Iran’s protests go back to the future
19 Jan 2023|

The public unrest that has gripped Iran since September, spearheaded by women, is essentially about the very objectives that the instigators of the 1978–79 Iranian revolution sought but failed to achieve—a pro-democracy transformation of the country. They and their movement were derailed by the Shia religious establishment, which was better organised than they were. It seized the leadership of the revolution and established a unique theocratic system of governance. The latest wave of protests basically wants to return to the unfinished goals of that revolution. But can it succeed?

The revolution of nearly 44 years ago that toppled the pro-Western monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah was originally instigated by his intellectual, professional and political opponents, with the explicit goal of turning Iran into a constitutional monarchy. The Iranians had attempted to achieve this goal twice before but failed.

The first attempt was in the early 20th century, when a constitutional movement sought to limit the powers of the traditional monarchy but was ultimately aborted by the Shah’s father, Reza Khan Pahlavi, who seized power through a coup in 1921 and within five years established his own dynastic rule.

The second came in the middle of the 20th century following a period of quasi-democracy and the Anglo-Soviet occupation during World War II. The attempt was led by the reformist Mohammad Mossadegh, who commanded a majority in the Iranian parliament, but was aborted by a CIA-backed coup in favour of the Shah in 1953.

While the Shah was widely viewed as a US ‘stooge’ at home and in the region, Iran rapidly drifted into the American orbit, forming a critical pillar of Pax Americana in the Middle East. The monarch could never overcome the indignity of being the first in the 2,500 years of dynastic rule in Iran to be re-throned by a foreign power.

The backlash came 25 years down the line. Public uprisings against the Shah’s rule started with pro-democracy aims similar to those of the two previous attempts. However, they evolved as a rainbow movement lacking a unifying leadership, organisational strength and a common platform beyond being anti-Shah. The only group that had managed to survive the Shah’s repression was the Shia religious establishment (ruhaniyat), which had gained pervasive sway in the society with an interventionist role in politics since Iran’s forceful transition into a bastion of Shia Islam from the early 16th century.

While initially lurking in the background and fuelling the unrest, some elements of this clerical stratum pushed an agenda that was in stark contrast to that of the secularists and semi-secularists on the opposition spectrum. The core members of this group (who included the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) harboured a goal of Shia Islamic transformation of Iran. Leading them was the chief religious-political critic of the Shah and his alliance with the US, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been banished into exile, mostly in Iraq, for 13 years.

Khomeini and his followers were able to capture the leadership of the revolution and homogenise it. The general expectation on the part of non-ruhaniyat protestors was that they would ultimately succeed in their broad pro-democracy objectives. Yet, once the Shah was forced to leave for exile in January 1979, Khomeini returned to a tumultuous welcome to shape Iran according to his vision of Shia Islam. He dichotomised the world between oppressors (mustakbareen) and oppressed (mustazafeen) and called for the empowerment of the latter. He declared Iran an Islamic republic, scorned the US as a hegemonic power and Israel as an occupier of the holy site of Islam (Jerusalem), and called for the export of the Iranian revolution into the predominantly Sunni Arab countries, except Iraq, where the Shia majority had been suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority-dominated dictatorship.

Khomeini and his devotees dismantled all the vestiges of monarchical rule and engaged in Islamisation of Iran’s internal and external settings at the cost of thousands of lives. They established a unique two-tier system of velayat-e faqhi, or guardianship of the supreme jurist governance: one embodying the sovereignty of God, symbolised in his position as the supreme leader with enormous divine and constitutional powers; and the other representing the sovereignty of the people in the form of an elected presidency and national assembly but in subordination to the first tier. All forms of organised and individual dissent and viable political alternatives were declared un-Islamic and therefore liable to punishment.

Meanwhile, Khomeini wanted not only an Islamic Iran but a strong and modern Islamic state capable of dealing decisively with any internal or external threats. He pursued a jihadi (combative) and ijtihadi (reformist and pragmatic) approach. After his death in 1989, his successor, Khamenei, followed his late master’s legacy with as much divine and constitutional power, and ruled with an iron fist, showing what he has called ‘heroic flexibility’ only when absolutely necessary for the regime’s survival. On this basis he endorsed the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement (officially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which has now become virtually defunct.

Under his leadership, Iran has grown as a critical player in regional affairs and on the world stage. The security of the Islamic regime—and, for that matter, of Iran—has been intimately linked with Tehran’s construction of a regional security complex, enabling it to secure a strong leverage of influence in the Levant and Yemen, to the profound irritation of the US and Iran’s regional rivals, Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular. In addition, to counter US and allied pressure—whether over Iran’s nuclear program or alleged human rights violations and unsavoury regional activities—Khamenei has found it expedient to tilt Iran irrevocably towards Russia and China, including siding with Russia in President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

While shaken by the unrest, the regime has hit back with usual defiance. Some 500 protestors have reportedly been killed and many more injured. Close to 20,000 have been detained, a couple of dozen of whom have been sentenced to death. Four have already been hanged with more to come on charges of moharebeh (‘waging war against God’) or Ifsad fil ardh (‘corruption on earth’). Dozens of security personnel have also lost their lives.

The problem confronting the current wave of protesters is what derailed the pro-democracy agenda of their predecessors: a lack of a strong and united leadership and organisational structure as well as wider community support. As long as this remains the case, Khamenei’s description of the regime as a ‘mighty tree’ that no one should dare to think of uprooting may hold for some time, given his regime’s willingness to fight for its longevity at all costs. Concurrently, the public demands for better political, economic and social living conditions; an end to poor governance and malpractices as well as security involvement in several regional countries; and a foreign policy free of US sanctions and international isolation are unlikely to dissipate.