An Iranian Revolution of National Dignity

Iran is convulsing with the largest mass uprising since the 2009 Green Movement. Demonstrations that began last week in the city of Mashhad, home to the shrine of the eighth Shiite imam, have now spread to dozens of cities. And while the slogans initially addressed inflation, joblessness, and graft, they soon morphed into outright opposition to the mullahs.

Image by © DARIO PIGNATELLI/Reuters/Corbis

As we write, the authorities have blocked access to popular social-media sites and closed off subway stations in the capital, Tehran, to prevent crowd sizes from growing. At least 12 people have been killed in clashes with security forces.

What is happening in the Islamic Republic?

After nearly four decades of plunderous and fanatical Islamist rule, Iranians are desperate to become a normal nation-state once more, and they refuse to be exploited for an ideological cause that long ago lost its luster. It is a watershed moment in Iran’s history: The illusion of reform within the current theocratic system has finally been shattered. Iranians, you might say, are determined to make Iran great again.

Their movement is attuned to the worldwide spirit of nationalist renewal. From the U.S. to India, and from South Africa to Britain, political leaders and the voters who elect them are reaffirming the enduring value of the nation-state. Iran hasn’t been immured from these developments, as the slogans of the current protests indicate. No longer using the rights-based lexicon of votes and recounts, Iranians are instead demanding national dignity from a regime that for too long has subjugated Iranian-ness to its Shiite, revolutionary mission.

It’s notable, for example, that protestors chant “We Will Die to Get Iran Back,” “Not Gaza, Not Lebanon, My Life Only for Iran,” and “Let Syria Be, Do Something for Me.” Put another way: The people are tired of paying the price for the regime’s efforts to remake the region in its own image and challenge U.S. “hegemony.” Some have even taken to chanting “Reza Shah, Bless Your Soul,” expressing gratitude and nostalgia for the Pahlavi era, which saw the modern, pro-Western nation-state of Iran emerge from the shambles of the Persian Empire.

Iran’s Islamist rulers have never had a comfortable relationship with Iranian nationalism. In the early post-revolutionary days, Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers set out to rip the pre-Islamic threads that formed the tapestry of national identity: pride in the Persian New Year, the architectural glories of Persepolis, and the epic poetry that has long shaped the national soul–all these things were deemphasized if not altogether forbidden.

More recently, however, the regime has sought to harness its ideological and regional ambitions to national pride and memory. Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander spearheading the war effort in Syria and Iraq, was presented almost as a latter-day Cyrus the Great. The regime claimed that it had to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq lest Iran be forced to defend itself at home, and the idea even gained currency among many secular, middle-class Iranians. Meanwhile, some regime figures, such as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tried to present an idea of “Iranian Islam” that was both pure and consistent with a nationalistic vision.

But as the uprising underway now suggests, that project has utterly failed. No amount of propaganda and revisionism could mask the regime’s constitutional hostility to talk of nationalism and nationhood. Nor could it mollify Iranians who saw their national wealth squandered on adventures in Arab lands that didn’t concern them; “Gaza” was an abstraction to the vast majority. Nor, finally, could this regime-led nationalist push uplift Iranians, whose daily lives were marked by poverty, repression, and isolation from the rest of the world.

The current uprising, then, poses a far more potent threat to mullah power than its previous iterations, because nationalism is a far more potent force than liberal-democratic aspiration. If enough Iranians come to view their regime as an obstacle to national greatness, the Islamic Republic’s days will be over–an outcome that is squarely in the U.S. national-security interest.

The new Iran that could emerge from such an uprising may not be a liberal state, as the West understands the concept. But its calculations about the country’s place in the region and the world are far more likely to be driven by normal, nation-state priorities. The people who are making the revolution, after all, have had it with serving someone else’s messianic cause.

The Trump administration thus should seek to influence the outcome. For all his other faults, President Trump can address nationalism and nationhood in a manner that can resonate at a moment like this. Alumni of the Obama administration are already urging their successors to adopt the same failed approach that saw President Obama refuse to forcefully speak out in 2009. Like it or not, Iranians respect American power. American encouragement–even if it comes from a sometimes-bombastic president–can remind people braving one of the world’s most brutal tyrannies that they are not alone. An opening such as the one presented by Iran’s revolution of national dignity may not come for another generation.