10. 20. 2022
Iran: A History of Violence and a Revolution in the Making
The uprising underway in Iran is revolutionary in form and intent. It extends throughout the country, cuts across social differences, and explicitly calls for an overthrow of the state, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). Now entering its fifth week, it has persisted in the face of extraordinary state violence. Given the implications of this uprising for Iranian society, the region, and the international struggle for liberation, it warrants solidarity and a close examination. This interview with the Toronto-based Iranian-Canadian activist and scholar Behnam Amini offers both.
1 – The revolutionary context in Iran
Let’s begin with some recent history for context. This isn’t the first nation-wide uprising that the IRI has faced. There was the Green Movement in 2009, and the anti-government protests in late 2017 and late 2019. Should we read these as cascading expressions of the same historical struggle, or are they more or less distinct conflagrations?
These mass protests bear similarities, but there are also important distinctions between them. The 2009 Green Movement was predominantly a middle-class uprising. It was concerned primarily with the integrity of elections and civil rights, and concentrated in major urban centers. Although the movement became increasingly radicalized towards its end and attracted some revolutionary participants, it was for the most part reformist in its goals. Eventually, a combination of violent state crackdown and ineffectual leadership that couldn’t articulate a progressive roadmap put an end to it.
The 2017 and 2019 protests were qualitatively different. They marked an end to the popularity of the reformist politics that had informed the Green Movement in 2009. This was a politics focused on incremental change through electoralism, represented by the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). Instead, these later protests called for the revolutionary overthrow of the IRI. They were motivated by frustrations with growing inequality, economic insecurity, and corruption. They were also geographically more dispersed, extending to the peripheries of the country. Even in smaller cities we saw the active participation of working class people and the urban poor. The IRI’s response was also enormously harsher than in 2009. During the 2019 protests, according to some estimates, around 1500 protesters were killed.
The current uprising shares most of the features of the 2017 and 2019 protests. More importantly, it’s happening in both Iran’s metropoles and its peripheries, attracting protesters from the middle class, the working class, and the urban poor.
As we enter the fifth week of these protests, the degree of violence with which the IRI has responded to them has united many Iranians in shock and anger. Images of state forces shooting protesters en masse, killing drivers who honk in protest, breaking into homes to carry away family members, using children as riot police – this list continues to grow, as does the number of deaths (currently estimated to be 220). How do you explain this violence? Does it imply a deficit of strategy on the state’s part? Is it rooted in something endemic to the IRI and its history?
The scale and substance of this violence, its resentment of dissent and compulsion for control, proceeds from the manner in which the IRI has secured the interests of its ruling clique. Within two years of the 1979 revolution, the Islamists had monopolized state power. They formed a theocracy where Shi’ite clerics faithful to Khomeini, the founder and first supreme leader of the IRI, and his doctrine of “the guardianship of the shi’ite jurist” (Welayate-faqih) occupied the top state positions. According to this doctrine, society is subject to the leadership of a supreme head of state in whose figure all the branches of government converge. The Islamists also took control of big capital – major industries – in the name of nationalizing the economy.
That’s why I describe the IRI as “state capitalism in its strictest sense,” using a term originated by Nicos Poulantzas, the Greek-French state theorist. According to the IRI’s constitution, all matters of legislation, governance, and the judiciary must comply with Islamic injunctions – in effect, the ruling clergy’s interpretation of Sharia law, meant to serve the interests of the dominant clique. While liberal features such as the separation of powers and elections were kept in place, they were always a facade. The reality is that the circulation of power has remained within the bounds of the ruling clique and those closely affiliated with them.
All political factions of this ruling clique, from hardliners to “reformists,” have been involved in the violent suppression of political dissent. They carried out a bloody repression of the Iranian left in the 1980s, killing more than 10,000 people, including the massacre of more than 5000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988. The IRI has also systematically assassinated dozens of key oppositional figures, including poets, writers, and religious leaders. This ruthlessness is hard to exaggerate.
It’s not just the Iranian state’s critics that fall victim to its targeted brutality, either. The past decade is instructive. In January 2020, the IRI intentionally shot down a passenger flight and denied doing so. In 2012, the regime arrested more than a hundred ordinary citizens with no record of political activism, inflicting enormous physical and mental harm on them. Those arrested were eventually forced to confess to assassinations of several Iranian nuclear scientists and spying for Israel.
