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.
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.