Category Archives: Iran Revolt

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Letters from Iran

Letters from Iran

This Al-Jazeera documentary examines post-Green Movement Iran and how the opposition is still operating under the severe repression of the Iranian state today. With a focus on middle class students, protesters, and their families, Letters from Iran documents the brutal tactics of current regime to crush any opposition whether it be peaceful or not. Public gatherings to mourn the dead are forbidden, universities are infiltrated by members of religious militia forces in attempt to eliminate student movements, and there are secret prisons all over Iran where students and protesters are regularly tortured and killed for their peaceful political activities. This film looks at the lives of several activists who speak of how they live their lives fear but will not give up the fight for justice and democracy in Iran. Even by participating in the filming of this documentary, they have greatly put there lives at risk. Yetthere is still a glimmer of hope in each of their stories that their efforts will result in eventual freedom from oppression. Letters from Iran is a rare look inside an extremely closed country from the perspective of people who are regularly silenced by their government. Take a look!

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Student Movements in Post-Revolutionary Iran

This article by Mehrdad Mashayekhi, found on JSTOR here, discusses the student movements that erupted in Iran in 1997, 17 years after the Islamic Revolution. As the Islamic Revolution brought about extreme change in Iranian politics and society, it seems peculiar that no other opposition movements erupted as the new regime stabilized. After all, secularists were a large part of the movement and the conservative policies adopted by the religious regimes obviously did not appeal to the entirety of opposition forces that participated. Aside from the veil protests and Ayandegan (free press) protests immediately after the revolution in 1979, however, there were no social uprisings in Iran until 1997. Mashayekhi explains that this was due to an imposed “Cultural Revolution” in 1980 where all campuses were shut down for three years and severe repression of public dissent took place. This “Cultural Revolution” supposedly encouraged the “Islamification” of Iranian society as purges eliminated any opposition to the Islamic regime, no activism was allowed to take place, and the Iranian people had no choice but to accept the policies of the current regime. It wasn’t until 1997 that the first opportunity for citizens to express themselves presented itself again.

Mashayekhi breaks down why 1997 was the opportune time for dissidence to rear its head in Islamic society. Most importantly, he sights University campuses as the site of revolutionary sentiment. As many students in the Islamic Republic of Iran were unemployed, they congregated in Universities and discussed their frustrations with the current regime and the possible outcomes of their futures. These students participated greatly in the 1997 election of president Khatami, who was very liberal in his policies. His rise to office along with the death of Supreme Leader Ayotollah Khomeini brought a new reformist/legalistic political culture that was more adaptable to every day Iranian life. Thus, student movements had the opportunity to erupt in campuses across the country, where students were able to speak out for the first time since 1979. The question now is why did that dissidence come to end? Mashayekhi explains that, as with many social movement, those participating became too divided, organization links crumbled, and the political level of student political discussions was not advanced enough to sweep an entire nation into revolutionary fever again. This is evident in the fact that few wide spread social movements formed in Iran until the Green Revolution during the supposedly rigged elections in 2009.

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Iran in Revolution: Opposition Forces

This article, found on JSTOR here, was written by Ervand Abrahamian  in 1979 as the Revolution in Iran was unfolding. It takes a look at the people on the ground and discusses who the “opposition forces” that spearheaded the revolution really were. Abrahamanian states that the revolution was directly caused by the failure of the Shah to influence or appease class formations in Iran. He identifies five groups as particularly responsible for rallying their discontent and spreading revolutionary fever throughout the country:

  • Religious Conservatives
  • Religious Radicals
  • Religious Reactionaries
  • Secular Reformers
  • Secular Radicals

These groups were all fighting for the removal of Shah and the installation of a new government, yet they all obviously have different ideas of what the post-revolution government should be. So if so many secularists, communists, and students were participating in the revolution, why did it end with an Islamic Republic? According to Abrahamian, religious groups were most successful in mobilizing the masses, especially when it came to the bazaar population, shanty-town poor, and industrial proletariat who all together made up a very large portion of the movement. As for the large amount of secular participants, the Shah’s regime crushed almost all of the grass-roots organizations belonging to secular opposition and had many of them arrested by the SAVAK. However, he left bazaar guilds, clergy, seminaries and local mosques to function where much of the revolutionary moment began to fester without harassment from the Shah’s regime. Public opposition to the state began to primarily converge in mosque which then led to a religious revivalist movement sweeping the country, especially among the lower middle class and shanty-town poor. Lower clergy and Shari’ati supporters also encouraged higher wages for the poor during a time when they were suffering under the Shah’s economic reforms, which would simultaneously bankrupt the state and lead to the installation of a new government. These broad gestures appealed greatly to the masses whether they were religious or not, and many disregarded the conservative religious undertones while caught up in the revolutionary fever. As for the Marxists and communist Tudeh party, their mass appeal was hurt by the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China’s support for the Shah. With the SAVAK having arrested and killed many secular opposition forces, and their appeal to the masses dwindling, religious conservatism took center stage and the 1979 Iran Revolution birthed an Islamic Republic.

