Revolutionary Iran: Opportunities for Mobilization
This subsection of the final Iran Country Report will focus on revolts and revolutions within Iran in terms of what opportunities allowed certain classes and groups to mobilize and enact change. Starting with the 1979 Revolution, I will explain how the mobilization of certain classes and political groups resulted in the installation of an Islamic Republic and then how that republic was successful in limiting the opportunities for subsequent social movements. This will lead to an assessment of the Green Revolution and what internal and international factors were responsible for influencing the people to rise up for change and then the various opinions on if and why the movement failed. I will then analyze Iran’s reaction to the Arab Spring, how the Green Movement has or has not contributed to its current position, and if and why Iran appears to be exempt from these spreading revolutions.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution
The Iranian revolution in 1979 was unlike any other social movement in 20th century as it completely transformed the entire structure of the Iranian state from a dictatorial monarchy to an Islamic republic. The seeds of revolution were sown in Reza Shah Pahlavi’s attempt to modernize Iran via economic policies and reforms that sought to reconstruct class structure. The Shah’s reforms and policies alienated and displaced many of the existing classes who in turn found appeal in the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Shah attempted to crush this class resistance through excessive political repression, but his brutal campaign did not succeed in quelling the rebellion against his regime and rather encouraged more opposition groups to form, cooperate, and mobilize against him. Eventually, the Shah’s disregard for the existing class structure when implementing social and economic policies combined with his brutal response to political opposition resulted in the fall of his regime.
When Mohammed Reza Pahlavi took the throne as Shah in 1941, he dedicated himself to continuing the fast paced trajectory of modernization that his father, Shah Reza Kahn, had begun in 1925. Reza Khan had spearheaded a modernization campaign with large scale development projects such as building a cross-country railroad system, large-scale industries, establishing a national public education system, reforming the judiciary, and improving public health care (Ghasemi, 2011). Although these reforms brought many modern benefits to the Iranian people, the speed and ferocity of industrialization and urbanization alienated and displaced many groups within the class structure. Social reforms also angered classes such as the religious elite, whose traditional leadership roles in the community were threatened by the Shah’s extension of women’s rights and the ban on the hajib (women’s Islamic dress code) and clerical garb (Ghasemi). The Shah did not tolerate political dissidence, however, and those who disagreed with his policies were quickly arrested, tortured, exiled or executed before opposition could fester throughout the country.
When Shah Reza Pahlevi first took the throne in 1941, he continued his father’s plans for modernization but initially in a much more lenient fashion. He eased the ban on the hijab, allowed parliament to elect cabinet members, and let political parties, including the communist Tudeh party, form bazaar guilds, trade unions, and professional associations (Abrahamian, 1979). By relaxing the repressive measures of his father, the Shah opened the opportunity for political groups to congregate openly, interact with the masses, recruit members, and disseminate their various political ideologies into society. Thus, opposition to the Shah’s regime began to grow out of the bazaar guilds, trade unions, and professional associations that he allowed to form. Eventually, the Shah realized that he had given his people too much power to organize against him, and decided to change his policies in order to turn Iran into an autocratic state in which he would have absolute power to mold the country into the vision of his father.
An assassination attempt on the Shah’s life in 1949 gave the Shah the excuse that he needed to declare martial law and ban political parties. According to the United States State Department, this was the opportunity he was looking for to gain freedom from constitutional constraints and establish himself as the undisputed ruler of Iran (Abrahamian). The Shah banned all newspapers critical of his family, detained prominent opposition politicians, outlawed the Tudah party, gave himself the right to dissolve parliament, and created a senate of which he appointed half the members (Abrahamian). In response to the Shah’s new system of repression, the various political parties and ideologues did not disband but rather began to cooperate and join forces to oppose him. Of particular importance was the formation of the National Front, which Ayatollah Kashaini established with the collaboration a variety of secular, nationalistic, and social democratic parties (Abrahamian). Both the salaried middle class and the bazaar middle class supported the National Front, which was one of the first instances of the secular intelligentsia and the religious petite bourgeois collaborating together against a common enemy. Thus, by banning political parties and enacting repressive measures against political groups, the Shah ultimately presented the opportunity for previously opposed forces to organize and work together against him.
