Despite brutal repression, protests in Iran continue. The ruling clergy can no longer rally the “masses” behind it, as it has done successfully time and again since the 18th century. But what are the prospects and dangers of the current revolution?

  • Hamid R. Ekbia

    Hamid R. Ekbia is University Professor in Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also director of Indiana University’s Center for Research on Mediated Interaction (CROMI). Ekbia’s research focuses the political economy of computing, in the future of work, and in how technologies mediate socio-economic, cultural, and geo-political relations of modern societies.

The Iranian people have been fighting for their rights and free­doms for more than one and a half century. While they have made some headway in this direc­tion, their strug­gles have met serious obsta­cles, espe­ci­ally after the collapse of monarchy in 1906 and the estab­lish­ment of the Islamic Repu­blic in 1979. Although this tran­si­tion took place through a popular revo­lu­tion, it failed in deep ways, somehow rever­sing the course of history.

The present essay seeks to explain this pecu­liar turn of events in terms of a set of “coopt­a­tions” that have under­mined the Iranian aspi­ra­tion for peace, liberty, and prospe­rity. To that end, we need to step back and take a short detour into modern history.

Monarchs and Mullahs

Inspired by the French revo­lu­tion of 1789 and the Enligh­ten­ment writers such as Voltaire and Montes­quieu, in the 1800s a number of intellec­tuals in Iran adopted a secular world­view, advo­ca­ting for liberty, rule of law, and an end to the power of abso­lute monarchs. In pursuing these goals, they faced two key detrac­tors: the defen­dants of the ancien regime and reac­tionary Shiite clergy. While the resis­tance of the first group against change is under­stan­dable and known to Iranians and the outside world, the oppo­si­tion of the second group is less reco­gnized because it is more complex and convoluted.

The comple­xity has to do with the fact that the Shiite clergy has histo­ri­cally posi­tioned itself in an oppo­si­tional role against the rule of the monarchs, while at the same time bene­fiting from their largesse. This ambi­va­lent posi­tion toward power has enabled the mullahs to histo­ri­cally mani­pu­late situa­tions in their own favor, portraying them­selves as people’s advo­cates and mobi­li­zing them against monarchs when­ever their agenda called for it. As a matter of fact, however, in the majo­rity of such circum­s­tances it was rivalry over power with monarchs that drove their actions, not their advo­cacy for people. The poli­tical history of Iran, espe­ci­ally in the last three hundred years, should be unders­tood through this lens.

The intro­duc­tion of Western liberal ideas in the 18th century injected a new para­meter into this tradi­tional equa­tion of power, laun­ching onto the scene a new force in the form of the public intellec­tual. Faced with this force, the clergy perceived it, correctly, as a threat to its entren­ched power, with the majo­rity of its ranks taking a strong oppo­si­tional stance against intellec­tuals as corrupting agents of Western (Chris­tian) influence on the Iranian society. In parti­cular, the secular rule of law promoted by these intellec­tuals was seen as a direct threat to the clergy’s hold on judi­cial power based on the laws of Shariah. In the oppo­site direc­tion, clergy’s oppo­si­tion pushed some intellec­tuals to “adjust” their secular views, presen­ting them in reli­gious garb to the public and their other audi­ences, in the hope of amelio­ra­ting clerical oppo­si­tion and attai­ning popular trust.

This compro­mi­sing atti­tude some­times took bizarre forms, to the point where “freedom” was inter­preted by some 19th century writers and commen­ta­tors as the right to carry out reli­gious moral poli­cing of people’s beha­vior (amr-e be maroof). In the 20th century, the compro­mise took on a diffe­rent form, espe­ci­ally in the writings and provo­ca­tions of reli­gious intellec­tuals such as Ali Shariati — a Sorbonne-educated social theo­rist, who borrowed Marxist ideas of class struggle, combined them with exis­ten­tia­list ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, and cast them in the escha­to­lo­gical language of Shiite martyrdom. The outcome was an eclectic amalgam which was neither Marxist nor exis­ten­tia­list, but it had the mobi­li­zing power of an intellec­tual earth­quake among many Iranian youth of the 1960s-70s. The clerics, shrewd as always, found in these ideas a poten­tial rival but also a source of social mobi­liza­tion that can be brought in line in due course. In this way, a double coopt­a­tion took place, where Western liberal ideas were borrowed and trans­lated into reli­gious language by intellec­tuals, whose ideas were in turn hija­cked by canny clerics to their own benefit.

