Is the Islamic Revolution sustainable?

Salah Nasrawi , Tuesday 20 Feb 2024

As the Islamic Republic rots from the inside and remains isolated abroad, a new book offers a glimpse into the quest for a “new revolution” in Iran, writes Salah Nasrawi

  Is the Islamic Revolution sustainable


Last week, Iran marked the 45th anniversary of one of the defining events of its 20th-century history with the usual fanfare and massive boastful military parades.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 was the culmination of a popular uprising that saw the overthrow of Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi and set off a four-and-a-half decade period of political and social turmoil.

However, the 45th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution comes amid signs of the regime’s fatigue and ineptness and heightened tensions with the US over the war in Gaza and other regional conflicts.

Addressing a crowd assembled in Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Square for the occasion, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said the celebration “is not merely a ceremonial event; it embodies an ideology that envisions both the present and the future of Islamic Iran.”

Iran’s military displayed its hardware at the event in the shape of a range of missiles, including the Qassem Suleimani and Sejjil ballistic missiles, the Simorgh satellite carrier, and various drones. Paratroopers jumped from a plane while waving Palestinian flags.

However, apart from the state-managed celebrations and the doubling down on ideological indoctrination, many ordinary Iranians showed little interest in the commemoration and what is seen as an effort to drum up the revolution as a political tool.

Just a few days before the anniversary, Iran’s World Cup defeat to Qatar on 7 February was met by cheers across the country as protesters hailed the country’s exit from the football tournament as a blow to the Islamic regime.

In videos from Iran on the Internet, people were seen rejoicing over the defeat of the Iranian football team against Qatar in the AFC Asian Cup, with many dismissing the players as the “mullahs’ [clerics] team.”

For many analysts, the grandiose commemoration and the protests against it, which have been overshadowed by the Gaza conflict, are indicators of the likely results of key parliamentary elections in Iran next month. These are expected to see a reduced turnout and hence deepen the regime’s legitimacy problems.

The hyping of the myth of the revolution, the anti-climax caused by Iranians celebrating the defeat of their national football team, and low expectations regarding next month’s elections may mark the long-anticipated beginning of the country’s journey of transitioning away from the Islamic Republic declared in 1979.

The idea that the Islamic Republic in Iran is in decline is a main conclusion of a new book that reflects on the political changes in the country that have come from the streets of Iran’s towns and cities and are part of an active political movement that has emerged in Iran. The author believes that this could initiate a “new revolution” in Iran.

 “What Iranians Want: Women, Life, Freedom” by Arash Azizi, a historian at New York University in the US, seeks to untangle the myths of the Islamic Revolution from its realities through exploring lesser-known narratives about the country’s political dynamics.

Azizi starts his compelling study by retelling the story of the explosive political events in Iran that started with nationwide popular protests in 2022. He argues that these could soon morph into calls for a “new revolution” in the country.

His account of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, an Iranian-Kurdish woman detained by the country’s morality police in Tehran, reinvigorated the anti-regime mass protests that have swept through Iran over four decades.

Amini had arrived in Tehran to celebrate her birthday before the start of the new university term. But soon after she left the Tehran Metro, she was stopped by the notorious morality police for an alleged violation of the Islamic dress code.

The police threw her into a van, along with other women and took them to a nearby detention centre where women arrested for “bad hijabs” (headscarves) have to undergo re-education and sign a pledge to observe the country’s Islamic dress code. Witnesses reported seeing police beat her, and the next day she was reported as dead.

Amini’s tragic death was the spark that triggered a national outcry and a record series of public protests. As Azizi puts it in his book, “her murder touched a nerve precisely because so many Iranian women knew it could have been them.”

Over 257 pages in the digital version of the book, Azizi explores how Iranian women have pushed for their voices to be heard under the rigid social system of the Islamic regime, while also providing a broader perspective on Iran’s politics.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women were ordered to wear “long cloaks with long sleeves that cover the wrists and go well below the knees,” “a scarf that covers the hair entirely,” “simple and thick socks,” and “clothing in simple colours,” Azizi writes, noting that they were “explicitly barred from wearing any make-up.”

Under laws passed by Iran’s parliament and imposed by the morality police or local vigilantes, millions of Iranian women were threatened with being lashed in public for not covering their hair.

Over the years since then, generations of Iranian women have refused, at times quietly and at times boldly, to be remade in the regime’s image. The outcome is a “revolutionary movement” that has now made clear the need for “transitioning away from the Islamic Republic and towards democracy.”

