This article is reprinted with permission from Geopolitical Futures.
Shiite clerics have always played an active and essential role in Iranian public affairs. Safavid shahs (1501-1736) found them extremely useful in proselytizing Persians from Sunnism into Shiism. They also extended political legitimacy to Qajar shahs during most of the 19th century. Clerics in Shiism are more involved than Sunni counterparts in the lives of their religious communities. Shiite Muslims, following their religious doctrine, need continuous guidance from senior clerics; otherwise, they would go astray. Toward the end of the last decade of the 19th century, a revered ayatollah rose to the center stage of Persian politics upon the urging of nationalist and clerical compatriots.
Shiite Clerics Pioneer Iran’s Political Development
In 1890, Nasir al-Din Shah issued the Tobacco Concession, which granted a British company the right to monopolize the country’s tobacco industry. In response to widespread public grievances against the humiliating terms of the concession, Ayatollah Mirza Shirazi issued a binding religious edict that banned the sale and consumption of tobacco products. Shirazi’s decision emptied the concession of its meaning and coerced the shah to annul it. Then, in 1901, Mozaffar al-Din Shah authorized the D’Arcy Concession, which gave exclusive rights to a British company to prospect for oil in Iran. Even though William D’Arcy’s company struck oil in commercial quantities in 1908, the Iranian people, led by the clergy and Bazaaris (the merchant class), disapproved of the deal since it overlooked the country’s national interests. The shah and corrupt Qajar bureaucrats were only interested in cash and personal gains. The Tobacco and D’Arcy concessions paved the way for a national movement that demanded the establishment of a National Assembly and creation of a constitutional form of monarchy. The move, known as the 1905-1911 Persian Constitutional Movement, failed because of Russian military intervention and British withdrawal of support for it.
In 1921, the Persian Cossack Brigade under the command of Reza Khan staged a military coup with British backing to defeat Bolshevik-supported ethnic forces who wanted to seize Tehran. He blunted their objective and became prime minister. In 1925, he established the Pahlavi Dynasty and assumed the name of Reza Shah Pahlavi. He saw himself as a modernizer and was impressed by the secular approach to the modernity of Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk. He stopped short of adopting Ataturk’s secularist approach because he feared backlash from Iran’s powerful clerical establishment. Reza Shah’s contributions to Iranian economic and cultural domains, including the emancipation of women, clearly demonstrated Ataturk’s influence on him. Reza Shah’s anti-British sentiment and Anglophobia, and preference for Nazi Germany, led Britain to force his abdication in 1941.
Iranian civil society thrived during the years of British occupation of southern and southwestern Iran. Political parties functioned freely, and independent media publications increased. In 1951, the Iranian Majlis (parliament) voted to appoint Mohammad Mossadeq, who immediately moved to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. His nationalist and social secular stance alarmed the U.S. and Britain about his possible linkages to Iran’s communist Tudeh Party. In 1953, the army staged a coup that overthrew Mossadeq, and the U.S. and Britain colluded to reinstate Reza Shah.
The Accidental Success of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution
The Iranian people did not forgive the shah for returning to power as a result of an Anglo-American conspiracy. Interaction with these two countries, in addition to Russia, did not favor Iran, which succumbed to their superior military power. The shah’s legacy did not stop them from seeking to modernize Iran and transform it into a significant military force. In 1963, he unleashed the White Revolution to accelerate the process of economic development. Industrialization increased the demand for labor and set off a massive process of internal migration from rural areas into Iranian cities. The new urban dwellers, who arrived with their spiritual guides, found shelter in slummy neighborhoods. Hostility to the Pahlavis did not matter much in the countryside, which lay on the margins of Iranian politics. The death of pacifist and politically quietist Ayatollah Borujerdi in 1961 ushered in the rise of Ruhollah Khomeini, who loathed the shah and waited for an opportunity to challenge his policies. The White Revolution presented itself as an opportunity for Khomeini to condemn the shah’s Westernization as an attack on Islamic principles and way of life. The shah ordered the arrest of Khomeini, who went into exile in Turkey in 1964. Khomeini then settled in Najaf, Iraq, until 1978, when he moved to France to continue his anti-shah activism.
Low-intensity demonstrations opposing the shah started in 1975 and gained momentum right after the Rex movie theater arson attack in Abadan in August 1978, which killed more than 400 people. Influenced by Khomeini’s description of the shah as an American and Israeli lackey, streets in Iranian cities became full of anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist slogans. Opposition to the shah’s repressive policies and aversion to U.S. foreign policy dominated the course of the 1979 revolution. Despite police repression and torture of political activists by secret police, the regime found itself unable to stop the rebellion. The shah fled Iran in January 1979, and Khomeini returned triumphantly to Tehran two weeks later. Khomeini’s rule by the jurisconsult religious theory, which amounted to an ideological coup in the doctrinal history of Twelver Imami Shiism, has governed the country ever since.
Khomeini took advantage of his public support to tighten his grip on state institutions without any opposition from the new religious ruling elite, who did not take the idea of the modern state seriously. Khomeini realized the importance of creating political and military institutions to protect the regime against the possibility of a counterrevolution, especially at a time when its Arab neighbors and the United States were contemplating ways to abort the revolution. He wanted the guardians of the Islamic Revolution to operate outside the jurisdiction of the state to oversee its activities and ensure their conformity with Khomeini’s religious doctrine.