Jurists and Imperialists

These tensions came to a climax during the Consti­tu­tional Revo­lu­tion of the early 20th century, where promi­nent members of the clergy took an adamant stance against the aboli­tion of abso­lute monarchy. Their attempts failed, leading to a decree in 1906 for the imple­men­ta­tion of a new consti­tu­tion with provi­sions for an elected body, the estab­lish­ment of a secular judi­cial system, and reforms in favor of indi­vi­duals rights and liber­ties. In the process, however, a few of these figures came up with an alter­na­tive on the basis of the autho­rity of the Faqih, the Islamic jurist, over poli­tical affairs. The very idea of the Jurist Rule (velayat-e faqih), which forms the poli­tical foun­da­tion of the Islamic Repu­blic, was the brain­child of these clerics. It was in that same light that their succes­sors opposed tenta­tive plans in 1920s by the emer­ging strongman Reza Khan to abolish monarchy and estab­lish a repu­blican system in Iran on the model of Turkey. Many decades later, however, the idea of the Jurist Rule was adopted by Khomeini, giving rise to the Islamic Republic.

The broad-based oppo­si­tion that brought Khomeini to power in 1979 included groups from all over the poli­tical spec­trum — from Western-oriented libe­rals to Soviet-oriented Marxists, and from radical guerilla figh­ters to reform-minded jurists. In the process, clerics led by Khomeini gained the upper hand, partly because of their grass­root mobi­liza­tion through mosques and partly because of finan­cial support from tradi­tion bazaar merchants. At the end, the implicit support of Western powers under the Brze­zinski Doctrine of the Green Belt against the Soviet Union, tilted the balance in favor of Khomeini, giving him a sanc­tuary and a public forum in the suburbs of Paris. Once in power, he broke up with his former allies, suppres­sing demands for women rights, free press, and liberal free­doms, putting his oppon­ents in jail or in front of firing squads. The inva­sion of Iran by Saddam Hossein — again with implicit support from Western powers, who had grown wary of Khomeini’s rhetoric against Israel and his regional ambi­tions — added fuel to the oppres­sive fires set up by the new regime.

In a sense, ther­e­fore, the emer­gence of the Islamic regime in Iran and its extreme turn to the right can be considered the outcome of the conver­gence of three histo­rical trends: (i) dome­sti­cally, internal tensions among poli­tical factions that led to the violent crack­down by the new regime of its former allies, inclu­ding some Islamic groups; (ii) regional rival­ries and old animo­si­ties flared up by the aggres­sive poli­tics of Saddam Hussein; and (iii) the global envi­ron­ment of the Cold War, espe­ci­ally the anti-Soviet poli­cies of the U.S., who perceived as a friend any enemy of the enemy, even if it was a funda­men­ta­list regime such as the Islamic Repu­blic. The cumu­la­tive effect of these trends was the total anni­hi­la­tion of revo­lu­tio­nary ideals of freedom, equity, and justice that had aligned people against the former monar­chical regime. It is still some­times debated whether Khomeini deceived both his former allies and the Western powers about his real inten­tions or the turn of events pushed him in that direc­tion. While histo­rical and anec­dotal evidence incre­asingly support the former scenario — that he decep­tively maneu­vered his way into power — what really matters is that a momen­tous popular revo­lu­tion was lite­rally hija­cked by a group of reac­tionary, narrow-minded, reli­gious fana­tics, ulti­m­ately rever­sing the course of history in Iran.

