Mahmood Delkhasteh
Apr 24 · 16 min read

After 40 years, where is the Iranian revolution heading?

Mahmood Delkhasteh

It is hard to believe that Black Friday, the bloodiest day of the Iranian revolution, was 40 years ago When the heavy machinegun of the Russian armored vehicle stopped firing at us, my legs were trapped under the weight of other young girls and boys, so I turned back and shouted at them: “Stand up, you cowards! You knew this would be the day they are going to kill us…if you were that cowardly you should have stayed at home!” It was a few moments before I saw the blood gushing onto the asphalt and realized that I was shouting at people who had just became martyrs of the revolution. That day, around 400 of us were killed or injured.

At the time I could not have imagined that in just over five months’ time, I would be dancing on the streets with countless others, feeling intoxicated, celebrating what we believed was the end of dictatorship and tyranny forever. Just a few days before, a dispute between the pro-Shah elite force of ‘immortals’ and pro-revolution air force officers had turned into an armed insurrection. As people poured in to support the officers, within a few days the peaceful revolution morphed into armed struggle.

During those days, I felt certain that the once eternal monarchy in this ancient land had become history. But as the shooting continued, for the first time during the revolution I felt selfish and prayed to God that I would not be killed. I asked her to let me live even for a week so that I could feel the freedom we were fighting so hard for.

We had been born into dictatorship and the terrorizing fear that comes with it, and thus knew nothing but dictatorship. Since I was little, anytime anyone was even mildly and even privately critical of the Shah, those older and “wiser” would immediately whisper: “the wall has a mouse and the mouse has ears.” They meant that there are spies everywhere. The name ‘SAVAK’, the Shah’s brutal security organization, was enough to send shivers down one’s spine.

Seeing the emergence of over 120 newspapers in a short time, experiencing the spontaneous gathering of debating groups at every corner in cities and homes, and witnessing a massive fall in social violence and drug use told me that the habit of inflicting violence on others and oneself was mainly a result of living under a repressive regime, and of the feeling of hopelessness it creates.

I saw how revolting against the dictatorship brought people together. There was no need to ‘break the ice’ in order to talk to others, as the ice had melted under the Sun of hope, joy and solidarity. Many everlasting family feuds faded away and social relations had changed so much that usually when I was waiting for a taxi to go to the centre of Tehran and join the other revolutionaries, a private car would stop and give me a free lift. That happened so often that I thought that after the revolution, taxi drivers would need to get new jobs.

In short, I had a feeling that paradise, which had been waiting for us somewhere out of this world had crossed over and descended to this land. I, like many millions were experiencing the feeling of living in heaven. Years later, I was reading the nineteenth-century French historian Michelet’s description of the moment of revolution in France: “on that day”, he wrote, “everything was possible…the future was present…that is to say time was no more, all a lighting flash of eternity”. I then realized that other revolutions against tyranny have also experienced a situation in which the ‘gate of possibilities’ is opened — and that those who, like me, did not know the history of revolutions, assumes that this gate will be kept open for eternity. Even one of the most famous revolutionary songs recited lines from the 13th century Iranian mystic poet, Hafez: “When the demon (the Shah) goeth out, the angel (Khomeini) within may come. / The society of the (tyrannical) Ruler is the darkness of the winter solstice.”

We had to wait for another 35 years to learn that Khomeini, who during the revolution had openly advocated for a democratic regime in the service of human rights and social justice in a free and independent Iran, had made secret agreements with Ebrahim Yazdi (his close advisor and later the Foreign Minister in the interim government) to re-establish dictatorship — this time, not a cleanly shaven one with the ‘secular and nationalist’ outlook of the Shah’, but one with a beardy “Islamic” ideology (Yazdi’s memoir, Vol. 3).

We had yet to learn that Hafiz, who was vehemently opposed to the hypocrisy of the clergy, chastised and exposed them:

“These pulpiteers who like to preach / with public piety / Indulge in very different things / At home in privacy. / I have a problem. Ask the wisest. / How do these enforcers of repentance live so unrepentantly?”

