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Iranian-Born Scholar Lectures on Iran’s History

Thirty years after Iranian students, in the aftermath of the revolution of 1979, occupied the American Embassy and took American hostages, Hossein Sheiban, a professor of history and visiting scholar at Washington and Lee University, will give a talk that looks back over Iran’s history and examines the country’s situation today.

His presentation, titled “After the Revolution: Iran 30 Years Later” will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 5, in W&L’s Northen Auditorium in the Leyburn Library. The event is free and open to the public.

Sheiban left Iran in 1982 and started a journey that took him through Pakistan and Italy and eventually, under the auspices of the United Nations, to Sweden, where he is a history professor at the University of Stockholm.

Sheiban’s talk will examine the current democratic movement in Iran that questions the basic idea of combining a republic with government by Islamic clergy.

“It is a paradox,” he said. “On the one hand Iran is a modern state that was rebuilt into a republic through the revolution of 1979, and has to have a democratically elected president and parliament. On the other hand, the Iranian state claims to be an Islamic republic, which practically means that an unelected patriarchal institution of the clergy controls the elected institutions. This political authority is guaranteed for the clergy through the constitution of the Islamic republic, but, in practice, clerics have gained much more power.

“The Supreme Leader, chosen by an advisory chamber of clerics, limits the authority of the elected president. And the unelected conservative Guardian Council, named by the Supreme leader, oversees the parliament and limits its legislative function. Further, it claims the authority to select appropriate candidates to the presidential and parliamental elections. The result has been a paradoxical and complicated system where the authority of elected and unelected institutions is determined by the political balance between different factions inside the regime.”

Sheiban said that throughout the history of post-revolutionary Iran, all the chiefs of state have been in conflict with the Supreme Leader. This situation prevailed until 2005 when Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad came to power.

“Some people may have voted for Ahmadi-Nejad in the 2005 elections, but in 2009 he is widely believed to have been chosen by fraud. The Supreme Leader and revolutionary guards wanted him in power,” said Sheiban. “We have a situation now where a powerful democratic movement in Iran – with the central slogan of ‘where is my vote?’ – is emphasizing the republican character of the regime. But the leading conservative factions of the clergy and the ideologically-organized revolutionary guards are acting against that possibility, trying to resolve the paradoxes of the regime in their own favor.”

Sheiban is a Swedish citizen and is visiting W&L for the 2009 fall term as part of the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) exchange program.

Formed in 1999, the STINT foundation aims to introduce Swedish institutions of higher education to the American concept of a liberal education. W&L has hosted four academics through STINT over the last five years.