You know times have changed when the question, “Is Iran next?” no longer refers to whether Iran will be the next target in the US “war on terror,” but whether or not it will be next to succumb to a wave of revolutions. I obviously don’t have the answer but I can say that there is a profound radicalization under way in Iranian society that overruns the boundaries of class and sweeps across the continuum from religious to secular. By way of contributing to our understanding of what is happening and why, I’m going to focus on the impact of state violence on popular consciousness, and how issues of gender and class inequality figure into a movement that has largely been focused on opposing dictatorship. Along the way, I’ll draw out some similarities and differences with the revolution in Egypt. Comparisons between Iran and Egypt have to be done carefully, and in relation to two points of reference: the 1979 Iranian revolution and the 2009 green uprising, as the Egyptian events contain features that overlap with both of these moments in Iran’s long history of struggle against tyranny. I hope to find a productive way of talking about the specificity of local histories and conditions while also taking into account the transregional spread of economic trends, security practices and popular movements for self-determination.
I’ll just give one example of the radical shift underway in Iranian society, one that has been many years in the making. The Islamic Student Association (ISA) of Tehran University was originally set up by the regime as the only legal student organization at the nation’s most important university. During the conservative/reformist battles of the late 1990s through 2005, ISA sided with reformist President Mohammad Khatami and has led the dissident student movement ever since. After two students were killed in the February 14, 2011 protests (called in solidarity with Tunisia and Egypt) and the Iranian parliament demanded the executions of reformist politicians Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the ISA issued a statement that opened with a quote from the Quran to the effect that “Harsh punishment awaits the perpetrators of oppression.” They addressed the regime: “On behalf of the Islamic Association of Tehran University students, if you have the audacity to harm the leaders of the green movement we will create widespread revolutionary violence.”
There are many factors contributing to this radicalization: most immediately, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the violence of the regime itself. On the first point: witnessing successful uprisings against entrenched dictatorships generated the sense of possibility and hope necessary to bring people back into the streets. These events also pushed the green movement leaders and grassroots supporters to escalate their demands to a level unthinkable in 2009, when the central demand was for free and fair elections. At this year’s protests on February 14th and February 20th, there was not one slogan against Ahmadinejad or his administration. The slogans were “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Sayyed Ali” and called for “Death to Khamenei”both references to the Supreme Leader who has final say over all major government policies. Protestors explicitly identified with Tunisians and Egyptians in their chants (not a small thing given the history of anti-Arab sentiment in Iran) and called for a change in the structure of the entire regime. “We will die before we will be subjugated,” groups of hundreds chanted as they broke the sidewalk into stones to throw at riot police.
On the second point: the green movement was brutally repressed in 2009; thousands were jailed and tortured and what has been called an “executions tsunami” is still underway (estimates are close to 400 death sentences carried out last year
State television has broadcast show trials as well as confessions extracted by torture. This repression had its desired effect, forcing the movement into dormancy and many of its most experienced and respected activists into exile (if they weren’t locked up in prison).
However, footage from the protests on February 14th and 20th shows the movement has only deepened its base of support and become more resolute. Unable to reach Tehran’s equivalent of Tahrir Sq (Azadi Square) to gather en masse, people stood their ground in groups ranging from dozens to thousands throughout Tehran and other major cities. Armed only with stones or nothing at all, they engaged in running street battles with security forces who toted rifles and batons, hurled tear gas canisters and charged crowds on their motorcycles. “Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, we’re all in this together,” people chanted to one another.
Despite this brutality, the regime has not yet resorted to the scale of force we have seen in Yemen, Bahrain and, most spectacularly, in Libya. Why is this? What are the checks on how much violence the Islamic Republic can unleash on its people? Obviously, international media is not a factor. There are no Al-Jazeera cameras to allow the world to bear witness. There are some foreign reporters still on the ground but they are not able to take video or photographs or openly report on opposition activities. The major media coverage of the recent protests in Iran has come from cell phone videos and eyewitness reports. And unlike in Egypt, Iranian state repression does not produce a US diplomatic crisis generating pressure behind the scenes to protect America’s reputation the worse the Islamic Republic behaves the better for US policy goals.
State violence against the citizenry is a problem for a regime founded on a popular revolution against despotism and imperialism. The nationalist mythology of the Islamic Republic pays perpetual lip service to fighting oppression and uplifting the poor. Lest we forget and think Iranians made a revolution because they wanted a dictatorship by a Supreme Leader, it’s worth remembering popular slogans from the mass marches of 1978-79: “Islam belongs to the oppressed, not the oppressors”; “Islam is for equality and social justice”; “Islam will free the hungry from the clutches of the rich.”
The regime’s very existence is supposed to be an institutionalization of these ideals and an expression of the will of the people. In the chasm between rhetoric and reality, is the lived experience of millions of Iranians, 70% of whom are under the age of 35. The more security forces beat, torture, rape and execute dissidents, the more they confirm that they are now the despots and the oppressors.