Maybe Hafez forgot to remind people that to trust a “holy” man would lead to a “demon” going out and returning “in the form of an angel”. Or maybe they just didn’t want to hear him.

Yet return he did, and five years after those dream-like days and months when I and millions had been walking on the clouds and dreaming about making the deserts bloom and the land green again, I found the land instead desertified, and I began my life in exile.

It was only then that I sought a deeper understand of how it was possible for a revolution that aimed to counter and replace repression and despotism with freedom and democracy could be replaced with an even more brutal and repressive regime. I read theorists — Theda Skocpol, structural- functionalists and modernists — who argued that the destiny of any revolution would to build an even a more “strengthened and bolstered” and hence more repressive state. I wondered, were they right? Especially our revolution; had the expression of its goals through largely Islamic discourse somehow predetermined its outcome in what the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology described as part of a rise in “fundamentalist Islam” across the Middle East at the time? Were scholars like Gholam R. Afkhami right to write books called things like The Iranian Revolution: Thanatos on a National Scale? Did we really commit ‘mass suicide?’ And to make things even worse, were all the sacrifices and bloodshed for nothing?

Yet I also asked myself whether it is not a human right to stand against the violation of rights and to rebel ‘against tyranny and oppression’ and to struggle for human dignity and freedom. If it is, then how could exercising this right be an act of ‘mass suicide’?

People like Afkhami were well aware that the goals of the Iranian revolution were freedom and democracy, but still regard them as doomed as they presupposed ‘a consensual political culture that simply did not exist at the time.’[1] But this also raises a question: when is the right time to make a revolution? Can people make a social revolution by command, or do revolutions have their own inner logic and dynamism? In other words, “Do revolutions come, or they are made?”

For structuralists like Skocpol in her early work, the answer is that revolutions “come”, given the right structural conditions This same understanding of revolution led Karl Marx to believe that the first proletariat revolution would takes place in his lifetime in England, and allowed Lenin to believe that the Russian revolution would not happen in his lifetime. Skocpol later made an exception for the Iranian revolution, however, arguing that “this remarkable revolution…forces me to deepen my understanding of the possible role of idea systems and cultural understandings in the shaping of political action …[the Iranian] revolution did not come; it was deliberately and coherently made”.[2]

But the Iranian revolution neither just came nor was just made. It was not “made” partly because almost all of the people who led or wished to lead it either did not believe that it would happen within their lifetime or had given up on the idea of it. For example, when Khomeini was lecturing about his version of an ‘Islamic state’ ten years before the revolution, he believed that it might be realizable in a few centuries’ time. Even when the protests began and demonstrated their revolutionary nature, he did not believe that they signalled the emergence of a full-blown revolution. Only when the uprising against the monarchical dictatorship reached the Tehran Bazar, in the form of a strike, did he realize it was happening and issue his first statement of support. Furthermore, by that time, the armed Marxist and Islamist organizations which had adopted a Che Guevara model of armed revolution had been ruthlessly crushed during the 1970s, and most of their members had either been executed or were in prison; the few who were left in hiding had given up on the idea of armed struggle altogether. Finally, the revolution was not just made because the majority of opposition leaders were reformist intellectuals or religious leaders who demanded that the Shah implement the 1905 Constitution. It was only massive pressure from below which forced them to revolutionise their approach to struggle.

At the same time, however, the revolution did not simply “come”. The structures that located the country among other ‘semi-periphery countries’ existed elsewhere, but did not simply lead to revolution.

What brought the revolution about was therefore an interplay between ”making and “‘coming”; between effort and emergence and in such negotiation culture was a key factor in this relationship This is why in the doctoral research I conducted years later, I argued that

through culture, the agent not only subjectifies the objective conditions in which he or she acts (in other words, people make subjective choices within particular objective contexts), but also objectifies the subjective interpretation of structure (in other words, people give meaning to the contexts that they are located within). In other words, through interpretation, culture subjectifies objective structural conditions and objectifies subjective interpretations of social reality. This process takes place within a set or sets of cultural values. Given that culture is a subjective experience, and that the interpretation of new social situations interacts with already embedded or newly emerging values, the end result of this interpretation is not predetermined. It may result variably, for example, in the production and consumption of submission, consent, passive resistance or rebellion to existing conditions.” (p.39)

But the question which still begs an answer is this: Was the Iranian revolution doomed from the beginning?

