Skip to main content

Iran: 40 Years after the Revolution

Mahmood Monshipouri, visiting associate professor, Middle Eastern Studies | February 20, 2019

Revolutions inevitably generate complicated and at times polarizing outcomes, both from an ideological and practical standpoint. Any cursory assessment of revolutions is likely to result in a shallow and grossly incomplete picture, while forecasting the current or future status of freedoms won or lost in the ultimate success of a revolution almost always invites controversy.

This is why judgments regarding the 1979 Iranian Revolution require a balance sheet that attempts to objectively assess the outcomes and goals of the political action at issue.  Since 1979, the country has found itself in an ongoing cycle of infighting and factionalism within Iran’s domestic politics, the hostage crisis (1980–1981), a bloody war with Iraq (1980–1988), the rise of the reformist movement (1990s), and the signing of a nuclear deal with the major countries in the West, Russia, and China (2015).

Internally, the Islamic Republic of Iran continues its search for a balance between the revolutionary zeal of a once-promising new political order and the current demands of its millennials—who are largely social media savvy—for socioeconomic and political change. Politically, despite its complex political structure and the multiplicity of its power centers, Iran’s supreme leader holds the ultimate sway—the indelible mark of a revolutionary regime that remains largely anti-democratic.  Economically, after four decades of post-revolutionary disenchantment, the hopes and aspirations of the Iranian people remain on the whole unmet.

Little has changed

The comparison between the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras in Iran demonstrates both striking similarities and profound differences.  The absence of progressive political development ostensibly characterized by the political milieu of Iran prior to the 1979 revolution remains conspicuous.  As a result, in the contemporary political context little has changed.

The lack of institutional democratic values, as well as the degradation of institutional power manifested by the dominant role played by Iran’s supreme leader—and not by the country’s popularly elected president—is a remnant of the revolution that brought about the Islamic Republic.  It is also an echo of the authoritarianism that governed Iran during the Pahlavi era (1924–1979), even as modern-day reformers and traditionalists continue to vie for power.

The state of political rights in Iran has been problematic in large part because of the ongoing internal power struggle and conflict among various factions, as well as the militarization of the regime.  This status quo continues to consume a considerable portion of the national wealth, and the regime diverts significant funds—thanks to oil revenues—to sustain large defense forces and archaic political institutions.  Political divisions as well as uncertain economic conditions inside Iran also precipitate capital flight because the affluent tend to secure their wealth through banking and investing their significant wealth outside the country.

Upending Social Movements

The recent eruption of political unrest in Iran (2017–2018) attests to the rising public discontent against poor economic conditions and an unresponsive political leadership.  These developments present new challenges to social movements and the democratic processes they hope to influence.  Meanwhile, young activists, bloggers, journalists, lawyers, reformers, and feminists have been limited by the regime in their ability to build a civil society through popularly receptive institutions and to express their defiance in the digital world, as well as on the ground.

The poor economy has particularly affected Iran’s young people.  While youth unemployment is officially estimated to be approximately 20 percent, many experts claim that it is in fact closer to 40 percent. The state’s failure to address the yearning of these young people for a pluralistic and socially tolerant society—not to mention their needs for health, employment, and housing—is well documented.

The Islamic Republic’s leadership has failed to reward a young, educated population with ample job opportunities and social mobility, rendering them more inclined to seeking opportunities and new lifestyles outside the country.  The result has been a brain drain with dire consequences for the country’s future.

Significantly, examples of barriers to the natural growth of social movements in recent memory can be traced back to two key developments: (1) the “One Million Signature Campaign” of 2006 and (2) the Green Movement of 2009. In June 2006, when security forces violently disrupted a peaceful women’s rights demonstration, a small group of Iranian feminists in Tehran embarked on the formation of a grassroots movement known as the “One Million Signature Campaign.”

Spearheaded by Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani and Parvin Ardalan, this campaign aimed to establish equal rights for women and to overturn discriminatory laws that they felt disproportionately affected them. Their goal was to collect one million signatures for a petition that requested the abolition of several laws that discriminated against women.

The completed petition was submitted to the Iranian government with the aim of persuading it to take necessary legal actions against these laws, raise public awareness of the impact of these legal strictures, promote equality between men and women, and rigorously document the lived and painful experiences that Iranian women have long endured.

This campaign demonstrated that Iran’s feminist movement remained vibrant despite the state’s repressive measures to suppress it.  The judiciary sentenced both Ahmadi Khorasani and Ardalan to three years in prison, and many other activists were prosecuted, jailed, and banned from traveling inside and outside the country. Sadly, this campaign as a social movement received meager attention in the Western media.

The 2009 Iranian presidential elections resulted in a second term for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that directly led to a series of public protests that alleged election fraud; these demonstrations by civil-society activists became known as the Green Movement.  Promoted through instant messaging and postings on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other digital forums, this activism posed a serious challenge to the political order in Iran.  The protesters were mostly young but were supported by segments of Iran’s reformist wing, who had long sought broader democratic rights.  The conservative political establishment did everything possible to stop this movement before it metastasized beyond their control.

