City of Brass

City of Brass

Revolutionizing the Iran Revolution

posted by Aziz Poonawalla


Today is the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran – the original one in 1979 which  overthrew the Shah and ushered in the era of theological “vilayat-e-faqih” rule by the Ayatollah.

There’s probably no better resource on the history and background of Iran’s history before and after the Islamic Revolution than the novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (and it’s sequels).

This anniversary of the Revolution is unique, in that it’s symbolic value is being claimed by the Green Revolution protestors who see their struggle as the continuation of the revolution in 1979. There has been violence and clashes between anti-govt and pro-govt protestors during the official celebrations of the anniversary today. Unlike the deposed Shah, the regime still has a lot of support from mainstream conservatives in Iranian society, and the Green Revolution is exacerbating this purely internal tension.

It’s critical to understand that the Green Revolution protestors see themselves as the true heirs to the spirit of 1979 and the present regime as corrupt and having deviated from that ideal. The leaders of the reform movement – Moussavi, Rafsanjani, even Karroubi – are all old guard establishment figures who explicitly seek to reform the existing system, not revolutionize it. From the start, the protestors have embraced the 1979 Revolution and wrapped themselves and their cause in their faith, something I’ve actually critiqued*. It’s important to remember and emphasize this point, because much of the pro-Iranian right (who treat the Green Revolution as just another club with which to bash President Obama’s foreign policy) seems to believe that Neda Soltan died as a martyr for western democracy.

The truth is that Obama’s approach to Iran has been well-calibrated, by not interfering overly in the election protests (and thus giving the regime and excuse for de-legitimizing the Green Revolution by association with the US – which would have undermined the Greens’ Islamic credentials). Meanwhile, the Obama Administration made every good faith effort for negotiation over the nuclear program, but Iran has been unresponsive. Tehran’s recalcitrance has alienated its allies like China and Russia as the US calls for targeted economic sanctions. Had the US imposed sanctions right at the start without a year’s worth of diplomatic effort, it’s doubtful that there would be any Security Council resolve for punishment. If not for Obama’s policy, we could have been seen as a schoolyard bully; instead Iran is seen as a stubborn child.

Where does Iran go from here? Much of the answer to that question does depend on us – how we engage with Iran will certainly help shape its course. for example, if the rightwing had its way we would be bombing Iran right now. And the uncritical support for Israel by the US also skews our perspective of Iran, since the Israelis have largely succeeded in (falsely) painting Tehran as a literal existential threat to the Jewish people as a whole – Netanyahu’s self-serving rhetoric about Iran as Amalek exactly parallels anti-Semitic rhetoric about wiping Israel off the face of the map or pushing Jews into the sea.

But assuming that Obama can hold the narrow line, and succeed in keeping pressure on Iran with diplomacy and economic sanction, then the Green Revolution will play out inside Iran to its inevitable conclusion. After all, the Islamic Revolution only started in 1979. And the lesson of history has always been that a drive for liberty from within, always succeeds. If we give Iran the room it needs, it will indeed mature into something new, and wonderful.

*Note that the symbolism of Karbala at the time of Neda’s death was undeniable. I took issue however with making the explicit analogy during Ashura observances,

Related: see NIAC’s live-blogging of the celebrations and protests of the anniversary in Iran, including some must-see footage of protestors tearing down a photo of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Keep in mind that there are millions of Iranians who would find this incredibly offensive, and that the protestors though laying claim to 1979 do not yet have the support of all the Iranian people. Also, the Joy Cardin show is talking about Iran this morning, with noted Iranian historian and CUNY professor Ervand Abrahamian.

  • Paul A’Barge

    Anyone watching all 3 shells as Poonawalla engages in this logical version of the Monte game?

  • M. Report

    As Iran moves toward its goal of becoming
    the 1st 1st World Islamic Nation, it might
    profit from the experience of others who
    have found nuclear weapons a curse, and
    nuclear (fission) energy a mixed blessing;
    The future belongs to fusion power, which
    is a harmless, clean source of power.

  • willis

    “the regime still has a lot of support from mainstream conservatives in Iranian society, and the Green Revolution is exacerbating this purely internal tension.”
    As a conservative I take offense to this categorization of radicals supporting the current regime in Iran who are the antithesis of conservatism; especially given that their biggest supporters in the West are the “progressives.”

  • TMLutas

    The 1979 revolution was a much more pluralistic affair at the start than at the end. Being an heir to 1979 isn’t necessarily something that the US right would have a problem with. I also reject, once again, the idea that the right is unified around the idea of bombing Iran. Creating straw men is not particularly useful to real conversation, no matter how personally satisfying it is to beat them into the ground. This includes the straw man about Amalek.
    Iran does not become Amalek until a nuclear Iran attacks Israel. Amalek does not come under God’s wrath until after they attack the jews as they leave Egypt. If Iran is Amalek today in the minds of Israelis then so is Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and all the rest of its neighbors. No, Iran has done nothing special to distinguish itself in its emnity against Israel, certainly nothing more than Egypt has done. A simple followup question of “is Egypt also Amalek” would have clarified the matter. I suspect you did not ask it.
    I will not critique Obama’s foreign policy response (he has so many others jogging his elbow) so much as his domestic one. Dual national Iranian-Americans in this country have been threatened by this regime both personally and in the form of their families. Obama has not addressed this threat properly. He has not addressed it at all. That undermines basic principles of US sovereignty, a defense of which are in President Obama’s core job description.
    You mistake the position of Russia entirely which is to keep Iran stable but isolated so Iran cannot build pipelines from central asia to the sea. Russia supports one side and the other in order to calibrate the result of a non-nuclear, poor, weak Iran. Russia’s entire EU policy depends on this.
    A final note, it is not necessary for Iran’s Green movement to gain the support of everybody. At the close of the US revolution, an exodus of tories to Canada and other points happened because even in victory Washington did not command the full support of the people. I do not think that such unanimity is realistic anyplace, much less in Iran where outside powers have an interest in propping up the current regime.

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