Khomeini took advantage of the 1980-88 war with Iraq to eliminate leftist and nationalist opposition to his regime. Many Iranians grew discontented with the revolution because it failed to improve their standard of living and suppressed their freedom of expression. The reformists emerged as a counterforce to the conservatives in the aftermath of the 1997 presidential elections in which Mohammad Khatami won a landslide victory. Protests simmered afterward mainly by moderate parliamentary aspirants whose candidacy was disqualified by the Guardians Council.
The protests peaked in 2009 over the outcome of the presidential elections. They occurred mostly in Persian cities such as Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz. They pitted reformists against conservatives over rigging the presidential polls that enabled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to win a second term in office. Reformist candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi did not seek to dismantle the revolution; they demanded only the removal of the temporal powers of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who lacked Khomeini’s charisma, and restriction of his powers to spiritual matters. The Basij volunteer militia ruthlessly crushed the protests that came to be known as the green movement. The green movement fell short of a revolution because it sought to reform the events of 1979 instead of phasing them out. Subsequent protests did not take off because of political differences.
But today, ordinary people are finding it even more challenging to make ends meet, as demonstrated in 2017-18 over the sharp increase in food prices. In 2019, demonstrators took their anger to the street to protest sudden oil price increases. In the two spates of protests that turned violent, Iranians chanted “Death to Palestine,” and “Help us, not Gaza,” to register opposition to squandering scarce Iranian financial resources on foreign adventures. The Basij had no mercy on the protesters.
State-controlled media outlets now accuse foreign countries of perpetrating the violence targeting private and public property. Iran’s protests do not seem to have a political leadership to give them direction and momentum. Activists who could provide a powerful boost to the demonstrations have fled the country to escape the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ harsh, oppressive measures. The conservatives hope to use the protests to topple the government of President Hassan Rouhani, who, in turn, expects them to cause the demise of the supreme leader’s rule. Rouhani’s long-shot goal is to extend his authority to the institutions of the supreme leader that dominate the Iranian economy, especially the Khatam al-Anbia Construction Firm, which belongs to the IRGC.
The Fate of Khomeini’s Revolution
The reformists are increasingly winning over the public at the expense of the conservatives, who are rapidly losing popular support. Mousavi’s Green Path of Hope front has succeeded in rallying a broad coalition of opposition groups ranging from leftist reformists to centrists. Demography is working against the conservatives; the majority of Iran’s population is young. More than 70 percent of Iranians are under 35 years old, and many of them neither relate to Khomeini’s revolution nor know what slogans he raised. Young Iranians remember Khomeini for meddling in foreign affairs and provoking Iraq to start an eight-year war against the Islamic Republic that decimated its economy and inflicted more than 1 million deaths.
Iran suffers from prolonged and torturous sanctions that are becoming unbearable. The currency has become worthless, and necessities are expensive and unaffordable. The past two years’ demonstrations over food and fuel price hikes differ from previous waves of discontent in at least two respects. People are no longer making demands for political reforms, but regime change. Of equal importance is that protests cut across Iran’s diverse ethnic composition. Iran is not yet, however, ready for a new revolution that ushers in a new political system on the ruins of wilayat al-faqih (guardianship by an Islamic jurist) because the IRGC does not allow protesters to question the authenticity and legitimacy of Khomeini’s religious revolution.
The unfortunate shooting down of the Ukrainian aircraft in early January enraged the Iranian people. It shifted the focus of the Iranian people from the condemnation of the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani into anger and frustration against the regime. During the most recent protests, demonstrators chanted, “The enemy lies within us.” Frequent droughts are increasing the pace of internal migration from rural areas into Iranian cities and overburdening their antiquated infrastructure. The new urban poverty belts are capable of initiating Iran’s counterrevolution.
The Iranian people’s mood during the past 150 years has vacillated between demands for reform (both bureaucratic and political), nationalism and anti-imperialism. Iranians today yearn for freedom and are unmoved by Khomeini’s revolutionary slogans. Foreign countries need to avoid prodding Iranians to revolt against the regime because it would legitimize a harsh crackdown. Since U.S. President George W. Bush in 2003 encouraged Iranian demonstrators to bring down the government and introduce a democratic order, Iranian reformist leaders have eschewed sponsorship of the protests lest they be labeled treacherous. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hope that Israel and Iran could restore their amicable relations after overthrowing the regime does a disservice to Iranian protesters.
Political change in Iran is bound to be painful and delayed. The Iranian revolution has created deep roots in the country, and it will not collapse because of protests, since the authorities are determined to do whatever is necessary to crush the opposition. In previous demonstrations, they unleashed thugs to destroy property in order to justify Basij retaliation and intimidate peaceful protesters against taking their anger and frustration to the street. The success of the 1979 revolution owes much to the Iranian army, whose commanders chose to maintain neutrality. The IRGC, however, is highly unlikely to take a neutral stance since its survival is at stake. The best course of action for the U.S. is to keep the sanctions in place because they are working, while Iran’s economy of resistance is not. The Iranians no longer tolerate empty ideological mobilization that does not put bread on the table. The Iranian political system is anachronistic and will atrophy in the end, but there is no quick fix.