The Mussadeqist middle classes, who provided the façade of the movement, used the word “nehzat” (awakening, in Arabic an-nahda) which was the name of their principal organization. The mullahs, who were still anxious not to take personal risks, suggested the word “qiyam”(uprising) because it recalled the events of Karbala in 680 when Husayn, the third Imam, was martyred. The dozen or so leftist groups, some of them armed and trained in Cuba and the Palestinian camps, favored the word “shuresh khalq”: people’s rebellion.
Then one evening, the Shah, broken by a cancer that had been kept secret, appeared on television and, reading from a text, surprised everyone by saying: “I have heard the voice of your revolution.”
Suddenly, “revolution” was the word everyone claimed to have been looking for. Initially, the groups involved in the turmoil had not wanted to use it because the Shah had used it to describe his own reform package as the White Revolution.
Well, now the Shah was giving his beloved term of “revolution” to his opponents. Was not that a sign that he would soon also hand over his power on a silver plate? The answer came a few weeks later, when the Shah conducted secret talks to form a ramshackle interim government that would allow him and his family to fly out of Iran. He was not prepared to stand and fight because, he argued, a king is not a despot and cannot therefore kill his people in order to stay in power.
However, the adoption of the term “revolution” did not end the debate. The diverse groups involved in the anti-Shah movement had different, often contradictory, ideologies and agendas. Much of the Left wished to use the adjective “bourgeois–democratic” to describe the “revolution” in the hope that this would be the prelude to the real “proletarian revolution.” Leftist guerrilla groups dreamed of a Mao-style “people’s republic” and tried to label the events as “popular revolution” (enqelab khalq).
However, once the Shah was gone, the mullahs quickly moved to fill the gap left by his absence.
For more than four centuries only two rival, and at times complementary, narratives had dominated Iranian politics: the nationalist and the Islamist. The Shah had been the spokesman for the nationalist discourse, emphasizing Iran’s ancient history as an “Aryan” nation with Islam only one of many ingredients that formed the complex Iranian identity. In 1979, deprived of its chief standard-bearer, that discourse appeared to be on the losing side. The alternative discourse, the Islamist one, was left unchallenged. According to that narrative, all of Iran’s pre-Islamic history belonged to “The Age of Darkness “(Jahiliyah). It was now time for Iran to assert its exclusively Islamic identity, assume leadership of the Muslim world, and forge a new Islamic superpower to stand up to the two “infidel” super-powers of the United States and the Soviet Union.
Having imposed the Islamist narrative, the mullahs started capturing the centers of power one after another, getting rid of many of their allies, at times simply by having them assassinated. What the mullahs could not do was to wish away the fundamental contradiction of Iranian existence for the past 15 centuries. There is ample evidence in Iranian literature and history to show that while Iranians don’t want to abandon Islam they are, at the same time, uncomfortable with being Muslims. Under the nationalist discourse they were unhappy because they thought, perhaps wrongly, that they were being invited to jettison Islam. Under the Islamist discourse, they started to fear that the mullahs wished to deprive them of their Iranian-ness.
The regime had changed along with the discourse, but the Iranian schizophrenia was still very much in place. Thirty-five years after the mullahs seized power, that contradiction remains unresolved and is, in a sense, the root cause of the Khomeinist regime’s bizarre behavior at home and abroad. The new regime had to accommodate contradictory aspirations. It had to describe itself as a republic, although there is no such thing in any Islamic tradition. It also had to use the label Islamic, although that had never been used by any of the 300 or so Muslim dynasties that had ruled Iran for 14 centuries. Finally, it used the word Iran, although Islam is a universal faith cutting across national boundaries. This is why the “Supreme Guide” is described as leader of Muslims throughout the world, not just Iran.
The new Khomeinist regime established itself at a heavy cost in human lives. In the first decade of the regime, almost 150,000 people were executed or killed in armed clashes and violent suppression of local revolts. For its part, the eight-year Iran–Iraq War claimed almost a million lives on both sides. Since then, the regime has executed an average of 10 people each day. Almost 7 million Iranians, nearly 10 percent of the population, have been forced into exile, creating in part the “biggest brain-drain in history.” according to the World Bank. Over the past 35 years millions of Iranians have been imprisoned, often on spurious charges, and today Iran has the third-largest number of political prisoners: some 4,000 according to human rights organizations.
Economically, Iran has had a history of under-achievement, to say the least. In 1978, Iran was richer than South Korea and, in terms of income per head, was on the same level as Spain. Today, South Korea is number 13 and Spain number 15, while Iran has fallen to number 18 in terms of gross domestic product. In terms of annual growth rate, Iran, suffering from several years of negative growth, is number 208 in a list of 215 nations. The myth of “self-sufficiency” (khod-kafai) peddled by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, combined with the effects of crippling sanctions, have kept Iran in a technological limbo.
The Khomeinist regime had three sources of legitimacy. The first was that of a successful revolution. In history, the side that wins automatically acquires a measure of legitimacy. However, that source of legitimacy has been eroded over the years as the new regime has created a new ruling class and moved away from original revolutionary aspirations. The regime’s second source of legitimacy was its reference to the people in the form of a series of elections which, though not perfect, initially allowed a limited mechanism for debate and choice. That source has also been eroded as a result of increasingly “arranged” elections with pre-approved candidates and massaged results. This is why voter participation has been on the decline. In the last presidential election, for example, voter turnout was the lowest ever since the establishment of the Khomeinist regime, and Hassan Rouhani won with the lowest percentage of votes cast of any president.
The third source of legitimacy came from a promise of a better life for the poor. That, too, has been eroded with the growing inequality across the board. In last Friday’s Prayer in Tehran, Ayatollah Muwahhedi Kermani offered a grim portrayal of a society split between the haves and the have-nots. “Someone must think of those crushed by misery,” he appealed. That came a few days after the government tried to alleviate pressure on the poor by distributing five million package of food in a system of wartime rationing.
But has the Khomeinist revolution produced no positive results? The answer is that it has. No phenomenon in history is entirely positive or negative. The first positive result of the revolution is that it has politicized the Iranians. Before the revolution most people thought that politics concerned only a few thousand people in Tehran. Today, many Iranians, perhaps even a majority, have developed an acute political sense that, given time and space, could help them develop a more humane and democratic system of government. Today, it is much harder to deceive Iranians with promises of revolutionary miracles. Having been mugged, they have become street-wise. The second positive aspect is related to the above. Before the revolution we had a thin layer of high-quality leadership at the higher levels but little or nothing in the middle or below. Today, the reverse is true. Today, even in remote provincial towns, one could find leadership levels capable of understanding and explaining the situation. Our middle and lower leadership levels are of a much higher quality than the upper echelon, with people like Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani. Iran also has a vast reservoir of managerial talent that it did not have 35 years ago—at that time our media had a handful of star reporters and editors. Today we have many, many more, perhaps more than any other nation in the Middle East. Given a minimum of freedom and latitude they could do wonders.
Of course, part of these things might have happened anyway, with or without the revolution. But the fact is that they have happened during the revolutionary era. More importantly, perhaps, the tragedy of 1979 and its consequences have forced many Iranians, perhaps even a majority, to think seriously about the makeup of their identity. How much Iranian and how much Islamic? The answer to that question requires recognition of politics as a common public space for all citizens regardless of their individual and group specifics, including religion.
Recognizing that fact would give Iran the true revolution it has been dreaming of for 150 years, yet never attained despite many false dawns.