the standard causes: ‘national interest’, ‘strategic spheres of influence’, ‘defending the faith’, and ‘responding to external aggression’. That is primarily spin to camouflage more mundane motivations. The oil myth is a good illustration. Interference in Iran’s affairs by foreign powers since the late 1800s has been ascribed to the need to protect the flow of oil to consuming countries. This excuse is wearing thin these days. It is now obvious that producing countries have to sell their oil irrespective of wars, local politics, and religious fervour. The flow of Iraqi and Iranian oil, for instance, hardly faltered during the Islamic revolution in Iran, a long war in the 1980s, the Gulf War, and UN sanctions against Iraq. In addition, monopoly as exercised several decades ago by OPEC is a thing of the past. Essentially, there are too many producers for any one country or a group of countries to control the market. In short, to a large extent the oil card is unconvincing.

Personal ambitions and private commercial interests, as opposed to the national interests of consuming countries, are a different story altogether. Most of the conflicts in Iran, and in Iraq, throughout the 20th century occurred because Russia and Britain, and later the USA, wanted their own companies to enjoy commercial privileges over all others. This is not uncommon. Over the years, the diamond trade, for example, was behind many conflicts involving foreign powers in parts of Africa. But above all else, and as demonstrated by the events described below, misguided world leaders and inept local demagogues who wished to pursue their madcap schemes, religious hobby horses or political dreams were the primary causes of conflict and misery.

A Long History of Turmoil

It is useful at this point to give a snapshot of Iran’s history from the Arab conquest in the mid 7th century onwards. Apart from underlining the fact that turmoil in that country is not a new phenomenon, the aim is to highlight four key features. Firstly, actual or imagined grievances linger on for centuries. To an irrational degree, therefore, the past casts a long shadow over the future. Secondly, constant turmoil when seen in long historic perspective hardly ever makes sense either as a process or as a series of distinct incidents. More often than not, the leading actors at any point in time seem to have a penchant for choosing the wrong courses of action, up to and including ones that lead to their own destruction. Thirdly, conflict breeds further conflicts: the country involved either raises fears that invite aggression, or it is weakened and starts to attract the attention of potential invaders and local usurpers. And fourthly, naked personal ambition and delusion, cloaked in more lofty aims concerned with religion, national interest, and righting past injustices, is a dominant factor in conflict creation. Significantly, the hoped for rewards turn out to be short-lived or fail to materialise at all. Iran’s ancient history exhibits all these traits.

Iran was converted to Islam in the mid 7th century when it was occupied by the Arab armies. Conversion and occupation continue to be dominant, and to some extent irrational, factors in decision-making by the ‘experts’ in Iran. Islam itself is not a problem. Interestingly, the Qadisiyya battle at which the Arab armies defeated the last Sasanian ruler of Iran was mentioned repeatedly as a battle cry during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s! On the other hand, at some point in Iran’s history its leaders, particularly those of the Safawi dynasty that came into being at the start of the 16th century, chose to follow the Shiite, as opposed to the Sunni, sect. Interminable, and invariably fruitless, religious disputes with Sunni neighbours have continued over the ages and right to the present. Conquest by the Arabs also led to long-running animosity with Iran’s neighbours. Again, there is no evidence that centuries of conflict were either necessary or profitable. The key point here is that events which happened in the mid 7th century and then extended into later centuries are still exerting powerful influence over choices made by supposedly rational ‘experts’ to this day.

After four centuries of aimless agitation, the Seljuks occupied Iran. There followed another four centuries of foreign rule by Mongols and Turkmen, in addition to the Seljuks. Iran finally achieved independence at the start of the 16th century under the Shiite Safawi dynasty. However, turmoil and feuding was promptly resumed, this time against the mainly Sunni Ottoman Empire. That tussle continued for over a century. Significantly, the fighting between Iran and Turkey took place mainly in Iraq. This is a common feature of the international system. For example, when the USA and the USSR decided to lock horns in recent times the stage chosen was always far from the territory of either party.