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Women and the Islamic Revolution

There are a variety of perspective on women’s role in revolutionary Iran, but most agree that they played a large part in revolting against the Shah and bringing down the Pahlavi government.  In Dr. Ansia Khaz Ali’s Conflict Forums report Iranian Women after the Islamic Revolution (found here) she characterizes women’s participation as rebellion against the Shah’s oppressive sexualization of women, which she views as a violation of women’s rights.

Starting with Shah Reza Khan’s ban on the hijab in 1935 and his order for authorities to forcibly remove chadors from women wearing them in the streets, Ali documents the history of modernization in Iran as the government forcing Western concepts of sexual objectification on women. Aside from the physical assault that resulted from the order, Ali sites the ban on the hijab as oppressive to women because many chose to stay indoors rather than go outside unveiled and were therefore basically under house arrest until 1941 when the Shah’s son Reza Pahlavi took the throne. Pahlavi lifted the ban on the hijab and made it optional for women to wear, stating that women would “give them up gradually” as modernization of Iranian society continued. Ali contends that the Shah was successful in his endeavor to westernize women by carrying out extensive propaganda campaigns that sexualized women in advertizements and films and made it difficult for women who still wore the hijab to obtain higher education. According to Ali, the Shah was concentrating on the “visual aspect” of the unveiling of women which “did not consider their human identity or their particular needs and circumstances.” Thus, when signs of the revolution first started to show in the 1960s, women started wearing the hijab in public as an active sign of resistance to westernized sexual oppression.

Ali lends a very interesting perspective on the role of women in Islamic Iran that is rarely found in Western discourse. To her, the hijab allows women to be equal with men in society because the sexual objectification that is connected with women in the West is erased by the veil. Thus, in this perspective, sexualization of women and the female form is oppressive because it makes women distinct from men  and distinguishes them as objects of their attention rather than as equals. She continues to explain in her paper that after the revolution, women were free to go out into society and the work place free of discrimination and sexual exploitation which is key to their enjoyment to human rights. This logic is very interesting when considering the opposite view that women are oppressed by hijab because it forces women to conceal themselves and distinguishes them from men. In essence, it almost seems as if both are arguing the same thing: that it is a violation of women’s rights to purposefully distinguish women as different from men either by enforcing the hijab or banning it. Ali, of course, if far from the only scholar who has written on this subject however, and it is evident from the mass veil protests after the revolution that not all women agreed that enforcing hijab as law was essential to upholding their human rights. I will expand on this concept further with the views of different authors who touch upon the role of women in the Islamic Revolution.

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Is Iran Immune to the Arab Spring?

In light of Ahmadinejad’s claims that the United States is attempting to prevent Islamic style revolutions from spreading across the region, it is important to analyze and assess Iran’s position in the revolutionary Middle East today from various perspectives. In an interview with Al-Jazeera regarding the alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador last week, Ahmadinejad stated that the Arab Spring is directly influenced by Iran’s 1979 revolution and that the rest of the Middle East would soon possess similar Islamic Republics which would be a colossal threat to American interests in the Middle East. According to his perspective, Iran is bench mark that the revolutions in other nations are attempting to reach. According to other analysts, scholars, and journalists, however, Iran today is not a symbol of revolutionary triumph at all, but rather a repressive state that has failed to reach the level of revolutionary fever that the rest of the region appears to be immersed in today. Thus, in many ways, Iran appears to be immune to the Arab Spring.

This article entitled “Is Iran Immune to the Arab Spring?” from Eurasia Review addresses the motives and failures of Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, assesses why a similar movement does not appear to be coming forth now, and attempts to explain how certain regional and transnational events could possibly lead to an Arab Spring like revolution in Iran. According to the article, the political and social repression dealt by the Ayatollah and his moral police situates Iran as top on the list of Middle Eastern governments likely to be overthrown by the rage of its sorely afflicted citizens. Due to the use of internet, corruption in the government, and economic malaise, Iran’s situation makes it more likely to trigger public unrest than either Egypt’s or Tunisia’s. However, Iran’s population still appears too politically divided and ambiguous to erupt change from within. Thus, while many features increase Iran’s vulnerability to pro-democracy unrest, a number of deeper structural factors have contributed to the country’s relative immunity to the 2011 Arab spring. Listed below are several factors that the article lists as influential in preventing revolution:

The Green Movement: Too internally divided just as it was during the 2009 Green Revolution. Half of the participants want a new Iran that still embraces the Supreme Leader while others want a full democracy.  The movement is thus incoherent in its goals and lacks a consistent strategy while many citizens still overrate it as the main driver of change. The movement also relies on the state for  ‘demonstration permits’, or urges demonstrators to go home when the government orders them to disperse instead of advising them to remain in the streets. This is a major difference from the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.