More generally, extraordinary invasive measures of social control have been a perennial feature of the IRI. These range from extensive gender-based restrictions targeting women, a ban on alcoholic drinks, and raids on private social gatherings, to gruesome penal provisions that include stoning for adultery (a punishment imposed especially during the ’80s and ’90s), public hanging, flogging, and maiming. These measures are sometimes implemented quite arbitrarily, because law enforcement officers are protected by the state and can treat ordinary citizens however they wish. Your readers may be surprised, but growing up in Iran I was personally harassed by police for kissing my girlfriend, dancing, eating during Ramadan, listening to loud music, and once simply for laughing out loud with my high school friends, not to mention the numerous beatings and a period of imprisonment for my political activism.
You’ve recently written about the power arrangements around which the Islamic Republic is organized. The current Supreme Leader (Ali Khamenei) is commonly regarded, not least by Iranians themselves, as having the last word in matters of state. But you’ve argued that this primacy has shifted in recent years toward the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). How do you explain this shift? What does it mean for the ability of Iranians to mobilize against the state, much less to overthrow it?
The totalitarian and repressive nature of the IRI doesn’t mean that this political establishment has ruled only through coercion. The religious character of the state ideology in a Muslim-majority country, as well as wide-ranging social provisions (thanks largely to oil revenue), helped the IRI in its early years to manufacture consent, particularly among those disenfranchised under the pre-revolutionary monarchy. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the vast state bureaucracy also offered extensive job opportunities to religious and conservative populations with working-class and peasant backgrounds. All these economic developments had the positive effect of narrowing the class divide in the 1980s.
But this all started to dramatically change with the neoliberal shift in state policies that began in the early 1990s. This shift involved massive privatization of public and nationally owned industries and services, which largely meant their transfer to the hands of state-affiliated institutions, particularly the IRGC.
The IRGC’s involvement in the Iranian economy intensified further when its engineering arms took over many large-scale infrastructure projects in the transportation, steel, oil, and petrochemical sectors. This combination of military and economic powers enabled the IRGC to expand its political foothold; since the early 2000s, IRGC commanders have become government ministers, MPs, governors, mayors, members of the Supreme Council of National Security and the Expediency Council, a state organ tasked with resolving disputes between legislative bodies. The IRGC also has its own news agencies, TV and radio stations, and film production company, as well as its own intelligence service, which acts independently of the Ministry of Intelligence and is not subject to oversight by parliament. No longer just a military organization, the IRGC has become a state within a state.
Because Khamenei still enjoys considerable support within the conservative and ideologically committed base of the IRI, I have called Iran’s current state form a military-clerical dictatorship. It’s likely that in a post-Khamenei Iran, the IRGC may turn the country’s government into a military dictatorship, or appoint a weak jurist to the supreme leadership and thereby run a de facto military dictatorship. Given the highly pragmatic politics of the top commanders of the IRGC, it is also possible that a leader or leaders with little to no commitment to religious fundamentalism might arise from the organization and, by hijacking the current uprising, replace the IRI with a secular dictatorship.
2 – This Uprising
Mahsa Amini was murdered by a particular organ of police in Iran: the so-called Morality Police. This vice squad is notorious for violently arresting women and humiliating them in public on account of “immodest” attire. Despite being subject to criticism, even from within the ranks of Iran’s political elites, this force has persisted. What’s behind their continued operation?
Early on, in the wake of the 1979 revolution, Khomeini and his Islamist supporters used numerous ideological tools to divide society and attack the opposition, in order to secure their hegemony among the numerous revolutionary forces and consolidate their monopoly on political power. They weaponized Islam against non-Muslims and non-religious people, fomented nationalist sentiments against national minorities, and institutionalized patriarchal values against women. One of the very first steps they took in the latter direction was the attempt to make women’s veiling mandatory within the first month of the revolution. Groups of women, including some veiled women, initially took to the streets and demonstrated against the mandatory hijab for six consecutive days. But none of the important, well-known liberal and leftist political organizations seriously supported them. Although many leftist organizations were against the compulsory hijab policy, they did not resist it, because they believed that at that historical moment, the fight against the imperialist counterrevolution ought to be prioritized. This made it easier for the Khomeinists to impose their will on women. By the early 1980s, the mandatory hijab policy was enshrined in the constitution. Since then, it has become one of the ruling Islamists’ main instruments of social control.