History books suggest no rhyme or reason behind all the punishing events that gripped Iran for over twelve centuries, and it is far from certain whether they led to any benefits to any of the parties involved. On the other hand, by the early 18th century Iran was sufficiently weakened by strife to fall prey to Afghan invaders. That was the signal for other powers to become interested. Russia and Turkey moved in concert to occupy parts of Iran. The mid 18th century brought Nadir Shah to power. He ruled the unoccupied parts of Iran and then managed to drive the Russian and Turkish occupiers out of Iran. As befits a traditional dynamic leader, he also decided to invade India for reasons that are not easy to determine. Apart from weakening Iran, ancient feuds with obscure origins led to a permanent, and completely irrational and fruitless, state of friction between Iran and its neighbours. Events throughout the 20th century demonstrate the longevity of these enmities.

A brief period of tranquility was shattered by the end of the 18th century when a local chieftain founded the Qajar dynasty. The leaders of that dynasty became puppets of external powers. And during the 19th century Iran, in common with almost all other countries in the Arc of Crises, attracted the attentions of colonial powers in a big way. It is of course bad enough when one invader moves in, but when two contest the same territory the situation becomes dire. That was the case when Russia and Britain sought to gain the upper hand in Iran in the middle of the 19th century.

Iran in the 20th Century

The above brief look at Iran’s history up to modern times served to illustrate a few features related to the futility of conflict and the role performed by misguided leaders and other ‘experts’ in hauling millions of people into futile misadventures on the bases of flimsy excuses and ill-founded fears and ambitions. If expertise were to be measured by results then even this thumbnail sketch of Iran’s earlier history would have been sufficient to show that the ‘experts’ come out of the survey with low scores. A broader aim was to demonstrate the continuity of turmoil, the meager benefits derived from that activity, and the substantial penalties paid by everyone involved.

Understandably, it would be pointed out that the history of most if not all other countries reveals similar features and that the events described happened in the distant past when leaders in general were despotic, ill educated, and badly advised. The former point is of course quite correct: ‘experts’ everywhere base their actions and speculations on identical assumptions derived from a linear view of life. Iran is used here only as a case study to illustrate a global peculiarity. The latter point is addressed in the remainder of this article by considering Iran’s modern history. It will be shown that local, regional, and Western ‘experts’ consistently failed to interpret and respond correctly to events in Iran. In fact miscalculation seems to be the one common thread in the whole saga.

By the end of the 19th century Iran was split into two spheres of influence: one in the north under Russian control and one in the south under British domination. The two powers crossed swords over their conflicting interests in Iran for most of that century. World war I introduced a new twist in the story: Russia and Britain became allies. That did not help Iran much as they simply used that country as the launch pad for their war against Turkey. However, by that stage persistent foreign interference and exploitation had caused fierce resentment against the Qajar rule. In line with the modern colonial model the time was ripe for the foreign powers to change their local agent. On cue a relatively junior army officer appeared on the scene and rose rapidly to become prime minister and then, within a couple of years, a Shah.

The Pahlawi Dynasty

The Pahlawi dynasty came into being in the 1920s and tried to strike a balance between their interests and those of their masters. Mistakenly, foreign powers habitually expect such a system to last and to meet their requirements at little or no cost. As the events up to 1979 illustrate, a heavy price was paid by all parties, including the masters. Naturally, the Iranians paid the heaviest price, but Western powers lost a great deal and did not gain anything that they would not have had without their overbearing presence. Essentially, undue pressure was hardly necessary to force Iran to sell its oil. However, the powers were exerting pressure on behalf of private commercial interests. The ‘national interest’ of these powers were only involved tangentially, if at all.

At the start of the Pahlawi dynasty there was a minor problem. Possibly mindful of historic local resentment against the past occupiers, the first Shah let it be known that he favoured Germany over Britain and Russia. That did not matter much until World War II but then that mild deviation became unacceptable. Obligingly, the Shah abdicated in 1941 in favour of his son, Mohammad Pahlawi, who was, as expected, wholeheartedly pro-Allies. Western experts never learnt that apparently trivial events, such as the removal of one Shah and his substitution with another, leave a bad taste within subject nations. As far as the powers were concerned resolute management required that if the Shah were not one hundred percent for the Allies then he had to be replaced. It was as simple as that.

