Recently, the Islamic Republic of Iran has experienced an intense period of unrest and uprising. This wave of unrest has amounted to nationwide protests that were further fuelled by the violent opposition of the government. Initially, starting in mid-2021, the protests were directed at the worsening economic situation that included water shortages and inflationary pressures on basic agricultural goods. As the police opposed the movements violently and the government also passed laws that allowed for more violent measures against protestors, the focus of the unrest gradually shifted from the economic problems to a general critique of the government. In September 2022, there were occasions of policemen attacking women for non-compliance with the dress code set out in the Iranian Constitution. This further deepened the rift between the growing numbers of protestors and the government. At this very moment, western media started to increasingly report on the developments in Iran and the protests turned into an uprising against the government. In typical Essydo Magazine fashion, this article is not going to summarise the developments any further. It is also not going to enumerate dogmatic statements centred around catchphrases and keywords, such as democracy, freedom and equality. Rather, this article will apply the political analysis framework, known from DEVLET, and will also give an outlook for Iran’s future, depending on which path is chosen.
The territory today known as Iran has been one of the more busy and most important regions in this world. It has been home to some of the greatest civilisations of mankind. It is the birthplace of the first written language, countless kingdoms, myths, legends and religious streams. Iran has been populated by humans since the Lower Palaeolithic, around 3 million years ago, but it was not until 10 000 years ago that archaeological artefacts were found, signalling the development of civilisations in Iran, also known as Persia. Until the emergence of Islam, different kingdoms rose and fell in Iran’s territory and only in the medieval ages, Iran started to develop into its current shape. In contemporary political discourse, historic facts are widely disregarded as it is often believed that occurring phenomena are tied to recent developments; this is seldom the case. In the case of Iran, the historic depth and only recent contact with the religion of Islam are clear indications that the cultural core has to be viewed as a more solid fundament for the analysis of inner-Iranian developments than the religious properties of this society. Because the history of Persia dates back many centuries, the societal knowledge has had enough time to manifest itself over a very long time vie the same language vehicle, namely Persian. Surely, the language itself has been subject to change but the changes have been based on organic dynamics.
Based on the historic origins, we can filter out that also recent developments under the umbrella of religion are informed by societal changes that transcend ideas of spirituality. In recent history, the country was shaken by several changes of rule. Notably, the transition period from the Qajar dynasty (1789 – 1925), a ruling family of Turkic origin, to the Pahlavi family lasted from 1921 until 1926 with a series of legal and societal struggles. Here, the main analysis begins. The 1921 coup d’état helped Reza Shah to end the Qajar dynasty and become monarch of Iran in December 1925. It was aided by the British who wanted to expand their influence in the region due to the rapidly increasing need for oil. During the Second World War, the British and Russians invaded Iran to establish a supply line. After the war, the Soviet Union did not turn their back on Iran but continued to occupy it until 1946. Under the rule of Mohammed Reza Shah, who was greatly supported by the United States of America and the United Kingdom, Iran saw a wave of Westernisation which was used to shield off communist influences by the Soviets. His rule lasted from 1941 until 1978 and was ended by the Islamic Revolution that established the theocracy we know today.
Action and Reaction
As can be seen, Iran’s recent history was marked by many different influences and claims over the territory. The country was at the crossroads of autocratic-monarchic, communist and capitalist aspirations in a complex web of interactions between domestic and foreign actors. In the light of the long-lasting history of Iran, the people and its culture remained at the sidelines of this multilateral power struggle. When a society is subject to such rapidly changing ideological environments, the need for ideational stability increases. The search for a democratic system led to the end of the Qajar dynasty. The power vacuum that was created by the Pahlavi dynasty led to struggles between the British and Soviets over Iran. The Soviet involvement pulled North American interests into the region. Over much of the 20th century, the societal properties of the Iranian people were disregarded. Especially during the rule of Mohammed Reza Shah, the country became increasingly dissatisfied with the influence of the USA. While the country’s economic situation was deteriorating, his rule and lifestyle were characterised by narcissistic behaviour that was only enriching him and his family. He enjoyed great wealth and sustained an autocratic and ineffective leadership style. Only because the USA wanted to protect Iran from Soviet influences, he was able to rule the country for over 30 years.