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The Begin­ning of the End

More than four decades later, the outcome of this down­ward spiral has been nothing but loss of free­doms, auto­cratic rule, growing poverty, rampant corrup­tion, envi­ron­mental degra­da­tion, gender discri­mi­na­tion, ethnic suppres­sion, wide­spread prosti­tu­tion, and moral despair in the country, along with regional fric­tion, inter­na­tional tension, and disre­pute around the globe for Iranians and their ancient culture. Protests against these social ills and cata­stro­phes continued in diffe­rent shapes throug­hout these decades, but they have met with cruel punish­ment, impri­son­ment, execu­tion, assas­si­na­tion, and terror inside and outside the country. This spiral seems to be finally coming to an end through the upri­sings of 2022 and 2023, which look like the begin­ning of the end of the Islamic Republic.

Trig­gered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish girl visi­ting the capital Tehran, in the hands of the so-called mora­lity police, this upri­sing quickly grew into a huge move­ment inclu­ding women, students, ethnic mino­ri­ties, teachers, workers, and even high-school and middle-school children, with a very active support from foreign artists, intellec­tuals, and poli­ti­cians, as well as the millions of Iranians who live outside the country. For the first time in decades, the streets of Europe, North America, Australia, and other parts of the globe witnessed the powerful presence of Iranians rallying in the thou­sands, protesting the atro­ci­ties of the Islamic regime in asser­tive and crea­tive forms. In an ironic twist, people who were considered disposable to the outside world, forced directly or indi­rectly to leave the country, came back to haunt the regime in scores that were hitherto invisible.

Early on, the speed and inten­sity of the upri­sing shocked the Islamic regime into disarray and confu­sion, promp­ting Western powers to reeva­luate their rela­ti­onship with it. A few months later, with more than five hundred protes­tors (inclu­ding 60 children) dead, thou­sands injured and impri­soned, and four inno­cent young men sentenced to death and hanged, it seems that the regime has taken partial control of the scene, asser­ting itself as a stable power dome­sti­cally and inter­na­tio­nally. That, however, is only a surface pheno­menon, with the fires of a revo­lu­tion burning under­neath with relent­less fero­cious­ness. The ques­tion facing us now is whether or not there is a risk of yet another coopt­a­tion and hijacking of a popular move­ment. If so, where does such risk come from?

Women, Life, Freedom

To address this ques­tion, we need to situate the current move­ment in its histo­rical context, starting with its main slogan, “Women, Life, Liberty.” As codi­fied in these words, the unfol­ding revo­lu­tion in Iran imme­dia­tely inter­rupts a histo­rical pattern — namely, the presence, even domi­nance, of Shiite Islam as an alter­na­tive. For the first time in centu­ries, young men and women reco­gnize poli­tical Islam as the source of problems rather than the source of a solu­tion to social predi­ca­ments. This shift is evident not only in the slogans but also in actions such as turban flip­ping (ammameh parani) as a symbolic gesture against the domi­nant ideo­logy. The harm that the Islamic regime has done to the sanc­tity of reli­gious insti­tu­tions in the public eye seems to be histo­ri­cally irre­de­emable at this point. No secular move­ment could have shaken the belief system of the young gene­ra­tion as Islamic rule itself has brought about. Four decades of ongoing abuse of public resources for the benefit of the ruling clergy and their allies has now come to light, reve­aling their osten­sible claim to piety.

This is a shift of a histo­rical magni­tude, whose signi­fi­cance cannot be over­stated. To use an athletic analogy, in the same manner that one would retreat in order to jump over a creek, it is as if four decades ago the Iranian society stepped back in order to leap over a major obstacle called poli­tical Islam. This shift suggests that poli­tical reli­gion is not going to be a major concern for coopt­a­tion going forward — at least not in the fore­seeable future. In other words, poli­tical reli­gion cannot hijack the current moment as it has in the past, but there are other sources of risk that should be taken seriously. Other than the minor possi­bi­lity of the continued oppres­sion of the current regime, I would like to high­light three other possi­bi­li­ties here: faux feminism-liberalism, monarchism-fascism, and faux radicalism.