Mohammad Pahlawi decided to Westernise Iran, a term that is understood in the West to mean modernise. Muhammad was following in his father’s footsteps in this respect. Shortly after becoming Shah in 1925, Reza Shah Pahlawi decreed that Iranians must henceforth wear European-style hats as opposed to the traditional fez. Those in the East often have a different viewpoint. Again, Western ‘experts’ find it almost impossible to comprehend the distinction between the two views. As seen by them, it is patently obvious that if a nation were to succeed then it should follow in the precise footsteps of the European and American nations. The model has worked in the past in the West and it will, therefore, work everywhere else. Universal models and unease with diversity and nonconformity are basic tenets of a linear paradigm. It is not enough for a country to trade with and give preference to Western countries. It has to accept in addition the whole package including adoption of Western style of dress and behaviour at every level. Without that the country remains an alien threat that has to be challenged on every occasion. The ‘experts’ insist on total control both at home and abroad. Consequently, and as described later, accession of the Ayatollahs to power in 1979, complete with their ‘funny’ clothes and headgear, their religious ‘fanaticism’, and their disrespectful language was immediately interpreted as a life-threatening event. It demanded immediate and vigorous action by the West in accordance with the prevailing conventional wisdom.

There was, however, quite a lengthy lead into the Islamic revolution. The years immediately after the end of World War II were unsettled. Communists were blamed for the turmoil as decreed by the cold war model. The thinking could not have been more linear: the Shah supports the West therefore his enemies must be supporters of the USSR and that included a huge group of ‘nationalists’. The West increased its backing for the Shah, especially after an attempt on his life in 1949, and he in turn declared war on anyone who questioned his supremacy. The end result of that vicious circle was obvious to all but the ‘experts’. The Shah and the West became the enemy and the harder he tried to ‘modernise’ Iran and punish his critics the more the Iranians detested and resisted his regime.

Oddly enough, some of his actions were perfectly sensible, especially the agrarian reforms in the 1960s. On the other hand, his White Revolution of the same period was almost insane. It made sense to the Shah who was educated in Switzerland that a fast socio-economic transformation was needed to pull Iran into the 20th century. Tradition in any form was the perceived obstacle and Iranians had to accept a radical change in their daily lives and beliefs to accord with the Shah’s dictates. Nothing encouraged the subsequent Islamic backlash more than this simplistic view of how to achieve progress. The Shah thought he knew what was best for the whole population and he considered that the application of rigid rules enforced with brute force would transform Iran overnight into a European society. Western ‘experts’ certainly saw nothing wrong with that policy, as numerous articles in the media at that time clearly demonstrate.

In addition, the end of World War II did not lessen Iran’s difficulties as far as oil was concerned. It transpired that control of oil was not a temporary requirement necessitated by the war; Britain set out to ensure that its private oil companies received the lion’s share of profits. These efforts were in vain as the USA was busy claiming the rewards associated with being the new hegemonic power of the age. Britain as the waning hegemon paid homage to the new overlord. On the other hand, communist Russia had to be beaten to the finish as cold war rules of engagement required. The battleground for these machinations was once again the Arc of Crises, including Iran. Mohamed Pahlawi assumed the role of the West’s agent in the region. As usual in these circumstances, he turned into a tyrant, firstly to further his masters’ interests against mounting local resistance and secondly because he came to enjoy absolute power. The turn of the tide became simply a matter of time and that change was likely to be hostile to Western interests. Another lesson that the ‘experts’ refuse to heed.

To start with, challenge to the Shah’s rule was organised through democratic channels. However, as his authoritarian power, wielded through the ruthless Savak police force, grew more absolute, the opposition drifted rapidly into less democratic practices and coalitions. Yet another lesson that the ‘experts’ ignore at a heavy price. Britain, the USA and the Shah committed every folly possible to make it practically inevitable for extremists to come to power. And when that happened the ‘experts’ blamed everyone else including the Shah who was not allowed to go to the West when he finally had to flee from Iran.

