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In the early hours of Friday, November 15, 2019, Iranian state television broadcasted a message from the National Iranian Oil Products Distribution company, stating that, effective immediately, gas would be rationed across the country in addition to a fifty-percent increase to its price. Within twenty-four hours, there were protests in dozens of cities across Iran, in response to which the state-deployed riot police and security forces to quell them by any means necessary. The state also successfully enforced a media blackout by shutting down the Internet. The uprisings that unfolded in the weeks after have posed one of the most threatening challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 Revolution that culminated with the end of the Pahlavi State. The Islamic Republic released an official estimate of 200,000 protestors overall, though the number may be higher. Riot police and security forces have reportedly killed fifteen-hundred people.
In the four decades that have transpired since the 1979 Revolution, state officials within the Islamic Republic have reckoned with the memory of the Revolution, with the battlefield of contestations over its meaning, and with its memorialization in form of a modern Islamic state. In response to uprisings in Iran, commentators abroad have regularly sounded the siren of “regime change,” interpreting riots, protests, and unrest more generally as full-scale rebellions against and opposed to the revolutionary state. The recent uprisings are no different. Leftists in the US have largely misunderstood the dynamics of revolution and reform in contemporary Iran. However, this essay is not interested in making the history of Iran legible to them nor to intervene in debates that are constructed – often in binary and flattening terms – through the lens of anti-authoritarianism or anti-imperialism. Rather, this essay frames the current uprisings within a longer history of revolutionary thought in Iran, and the wake of a crisis of authority and legitimacy that continues to haunt the Islamic Republic.
Amidst the uprisings that have unfolded in Iran in the past few years, there is evidence to suggest, if attending to slogans, that there are people calling for the end of the Islamic Republic. A question, however, that is worth reflecting upon is if and how a call for “regime change” is legible with respect to the memory of the 1979 Revolution and within the framework of the Islamic Republic. I suggest that the Islamic Republic is suspended in and implicated by the wake of the Revolution. 1979 is and continues to be a moratorium, an afterlife, and an awakening.
A Moratorium on the State
In the past decade, there have been two significant uprisings prior to the 2019 uprisings that have provoked the state to respond with force: in 2009, there were mass protests in Tehran and other urban centers that were contesting the re-election of the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency; and in 2017, there were uprisings centered upon financial institutions and actors that were carried out in poorer and working class regions of the country. Some commentators suggest that the 2017-2018 uprisings were, in the language of an opinion piece that was published by the Associate Press, “rejecting the system” and departing from “the framework of existing politics,” in direct contrast to the 2009 Green Movement. That distinction, however, obscures more than it clarifies: in the wake of 1979, state officials have been haunted by the persistence of the revolutionary period by virtue of their own insistence on the continuity of past with present and with the fleeting horizon, on those grounds, of a post-revolutionary future.
On November 30, 2019, the reformist politician Mirhussein Mousavi, the figurehead of the 2009 Green Movement, drew an analogy between the uprisings that culminated with the end of the Pahlavi State with the uprisings of the present-day: “The killers of the year 1978,” he said, “were the representatives of a non-religious regime and the agents and shooters of November 2019 are the representatives of a religious government.” He continued: “Then the commander in chief was the Shah and today, here, the Supreme Leader with absolute authority.”
There is more to Mousavi’s analogy than meets the eye in what is otherwise a flippant attack on a political rival. Mousavi was referring to September 8, 1978, or what is commonly referred to as Black Friday, when soldiers fired upon and killed dozens of protestors in Tehran’s Jaleh Square. In received memory, Black Friday was the nail in the coffin of the state’s semblance of political legitimacy.
The crisis of legitimacy that Mousavi had placed emphasis upon in the above remark is foundational to the memory of 1979 and its memorialization in the form of the Islamic Republic. In 1989, following a decade long period of state consolidation, of brutal domestic war against dissidents, and shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had returned to Iran after fifteen years of exile to spearhead the new state, passed away. As Vali-ye Faqih or the Guardian of the Jurists, Khomeini had the authority to render and enforce political judgments over and above the authority of the executive and legislative branches of government.
Yet, with respect to both the referendum on whether the new state ought to be an Islamic Republic, and with respect to the Islamic Republic’s first presidential elections, Khomeini yielded – even if publicly and rhetorically, crucial still with respect to contestations over his memory – to the popular will.
