Anatomy of a National Revolt
By Amir Taheri
its flames declining after days of high blaze, the “events” that shook Iran
In December and early January are still attracting a tsunami of comment,
speculation and, as always in such cases, misrepresentation.
first question is what should we call what happened.
term “events” is too anodyne and the term “revolution” too hyperbolic to
do the job. The Khomeinist leadership in Tehran started by using the term
“disturbances” (eghteshashat) as if we were dealing with a stampede in a
bazaar or a crowd crash in a Spanish bullfight arena. When it became clear that
“disturbances” in some 100 cities couldn’t be dismissed in so cavalier a
manner, the Khomeinist authorities went for their fallback position of blaming
foreign conspirators for the whole thing.
state propaganda gave us the term “conspiracy” (to-teheh) with a colorful
cast of characters supposedly involved. These included US President Donald
Trump, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the Barzani clique in Iraqi
Kurdistan, a brother-in- law of Saddam Hussein, a cousin of Afghan President
Ashraf Ghani and a retired CIA spook converted to the “wrong kind of Islam”.
days, however, the Khomeinist tune had become laughable.
could such a disparate cast of characters put so many angry Iranians on the
streets? And how could such big chunks of the Khomeinist establishment itself
express sympathy with the protesters rather than shower them with abuse in the
manner he mullahs have used since time immemorial?
the term “conspiracy” wouldn’t do either.
Khomeinist propaganda barons then turned to the term “sedition" (fitnah)
which has several advantages as far as they are concerned. To start with this is
a theological term that denotes a major schism in which the established version
of the faith of is challenged by a rival narrative backed by the sword.
the Khomeinist message was the protesters were directly attacking Islam. News
outlets controlled by Islamic Security even put out footage and print reportages
with photos claiming that the protesters were burning mosques and hussainiehs.
The subtext was that Iranian protesters were like the Syrians who had risen
against Bashar al-Assad with the sole aim of: destroy holy shrines and tombs.
the term “sedition” didn’t stick either. In fact, one remarkable feature
of the protests was that, for the first time in Iranian contemporary history,
there was no religious undertone in any of the slogans and speeches made by
protest leaders. What we witnessed in Iran was a political movement with
next attempt to misrepresent the “events” was to brand them as
“economic”. Some former Obama administration officials and Khomeinist
lobbyists in the US and Europe tried the gimmick to claim that the Khomeinist
regime remains politically popular but faces popular anger because of economic
sanctions that have made life difficult for most Iranians. When it became clear
that most of the slogans were political that term, too, became redundant. In any
case, the whole thing was based on a misreading of Marx’s division of reality
into “economic infrastructure” and “political superstructure.”
Iranians, including some within the regime, implicitly agree that the mullahs
took over a fairly prosperous country four decades ago and turned it into a poor
house where up to five million suffer from chronic hunger and a further 25
million are housed in slums unfit for human habitation. And, yet, they know that
the nation’s economic woes are a result of the regime’s reckless policies at
home and abroad.
what we witnessed was a national political revolt against the status quo.
term national does not mean that the whole of Iran or even a majority were
involved. The revolt was national because it cut across class, regional ethnic
and religious divides. In some places, for example Isfahan, the richest local
families were marching alongside the poorest of the city with middle class and
lower middle class people also on side. In Arak, an industrial city, workers and
their industrialist employers marched shoulder to shoulder to indicate they were
fed up with the Khomeinist system.
revolt also skirted the generation gap, bringing together people of all ages. To
be sure, most protesters were young; and over 90 percent of the 3,000 or so
arrested by Islamic Security are aged below 30. But who could forget the scenes
in which men and women in their 80s led the marches in Mash’had, Tabriz ,
Shiraz and Kerman?
national revolt also cut across the gender gap by bringing together almost as
many women as men. In many places, even smaller towns, women assumed leadership
or revived the memory of Pasionaria with their fiery speeches.
the Khomeinist set-up includes a few thousand clerics it certainly does not
represent the whole of the Shi’ite clergy; this is why many mullah and
students of theology joined the revolt, emphasizing its national character. It
is interesting that none of the top or even middle –ranking mullahs of Qom,
Mash’had or Najaf came out in support of the regime by condemning the national
revolt. The regime had to find its defenders among a few hundred mullahs on
the revolt took place in every one of 31 provinces it brought together all of
the nation's 18 ethnic communities.
revolt was national for another reason: no political party or group or known
political personality played a major role in it. Almost all parties, including
virtually all those who had supported Khomeini in 1978-79 joined the revolt, at
least verbally, as did an amazing roster of former top officials and apologists
of the Khomeinist system. Of the 290 members of the Islamic Majlis, the ersatz
parliament, at least 60 made some noise in support of the revolt. Also
remarkable was the reluctance of the military elite, especially in the regular
army, to stand against the national revolt, at least in its early stages.
What happened was unprecedented in Iran’s contemporary history.
What happened was unprecedented in Iran’s contemporary history.
was a truly national revolt against the established order. It didn’t offer a
clear alternative but helped clear the air by puncturing the Khomeinist
regime’s claim of invincibility. Even a year ago few would admit that the
Khomeinist system was overthrowable. Now many, including some of the regime’s
lobbyists abroad, publicly do so.
1989, Ali Khamenei had this to say to a session of the Assembly of Experts that
hastily named him “Supreme Guide”: “One must shed tears of blood for
Islamic ummah if I am considered worthy of becoming its leader.”
don’t think crying tears of blood is the only option. A soberer option is to
close the chapter of Khomeinism, Supreme-Guidism and related nonsensical notions
by allowing the Iranian nation to reshape its life in a rational manner.
national revolt was about the change that may be delayed but won’t be denied.