Yet many women have resisted compulsory hijab in various ways throughout the past forty years. In addition to the common practice of wearing the hijab more casually – for example, letting it only loosely cover the hair – individual acts of resistance have also garnered much attention. For example, in 1994, the pediatrician and scholar Homa Darabi set herself on fire in a street in Tehran in protest of the mandatory hijab law. In December 2017, a woman named Vida Movahed appeared without a hijab in a crowded place in Tehran and hung her headscarf on a stick. Other women were inspired by her and repeated the same symbolic protest, which led to their arrest.
Despite this increase in women’s civil disobedience in opposition to mandatory hijab and the Morality Police, the government has continued to use these institutions of repression. Doing so allows the IRI to keep its deeply religious and conservative social base satisfied. In the eyes of this base, the state’s legitimacy is partly dependent on the continued enforcement of religious virtue. There is also the issue of the political economy of the hijab in Iran. Every year, USD $100 million of black fabric is imported for the production and sale of the chador, a body-length garment that the IRI pressures women to wear. These revenues benefit the traditional commercial bourgeoisie, closely affiliated with the IRI. The policing of women’s attire, in other words, ensures continued “demand” for the hijab industry.
Despite the violence they face, we see today’s protesters in Iran standing their ground and sometimes converging on police positions. We see secondary school students – especially girls – walking out of classes and taking to the streets. Do you think there is something qualitatively new about the confrontational ethic of this uprising? And if there is, what do you attribute it to?
It’s true that people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s have a strong presence in these street protests. In a sense, we’re talking about Iran’s Generation Z, whose values and perceptions of “the good life” are very different from those prescribed by the state. But we shouldn’t exaggerate the qualitative differences between this generation and previous ones. It’s clear that today’s protestors defend themselves much more vigorously against the violence of security forces, but there were also physical confrontations between protesters and police in 2017 and 2019; some police officers were even killed.
One of the main reasons for the increased militancy of today’s younger generation of Iranians in the streets, in my opinion, is that they have been less influenced by the hegemony of the so-called Reformist movement. This was a political movement that emerged from within the political establishment of the IRI. Its hallmark was the pursuit of incremental change through electoral politics and non-violence. Its influence on political dissent – favouring respectability politics – weighed heavily on previous generations such as my own. This radical political energy directed against the government was not absent in the last two decades, but reformist politics watered it down to a great extent. Iran’s Generation Z is lucky to have been less exposed to those politics.
The rallying cry for this recent uprising is “Woman, Life, Liberty” (Zan, Zendegi, Azadi). The origin of this slogan, however, is Kurdish (Jin, Jiyan, Azadi). Can you tell us a little about its significance to the Kurdish liberation struggle? Does its uptake in Persian political discourse represent an expading horizon for feminism in Iran today?
The slogan Jin-Jiyan-Azadi was born in the Kurdish movement affiliated with the Kurdistan’s Workers Party or the PKK. According to one account, it was first chanted by Kurdish women on March 8, 2006, in Turkey. This was part of the struggle of Kurdish women activists for gender equality within the ranks of the PKK and in Kurdish society. Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, made the liberation of women a central feature of his political philosophy and program for the liberation of people in Kurdistan, as well as in other societies. Ocalan believes that before the rise of statist civilization, women were in charge of administering human communities based on principles of sharing and solidarity as opposed to ownership and force. The emergence of hierarchical societies, in this view, institutionalized the domination of women by men. Which means the liberation of women must be so central to any emancipatory politics that seeks to transform such societies.
These ideas traveled from North Kurdistan in Turkey to West Kurdistan (Rojava) in Syria and then to East Kurdistan in Iran. From there, the Persian translation of this slogan – woman, life, liberty – spread across Iran. Most people chanting this slogan are not familiar with that history and philosophy. In my opinion, however, each and every word of the slogan resonates so well with many Iranians that they have embraced it as their rallying cry for the current insurgency. Women, life itself, and freedom are all so repressed by the Islamic Republic that perhaps only such a slogan could express the deep frustration and disillusionment that the majority of Iranians feel with the conditions of their lives.