Events following the nationalisation of Iran’s oil by the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, and triumph of the Nationalist Party at the elections in 1951 illustrate this chronic short sightedness. Mossadegh, the leader of the Party, came to power in April 1951. He was a supporter of oil nationalisation. That promptly branded him as a communist in the eyes of Western ‘experts’. Trouble was brewing on all sides. Basically, Britain with tacit support from the USA was looking after the interests of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mussadegh was asked by the Shah to form a new government following elections in 1952. That was the signal for Mossadegh and his own ‘experts’ to overplay their hand. Total control was required, as usual in the ‘national interest’, and he insisted on outright control of the army and the power to rule by decree for at least six months. The Shah refused, but following months of turmoil the Majlis granted Mussadegh absolute rule for six months and that was, as usual in these cases, extended in 1953 for another year. Finally, the Shah had to flee to Rome.

Western ‘experts’ and the Shah’s supporters similarly responded in classic command-and-control manner based on the prevailing conventional wisdom. The CIA set operation Ajax in motion in 1953 and it took only two months, and $200,000 to topple Mussadegh and to restore the Shah to power. Mussadegh on the other hand was sentenced to three years of solitary confinement. He ended his days under house arrest. The oil dispute was settled and the Shah resumed his headlong rush into total tyranny, enforced by the CIA-trained officers of Savak. As conditions worsened in 1975, the Shah did what local agents of foreign powers do in these circumstances: he annulled the multiparty system and created his own party. The opposition could only seek an outlet through religion. By the end of 1978 the writing was on the wall and it was only a matter of time before the Shah was toppled. The ‘experts’ promptly swung into classic damage limitations mode. It was futile but they were doing something! The CIA sought a dialogue with opposition groups behind the Shah’s back. Finally and inevitably, the Shah fled from Iran in January 1979 and Khumaini and his supporters assumed power.

Regional Adventures

However, it is perhaps worth emphasising the fact that the Shah’s adventures were not restricted to internal matters. Almost without exception, leaders insist on leaving their mark on history. In this context, Alexander and one or two other historic figures have a lot to answer for. It would seem that it is not enough for leaders and their ‘experts’ to run the affairs of a nation as well as possible under prevailing circumstances. Popular convention decrees that a worthy leader must have a messianic mission.

Muhammad Shah was no exception. He set about to transform Iranian society by his ‘White Revolution’ and then moved on to stamp his regional hegemonic authority over the Middle East in general and the Gulf in particular. His ambitions for regional supremacy had to wait while the problems of the 1950s and early 1960s were in full swing, but once he felt secure within Iran, the Shah decided the time was ripe for external missions. He moved on two fronts; against Iraq and the Gulf states.

The Ba’th Party came to power in Iraq in the 1960s and the Shah chose to send a reminder to the new regime that he was the local undisputed overlord. Again he moved on two fronts; he provided help to the Kurds in northern Iraq to revolt against the Baghdad government, and he resurrected an ancient dispute about the precise southern border between Iraq and Iran. That was also in line with the propensity for leaders to overplay their hand. Firstly, the Shah abrogated in April 1969 an agreement dating back to 1937 that regulated the southern border between Iran and Iraq. That dispute had ancient roots and was and is a convenient excuse for one side or the other to commence hostilities. Almost comically, the dispute is over whether the boundary was this side, that side, or the middle of the river!

The Shah began to help the Kurds in northern Iraq in their perennial strife against Baghdad’s authority. That is another standard tool in initiating conflict between the two neighbours. Needless to say neither Iraq nor Iran (nor for that matter Turkey) entertained friendly feelings for the Kurds and their desire for independence. The Shah also proceeded in November 1971 to occupy three highly insignificant islands in the Gulf that belonged to the emirates of Sharja and Ras al-Khayma (part of present day United Arab Emirates). These actions created extensive turmoil that persists to the present. As usual, there were no discernable benefits to either side. Quite the contrary, the Shah’s regional machinations led to increased hostility with the Iraqi regime and weakened the his grip in Iran at the same time. These adventures contributed, in part at least, to his ultimate downfall, in February 1979, and the dawn of the Islamic Revolution and the rule of the Ayatollahs.