As Carl Leiden and Karl M. Schmitt, have argued, “nothing is inevitable in the birth of or the course of revolution and the failure to examine the process itself blinds the analyst to the trajectories not taken, the possibilities contained in the revolutionary moment rather than the inevitable outcomes.”[3] In a number of research papers, I have tried to demonstrate that nothing was inevitable about the path taken by the Iranian revolution. The strategies of ‘de-democratisation’, ‘de-legitimisation’ and ‘militarisation’ which were successfully deployed to defeat the democratic elements of the revolution, could have been confronted and defeated. Drawing on theories of the ‘Butterfly effect’, I have tried to demonstrate that even small actions, when taken at the right time and in the right place, could have defeated the advance of the dictatorial forces.

What was done is done. The question, therefore, is what should be done now?

When is the terminus of the Iranian Revolution

To answer this question, we need to understand the time scale of the revolution, particularly its terminus. Much of the grumble, regret, grief and nagging over the “outcome” of the Iranian revolution, some by people who participated in it and its victims and some by the subsequent generations who suffered after the monarchy fell, is caused by a lack of understanding of the dynamism of social revolutions and the role of the people, culture and geo-political conditions within them. This was also the case when the French Revolution entered a ‘reign of terror’, enacted by Robespierre in order to establish his ‘despotism of liberty’. At the time, while many French people regretted the revolution, others regretted the path it took but maintained faith in its guiding principles of ‘equality, liberty and fraternity’.

Despite the different cultures and two-century-gap between the remorseful Iranians and the remorseful French, they share a common understanding of the terminus of revolution as overthrow: of the despotic Bourbon dynasty in France, and of the despotic Pahlavi dynasty in Iran. We can ask, if those French who regretted the revolution had gained the upper hand over those who remained faithful the principles of revolution, of ‘equality, liberty and fraternity’, what would have become of France, or even the world? The same thing can be said about the Iranian revolution. Are those who feel remorse about the revolution going to lead, or those who see the revolution as an unfinished process that should be continued? In other words, when deciding when the Iranian revolution ends, are we going to look backwards or to the future?

The French experiences can provide us with an answer. Francois Furet, a major authority on the French revolution, sees the terminus of the French revolution not in 1789 when the Bourbon dynasty was overthrown, or when Robespierre was executed, or even when the Republicans finally defeated the monarchists in 1877, but in the 1990s when “the discourse of both Right and Left celebrates liberty and equality”.[4]

Today the ‘Yellow Vest’ protests in France that have been rising up against inequality tell us that the growing chasm between liberty and equality which supposedly closed in the 1990s has endangered both and re-awakened the spirit of 1789. Its terminus, too, has yet to be determined.

When despite of rapid progress the terminus of the French Revolution still has yet to be established, then the Iranian revolution, with its goals of democracy, freedom, independence, social justice and progress, is much too young to be declared complete. Therefore, when we want to talk about its terminus, we need to look not to the past but at the future.

However, the future is also conditioned by the past — especially by the narratives of the past which impose themselves through the existing ‘social reality’ and are internalized by the people. This is why the fierce struggle to control historical narratives is not entirely about the past itself but also about the future, as people know that whoever controls the past will own the future.

Thus, despite of the fact that Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Madeline Albright have openly regretted the role of the CIA in 1953 coup against the democratic Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mussadegh, and have ordered the release of thousands of pages of documents relating to the CIA’s role in the coup, Iranian monarchists still play deaf and blind to this evidence, portraying the coup as a glorious uprising of the people against an illegal Prime Minister. They know that to accept that his overthrow was a coup would immediately make the rule of the former Shah illegal and illegitimate, and that his son would hence lose his ability to portray himself as the rightful king.