The Military: Iran’s military is strongly aligned with Ayatollah Khamenei. Where the Egyptian military aligned with the rebels together successfully pressured Mubarak to step down, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps stood firmly behind Supreme Leader Khamenei in the 2009 post-election protests and spearheaded the massacres. Since then, the Republic has gradually transformed into a military dictatorship making it even more difficult for protestors to incite revolutionary change under severe repression.

Oil Wealth: Iran’s oil revenues approached $100 billion in 2011 according to the IMF, representing a 25 per cent annual rise. Soaring oil prices, which have kept most authoritarian oil rentier regimes firmly in place, are not likely to drop anytime soon. This oil wealth will thus most likely keep the Iranian regime in place until oil revenues fail to provide citizens with employment, food and basic services which is what happened in Libya.

Despite the above factors keeping the current regime in place, however, there are a number possibilities listed could lead to a new Iranian revolution and even a democratic Iranian state. According to the article, they are:

Divisions within the Regime: A split has been escalating between the traditional conservatives under Supreme Leader Khamenei, and the so- called ‘deviant current’, a term used by the director of the Revolutionary Guards to describe Ahmadinejad’s and his inner circle’s emphasis on the cultural-national components of Iran’s identity, rather than its Islamic values. The disintegration of the current ruling party could open up potential for revolutionary influence to take place and possibly lead to the installation of a democratic government.

Syria: Iran’s biggest concern is losing influence in Syria, its most important ally since the war with Iraq and with whom it shares a comprehensive defence pact. A stable alliance with Syria is key to Iran’s continuing ability to exercise pressure on Israel and the West. The fall of the Assad regime in Syria would weaken the Iranian regime by isolating it regionally and fostering further splits within its leadership, thereby enhancing the prospects of political change.

Regional Isolation: Iran’s support for Syria’s repressive regime is isolating the regime from its neighbors’ support in the region. Egypt is likely to develop its relations with the Hamas government in Gaza which could foster increased competition for the role of patron of the Palestinian cause and work against Iran’s desire to project its power. The Revolutionary Guards also warned Turkey about their policy towards Damascus, as Turkey has hosted Syrian opposition gatherings and weapon transfers. Turkey also appears to be seeking to secure an alliance with post-Mubarak Egypt to provide a counterweight to the Iranian influence. Increasingly fierce competition over regional clout is testing Turkish-Iranian ties.

Due to these factors, the Iranian regime is being pushed ever further into regional isolation which has weakened it both internationally and domestically. 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. Depending on how far these transnational and international powers shift and/or balance themselves out, Iran may not be so immune to the revolution and to the Arab Spring after all.

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Iran’s Protests and Economic Realities

The Council on Foreign Relation’s Interview with Suzanne Maloney can be found here.

This summary of an Interview with Suzanne Maloney from the Brookings Institution touches on the issues surrounding the recent protests in the Middle East. Similar to the article posted by Marie, this interview raises questions about a spread of the Arab Spring to the borders of Iran, only two years after the Green Movement was not successful.

Given the sanctions placed against Iran at a given time, mainly surrounding the nuclear ambitions of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, questions about the stability of the regime have surfaced. Threats of a similar uprising as seen during the Arab Spring. Maloney points out that this is not the case in Iran for a number of reasons. Her arguments are as follows: the military’s ability to repress the public and its allegiance to the regime, the blocking of the public’s access to technology and even the opposition leaders’ loyalty to the idea of preserving an Islamic Republic. Another major point is the amount of public sector jobs and the reliance on them for supporting ones livelihood. As she points out, “When your job comes from the state, it’s much more difficult to go out to the streets because you risk losing your livelihood as well as endangering your own safety. In Egypt this was not the case, as well as the military siding with the protestors.

While sanctions against Iran are intended to weaken the regime economically, Maloney states that these sanctions benefit some parties. For instance, the Revolutionary Guard has taken a role in sectors where international firms have left a vacuum. This role has made the Guard an important political power. Sanctions have also driven Iran towards the global East, using China as an exporter with results all over the spectrum. It has become clear that this cannot be a long-term solution but one that will suffice at this time.

Maloney states that though there are economic issues surrounding the regime, these factors will not drive people into the streets. As mentioned above, the amount of public sector jobs, oppressive ability of the military and blocking of technology will keep the population at bay for some time. A uprising of citizens will not be seen, says Maloney, but rather a slow transition and regime change over time.

 

– Martin

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