In yielding authority to the popular will, Khomeini was doing more than sanctioning the democratic process. More pervasively, he was, if unwittingly, insisting upon a gap between invocations of the popular voice from below and representations of it from on high. Khomeini was at loggerheads with his followers over the source of his authority. He would speak on behalf of and authorize the “barefoot masses” [paberahneha] and “the wretched” [mustazefin]; they would insist upon his divinely ordained status as a trustee of the Iranian people, who, for that reason, was not obliged to listen and to respond to the popular voice, but to know their hearts. This is not to say that Khomeini was politically innocent, only that by attending to his thought, we become attuned to the specificity of a crisis of authority internal to 1979 and its afterlife. By remembering the first decade, we recall 1979 as a moratorium on the state, justified when and where state officials and otherwise betrayed their promise to the barefoot and the wretched.
The Afterlives of Revolution
In the decades after 1989, when Khamenei became Vali-ye Faqih, the terrain of political contestation in Iran was fractured along ideological differences between the generation that was committed to “democratizing” Iran, and the generation that was committed to safeguarding the authority of the Guardian of the Jurists. In 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected to the presidency after campaigning for “reform,” publicly calling for the expansion of “civil society” in domestic politics and for a “dialogue among civilizations” with the West. In 2005, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and in the midst of the intensification of the United States’ belligerent posturing with respect to and economic warfare upon the Islamic Republic, the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected to the presidency, self-presenting as a populist alternative to Khatami, who would work towards economic and national security. Their gains and losses otherwise, reformists and hardliners were caught in a revolutionary moment.
In the face of the 2009 Green Movement, there was a moment of speculation that the Islamic Republic had entered a “post-ideological” period, in a radical break from its tortured beginnings. That was in part because the millions upon millions who protested did so peacefully, asking for nothing more or less than to be recognized as rights-bearing citizens with a say in Iran’s future. It seemed that, in a broader moment of public reflection on the memory of 1979, those protesting were recovering from the historical origins of the Islamic Republic a democratizing potential that was suppressed, especially in the first decade of wartime emergency and state consolidation. In 1978, those who participated in the Revolution invoked a higher source of authority, exemplified by the resounding cry, “God is Great” [Allah-u Akbar], and thereby collectively put into action a moratorium on the Pahlavi State. In the 2009 Green Movement, they were instead invoking the memory of 1979 and rendering their own movement as if it were an afterlife of the Revolution.
The claim that 2009 was post-ideological was an answer to a question: provided that the slogan of the Green Movement was “Where is my vote?” [Ray-e man kojast?], was it that the revolutionary moment persisted, or was Iran now squarely in a post-revolutionary moment? Put otherwise, had the revolutionary period finally come to an end when and where the vocalization of political difference could be negotiated in orderly manner through a tally of the number of votes? On June 20, 2009, a paramilitary soldier murdered a twenty-six-year old woman Neda Agha-Soltan. Raw footage of her bleeding out on the streets went viral, circulating online. Her name, neda or “voice,” carried with it the resonance of the limits of political representation and the beginning and end of the political legitimacy and authority of the Islamic state. Rituals commemorating her life became a source of ongoing protest and mobilization. The invocation of Neda’s name and the wakes memorializing her life recalled the resonance of 1979 within 2009. In recalling the voice in excess of its articulation as a vote, 2009 recalled the general revolt against the political in 1979 beyond the political representation of the will of all.
In 2013, as well, an electoral majority appeared as the medium and source of political authority. The current president of the Islamic Republic and reformist cleric Hassan Rouhani was elected to the presidency. Notwithstanding the demise of the Green Movement and Ahmadinejad’s ability to serve a second term in office, Rouhani’s victory was attributed to the gains of 2009. In 2017, however, the limits of political representation became apparent in the upper echelons of the Islamic state. Rouhani was re-elected that year. Khamenei and his most ardent followers were disappointed with Rouhani’s re-election to the presidency, favoring the conservative candidate Ebrahim Raisi. In turn, they insisted that Khamenei had the ultimate authority to govern by virtue of the divinely ordained rule of the Islamic Jurist or Velayat-e Faqih. Rouhani retorted that the legitimacy of a religious leader is derived, rather, from the “people’s will and invitation.” Just a month after their public feud, both reformists and conservatives experienced a rude awakening when the real and perceived subject of 1979, the barefoot and the wretched, revolted.
In early January 2018, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Mohammad Ali Jafari proclaimed that the Islamic Republic had finally put to rest the uprisings that had erupted across the country in December 2017 in response to the corruption of financial institutions, describing them as the “seditious” act of “enemies” of the state. The uprisings were, in the language of the police, the work of counterrevolutionaries. In the first decade of the Islamic Republic, a coterie of intellectuals and officials deployed the technologies of the state towards the violent suppression of its enemies in what amounted to a brutal reign of terror.