The class antagonisms within the National Front and other joint political groups began to show only after the Shah left the country. By 1952, Mossadegh had nationalized the oil industry from Britain and appealed to the Iranian people to overthrow the Shah. The National Front and the Tudeh party responded to the plea by collectively revolting and forcing the Shah into exile (Abrahamian). Without a common enemy to unite the various political groups, however, the major differences between class and political ideologies in the National Front intensified, particularly over the issues of nationalization of corporations, women’s suffrage, land reform, the sale of alcoholic beverages, and the appointment of non-clerical intellectuals as Ministers of Education and Justice (Abrahamian). The resulting split within the National Front led the United States to worry that the Tudeh party would gain dominance under Mossadegh and possibly lead to a communist Iran. In response, the CIA launched a secret coup to overthrow Mossadegh and reinstate the Shah with the help of the religious petite bourgeois in 1953 (Abrahamian).
With the Shah back in power in 1953, he proceeded to create the dictatorship he had always planned by establishing the secret police, SAVAK, and investing a huge amount of Iran’s oil revenues into the military (Abrahamian). The Shah glorified the military as the true elite, paying the Revolutionary Guard a much higher salary than that any other class, and dedicated their services to dismantling the opposition. He outlawed the National Front, waged a campaign of severe repression against the Tudeh, and destroyed almost all secular grassroots organizations (Abrahamian). The radical intelligentsia and urban working class bore the brunt this repression until the Shah launched the “White Revolution” in 1963 in which he targeted an even wider range of classes including the bazaar class who had helped him overthrow Mossadegh in 1953 (Abrahamian). The bazaar class perpetuated the old economic system that stood in the way of the Shah’s plans for modernization and he thus set out to eliminate their influence over the economy by exiling their leader Ayatollah Khomeini, extending SAVAK surveillance over the bazaars, financing modern banks that refused to give loans to small businesses, encouraging large corporations to develop, imposing price controls on bazaars, and scapegoating minor merchants for the rampant inflation that hit Iran in the 1970s (Abrahamian). With all these classes and political groups under attack by the Shah and his regime, he had managed to alienate himself from all of his subjects who now collectively demanded his demise. The Shah’s campaign of severe repression thus failed to cripple the political opposition but rather united a wide range of classes and political parties against him, resulting in his downfall in 1979.
After the Shah fled Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini reestablished the country as an Islamic Republic. The revolution had brought together a diverse mass of people with a drastic variety of ideologies, but in the end, the religious elite and bazaar class dominated the new system of governance. Part of the reason for this is that the secularist and communists did not have the same opportunities to mobilize the masses in the way that dominate religious figures such as Khomeini did. The Shah had focused the majority of his repressive forces to destroying the Tudeh and the secular intelligentsia, so by the time the revolution erupted there were few influential secular or communist leaders left to heavily influence the newly installed government. Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China had supported the Shah during the revolution, which also hurt the possibility of communist fever spreading through the masses (Abrahamian). Alternatively, religious fever had swept the country in the years leading up to the revolution because the Shah had destroyed most secular grass-roots organizations and but left bazaar guilds and mosques where opposition began to convene (Abrahamian). Those who frequented the mosques and guilds thus started to equate their religious views with opposition to the Shah, and those who were non-religious but part of the opposition began to frequent the mosques and guilds as part of the movement. The clergy encouraged workers to strike for higher wages, which brought religious appeal to the industrial proletariat, and reached out to the displaced shantytown poor who found a sense of community and a collective voice for opposition in religion (Abrahamian). Furthermore, even though secular intellectuals and communists had their own non-religious vision of post-revolutionary Iran, many still rallied behind Khomeini who intentionally focused on anti-imperialism and social justice as the driving force of the revolution. Khomeini had skillfully seized the opportunity to unite almost all classes of Iranians against the Shah, and as soon as he succeeded, took the opportunity to establish the Islamic Republic that he always had envisioned for Iran.
Post Revolution Revolts and the Imposed “Cultural Revolution”
After Khomeini finalized the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, there were a couple of opportunities for revolt before all political activity was halted in the country. Two revolts in particular were semi-successful in drawing attention to the resistance of the people to an Islamic fundamentalist government. The first was the 1979 veil protests, in which thousands of women, mostly middle class urbanites, staged demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts in response to Khomeini imposing the hijab on all Iranian women (Moghissi, 2009). Khomeini’s government responded to the movement by claiming that the hijab was a recommendation and not an order, and reassured women that Islamic dress meant “respectable” dress and not necessarily the chador (Moghissi). The government’s willingness to appease the protesters gives insight into the small window of opportunity for revolt in the first months of the Islamic Republic, but only temporarily as Khomeini made the hijab mandatory several months later. Similarly, the Ayandegan protests were a short-lived success against government interference in the free press. Khomeini had ordered the secular newspaper Ayandegan closed for publishing criticism about his regime, but the National Front and a variety of other leftist organizations organized a mass demonstration, which resulted in Khomeini’s retreat (Moghissi). A couple of months later, however, Khomeini sent Hezbollah gangs to close down the newspaper, arrested the paper’s editorial board, and sent out a proclamation ordering the Iranian people to “not tolerate the actions of those stood against the Muslim people” (Moghissi).