As I read these lines in Azizi’s book, published by Oneworld in London, I could not help but recall my last visit to Iran in 2008 when I noticed Iranian women trying to defy the social restrictions that the regime tries to enforce.

There was something almost rebellious in the way many Iranian women were resisting the dress code even in subtle ways. Their long cloaks had become tighter, and their headscarves were shorter and more colourful and were worn far back on the head to reveal the front of the hair.

In some corners of parks and cafés, women could be seen donning looser clothing over trousers or tights and shedding the hijab altogether. Wearing make-up and lipstick were common in Tehran’s upscale neighbourhoods.

Away from the police, I would see couples hanging out and holding hands in public places such as in Mellat Park in Tehran or sitting together showing affection while sipping tea in less-crowded cafés. 

The regime retaliated to these challenges to its authority and began cracking down on violators of the compulsory dress code for women, this becoming part of a tug of war between Iranians seeking to remake their nation and the regime.

When protests broke out following Amini’s death, it soon became clear that these represented the most serious challenge to the regime, providing “a new revolutionary movement,” in Azizi’s words, that provides a clear “window into the aspirations of Iranians risking everything for change.”

While the demonstrations in the capital Tehran and in Amini’s hometown in Kurdistan initially focused on the mandatory hijab, the movement soon touched every corner of Iran and turned into a critical battleground against the Islamic regime.

But while the anti-hijab uprising was a powerful rebuke to the policies of forced veiling and the wearing of a specific dress by women, it eventually proved to be a turning point in the history of the opposition movement to the Islamic Republic.

As the protests ebbed under the brutal crackdown, over 500 people died, and the regime succeeded in quashing public displays of opposition.

Pushing through the book’s optimism, Azizi notes that a new revolutionary movement had been born in Iran as a wave of revolt spread across the country infusing broader political, social, and economic demands with the power of the streets.

Among the protesters’ main concerns were the economic and human costs of the regime’s interventionism abroad, notably the so-called Axis of Resistance or the military alliance that Iran has built on multiple Middle East fronts.

Slogans such “neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I give my life for Iran” and “leave Syria alone and think of us” appeared on the streets and on walls across Iran, highlighting the opposition to using the country’s resources to promote the regime’s agenda of using proxies abroad.

Judging from the low turnout in presidential and parliamentary elections in recent years, Azizi concludes that Iran’s “democratic upheaval” has increased the public’s disillusionment with the country’s elections, finding them “anything but free and fair.”

The voter turnout in the 2024 general elections could see a record low, he says, noting overall downward trends in voter participation. Forty two years ago, over 80 per cent of those eligible to vote went to the polls. Last time round, when Raisi was elected president, the number had almost halved.

Other effects of the protests include nudging different sectors inside Iranian society to become actively involved in the reform campaign, or what Azizi calls the “new brewing revolution” which he hopes will lead to the crumbling of “the untenable status quo.”

He observes that with each of the popular uprisings in Iran over the last four decades there has been increasing willingness among trade unionists, artists, and writers among other activists to voice their opposition to the regime’s policies, though he believes that the coming revolution will still be made by the “ordinary people” of Iran.

There are plenty of interesting anecdotes, instructive analyses, and detailed personal records in the book that Azizi uses to support his argument about Iran’s “new revolution.” But his conclusion that “whatever happens in Iran now is clearing the path for the Islamic regime’s demise” is an overstatement, or at least wishful thinking. 

Azizi is an academic who researches Iran’s contemporary politics and history. He has written numerous publications, and some of his writings have appeared in major US, Canadian, and European journals. His elegantly written and well researched book offers a valuable account of how the groundwork for revolution can be laid.

But whether the developments he describes “could testify to the inaugural scene of a new revolution [and] the beginnings of a thorough transformation” remains to be seen, along with the question of whether the mullahs will acquiesce to the winds of change in Iran.

Azizi’s book is reminiscent, though not in its optimism, to UK academic Fred Halliday’s masterpiece “Iran, Dictatorship and Development,” which was published shortly before the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

When I asked Halliday during a seminar in London in 1980 how he had failed to anticipate the revolution despite his valuable analysis of the Shah’s era, his simple answer was “who could have done?”

Azizi acknowledges that his book “might document a flash of hope – a revolt against the ongoing catastrophe of the regime – extinguished too soon to secure lasting change.” But isn’t hope what revolutionaries usually entertain while seeking to break the grip of a totalitarian regime?

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Search Keywords:
Short link: