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Iran's Empty Uprising

Iran’s liberal opposition must be able to answer a basic question: who would you have rule us?

Protests Continue In Iran Despite Crackdowns
Iranian protesters set their scarves on fire while marching down a street on October 1, 2022 in Tehran, Iran. (Getty Images)

Over the weekend, the exiled Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, tweeted in Persian:

Give the gift of an empty white strip in the middle of the Iranian tricolor — to yourself, to woman, to man, to us. An empty white doesn’t come from a turbulent past, nor from a present full of pain and repression. An empty flag is full of hope for the future, full of the sound of freedom. With an empty flag, you can offer up the promise of an Iran that doesn’t take the lives of a Mahsa or a Hadis.

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Farahani was alluding to the recent deaths of a pair of Iranian women, Mahsa Amini and Hadis Najafi, at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s morality police and security forces, respectively. Twenty-two-year-old Amini died last month after being detained for improper hijab. The morality police blamed a heart attack, but eyewitness reports of a vicious beating suggested otherwise. Najafi, meanwhile, was struck by more than 20 shotgun pellets in Karaj, Iran, while taking part in protests sparked by Amini’s death. (A third woman, seen in viral footage adjusting her ponytail before rushing the crowds, was misidentified by the U.S.-based activist Masih Alinejad as Najafi, though the woman in the video later contacted BBC Persian to report that she is alive and well.)

I join Farahani in wishing for an Iran where young women aren’t killed for crossing modesty norms. But it is the actress’s point about an “empty” Iranian flag, retweeted 12,000-plus times and counting as of this writing, that deserves critical attention. While no one should put too much stock by the musings of celebrities, whatever their nationality or cause, her tweet reflects the misguided worldview of a broader sphere of Iranian dissent. It is why I suspect this latest uprising is unlikely to succeed—and why I fear what it might portend should it “succeed.”

An empty flag is an expression of pure negativism, of the yearning to be relieved of the burdens of history. It treats two and a half millennia of Iranian history, with all its glories and tragedies, as a source of shame, one long chain of “pain and repression,” as Farahani put it. It is the standard of the exiled liberal Iranian, desperate to transfigure her homeland in the image of the liberal cosmopolis, another Global Anyplace where expressive individualism would reign supreme. More dangerously, an empty flag offers no meaningful answers to the question of who should rule Iran, and on the basis of which principle.

Following the 1979 Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini and his disciples replaced the lion and sun with the word Allah in a stylized type and a sword plunging up from the middle aleph—an apt ideogram for the Islamic Republic, one has to admit. Ever since, Iran’s divided opposition has beefed over what should replace the Allah ideogram in a post-Islamic Republic Iran. Those who dream of restoring the Pahlavi ancien régime naturally prefer the lion and sun, with its ancient pedigree, while liberals and leftists tend to oppose it. An empty middle stripe, then, has a certain superficial appeal, in terms of momentarily bridging the opposition’s internal divides.

Yet proposals like Farahani’s—not to mention the protests’ downright vacuous slogan, “Woman, Life, Freedom”—also attest to the movement’s fundamental failure: its flight from politics and ideology when politics and ideology are very much needful. The regime that the protesters wish to overthrow surfed to power on a heady mix of Third Worldist Marxism, developmentalism, and Islamic revulsion at the moral laxity of the Pahlavi society. Who should rule Iran? The ’79 revolutionaries had a definite answer, even if many of their supporters didn’t quite grasp what it might mean in practice: a developmentalist republic, “guided” by Islam—more precisely, by the Islamic jurist, i.e., Khomeini.

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To the same question—who would you have rule us?—today’s Iranian liberals have no persuasive answer. Indeed, they have no answer at all.

Nineteen-seventy-nine scratched two persistent Iranian itches. One was the sense of inadequacy that dawned on Iranians beginning in the nineteenth century, during the Qajar dynasty, when growing contacts with the West rendered the had-been empire’s malaria-ridden dilapidation suddenly visible and unbearable. As a popular poem of the era lamented,

Our army the laughingstock of the world.
Our princes deserving of the pity of beggars.
Our clerics craving the justice of the unbelievers.
Our towns each a metropolis of dirt.

At the turn of the twentieth century, nationalist, reformist, and Islamist currents joined forces to challenge this status quo. They demanded royal power that was mashrut (conditional) on popular consent and an order in which “the people—be they shah or beggar—would be equal,” as one cleric put it. In response, the venal Qajars conceded a parliament, the Majlis, in which my great-grandfather served several terms as a deputy.

But constitutionalism didn’t take to Iranian soil, owing in part to the opposition of the Russian and British empires, for whom Iran was the highest prize in their Great Game, and in part to Iranian political culture. Constitutionalist Iran descended into chaos and tribal uprisings, which were put down by the Cossack officer Reza Khan, who later crowned himself Reza Shah and established the (final) Pahlavi dynasty. In material terms, the Pahlavis went a long way toward ameliorating Iranian backwardness, laying down roads, universities, a civil code, and women’s lib (by the shahs’ lights).

Yet the Pahlavis were shockingly indifferent to the piety and profound conservatism of Iranian society. (Those photos of young women in miniskirts and go-go boots, beloved of Western and Iranian liberals reminiscing about how "open" the country used to be, played no small role in the shah's downfall.) Ill-conceived land reforms not only dispossessed an influential part of gentry—the Shiite clergy—but drove millions of formerly rural people into urban areas, herding them in tight quarters, newly proletarianized and alienated by the shockingly loose mores of the city.

The middle classes, meanwhile, thanked the shah for their newfound prosperity and social mobility by dreaming of something more, not even quite known to themselves. The left railed against Anglo-American domination of Iranian oil. Similarly, nationalists and remnants of the movement for mashrutiat winced at the thought that Iran was a Cold War satrapy of the West—this, for the former empire that had bequeathed the word “satrap” to the world. That the real alternative may have been Soviet domination didn’t lessen the sting of humiliation.

These various dissatisfactions churned postwar Iran before exploding in 1979. The revolution gave rise to a regime that essentially unplugged Iran from West and East, Washington and Moscow (“Neither West nor East!” was another popular slogan of the era). It pursued and has continued to pursue, often at great pain to ordinary Iranians, a policy of alternative modernization: developmentalism without Western tutelage. And it did this while scratching the second Iranian itch: namely, the need for a living, visible symbol of authority. As I have written elsewhere,

Iranian political culture demands a living source of authority to embody the will of the nation and stand above a fractious and ethnically heterogenous society. Put another way, Iranians need a “shah” of some sort. They have never lived collectively without one, and their political imagination has always been directed toward a throne. The constitutionalist experiment of the early 20th century coexisted (badly) with monarchic authority, and the current Islamic Republic has a supreme leader — which is to say, a shah by another name. It is the height of utopianism to imagine that a 2,500-year-old tradition can be wiped away.

In place of pan-Iranian imperial pride centered on the figure of the shahanshah (“king of kings”), the Islamic Republic turned to Shiite Islam centered on the figure of the faqih, or Islamic jurisconsult. More recently, the republic has given greater space to nationalistic and pre-Islamic themes that used to be suppressed, with the curious result that Iranian diplomacy plays up Shiism to the west, in the direction of Baghdad and Beirut, while making pan-Iranic overtures to the east, in the direction of Iranic populations in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The whole apparatus, moreover, rests on a system of patronage that doles out material benefits to the regime’s supporters: priority access to loans, university admissions, and other subsidies amid the economic misery caused by sanctions and domestic mismanagement. The result is that the regime enjoys a substantial base of support among the population. Some are motivated by ideological zeal, some by material inducements, most by a combination of the two. This, contrary to the pap framing in the West that pits “The People” against “The Regime.”

Questions for the liberal opposition: Who would you have rule us? What principle of unity and continuity do you propose? “Woman, Life, Freedom”? LGBTQIA+ Pride? An empty flag, erasing 2,500 years of history? OK. How are you going to hold a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic nation-state together? How are you going to overcome the Islamic Republic’s hard core of supporters, conservatively estimated at 5 million and armed?

The most plausible answer would be to restore the aging Pahlavi dauphin, whom polls show to be one of the most popular figures among Iranians. But setting aside the impression he makes on many who know him (indolent, out of touch), I, for one, simply can’t imagine how he is to be parachuted back to the Peacock Throne, barring a U.S.-led regime-change operation which should be a nonstarter for any Iranian patriot who saw how Iraq turned out.

Still, a Pahlavi restoration, implausible as it may be, is a far better answer to these questions than the one currently proffered by the opposition, which is no answer at all, beyond a vague, sentimental liberalism, complete with bare-naked Femen activists sounding no less shrill in Persian than their Western counterparts do in French or English. The opposition has no plan to rule, and no one who might rule. The Islamic Republic is likely here to stay. And if it is consigned to the dustbin of history on the opposition’s terms, the Farahanis of the world would be well-advised to prepare for civil war and national disintegration.

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