by Ghoncheh Tazmini
In the words of Vladimir Lenin, ‘The revolution does not need historians.’ The Iranian revolution, lacking the old Marxist grandeur of historical necessity, it seems, does. Approaching its forty-first anniversary, the regime faces serious challenges not only on the international stage, but also domestically. The country saw the last bout of unrest following the accidental downing of the Ukrainian passenger plane, which claimed 176 lives. In what was a potential state of war, Iran should have sealed off civilian air traffic space as it began retaliatory missile strikes against US forces in Iraq, following the targeted assassination of General Qassem Soleimani.
Earlier in November 2019, the country also saw widespread protests following a fuel price hike. Once again, the Iranian revolution became the subject of a rash of analyses – from autopsies to pathologies to prognoses, including: ‘The Revolution has Died’ and ‘Could Iran’s Revolution Unravel Over a Four-Cent Price Hike?’ Rather than concentrating on the afterlife of the 1979 revolution, I will adopt a less forensic approach. I will broach Iran’s utopian project as a lived and living experience. Despite all of its agonies that certainly betoken failure, the revolution should not be seen as a failed experiment. The protests that have occurred in Iran’s post-revolutionary lifetime tell us why.
Iran has been rocked by sporadic episodes of social unrest, which have occurred under every type of presidency – reformist, conservative and moderate alike. The 1999 student protests took place under Seyyed Mohammad Khatami’s watch – Iran’s first reformist president. Ten years later, under the ‘hardline’ presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran saw the most politically significant instance of popular mobilisation when masses of protestors disputed presidential election results. Under the moderate presidency of Hassan Rouhani, we have witnessed the recent spell of protests along with an earlier series between December 2017 and January 2018.
Although they reflect a limited sample, the recurrence of popular protests in Iran amount to a pattern. First, as we have established above, protests have occurred under every type of presidency. Thus, they are not party, personality or leadership bound. Second, in every protest, there is invariably a reference to foreign interference. Third, in terms of substance, the protests reflect a broader permanent clash between the economic and political needs of the people, and the original revolutionary pledges. What do these persistent features tell us?
The Iranian revolution was engineered according to two core tenets. The first had to do with notions of anti-imperialism, the quest for national liberation, and resistance against foreign encroachment – themes that routinely surface in Iranian political rhetoric. The struggle against political exploitation is firmly built into the conceptual architecture of the regime, showcasing 1979 as a revolt in defence of culture and independence.
In the view of ‘hardline’ members of the Iranian elite, Tehran resisted neo-imperialism during the summer of 2019 when the IRGC shot down a US military drone in the Strait of Hormuz. A month later, the IRGC impounded the British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), its retaliatory response to General Soleimani’s assassination, and threats to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty if Europeans send the JCPOA to the UN, are all Iran’s way of enacting resistance against what it perceives as a struggle against ‘global arrogance’.
The Iranian leadership’s references to foreign interference, real or imagined, suggest that Iran’s troubled dialectic with the dominant Western powers persists – specifically, what it perceives as the menace of foreign meddling – a pathology the Iranian revolution was supposed to correct. However, as the late Fred Halliday calculated somewhat presciently, ‘not all the problems of the Iranian people stem from imperialism.’ Indeed, Iran’s perceived independence from the hands of foreign powers has not inoculated the leadership from internal turmoil. Iran’s restive population continues to voice frustration over economic mismanagement, corruption, inflation, unemployment and unaccountability, which brings us to the second goal of the Iranian revolution: economic justice.
While sanctions have played their part in stifling the economy, the Islamic republic has failed to reach ‘the optimal model for economic development and economic justice’, according to Mohsen Rezaei, the Secretary of the Expediency Council. This was confirmed by the Governor of the Central Bank of Iran, Abolnaser Hemmati who underscored that Iran’s economic growth has fallen below the country’s real economic potentials. One of the core tenets of the 1979 revolution was the absolute right of the ‘oppressed’ (mostazafan in Ayatollah Khomeini’s words) to rise up and to demand economic justice. This right has become inscribed in the fabric of Iran’s post-revolutionary consciousness. It explains why the Iranian people continue to voice their demands with protests, strikes, demonstrations, and at the ballot box.
I will close with some of some of Halliday’s reflections on socio-political development. Drawing on his wisdom, I argue that the eruption of popular protests in post-revolutionary Iran should be seen in the context of the country’s unfinished revolutionary trajectory. Halliday reminds us that ‘… democracy was not a sudden, all or nothing event … but a gradual process, over decades and centuries: it took Britain and the USA three hundred years and three internal wars between them to move from tyranny to the kind of qualified democracy they have now…liberal politics is not a single act, bestowing finality on a political system…’.
While there is consensus on when the Iranian revolution began, there is less agreement on when the revolution ends. This has to do with how one perceives history – either as open-ended or as hermetic/closed. Adopting the former, I would argue that at 41 years, the Iranian revolution is a young adult. With this dynamic in mind, the Iranian people are not deluded in chasing the utopia that the 1979 revolution promised to deliver – they are in the process of reconstructing and reinventing the revolution, and defining its place in Iranian history. However, Iran risks entering the phase of ‘anti-utopia’ as people no longer define themselves by what they favour, but by what they are opposed to. The onus is on the regime to reaffirm its original revolutionary pledges to the Iranian people despite the international pressures it faces. Political independence and national security cannot be the regime’s only sine qua nons.
This piece is the second in a 2-part series on the latest round of protests in Iran. Read the first part here.