Although the regime’s repressive apparatus ultimately suppressed the Green Movement, the movement undeniably presented a threat to an increasingly cautious regime, especially as the efficiency and organizational skills of the opposition groups inspired popular protests on a scale unprecedented since Iran’s 1979 revolution.

During this brief period of protest in 2009, the movement galvanized a broad spectrum of Iran’s population. The protesters demanded basic political and social rights, while using the vernacular of human rights to stake their claims and justify their demands.  The regime countered by invoking Iran’s security considerations and its all-too-familiar Islamic credentials as justification for policy inaction and violent repression of the protests.

While the demonstrations failed to achieve even marginal results in the wake of their violent overthrow and punishment, the movement inspired actors and protestors to renew their efforts to change the broader sentiments and norms of Iranian society.  Perhaps, this created the space to imagine alternative political realities for the future of the Green Movement and for the rights of the people.

Silver Linings

Every revolution may have a silver lining. There is no denying that the country’s feature film industry—or art-house cinema—stands out in terms of its global reach and impact.  The Pahlavi-era film industry never reached the contemporary level of recognition (with a few exceptions: “Mongols,” “Ragbar,” and “The Cow”), in large part because these movies were made solely for a domestic Iranian audience.  However, the directors currently involved in Iranian cinema have set their sights not only on the domestic audience but also on international spectators and the global box-office. As such, they intended to demonstrate some deep-seated yet contradictory impulses within Iranian society, their limits are particularly emblematic as they reveal the seemingly mundane difficulties of day-to-day life in authoritarian states.

While showing their desire to question and deconstruct the singular, state-sanctioned “social reality” of the Islamic Republic, they have attempted to internationally communicate an alternate “cinematic reality.”  Consider, for example, the worldwide reputation of notable films produced in the past three decades: “Children of Heaven,” “Bashu, The Little Stranger,” “Taste of Cherry,” “A Separation,” “The Salesman,” “The Color of Paradise,” and “The White Balloon,” just to mention a few.

The last three decades have also seen major changes in the living conditions of the average Iranian family.  At the time of the revolution, according to one study, the average family lived in a home in a rural area with no running water and no access to a nearby school beyond the primary level.   Nearly 60 percent of homes had electricity.  The family was headed by a couple who could not read or write. A woman’s role in the family was to cook, clean, and try to keep her children alive within the context of an extended family.

Three decades later, the average family is urban, with access to most modern household amenities.  The average couple has a basic education and is raising only two children (in fact, two children per couple has become the norm in urban areas), focusing primarily on the education—not merely survival—of their children.

The narrowing gender gap in education, this study finds, has had profound implications.  The average Iranian woman today has one-third as many children as her mother and is more than three times as educated.  Today, urban women are on average more educated than urban men, and in rural areas women enjoy the same level of education as men. Within the family, husband and wife have equal powers, thus allowing more resources to be invested in children.

This reversal has led to the intergenerational transfer of physical and human capital.  Equality in education, coupled with the lowered burden of fertility, has enormously improved women’s power within the family, helping direct family resources toward child education.  Today, as a result, women have a larger say in determining the size and pursuits of the family.

Alongside the change in the family structure, a similar transformation was taking place in higher education.  At universities, female students outnumbered their male counterparts.  This had the effect of increasing the women’s workplace participation substantially as well as acquiring the qualities necessary to excel at the managerial level.  One of the significant takeaways from the post-revolutionary era, arguably, is that the Iranian society carries the seeds of its own change and transformation.

Yet another bright spot in post-revolutionary Iran has been the rising fortunes of the reformist wing, many of whom have contributed to defusing regional crises, upending Iran’s diplomatic and political isolation, and generally de-escalating a possible confrontation with the United States.  The reformists earnestly pursued engagement with the West, concluding the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Since the late 1990s, the reformists have also attempted to open up the country economically and politically, if ineffectually and inconsistently, championing initiatives to improve the political climate and address social freedoms for a new generation of young Iranians.  Without the reformists at the helm and their steady and courageous power struggles against the conservative political establishment, Iran’s political future could have been substantially different—and in all likelihood far worse.

The Persistent Ghost of Iraq and the Arab Spring Uprisings

The twin ghosts of Iraq since the US invasion (2003) and the disillusionment with the negative outcomes of the Arab Spring uprisings (2011) have contributed to an apprehension toward any political uprising or protestation by Iranian activists.  The Arab Spring, which has now foundered dramatically in the cases of Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain—not to mention the aggressive and violent authoritarianism in Egypt—has, perhaps for good reason, led much of the Iranian population to be ambivalent about any potential for regime change, overthrow, or even simple contestation of the established order.

