Thousands of Iranians gathered in the streets of many cities across Iran to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the 1979 revolution. In Tehran, Iranians gathered in Azadi Square to acknowledge the ousting of the American-backed Iranian Shah Reza Pohlavi by followers of Ayatollah Khomeini. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called for unity after a series of protests swept the Islamic Republic last year into the beginning of this year.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution was a seismic event that not only had a greater impact on the Middle East, but throughout the world. Thirty-nine years on, the revolution transformed Iran from a monarchy to a republic with checks and balances under different administrations of power. In addition, Iran has also become more self-sufficient on self-defense making advances on military hardware from ballistic missiles to submarines.
And most importantly, Iran has strengthened its independence. Gone are the days of CIA orchestrated coups against the democratically elected leader (most notably Operation Ajax in 1953), and installing a pro-western Shah. However, the Islamic Republic faces many pressing challenges that directly impact ordinary Iranians. The economy tops the list of challenges for the Rouhani Administration resulting from a combination of western sanctions and government mismanagement of financial resources.
In addition, both these factors have led to high unemployment (especially for the youth), inflation, and a de-valued currency. Secondly is the challenge of the political system reflected by last year’s protests in which he government has to make the revolution relevant to a younger generation born after 1979. Related to this is political freedom restrictions on the opposition, and the imprisonment of dissenting voices, which have contributed to internal instability.
Back then, high income inequality and expectations that conditions would get better under the Shah did not exactly pan out. In 1977, Iran was going through an economic crisis that worsened the economic situation and created these factors, but compared to 2018, there is more organized leadership outside of Iran, and none of this is present inside the Islamic Republic. Despite the significant economic difficulties, a wide range of the population is unhappy with the conditions of unemployment, rising living costs, expensive food prices, and stagnant inflation, even though we have seen inflation decrease under Rouhani.
Some Iranians are not in a revolutionary mood because of the events of 1979, and the developments that came out of the Arab Spring in 2011. Even though some Iranians are losing confidence in reforms within the political system, there is no shift from within the population to revolutionize the Islamic Republic.
The United States was mostly responsible for the installation of the Shah after the CIA carried out Operation Ajax, which overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. In 1979, President Carter responded to the developments of the revolution by putting more pressure on the Shah to open the political system.
During the Carter Administration, there was division between the State and Defense departments on how to approach the 1979 revolution. The State Department, at the time, decided to put pressure on the Shah to reform the political conditions inside Iran, but there were those in the National Security Council and the Pentagon who argued that putting pressure would not allow the security team to determine what happens. During the Shah’s final days, there was clear confusion on what was taking place inside Iran and what the U.S was actually doing. One day, President Carter asked the Shah to open the political process, and the next day, the Shah would repress and oppose the moves of the protesters. The end result of these events led to the loss of a vital player for the United States in the Middle East.
There were two momentous phases in 1979. The first phase was the overthrow of the Shah that put an end to the monarchical system, and the second phase was the hostage crisis. As a result of the hostage crisis, when Iranian activists stormed the U.S Embassy, and held U.S personnel hostage for over a year, the Islamists were able to defeat their rivals and consolidate power that allowed for the creation of an Islamic Republic. This was a massive error by the Iranians at the time, and it has led to nothing but decades of sanctions by the west.
In President Rouhani’s speech on the anniversary of the ’79 Revolution, he called on Iranians to heed the lessons of 1979. Last month’s protests constitute an instrument that various political factions are using against each other, but Rouhani is using his call to unity in light of the protests to pressure the conservatives to open up to political and economic change.
Rouhani called the recent protests not only economic but also social and political to make the conservatives vulnerable to opening up to the grievances of millions of Iranians. In a way, the recent protests were a success because they generated a conversation that makes the elite think about a different way forward not only for Iranians, but for the Islamic Republic as a whole. One of the key differences between last year’s protests and the protests in 2009 was the government’s reaction to the grievances of the demonstrators. Rouhani’s allowance for demonstrators to protest signaled a recognition for Iranians to call for economic, political, and social change from within the system that provides them with avenues to become more self-sufficient and independent to meet their needs.
Economic and political issues in Iran cannot be entirely separable. Most importantly, what Iranians are looking for is stability, namely economic stability while achieving social freedoms, but they want changes that can make their lives easier. For example, compared to the Gulf states, women in Iran have relatively more rights like holding office, serving in parliament, being able to drive, and attending university. With that being said, women’s rights can always be better, and the hijab is a small token issue where you won’t be hearing women say that they want the hijab banned, but they don’t want to be forced to wear it all the time. In addition to this, wearing a hijab should be an expression of one’s faith, and not something that is mandated by the state.
During the 1979 Revolution, there was universal support for Ayatollah Khomeini and the revolution at the time. Moreover, Ayatollah Khomeini represented a cross-cutting alliance of different social classes in Iran whether it be the merchant class, the working class, or the modern middle class. These social classes were united in one objective, namely, to overthrow the despotic monarchy of the Shah. At the same time, there was a unanimous agreement for Ayatollah Khomeini to become the leader of the revolution.
Another major difference between the recent protests and the events of 1979 was that there was no identifiable leader that emerged out of the recent movements and you cannot have a revolution unless you have a vision, a leader, an organization, and a cohesive political agenda. None of this exists in Iran today and they all existed in 1979.
It seems clear that President Donald Trump is intent on scrapping the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) accusing Iran of violating some aspects of the deal. As a result of the deal, there was some modicum of trust that was gained between the United States and Iran, but it is worrying to see that President Trump’s unpredictability is playing a major role in the survival of this diplomatic breakthrough because the Trump Administration figured out that uncertainty could get the U.S out of the deal without having a direct trigger on it. This also creates an uncertainty for foreign companies and banks on whether this deal will survive or not because they are staying out of the Iranian market, and Iran has not received the investments from the JCPOA to impact the lives of their own citizens.
From the very beginning, President Trump had two important prongs to his Iran agenda. First, was to undermine the JCPOA to create an uncertainty about the future of the nuclear deal because with uncertainty, no western investments will be able to reach Iran. Second, President Trump is also undermining Iran’s regional influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, in Yemen. Therefore, Trump’s policy is designed to contain Iran so then they can push back Iran, and prevent it from expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. Trump is pursuing these policies in order to weaken the Islamic Republic, and undermine its policies in the region.
Iranian society has come a long way from the events of the 1979 revolution. Today, Iranians are more literate, more urbanized, and more wired. In addition, many Iranians are demanding political freedom, as well as personal and private freedoms. Unless the Islamic Republic does not make progress to reform the system, Iran could go through a period of instability in the coming decade.
President Rouhani is trying to make an effort to make some structural changes. In his speech on the anniversary of the 1979 revolution, Rouhani has opened a pandora’s box by addressing the possibility of a referendum, which is a smart move by the president to undermine his opponents, especially the conservatives.
The gravest threat facing Iran right now is internal instability because given all the problems it faces, Iran is one of the more relatively stable countries in the Middle East.
Having said this, there needs to be a greater synchronization between economic and political developments in Iran. As the economic situation moves into a certain direction, people’s expectations grow, and it does not translate into political changes quickly. If Iranians lose faith in change from within the system, they will look for other avenues that will challenge the political system of the country, as well as the legacy that was left over from the 1979 revolution.