Does all this mean that feminism is espoused by the majority of Iranians? Definitely not. I’m not even sure that all Iranian feminists would necessarily agree with the philosophy behind the slogan Jin-Jiyan-Azadi. But one thing is for certain: from now on, no polity in Iran, whether in the IRI or whatever comes after its overthrow, will survive without addressing the current gender apartheid in the country.
Commentators have compared these protests to those of the Black Lives Movement in the US that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Like that uprising, this one was triggered by a single murder and quickly gained traction. In Iran today, however, in a more widespread way than during the George Floyd uprisings, protesters are calling for the total overthrow of the state. In fact, it was just a few days into these protests that an insurrectionary slogan started to become popular: “Don’t call it a protest, it’s a revolution now!”
The fact of a single injustice spiralling out to generate far-reaching and revolutionary demands is certainly not unique to these protests. It was the self-immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia in protest of police harassment, after all, that sparked the whole Arab Spring. Similar dynamics were also at play in 2019 when mass protests broke out in Chile, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon in response to abhorrent state policies. But this time round, there have been attempts by some Iranian emigrants, who have a track record of whitewashing and trivializing the violence of the IRI, to represent the uprising as reformist and pretend the demands of protesters can be reduced to the removal of the Morality Police. Yet virtually none of the slogans chanted in the streets have been about the Morality Police. Instead, people are chanting “Death to the dictator,” “Death to Khamenei,” and “We don’t want the Islamic Republic.”
There are two major reasons for this: one is that the majority of Iranian people believe that no significant reforms are possible under the IRI, given its consistently violent suppression of dissent throughout its past 43 years. Second, and more important: even if the establishment makes concessions in the case of the mandatory hijab policy, the people’s demands go far beyond abolishing the state-sanctioned dress code. They’re fuelled by the unbearable economic, political, and social conditions in the country. Many Iranians rightly view the ruling clique of the IRI as a cabal of criminals, and want to bring them to justice for their corruption and crimes against humanity.
Some foreign coverage of these protests is already chalking them up to the economic hardship caused in Iran by the US-led imposition of sanctions. The economic condition of the country has indeed been dire for almost a decade – rates of unemployment and inflation, for example, are extraordinarily high. How large an effect have sanctions had in causing Iran’s economy to flounder in this way? And are the protests motivated primarily by a desire for economic relief?
To say that the dire economic situation in Iran is caused primarily by US sanctions is yet another ideological trope that effectively exonerates the IRI. This line of reasoning, which is unfortunately also very popular with many sections of the international left, is pushed by a particular section of Western-based Iranian capitalists who have large investments in Iran and therefore wish for the sanctions to be lifted. This class is represented by groups like the National Iranian Americans Council (NIAC) and the current and previous boards of the Iranian Canadian Council (ICC).
While the anti-sanctions politics of these groups is economically motivated, prominent Western leftists including Noam Chomsky and Bernie Sanders also espouse those positions. It’s really disappointing how many Western leftists are taken in by such politics. In some cases, well-known leftist media have continued to give a platform to notorious liberal apologists of the Iranian state, completely failing to pursue a class analysis of the situation in Iran. For many Iranians of various class backgrounds living in the peripheral regions of the country, as well as the working class and a growing number of members of the urban middle classes in the country’s “centre,” the economic hardship began with the neoliberal shift in the IRI’s economic policies in the late 1980s and early 1990s: massive privatization of government-owned industries, gradual erosion of state subsidies for fuel and food, precarization of work, an increasing rate of privatization of social services like education and healthcare, the exponential growth of private banks and credit institutions causing inflation – and skyrocketing systemic corruption among the ruling clique.
The US sanctions exacerbated the crippling effects of some of these realities. But to overlook these structural issues and blame systematic class exploitation in Iran on foreign sanctions alone is dishonest and misleading, to say the least.