In the context of the recent uproars in Iran, the media often portrays his rule as a period of freedom and liberalism. In fact, the country’s social policies were indeed secularly oriented and had a central capitalist element to them. There was no theocratic legislation, such as the dress codes, let alone a sharia law that governs not only political but also social life. However, the imposed western lifestyle led to widespread demoralisation of the Iranian society with such deep cultural roots. Further, this demoralisation was paired with a dysfunctional economic system that was solely designed to benefit the ruling family and the USA, meaning that the whole country was only working to sustain the interests of very few people in two camps that totally ignored the nation’s interests. As a response, the nation shifted to another extreme direction as a countermeasure to this liberal order: Islam. Since the communist ideas were the main ideational enemy and the USA pushed them far into the periphery of political thinking, the newly emerging idea of a theocratic state, propagated by Ruhollah Khomeini, remained somewhat under the radar and could more easily flourish. Nonetheless, it was a strong statement against the societal decline in Iran and, thus, an attractive alternative to western liberalism.
The Search for Balance
With the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran became an Islamic republic and established a theocratic political system that was centred around the legal concept of Sharia, a body of rules derived from the Holy Qur´an. Such a development was born out of a desperate need to flee foreign influences and reverse the effects of societal demoralisation and decline. And because the Islamic theocracy stands in such contrast to the previous western model of government, western politics and media were quick to denounce this development and isolate this country. Since then, Iran remains rather isolated and is often portrayed as an illiberal country. Motivated is this public diplomacy mission by the west by the fear that the antagonistic stance of Iran towards interference by the USA could turn into coalition building with Russia and other actors to gain regional control. Due to Iran’s size and domestic economic power, it has the capacity to reach regional strength and compromise the resource aspirations of the USA in the region, while also endangering the expansion of Israel. But what does all that have to do with Iranians protesting for women’s and civil rights?
For many decades, the Iranian people shifted from one ideational setting to the next. Never, in this time, did they return to their Persian cultural core but experienced influences from everywhere except their Persian history. Each movement was a counter-movement to a situation that brought dissatisfaction. The current protests are not more than a reaction to yet another deviation from the cultural core, even though they do not consciously know this. Iran has been separated from their core Persian tradition for so long, that the people do not try to move in the direction that makes up their natural core but to ideas that are currently available around the world. Of course, none other than the Iranian people can know and feel what the history and traditions are. Therefore, the available ideas are also not going to bring Iran peace in the future. Even Islam, though surely closer to Persian values, is still not fully representative of the Iranian people. Additionally, the USA and Israel led long-term media campaigns against Iran to establish their liberal ideas in the minds of the younger generation of Iranians. Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, told publicly that the USA should export their television programmes and series to Iran, in order to lure the youth into thinking that liberalism is an attractive ideology.
Through institution building, financial support and persistent media campaigns, the USA managed to establish the liberal idea as the only viable option for Iranians who are dissatisfied with the Islamic order. It is only a matter of time before Iran will face another revolution because the current order is still not representative of the main properties of the country. Of course, the western countries greatly favour a shift towards liberal-capitalist systems as this would mean less isolation of Iran and, consequently, easier access to influencing this strategically important country again. Then, however, another 30 years later we will once again see a revolution to another extreme direction against the dysfunctionality of liberalism in other cultural contexts. This imbalance will remain until the society eventually collapses. The only viable option for Iran is to move back to its pre-Islamic culture or to a mode of moderately incorporated Islam. Such a system must be built on a neutral assessment of the main properties of society. Liberalism is going to destroy the Iranian people just as quickly as a radical theocracy would. People might think that the current flood of liberal ideas is born out of their independent drive for freedom, but the reality is that these are imposed thoughts and movements that just found fertile ground, due to structural problems with the current order. The only way out is to fully reject the western ideas and gain a healthy distance towards encompassing theocratic and communist ideas of the past.