The ‘Experts’ Swing Into Action Yet Again

It is a toss up as to whether it is better to be completely under the thumb of a global hegemon or to escape from that position at a time when that power considers itself to be threatened and in decline. Combine that with Islamic fundamentalist fervour and the mixture becomes positively lethal, as hundreds of thousands of innocent victims would testify. Loss of control by the West was truly costly to that country as well as to its neighbours. The whole region was plunged into a lengthy period of instability that has persisted ever since. The trigger, and there is always a trigger, was the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and detention of over fifty hostages. The ransom demand was difficult to accept; return of the Shah’s billions of dollars back to Iran and, worse still, a public apology from the USA for past misdeeds. Measures to release the hostages escalated alarmingly. When the sanctions card failed, due to Russian lack of cooperation at the UN, a farcical rescue attempt to free the hostages in April 1980 turned into a tragic nightmare.

At that point in Iran’s history the ‘experts’ on all sides excelled themselves. The new government, in effect the fundamentalist Shiite clergy, decided to export their revolution. Muslims of the Sunni sect have always dominated governments in Iraq although over half the population is Shiite. The ‘experts’ in Iran confidently predicted that the majority in Iraq needed only a mild incentive to rise against the Ba’th government. The view of the ‘experts’ in Iraq was somewhat different. It was clear from government pronouncements that they did not want war but they calculated that the fledgling regime, and a demoralised army following the Shah’s departure, would cave in after a brief skirmish. Western ‘experts’ were equally confident that the regime in Iran would fall quickly resulting possibly in the release of the American hostages. Early engagements started in September 1980 and went on until July 1988 when Khumaini drank what he called “the poison cup” of defeat. Over 400,000 people died, 210,000 were taken prisoner, and $390 billion was spent in the course of that conflict. Yet again, there were no discernible gains for either side.

The salient point for the present purpose is the abysmal inability of the ‘experts’ to predict and control events. Far from disintegrating overnight, the Iranians rallied round the revolutionary regime. Similarly, the Shiites in Iraq did not turn on the Iraqi leadership. It transpired that they were not interested in emulating their fellow Shiites in Iran. They had seen what an extreme Islamic regime would do and that was not to their taste. Moreover, the hostages were not released until Reagan entered the White House, some 444 days after they were taken prisoner. Naturally, arms producing countries and arms dealers benefited considerably from the conflict. Moreover, the war left both Iraq and Iran exhausted and bankrupt, which was no bad thing as far as the West, and countries in the Gulf, were concerned. But crucially, most of the ‘experts’ forecasts and calculations proved worthless and the war did not end all wars. It merely ushered in the next costly episode.

The Iran-Iraq war, in line with all wars, was full of contradictions, as well as intriguing activities by many shadowy figures from the public and private sectors. Astonishingly, apart from empty words the UN looked the other way throughout the conflict. The war coincided with a slack period in arms sales. Hence, no less than fifty countries participated in meeting the demand for weapons. Twenty-eight, led by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, supplied both sides. That is only to be expected. However, there were in addition a number of incidents which made little or no sense at all. In one such event the ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ seemed to have lost the plot completely. The incident concerned the shooting down by USS Vincennes of Iran Air 655 civil airliner in July 1988 with the loss of 290 lives. No plausible explanation has been advanced for that act. One thing is certain though; it led to the sabotage of an American plane over Lockerbie in December 1988. Again innocent people were the victims of what someone thought was a sensible course of action.

The Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran repeated an earlier experiment by the Shah, regenerating in the process similar feelings of resentment and antagonism. The Shah, as mentioned above, decided that traditional Muslim Iranian society should be transformed into a European society overnight. He proclaimed rules and regulations and punished those who did not abide by them. The Islamic regime, by contrast, chose to take Iranian society back to their conception of what an Islamic society should be: men should grow beards and women should be covered from top to toe. A special police force roamed the streets and meted out on the spot punishment to all offenders. It hardly ever occurred to the clergy that their actions would create an inevitable backlash. They must have been disappointed to discover, at later elections, the degree of resentment felt by the population at large.