The fear of instability, political chaos, and Iran’s partition—given its ethnic diversity—has rendered most Iranians ultra-cautious about another uprising of the sort that brought down the Shah’s regime in 1979.  The Trump administration’s policies, including the withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, as well as the US-led Middle East Conference held in Warsaw, Poland (February 13–14, 2019), with a central emphasis on a combative approach to Iran, are unlikely to cause a domestic uproar against the Islamic Republic.   For the time being, as one expert rightly reminds us, gradual change, along with a slow but sustainable reform from within, remains the preferred approach of most Iranians.

Comment to “Iran: 40 Years after the Revolution

  1. Summarizing a history of the events following the revolution of 1979 (taken over by Khomeini and retitled as Islamic Revolution) is impressive and to the point in this article. However, thanking Western governments with the leadership of the US, the newly formed regime headed by Khomeini, was able to outroot the remnant of what was once considered Left (socialist in outlook) and Melli (nationalist in outlook), regardless of some phony anti-Western slogans. That is perhaps one of the reasons that the kind of opposition the Shah faced once, is not present in Iran. As far as the conferences in Warsaw and Poland, everyone knows that the US would never replace the existing regime in Iran (no matter how much they squabble on both sides) with Royalists or Mujahedeen. In fact, the regime in Iran is benefiting US international politics, as conferences such as these help Iranian regime’s policies, considering that neither Royalists nor Mujahedeen have any support among Iranian populace.
    Reformists in Iran started as an opposition to the oligarchy (not the establishment), but soon became a wing of the authoritarian regime, as it is religious in nature and aims in benefiting their enclave. Therefore, it is not a force to benefit the majority of Iranians, and because of its reliance on the west (as this group with the leadership of Rafsanjani has destroyed any locally established industry and reliance on national economy) and through importing in a bazar style, has made Iranian economy totally dependent on the foreign import, in exchange for oil. The Reformists are in fact begging the West to partake the same relationship they had once with the Shah, although on the surface it has an anti- US catchphrase. One should remember that during the Clinton era it was proposed to destroy seven countries in order to launch US global hegemony, which became a policy during the second Bush presidency by destroying five of those countries during Bush and Obama, with only Lebanon and Iran remaining, which is the reason for Russian, Lebanese and Iranian involvement in Syria, invited by its president. Whether that president or the president of Venezuela (elected by its own people) are recognized by the Western countries is a different story.
    As this article justifiably addresses, Iranians are careful not to repeat Arab Spring experience, due to the US involvement in replacing the existing regimes with something worse, such as in the case of Egypt as it is mentioned in the article, and Tunisia where the movement originally started (although other countries mentioned, Yemen and Bahrain have been under attack by the US ally, Saudi Arabia, and in the case of Libya and Syria those countries have been directly attacked by American forces). The Signature Campaign and the Green Movement were both brutally put down by the regime, and they are presently non-existent. In fact, Iranian regime is politically structured the same as its successor (Shah is replaced by Supreme Leader and Prime Minister is replaced by President), but with further savagery and ferocity. If the Shah could get the aid of ruffians and louts (such as “Shaaban Bimokh”), this regime has hundreds of them at its disposal. Please also note that the reason that another revolution in Iran is not presently possible is that, due to the devastations a revolution causes upon a society, it does not usually occur twice in the same generation. However, Iranians fight with every means possible, as it is evident that with all the restrictions mentioned here, one can find in the whole of the Middle East, Iranians as the most non-religious and open-minded nation who crave for some democratic values. And that is a good sign!

  2. As an Iranian expat who follows the events in Iran, I concur with article’s historical assessment of the trends in Iran since the 79 revolution. However, my reading of events and living conditions inside Iran tells me the situation is more dire than the article leads the reader to come away with. The people are completely dissatisfied with every aspect of regime behavior. In my opinion, people are very angry with the regime’s attention to Syria and Hezbollah and ignore the huge difficulties that people have to deal with in their daily lives. From Ideological point of view, I believe, Iranian regime is looking to the past and the people of Iran, especially the youth, are looking to the future. At the same time, the rampant corruption at every level of government is draining government’s coffers reducing its ability to satisfy people’s demands. All and all, in my opinion, Iranian regime’s future looks very bleak and I don’t see how they can survive the next couple of years.

  3. “Blaming the demise of the (Ottoman) empire partly on its religious leadership, Ataturk promoted nationalism and ancient Turkish traditions in his new state, at the expense of Islam.

    His republic would make a clean break from its Ottoman past, replacing the Caliphate with secularism and turning away from the empire’s former Arab territories in favour of Europe.

    Hoping nationalism would overcome the idea of an Islamic Ummah, or global Muslim community, his reforms – known as Kemalism – altered virtually every aspect of Turkish life for the next eight decades.

    He pushed for women’s suffrage, banned the Ottoman fez in favour of European-style hats, outlawed the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic and enshrined secularism in the constitution.”

    (Ahmed El Amraoui & Faisal Edroos , 11 Jun 2018, Al Jazeera)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *