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Decoding Iran’s Politics: The Concept of Revolution in Iran, 40 Years After 1979

February 15, 2019
H Rastgoo
6 min read
Marking the 40th anniversary of the 1979 unrest in Qom and its role of the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader praised the commitment to the “main principles of the revolution”
Marking the 40th anniversary of the 1979 unrest in Qom and its role of the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader praised the commitment to the “main principles of the revolution”

Before the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the term revolution, in general, was perceived as a rather positive concept in Iranian public discourse. 

One cannot deny that throughout the Pahlavi dynasty era (1925-1979), the majority of the opponents of the regime did not often introduce themselves as revolutionaries who sought a revolution to overthrow the political system. However, it was more or less fashionable to resort to the concept of revolution in order to advocate fundamental changes. For instance, when Mohammad Reza Pahlavi introduced a series of widespread election and land reforms in 1963, he called these changes the White Revolution.

In the last months of the Pahlavi’s dynasty,  even the Shah, who had real concerns about his regime’s ability to survive a revolution, announced in a famous speech that he had “heard the voice of the people’s revolution.” He made this statement in an effort to appease the widespread protests, an effort that was not successful.    


The Post-revolution Concept of Revolution

After the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the concept of revolution gained unprecedented and unquestionable popularity. Under the new establishment, not only were the religious supporters of the regime known as Muslim/Islamic revolutionaries, but the Marxists also called themselves (leftist) revolutionaries.  

At the same time, the Islamic Republic labeled its opponents as anti-revolutionary, and established a revolutionary court to supress the enemies of the regime. A series of other new institutions were also established in order to undertake different revolutionary tasks in social, political, economic, security and military fields.  

Apart from all these changes, after the April 1979 referendum that resulted in the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini was still referred to as the Leader of the Revolution. In fact, this term was even more commonly used in Iran’s public discourse than equivalent terms such as the Leader of the Islamic Republic. 

It is notable that even the current Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is called the Leader of the Revolution by Iran’s official media outlets. 


Struggle Over the Revolution’s Lifetime 

Iranian authorities obviously consider the revolution to be an ever-lasting phenomenon that will never come to an end. In their view, the Islamic Revolution refers to a series of principles that are still alive and will remain so as long as the Islamic Republic exists. 

This view contrast with the views of some Iranian reformists, who believe that the implementation of revolutionary methods, which were commonplace in the first years of the revolution, must not continue forever, as they contradicted and undermined other key concepts such as the rule of law and good governance.

A famous example of this perception made headlines in 1998, when a reformist newspaper’s article about “the end of the revolution” led to a widespread, countrywide reaction from hardliners. The newspaper, Jame-eh (The Society), argued that the Islamic Revolution had resulted in the formation of a new establishment named the Islamic Republic — and therefore, there was no reason to believe that the revolution, in the sense of a popular movement to overthrow the existing establishment, should continue. Iranian hardliners not only condemned this article as an effort to undermine the revolutionary spirit, but continued to refer to the article in the following years as an example of the reformist media’s plots to divert the society from revolutionary values.    

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, one of his major and routine slogans referred to the revival of revolutionary values. His supporters suggested that under the Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani administrations, the country had deviated from the Islamic revolution’s principles, and that the new administration was dedicated to returning them to the country. These principles included combatting the United States, establishing social justice, rejecting western values and placing revolutionary people (instead of technocrats) in management positions.

Nonetheless, the aftermath of the Ahmadinejad era, which led to greater corruption and unprecedented economic hardship in the country, portrayed a negative image of his so-called revolutionary management style. 


An Anti-Regime Revolution?

The 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers boosted Iranian people’s hopes for the improvement of their standards of living. However, the continuation of internal mismanagement and corruption, in addition to US-led sanctions, prevented any substantial changes in people’s economic conditions. In particular, economic problems intensified when the Trump Administration pulled back from the nuclear deal, which dampened hopes for a better future.  

The new circumstances led to unprecedented public protests in late December 2017 and early January 2018, which continued more or less throughout the following months. The fresh protests encouraged many opposition activists to seek regime change in the country through promoting public demonstrations. The activists who strive for regime change do not often use the world revolution to describe an anti-regime movement (unlike many activists in other parts of the world). However, what they advocate is, in fact, a kind of revolutionary change. They especially emphasize the importance of bringing about a fundamental change in order to reject reformism and distinguish themselves from Iranian pro-reform politicians and activists. 

Since the beginning of last year’s street protests, people have witnessed escalated disputes between reformists and the pro-regime-change activists on social media. On one hand, the reformists suggest that the pro-regime-change activists are counting on the Trump administration to topple the Iranian regime, warning that a US-backed project for overthrowing the Islamic Republic would lead to unavoidable violence or civil war. A group of pro-reform activists who criticize the extreme methods that were adopted after the 1979 revolution specifically warn about the possibility of repeating the same experience in future. They suggest that another revolution will produce a new round of chaos and violence, concluding that reformism is the only way to improve the country’s situation. 

On the other hand, the advocates of regime change say that the reformists are helping the Iranian regime by opposing any effort to overthrow the Islamic Republic. They emphasize that Iranian hardliners have obstructed any possibility for real reforms in Iran, and as long as the Islamic Republic exists, any hope for substantial changes in Iran will be a delusion.

At the end of the day, it would appear that 40 years on from the Islamic Revolution, many Iranians are quite dissatisfied with the outcome, while having significant disagreements about the way to deal with the Islamic Republic in the future. It seems that the 1979 revolution has been such a negative experience for so many people that even the staunchest critics of the Iranian regime are reluctant to advocate a new revolution against the current establishment. This is possibly the reason why many regime critics still prefer to seek political reforms to avoid a new revolution. On the other hand, even those opposition activists who advocate revolutionary methods to overthrow the Islamic Republic avoid using the term revolution to describe this approach.  



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