The Iran-Iraq war left unfinished business that required another adventure, the Gulf War, but that is another sad and bewildering story. As far as Iran is concerned, the ‘experts’ in the West decided the regime, and in fact the whole nation, should be taught a lesson. The regime had to go and the best way was strictly enforced sanctions imposed by the US government. Interestingly, the same policy was pursued in Iraq, with a great deal more vigour and cost to the population, after the Gulf War but Saddam’s government has not budged. Sanctions had a less severe but similar impact on the government in Iran.

Surprisingly, the ‘experts’ hardly ever noticed the subtle changes taking place in the regime in Iran while they were busy denouncing the ‘Ayatollahs’ as a bunch of lunatics who exported terrorism and mayhem. They failed to notice that Khumaini himself was becoming concerned about meddling by the clergy in government business. He advised them to go back to their ‘traditional duties’ only a short while after he took office. Even more glaringly, the first elections after the death of Khumaini that were held in April and May 1992 were a major set back for the fundamentalists. In June 1993, President Rafsanjani was given a second term by the electorate with a huge majority over his nearest rival. He was more of a pragmatist than the ‘experts’ were willing to admit, despite the fact that his liberal reforms in the political and economic arenas were a matter of record. His policies should have pleased the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and indeed the USA, but they were apparently looking the other way at the time. Then in 1994, Foruhar, leader of the secular National Party, predicted further swings away from the fundamentalists. All these clear signs went, it seems, undetected.

The ‘Experts’ Detect a Change in Iran

At long last the ‘experts’ detected a change in the air when the results of the Majlis elections of February 2000 were announced. Their responses to the outcome of the elections were almost amusing. Hardly anyone noted that Iran was still a multiparty state, highly unusual in that region. Even more telling, they failed to point out that the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, survived many decades of turmoil, from terror by the Shah and his secret services to evangelising by the revolutionary clerics. When past president Rasfsanjani came last amongst those elected to the 30 seats in the Tehran constituency commentators in the West hailed the result as a clear sign that the reformists were in the ascendancy. Yet again they failed to recall that Rafsanjani was the cleric who instituted the first reforms; especially the move to an open society based on the principles of world trade and the free market.

The Council of Guardians confirmed 185 candidates in the 290-seat Majlis. The 30 seats in Tehran were still in dispute as the Council detected ‘significant discrepancies’. The second round of elections were held in early May 2000, and again the reformists retained their large majority in the Majlis. This outcome, in the light of persistent earlier indications, is not surprising. It is, of course, quite possible that the hostility shown by the West to the Iranian government, including Rafsanjani when he was in power, may have delayed these developments. The ‘experts’, however, will undoubtedly claim that their vigorous efforts, including sanctions, demonising of the regime, and persistent negative propaganda, resulted in the shift to moderation. Conversely, as argued here, the move towards ‘moderation’ was in evidence for some years. The ‘experts’ simply failed to detect the signs, as they were too busy following there own agendas.

Now the ‘experts’ committed another error. They saw the elections as a positive sign on which dependable long-term predictions could be based. The West started to offer advice to the Iranian government as to what they should do next to rejoin the ‘world community’. In response, and as usual, local ‘experts’ from the reformist camp chose this delicate moment to overplay their hand with calls for the abandonment of the Islamic Revolution. Problems were not long in coming. In April 2000, the Press Court banned a dozen liberal publications.

President Khatami, firmly in the reformist camp, was clearly aware of the tendency for ‘experts’ at home and abroad to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Shortly after the elections in February 2000 he declared that the Iranian revolution would not be diverted by the whims of others. Sadly, few heeded that advice. There were, and are, too many actors waiting to make their mark one way or the other. Western ‘experts’ thought the elections were the last word in the saga. As shown by earlier events in Iran’s long and messy history , the processes involved did not merit such confidence. Developments, and further elections, in 2001 merely underline the endless nature of this continuing process of evolution..

There is, of course, every hope that Iran might well select the right options in the long-term. That is quite likely as local, regional, and global checks and balances will exert their own influence on the nonlinear system we recognise as Iran. That system involves millions of individuals and interest groups, both local and foreign. They interact at billions of separate encounters. The output from that messy process will shape Iranian ‘policies and actions’. But that is nothing new. US government policy, for example, is the product of an identical semi-chaotic process. Two facts are certain in all this: the saga will continue no matter what the ‘experts’ set out to do, and more control does not mean better outcomes.


Iran’s history highlights the dangers presented by over-confident and over ambitious ‘experts’. For the present purpose, the ‘experts’ were defined as the local and foreign elites that occupy the top rungs of the national and international political, economic and business hierarchies. Conventional wisdom decrees that the ‘experts’ know best. As mentioned earlier, in some instances that faith is not misplaced. Clearly, the few who manage to join the elite, in any hierarchy, do so after years of formal and informal training and apprenticeship. However, it was argued that in certain fields, such as national and international affairs, the ‘experts’ have performed well below expectations.

Failures have been attributed to vindictiveness by past colonial powers, attempts by leading states and companies to exploit weaker nations, and local and global conspiracies. There is, however, a simpler but more fundamental explanation for lackluster performance. ‘Experts’ operate within a specific cultural and historic framework which views all activities as linear entities that obey straightforward rules. Options are seen in black or white terms and the preferred courses of action are based on command-and-control principles. Every action produces, and requires, a reaction, and given causes will lead to known effects on all occasions. In that context, the ‘experts’ adhere to a conventional wisdom that is also valued by the rest of the population. The fly in the ointment in that scenario concerns the fact that national and international affairs do not follow the same ‘rules’. Events are messy and somewhat unpredictable nonlinear phenomena that respond to and thrive on a different set of operating criteria. In this case, freedom for a vast number of actors to interact locally is of paramount importance. Direction or coercion from the top is useless or harmful. And variety is a prized commodity.

The above requirements are anathema to all ‘experts’. The US Secretary of State, for instance, is totally convinced that he and his assistants need to be vigilant and should learn of and respond to every event in all four corners of the world. The same, of course, applies to all other individuals in his position albeit on a smaller scale. Would it help if he, or the President of the USA, were to take a more relaxed stance? Not at all, as all the opposition spokesmen would accuse them of complacency and impotence. And the general public in the USA would concur with that judgement.

Put briefly, therefore, three interrelated key points emerge from the above discussion:

  • ‘Experts’ are not infallible in all cases.
  • The public should not accept the ‘experts’ judgements as the final word on all issues.
  • Humankind has to find suitable coping strategies to allow life to evolve optimally within unavoidable uncertainties.

Further Reading

Ranelagh, J. (1992) CIA: A History, London: BBC Books. This reference throws light on the turmoil that gripped the Carter administration during and after the Islamic Revolution. In effect, the President “could not decided whether to support the Shah or the new leader.” See page 213.

Karsh, E. and I. Rautsi (1991) Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography, London: Futura Books. The Shah, it seems, was out to impress not only his Gulf neighbours but also his masters in the West.  Page 64 onwards.

Adams, J. (1990) Trading in Death, London: Hutchinson. See page 128 in particular.

A programme on BBC 2 (4 March 2000) dealt at length with the destruction of Iran Air 655 in July 1988. The programme highlighted the differences of opinion that exist between different individuals working for the same state. In this instance captains of three US Navy ships on the spot had serious disagreements on the type of plane involved, civil or military, its attitude, climbing or descending, and its intentions, hostile or otherwise. More significantly, the other two captains were perplexed, and dismayed, at the action of the captain of the Vincennes in ordering the shooting down of the plane. It is not known whether he was acting on his own initiative or under orders that other warships in the vicinity were not aware of.

Heikal, M. (1992) Illusions of Triumph, London: HarperCollins gives a thoroughly objective account of relations between Iraq and Iran, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Gulf war.

More information on the early years of the Islamic Revolution is given in Bakhash, S. (1985) The Reign of the Ayatollahs, London: I B Tauris.