Across Iranian society, from the leadership of the green movement to the large urban middle and working class (a majority of the population is urban), the regime’s loss of credibility is virtually complete. Last week Karroubi declared, “This is neither a republic nor is it Islamic.”
Of course, the regime can continue to recruit to the paramilitary Basij forces from among poor peasant families, just as it can bus unemployed people into Tehran to demonstrate in favor of the government for little more than a day’s worth of food and hire thugs to attack green protestors for the equivalent of $15/day (roughly the daily minimum wage). But South Tehran, the poorest part of the city, was among the most active in protests on February 14th, giving the lie to simplistic analysis that characterizes opposition to the Islamic Republic as predominantly a middle/upper class phenomenon. Even many people who voted for Ahmadinejad in 2009 have turned against him subsequently because of the viciousness of the repression.
So does this mean the majority of Iranians want a revolution? This is not a simple question, of course, and we cannot approach an answer to it without understanding the fraught, contested legacy of the 1979 revolution. In Iranian society, the word “revolution” itself has negative connotations since it is repeated ad nauseam as part of the official state propaganda. The experience of over thirty years of this “revolutionary” regime has led millions of Iranians to adopt as common sense the idea that revolutions only make things worse and should be avoided at all costs. This particular political landscape played a role in keeping rank and file demonstrators from moving beyond the reformist demands of green movement leaders in 2009.
As we heard again and again, the specter of the Iranian revolution haunted the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt whether in the form of threats from Mubarak that Egypt would suffer an Islamic takeover like Iran, or assurances from the Muslim Brotherhood, activists and scholars that these threats were empty. There seemed to be a consensus across the board that the Iranian Revolution was synonymous with the theocratic and authoritarian state it ushered in.
In a strange coincidence, the Iranian and Egyptian revolutions occurred exactly 32 years apart to the day; they were each born of different eras, different histories, yet they expressed similar popular sentimentsdespite the fact that those aspirations were articulated through very different frameworks. There are far too many oversimplified accounts of what happened in Iran in 1978-79, and lest these accounts be continually used to discredit or police the idea of revolution, it is worth going back and recuperating a more complicated understanding of those historic months. This is necessary to counter the revisionism of dominant regional, Western and official Iranian state narratives.
If we can, for a moment, bracket the Islamic idiom in which the revolution was waged and the fact that Khomeini was a shrewd politician with the most extensive organizing network on the ground at the time, we can turn and look at what we are not supposed to remember, at crucial factors without which no religious fervor or charismatic leader would have been able to succeed. The reason it only took a few months to dislodge three thousand years of monarchy is because, like in Egypt, virtually every section of Iranian society participated in the movementsecular professionals, women of all backgrounds, leftist students, workers, the unemployed, migrant laborers from the countryside, the traditional bazaar merchant class, and, of course, key sections of the politically heterogeneous clergy. These groups were united by their opposition to the Shah and his US backers and by the desire for Iran to be independent. The actual ideology of the revolution was a thoroughly modern and innovative hybrid, which filtered Marx, Sartre, and Fanon through a reinterpretation of Shia Islam as a religion of resistance and radical egalitarianism popularized by lay thinkers such as Ali Shariati.
During the revolution itself, the army eventually went over to the side of the people. Like in Egypt in 2011, this was a turning point. Unlike in Egypt, the Shah’s army turned over its weapons to the people and then disintegrated. Only the Imperial Guard tried briefly to defend the Shah but soon gave up its guns as well. The population was armed, and signs appeared outside banks that read, “Please check your weapon with the attendant before entering the bank and pick it up on your way out.” 1979 was a classical revolution in the sense that the old ruling class was swept away and replaced by a different strata of society led by Khomeini’s faction of clerics.
The two groups that most contested Khomeini’s consolidation of power were women and labor. Iranian women were at the forefront of the struggle to overthrow the Shah; they participated in leftist guerrilla struggle as well as in the mass demonstrations that formed the iconic images and collective strength of the revolution. Women’s experience of making the revolution empowered them to launch the modern Iranian feminist movement in its immediate aftermath. Missing from most histories and timelines are a series of marches and sit-ins organized and led by women demanding that gender equality be written into the new post revolutionary constitution. On International Women’s Day, March 8, 1979, just weeks after the revolution had triumphed, tens of thousands of women from all classes, some veiled, some took to the streets. “We didn’t make a revolution to go backwards,” they chanted.
For Iranian women, a new phase of struggle against new state forms of patriarchy began at the very moment when the struggle for national liberation was over, when Khomeini told everyone to stop protesting and go home. They marched for days against Khomeini’s draconian family law and mandatory veiling and sat in at the Ministry of Justice. On March 9, Khomeini revoked the mandatory veil decree, only re-instituting it after discrediting the women as corrupted by Western-influence and then driving them off the streets with violent repression.