Indeed, we can see that in historical narratives of the first two years of the Iranian revolution, when dictatorial forces defeated the democratic ones and steered the revolution towards its present calamitous future, all of today’s political forces both within the ruling regime and the opposition cooperated to censor one decisive moment of the revolution, which was the coup against the country’s first president, A.H. Banisadr. He was overthrown by Khomeini and his allies for refusing to accept greater power in exchange for abandoning the democratic and other goals of the revolution. The story of this decisive moment is the ‘stolen narrative of Iranian revolution’. Different factions within the regime, from ‘principalists’ to ‘reformists’, need to censor this coup (in which all of them actively participated) as its recognition would make the current regime illegal and illegitimate. Monarchists also need to censor this coup, which closed the path of the regime towards democratisation, because it makes it easier for them to argue that the deplorable situation in Iran today is a result of the 1979 revolution, and to make Iranians regret rising up against the monarchic dictatorship which the revolution emerged to overthrow.

Finally, Robert Parry, who has done the most authoritative research of the ‘October Surprise’, identifies another actor in this censorship:: “The U.S. mainstream media avoids the word “coup” when a disfavored leader is ousted”, he writes, “but the silence around Iran’s 1981 coup also may have served Ronald Reagan’s political self-interest in keeping secret his own “coup”.

Without recognising Banisadr’s overthrow as a coup, the diagnoses of the revolution will remain misdiagnoses, and the prescription for curing Iran’s contemporary ills will end up worsening the patient’s condition. We have seen that in the twenty years of “Reformist” governments and movements, beginning with the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, have been twenty years of lost hope and missed opportunities, which rather than limiting the absolute power of the ‘Supreme leader’ have increased it.

Obvious to people like Audre Lorde who argued that: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The legitimacy of the Iranian regime is based on the principle of the ‘absolute rule of the supreme leader’, who has absolute power over the life, property and honour of all Iranians. Any reform within this system must remove the obstacles which make the exercise of such power possible in the first place. This is why the ‘Supreme Leader’ has added tools to his tool box of power, such as right to ‘executive power’ which allows him to veto a parliamentary decision. This all took place while Khatami was president.

The Renaissance of the Iranian revolution

In order to move the revolution forward, one has to look back and recuperate the narrative of the revolution from the ruling regime, monarchists and alike. One method may be that which was used many centuries ago by European thinkers to liberate Christianity, society, art and literature from the totalitarian rule of the Popes. Unlike fundamentalist, armed with critical mind, they returned to the source, the fountainhead, of their desired society. In other words, in order to reopen the future, they rescued the past from the forces which were controlling it. The rest is history.

In order to achieve its democratic, egalitarian and progressive goals, the Iranian revolution needs more Iranians to go back to the ‘fountainhead’ and recover this and other stolen narratives from beneath and among the layers of distortion and falsification. There they will find that the last chance for rescuing the revolution was when the president, using his constitutional rights, called for a referendum in which people could have decided whether they wanted the country to follow the democratic path which he advocated, or the despotic path that the clergy were leading the country down. Khomeini knew that the absolute majority of Iranians would choose the president’s path, just as they had done in the presidential election, in which Banisadr secured more than 76% of the votes. Khomeini therefore openly turned against the president, famously saying: “if everybody says yes, I say no”[5] and three weeks later saying: “if 35 million (referring to the population of the country at the time) say yes, I say no”[6]. A fatwa for the murder of the president was issued and a few days later a supine Parliament gave a “legal” cover for president’s removal on grounds of incompetence. His “incompetence” consisted of his advocation of human rights and democracy, opposing and exposing executions and torture, calling the hostage-taking of American diplomats as ‘inhumane, immoral and illegitimate’[7], opposing the principle of the regime, ‘the rule of Jurist’, and opposing Khomeini’s cult of personality.

Recovering this ‘stolen narrative’ will provide one part of the answer to the question ‘What should be done now?’ as instead of remorse and revolution-blaming, those who actually conducted the coup against democratic possibility will be exposed.

The other part of the answer is coming from recognising that the revolution’s goals may not have been betrayed if the people would have made their presence felt during the struggle between these two competing forces. In his everyday reports to the people, the president constantly warned them about a ‘creeping coup’ by the clergy and told them that the only way to stop it was what he called the ‘presence of people at the scene/sahneh’. This demanded that the revolution from the streets become part of their norms, values and psyches. Yet people who had lived for thousands of years under despotism were used to bowing to power, despite the fact that revolutions in the mind and soul had indeed already started. But it would have taken more time to translate changes in ‘attitude’ into ‘behavioural’ changes among enough people, and tactical mistakes enabled the clergy to complete the coup to before this wider transformation could take place.

The other part of the answer to the question of ‘what should be done now’, therefore, is that deep cultural work is needed to transform the ‘culture of power’ in to a ‘culture of freedom’. Such a transformation would change the relationship of the individual with her or himself, family, society at large and other nature. Such relationships will not be based on power in the form of hierarchies, primarily ‘patriarchy’, but on ‘rights’. Today, there are signs that such transformation has already taken root in growing sections of society. So the revolution is already achieving some of its goals.

In order for the revolution to move into a new phase, people need to be able to imagine the form and nature of a future regime. Such new imaginaries already being developed by some, including A.H. Banisadr (with his seventy years of experience in struggling for democracy) and a team of legal experts, who have written a new constitution for Iran and suggested it to the people through talks, debates and dialogues. This new constitution and its nearly 500 articles are based on five main types of rights: ‘Human Rights’, ’Citizenship Rights’, ‘National Rights’ (an alternative to ‘national interest’), the ‘rights of society, as part of the global society’ and the ‘rights of the nature’. It also can be seen as a suggestion to the current global crisis.

While most of the internal conditions for such uprising is ready, however, the biggest obstacle today is interference from foreign powers, particularly the United States. The Iranian regime is well aware that its internal hold on power is fragile, and that in order to prevent people from moving against it, it needs to create external crises. Such crisis cannot be made unilaterally, however, and the Republican party without exception has always proved to be a willing partner in this dance. From this perspective, we can see Donald Trump’s aggressive policy on Iran provides an ideal situation for the regime.

Just as revolution opens up the future, this openness also means that power can close it again. In order to prevent this, people should always be present at the scene, expanding and deepening all forms of freedoms in an ongoing way, from both within and outside. This is only possible if a free future already exists in us.

After all, as Hafez reminds us:

“The path of love seemed easy at first, what came was many hardships.

Trust in this traveller’s tips, who knows of many paths and trips.

The waves are wild, the dark midnight and a tempestuous whirlpool.

How can my fate excite compassion in the light-burdened of the shore.”

[1] Gholam R. Afkhami, The Iranian Rrevolution: Thanatos on a National Scale (Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 1985)., p. 173.

[2] Skocpol, “Rentier state and Shia’a Islam,” p. 267–268

[3] Carl Leiden and Karl M. Schmitt, The Politics of Violence: Revolution in the Modern World (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 73.

[4] Francois Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, transl. by Elborg Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p.5

[5] Khomeini’s speech, 26 May 1981 in Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye nour, vol. 14, p. 377.

[6]35 million was the population of Iran at the time. Khomeini’s speech 25 June 1981 in Khomeini, Sahifeh-ye nour, vol. 15, pp. 20–1

[7] Hassan Ayat, the MP and one of the key people who engineered Banisadr’s downfall, criticised Banisadr for using these terms regarding the hostage-taking and saw it as one of the reasons that he had to be removed. See Ardebili, Ghaeleh chahardahe esfand, p. 348.

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Mahmood Delkhasteh

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Mahmood Delkhasteh is a political sociologist and writer, specialising in Iranian and Middle Eastern politics, Islam, democracy and human rights.