Femi­nism, Fascism, Radicalism

Women, unques­tionably, are at the fore­front of the current move­ment. Doubly oppressed under the Islamic law and a patri­ar­chal tradi­tion, they are deman­ding their rights based on the unre­co­gnized histo­rical role in the flou­ris­hing of Persian culture. Common outside misper­cep­tions notwi­th­stan­ding, women have played a key role in poli­tical and cultural life of the Iranian society, espe­ci­ally in modern times. As artists, poets, writers, acti­vists, athletes, admi­nis­tra­tors, … they have had a visible presence on the scene. With their calci­trant resis­tance against the Islamic regime in the last four decades, they have shown that they can fight for their own rights. The last thing they need, ther­e­fore, is for the white (Western) men or women to act as their saviors. Their version of femi­nism goes beyond liberal femi­nism that seeks to attain equal status for women in a capi­ta­list social order with its atten­dant dispa­ri­ties along class, ethnic, educa­tional lines. Theirs is a radical, inter­sec­tional femi­nism that can provide a model for the rest of the region, the broader Islamic world, and perhaps the whole globe.

What is true of women’s status is equally true of the broader society. Histo­ri­cally, as described above, the power dyna­mics in Iran has been driven by two domi­nant players — monarchs and mullahs. This cycle needs to be broken for good. With clergy rule being chal­lenged in the current upri­sing, the monar­chist system is reemer­ging on the scene as a viable alter­na­tive, with its propon­ents pushing their agenda through the figure of Reza Pahlavi, heir to the last monarchy. While he himself claims not to have any poli­tical ambi­tions in the long run, the beha­vior of a discer­nible group of monar­chists suggests other­wise, raising valid concerns among some obser­vers about the poten­tial rise of fascism in a post-Islamic Iran. The expe­ri­ence of the Arab Spring, espe­ci­ally in Egypt, gives credence to such concerns.

Western powers, espe­ci­ally the U.S., have a great role to play in this respect. Recent history, not only in Egypt, Iraq, and Libya, but in Iran itself portrays a largely nega­tive image where popular strug­gles for liberty were under­mined by foreign inter­ven­tion, with hundreds of thou­sands of inno­cent lives sacri­ficed at the altar of corpo­rate profit and the agendas of the military-industrial complex. The dark reality of global real politic hardly lives up to the libera­tory rhetoric of Western powers. In fact, this sad record is one of the reasons the Islamic Repu­blic has survived this long, portraying itself as the savior of Muslims against Western inter­ven­tion, as well as the apart­heid system of Israel and auto­cratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and UAE. The future of a libe­rated Iran, and of the region, cannot be a repe­ti­tion of this history.

This, finally, takes us to the last source of concern for the future of Iran. The combi­na­tion of the above issues creates fertile ground for the culti­va­tion of a faux radi­calism that might aspire to unsettle the status quo through unfet­tered measures. Such an approach can take the ethnic, cultural, or poli­tical forms, or a combi­na­tion thereof. Given the prac­tical chal­lenges that a libe­rated Iran will be facing with respect to the economy, envi­ron­ment, poli­tical stabi­lity, and regional rivalry, this kind of radi­calism would stand little chance of brin­ging about the peace, liberty, and prospe­rity that the current upri­sing aspires to accom­plish. What we need is a measured radi­calism that would surpass tradi­tional alter­na­tives but that would at the same time be capable of provi­ding prac­tical alter­na­tives grounded in the socio-historical, poli­tical, and cultural reali­ties of Iran.

Our brief survey of the Iranian struggle of human rights and liber­ties shows the vulnerabi­li­ties of these strug­gles to various types of coopt­a­tion. One could only hope that novel forms of coopt­a­tion will not under­mine the current upri­sing. All revo­lu­tions are alike, to para­phrase Tolstoy; each failed revo­lu­tion fails in its own way. I would like to think that the young gene­ra­tion of men and women in Iran have learned enough from history not to allow their revo­lu­tion to fail.