In the 1980-1983 Cultural Revolution, when the new state purged universities of the so-called “west-stricken,” its self-professed spokesperson Ahmad Fardid delivered lectures on state-run television on the topic of “west-stricken-ness” in which he diagnosed the perceived enemies of the state as stricken by “sedition.” Fardid identified Khomeini’s return in February 1979 as a moment of awakening, and conceived counterrevolutionaries as the somnambulant embodiments of 1979’s pre-revolutionary past.
Fardid was caught in a paradox: insofar as the uprisings that culminated with the end of the Pahlavi State were carried forth before 1979, then the 1979 Revolution was, ipso facto, the work of a collective that both posed the entirety of waking life under the Pahlavi State in the form of a question while not yet awake to the contested and open-ended truth of the Revolution. Recall, moreover, that Khomeini publicly and rhetorically claimed that his authority was derived from the subject Fardid diagnosed as stricken by sedition: the “barefoot” and the “wretched.” In Fardid’s estimation, Khomeini was ceding authority to the embodied presence of the Revolution’s past. This difference shaped and informed the paradox Jafari was attempting to answer to and to resolve in his proclamation that the 2017-2018 uprisings were seditious: that the wealth of the revolutionary state belonged, if counter-intuitively, to the sedition of revolution. Seen in the above light, the 2017-2018 uprisings were not departing from “the framework of existing politics” even if, in some pockets of resistance, they were “rejecting the system.”
The recent uprisings that unfolded in Iran are marked by the three-fold dynamic of moratorium, afterlife, and awakening that have been at play and have haunted the state in the wake of 1979. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Mohammad Ali Kadivar, Saber Khani, and Abolfazal Sotoudeh present a finding that in the 2019 uprisings, counties that had voted for Rouhani in the 2017 presidential elections were the most likely to have seen a day of protests, indicating that their votes were “not an indicator of a deeper belief in the regime’s legitimacy….” If it is the case that the counties that had voted for Rouhani in 2017 were disappointed with the Rouhani Administration, the loss of faith in the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic that their protesting is perhaps indicative of is not, for that reason, necessarily unintelligible or external to the memory of 1979. They were, in that way, analogous to the wakes that memorialized the death of the popular voice during the 2009 Green Movement and which became motivation for its afterlife.
Along with the general revolt against the political, the 2019 uprisings have confronted the Islamic Republic with the memory of 1979 as a rude awakening and a moment when the entirety of waking life was posed as a question. In response to the uprisings, the current head of the Revolutionary Guard Hossein Salami echoed his predecessor by blaming foreign enemies for inciting “sedition.” In portraying the uprisings as acts of sedition, Salami recalled the paradox that Fardid was caught within in the decade after 1979: that it is the uprisings that are insisting upon the memory of 1979 in direct opposition to its official guardians.
We can now return to Mousavi’s provocative analogy between the Shah then and Khamenei. Mousavi was not willing to acknowledge that the crisis of legitimacy in Iran potentially implicates him as well. Yet what he brought to light was that the Islamic Republic has and continues to be awakened, as if by the cyclical regularity of enshrined ritual, to the reality of an impoverished and stale form.
Suspended in and implicated by the wake of 1979, the Islamic Republic is haunted by the memory of 1979 as a moratorium, as an afterlife, and as an awakening. The 2019 uprisings are caught, for that reason, in the forty-year moment of the Revolution. In the face of a crippling sanctions regime and belligerent posturing from the United States and Western powers, and amidst the historical unfolding of its own past, present, and future, it is unclear what the coming years hold for Iran.
The US’ assassination of the commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Forces Qasem Suleimani will most likely bring to the surface of the Islamic Republic’s political discourse the longer history of US intervention in the domestic and regional politics of Iran and the Middle East, stretching back in recent memory to the 1953 coup of Muhammad Mussadeq. The US has provided fuel for the Islamic state to draw on to claim the mantle of the Revolution and to justify the intensification of war against counterrevolutionaries foreign and domestic.
Spectators who are attending to the gradual thaw of the cold war between the Islamic Republic and the US and its allies, and who are attending to the Islamic Republic’s domestic war against protests, uprisings, and rebellions at home, might take courage to reckon with the challenge of 1979: that it was poised against and opposed to the tyranny of representations of Iran’s history, its people, and their dreams. Likewise, spectators might also recall the memory of 1979 as a generative resource to apprehend their own identical interests with Iranians living in its wake and to mobilize more fiercely than before against the ruthless, profiteering foreign policy of their own states. On a final note, we might take care to recall that it is the masters of history who, without apology, are compelled to represent a life; in bearing witness to the wake of 1979, it would do us well to let Iranians do that work of making the life of Iran for themselves.
The author would like to thank Arash Davari, Milad Odabaei, and Charmaine Chua for their editorial input on this essay.