The proclamation by Khomeini was an indication of the direction that the new Islamic Republic was headed. Hezbollah gangs and the volunteer paramilitary “Bassij” began enforcing Islamic moral code such as the hijab by violently suppressing all forms of resistance and dissent. The clerical elite and their devote followers outnumbered and closely watched the secular and leftist opposition, making sure that any organized political activity that could disseminate their values was immediately crushed. In 1980, Khomeini declared a “Cultural Revolution” to re-Islamize Iranian society, particularly through the university system, so no further opposition would have the opportunity to develop. All universities closed for three years in which the entire education system went through an extensive process of “Islamification” (Mashayekhi, 1999). All leftist teachers and intellectuals were purged, non-Islamic texts and subjects banned, and non-religious students expelled. A major degradation in academic standards resulted, as only Islamic based curriculum was taught. Education thus became a tool for political purposes, especially during the Iran-Iraq war when the regime used the education system to glorify martyrdom for God in order to recruit young people to the front lines (Khosarvi, 2010). Those students who were not drafted into war were closely watched by the Bassij and Hezbollah classmates who helped violently repress any political activity on campus and prevented student groups from forming an opposition. Ultimately these tactics proved very successful, as there was little to no political uprising in Iran for the next seventeen years (Mashayekhi).
The Election of Khatami and 1990s Student Movements
Khomeini and the clerical elite succeeded in redesigning the education system to limit opportunity for opposition to form, but the religious rhetoric of Islamic education could only shield young minds from the realities of politics for so long. Iran’s defeat in the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 brought major disillusionment to students who had been taught throughout their academic careers that defeat was impossible due to their religious devotion (Mashayekhi). Almost all students had lost a relative, classmate, or a friend in the war and in many ways Iran’s defeat represented the reality of the years of brainwashed education. Then in 1989, a year after the war ended, Ayatollah Khomeini passed away, leading to a relaxation of revolutionary ideology under Khomeini’s heir, Ayatollah Montazari. Shortly after, however, Montazari was viciously removed from his position for criticizing some of the regime’s authoritarian policies; further leading students question the legitimacy of their religious education (Mashayekhi).
Although little political opposition took place between 1980 and 1997, the university system still acted as a catalyst for student congregation during those years. Since the Islamic Revolution, the enrollment of students from lower class backgrounds increased which brought together a diverse population of people in one location with a wide variety grievances caused by the regime (Mashayekhi). After the end of the war, Khomeini’s death, and the ousting of Montazari, students had many issues that connected them despite their various class backgrounds and much discussion resulted from the various perspectives of a diverse body of students (Mashayekhi). Universities provided resources for these students to congregate even though outspoken political opposition was forbidden, such as student organizations and public space for study or leisure activities. One student group in particular, the Office of the Consolidation for Unity (OCU), which had evolved into a religious by left-leaning organization, became incredibly influential by the late 1990s.
The OCU originated in 1979 under Khomeini as a hardline conservative student group that played a major role in the United States embassy hostage crisis and was responsible for many purges of students and teachers in the 1980 “Cultural Revolution” (Mashayekhi). For these reasons, the OCU was allowed to continue functioning as a student organization throughout the most repressive eras of Khomeini’s regime. However, like most university students over the last decade, many members faced extreme disillusionment and eventually evolved into leftist organization dedicated to reform (Mashayekhi). By 1996, the OCU and other leftist student groups were intent on using the upcoming 1997 presidential election to their advantage. They collectively decided to support Mohammad Khatami, the ex-Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance under Rafsanjani, who had a reputation for open-mindedness and tolerance (Mashayekhi). Khatami embraced students, youth, and women as the future of Iran which attracted even more students who had not been politically active previously. Due to this sense of optimism about the future, a new political culture began to emerge, as the young people who had been disillusioned by the events of the last twenty years gained hope in political reform and the prospect of democracy.
After Khatami was elected president in 1997, a general opening up of the nation’s political atmosphere took place. The universities loosened their constraints on political activism on campus, issued permits for peaceful demonstrations, and allowed students to a degree of freedom of the press (Mashayekhi). For the first time in seventeen years, people were given the opportunity to participate in social movements once again, and many took advantage of it. In Tehran University alone, 104 cases of associations, demonstrations and confrontations took place in the university’s housing complex from May 24, 1997 to January 11, 1999, particularly against the closure of newspapers, the arrests and execution of secular intellectuals, and the torture of political prisoners (Mashayekhi). The majority of the student organizations that participated in these movements were still Islamist, but they collectively called out for Islamic Republic that allowed freedom on the press and tolerated secular and political dissidence. These students embraced a new political culture in Iran, based not on radical Islamic ideology as in the 1980s, but rather on a new reading of Islam combined with indigenous liberal-nationalist discourse and an opening up to western liberal ideas (Mashayekhi).
Khatami had liberalized Iranian society and opened the opportunity for student groups to mobilize, but as reformists gained more support and influence in politics, Ayatollah Khamenei and the religious elite began to crack down on dissidence once again. The July 1999 student protests testified to this, as the Bassij violently suppressed a peaceful protest against the closing of reformist newspaper Salam (Mashayekhi). The reformists’ landslide victory in the parliamentary elections in 2000 further exposed the threat to Khamenei’s absolute power over Iranian society, and the government responded by crushing any opportunity for opposition to develop. By the end of 2000, Khamenei’s regime had closed more than forty publications, arrested a vast amount of intellectuals, journalists, and political activists, and once again violently repressed political activity on campuses (Mashayekhi).
After 2000, political activity in Iran was once again restrained by repressive measures. Few protests or acts of dissidence had the opportunity to develop into large scale social movements before they were decimated by the government and the Bassij. Opportunities became even scarcer after Khatami left office in 2005 and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in his place. During this time, however, several distinct attempts on the part of political and social groups to mobilize for change took place, such as the 1 Million Signatures Campaign. The movement started when protesters gathered in Haft Tir Square in Tehran in June 2006 to raise awareness of the discrimination against women in Iran. Their peaceful demonstration was violently dispersed by the Bassij and its participants arrested and charged with “participation in an illegal assembly” (Human Rights First, 2011). Unable to gather in the public, the women started a campaign to collect one million signatures in support of women’s rights. Although this campaign required no public assembly or violent protests, the regime continued to thoroughly dismantle the movement by arresting members, shutting down Iran’s premier women’s magazine, and raiding the office of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi (Human Rights First). The repression of the 1 Million Signatures Campaign illustrates the limited opportunity for social movements to mobilize, even in their most subtle form. Social movements thus needed to be massive and somewhat spontaneous to gain any ground before being crushed by Khamenei’s regime, which is what happened in the aftermath of 2009 presidential election.
The 2009 Green Movement and Iran in the Arab Spring
On June 12, 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared reelected in a landslide victory against reformist candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and conservative candidate Mohsen Rezaee Mirgha’ed . Millions of people who had cast their vote for Mousavi poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest the alleged victory as election fraud. These citizens, most of which were middle class urbanites dressed in Mousavi’s campaign color, green, continued to gather and march for weeks. The demonstrations raged on despite continuous brutal crackdowns by Revolutionary Guards and the Bassij, giving the appearance that the opportunity for new Iranian revolution may be on the rise.
The Green Movement was highly publicized as revolutionary fever sweeping through a restless society ready to topple and dismantle an extremely repressive regime, similar to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Many of the young people and students who had participated in the new political culture of the late 1990s envisioned the 2009 election as the opportunity for a new Iran to emerge under a reformist leader. When the election results stated otherwise, millions of people banded together to demonstrate, but the majority were from the middle class and concentrated in the cities. For the most part, the uprisings did not reach the rural, poor populations whose participation was vital to downfall of the Shah, and the bazaar class and religious elite were still in support of Khamenei. Without the collaboration of these classes, the secular and religious left were isolated in their demands and not strong enough to overthrow the government on their own. Furthermore, the movement itself was divided internally regarding the concept of a new regime. Where half of the Green Movement demonstrators wanted a full democracy in Iran, the other half wanted to reform the current system but keep Khamenei and the clerical regime in power at the top (Metghalchi). Thus, where the 1979 Revolution succeeded in bringing together a vast array of classes and political ideologues to overthrow a common enemy, the Green Movement failed to unite all of Iranian society against the current regime.
By July, the Green Movement was heavily weakened due to internal strife and a lack of cohesive goals. The government censored and even shut down the internet so protesters could no longer communicate and organize via social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Many protesters and reformist politicians and leaders such as Mousavi and Khatami were arrested to discourage further uprisings, and those who continued to rally in the streets encountered brutal retaliation by the Revolutionary Guard and the Bassij. In response, leaders of the movement began to apply for demonstration “permits” and encouraged demonstrators to dissipate when government forces ordered them to do so (Metghalchi). These actions were meant to protect protesters and prevent the dismantling of the movement, but instead weakened the power of the masses in numbers. Ultimately, the Green Movement proved too divided, spontaneous, and contained to evoke an enormous change in Iranian society. The 2009 presidential elections served as an opportunity for people to collectively express their dissent, but it did not succeed in functioning as a force that banded all classes and political groups against a repressive regime as had happened in 1979.
Not much has changed in terms of opportunities for political opposition in Iran since the end of the Green Movement. When the Arab Spring erupted in countries throughout the Middle East in early 2011, Iran appeared to be immune from the revolutionary fever. Sporadic demonstrations sprung up in cities across the country, with many young demonstrators burning images of Ayatollah Khamenei and challenging the clerical regime, but there was no call to unite the masses in one large movement (Sharafedin, 2011). The demonstrations prove that opposition still exists in Iran, but it is small, divided, and unorganized unlike the massive social movements that erupted in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in the Middle East. Part of the reason for this is that the protesters who had been active in the Green Movement had experienced severe suppression by the Iranian military and knew that further attempts to mobilize would most likely end the same way. Where the Egyptian military aligned with the rebels and together successfully pressured Mubarak to step down, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard stood firmly behind Supreme Leader Khamenei in the 2009 post-election protests and spearheaded the massacres (Metghalchi). If similar demonstrations took place in Iran today, protesters would have to be willing to fight a long and bloody battle against a heavily funded military that may result in conflicts similar to that in Syria, Libya, and Bahrain (Metghalchi). Opposition forces in Iran thus have to weigh if it is worth engaging in brutal warfare to enact change within society, and if the various classes would provide enough support to help the opposition eventually topple the current regime.
Since the Green Movement in 2009, the Islamic Republic has increasingly resembled a military dictatorship. The Bassij have infiltrated the universities to violently repress any political developments on campus, parents and relatives of demonstrators who were killed by government forces are banned from grieving in public, and secret prisons and torture centers have been built all over the country to deal with persistent protesters (Al-Jazeera, 2011). There is little pressure from the international community on the Iranian government to end these abusive policies as there was in Egypt and Tunisia, and little media coverage on the treatment of protesters and the development of opposition in Iran today (Brown, 2011). Without international support, the secular middle class yearns for change but lacks the religious impetus to risk their lives and blindly engage in conflict with a brutal military as many did in 1979 (Brown). Oil revenues also continue to create jobs and services for the public which has kept many of the classes appeased to a certain extent over time (Metghalchi). Where the Shah’s economic warfare played a large role in uniting the various classes against his regime, the unemployment rate in Iran does not seem to be a strong enough impetus to mobilize the masses. Perhaps if oil wealth fails to provide Iranian citizens with jobs, food, and public services as it did in Libya, there will be an increase of political unrest throughout the various classes and they will collectively band together to topple the regime (Metghalchi). As for now, however, political and social repression does not seem to be enough for the bulk of society to risk everything for change.
Despite the failure of the Green Movement, there is still hope in Iran for revolution and regime change in the future. The split between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei concerning Iranian national identity and Islamic values has escalated over the years and could open up potential for revolutionary influence and possibly lead to the installation of a democratic government if further disintegration of the ruling party takes place (Metghalchi). Furthermore, if the Assad regime is toppled by revolution in Syria, Iran would lose its largest ally and become isolated in the region and most likely also foster further splits within the ruling party (Metghalchi). Iran is also in danger of isolating itself from Turkey which has supported opposition forces in Syria against Assad, and from Egypt which is likely to develop relations with the Hamas government and challenge Iran’s role as patron of the Palestinian cause (Metghalchi). Due to these factors, the Iranian regime is being pushed ever further into regional isolation which has weakened it both internationally and domestically. These future significant shifts in the regional power balance might also alter the international community’s positions towards Iran, possibly leading to a more active and less ambiguous support to domestic forces of change (Metghalchi). Depending on how far these transnational and international powers shift or balance themselves out, Iran may not be so immune to the Arab Spring after all.
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