3 – The path forward
National minorities represent roughly half of the Iranian population (e.g. Kurds, Azeri Turks, Arabs, Balouchs, etc). Protagonists of the 1979 revolution either lacked a clear program for integrating ethnic minorities into a future democratic polity or, frankly, didn’t intend to. How might a revolutionary process today address the demands of these marginalized populations? If it fails to do so, how could this affect the prospect of democracy in the aftermath of the Islamic Republic?
Structural inequalities between the central and peripheral parts of the country, the latter composed mainly of ethnic minorities, have been a source of political tension since the formation of a modern nation-state in Iran in the early 20th century. Exploitation of the peripheries by the centre, as well as racism and the forced assimilation of non-Persians, has triggered nationalist or separatist tendencies in the peripheries. The 1979 revolution seemed like it might address these injustices, but due to a powerful Persian nationalist and centralist tendency shared by the Islamists and the majority of their liberal and leftist rivals, the hopes of national minorities were quickly dashed. Nevertheless, social consciousness regarding the cultural rights of minority ethnicities has grown, both within those minority communities in the periphery and among layers of the middle and working classes in the centre.
Earlier this year, for example, the hashtag #ManoFarsi (“Me and Persian”) was taken up by many non-Persians narrating their experiences of forced assimilation. In the current protests, we are also hearing chants of solidarity among Kurds, Balouchs, Turks, Arabs, Lors, Gilaks; expressions of solidarity with ethnic minorities can be heard not just in the peripheries but also in some central provinces. Significant agreement about the right of minorities to learn their “mother tongues” in formal education can also be seen among the IRI’s Persian opposition. But this opposition is still averse to decentralization, and it largely lacks the political will and a concrete plan for redressing the economic and political inequality between the centre and the peripheries. My hope is that the country’s national minorities will build stronger political links not only among themselves, but also with the progressive forces in the centre, so they can radically democratize the country together in a post-IRI future.
Iran has a large diaspora, concentrated mostly in the Global North. Recently, a coordinated day of action saw marches by émigré Iranians across the world. By most accounts Toronto’s march was the largest of these, swelling to more than 50,000 people. Within this diaspora there are organized groups that have continued to press for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The Mojahedin, for example, stands out for the size of its official membership and the extent of its alliances with political figures in the United States. The son of the former Shah, too, represents a certain bloc of diaspora Iranians, sections of the bourgeoisie who fled the scene once the Shah was deposed. Should a revolution unfold in Iran in the coming days and weeks, are you concerned that these organized elements in the diaspora could be poised to hijack it as the Islamists hijacked the previous one?
One of the important lessons of the Arab Spring revolutions was that although governments could be overthrown or weakened by an insurgency – in Syria, for example – it was already-organized political entities that seized the state on the day after the revolution. For a variety of historical and social reasons, Islamist and jihadist organizations were the main beneficiaries of those events, but they were not the only ones. In Tunisia, due to the organizational strength of labour unions, the outcome was relatively democratic. Also, the political influence and organizing efforts of the PKK made a progressive polity possible in Rojava and elsewhere in northern Syria.
In Iran, however, the Islamic Republic has all but crushed organized political opposition. Outside the country, Kurdish political parties exert an important influence: during the current protests, they have called for a general strike four times in less than a month, and most Kurdish cities have complied. There are also some industrial labour unions, student associations, and a strong teachers’ union who – despite a ban on independent labour unions – have managed to carry out a myriad of collective actions over the years. Since the outbreak of today’s wave of protests, teachers’ unions and contract workers in the oil and petrochemical industries have gone on strike for several days. This is the first time since the early 1980s that labour unions have joined mass protests.
As for the conservative and pro-West groups like the monarchists and the Mojahedin-e Khalgh (MEK), most of what is said about their popularity is propaganda. The only tactical advantages they have are the capital they possess and some political support from within the US establishment. Still, unless the protesters escalate their organizing and form neighborhood and city coordinating committees – of which we’re seeing nascent elements in a few Kurdish cities – these right-wing groups may pose grave risks to the progressive character of this uprising, and to the country as a whole in a post-Islamic Republic future.
Behnam Amini is a doctoral candidate in Social and Political Thought (York University) and a longtime political activist. Behnam has written extensively on Iranian politics as well as the Kurdish question in various English and Persian journals, including but not limited to Open Democracy, The Bullet, BBC Persian, and Radio Zamaneh.