Iran: Anatomy of a National Revolt

With its flames declining after days of high blaze, the “events” that shook Iran in December and early January are still attracting a tsunami of comment, speculation and, as always in such cases, misrepresentation. The first question is what should we call what happened.

The term “events” is too anodyne and the term “revolution” too hyperbolic to do the job. The Khomeinist leadership in Tehran started by using the term “disturbances” (eghteshashat) as if we were dealing with a stampede in a bazaar or a crowd crash in a Spanish bullfight arena. When it became clear that “disturbances” in some 100 cities couldn’t be dismissed in so cavalier a manner, the Khomeinist authorities went for their fallback position of blaming foreign conspirators for the whole thing.  Thus, state propaganda gave us the term “conspiracy” (to-teheh) with a colorful cast of characters supposedly involved. These included US President Donald Trump, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the Barzani clique in Iraqi Kurdistan, a brother-in- law of Saddam Hussein, a cousin of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and a retired CIA spook converted to the “wrong kind of Islam”. Within days, however, the Khomeinist tune had become laughable.  How could such a disparate cast of characters put so many angry Iranians on the streets? And how could such big chunks of the Khomeinist establishment itself express sympathy with the protesters rather than shower them with abuse in the manner he mullahs have used since time immemorial? No, the term “conspiracy” wouldn’t do either.

The Khomeinist propaganda barons then turned to the term “sedition” (fitnah) which has several advantages as far as they are concerned. To start with this is a theological term that denotes a major schism in which the established version of the faith of is challenged by a rival narrative backed by the sword. Thus, the Khomeinist message was the protesters were directly attacking Islam. News outlets controlled by Islamic Security even put out footage and print reportages with photos claiming that the protesters were burning mosques and hussainiehs. The subtext was that Iranian protesters were like the Syrians who had risen against Bashar al-Assad with the sole aim of: destroy holy shrines and tombs. However, the term “sedition” didn’t stick either. In fact, one remarkable feature of the protests was that, for the first time in Iranian contemporary history, there was no religious undertone in any of the slogans and speeches made by protest leaders. What we witnessed in Iran was a political movement with political aims. The next attempt to misrepresent the “events” was to brand them as “economic”. Some former Obama administration officials and Khomeinist lobbyists in the US and Europe tried the gimmick to claim that the Khomeinist regime remains politically popular but faces popular anger because of economic sanctions that have made life difficult for most Iranians. When it became clear that most of the slogans were political that term, too, became redundant. In any case, the whole thing was based on a misreading of Marx’s division of reality into “economic infrastructure” and “political superstructure.”

Many Iranians, including some within the regime, implicitly agree that the mullahs took over a fairly prosperous country four decades ago and turned it into a poor house where up to five million suffer from chronic hunger and a further 25 million are housed in slums unfit for human habitation. And, yet, they know that the nation’s economic woes are a result of the regime’s reckless policies at home and abroad. Thus, what we witnessed was a national political revolt against the status quo. The term national does not mean that the whole of Iran or even a majority were involved. The revolt was national because it cut across class, regional ethnic and religious divides. In some places, for example Isfahan, the richest local families were marching alongside the poorest of the city with middle class and lower middle class people also on side. In Arak, an industrial city, workers and their industrialist employers marched shoulder to shoulder to indicate they were fed up with the Khomeinist system. The revolt also skirted the generation gap, bringing together people of all ages. To be sure, most protesters were young; and over 90 percent of the 3,000 or so arrested by Islamic Security are aged below 30. But who could forget the scenes in which men and women in their 80s led the marches in Mash’had, Tabriz , Shiraz and Kerman?

The national revolt also cut across the gender gap by bringing together almost as many women as men. In many places, even smaller towns, women assumed leadership or revived the memory of Pasionaria with their fiery speeches. While the Khomeinist set-up includes a few thousand clerics it certainly does not represent the whole of the Shi’ite clergy; this is why many mullah and students of theology joined the revolt, emphasizing its national character. It is interesting that none of the top or even middle –ranking mullahs of Qom, Mash’had or Najaf came out in support of the regime by condemning the national revolt. The regime had to find its defenders among a few hundred mullahs on government payroll. Because the revolt took place in every one of 31 provinces it brought together all of the nation’s 18 ethnic communities The revolt was national for another reason: no political party or group or known political personality played a major role in it. Almost all parties, including virtually all those who had supported Khomeini in 1978-79 joined the revolt, at least verbally, as did an amazing roster of former top officials and apologists of the Khomeinist system. Of the 290 members of the Islamic Majlis, the ersatz parliament, at least 60 made some noise in support of the revolt. Also remarkable was the reluctance of the military elite, especially in the regular army, to stand against the national revolt, at least in its early stages.

What happened was unprecedented in Iran’s contemporary history.

It was a truly national revolt against the established order. It didn’t offer a clear alternative but helped clear the air by puncturing the Khomeinist regime’s claim of invincibility. Even a year ago few would admit that the Khomeinist system was overthrowable. Now many, including some of the regime’s lobbyists abroad, publicly do so. In 1989, Ali Khamenei had this to say to a session of the Assembly of Experts that hastily named him “Supreme Guide”: “One must shed tears of blood for Islamic ummah if I am considered worthy of becoming its leader.”

I don’t think crying tears of blood is the only option. A soberer option is to close the chapter of Khomeinism, Supreme-Guidism and related nonsensical notions by allowing the Iranian nation to reshape its life in a rational manner. The national revolt was about the change that may be delayed but won’t be denied.

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